LONDON – The U.S. hand of support offered to a new push for peace in the Middle East could well turn out to be the kiss of death for the peace process.
The London Meeting on Supporting the Palestinian Authority agreed Tuesday that Lt. Gen. William Ward from the U.S. Army will head a security-coordinating group to support the Palestinian Authority.
This group will guide the Palestinian Authority toward getting a grip on its disparate security forces. The London meeting declared that the group will also provide technical support including cars, radios, and uniforms for police, and help set up a retirement fund for security personnel.
The Palestinian Authority has pledged to trim its security and intelligence services from 14 units down to three, to move to appoint a police chief, and to increase police presence on the streets of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The PA pledged also to try to liaise closely with Israeli security forces.
All this it will now do under the guidance of a U.S. general. Palestinians have for generations been at the receiving end of an Israeli military force they have seen as supplied, funded, and politically supported by the United States. The latest Intifada, the name given to the Palestinian militant struggle, is now in its fifth year, and it is by no means over.
At this stage, support to Palestinian security from a U.S. Army general is the first thing militants will see in the London agreement and probably the last thing they would have liked to.
It is also something they would have thought unthinkable a few months ago. Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was never likely to have agreed to invite a U.S. general to overhaul Palestinian security.
The London agreement is expected to carry considerable weight. It is now virtually an international agreement that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signed on to.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs and Common Security High Representative Javier Solana, and many other leaders attended the London meeting Tuesday.
But the fate of the agreement will lie in the hands of those absent: the Palestinian militant groups and the Israeli leaders.
Palestinian militant groups will not only be required to give up their arms, but to do so under U.S. supervision through the Palestinian Authority. Abbas agreed to this move when he knows better than most who and what he is dealing with.
"We have re-deployed our forces in the field and have taken a decision to unify our security forces, and we are implementing this decision despite the difficulties that you are well aware of because you are well aware about the details of our country," Abbas said at the meeting.
Abbas has gambled early, and seriously, in deciding that this difficulty can be overcome with visible U.S. support against the groups that many Palestinians see as militants, even heroes, and that the United States and Israel regard as terrorists.
The U.S. general has a clear mandate to back the PA in crushing these groups. "If they are not stopped, the path to peace will be blocked," Rice said at the meeting. "The roadmap to peace correctly stated that terrorist organizations must be dismantled if our common goals are to be achieved."
The Palestinian Authority, she said, "needs to reform its security institutions in order to fight terrorism and lawlessness effectively. The United States is prepared to work with partners in the region and around the world to realize this essential goal."
The U.S. general was present at the London meeting. "General Ward, who is here with me today, will soon relocate to the region to lead our efforts," Rice said.
Rice is counting on some Arab help. She named Egypt and Jordan as Arab states that have made specific commitments to "help the Palestinians create honest and accountable security services."
She advised other Arab states that they "must end incitement in their media, cut off all funding for terrorism, stop their support for extremist education, and establish normal relations with Israel."
Her requirement of Israel was that it "must also take no actions that prejudice a final settlement, and must help ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable. A state of scattered territories will not work."
But many Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world will not see neutrality here. They are not likely to be looking for it. Their eyes will be on the U.S. general.