Editor's Notes: This time, it will be different

Keith Dayton, overseeing recruitment and training of 7-battalion Palestinian National Security Force, believes skeptics will be proved wrong.

US army Gen. Keith Dayton is quietly overseeing the recruitment and training of a seven-battalion Palestinian National Security Force. Already partially deployed in the West Bank, the NSF is intended to confront the bad guys - not the Israelis. The general well understands why Israelis may doubt the viability of this effort. And he fully believes the skeptics will be proved wrong. Keith Dayton is a modest, no-nonsense man. The bio sent out by his office runs to just three tight paragraphs. It briefly notes his more than three decades of US army service - from artilleryman to lieutenant-general. The periods he spent as the US defense attaché in Russia, commanding the Iraq Survey Group, and as the army's chief strategic planner, are dispatched in a couple of sentences. In person, Dayton is similarly precise and unpretentious. He suffers the attentions of our photographer with good grace, then gets down to business. He is speaking to The Jerusalem Post because he has been working here for exactly three years and the time has come, he has decided, to tell us what he has been up to. Unlike some other Middle East envoys, who fly in, meet prime ministers and presidents, give a press conference and head back to wherever it is they really belong, Dayton has lived here for the duration - an ocean away from his wife and family. He has been trying, almost entirely out of the headlines, to change the reality on the Palestinian ground. And he now feels confident that he is succeeding. Dayton is charged with supervising what he calls "the transformation and professionalization of the Palestinian security forces." To that end, the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) hierarchy that he heads, with some three dozen American, Canadian and British personnel, is overseeing the training, in Jordan, of battalions of young new recruits to the Palestinian Authority's National Security Forces - an enhanced "gendarmerie" for the intended state of Palestine. The general, with typical care, has prepared for our interview by typing out, in considerable detail, what he wants to say. The theme can perhaps best be summed as: This time, it's different. This time, the Palestinian forces will prove genuinely capable - of taking on Hamas and other extremists... and of refraining from taking on their Israeli counterparts. Obviously, Dayton is highly invested in these young Palestinian security personnel. Still, it is striking to register the emphatic belief he places in their ability to bolster security for their people and in so doing, to enhance security for ours. He acknowledges wide expanses of Israeli skepticism, and then marches decisively across them. These are Palestinian fighters Israel can trust, Dayton insists. And you can bet that this highly credible three-star general is delivering the same upbeat message to his superiors in Washington. DAYTON BEGINS by telling me how honored he is to serve here - traveling the country, meeting its people, making friends. And he hopes "that when the history of this period of this region is written, it will be said that the USSC team did a little bit to advance the peace process in this holy land." Next he talks me briskly through his 38 years in the US army, stressing that he has had "a lot of experience being what we would call a foreign area officer, a soldier diplomat," including those 13 months "on the ground" in the Middle East leading the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He's highlighting this as a preemptive defense against charges of naïveté: "There are some people who would suspect that 'this guy doesn't know anything about international relations. You know, he's very naive.'" In fact, Dayton notes, "I've had at least 10 years of international relations type assignments, where I deal with very serious national security issues at a pretty high level." His mission, Dayton reminds me, was generated by President Bush's vision of two states living side by side in peace and security. Organizing competent Palestinian security forces, within that framework, is intended to enable "improved law and order in the territories, increased safety and security for the Palestinian people, and improved security for Israel." Again and again, he repeats that "nothing I or my team do here will jeopardize the security interests of the State of Israel. Period. Full stop. We won't do it. It's not what we do as Americans." Being here long-term, Dayton says, has enabled him to "build the confidence and trust of all the sides, which is not an easy feat." It also means he's been "able to tell an Israeli or a Palestinian interlocutor, when he makes a commitment to me, that, 'OK, I'm going to be back in three days to see if it came true.'" As a consequence, he goes on, "We are, in our progress with the Palestinians, making significant strides now. We have hit a momentum period - something that I think will bear fruit very rapidly." Reading now from the text he's prepared, Dayton states slowly: "This is a new Palestinian security force that we're dealing with. Guided by the vision of President Mahmoud Abbas of one authority, one law, one gun, we now have in place new thinking Palestinian leaders like Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and Minister of Interior Abdel Razak al-Yahya, new heads of the security services and a generation of new field commanders... "I strongly believe that each and every member of the new Palestinian security forces is a state builder. This new generation of leaders and men understands what is at stake and they are determined to succeed." Dayton divides his time here into three phases. First, between January 2006 and June 2007, when the PA was run by a Fatah-Hamas unity government, his focus "was on the Karni crossing [between Israel and Gaza] and on trying to get the Gaza economy going." Then came the coup, and a very different phase two. In July 2007, the US Congress approved $86 million for programs Dayton had developed for the training of Palestinian security personnel. With that money, 1,100 recruits have been trained by the Jordanian police, and the program is ongoing. "The training has emphasized human rights. It emphasizes the appropriate use of force. It emphasizes the rule of law," Dayton stresses. Many of the graduates "are already on the streets in Jenin and in Hebron." And they constitute, says Dayton, "the most capable Palestinian security forces that have ever been fielded here. That's something that we're very proud of." The American money has also been used to organize training courses for senior Palestinian security personnel - highlighting ways to coordinate effectively. The first such class has just graduated - "36 officers of the rank of major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel." At the graduation, Dayton enthuses, "the pride in what they've achieved was something that even I was not expecting." Some money has also been spent on equipment, but nothing lethal, Dayton stresses. "If you ever hear or read that the USSC has been equipping people with guns or ammunition, it is simply not true." Rather, the spending has focused "on mobility, on personal gear and on protective equipment" - protection, that is, "against the armed groups that they run against... And I emphasize, that's not the Israeli Defense Forces. They are orienting their efforts totally on the lawless elements within Palestinian society." In every presentation given by senior Palestinian officials to the trainees in Jordan, says Dayton, "the theme is stated over and over again: You are here to provide protection to the Palestinian people, so that Palestinian families can walk down the streets at night and not be intimidated or threatened by either criminals or men with guns. Specifically it is said: 'You are not here to learn how to fight against the Israeli occupation.'" Money has also been allocated for infrastructure projects, including a training college for the Presidential Guard at Jericho, and the current construction of "an operational camp" for up to 1,000 members of the National Security Forces, also near Jericho, due to be ready for occupancy at the end of January. Dayton's self-described third phase, which began in October and runs through September, is a continuation of the second, with another $75m. allocated for more senior leadership courses, more infrastructure, and training in Jordan for another 1,000 recruits to the National Security Forces. "We currently have 500 training in Jordan right now in the middle of their program, and another 500 are expected to start at the end of December, beginning of January." You've set out an incredibly robust defense of the mindset of the people whose training you oversee. But what do they really think about Israel? You say they are "not here to fight the occupation," but the two sides are disputing the parameters of the two-state vision and the core elements of a permanent accord. How can you be so confident in them? In talking with senior Palestinian security leaders, this may come as a bit of a surprise, they are not focused on Israel or on the IDF. They are focused on reestablishing the authority of the Palestinian Authority in the Palestinian West Bank. They are focused on a vision that says, "If the people believe us, and they believe in us, and they see us present, and if we can get these criminal gangs and these drug dealers and thugs and militants off the streets, people that are walking around carrying guns, many, many things are possible and it will also enhance our ability to form a state." Their job is to provide security and safety for their people. They let the politicians worry about the questions you're asking here. For some of them, cousins and brothers are committed to a very different vision of Palestine. There are members of Hamas who they are required to stand up to. How do they reconcile that? In Jenin you have Palestinian villages that haven't seen a uniformed Palestinian policeman since 1967. People are coming to them and they're saying, "We know what you're trying to do, and these people here are the ones you're looking for." There have been a lot of Hamas people turned in by Palestinian citizens who perceive them as part of the problem. The [Palestinian leaders] emphasize in the training in Jordan: "You are loyal not to a clan, not to a family. Not even to a political movement. You are loyal to the Palestinian flag and you are going to build a state if you do it that way." The Palestinian security establishment has also decided that they will recruit these people from the different regions to help alleviate the [family clan] problem... These are also very young people. The average age of the new forces is between 19 and 21, and they're checked out before they're sent to training. We check them for known connections to any terrorist organization. We check them for human rights violations. It is still early days, but it is proving itself in Jenin where they have not been afraid to go after Islamic Jihad. They have actually fired on Islamic Jihad. They've injured Islamic Jihad and they've taken fire from these people. In Hebron, their focus has been reestablishing the authority of the Palestinian Authority. And if that means that militants from Hamas are challenging them, then they are certainly within the purview of the security forces. The instinctive Israeli response would be: We've been down this road before. We've seen Palestinian forces being trained. To a certain extent, we subcontracted our security to them, and when push came to shove, weapons which we had allowed them to receive, were used against our own forces. Why would we believe this wouldn't happen again? Remember what I am emphasizing here. These are new security forces. They're the most capable you've ever seen. There hasn't been a program like this before. The United States, for example, never mounted an organizational effort like we're doing now... I understand that many Israelis are skeptical of this. But six months ago, and I do read your newspaper, my good friend General Amos Gilad would not have said in an interview to the Post that the Palestinian forces are effective. That's what he said. (Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, told the Post last month that the Palestinian forces were "working more effectively than in the past, in Jenin. Lately they've started to operate in the Hebron area as well. There's certainly an improvement.") I've got to tell you, and my MoD and IDF colleagues feel the same way, that something new is out there. It's worth encouraging. And yeah, we can all be skeptical, but let's not stop it. Let's keep it going. Can you give me an unequivocal statement?: I find it inconceivable that these people would under any circumstances use their weapons against Israel. Can you comfortably say that? What I can say is that so far, in their operations since May, there has not been a single incident of Palestinian security force engagement with Israelis. Either Israeli civilians or IDF, even in Hebron, a very complex environment with settlers. Ok? I think that speaks for itself. Do you think that in Israel we've been slow to internalize that something's changed here, and that the army has been reluctant, specifically in your field, to allow room for Palestinian forces to take greater responsibility? David, I understand, as a career officer in the American army, the concerns of the Israeli army... Of course, I would like them to move more rapidly. Everybody would. But I understand. Again, let's look backward. The IDF has reduced its operations in the Jenin governorate by about 30 percent - maybe a little more than that - in the last six months. Now, I believe the IDF is taking some risk here, but I think it's risk that is manageable. And in my discussions with senior IDF officers, I do not find that I am complaining about anything about their approach. Can you give me a concrete sense of timescale and numbers. There's a certain NSF presence in Jenin, in Nablus, in Hebron and imminently in Bethlehem, correct? Probably, yes... Keep in mind that the police, the largest of the Palestinian security forces, is being handled by the European Union under their EU cops program... We are focusing our efforts on the NSF - the National Security Forces - the gendarmerie. And of those, 700 or so have been trained already in Jordan. There are 500 more of those training currently and another 500 will start at the end of the year. That will give us at least 1,700 by next summer. We have a vision of seven battalions [in all for the West Bank]. That will be [the first] three battalions of the seven. Provided we get the funding for that, we should have [all seven] done within the next two years... We have long term plans that would include two battalions in Gaza. But that's not on the table right now. The Presidential Guard has two or three battalions currently operating. One of their battalions was given refresher training by the Jordanians in Jordan. Came out of it extremely well. Currently there's about 100 Presidential Guards and I think about 200 of the NSF that are Jordanian-trained, operating in Jenin. There's about another 250 operating in Hebron. Now if you do the numbers there's still several hundred who are in reserve. They are currently based in Jericho. They will probably be called upon, I suspect - it's a Palestinian decision, not mine - to reinforce Bethlehem. There was an array of security forces in the past. Some could be trusted more and some less. Are there are other apparatuses still that would say of themselves, we are part of the Palestinian security apparatus? There are a couple of intelligence services existing. Civil defense, first responders. But most of the consolidation has already occurred. You know, I'm talking about the Arafat era. Oh I know. Yes, absolutely. Let me give you a great example of this. It's kind of a Palestinian joke. A couple of months ago someone had come to me with a question like this and they had alleged that there were 17 Palestinian security forces still out there. And the minister of interior looked at me and he smiled and he said, "No, we're down to the half dozen or so that you know about. But we had a Force 17 at one time and the person must be confused." Of course Force 17 was one of these that was loyal to a political movement. That organization was completely eliminated in the past 12 months. The end state is very clear: national security, policing and what they're calling their intelligence apparatus. That's it. Three branches, that's what the road map said they had to get to. They understand that and that's clearly where they're moving to. And former members of those forces. Some of them have gone through your training? Or what has happened to them? No, no, no. They have been simply released, fired if you will. Some of them have retired... There've been a very few who have reentered the services, but they have not been successful and they've been flushed out of the system. So almost nobody from the previous Palestinian security forces is still being deployed, back in uniform and out there again? None of the ones that were in these sort of militia-based groups. No. Those are all gone. Of course, you have people who were in the National Security Forces five years ago. They still are. But they aren't the ones that we're training, they aren't the new ones... Are there thousands of people from the old National Security Force still there? It's hard to know... Eventually it will be a replacement process. We bring in 500, and 500 leave out the other end... Long term, is the vision here for a demilitarized West Bank? What kinds of arms are necessary? What kinds of arms should be in the possession of the National Security Forces and any other part of the Palestinian security apparatus? That will be a decision that goes on at the political level. If you have the battalions deployed and trained, does that obviate the need for other forces including international forces to secure the West Bank? What the United States has asked me to do is to help the Palestinians develop a tool box that they can use to achieve statehood. The actual modalities of that, as you well know, David, are going to be decided by politicians and by security experts, but in a different forum than what I'm doing. You had no responsibility for overseeing the training of anybody in Gaza before and at the time of the June 2007 violence? We had no responsibility for training anyone in Gaza. We didn't provide them any weapons or any ammunition, or any of that sort of thing. There was a small program we had an interest in. It dealt with the Presidential Guard at the border crossing at Rafah. That was it. I didn't have any money - you can check back - to do anything, even if we had been asked to do it. But we were not asked to do it. It was said to me by someone in the Israeli military hierarchy that what happened in Gaza was that Fatah people were neither prepared to kill or to be killed, whereas the Hamas people were prepared for both. This person was skeptical, when push comes to shove, about the degree of motivation of forces local to Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, in a strong, bitter struggle against Hamas. What Gaza showed very clearly is that we are now on the right track. What Gaza showed was that the Palestinian security forces need to be organized, well led, well trained, responsible to a civilian authority. That was the lesson the Palestinians learned from the fall of Gaza. They didn't do very well. It's being fixed. The Palestinian Authority security forces in Gaza lost 250 dead. These aren't people that just simply, immediately raised their hands and surrendered. I know this. It took five days. One could say, 'Well, they overran them in five days.' Baloney. They were clearly outgunned and still they stood their ground for five days. They lost 250 killed and probably five times that many injured. Ok? So this wasn't the surrender that is often portrayed. And people tend to lose sight of that. The Palestinians didn't lose sight of that. But they also didn't lose sight of the fact that organization matters. Training matters. It's no coincidence that the Palestinian Authority embraced the idea of sending their young men to Jordan, despite all of the challenges that presents, with getting them out of the West Bank and back in again. They were willing to go through all that because, they said, this is how we establish our state and this is how we keep something like June 2007 from occurring again. You spoke about a future potential deployment in Gaza as well. No, what I said was in long-term plans... It would be irresponsible not to at least plan for it. But the likelihood of execution at this point, I don't see... How then is Gaza to be revived under the control of the Palestinian Authority? I don't have the answer to that. There is no planning for enabling a force that is capable of restoring PA, Abbas-loyal control to Gaza? Not that I'm aware. The change of administration in the United States - is that likely to have any kind of impact? Might there be more money forthcoming? Would you want there to be more money and for it to move a little faster? I can't speak for the next administration but the indications I've got are that they're certainly well aware of the success that's going on now. Finally, do you have any reasons for concern about a possible change of government in Israel - that you might encounter a leadership that is less supportive and invested in this? No, look, I have worked with three ministers of defense, ranging from Shaul Mofaz to Ehud Barak. The relationship between your country and mine is unshakeable... Any change in Israel's government, my government will react to appropriately. This is not a problem. Including in the specifics of what you're doing here? I think so. Because it's succeeding.