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(photo credit: US Department of Defense)
US State Department officials, looking to shift US Security Coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton's work with Palestinian forces to the West Bank, have begun holding discussions with Congressional staff on how to restructure an $86 million funding program previously allocated to bolster Dayton's Gaza activities.
The earlier package was whittled down to $59m. before Congress signed off on it and would have gone largely to non-lethal equipment and training for the presidential guard to secure the Gaza border crossings and help Fatah leaders and institutions there. Now the US, caught off-guard by Hamas's speedy defeat of Fatah forces in Gaza, is scrambling for new ways to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and isolate Hamas in Gaza.
"They have a great appetite to work with Abbas and [PA Prime Minister Salaam] Fayad," said one Democratic Congressional staffer. "But I don't think they've quite figured outâ€¦ what that cooperation looks like, where that money ought to go."
"They don't have good answers right now," he said.
State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said last week that America was waiting to hear more about the new Abbas government's agenda before presenting an aid package for Dayton's security coordination program.
"There are still a number of plans that the Abbas government is formulating and [the US] will be working with them as their plans develop to determine how best we can utilize this money," he said. "But we're still conducting consultations with them and internally amongst ourselves as to how to proceed."
One senior Western official said the Dayton team was staying, for now, essentially in the same configuration as before the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Dayton's team "continues to actively engage and is in place and prepared to continue with US efforts with Palestinians in the security field," he said.
The Democratic staffer cautioned that in the administration's eagerness to help Abbas, they might find themselves running afoul of Congressional barriers put in place to make sure no money ends up in terrorists' hands.
"I'm a little concerned that they're going a little too fast. I'm worried that they might have obstacles down the road if they discover, as they have in the past, that there are bad guys on the [Palestinian security forces] payroll," he said, pointing to a tightening of laws governing money given to the Palestinians recently passed under the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act. "PATA wasn't set up to make it easy. It was set up to make it hard."
Critics of US efforts under Dayton were quick to point to the events in Gaza to question whether his mission should continue.
"I see no evidence that [Dayton's mission] succeeded," said Shoshana Bryen of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs of efforts to reform the Palestinian security forces and secure the Gaza crossings.
"They simply didn't fight, they abandoned their posts," she said of the Fatah forces outgunned but not outnumbered by Hamas. She said, though, that the failure was larger than the battle in Gaza and stemmed from flawed American expectations that any US security coordinator could lead Fatah security services in a direction amenable to US and Israeli interests rather than their own.
Many Israeli security officials said they have been turned off from the whole Dayton enterprise since Fatah forces fell to Hamas, saying that it's now hard to take his efforts at security reform seriously and interpreting the situation as an example of American inability to grasp the realities of the Middle East.
But other observers have rejected such critiques and pointed to the difficulties on the ground facing any American effort at reform.
Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described a Palestinian security services, up against a highly organized and well-equipped Hamas, that were deeply fractured, competing for money and influence among themselves and constantly under attack from the IDF.
"At a given point it's a little irritating to have people in Israel criticize the United States for not being able to train a Palestinian security force in the face of organized Israeli attacks and a failed peace process," he said.
He added that the US presence is better than no presence moving forward since any reform the Fatah forces would be "infinitely easier" with outside assistance from the US. In fact, he said, when it comes to such outside help, "you've got exactly one country you can turn to."
Ghaith al-Omari, former foreign policy adviser to Abbas and current scholar at the Washington-based New America Foundation, said continued American support was beneficial.
"It definitely helps. We are beginners when it comes to security. We don't have that much experience and it's good to have someone like Dayton." He praised Dayton's work to date with Palestinians and said that he encountered difficulties due to Fatah's lack of proper equipping and Israeli obstacles.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.