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Is Trusteeship for Palestine the Answer?

In the wake of Hamas's coup in the Gaza Strip and the appointment of an emergency government by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process faces its greatest crisis in years. A three-state solution cannot lead to a resolution of the conflict. Yet without a responsible Palestinian partner capable of living up to its commitments to peace, there will be no possibility of putting the peace process back on track. Given the collapse of the Palestinian security apparatus, the call is again heard for international intervention.

When I proposed an international trusteeship for Palestine in the May/June 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs, it was in the context of the forthcoming war in Iraq. At the time, President George W. Bush had claimed that a positive ripple effect would wash across the region. On the eve of the war, Bush had endorsed a road map for creating an independent Palestinian state. I believed that it was essential for Bush to take advantage of the opportunity that his war-making in Iraq would generate for peacemaking on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

But, having served as President Bill Clinton's and Bush's ambassador to Israel at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, I had become convinced that nothing would come of any renewed U.S. effort unless an antidote was found to the fundamental weakness of Palestinian governing institutions. Without a responsible Palestinian partner and a capable and disciplined Palestinian security apparatus, no progress could be made on any peace plan.

Despairing that Palestinians could not on their own overcome the dysfunctional governing structure that Yasser Arafat had built, and knowing that Arafat was no longer a reliable partner for peace, I proposed a full-scale U.S.-led and U.N.-endorsed international intervention to take away control of most of the West Bank and all of Gaza from Arafat and the Israeli army. Those territories were to be held in trust for the Palestinians while the trustees worked with responsible Palestinian partners to create the institutions of a viable, independent state and while final status negotiations between Israel and representative Palestinians defined the state's final borders. The trusteeship for Palestine would have required an international force of some 10,000 troops -- led by special forces -- that would have been responsible for maintaining order, dismantling the infrastructure of terror, and rebuilding the Palestinian security forces.

Although this idea was considered by the Bush administration, when its far more ambitious trusteeship in Iraq quickly began to founder the White House's appetite for trying anything similar in Palestine disappeared. Bush went back to his default position of disengagement from any serious effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with predictable results.

With Gaza now firmly in the hands of Hamas, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gaining international recognition for an emergency government whose writ does not extend beyond the West Bank, voices can again be heard calling for trusteeship-like solutions. Indeed, the most notable calls for international intervention have come from the Israeli government, which had previously opposed the idea. Having pulled out of Gaza unilaterally in August 2005, with indifference to what kind of forces would fill the vacuum, the Israelis have now come to understand the consequences: a failed terrorist state is being established on their border. Reluctant to intervene in Gaza again, they want some dependable party to assume responsibility there and help Abbas regain control. But there are no volunteers for taming a territory now teeming with armed gangs, warlords, and a well-equipped Hamas militia. The U.S. has its hands full in Iraq, NATO is struggling to meet its troop commitments in Afghanistan, and neighboring Egypt has no appetite for becoming Gaza's policeman.

In the end, that job may well have to be done by the Israel Defense Forces if the ineffectual Qassam rockets that continue to fall on Israeli towns and kibbutzim become more deadly. But once the job is accomplished, with high casualties on both sides, Israel will not want to stay one minute more than necessary. That is when an international force will be essential to help Abbas, as the democratically-elected president of the Palestinian Authority, retake control there.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush, and the other members of the Quartet seem committed to preventing the West Bank from going the way of Gaza. They have responsible Palestinian partners in Abbas and his emergency government led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But yet again, the entire enterprise is tenuous because of the absence of an effective Palestinian capability to control the territory. For the time being, the IDF is doing the job in the West Bank of dismantling the infrastructure of terror and preventing Hamas from mounting a military challenge to Abbas' control there. But the more Abbas depends on the IDF, the more he will be discredited in the eyes of Palestinians. One of their most pressing demands is for the removal of IDF roadblocks in the West Bank. But this will not happen until there is a security force capable of taking control -- something Abbas does not possess. A U.N.-mandated international force should take over from the IDF and enable it to return to its pre-intifada lines in the West Bank. Abbas would immediately gain the credit for the Israeli withdrawal. He could then enter into negotiations with Olmert about the disposition of the rest of the West Bank, while Israelis have a chance to test the effectiveness of the international forces in the Palestinian territories.

The 2007 version of the trusteeship idea is perhaps better referred to as a "partnership" between the Palestinians and the international community, since the international force would not be replacing the Palestinian government but rather helping the Palestinian president take control of the West Bank as Israel withdraws in stages. Should Israel have to reenter Gaza, the same principle could apply. If Tony Blair is to have any success in his new job as the Quartet's Middle East envoy, he will need a game plan like this in his pocket and several thousand international forces ready to back him up.

This article is an update to a May/June 2003 Foreign Affairs essay titled "A Trusteeship for Palestine?"