WASHINGTON – Thirty-two bipartisan U.S. senators urged U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday not to downgrade the post of the official in charge of security coordination between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.
The letter, led by Sens. Jon Ossoff and Lindsey Graham, comes two weeks after Axios first reported emerged that the Pentagon is mulling downgrading the United States security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority from the rank of a three-star general to a colonel.
The State Department, Israel's Defense Ministry and experts in both countries have warned that this move, though technically required by a U.S. law to decrease the number of generals, could harm both U.S.-Palestinian security cooperation and Israeli-Palestinian coordination.
The senators wrote, "Given continued regional volatility, steadfast high-level U.S. leadership and engagement to support peace and stability in Israel and the West Bank remain in the national security interest of the United States, downgrading this position would undermine critical security programs and degrade communications between Israelis and Palestinians" which are facilitated by that official.
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The coordinator position, or USSC, was created in 2005 in a bid to bolster the Palestinian security forces. It has since been held by a three-star general who reports directly to the most senior levels of U.S. government, while maintaining direct access to civilian and military U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The security coordinator also works alongside military experts from the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Poland, whom the senators note "count on the [coordinator] to provide this leadership.
"Downgrading this position would undermine U.S. leadership and credibility in a region where it is essential to have a high-ranking officer who can engage with other nations’ highest-level military leaders," the senators continued. "Such a downgrade would also risk fracturing the U.S.- led international coalition committed to strengthening security and stability in Israel and the West Bank."
Sen. James Lankford, a Republican at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the USSC mission in hopes of bolstering Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, separately wrote Austin urging him not to downgrade the post, warning it would "imperil U.S. security interests in the Middle East."
Rep. Ted Deutch, the chair of the House subcommittee dealing with the Middle East, told Haaretz he is “deeply concerned by these reports and the implications for stability in the region. The USSC position has played an invaluable role in coordinating security cooperation that saves Israeli and Palestinian lives and has long had widespread support in Washington and abroad. Moreover, the presence of a U.S. general in that role helps maintain U.S. leadership, support partner nations and safeguard our interests.”
Israel Policy Forum chief policy officer Michael Koplow said of the matter that "The USSC has been critical to Israeli security, West Bank stability, a regular Palestinian police presence for Palestinian civilians, and U.S. influence with Palestinian leadership. Downgrading it from a general or flag officer will put all of these things at risk, not to mention force the other seven NATO contributors to the mission downgrade their own officers or raise the question of whether the U.S. can still lead the mission."
He added that "The small size of the USSC mission shouldn’t be mistaken for little influence or importance." Particularly at a time when "U.S. commitment to the region is being questioned, and we are trying to emphasize security, prosperity, and dignity for both sides, downgrading the USSC sends very bad signals on all fronts," he said.