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Senators urge against lowering rank of Israeli-Palestinian security ties coordinator

Congress passed law reducing number of generals, but bipartisan group asks Pentagon not to apply it to Jerusalem post, saying high-level engagement critical amid current tensions

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Members of the Palestinian special police forces wait to compete during the 7th Annual International Warrior Competition hosted by the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC), Sunday, April 19, 2015, Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
Members of the Palestinian special police forces wait to compete during the 7th Annual International Warrior Competition hosted by the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC), Sunday, April 19, 2015, Amman, Jordan. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

A bipartisan group of 32 US senators on Friday urged the Pentagon not to downgrade the rank of the military post tasked with bolstering security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

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, an official confirmed to The Times of Israel. 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.

While a majority of the senators who penned the letter Friday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin voted for the 2017 NDAA, they argued 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.

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, 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.

Palestinian policemen participate in a training session at their headquarters in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 30, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

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 is perhaps the most successful US initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian context,” argue the Israel Policy Forum’s Shira Efron and the Washington Institute for Near East’s Policy’s Ghaith al-Omari in a recent joint paper.

“Without much fanfare, it has played a central role in rebuilding Israeli-Palestinian relations after the Second Intifada, reducing violence in a sustained manner, and creating a reasonably professional, capable security sector that can be the nucleus for building a future Palestinian state.”

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