WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has decided against downgrading the post of the official in charge of security coordination between the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, after months of domestic and international pressure to keep the coordinator at the rank of three-star general.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers from both houses of Congress, as well as the State Department, Israel's Defense Ministry and security experts argued that downgrading the post to the rank of a colonel would have harmed security coordination and America's stance in the region.
“After we led 34 bipartisan Senators urging the Department of Defense not to downgrade this post, the Department has now made the right decision for U.S. national security,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, who led the bipartisan push alongside Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. “We must sustain high-level U.S. engagement for peace and stability in the Holy Land,” Ossoff added.
“We strongly believe this is a perilous time for Israel,” Graham noted, adding that "it is imperative that we maintain the three-star rank when it comes to coordinating security between the Palestine Authority and Israel. We are willing to provide waivers or adjustments to the law reducing General and Flag officers in the future.”
The planned move was stipulated as a cost-cutting measure in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that called for cutting 111 general and flagged officers from the 600-plus in service, though the USSC posting was not required to be one such downgrade.
Critics of the planned move expressed concerns that the move would harm both U.S.-Palestinian security cooperation and Israeli-Palestinian coordination, noting how critical the posting has been for maintaining U.S. leadership in the region and maintaining direct access to U.S., Israeli and Palestinian civilian and military officials.
Rep. Ted Deutch, the chair of the House subcommittee dealing with the Middle East, provided the first on-record confirmation of the decision, first reported by the Times of Israel.
"I'm pleased the Pentagon maintained the requirement that the U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel & the PA be a 3-star general, which strengthens the USSC's ability to promote security cooperation and stability between Israel [and] the PA and reflects the U.S.' commitment to the region," Deutch said.
The Breaking Defense website additionally reported on the decision to not downgrade the posting, citing a memo signed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment.
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.
- Why Hasn’t AIPAC Endorsed One of Congress' Most pro-Israel Republicans?
- Why Israel's Best Friend in Congress Doesn't Think Dems Have an Israel Problem
- These gay progressive U.S. lawmakers agree on most things – but not on Israel
The current coordinator, Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, notably recently played a central role in fostering Israeli and Palestinian cooperation concerning the investigation of Shireen Abu Akleh's killing. Fenzel additionally oversaw the inconclusive third-party forensic investigation of the fatal bullet, and visited the site of Abu Akleh's fatal shooting.
The Israel Policy Forum, which spearheaded efforts to prevent the downgrading, welcomed reports of the decision, thanking the nearly 100 bipartisan members of Congress who spoke out on the issue while highlighting how the role signals U.S. leadership, commitment and credibility to Israeli, Palestinian and global officials alike.