WASHINGTON — For a preview of how Gen. Jim Jones will operate as national security adviser in the incoming Obama administration, it's useful to look at his performance as special envoy on Middle East security for the outgoing Bush administration. His effort there has helped yield one of the few recent success stories in the grinding Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.
Jones took the post in November 2007, just after the Annapolis peace conference, at the request of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His mission was to help crack the toughest nut of all in this dispute — Israel's lack of trust that the Palestinians are serious about stopping terrorism. Until that confidence about security exists, all the talk about creating a Palestinian state is just so much hot air.
The retired Marine general's approach has been to build consensus by working on practical problems, from the bottom up. The Israelis and Palestinians were dug into their positions on the big issues, and Rice's larger peacemaking effort gradually stalled. But there was some give on the day-to-day security issues that were part of Jones' mission.
And to an extent that has surprised the Israelis, the Palestinian security push has actually been successful. "They're working more effectively than in the past," Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad told the Jerusalem Post last month. "There's certainly an improvement."
The U.S. plan was to train Palestinian paramilitary forces and deploy them — despite Israeli anxieties — in West Bank cities to keep order. Leading this effort was Army Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator. Starting last year, he organized training for Palestinian security forces in Jordan. About 1,100 Palestinians have now graduated from that training program, with another 1,000 on the way.
The first challenge was to convince the Israelis to allow the Palestinian security forces to operate more aggressively. In the past, Israeli officials have given lip service to this idea but refused to give the Palestinians the weapons or operating freedom they needed. This time was different. When the Palestinians proposed in May to deploy their first newly trained battalion to the unruly city of Jenin, the Israelis agreed.
The Palestinians performed better than the Israelis expected. They didn't just crack down on Jenin's criminal gangs, they also staged an armed raid on an Islamic Jihad cell in nearby Qabatiya. Jones and his team built on the new security by funding new schools, clinics and other development projects there in what was called the "Jenin Initiative." Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been working closely with Jones, said last week that on a recent visit to the northern West Bank city, he was astonished by the calm.
Next, the Palestinians wanted to deploy their forces to the southern city of Hebron — a double challenge because it is home for militant Israeli settlers as well as a stronghold of the radical Palestinian group Hamas. The Israelis at first balked, but by late October had agreed to allow the Palestinians to share responsibility for security in the volatile city. Since then, the Palestinians have arrested 250 suspected Hamas members, as well as about 150 smugglers and thugs. They also uncovered a Hamas ammunition dump in a tunnel — and informed the Israelis, who promptly destroyed it.
Jones explained why the security initiative is working. The Israeli approach is, "If they will do more, we will do less," he says. "That has built upon itself. There is more trust and confidence, with the Palestinians moving up the ladder to higher-end missions."
I asked Jones what his role as Middle East envoy showed about how he would operate as national security adviser. "I spend a lot of time talking to people, getting others to buy in," he explained. He works to "build consensus by reaching out and making sure everyone has a chance to say what they want." He plans to keep pushing on the Israeli-Palestinian front in the White House. "It's very important not to lose momentum."
Jones isn't a perfect national security adviser. The ideal person would have some of the strategic cunning of a Henry Kissinger or a Zbigniew Brzezinski, plus a dash of Brent Scowcroft's self-effacing manner. But the big, confident Marine knows how to get people working together. And if he can help the Israelis and Palestinians get along, maybe he can do the same for the all-stars on the Obama foreign policy team.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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