The Painstaking Bid for Peace in the Middle East

Thursday, 11 Dec 2008 09:17 AM

By Arnaud de Borchgrave

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Introducing National Security Adviser-to-be retired Gen. James L. Jones recently, Henry Kissinger joked the job was "highwire without a safety net 24 hours a day." Mr. Jones, he explained, "will have to organize options, keep an eye on implementation, and make sure nothing is overlooked in one of the most difficult periods in our history."

Mr. Kissinger also warned Mr. Jones about the inevitable friction with the State Department (Hillary Clinton) and the Pentagon (Bob Gates). The only time things worked smoothly between State and the National Security Council, Mr. Kissinger went on to say, was in 1973, when Mr. Kissinger held both jobs during the Nixon administration.

In the George H.W. Bush ("41") administration, the ever-tactful Gen. Brent Scowcroft navigated skillfully between two powerful players: James Baker at State and Dick Cheney at Defense.

With George W. Bush ("43"), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was outgunned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, despite her close relationship with the president.

Mr. Jones is Scowcroft redux. He is a soldier, diplomat, and scholar. His towering presence compels his interlocutors to look up. Super cool with an easy going demeanor, Mr. Jones also has that all too rare gift in Washington, an institutional memory.

The 6-foot-4-inch John Wayne-like figure has held a succession of high-level command assignments during the last decade of a 40-year career in the Marine Corps. From personal assistant to Defense Secretary Bill Cohen as a three-star in the second Clinton administration, Mr. Jones went on to become the 32nd Marine Corps commandant and then NATO supreme commander (SACEUR), where diplomatic skills trumped combat skills as he oversaw the alliance's post-Cold War growth to 26 nations.

Mr. Jones' perfect, accentless French acquired between ages 2 and 14 at school in Paris, where his father represented International Harvester, played a major role in persuading France to rejoin NATO after a 40-year Gaullist sulk.

As a young officer in Vietnam, Mr. Jones saw plenty of action (Silver Star, Bronze star with combat "V"). As SACEUR, he also did double duty as EUCOM commander of all U.S. forces in Europe.

NATO allies were committed to backing the United States militarily in Afghanistan but were under great pressure at home to cut back on their militaries in the post-Cold War glow. This kept Mr. Jones commuting to two-dozen European capitals, always displaying his diplomatic skills at the highest level.

Now 64, Mr. Jones comes to the White House as the third general in recent times to serve as national security adviser (Mr. Scowcroft under Gerald Ford and Colin Powell under the elder President Bush [41]). He also comes aboard the Obama ship of state with a striking example of his geopolitical skills since he retired from the Marine Corps two years ago.

As special envoy for Middle East security, appointed by Secretary of State Rice, Mr. Jones' assignment was to assess what security would look like after establishment of a Palestinian state.

Could a Palestinian state be viable and survive in the shadow of the all-powerful state of Israel? This was the question Mr. Jones set out to answer. While he tackled security, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair assessed economic viability.

Mr. Jones had a small team of 10 volunteers and listened for three months — in the Israeli-occupied territories, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. He also worked with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the same Israeli colonel he had met at the NATO-Mediterranean dialogue.

Mr. Jones ran into many other players engaged in similar efforts, European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), all operating in their own orbits, with neither cohesion nor symmetry.

So he invited them all to a lively dinner discussion in Jerusalem and got them all to coordinate their efforts from the bottom up to meet what he was doing from the top down.

Mr. Jones picked Jenin, one-time West Bank hub for suicide bombers and Palestinian underground operations, parts of which were leveled by Israeli tanks. Mr. Jones saw this city of 50,000 sitting on a three-legged stool: the Palestinians' sense of dignity, Israeli control, and access for Israelis. But this was not the Palestinian idea of sovereignty.

Mr. Jones faced two immovable objects: Israeli control and Palestinian sovereignty. Real change came when Palestinian security battalions, trained in Jordan, came home to be deployed with the assignment "to protect the rule of law."

Both Israelis and Palestinians bought into the concept as their own idea. And well-disciplined Palestinian forces went after criminals and terrorists. The IDF, meanwhile, has withdrawn from its bases and established electronic liaison with new Palestinian security personnel.

Mr. Jones also massaged a change in the Israeli ethos — from counterterrorist to counterinsurgency. The IDF now says if the Palestinians do more, "We will do less."

Miss Rice visited Jenin last month to see for herself the newly transformed city where she inaugurated a new hospital wing renovated with U.S. funds and announced $14 million for infrastructure improvements and educational projects for the area.

She was a tad too optimistic when she said Jenin is "a place from where the Palestinian state will spring up"; Mr. Jones described as "a dress rehearsal for statehood, a crucible where the two sides can prove things to each other."

Last weekend's Page One pictures of Israeli soldiers dragging screaming Jewish female settlers from a Palestinian building in Hebron and the subsequent trashing of Palestinian houses and olive trees was a sober reminder of scores of illegal settlements all over the West Bank.

The Saudis have relaunched King Abdullah's 2002 plan for peace; i.e., the recognition of Israel by all Arab states in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-1967 war frontiers with a few minor territorial adjustments in Israel's favor in return for comparable land in the Negev for Palestinians.

If Barack Obama as president were to throw his weight behind such a deal, it just might have a chance. But it would take several years to negotiate and, meanwhile, 240,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank are not about to start packing.

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