Israel, US discuss W. Bank NATO troops

Israel worried plan would threaten IDF's ability to retain operational freedom in West Bank.

checkpoint 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
checkpoint 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The United States is reviewing the feasibility of deploying a NATO force in the West Bank as a way to ease IDF security concerns and facilitate an Israeli withdrawal from the area within the coming years, defense officials have told The Jerusalem Post. The plan, which is being spearheaded by US Special Envoy to the region Gen. James Jones, is being floated among European countries, which could be asked to contribute troops to a West Bank multinational force. Jones, a former commander of NATO, was sent to Israel in November to help the Israelis and Palestinians frame some of the security mechanics necessary for a broader peace agreement. As first reported in the Post last month, Jones's plan calls for stationing third-party troops in the West Bank to secure the area in the interim period following an Israeli withdrawal and before the Palestinian Authority can take over full security control. "The deployment of such a force has come up in talks, and Jones is known to be working on it," a senior defense official said Tuesday. "At the moment, it's just an idea and has yet to be accepted or adopted by Israel." Defense Minister Ehud Barak has met with Jones and been briefed on the plan, but has yet to finalize his position. An official close to Barak said the deployment of a multinational force in the West Bank could create operational challenges for the IDF if it decided to respond to Palestinian terror attacks following the withdrawal. One of the issues that most concerns Israel is whether under such a withdrawal, the IDF would retain its operational freedom in the West Bank despite the presence of the multinational force. "If they fire a Kassam rocket into Israel, will we be able to respond, or will we need to rely on the foreign troops stationed there?" one defense official asked. On Tuesday, US Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones hinted at the possibility of deploying an international force for the period following a withdrawal and until the PA could ensure security in the West Bank. Speaking at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Jones also predicted that it would take several years before any such plan was implemented. "This is going to be a long, hard slog," he said. "But once a mutually accepted vision is accepted, both sides will accept the reality and encourage each side to work towards goals set out by the road map." Meanwhile Tuesday, Spanish Ambassador to Israel Eudaldo Mirapeix dismissed a report that appeared in the Post, according to which Israel was concerned that Spain planned to withdraw its forces from UNIFIL in the coming year. "I wish to inform you that the Spanish government has not considered or hinted in any way whatsoever at withdrawing the Spanish troops deployed in UNIFIL," Mirapeix said. In the report, high-ranking defense officials expressed concern that the political deadlock in Lebanon and Hizbullah threats to renew hostilities with Israel could cause European countries to gradually begin reducing their participation in UNIFIL. Spain, whose soldiers have come under repeated attacks by terrorists in Lebanon, was mentioned by the officials as a country that might be planning to withdraw its troops from UNIFIL, a move that could have a domino effect and topple the entire peacekeeping force.