The US Department of Defense still plans to downgrade the rank of the military post tasked with bolstering security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a Pentagon spokesman told The Times of Israel Monday, bucking bipartisan calls from lawmakers to rethink the decision.
The Pentagon is planning to lower the rank required to be appointed US Security Coordinator (USSC) in Jerusalem from a three-star general to colonel. The move is a result of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by Congress in 2017, which included a provision to reduce the number of generals and flag officers by 111 in order to lower spending costs.
Pentagon spokesman Rob Lodewick told The Times of Israel that US law requires the reductions to go into effect by the end of this year. He insisted that the Defense Department “remains committed to supporting the USSC, its critical mission, and its advancement of US foreign and defense policy goals to promote stability and security in Israel, the West Bank, and across the region.”
Last month, a group of 32 US senators from both parties penned a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin voted, arguing that including the USSC in Jerusalem on the list of posts to be downgraded “would undermine US leadership and credibility in a region where it is essential to have a high-ranking officer who can engage with other nations’ highest-level military leaders.”
“Downgrading this position would undermine critical security programs and degrade communications between Israelis and Palestinians, which the USSC facilitates,” the senators wrote in the letter led by Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Lindsey Graham.
Ironically, a majority of those lawmakers voted to pass the NDAA in 2017 that mandated the reduction in officers.
Nonetheless, they were joined by nearly 60 colleagues from both parties in the House who penned a subsequent letter to Austin in which they made the same request.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides have also raised their concern regarding the planned downgrade, an official told The Times of Israel last month, adding that Israel’s Defense Ministry raised similar objections.
The office of the USSC in Jerusalem was established in 2005 as part of the Bush administration’s Roadmap for Peace. The international team includes representatives from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Poland and Bulgaria but it is headed by the US, whose representative is also the highest-ranked in the group. The current USSC is Lieutenant General Michael Fenzel.
Since its inception, the USSC has focused on reforming and strengthening the PA security forces and bolstering that force’s coordination with Israel, which the IDF has long touted as critical for stability in the region.
Supporters of maintaining the three-star rank say it also has allowed the USSC to gain access to high-level officials in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah who would not take the post as seriously if it were filled by a colonel.
The USSC has proven particularly essential during times of crisis in Israeli-Palestinian ties. When the PA announced the severing of its security coordination with Israel, amid 2017 tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, the USSC was left as the only channel through which the sides were able to communicate in order to prevent further deterioration of relations. The USSC also facilitates the transfer of much-needed weaponry to the PA security forces, serving as an assuring presence for skeptical onlookers in Israel whose tacit approval is needed for such handovers to go through.
The USSC was also closely involved in the effort to encourage Israel and the PA to cooperate in the investigation into the May killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Early last month, the PA agreed to hand over the bullet to the USSC in order to conduct a ballistic analysis. The review found that the bullet was too damaged to definitively determine who shot Abu Akleh. However, the USSC said it was likely Israel that killed her, albeit not intentionally. The publicized conclusions infuriated Abu Akleh’s family as well as the PA who wanted a more definitive determination. Israel was also irked at having been effectively blamed for the killing.