Jun 1, 2022 - World

Scoop: Pentagon weighs downgrading rank of U.S. Palestinian security post

Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces block a road as demonstrators rally in Ramallah on July 3, 2021. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Palestinian Authority security forces block a road as demonstrators rally in Ramallah on July 3, 2021. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon is considering downgrading the post of the official in charge of security coordination with the Palestinian Authority from the rank of three-star general to that of a colonel, four current and former U.S. officials and two Israeli officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The State Department and the Israeli Defense Ministry are concerned such a decision could hurt security cooperation between the U.S. and Palestinians and damage security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian officials as tensions escalate in the occupied West Bank.

Driving the news: In recent months, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has laid out a plan for reducing the number of generals and admirals per the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, current and former U.S. officials say.

  • The Trump administration decided a big part of the cut needed to come from U.S. generals and admirals posted in bases and positions around the world.
  • The plan includes downgrading the rank of the U.S. security coordinator with the Palestinians from a three-star general to that of a colonel, according to current and former U.S. officials.
  • The ranks of the U.S. military attachés in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would also be downgraded.

Background: The U.S. security coordinator (USSC) post was created in 2005 in an effort to rebuild and reform the Palestinian security services after the second intifada.

  • The coordinator has always been a three-star U.S. general who reported to the secretary of state and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • The coordinator's senior rank allows direct access to the top military and political echelons in the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
  • The security coordinator team also includes military experts from eight different NATO countries.

Behind the scenes: The State Department has been pushing back against the Pentagon plan, mainly on the issue of the USSC post with the Palestinians, but also about other posts in the Middle East, the U.S. officials said.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stressing reservations over the plan, according to current and former U.S. officials.
  • U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides urged the Pentagon against the plan and asked other senior officials, including CIA Director Bill Burns, to weigh in, a source briefed on the issue told me.
  • The current U.S. security coordinator, Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, said in a closed session at a think tank in Washington several weeks ago that he is concerned that downgrading the post could harm the mission and damage security coordination between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a person who attended the event.
  • Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, is expected to present to Austin later this week different options for preserving the USSC and other positions in the Middle East, a former U.S. official said.

The Israeli government is also concerned about the plan's ramifications, a senior Israeli official said. The Palestinians also object, according to another source.

  • The State Department and Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

What they're saying: "At a time when Israelis, Palestinians and many Arab states are all looking for signs that the U.S. remains committed to the region, downgrading the USSC and other regional military attachés makes little sense," said former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who currently serves as a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council's Middle East programs.

  • Shapiro told me the USSC, in particular, continues to play a critical role in maintaining Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. “Especially on the eve of President Biden's first trip to the region, it would send exactly the wrong message," he said.
  • He added that the Biden administration seems to understand that, and “there are apparent efforts underway to reverse these ill-advised decisions they inherited."
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