Why Obama should fire General Dayton

“Peace be upon you” (Nidal El Khairy)

The US-sponsored “security coordination” program headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, which was launched by the Bush Administration in 2005 to allegedly help the Palestinians reform their security services, has done more harm than good. US President Barack Obama would do well to fire Dayton and put an end to US intrusion into internal Palestinian affairs.

In his recent address at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, Dayton said that his program has created a “new” kind of Palestinian man. Three battalions of 500 men each have graduated from the program, and more are currently in training. These troops have been vetted by US, Israeli and Jordanian security services. Over the past year and a half, these forces have engaged in a series of offensives against members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad across the West Bank. According to Dayton, senior Israeli commanders were so impressed with the Palestinian troops’ performance that they asked him, “how many more of these new Palestinians can you generate, and how quickly …”

Setting aside the level of condescension inherent in such statements, the Dayton agenda provides important clues about the scope and nature of US intervention in Palestinian affairs. Through the security coordination program, the US is penetrating the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) core organs. The fact that the US is investing millions of dollars in training, arming and financing the Presidential Guard and National Security Force, and that Dayton’s team is developing close ties with their first- and second-tier commanders, reflects the growing US influence over the PA’s security forces.

The US has been involved in the PA’s security establishment since the mid-1990s, and the CIA in particular has played a role in monitoring and training the Preventative Security Service, one of more than a dozen PA militias and intelligence units, in both the West Bank and Gaza. But both the scale and goals of US involvement are much more significant today. Dayton intends to graduate seven highly-trained battalions consisting of 4,700 personnel; provide training, equipment and basic capacity building for another 15,000 troops; and revamp the organizational structure of the PA’s security institutions. According to documents leaked in 2008, the program is projected to cost around $1.3 billion. So far, the US has provided $161 million.

The returns the US expects on this sizable investment are not confined to added security or law and order in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Dayton agenda aims to transform Palestinian Security Forces into an “enabler” of the two-state solution and provide the PA leader with the capacity to contain any resistance to any “strategic” political decisions he makes. The 2007 Hamas Gaza takeover, which according to a Vanity Fair report was triggered by a covert US-sponsored operation to undermine the Hamas-led government — under the pretext of protecting law and order and holding Hamas accountable for its failure to meet international conditions — was part of this effort, and essentially intended to restore Fatah’s monopoly over Palestinian political life.

More than the meddling in inter-factional Palestinian politics, US involvement extends to affairs within Fatah itself. Efforts on this front are focused on creating the kind of political homogeneity within Fatah that lends itself to American and Israeli terms. An important part of the secretive 2007 “Action Plan for the Palestinian Presidency,” a document drafted and prepared by the State Department and later presented as if it had been conceived by the Palestinian leadership, highlights the need for drastic reforms within Fatah. These reforms are primarily focused on getting the so-called “young guard” into higher positions of power within the movement, and boosting their representation in the Central Committee. Needless to mention, the “young guard” is just another label for supporters of Muhammad Dahlan, America’s “guy” according to former president Bush. He is also the man Dayton was counting on to undermine the Hamas-led government.

Dayton’s security coordination program has weakened the Palestinian presidency, discredited it in the eyes of its people and rendered it critically dependent on American and Israeli support for political survival. It has forced Hamas to seek support from regional powers to counter the US-sponsored scheme against it, and therefore allowed further external meddling in Palestinian affairs. But perhaps the most important negative consequence is that by building direct ties with first- and second-tier commanders in the PA’s security establishment and “young guard” elements in Fatah, the US has created new vested interests with a stake in continuing outside intervention. With the power, money and prestige that comes with US support, these new political cleavages start developing their own agendas and hence become a source of further disharmony in the Palestinian polity.

Dayton’s program has in effect, if not intent, deepened and solidified Palestinian disunity and discord. Ultimately, one has to see this program for what it really is: another neoconservative initiative that has backfired and caused tremendous damage for all the parties involved. President Obama should do away with this remnant of the Bush Administration and instead focus US efforts on encouraging Palestinian reconciliation and cohesion.

Mohammed J. Herzallah is a former president of the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Movement. He is currently a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.