Exclusive: Trump Officials Studying Obama's Security Plan in Case Israeli-Palestinian Peace Push Works

The proposal for the day after Palestine is established won support from Israel's top army brass, but not its political leaders. U.S. general who devised it: Security was not the obstacle for moving forward

Trump's motorcade crosses through an Israeli checkpoint upon arrival at the West Bank town of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017.
MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

In the first weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump entered the White House, his special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, held a number of meetings with past peace negotiators – including former officials in the Obama administration.

In one of those lengthy meetings, Greenblatt was briefed about a detailed security plan the Obama administration had prepared for the day after the establishment of a Palestinian state, known inside the administration as “the Allen plan,” after retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen, who was charged with creating such a plan.

“You maybe heard that this plan is only about technology,” one former official told Greenblatt. “That’s simply not true.”

Details of the plan's secret contents

The Allen plan, which was written by dozens of U.S. officers and experts over a period of many months, was never presented to the public, and most of its contents have remained secret, even after the Obama administration’s 2013-2014 peace talks fell apart. Former officials advised the new administration to dive into the plan’s details, since if Trump’s wish to hold Israeli-Palestinian negotiations became serious, he would sooner or later need a robust plan to provide security for Israel in the aftermath of an agreement.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Allen.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In recent weeks, there are some signs that the current administration is indeed looking into the security plan prepared by the previous administration. Trump’s National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, decided to appoint Kris Bauman, a United States Air Force colonel who was deeply involved in the work over the 2014 security plan, as the National Security Council’s new expert on Israel-Palestine. In addition, the administration has been briefed about two security plans that were created over the last year by former Israeli and American security officials, which both drew on ideas and concepts from the Allen plan. The first is a plan that was written by the Washington-based Center for New American Security, together with former IDF General Gadi Shamni, who was the commander of Israel's Central Command. The second is a plan written by "Commanders for Israel's Security," an organization consisting of hundreds of former senior IDF officers, whose representatives also met with two officials in the Trump administration. The officials expressed interest in learing about these plans, but didn't say if the administration will adopt them.

Israeli army heads praised plan

In recent weeks, Haaretz has interviewed a number of senior officials, both in Israel and the United States, who were involved in the work over the 2014 security plan. The plan was never completely finalized, but large parts of it were presented at the time to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and the senior command of the Israel Defense Forces. The opinions in Israel about the plan were divided: It won praise from senior military officers, but was rejected by Ya’alon and criticized by Netanyahu.

Senior IDF officers, who took part in the conversations on the plan, told Haaretz that it should be viewed as a joint American-Israeli document, a result of close cooperation between the Pentagon and the IDF. Dozens of Israeli officers took part in the negotiations over it, working in a number of different teams. According to multiple Israeli sources, the conversations over the plan were “very substantial” and took place in an atmosphere of “openness and transparency.”

There were significant differences in the reactions of Israeli officials to the plan. Ya’alon was very skeptical about it, while Major General Nimrod Sheffer, who was the commander of the IDF Planning Directorate at the time and was in charge of the Israeli engagement with the plan, thought that it could provide the necessary level of security for Israel in the day after a withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. May 23, 2017
Evan Vucci/AP

The IDF Chief of Staff at the time, Lt. General Benny Gantz, was closer to Sheffer’s view. A former senior U.S. official told Haaretz that Allen and his team were very appreciative of Gantz’s contribution and commitment to the process, and that the IDF’s top officer “encouraged both sides to bear down even harder” whenever there were disagreements between them. “The security of Israel was his paramount concern – and ours as well,” the former official explained.

According to participants from both sides, the IDF presented to the American team a document with 26 points which defined all of Israel’s security concerns and interests in the West Bank. The American team was asked to provide effective solutions to each and every one of those 26 points. Some of the senior Israeli officers who took part in the conversations believed that almost all the points in the document received satisfactory answers from the Americans. The political leadership – Netanyahu and Ya’alon – disagreed.

One of the issues that the Israeli side thought wasn’t sufficiently addressed was Israeli-American intelligence cooperation on the day after the creation of a Palestinian state. A former senior U.S. official told Haaretz that the two sides didn’t manage to reach a detailed agreement on a number of points, mainly because of the unfolding of various events in 2014 – namely, the collapse of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempted peace talks and the subsequent Gaza war – which led to a cessation of the talks before all points had been finalized.

Airport in the West Bank

The American side proposed opening an airport in the West Bank that would enable direct Palestinian flights around the world, without the need to pass through Israel’s territory. This issue wasn’t finalized either, but Allen’s team offered a possible solution to any security challenges it could present. Some Israeli officials also had reservations about another American idea: setting up a squadron of unarmed Palestinian helicopters that would allow the Palestinian Authority to dispatch its’ “special forces” quickly to spots where there is a suspected attempt to carry out a terror attack. (The Palestinian state, it should be noted, was supposed to be de-militarized under this plan – and as a result, the helicopters the Palestinians would get would be the same kind used by police units, rather than those used by an air force.)

The Americans complained that Israel on the one hand demands that the Palestinians have a “rapid reaction” ability against terrorism, but on the other hand, object to suggestions to make that ability possible. One solution to this problem that was discussed was to create a limited “air tunnel” in the West Bank that the Palestinians will be allowed to use, under Israeli supervision, with Israel having the ability to immediately respond to any Palestinian diversion from the agreed limits of that “tunnel.” In the words of one former American official, “the Palestinians would know that if they divert from the flight route, they will get shot down.” The Americans also proposed that Palestinian pilots undergo annual security clearance re-checks in which Israel will be involved.

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during clashes following a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem May 19, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The Allen team devoted much of its’ effort to finding security solutions for the Jordan Valley area. The plan included an American situation room, sensors, drones, satellite imagery, and a significant strengthening of the existing border fence on the Jordan River. The Americans also offered to create a second physical barrier on the Jordanian side of the border, but the Israeli consensus was that this isn’t necessary. The Israeli consensus was that as long as the Hashemite forces control Jordan, Israel can count on them to keep the border safe; if they were to lose power, a fence on the Jordanian side wouldn’t make much of a difference.

As part of their research, members of the American team visited the Jordan Valley area to examine the existing border fence. According to two former U.S. officials, they went directly to the fence and shook it for approximately 15 minutes before being detected by an IDF patrol. The American side also offered to test the future, strengthened border fence by asking elite U.S. commando forces to try to infiltrate it.

The joint American-Israeli talks over the plan were halted a few weeks before its’ completion, according to senior officials who participated in the discussions. Ya’alon ordered the military to suspend the talks with the Americans. “Our feeling all along the way was that the senior ranks in the IDF treated this completely as a professional issue, and examined our ideas strictly from a security standpoint,” one former U.S. official told Haaretz. “The political rank – especially Netanyahu and Ya’alon – never wanted this to succeed.”

The American participants remember one conversation, in which Ya’alon surprised everyone in the room by stating that he disagrees with Netanyahu’s claim that the IDF will have to remain in the West Bank for 40 years after the signing of an agreement. “This is interesting,” one U.S. official thought, only to then hear Ya’alon explain that in his view, “we’ll need many more years, at least 80.” The Americans were talking about a much shorter period of time, and believed that the Palestinian side will agree to one decade.

Israeli soldiers use tear gas to disperse Palestinians protesting against Israel settlements in the Jordan Valley, November 2016.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Ya’alon thought that Allen’s plan wasn’t complete. He said that the while the Americans had dealt thoroughly with the issue of the Jordan Valley and with future security cooperation between Israel and Jordan, they had not addressed critical questions related to security in the West Bank. The most updated version of the plan was presented to Netanyahu and Ya’alon at a meeting in Netanyahu’s office in 2014, during which the prime minister and his then-defense minister raised many questions. Kerry wrote them down and promised to return with answers, but the conversation was never fully resumed.

Most of the complaints raised by Netanyahu and Ya’alon regarded the failure to sufficiently address the situation in the West Bank after an agreement with the Palestinians. They cited the threat of mortar fire towards Ben-Gurion Airport and the fact that the proposal did not guarantee complete independence for the IDF to take action inside the West Bank in case the Palestinian security forces failed to thwart terror attacks or the development of weapons. Similar questions were raised by a number of IDF officers who participated in the discussions and thought that the Americans were too optimistic regarding the abilities and commitment of the Palestinian security forces.

Post-Oslo and post-Gaza trauma

“They didn’t understand the impact of our list of traumas in the wake of what happened after Oslo, the Gaza disengagement, and the regional instability,” one Israeli participant in the talks told Haaretz. The American response to these concerns was that the U.S. is offering Israel effective solutions worth billions of dollars that will be used over a small territory, with intensive Israeli involvement on multiple levels. A former U.S. official added that “Israel still maintains the capacity to protect itself by itself. The option for Israel to defend itself if all else fails, still clearly exists.”

During the 2014 talks, a political crisis erupted when an Israeli newspaper published quotes from an off-the-record briefing conducted by Ya’alon, in which he called Kerry “obsessive and messianic” and also dismissed Allen and his plan. While Ya’alon has never seriously retracted his comments about Kerry, he did reach out to Allen to apologize and clarify that despite their disagreements, he appreciates the general’s work and his efforts to find solutions for Israel’s security.

In reply to a request for comment from Haaretz, Allen wrote that “we always felt the senior IDF leadership supported our work. And even though there were disagreements on some of the details, we always believed that progress on the security dialogue justified continuing negotiations on the final status issues for a two state peace agreement. Or put differently, security was not the obstacle to forward movement.”

AP

The Trump administration doesn’t yet have a concrete plan to resume peace negotiations, and the president’s statements so far have been limited to expressing his desire to bring “peace and love” to Israel and the Palestinians. However, Trump’s National Security Adviser, General McMaster, stated last month at an event marking Israel’s 69th Independence Day, that the United States was committed to reaching a peace agreement – and also, at the same time, to keeping Israel’s security as a top priority.

It remains to be seen how exactly the administration will try to fulfill both these commitments, and what role the previous administration’s security plan will play in that effort.