Don’t downgrade the US security coordinator from a three-star general to a colonel

Israel and the PA need to trust the USSC to coordinate during crises to prevent bad situations from spinning out of control – the job needs a high-level officer

Clouds pass over the Capitol dome on December 31, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images/AFP)
Clouds pass over the Capitol dome on December 31, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images/AFP)

The Times of Israel reported on August 2 that the United States still plans to downgrade the rank of the US security coordinator (USSC) from a three-star general to a colonel, though such a move faces bipartisan opposition in Congress, the executive branch, and the policy community, who fear that the downgrade will risk West Bank stability and Israeli security.

Since its establishment in 2005, the USSC has been one of the rare successes of US Israel-Palestine policy. It helped rebuild the Palestinian security sector after the Second Intifada, elevated Israeli-Palestinian security coordination to unprecedented levels, and has advised the PA on security sector reform. Part of this success can be directly attributed to the fact that the mission has been led by a succession of three-star US generals, whose seniority allowed them access to civilian and military officials in Washington, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. The USSC is also a cornerstone of US support of a two-state solution, which, as President Joe Biden said in his visit to Israel and the West Bank last month, begins with achieving “equal measures of security, prosperity, freedom, and democracy for the Palestinians as well as Israelis.”

However, due to a bureaucratic mandate, the United States is about to send exactly the opposite signal. In 2017, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contained a provision to reduce the number of general and flag officers (GFOs) by 111. The Pentagon is now required to implement this provision, lowering the ranks of a number of senior officers around the world, including that of the Jerusalem USSC. Granted, US foreign policy and defense priorities are elsewhere, the number of senior generals has increased disproportionately, and, given budget constraints, there is a need to balance out the officer corps. Yet, including the USSC in this planned downgrade list is ill-timed, as there is an uptick in terrorism and violence in the West Bank, relations between the PA and Israel are tense, and US-PA ties are sour, due to the PA’s frustration over what it sees as insufficient US support. Biden’s visit to Bethlehem was meant to assuage these tensions. Downgrading the USSC mission now would go against stated US objectives and risk destroying the many achievements the mission has accomplished in the last 18 years.

Having a GFO lead the mission sends a symbolic message that the United States is genuinely committed to Palestinian Security Forces (PASF) reform and to Israeli-Palestinian security coordination. In a region where symbolism is highly important, where US partners are anxious about being left behind, this should not be underestimated — nor should the negative symbolism of downgrading the mission.

Beyond symbolism, the core aspects of the USSC’s mandate require engagement by a high-level officer. Indeed, security coordination between Israelis and Palestinians has become so routinized that it is easy to forget that, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, routine can be interrupted very quickly and violently. It is in such times of crisis that the USSC’s coordination role becomes critical. For example, during the 2017 Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif crisis, when the PA officially suspended security coordination, the USSC was the only channel through which the two sides could coordinate and prevent a bad situation from spinning out of control.

In addition to mediation, the USSC needs to be of sufficient seniority to be able to engage on a peer-to-peer level with Palestinian and Israeli security and military leaders and their civilian superiors. Put bluntly, an American colonel would not command the requisite level of deference and would not be able to effectively engage either an Israeli or a Palestinian military leader, such as the IDF chief of Staff, let alone relevant ministers. Only an American GFO can.

Beyond crisis response, building and improving the PASF requires coordination with Israel. This is particularly relevant today, as the PASF has reached a stage where it needs to be enlarged and upgraded to meet the heightened security needs throughout the West Bank, which have evolved substantially due to a growing population and the emergence of new types of threats since the PASF was rebuilt in 2005. Doing so requires restoring the USSC’s muscle and funding to previous levels, rather than undermining the mission by downgrading the USSC.

Similarly, reforming the Palestinian security sector is a complex task. It necessitates regular peer-level engagement with the Palestinian president, prime minister, interior minister, and security chiefs, and the ability to push back against the PA’s reluctance to reform. A lower-ranking officer would not have the gravitas to effectively work at that level or demonstrate Washington’s backing.

Moreover, a successful USSC needs also to be able to navigate Washington itself. A three-star general would be more effective in securing political and financial support from Congress, while simultaneously navigating different interests and dynamics in the administration. Most important, perhaps, is the ability to get the attention and support of principals, particularly the secretary of state and the national security adviser.

Finally, the US coordinator is the highest-ranking official among the representatives of the eight countries making up the USSC mission (United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Poland, and Bulgaria). The next highest-ranking officials hail from Canada and the United Kingdom, both of which have brigadier generals (one-star) as their most senior officers to the mission. Lowering the rank of the coordinator to a colonel would either officially mark the end of US leadership of the USSC, or, worse, push other countries to lower the ranks of their officers, effectively killing the mission.

The decision by the Biden administration to de-prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is understandable. But doing away with a US initiative that has helped prevent escalation that would have otherwise drawn the United States back into the conflict, is, to say the least, ill-advised and self-defeating. Instead of downgrading the USSC, the Biden administration and its international partners should be looking for ways to strengthen it.

Shira Efron is the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Director of Policy Research at Israel Policy Forum. Previously, Shira was RAND Corporation’s researcher and special advisor on Israel and a policy advisor to Israel Policy Forum. Based in Israel, Efron serves concurrently as a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a consultant with the United Nations country team in Jerusalem advising on Gaza access issues and co-chair of the subgroup on national security and regional cooperation of the President’s Israeli Climate Change Forum. She has a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in policy analysis from RAND’s Graduate School, an M.A. in international relations/international business from New York University and a B.Sc. in biology (major) and computer science (minor) from Tel Aviv University. She is a member of the board of directors of Deborah Forum, which promotes women in the security establishment.

Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship. He is the co-author, with Neri Zilber, of “State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018.”

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