The word "benchmarks" is heard quite frequently these days in IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) corridors. The benchmarks in question refer to dates set in a new American plan - drafted by US Security Coordinator Maj.-Gen. Keith Dayton and Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones - aimed at improving security and easing restrictions on movement in the Palestinian territories. The plan, which was approved by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stipulates precise dates for when its clauses must be implemented. In addition to requesting that Israel allow the supply of weapons, ammunition and other equipment to security forces under the control of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the plan requires Israel to lift roadblocks in the West Bank and to link Judea and Samaria with the Gaza Strip by allowing free passage between them. In return, the PA is required to stop Kassam rocket attacks as well as to prevent arms smuggling across the Philadelphi Corridor running between the southern Gaza Strip and Sinai.
US: Benchmark paper only informal
For Israel, the plan is not simple to digest, and some defense officials have even gone as far as to call it disastrous. The benchmarks are no different than the stages set in the US-backed road map, which never really moved past phase one due to Abbas's inability to stop Palestinian terrorism.
The growing assessment within the defense establishment is that the new plan will ultimately fail. It demonstrates, senior defense officials said, a basic lack of understanding by Dayton and the rest of the US administration as to what is needed to obtain a lull in the Kassam rocket attacks.
Dayton was appointed as security coordinator to Israel and the PA in 2005 and has since focused most of his efforts on training Abbas's "Presidential Guard." His thinking, the defense assessment reads, is no different than the way America operates in other places in the world, particularly in Iraq, where it sets goals and tries to achieve them while ignoring the outcome.
"What happened in Iraq should show the US that they need to come up with better ideas concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue," a Defense Ministry official said this week.
Part of the plan has received the support of central officials in the defense establishment. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who is on friendly terms with Dayton, is a major proponent of the clause that calls on Israel to allow the provision of weapons and ammo to Abbas's Presidential Guard. Sneh's support, however, ends there, and in closed-door meetings he has declared firm opposition to the other clauses calling to link Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the lifting of roadblocks.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Sneh will meet with Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin to decide on the defense establishment's official position, which will be presented at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The strong opposition to these clauses stems from a concern within Israel that the creation of a link between Gaza and the West Bank would achieve one result - a strengthening of Hamas.
Terror in the West Bank is at its lowest level since the outbreak of violence in 2000. This isn't because the Palestinians aren't trying. In 2006, 45 Palestinians were caught by the IDF with suicide bomb belts strapped to their chests and on their way to blow up somewhere in Israel.
The thwarting of these attacks has to do with several basic principles, a primary one being a complete separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The IDF is allowed to operate freely in the West Bank and soldiers enter terror capitals like Nablus, Tulkarm and Jenin on a nightly basis to hunt down Hamas and Islamic Jihad fugitives.
Last month, the IDF succeeded in breaking up an attempt by Hamas to create an army in the West Bank like the one it has in the Gaza Strip. It has also foiled numerous attempts to manufacture and fire Kassam rockets from West Bank cities, mainly due to its presence there, but also because of the separation from Gaza that prevents the transfer of technology, know-how, weaponry and terrorists between the Palestinian territories.
Israeli defense chiefs fear that the new American plan - which calls for the safe passage of Palestinian vehicles from Gaza to the West Bank - will undermine this success and create an upsurge in terrorism in Judea and Samaria. The defense chiefs would first like to see Abbas stop the Kassams and the weapons smuggling before Israel makes additional concessions to a PA that has already proven its inability to deliver the goods.
After almost two years in Israel, Dayton is beginning to learn that in the Middle East, benchmarks alone won't do the trick.