David Halperin
Israel Policy Forum (Interview)
December 18, 2012 - 1:00am


David Halperin: Thank you all for joining us for today's call, which is quite timely. We have with us today P.J. Dermer and Steve White, two individuals who have unique experience working on the ground, having represented the United States in coordinating the security activities between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The conversation is quite timely for two reasons. Number one, we've seen a surge in protests and gatherings in the West Bank that have raised eyebrows and questions regarding the security situation in the West Bank. It’s also timely because Steve and P.J. are coming back from a time in which they have been able to engage in conversations with many Israeli and Palestinian security officials in preparation for a book that they are currently working on about the history of the U.S. Security Coordinator program.

And so we have a rather fresh perspective, again, from two individuals who really have quite unique experience, and I will give a very brief overview and then let them really delve into the work that they've done.

Col., retired, Philip J. Dermer, P.J., is a retired U.S. Army officer who has specialized in the Middle East and traveled throughout the region since the late 1970s from-- in the late '90s, from '97 to '99, he served as a defense attaché of the United States in Tel Aviv, and worked on the ground firsthand, with a firsthand view of the Oslo Accords Framework. 

In 2003, he designed the first operational roadmap under the auspices of U.S. Ambassador John Wolf's mission. And, again, from 2005 to 2007, he worked with the two U.S. Security Coordinators, first Gen. Kip Ward and later, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton on their mission to rebuild a viable Palestinian security entity. He's really one of the most experienced trainers of security forces throughout the region.

Steve White was also an advisor to the U.S. Security Coordinator mission. He's a Marine Corps Reserve major and served as a senior Middle East advisor to three of the U.S. Security Coordinators in the region, as well as the U.S. Security Coordinator missions, official liaison to the government of Israel, to the United Nations, and to the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He was there from 2005 through 2011.

So, again, as you see, this is really two gentlemen with quite unique perspectives and coming fresh from a trip in which they've met with many of their Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and can give us a rather unique insider's view of the state of play between Israel and the Palestinian Authority today.

I'll now pass the call over to Steve Spiegel, IPF's National Scholar, who will facilitate our conversation. Thank you, again, for joining us today, and thank you, P.J. and Steve. Steve, off to you.

Steve Spiegel:        Thank you. Thank you, David, and welcome, everyone, and welcome to P.J. and Steve. Our audience has heard the introduction as to what you've done. Now, let's put some meat on the bone and try to hear from you fellows what does it mean, the security training of the Palestinian forces? What have you done? And who are you, in your own words? And then I want to ask the question-- where do the two of you find the situation right now?

So, tell us a little bit about, you know, feet on the ground, what it was like to train these Palestinian security forces, what they've done, where are they now?

P.J. Dermer:            Good morning. Okay, hi, Steve. It's P.J. Dermer. 

First off, just to fill in a little bit what David said, the resume will just tell you that I've been involved in the process for a long time and from all aspects, a lot of it on the ground, more than most any other officers and serving officials that I know. That doesn't mean I have the capacity to get it right, it just means I have diverging and converging views on the subject.

In addition to my two attaché tours, I worked directly with the first two United States Security Coordinators. I've got two peacekeeping tours in the region, as well, which gives me the international flavor of that kind of effort.

Steve Spiegel:            Remind us who those names were, the first two security coordinators.

P.J. Dermer:            Okay. Yeah, the first one, the United Nations tour which put me in the region was with five regional countries, which is always good, so you get a view outside Israel. UNTSO, United Nations Truce Supervision Organization.

And then I served in the MFO, where I commanded the aviation company that's out there monitoring the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and we had to interlocute daily between those parties. So, those various tours plus schooling and a stint give you quite the geo things going on.

My term with the USSC began as an attaché in the second tour in 2005 and as the Army attaché in country, of course, we were quite close with both Gen. Ward and Gen. Dayton, and got to watch develop from ground up. And the training of the Palestinians, that started the advent of the United States Security Coordinator, that was never really the issue of the United States Security Coordinator, i.e., train and equip. It developed into that. Steve will go more into that, but the issue of the USSC, I view it as more of a strategic nature, as what it means in the bigger picture, i.e., for the Middle East peace process, for U.S. regional relations, for Israeli-U.S. relations, et cetera.That's the view that I'll be looking at from today.

The situation as we see it is not surprising. Steve and I believe that upwards of the United States Security Coordinator from the years 2007, '08, '09-ish, let's say, there was a very positive momentum in the territories and meaning between the Israelis and the Palestinians and how they viewed the security situation, and both how the security situation was developing on the ground. It was very positive. 

This was a tricky analysis, because when you say the word "positive," you have to ask in whose eyes, by the Israeli eyes, the Palestinian eyes, our eyes. What does "positive" mean?

But on our last trip last week, I think we're going to argue pretty forcefully today that security is not the issue that ails those two parties at the end of the day. I think that's a misnomer, and the security situation has gotten to the point where, in the strategic view of things, we're waiting for the other elements of power to kick in and do their part, namely diplomatic. 

Good security cooperation cannot carry the day, cannot make peace, cannot be the deciding factor, and we're starting to see the results of where you have great security cooperation over the last few years now run head-on into a moribund diplomatic and political peace process.


Steve Spiegel:            Well, so you're saying, P.J., as Steve is getting ready here, that basically during the Bush era -- and I think it's one of the best things that the Bush team did, in my opinion -- this operation was set up to revive cooperation and expand cooperation that had begun in the 1990s and, as a consequence, in the Bush second term, you had what became a very important factor in the aftermath of the second intifada and in maintaining a lack of violence or very limited violence on the Israeli-West Bank frontier.

And I think that the Security Coordinators and their efforts with Israelis and Palestinians deserve a great deal of credit for showing that the Americans can be very effective on the ground, and that, as a result, this possibility was established.

But I think, Steve, as you come on, I think you'd agree that-- and as P.J. just said, that without a diplomatic process it's hard to keep it going, and that's where we stand, right?

Steve White:            Yeah, hey, it's Steve White here. And let me jump in on something before I roll back to adding to the introduction of who I am, who I was.

You've hit the nail on the head, and I think it's critical to understand, from the start, that the real father of the concept of the United States Security Coordinator was, in fact, Ambassador Dan Kurtzer. He had basically created this idea, along with his staff at the U.S. Embassy, around about 2004 as but one of several building blocks that would be required to stimulate the negotiations process from the on-the-ground, reality-based perspective of which security was but one entity.

There was to have been, you know, a governance and also an economic project, similar to the outlines of the USSC that was to have been engaged, you know, in parallel. And, unfortunately, when we were created in 2005, the parallel economic and governance efforts were not created. We were essentially thrown out there kind of as a stand-alone entity to, quote, “see what would happen.”

Since 2010, there's been a strange notion that the United States Security Coordinator mission is one that needed to focus strictly on the training and equipping of Palestinian security forces, i.e., as nothing more than a tactical venture, divorced from the uber-strategic role that it was initially created to enjoy, and that that strategic interlocutor role, in the words of Ambassador Kurtzer, was to get somebody in the room that could work both sides of the fence, i.e., both Israelis and Palestinians.

 But, as we discovered later and, indeed, created later, the relationships with internationals and with Congress and what-not were also essential to what we tried to do during that time period.

 As for me, I entered this fray in basically 1990 on a fellowship to Hebrew University, and I got my introduction in a sealed room, with gas mask and all that fun stuff. I came back to the university in the late 1990s up until 9-11, when I went back in the Marine Corps.

 From there, the highlights, Israel-related, were I was the ground liaison to the IDF during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and then shortly thereafter was one of the plank holders of the creation of the Marine Corps-IDF bilateral relationship/cooperative effort.

So, it was actually those efforts, living the worm's eye view of life in Israel and the West Bank and even early on, when I could actually go to Gaza during times as a student. It pretty much, you know, lay at whatever successes I enjoyed working with Gen. Moore, Gen. Dayton, and beyond. 

Steve Spiegel:            All right. Let me ask you this: You've just been out to the region. We hear a lot about the unrest, the tax revenues not provided, the donations not provided to the PA. What do both of you make of this? What did you learn on your trip? What do you see as a future? Is there going to be a third intifada, as people are beginning to suggest? Has the work of the SC been less effective because it's so isolated?

Where do we go from here? How serious is the situation out there?

P.J. Dermer:            Steve, go ahead.

Steve White:            Yeah. God, that's an open-ended question with a multiplicity of pathways to go down. But let me just say I think setting the stage, and I think P.J. would agree with me that the overarching theme, if you will, that we took away from our trip was the absolute hunger for American leadership on this issue. We heard from officials on the ground from both Israelis, including senior IDF, senior Ministry of Defense, Shin Bet, and senior political officers within the Palestinian security services, and then some old friends from the Quartet and the U.N., [that American leadership] is lacking.

There is no American influence on the ground as we speak. And that's not myself or P.J. just talking. That's directly what we heard from our interlocutors. And much beyond that, which was actually, in a strange way flattering but in another way, it was painful to hear, was that, you know, apart from the camaraderie and the friendships and relationships that we had created with the people with whom we met in the past, I came away with a distinct feeling that they enjoyed talking with us because they felt it was the first time that they were talking to Americans in a long time who actually understood the breadth of the problem and thus, you know, the realities of what they were having to deal with day in, day out, on the ground.

You know, with respect to the third intifada question, I personally do not think that we are right now on the verge of the outbreak of a third intifada.

Steve Spiegel:            You do not? 

Steve White:            No.

Steve Spiegel:            Okay. 

Steve White:            But I have a to caveat that. The caveat is that, quite literally, when you look at the economic situation in the West Bank, the lack of a political horizon, the lack of U.S. diplomatic engagement, you know, the state of affairs within the Israeli body politic, upcoming elections, the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud-- Pillar of Defense, whatever you would like to call it, you know, and the slight uptick now on the dignity factor vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza -- all of the embers for the eruption of a third intifada are there. Everything is in place for one to erupt.

But it hasn't yet. So, the question, I think, before us, but even more so, before our administration, is, you know, do we act now while these embers are embering, you know, to try and stop it before it happens, do we try and stop it after it erupts, or are we just going to sit back and let it burn? And I don't have an answer for that.

Steve Spiegel:            And so, you're advocating a much more active diplomatic approach, as I understand it. But what would you recommend doing to keep Hamas out, to keep Hamas from overtaking Fatah on the West Bank? I mean, we keep hearing about in the press. 

Steve White:            You know, we dealt with these things through the good graces of our daily interaction with a guy in the staff in the old days named Bill Schwartz. He was a big believer in polls and he would constantly feed us the polling data from the West Bank and Israel and Gaza with regard to, you know, Hamas versus Fatah, Hamas versus the Palestinian Authority. And if you look at these polls, I mean, they go up; they go down. They go up; they go down. There was nothing static about any of them.

And I think, in reality, we're in a place right now where, you know, the Hamas uptick could quite as easily be surpassed by yet another uptick in the West Bank by certain things.

The first one is that we need to stem the bleeding on the economic situation in the West Bank. It's probably the most dire now that I've ever seen it.

Steve Spiegel:            And why aren't we doing more? What should we be doing, precisely, to change the situation? That should be the easiest, I would think.

Steve White:            You would think it would be the easiest, but, you know, I would backtrack again, you know, in the sense that-- my personal opinion is that basically the Obama Administration decided to pull chocks on this problem set after the reaction it got from both Congress and the Senate, and also Bibi Netanyahu in the White House in May of 2011.

Then we heard from a senior official in a closed forum that that was exactly the case,  that the president had basically said, he gave it a good shot but people weren't interested. So, he was basically walking away, punting the ball to the Quartet and that he would focus on his reelection.

The problem is that when the United States walks away from an issue, that gives the international community, Arab countries, Europe, and others, the perfect opportunity to walk away as well. So, you've seen that in addition to the economic crisis that's hit the United States, Europe, and really the world, without American involvement in this process the majority of the monies have essentially turned off.

Obviously, you've seen what's happened with Congress. Up to now they've continued supporting security financially, but they shut off a good bit of money that was related to basically the Palestinian people on the West Bank. And that's been noted by others.

So, I think we've all got to ask ourselves a question: Are we better off with a functioning Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that says it believes in the two-state solution or are we willing to let it die? And that's a question that I've not seen Congress legitimately ask itself. And it's not one that I've seen the administration vocally ask.

Steve Spiegel:            Well, P.J., do you agree with this? Do you think the economic is front and center? 

P.J. Dermer:            Yeah, I mean, it is, but it always has been, I mean, based upon--

Steve Spiegel:            But you think it's worse now?

P.J. Dermer:            To a degree, yes. I mean, let me add it to your question and tie it in to the question about intifada. I mean, it's worse, in a way, because the PA is, again, not functioning. Fayyad intended with this great, grand gesture announcement about three years ago now, and for myriad reasons -- you know most of them -- it is affecting the status of play in the Palestinian security services, because they are feeling the pinch for salaries, budgets, logistics, operating capabilities, i.e., they can't put all their vehicles on the road, they can't refuel all their vehicles in a timely manner right now, according to some of the commanders we talked to.

So, in a sense of the Palestinian Authority not being able to operate economically, that is now delving down into the issue of how the Palestinian security services operate.

And to your question of whether we’re verging on an intifada or not, I have to concur with Steve. The answer is no, and some of the more concrete answers, in addition to Steve's are, number one, the apathy remains.

You have to ask yourself out loud, intifada for who? I mean, we must first, I argue now, separate Gaza from the West Bank. In a sense Gaza has the ability to wage war as a mini entity, call it a burgeoning state of its own, whatever you want to call it, any time it wants, by launching rockets.

In 2000, there wasn't such a thing as Gaza as it is today, so the intifada was in both quarters, Gaza, West Bank. Nowadays, you have one entity that can literally launch and conduct the business of violence any time it wants. It doesn't have to have an intifada, it conducts itself as a semi-state.

In the West Bank where you have the Israeli occupation in vogue, the question is, intifada against whom? The apathy in Palestine is pretty paramount. They've seen what happened with the other intifadas.

One of the more interesting developments is now anger within Palestine that's being directed at the Palestinian security services. This is something to pay attention to because the United States of America invested in a lot of effort over the last few years training Palestinian security services under the auspices of the two-state solution. Already you kind of have two, and then we have the entity called the West Bank. So, essentially, what are these Palestinian security services supposed to do in the West Bank, in the guise of Middle East peace or two-state solution?

Well, in their eyes, it's to keep law and order but not necessarily for the state of Israel. They have their own issues to worry about. If they can't perform their functions as they're supposed to, as a burgeoning nation state, then what is the exact role of the Palestinian security service?

They do have a good reputation in the West Bank. That's a positive development in U.S. history, but at the end of the day, they're not there to fight Palestinians. They're there to keep basic law and order. And this is a burgeoning dilemma, with or without the economic situation, but with the economic situation pressing on them, it adds to the dilemma in the West Bank.

The general populace, though, I will argue, still remains pretty apathetic because they don't see where it's getting them. You know, two intifadas (inaudible) for them. There's nowhere else to go. 

And add into this the regional picture right now, the regional picture is quite busy -- Syria, Egypt, the Iranian push. Not a whole lot of people are paying attention inside Palestine. Each one of those countries in the region-- not each, but the majority of them now have issues of their own. So, again, intifada for who?

From the perspective of security, the Israelis are now taking a step back. The cooperation is very good now and the Israelis have to decide, I would argue, within their quarters in Jerusalem as to, if something would break out -- as it has now the last couple of weeks, you've had some mini tête-à-têtes in Hebron and some other places -- how far do they go and to what purpose?

I mean, you don't build up these security services just to destroy them, which is exactly what we did from Oslo I until 2000. Everything that the United States put in was totally destroyed.

That has to beg the question, Steve, which I think is important to you. Your point is, well, whose responsibility is it, then? If the United States administration from the perch of Washington is not going to lead or, at a minimum, become more directly involved in the process from a political level, then the next level down, let's say, is with the United States Security Coordinator on the ground. It has been for years.

So, is it his role to make sure things don't blow up? I mean, he's not interlocuting. Is it his group's role to bring light to the security situation in the West Bank? I mean, is it his role to interlocute between the parties? Right now, it's not.

So, you do, in a sense, have a physical U.S. presence on the ground, but are they out there to hang, or what is exactly their role in all this?


Steve Spiegel:            All right. So, let me ask you, and one last question before we go to the questions from everyone on in the group. So, what I take out of it this is, number one, we got to fix this. The United States, the administration, ought to be working much more assiduously on the economic situation in the West Bank, and, secondly, making sure that the security cooperation that's been built up by the United States over the last several years by the Security Coordinator's operation, that that does not break down.

But thirdly, diplomatically, doesn't something have to be done? Would you go for a comprehensive settlement? Would you go for interim steps? What would you-- if you-- as a result of your experience and your latest trip, what would the two of you have the United States do to have the diplomatic backing that would protect the security operation, in combination with an economic flowering?

That's what I see as what you're saying. What do you do diplomatically?

P.J. Dermer:            Well, let me take the first shot at that.

Steve White:            And I'll jump in on the second. 

P.J. Dermer:            Okay.

Steve Spiegel:            I'll give the both of you a chance, and then we'll go to the group.


P.J. Dermer:            I think grand movements, grand movements are not plausible nor possible. Let's start with the situation on the ground. The situation on the ground is okay. Now, let's focus on the West Bank, because I argue we have to separate Gaza out of this equation and I do not think reconciliation is anywhere in the cards. 

No grand movements are possible based on the situation on the ground. There are, in the greater picture, around the dinner table, both behind the wall and in greater Israel talk of a desire for peace. Sure, it's a natural discussion. It just doesn't go very deep. So, to take another fly-by team in there with a very famous name and a small group of staffers, it's just not the right timing. 

But you do have an entity in the ground, I think, that can be built upon, we argue, it’s the USSC. They don't do economics, but that's not the hard part. 

I think we just need to show a presence. We need to show an interest and right now, we're not doing that. A grand gesture won't do that because an interlocutor flies in, has a conversation, then flies away.

You need an essence on the ground that can be more active. It can't be presidentially appointed. I'll argue that hasn't worked to date. It can be that you have an ambassador, you have a consul general, but there has to be some visual movement that there's something being built upon and there's a purpose for what's happening, what was conducted over the last few years.

 Both parties got to a certain point in 2008. That's a starting point. The United States needs to make its own assessment, Steve. I mean, to date, other than a few analysts, we have not put our stake on the table as to where we would see this dilemma going, the outcome of this problem. We've taken the two parties position and then mediated between those two. 

I think the United States should develop its own steps, its own vision, its own set of principles as to where this thing can go. We are the United States. It won't happen without us.

 And then last, I would argue if you can't do grand gestures and you can work on the ground, then you have to be prepared for a not-short interim outcome. In other words, there's no reason to put this as a headline in The New York Times or the Washington Post every day or every week like it has been in the past. You know, get in there, work the problem, and it's going to take some time. There are a lot of human emotions left over from 2000 and a lot of human emotions out there now, namely apathy, which are not going to let anything happen fast.

It just won't happen and I think that's a realization that Washington needs to come to, as well.


Steve White:            Yeah, there's always been the dimension of Washington; there's always a Washington-based reality and there's always a reality that's based in Israel and Palestine or the Palestinian territories that rarely ever met, in my experience. 

And that's sad, but to take it even further, this was noticeable in 2009-2010, but ever more so during this past trip. In fact, the day after P.J. left, I met with former-- well, still current IDF, but now he's in the Ministry of Defense, who had always played his cards very close to the bone when it came to discussing the actions of his government vice the actions of the IDF or the Defense Ministry or the Shin Bet.

This time, it was wholly different, and he began the conversation with, well, it appears my government's doing everything it can to put a bullet through the head of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority without any thought whatsoever as to what follows.

And there is a very, very clear distinction between the messages and reports that Israeli security officials have given to their government and what the government puts out for public-- you know, publicly within the press or otherwise. The two don't meet.

 The security officials, along with past guys like myself and others, are arguing that, you know-- I'm sorry, let me put it another way: We asked a senior IDF general, you know, just was it that we accomplished, really, from 2007 to probably 2010? 

And his answer was, "My job was to tactically set the ground where my government, the government of Israel, could negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife against its neck. He continued that I consider that I successfully delivered that. With American help, with Palestinian help, we delivered that. But unfortunately, my government has not chosen to take the strategic, long-term view or to build upon that," end of quote.

What we have done-- the Obama Administration seems to have done-- it basically to have dumped everything that the Bush Administration was working on near the end of its term, rather than take a look at what was working, absorb that and continue it.

And the painful life that we led from basically 2009 through the middle of 2011 was one that everything was focused on negotiations. Lip service was paid to the bottom-up institution-building approach. So, when negotiations went by the wayside, everything went by the wayside.

I mean, you still had a titular entity called the USSC that was on the ground. You still had Tony Blair and the quartet and the Office of the Quartet Representative on the ground.

But nothing was working in a coordinated fashion. Israelis and Palestinians both told us that they considered that the last two years there has been no real U.S. Security Coordinator. You know, he did not coordinate. He did not meet with the people and create the relationships that needed to be created.

 The only good news with that is that in the absence of that, the Israelis and Palestinians had to do it themselves, and they've done so through the currency of the day.

 You know, the good news now is that we, yet again, appear to have a coordinator on the ground who's willing to work, who wants to work on behalf of the interests of the United States, first and foremost, but Israelis and Palestinians second. And the question is, is whether or not he'll get the support from the State Department, from Congress, from internationals, and, indeed, Israelis and Palestinians, that he will need to basically successfully revive, you know, what existed in the past, and that's the tragedy.

  But more than that, people need to come to a realization that, as P.J. said at the opening of this, it's not just security. You've got to reinforce the security efforts with a governance effort, an economic effort, and also a top-down approach that gives Palestinians a measure of a belief in the two-state solution as a political horizon.

And I'll end it with one thing: when everybody was looking at Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, P.J. and I were looking at the West Bank. And if you look back to 2008, and the operation in Gaza then, the West Bank was relatively a yawn. The IDF pulled out two brigades from the West Bank to send to Gaza. 

The economic situation on the ground was beginning to thrive. There was a political horizon. People were at the negotiations table, you know? And the response in the West Bank to what was happening in Gaza was virtually nothing.

You look at what happened now-- the economics are in the toilet. There is no political process. There is no political horizon. And is it any wonder that people would roll themselves back to the dignity thing with regard to the supposed great victories that Hamas won for the dignity of the Palestinian people, when everything else is missing to counteract that argument?

Steve Spiegel:            All right. We want to get into more of this, but we've got upwards of 50 people on the call. I'm sure several have questions, so, operator, let's open up to questions.

Operator:            The first question comes from Letty Pogrebin.

Steve Spiegel:            Letty, welcome aboard, and what's your question?

Letty Pogrebin:            My question is, why couldn't the Palestinians to continue to cooperate on security when there's no reward politically, it seems? And also, is it possible that Netanyahu would welcome a third intifada on the grounds that, then, the whole issue of, you know, a new holocaust, Israeli safety, sacrificing democracy for security, all of that suddenly swings into action again? So, he's in a kind of no-lose situation and his polls show that he's popular specifically for being a security prime minister.

So, do you have an answer to either or both questions? First, what's in it for Palestinians, and secondly, is Netanyahu-- is Bibi possibly not afraid of a third intifada? 

P.J. Dermer:            Hi Letty. P.J. Dermer. Let me answer the first one. The reason why the Palestinians still have an interest in cooperation with security is several fold:

First and foremost, it's because of their fight and their tension with Hamas. The Palestinians aren't cooperating with either the United States or Israel out of any, to be honest with you, grand gesture towards, to the future of the Palestinian state and the future of the Palestinian people.

They are involved -- and this began in 2006. Both Steve and I were there and watched this development with the municipal elections in the West Bank and then with the fall of Gaza in the summer of 2007. That was a turning point, both in the history of the conflict in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and in the generation and development of the USSC's efforts. 

Now, when a Palestinian security serviceman wakes up in the morning, the very first thing that crosses his mind is what's the status of Hamas, particularly the fighters in Hamas. This is a very long-held, as you know, historical enmity, that, of course, is now breaking out throughout the Middle East.

So, by having the United States Security Coordinator providing money, funding, training, a vision, and a senior American interlocutor on the ground, that benefits Palestinian interests.

Number two is, if you keep that going, possibly, just very possibly, it could develop into other things.

So it is in their interests. And the second question, it's a good question.

I think one of the analyses that I heard on the ground was that Israel started the recent conflict in Gaza just for the very argument that you just made, that the killing of the Hamas security chief in Gaza was just to do what you just said.

However, in the West Bank, it's a little bit of a different story, because the intermixing, of course, of the Jews still living among the Palestinians (inaudible) 2000 and 2004 was.

But I'll also argue that there was pretty good support, overall support for what was going on in Gaza from Israelis, but not overwhelming. The Israelis themselves are apathetic, no less, no more than Palestinians. The Israelis themselves have seen enough. The Israelis themselves get tired of hearing all about Iran.

Okay, they can't ignore it. Israel can never ignore this from a security standpoint, but look, there's not a lot of interest in anything from anybody, any kind of something along the lines of a third intifada, to be honest with you.

 I think Bibi would have a tough time trying to kind of put that forth when other than a distance fight from airplanes bombing sites in Gaza, vice in the West Bank it would be mano-a-mano again.


Steve White:            Yeah, there was a great cartoon. I think it was in the Times of Israel, the other day -- don't quote me on that.

The cartoon was basically of an IDF soldier holding up a shield with rocks hitting the shield and somebody coming from a distance saying,  “Don't worry, Iron Dome is coming.” Well, as we know, there is no Iron Dome solution to this defense problem.

The only thing I would add to what P.J. said is that with regard to Netanyahu, what's interesting is that six months ago, I think most people would have responded to your question by saying that it's a conspiracy theory. The strange thing is, is that I heard your question as a statement come out of the mouths of two of the IDF guys we were dealing with. And they said it with immense frustration.

So, I don't want to claim to know what's in the mind of Bibi. They would actually chalk it up to, Bibi's mind right now being focused exclusively on the political situation at hand, especially with his upcoming elections, and that the Prime Minister is not giving any thought whatsoever to anything strategically down the line, beyond that.

Letty Pogrebin:            Thank you.

Steve Spiegel:            All right. Thank you. Operator, next question?

Operator:            The next question comes from Howard Sumka.

Howard Sumka:            Hi. P.J. and Steve, I've enjoyed listening to you. I'm Howard Sumka. I was the U.S. AID Director for the West Bank and Gaza from 2006 to 2010 and had a lot of interaction with both P.J. and Steve and with the USSC team.

I want to, first, just reinforce, very quickly, the interrelationships among the activities the U.S. government was trying to do. We always made security and economic development and institution building that USAID was doing closely coordinated. I still remember when Keith Dayton and I went to Jenin the first time and talked about the relationship between the two.

And I have always said we can't do economic development without a political process and Keith always said we can't do security without a political process. And I think it's clear that all three of those need to happen together.

Four years ago, Keith made a speech at the Washington Institute and said that we have about two years of continuing security cooperation before it will all fall apart if we don't make a political process. We have made only negative political progress in the intervening four years and I wonder how you guys see the real possibilities here, given what's gone on.

And second, sort of related to what Letty just asked, you could make the case that every action that Israel has undertaken over the past four or five years has been calculated to strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian Authority under the PLO and Fatah leadership because Israelis would rather deal with a military adversary than one with which they would have to negotiate and make compromises. If that is, in fact, something you guys agree to, I think it's been a great frustration for all of us who are trying to make progress on the ground while this political overlay is working in completely opposite directions.


Steve Spiegel:            Okay. Which one of you wants to take this first? P.J., Steve?

Steve White:            Okay. First a shout-out to Howard and, you know, of the many relationships that we had on the ground that [didn’t] worked, the USSC and USAID one did, so when I talk about dysfunctions or I've talked about dysfunctions elsewhere, it was not with his entity, and that was largely due to the fact that he was on the ground directing that entity.

I mean, it's frustrating. I think if anybody that was at the IPF event or heard, the former Prime Minister Olmert at Saban talk about what he did, the question that I thoroughly enjoyed was, basically, number one, why didn't Bibi pick up the Olmert Plan, call it the Bibi Plan, put it in front of Abbas and make Abbas say no? There are theories as to the answer to that, but it didn't happen and it should have.

 You know, and the second one was, somebody was asking him, would he have instructed the Israeli Ambassador at the U.N. to vote for or against, you know, the Palestinians at the U.N. General Assembly? And his answer was, it's a stupid question, number one, because it's hypothetical. Number two, I wouldn't have had to instruct my ambassador because I never would have allowed the situation with Mahmoud Abbas to get to the point that it has where we'd even be talking about this.

 And I wished the President of the United States would say the very same thing and then, instead of saying this problem set was hard, you know, would actually, then begin to show that some lessons from the past have been learned and that he was actively moving in some direction, whether it be on the small scale, you know, another effort, bottom up, that doesn't attract a lot of attention, but does have hard-hitting effects on the ground, or even baby steps towards reinventing the negotiations process.

But I'm as frustrated as you are, my friend, Howard.


P.J. Dermer:            Yeah, as for the question of dealing with Hamas, no, Howard, not per se. But, you know, Israel always liked to deal with an entity in control. They're not a big fan of America pushing democracy throughout the Middle East. They’re already lamenting the fall of Assad. They lamented the fall of Mubarak. They're fearful of King Abdullah.

Hamas gives them an entity with strength and that can launch rockets and fight, and then retire to chambers. But as to preferring them over the PLO, I'm not sure. Thank you.

Howard Sumka:            Yeah, thanks.


Steve Spiegel:            All right. So, let me ask one last question. And that is, is the position you presented to us today basically quite disturbing, but also contradictory. Because you're talking about the importance of dealing with economics and the importance of dealing with the bottom down and getting things going on the ground and preserving the security cooperation, but at the same time you've said that you can't do it without a diplomatic program, but you don't provide a diplomatic program.

Unless the United States gets in there and does something, isn't this correct, everything's going to get worse. All the issues you're concerned about. Don't we have to do something to move this process forward, especially after the Israeli election, to get the Israelis and the Palestinians and the West Bank Palestinians re-engaged? Am I missing something here?

P.J. Dermer:            No. Let me put forth the subtleties of the argument, which are lost mainly.

Steve Spiegel:            Right. That's why I want to clarify before we get off.

P.J. Dermer:            Absolutely. Doing something for the sake of something can be very dangerous and I think that's proven itself in many cases, Libya being the last case and Middle East peace being the other one. 

There's nothing wrong with getting there and engaging but the fundamental fact is we don't engage. Most of this process is done from Washington, high-level visits, high-level talks, people flying across the ocean to meet with each other in the middle of the night in the White House.

 You have two entities out there, two major entities, Howard Sumka and USSC were part of one, that are more than capable of getting out there and meeting and greeting and carrying the nation's business. But the fact of the matter is Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, they don't. They meet people. They put forth talking points and they disappear. 

There's no real focused effort on the ground, regardless of how it comes to. And that's the subtle essence of what we need to be doing, Steve.

Secondly, on being contradictory, not really. I mean, it's a complicated situation out there. Not one thing is going to carry the day. But there has to be interest; there has to be effort. And it doesn't have to come from a person flying in from Washington. It should come from exactly where it lies, and that's on the ground.


Steve White:            Yeah. I mean, what I would add to that is, if you agree with the thesis that I think we're putting forth, which is, is that the United States' real participation at the moment is nil. If you started with a second but genuine attempt at a bottom-up, then that's something. You know, the security effort was something to be built upon. It wasn't a stand-alone entity, and, unfortunately, it was never built upon.

So, in the absence of anything, beginning with a bottom-up, re-ignited, re-invented, state-building enterprise is something. And if it's done the right way, it's something that the current government of Israel could not ignore, especially if told by the President not to ignore it.

And the second thing is, I would speak to a greater issue. Especially after the reelection of the President, I agree with my friend Aaron David Miller, who said that there are genuine constraints on a president that we don't always like to recognize. But beyond that, after this election, with the exception of Bruce Springsteen, Obama's probably always been his best-known advocate.

You know, I would argue that even before the election -- though I know it's not going to happen -- use this time to go to Israel and give the speech that he should have given in the follow-up to the Cairo speech to the Israeli public, not at a concentration camp in Europe. The Israelis need to understand that the United States does have their back with Iran and that, in fact, we have our own back with regard to Iran.

They definitely need to hear from the President's mouth his feelings on the two-state solution. You know, over and beyond what comes out of their own government and things can go from there, you know?

But that is not a meaningless venture.

P.J. Dermer:            Unfortunately.

Steve Spiegel:            Operator-- well, before we go to the operator, I just want to get a grasp on this, because if guys going to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem or Washington don't work and you got to do things on the ground to get the confidence of both sides and the Israelis aren't interested, the Palestinian are sort of--

P.J. Dermer:            Apathetic.

Steve Spiegel:            --at the U.N., and the Americans are frustrated, is it going to be enough to do what you're suggesting?

P.J. Dermer:            We don't know, do we?

Steve Spiegel:            Yep.

Steve White:            You didn't know that? 

Steve Spiegel:            I mean, guys like me are used to a political process and expect some action in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington. And you're saying, well, it's all right, but you got to get on the ground.

Steve White:            Well--

P.J. Dermer:            Go ahead, Steve. 

Steve White:            Yeah, you know, we heard the very same argument in 2005 when the USSC was stood up. In fact, P.J. heard it from a very prominent, involved Washington official at the time who's now no longer serving, which was, when you guys hit the ground, you weren't expected to do anything. When you actually did, Secretary Rice decided, something has been created here that we didn't foresee.

So, you know what, I'm going to build on that and see where it goes and I'm going to pay attention to that and ride it. She did. You know, we did not have the top cover in the Obama Administration that we did during the end of the Bush Administration, and I stress the end of the Bush Administration.

Something is better than nothing, but you can't go into this with yet another all-in, diplomatic process at the moment. You've got to reestablish something on the ground, first, that you can rebuild off of. It's a shame that it ever got to that point.

P.J. Dermer:            Well, let me just add, really quickly, from the strategic picture, Steve, you have to give a horizon. If nothing else, the horizon is presented. This is a very (inaudible) aspect of human nature, particularly for the Palestinians and the Israelis. What does the future hold? If you're telling the two parties the future is unclear, the future, I don't know, ah we don't really have time for you and your future, that's a dilemma and the questions of the third intifada will come up, the question of Gaza, the question of Islam, Iran, will continue to come up.

The factor missing on the ground right now is there's no horizon and the horizon can only be put forth if it comes from the United States. This is an unfortunate reality on the ground. What is the basic horizon? And then you go from there.

And I'm not saying this is easy, but efforts to date have proven, you know, have proven less than satisfying, let's say, never mind badly. 

Steve Spiegel:            All right.

P.J. Dermer:            Thank you.

Steve Spiegel:            You know, what I've learned from this call, and I would like you guys, if possible, to tell me if I'm right. In the Bush Administration, they were ready to go on the ground and they understood the importance of balancing the two. In my study of the Bush Administration, published in a recent book, The Peace Puzzle, with a bunch of other guys, the problem is that the Bush Administration didn't know how to seal the deal. They didn't know how to finish it off, neither Condi nor the President.

The Obama Administration came in and ignored all that had been done. It wasn't so interested on the ground, thought if you had a big, back to the Clinton years, to some extent, but even more, if you had a big picture, if you solved the big issues, then everything else would fall into place.

And what you're telling us is that you can't do one without the other. You need the coordination. You have to have to access on the ground or it's going to get out of hand, you're not going to be able to do anything else. You've got to get the parties engaged and you've got to be engaged with them, and you've got to finish the job.

And that's the real weakness, in many ways, of America's recent efforts. Do you agree with that? Do you agree with that takeaway or have I got something wrong here?

Steve White:            P.J.?

P.J. Dermer:            Steve, go ahead.

Okay. There's more fundamental to that. Yes, in general. I was with the Bush Administration in the first part, okay, in the Office of the Vice President, watching this thing from that level and participating in it. I'm not sure we had the wherewithal to close the deal or bring it to the point where it's closing the deal. 

Steve Spiegel:            I'm talking about the (inaudible)--

P.J. Dermer:            Okay, yes, we had folks on the ground. Yes, Condi was out there. Yes, we were putting forth between the two parties, but as for closing the deal, I'm not so sure we knew what deal we were closing, okay? This is very complicated, number one.

Steve Spiegel:            Fair enough. 

P.J. Dermer:            Number two is, the fundamental part of the nature of doing this business is difficult. You cannot be parachuted into a position by a political victory or via a favor and be sent out to the Middle East to sit between one of the most complicated international situations, the world has ever known, if you take it all the way back to you-know-when.

It's not that simple. It's more fundamentals that the United States of America must embark upon rather than flying in, sitting between the two parties and putting a bunch of things on the paper and say, sign, or this is what we think.

It's way more fundamental than that. That's the high-end part, what you're describing. The lower-end part is more complicated, and we do not invest in it whatsoever. Understanding, training, listening -- you name it.

The USSC is the first entity ever to have done something like that, because it went out there; it sits on the ground and was getting the daily dose. And, as Steve said earlier, this, then, embarked upon a disconnect between Washington trying to close the deal and the realities on the ground.

You can't seal the deal. It's got to exist.


Steve White:            Yeah, you know what, it's the great imponderable. Because, in some ways, if I'm being optimistic I think that where we were heading in the very last months of the Bush Administration, especially with the personal involvement of the National Security Advisor, Steve Hadley, who was-- I can't even begin to describe the importance of that and the manner that he was able to work with both Israelis and Palestinians, but also coordinated the efforts of the on-the-ground efforts.

The Bush Administration ran out of time, and, of course, it didn't help much that Prime Minister Olmert ran into the legal troubles that he did.

P.J. Dermer:            Realities.

Steve White:            But having said that, you know, when you're talking about upper level or lower level, we're dealing with people in Israel and the Palestinian territories that have dealt with each other forever. They know their own personal phone numbers. They know their family members.

And we roll people in every four to eight years and start from zero all over again. I mean, the sad thing is, if you look at the USSC, with Dayton being on the ground for five years, and myself, Bill Schwartz, two other people, who, literally, were there for five and a half years, plus, everybody else was only there for six months to a year.

And after we left, it rolled back to the same thing, you know? We don't employ the people that have the background, experience, and the relationships to get this job done at the high end or the low end. 

Steve Spiegel:            Well, I think that's a great place to end, because it's a very important headline: we don't use the people we've got who have the experience. The problem is, every administration starts from square one. That's what we found in our recent book, every administration throws out the baby with the bath water. We got to learn. It's part of our lack of bipartisanship. We've got to learn that the previous administration might have done a few things right, and if we did, we might be a lot-- I think we would be a lot better off.

t's a very important lesson. We forget the ground all the time. And so we're going to punish the Palestinians by self-defeating ourselves by loosening our efforts on the ground with AID, SC, et cetera, and that's a very dangerous thing to do.

So, I want to thank both of you. You're on to something really big. We want to work closely on this in the days, weeks, and months to come. And wherever everyone in this group is, let me say, whatever time you're on, good day and good luck and thank you very much, P.J. Dermer and Steve White, for a very stimulating and intriguing discussion.  We don't get in the headlines, unfortunately, this kind of information.

P.J. Dermer:            Thanks, Steve.

Steve White:            Thanks. 

Steve Spiegel:            Thanks to all. 'Bye-bye.


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