Lawmakers seek to strengthen, shore up Israeli-Palestinian security coordinator role
Lawmakers introduced legislation that would seek new funding, greater oversight and stronger protections for the security coordinator mission
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images
A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers is pushing for changes to shore up and further support the mission of the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a year after the Defense Department considered downgrading the position.
The security coordinator position, held by a U.S. military officer, was established during the George W. Bush administration and reports to both the Departments of State and Defense. The coordinator leads a multinational group with nine other nations, including other U.S. military personnel, which coordinates between Israel and the PA’s security forces and provides training to PA security forces. The U.S. also provides nonlethal aid to the PA security forces; this aid is not impacted by the Taylor Force Act.
The Middle East Security Coordination Act, led by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Todd Young (R-IN), James Lankford (R-OK) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), emphasizes that stability in Israel and the West Bank “depend[s] on effective coordination and deconfliction.”
The bill states that the “professionalism and capacity” of PA security forces “is an important factor for safety and stability” and that Israeli security leaders have highlighted the importance of security coordination and PA security forces “as being responsible for eroding the ability of organized terror groups to carry out suicide attacks in Israeli cities and towns.”
Aaron Weinberg, director of government relations at the Israel Policy Forum, which has endorsed the bill, described the security coordination mission as “the biggest game changer since the Second Intifada” that is responsible in large part for “whatever modicum of stability that has existed in the West Bank.”
Weinberg highlighted that the legislation codifies the security coordinator’s function of interfacing between Israeli and Palestinian forces, a role that developed out of the office’s original mission to train and equip PA security forces in anticipation of a two-state solution and has become “equally important.”
The bill would push for $75 million in funding for the security coordinator mission annually for the next five years. Funding for the mission has fluctuated significantly over time, Weinberg noted, and was almost entirely withheld during part of the Trump administration.
The legislation urges the Defense Department to keep a general or flag officer as the head of the mission and keep senior officials in the mission in place for multiple years (three years for the head of the mission and two years for senior officials). It requires the Pentagon to notify Congress 120 days before changing these policies.
The former appears to be a response to DoD efforts last year to replace the USSC with a lower-ranked official in response to congressionally mandated cuts in the senior officer ranks. That proposal prompted bipartisan concern from Congress.
The latter, Weinberg explained, addresses issues with rapid turnover in the lower ranks of the mission — in some cases every six months — that often prevent officials from fully carrying out their responsibilities and building institutional memory inside the mission.
“You have the flag officer, you have the generals, training the lower-level officers [in the mission], because they’re the only ones with institutional memory of knowing what’s actually going on there,” he said. “By the time you meet all the players, get an assessment on the ground, figure out which way is up… it’s time for you to go home.”
The bill emphasizes the need for “burden sharing” in funding and personnel among the nations involved in the security coordinator mission, and calls on the State Department and security coordinator to seek out additional nations to join the mission. It requires a report to Congress on burden sharing, including the possibility of bringing Abraham Accords signatories or other Arab nations into the mission.
It would additionally require annual reports from the State Department and USSC on the office’s activities, as well as the professionalization of the Palestinian security forces and justice system.
Despite the bipartisan congressional support for the security coordinator mission, there have been indications that skepticism of the project has been growing among some lawmakers, given the PA security forces’ difficulties in containing rising violence and growing terrorist activity within the West Bank.