NATO in Palestine?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently told the New York Times that, as part of a negotiated peace agreement establishing a two-state solution, he would welcome U.S.-led NATO forces in Palestinian territory to replace Israel troops. He said that NATO security forces could stay “as long as they want.” Under the proposed arrangement, the newly formed Palestinian state would retain its police forces but would not have its own army.

This is a breakthrough concept that deserves further consideration. It would address the problem of future security arrangements, which is one of the toughest obstacles to a negotiated solution. It would essentially remove Israel’s concern about military attack from Palestine. For the Palestinians the proposed arrangement would guarantee their security against further Israeli occupation or military incursion.

Yes, Abbas’s proposal has no chance of being implemented in the near term. Key Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank have dismissed the idea as a threat to Palestinian sovereignty. Israeli officials also have rejected the proposal. Within the United States and NATO countries, many will question the costs and risks of another long-term security commitment in the Middle East.

Rather than discarding the idea, however, let’s consider the implications and possibilities.

Israeli security would be enhanced. Palestine would be under the military control of Israel’s staunchest ally. American and NATO troops would patrol not just the Jordan Valley but all of Palestinian territory and would be able to deter significant insurgent threats.

Palestinians would gain as well. They would be free at last of Israeli occupation and under the protection of troops Israel would never dare to attack. Some Palestinians may view a U.S.-controlled force as merely a proxy for Israel, but the proposed NATO mission would likely be far more independent and benign than Israeli troops.

The proposal for an international security force in Palestine is not new. Martin Indyk, Maria J. Stephan and others have written about the concept in the past. Ideally, a security mission for Palestine should be under UN authority, but Israel will never trust a UN force, and its effectiveness against Israeli or Palestinian violations would be questionable. A NATO-led force may be the only viable option for a peacekeeping solution.

The logic of an international security presence for Palestine is compelling. Empirical research shows that multilateral enforcement operations help to end violence and can boost the prospects for sustainable peace. A peacekeeping force does not guarantee success, but its absence makes failure virtually certain.

Eventually NATO forces would return home. They could withdraw from Palestine as relations between the two states improve and mutual trust begins to build. Palestinian forces would take over full security responsibilities, and the size of Israeli forces could be reduced. All of this will take time, probably decades, but it might be possible if Palestinian grievances are satisfied in the negotiated peace agreement and the two sides can learn to live together without constant fear of armed attack.

The proposed peacekeeping force is only one piece in the complex puzzle of trying to negotiate a two-state solution, but it could help to solve the security dilemma at the heart of the dispute. Without a security solution, the current negotiations will fail, resulting in an increased risk of renewed violence.

I have doubts about the proposal for a NATO force, as do many colleagues, but I think it has potential as a security solution. Let’s study the idea further and discuss how an international force could help to resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.