Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ recent statement that he would accept a U.S.-led NATO force to patrol a Palestinian state for an indefinite period of time is an interesting development in the peace talks.
We say interesting because it could address the highest obstacle to reaching an agreement with Palestinian leadership: the lack of trust Israelis have in them.
That lack of trust is understandable given the many vitriolic, anti-Israel statements made by Palestinian leaders, including their chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and even Abbas himself.
And no one wants a repeat of 2005 when Hamas rockets rained on Israel following the Jewish state’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
But if the peace were kept by a U.S.-led NATO force — some of the best trained armies in the world, with experience in Mideast combat thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — that might be the guarantee the two sides need to finish a deal.
In an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, published Monday, Abbas said Israeli soldiers and settlements could remain for five years from the Palestinian state’s establishment, adding two years to a previous offer. He said the Palestinian state would be demilitarized and that a third party force would remain “to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us.”
“We will be demilitarized,” Abbas said in the interview. “Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?”
Even here, the mistrust between the two sides shows through, with Abbas making clear he didn’t expect Netanyahu to take him up on the offer, that he only wants Israelis troops in the West Bank — perpetually.
But what if Bibi said yes?
It’s not a new idea. A NATO presence previously garnered the support of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush. Now, ostensibly at least, Abbas is buying into it.
Whether he means it or not, this proposal could be something upon which to build. A lasting peace in the region requires trust — something in short supply over there. Deployment of trained NATO forces, with no set timetable for withdrawal so neither side could wait them out, could be just the thing to build that trust.
There are problems, though: A third deployment of U.S. troops to the region since 2001 could be very unpopular here at home. Harken back to last year’s gas attack in Syria and President Obama’s threat to use force in retaliation. Americans overwhelmingly came out against the idea, which didn’t even involve boots on the ground.
How Americans would react to a peacekeeping mission in such a volatile part of the world is anyone’s guess.
The other problem is the Pentagon’s proposal to scale back the size of the military, creating the smallest number of men and women under arms since pre-World War II days. That plan probably won’t pass Congress intact, but some scaling down is likely. How would a prolonged presence on the West Bank fit into plans for a smaller army?
Clearly, the NATO option creates its own set of questions and issues, some of which would be difficult to resolve. But it also creates opportunities. For the sake of a lasting peace, it shouldn’t be discounted.