The Middle East Peace “Vision” From an Old CIA Hand

The recent rollout of the much-ballyhooed Trump administration “vision” for Middle East peace resulted in an outpouring of negative comments from former United States government officials who have worked in the region. Critics charged that the so-called “vision” was decidedly one-sided in favor of Israel—specifically adhering to the ideology of the Israeli right, with the annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank including all Israeli settlements, plus continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, leaving Palestinians with a disjointed archipelago for their future territory. The Palestinians were not consulted as part of U.S. efforts to draft the plan. Several Sunni Arab States sent representatives to the White House ceremony unveiling the plan, but key actors, such as Egypt and Jordan, and most importantly, Palestinian leadership, were notably absent. Since the Trump administration rolled out the plan, significant backtracking has occurred from the Arab States who initially voiced their tepid support.

Compounding the flaws in the technical aspects of the “vision” was the embarrassing simplicity of Jared Kushner’s public performance, which included unforgettable statements, including that he had “read 25 books” prior to tackling the issue. Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, then heaped insult onto injury by blasting the Palestinians for having “a perfect track record of missing opportunities,” a boring old cliché that was used decades ago by critics of the Palestinians, but now only demonstrates one’s novice status in the region. It is just a tired phrase. In sum, the Trump vision is likely dead on arrival with Arab States, let alone with the Palestinians. This leaves the U.S. worse off in the region, as it has lost all pretense of being a fair arbiter, and is now mocked internationally for having placed a neophyte in charge of what once was the most critical diplomatic portfolio in the U.S. government.

Personally, I found myself having a visceral reaction to the Trump administration’s so-called “vision.” I spent the last several weeks reflecting on my time working on the Middle East during my 26-year career at CIA. My sense of anger about the “vision” is that a lifetime’s work – by myself and so many others across numerous U.S. government agencies in promoting the peace process, as well as building U.S. connections to the Arab world as a whole — is now at risk of being lost.

Perhaps the greatest contributions I can make to the public discussion on this issue are the observations from my own career – from my time as a field operations officer, as well as an operational manager in several CIA stations in the Middle East, plus my time working the region from CIA headquarters.

At CIA, when you’re posted abroad, you do not spend your time inside. The job is to work the streets, talking to everyone from taxi drivers, street sweepers, and local politicians, to host nation security chiefs. One of my proudest moments was when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited a Middle Eastern capital and our chargé d’affaires asked me to handle the substantive briefs to Pelosi and the rest of her congressional delegation. As a deputy station chief, I was the lead, and to me this was a clear recognition of what CIA officers bring to the table when the situation requires a deep dive on a country’s politics, people, and culture. I would always tell my officers upon arrival at a station that “we own the streets” and the less I saw of them in an office environment, the better. For so many CIA officers who worked in the Near East Division, hearing the ubiquitous call to prayer in the Arab world, attending Iftars (the breaking of the fast when the sun sets) during Ramadan, breathing in the smell of cumin in the souks, dancing the Dabke at Arabic weddings is as much a feeling of home as is the humidity of a Northern Virginia summer. I mention the above to show how a CIA officer in the region strives to understand the true pulse of the country and region where he/she is stationed.

For anyone who has spent time in Israel and the West Bank — and I am talking about hitting the pavement and not staying cooped up at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem or taking tours of the Dead Sea and Eilat — it is impossible not to see that the Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens. I have rarely met a U.S. government official who has spent significant time in Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas, who does not share this sense of deep unease in observing the Palestinians’ routine struggles just to carry out daily life. From Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem to Jericho, it was evident at every turn. One of my colleagues described to me in graphic terms that I have never forgotten the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation in both the West Bank and Gaza as “a disgraceful human zoo experiment.” That is a disgusting analogy, but it, frankly, rings somewhat true. If you had a heart, you were made uncomfortable by seeing how Palestinians endured humiliation on a daily basis. Tasks for Palestinians, such as going to work, visiting relatives, or trying to access a hospital, were at times Sisyphean in their level of exasperating and futile struggle. In my view, Americans need to acknowledge this very real imbalance of rights and always keep it in perspective when the peace process is discussed. Those of us in government who believed in the peace process often did so, not just out of what peace would bring in terms of U.S. interests in the region, but also for humanitarian reasons, given how ordinary Palestinians were being treated. A two-State solution was always the only moral path for both parties.

Many CIA officers in the region spent a great deal of time traveling from Jerusalem to the West Bank, and even, many years ago, into Gaza. CIA officers—just like other U.S. officials—endured the often-unpleasant process of navigating multiple Israeli check points when crossing into Palestinian Authority-controlled areas. Israeli border police were chronically unfriendly even to American officials, which gives you some perspective about what it was like to be a Palestinian trying to make the same trip.

Every time I visited the West Bank and Jerusalem over the last 20-plus years, my conclusion was always the same: The status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians was not sustainable for the moral fabric of Israeli society. As an American, you have to witness firsthand the humiliation and lack of freedom endured by the Palestinians to begin to understand it. I dare say Kushner has not spent much time navigating checkpoints or observing Palestinians’ struggles on a daily basis. I also presume he hasn’t sat down for a meal with a Palestinian family, giving them an opportunity to explain their hopes and dreams living in a world where so many rights that we, as Americans, take for granted, are missing.

Despite my severe misgivings about the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, I wholeheartedly support the State of Israel and deeply admire how far it has come since the creation of the Jewish State in 1948. Israel, of course, has legitimate security concerns, and, for decades, Israelis have been victims of heinous Palestinian terrorist attacks. The solution, however, is peace, and a just peace based on a fair two-State solution versus the Trump administration’s vision.

The U.S.-Israel security alliance provides enormous benefits to both sides, and, while I served in Arab capitals for most of my career, I also worked closely with Israeli officials around the world on critical issues, particularly involving counterterrorism. Israelis are a remarkable and resilient people whom I came to admire for their honesty and sense of shared sacrifice in living in a very tough neighborhood. On security issues, I find myself agreeing with the Israeli government’s operational ethos and deterrence theory, to include its notion of “Rise and Kill First,” recently chronicled by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, in which Israel has taken proactive, offensive and lethal action against its enemies. Simply put, I am no softie, whatsoever, when it comes to Israel. One Israeli senior official told me, and not in jest, that there would always be an open chair for me at their table during the Jewish holidays. I am incredibly proud of that offer. I personally met Meir Dagan, one of the legendary spymasters of our time, beloved by his Israeli officers and deeply respected by the U.S. national security establishment. American vital interests in the region include providing a security umbrella for the state of Israel, yet they also must ensure that the Palestinians can have a fair future, free from Israeli control.

The most problematic, near-term effect of the Trump administration’s “vision” may be its diminishment of critical behind-the-scenes cooperation between the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian security services. While not a secret in the region, the security cooperation has saved countless lives on all sides and has kept the peace process alive, at times by a thread. This is now at risk, not due to an external event (a terrorist attack on Israel, or a resulting Israeli security sweep, both which would strain ties). Instead, the actions of the U.S. in pushing this peace plan are putting that cooperation in danger. The recent statements from the Palestinians indicating that they were suspending security cooperation with both Israel and the United States were perhaps just for show, as they have no other options than to launch verbal protests and threats. All said, under the Trump administration, we have changed our tune from dedicated peacemakers to active peace-disrupters, a first in the history of U.S. diplomatic involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I certainly hope that cooler heads on the Palestinian side will prevail, but it remains to be seen. Recent press reports from Israel suggested that both Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, were also deeply worried that the Trump administration’s plan — which would, in essence, propel Israel to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank settlements at some point soon—would torpedo the security relationship between the two sides.

In sum, I see a life’s work in the region now at risk, given the administration’s promotion of a radical solution cheered on by the Israeli right wing. It simply makes me sad, as the Palestinians, some of the unluckiest people on the planet, do not deserve their second-class status. And the Israelis—many of whom I consider very good friends—need not operate based on anything close to the South African apartheid model, which is what the Trump plan ultimately promotes. Israel’s tortured past and the amazing moral basis for its very existence argues it is so much better than that. A generation of CIA officers in the region, and, I bet, many old friends in the Israeli security establishment, would agree.

Image: This picture taken on February 13, 2020 shows a view of a watchtower and a section of Israel’s controversial separation barrier on the outskirts of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem (foreground), the Qalandia camp for Palestinian refugees in the occupied West Bank behind (C), and Israeli construction cranes at work on new housing units in the Jewish settlement of Kochav Ya’akov near the West Bank city of Ramallah (background). Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Marc Polymeropoulos

Retired in June 2019 from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA after a 26 year career in operational headquarters and field management assignments covering the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, and Counter Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter @Mpolymer.