US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

The Role of US Intelligence in Israeli-Palestinian Relations

in Program

This piece appeared in the May 12, 2005 issue of Bitterlemons International.

With all the laments about intelligence failures in Iraq and elsewhere, a belief persists that intelligence professionals from key outside countries can play an important, and positive, role in promoting the security environment that is so vital to the peace process. It is worth exploring under what conditions intelligence leaders and their experts can or should be part of peace-building efforts in the Israel-Palestine arena, and whether there are important downsides to such a role.

The public use of intelligence as part of the peace process effort emerged at the 1998 Wye River talks, which created the US-Palestinian-Israeli Trilateral Committee to work on security. Intelligence operatives were part of the process, since any initiative to curb political violence would require enhanced intelligence collection by the Palestinians, and they seemed receptive to professional help from the US side. President Clinton increasingly turned to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to work with the parties, in part because Tenet had established strong personal rapport with the Palestinian security chiefs and was also trusted by the Israelis, and because the Central Intelligence Agency had the capacity to contribute to the training and professionalization of the Palestinian security services. Tenet’s role continued through the period of the Mitchell report, released in April 2001, with Tenet’s work-plan of “specific, concrete and realistic security steps” of! fered as the necessary bridge to reach implementation of the Mitchell recommendations. The appointment of General Anthony Zinni as the president’s special envoy in late 2001 superceded Tenet’s role, although the elements of Tenet’s work-plan became Zinni’s guide.

The use of DCI Tenet as a mediator and as judge of non-compliance was more controversial, as it placed him directly in a policy role, not the more discreet or detached role common to the American intelligence tradition. Intelligence professionals were not all comfortable with such a prominent role for the DCI, and some feared it would compromise other aspects of intelligence work, including the need for field operatives and even analysts to not be identified easily by the local population.

Turning from this brief history to an analysis of the key issues at hand, four topics suggest themselves.

To begin with: security first, or an integrated approach? At a conceptual level, if the parties opt for addressing security as a precondition to political talks, then a prominent role for intelligence is quite logical. But an integrated or parallel process where security and political issues are addressed simultaneously, as the Palestinians seem to prefer, would make intelligence only one of the pieces of a more complicated process, and would relegate US intelligence officials to supporting cast, not lead player. In fact, most diplomats prefer the integrated approach, and they view the problems as fundamentally political in nature. Once political will and determination are there, building capacity of local security services becomes a more manageable issue, subordinate to the high politics of peace.

Secondly, security means more than intelligence. Improving the performance of Palestinian security services requires input from a number of security disciplines. For sure, intelligence is key to any security force’s understanding of the adversaries’ plans to do harm. But training of cadres and leadership must also draw on the worlds of law enforcement and paramilitary operations, and must be closely coordinated with domestic functions including transportation, housing, health, and even education. This wide range of activities does not correspond neatly with the expertise of American intelligence professionals, who are trained to respect a clear boundary between domestic and foreign intelligence, and who often, as field operatives, prefer to work with strong fences between their tasks and those of other institutions, such as the military, diplomacy and law enforcement.

Third, leadership and trust. What we have learned from the 1998-2001 period is that the role of outsiders depends at least in part on the chemistry between them and the parties on the ground, and the perception that they are close to the American president. George Tenet, George Mitchell, and Anthony Zinni all had qualities that made them effective interlocutors, and imbued their missions with an authority and legitimacy. Yet even with their charm and persuasiveness, external factors impeded them from accomplishing what they set out to do. Intelligence chief, politician, and military officer–each brought a mix of personal and institutional attributes, key among them the respect and trust of the parties. That the adversaries of the peace process were still able to undermine peace does not diminish their efforts, nor does it prove that one national security discipline is more vital to the process than another.

Finally, intelligence and democratization. The active promotion of political reform by the Bush administration adds a new dimension to the use of intelligence professionals in promoting peace. Intelligence processes in countries governed by the rule of law are subject to democratic oversight, albeit not always in full public light. But in pre-democratic states facing acute security challenges, intelligence services are often given a wide berth to work for the interests of incumbent power. The danger in putting great weight on the intelligence component of security is that it sends a mixed message to those security services as well as to the citizens whose security is at risk. Does the urgent need to quell violence trump the development of more open political processes? Will citizens, seeing empowered security services before they see genuine democracy, grow even more cynical about politics? To be sure, American intelligence professionals can help get the balance right betwe! en improved performance on the security side and enhanced awareness of issues of accountability and rule of law. But it’s a delicate act, and as US behavior post-9/11 shows, not always one easy to get right.

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