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Lawmakers urge Defense Department against downgrading Israel-Palestinian security post

Thirty-two senators signed onto a letter opposing the move on Friday, and a House letter is being finalized for release this week

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks during a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon May 23, 2022, in Arlington, Virginia.

Concern is mounting in Washington over the Defense Department’s reported plans to downgrade the U.S. military official who coordinates security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with 32 senators signing onto a letter on Friday opposing the move. A similar House letter is also in the works. 

The Defense Department is considering lowering the rank of the U.S. security coordinator from a three-star general to a colonel as part of a department-wide requirement to reduce the number of top-ranked officers, according to Axios, although there is widespread concern about the move from the State Department and from within the Defense Department. The Israeli government is also reportedly concerned.

Last week, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) led 30 of their colleagues — 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans — in a letter urging Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin not to move forward with the plan.

“Given continued regional volatility, steadfast high-level U.S. leadership and engagement to support peace and stability in Israel and the West Bank remain in the national security interest of the United States,” the letter reads. “Downgrading this position would undermine U.S. leadership and credibility in a region where it is essential to have a high-ranking officer who can engage with other nations’ highest-level military leaders.”

On the House side, Reps. Grace Meng (D-NY) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) are working on a similar letter that will explain “why the USSC [United States security coordinator] in its current three-star rank is critical to its credibility and to ensuring Israeli and Palestinian security cooperation,” a Meng spokesperson told JI. That letter is expected to be finalized this week.

The Ossoff-Graham letter argues that the position is central to the global security mission in the region, and that downgrading the role would “undermine critical security programs and degrade communications between Israelis and Palestinians” and could “risk fracturing the U.S.-led international coalition.”

The mandate to reduce the number of top-ranked officers was handed down by Congress in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The Trump administration reportedly decided to fulfill the congressional directive by reducing the number of top officers abroad.

“We stand ready to work with you to amend the law as necessary to support this vital policy objective,” the Senate letter’s signatories wrote.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl is working on an alternative proposal to avoid downgrading the security coordinator, according to Axios

Michael Koplow, the chief policy officer of the Israel Policy Forum, praised the Senate letter and said that the Middle East foreign policy community broadly agrees that the security coordinator position, first established in 2005, has been “important and successful.”

The position oversees both security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — which was nonexistent prior to the establishment of this coordinator post — and training for Palestinian Authority security forces.

“When people talk about things that have been successful over the past 15 years within the Israeli-Palestinian space, this is far and away the most successful initiative,” Koplow said. “It really is an example of smart U.S. investment in terms of taking a relatively small program and making sure it punches well above its weight.”

Koplow said the training, popular across both parties and with Israeli officials, has been critical to professionalizing the PA security forces, establishing cooperation with Israel and keeping PA security forces out of terrorist activities. He said the coordination programs have also significantly curtailed suicide bombings inside Israel.

The security coordinator — currently Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel — is especially critical in times of crisis and conflict, Koplow continued. “Without an effective [coordinator]  there’s no question in my mind that it’s going to have a really bad effect on Israeli security; it’s going to contribute to harm to Israeli civilians and harm to Palestinian civilians,” he noted.

Koplow explained that the coordinator’s three-star general rank grants him direct peer-to-peer access to the Israeli Defense Force’s chief of staff and the head of Palestinian intelligence — access that would not be afforded to a lower-ranked officer. Other NATO countries that contribute to the West Bank security mission also often dispatch generals to the mission, and the U.S. downgrading its official could prompt a ripple effect or create tension between the U.S. coordinator leading the mission and higher-ranked foreign counterparts.

Koplow said he is expecting a similar letter from House members in the coming week. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) sent a letter expressing similar concerns earlier last week.

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