Pentagon backs off Jerusalem security coordinator downgrade amid lawmaker pressure

Defense Department notifies Congresspeople who opposed lowering rank that it is reversing its plans, after lawmakers argued 3-star officer needed to help keep stability in region

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on May 19, 2022. (Shmulik Almany/GPO)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon on May 19, 2022. (Shmulik Almany/GPO)

The US Department of Defense will not downgrade the rank of the military post tasked with bolstering security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, following bipartisan opposition from lawmakers, two Congressional aides said Tuesday.

Pentagon spokesman Rob Lodewick told The Times of Israel last week that his office was going ahead with plans to lower the rank required to be appointed US Security Coordinator, or USSC, in Jerusalem from a three-star general to colonel. The move, planned for the end of the year, was slated to be part of a cost-saving program passed by Congress in 2017, which affected 111 positions across the globe.

In the wake of Lodewick’s comments, lawmakers redoubled efforts to nix the plan, expressing concerns that downgrading the post could harm US efforts to maintain stability between Israelis and Palestinians, one of the congressional aides who spoke to The Times of Israel said.

On Tuesday, several lawmakers who had reached out to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urging him to intervene on the matter were notified by the Pentagon that the Jerusalem coordinator would not be among the posts the Defense Department will downgrade, an aide to one of the lawmakers said, speaking on condition of anonymity as their office was asked not to publicize the decision before the Pentagon publicly confirms it.

Lodewick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In June, the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel advocacy group and think tank, began urging members of Congress to oppose the plan to include the Jerusalem position among posts slated for downgrading. The effort managed to recruit lawmakers from both sides of the aisle against the Pentagon plan.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Larry Nassar investigation on Capitol Hill on September 15, 2021, in Washington. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Lindsey Graham spearheaded a letter signed by 32 colleagues in the Senate to Austin urging him to reverse the move. “Downgrading this position would undermine critical security programs and degrade communications between Israelis and Palestinians, which the USSC facilitates,” the senators wrote in June.

A similar letter was advanced in the House Democratic Rep. Grace Meng and Republican Rep. Mike Waltz with 55 of their colleagues signing on to the effort.

A majority of the lawmakers who signed on to the letters to Austin had voted in favor of the cost-reduction scheme, which mandated the downgrade of 111 positions, but did not specify the Jerusalem security coordinator post as one of them.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides 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 US Security Coordinator is Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel.

The coordinator’s job focuses on reforming and strengthening the PA security forces and bolstering its coordination with Israel, which the IDF has long touted as critical for stability in the region.

US Security Coordinator in Jerusalem Maj. Gen. Michael R. Fenzel stands for an official portrait on January 22, 2020, in Washington. (US Defense Department)

Supporters of maintaining the three-star rank say it also has allowed the coordinator 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 security coordinator 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.

Fenzel 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.

Meng lauded Tuesday’s development in a statement saying, “downgrading this position would have been a mistake. As I’ve said, an officer of three-star rank is crucial to continuing the mission of ensuring security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.” The lawmaker thanked Austin for hearing her concerns.

IPF also applauded the move, saying in a statement that “the rank of the USSC head of mission is critical to the mission’s effectiveness, signaling clear U.S. leadership to its other NATO contributors and clear US commitment and credibility to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.”

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