Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Is Kerry offering up US troops?

Unconfirmed news reports out of Israel signal that an offer of US troops to secure the borders of a new Palestinian state is in the mix in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. US defense analysts urge caution. 

Brendan Smialowski/Pool/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talk before a meeting at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday. Secretary Kerry took his 10th trip to the region to negotiate a peace deal he claims is 'not mission impossible.'

Secretary of State John Kerry is proposing to offer up US troops to help secure the borders of the new state of Palestine, according to some unconfirmed news reports coming out of Israel.

How plausible is the possibility? And would it be a good idea, or, as some military analysts argue, would the White House would be “nuts” to consider it?

The US troops would be tasked with helping to prevent anti-Israel forces from coming out of Jordan and reaching Israel, according to Debkafile, an Israeli intelligence and security news service.

Palestinian officials are demanding that Israel move its forces from the Jordan Valley, where the US troops would be stationed. This point may have proved pivotal in the US administration’s reported decision to offer them up.

Samantha Power, then a Harvard professor and now the US ambassador to the United Nations, seemed to indicate in a 2008 interview with Harry Kreisler of the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies that crisis in the region could possibly be ameliorated by the introduction of US troops to provide security needs. 

To head off a human rights crisis in the West Bank and other Palestinian territories “may mean, more crucially, sacrificing – or investing, I think, more than sacrificing – literally billions of dollars, not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine. In investing billions of dollars it would probably take also to support, I think, what will have to be a mammoth protection force ... a meaningful military presence,” she said. “Because it seems to me at this stage – and this is true of actual genocides as well, and not just major human rights abuses, which we’re seeing there – is that you have to go in as if you’re serious. You have to put something on the line.” 

The State Department is not commenting on the latest reports, but many US military analysts are convinced such a move would be a bad idea.

“When you look at it from a military perspective, I don’t see any good that would come of it,” says David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington.

The 1983 truck-bombing attack of a US Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed nearly 300 US and and French troops, is one example of what could go wrong.

“I look at this and I say, ‘Gosh, we don’t have a good track record in the Middle East,' ” he says. “I can just see US forces becoming a lightning rod, a target.” 

True, the Pentagon has had troops in the Sinai Peninsula for years to help ensure peace between Egypt and Israel following the 1978 Camp David Accords. There are also US troops helping to train Palestinian forces. 

But these are ongoing operations that generally fall under the radar screen.

A force based in the Jordan Valley and dedicated to securing borders would also mean that US troops would have to man checkpoints and prevent possible insurgent infiltration through Palestinian territory into Israel.

“That’s a huge security operation, and we’d be talking thousands of US troops if they were going to be effective," says Mr. Maxwell.

Retired Col. Robert Killebrew, a nonresident fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, recalls working as a military planner when President Jimmy Carter announced – in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan – that he would oppose Soviet expansionism “by any means possible.”

In Pentagon parlance, this means military force, and so then Mr. Killebrew and fellow military colleagues began writing plans to bring US troops to the Middle East, to be deployed in the event that the Soviets pushed from Afghanistan into Iran in an effort to gain access to the Persian Gulf.

This planning “sent a shiver through the Pentagon and the services,” since, at the time, it had major war plans only in the case of a Soviet invasion of Europe or of a breakdown of peace on the Korean peninsula. 

The plans the US military put in place for this scenario, including buying extended-range cargo planes and a dozen fast sealift ships, ended up being the template for the first Gulf war.

Still, in the Middle East at the time, “There was an unspoken rule that we didn’t want US troops to be hostages to fortune in a region so volatile,” Killebrew says. 

And that should continue to be the case, he adds. “We would be nuts to put troops into a peacekeeping operation in the Middle East,” he argues. “The problem for peacekeeping troops – and US forces would be no exception – is if there isn’t a peace to keep, then what?”

It is also not clear that the Israelis would go for any such plan. “I wouldn’t rely on foreign forces,” Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, former commander of the Israeli Defense Force, told the Times of Israel.

Palestinians, on the other hand, may support the plan. “They may look at it as if US forces would be restraining on the Israeli forces,” says Maxwell at CSS. To others, however, it could “send such a visual signal of occupation.” 

Another challenge would be figuring out an exit strategy. “How do you determine there’s sufficient security for troops to leave?” he adds. “We’re talking years and years.”

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