Why the West Bank Security Agreement Could Collapse, and Why It Matters

Israeli soldiers (R) and Palestinian security officers (L) talk during a joint minefield removal operation in the northern West Bank village of Qabatiya, near Jenin, on July 05, 2010.
Photo: Saif Dallah/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, news broke that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council had voted to end security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, a longstanding agreement that had been first codified at the 1993 Oslo Accords. While the decision hasn’t yet been finalized, if it is enacted, it will mark the end of an agreement that many observers see as one of the rare bright spots in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

At the most basic level, the PLO is considering this move as retribution for Israel’s economically damaging withholding of Palestinian tax revenue, which was itself punishment for the Palestinians’ attempts to join the International Criminal Court (which could open up Israel to war-crimes charges). But Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations with extensive State Department experience in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, thinks that’s only part of the story. Rather, he argues, the potential collapse of the agreement has to do with the broader stagnation that has beset both the peace process and the Palestinian economy.

Danin spoke with Daily Intelligencer about the security agreement and what it means for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Since it was first implemented post-Oslo, what has this agreement meant for both sides? How have they benefited?
Security cooperation has been one of the core issues ever since the Oslo agreement. It had also been a sticking point for many years because it was seen as something that was not very well implemented, particularly by those on the Palestinian side.

With the second intifada in 2000, all security cooperation broke down, and you had a situation where the Palestinian security forces, who had been cooperating with Israel and who were armed, turning their arms on Israel. And so after the second intifada there was a sense that it would be very, very difficult to ever get security cooperation going, and one of the under-appreciated developments in recent years was the effort, largely brokered by the United States, to get Israel and the Palestinians to not only resume security cooperation, but to do so in an extremely effective way.

And until last week’s events, how had that attempt gone?
Two things helped get the agreement back on track. You had in Mahmoud Abbas, someone who was committed to peaceful coexistence with Israel. I mean, he clearly, in contrast to everyone else within the PLO, within Fatah, has always been committed to nonviolence. But secondly, you had then–Prime Minister Salam Fayyad after 2007 in place, and I think the important and underappreciated point is that they redefined what security cooperation meant.

Up until then it had always been billed as “The Palestinians police themselves in order to help Israel.” And so for the Palestinians involved in the security cooperation, it always meant that they were being accused of being Israel’s policemen, and that the security forces were there to do Israel’s bidding against the Palestinians. And that was a very serious charge that was hard to counter, and Fayyad was able redefine it.

The Palestinian security forces basically went through this whole re-training effort under the United States in which they became professionalized, and they were deployed in Palestinian cities in the West Bank with Israeli cooperation, or at least facilitation. And so the Palestinian security cooperation became defined as something that was a Palestinian interest — designed to bring security to Palestinians. And if by extension that meant that Israel also enjoyed security then that was fine, but it was an important redefining of what security cooperation meant in that it took away the idea that security cooperation was being done for Israel and made it something that was being done for the Palestinians.

And from a political perspective, this was successful? It tamped down charges from Abbas’s critics that he was complicit in the occupation?
These things don’t take place in a vacuum. So when you had a situation where you had political negotiations taking place, where you had economic expansion and growth taking place, where you had Palestinian political reform taking place, the idea that the Palestinian security forces were becoming professionalized and were making Palestinian cities and streets more secure — it was all part of an integral whole. Now, there were always those who criticized Abbas for cooperating — those charges never went fully away — but for the most part, the agreement became noncontroversial.

But then, when you get into a situation where you have no negotiations, where you have economic deprivation and stagnation, where you have political stagnation and a rollback on political reform, when you have increased tensions on the ground and particularly in Jerusalem, then these issues become more difficult. So then, for example, when you have Palestinian demonstrations, as in Ramallah last year, and you have the Palestinian security forces keeping the demonstrators from confrontation points with Israel — at moments like those, the Palestinian leadership might become vulnerable politically and get charged with becoming collaborators. At those points, there is always the danger that they will walk away — or that they’ll join forces with the demonstrators.

So it sounds like on the one hand, this is about Israel keeping tax revenues from the PA, but it’s also about the broader context — stagnation and lack of progress.
Tax revenues is too … no, that’s too shorthand. The way I would describe it is you’re in a tit-for-tat situation where you have now a series of steps and countersteps with the Palestinians challenging Israel in international fora, at the ICC in the United Nations, Israel taking action on the ground to make life more difficult for the Palestinians, including the withholding of the tax revenues.

So the tax revenues are one element of it, but the larger context is ever-increasing escalation. So each side is now pulling out its stops, and so what the Palestinians say is Okay, you’re withholding tax revenues — we’re going to withhold security cooperation. So yes, the security agreement is good for Israel, but it’s also good for Palestinians, because it means you have increased order in Palestinian areas, which means that Palestinians live better and are free from both Palestinian militias and unauthorized gangs and criminal elements. But it also reduces the chance that Israel itself is going to conduct incursions and do all sorts of things. So reducing security cooperation is bad for both sides, and it’s just a further escalation, which increases the possibility for real confrontation.

Ever since the last intifada, in 2000, people have been worried about a third one, and at the height of tensions over the Gaza last summer and subsequent protests in the West Bank, some people thought we were as close as we’d been in a long time. Are you worried that if this security agreement actually unravels that it will make a third intifada more likely?
It doesn’t help. But the situation is a lot different than it was in the two previous intifadas, because in both previous instances there were many more friction points between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis have succeeded in largely separating Israeli and Palestinian areas such that there are fewer and fewer areas for the Palestinians to confront the Israelis other than in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the flash point, but the paradox is Jerusalem is the one area where the Palestinian security forces are not allowed under the Oslo Accord to operate.

So in a way, you could say that Jerusalem proves the point, that when you don’t have Palestinian security forces, you have a greater propensity for confrontation and violence. There is definitely a possibility for increased Israeli and Palestinian friction and confrontation, and there are always people out there talking about the third intifada, and one day they may be right. But I just think that the nature of the next confrontation will likely be different because you just have fewer areas for direct Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. And I think one of the things the Palestinians are struggling with as a movement is to say, Okay, if we are going to confront Israel, what is the most effective way? In a sense, what they’ve decided is that it’s much more effective to confront Israel peacefully on the international stage than it is to confront Israel on the ground where Israel has a preponderance of power.

This interview has been edited.