US Desperate for Post-Gaza Palestinian Partners
History offers a bleak assessment of previous ‘Third Force” efforts
NOTHING GLIMMERED SO BRIGHTLY for Washington during the long twilight years of the Cold War than the prospect of finding “third force” democratic alternatives to Soviet-backed revolutionary movements in post-colonial Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In Israel today, the Biden administration is pursuing a similar Hail Mary strategy, urging the Netanyahu regime to allow a kind of third force of democracy-minded Palestinians to supplant Hamas in postwar Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
It’s been a nonstarter for any number of reasons over the past several decades, but not for want of trying. Indeed, the U.S. has been down this road many times before. Few would be surprised if it turned out the CIA was scouring the globe for right-minded, so to speak, Palestinians. Good luck with that.
Take China, where in 1949 Mao Zedong’s communist forces vanquished and expelled the corrupt, feckless Nationalists, led by U.S.-backed Chiang Kai-shek, to Taiwan. As CIA historian Nicolas Dujmović summed up in a review of The CIA and Third Force Movements in China During the Early Cold War, by Roger Jeans, “from 1949 into 1954, CIA covertly supported anticommunist, ostensibly democratic movements that were not associated with the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang).”
This was a fantasy. There was no rolling back Mao’s communists, whose victorious campaign against the cruel Japanese occupiers and Nationalists had won over the peasants. The U.S. effort came to a pathetic end in 1954, when the communists infiltrated a secret CIA cell on the mainland and lured an American plane to extract its compromised agent. The C-47 was shot down and two of its CIA occupants, Richard Fecteau and John Downey, spent the next two decades in a Chinese prison.
Shades of the Bay of Pigs, a few years later. What were they thinking?
“[T]his is, indeed, how not to run a covert action,” Dujmović wrote. “It is hard to disagree with [author Jeans’] final assessment that ‘there are limits to the ability of an outside force to influence a country.’ It is entirely apt that the last two words of this narrative are ‘wishful thinking.’”
Undaunted, the CIA tried again in South Vietnam, in a not-so-covert effort to prop up anti-communist nationalists as an alternative to the Hanoi (and Soviet) backed southern revolutionaries. The effort, which raised false hopes and destroyed lives, was famously caricatured with devastating effect by Graham Greene’s in his timeless novel, The Quiet American.
Then there’s the more recent fiasco in Iraq, when the CIA chose a crooked exile businessman, Ahmad Chalabi, to head up a post-Saddam government in Baghdad, a “third force” of sorts between Iran and Sunni terrorists. Or something.
“He was so unctuous, so obviously duplicitous and self-serving, I could not understand why anyone would buy what he was trying to sell,” former CIA analyst and White House NSC Middle East hand official Kenneth Pollack wrote upon Chalabi’s death in 2015.
“Why a great many people, particularly some terribly intelligent and worldly-wise American officials, took him at his word and believed that he was the answer to a variety of Iraq-related questions” was a mystery.
“It was all nonsense, Pollack added. “Complete nonsense. But many believed it. Or perhaps they just wanted to believe it.”
You know the ending. And now there’s a quest to find some acceptable Palestians. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks it’s possible, much less any Palestinian in whom Netanyahu and his pro-settler, Jewish supremacist regime would have any interest in supporting.
“Raising up a new, supposedly non-aligned group of Palestinians to rule postwar Gaza or a fledgling new independent state—in lieu of Hamas or the existing Palestinian Authority— would be as much a fool’s errand as similar ‘third force’ undertakings in Vietnam,” Frank Snepp, a former top CIA analyst in Saigon, told SpyTalk.
Israel’s efforts to cultivate a third force to administer the West Bank and Gaza Strip go back more than 50 years, to the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured those territories. It’s a history of one failure after another, all dashed on the Palestinians’ devotion to the idea of an independent state of their own.
The territories came under Israeli military rule. Over the next several years, Israeli intelligence, using tips provided by Palestinian collaborators, easily rolled up the underground cells of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israel had outlawed as a terrorist organization. But to avoid turning Israeli officers into occupation desk jockeys, Israel sought some locals to oversee public services and other functions of civilian life in the territories.
Israel’s first effort to develop this third force of Palestinian functionaries in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began with the military government's closely supervised elections for local clubs, labor unions, agricultural cooperatives, and charitable organizations. Eventually, municipal elections also were permitted. But as it turned out, these elections produced leaders who supported the nationalist aims of PLO. Rightwing Israelis wouldn’t stand for it. After Jewish terrorists planted bombs that severely wounded two West Bank mayors in 1980, Israel scrapped the elections
Later, Israel introduced another, more muscular third force, the so-called Village Leagues, which were militias made up largely of rural Palestinian thugs and criminals whom the Israelis deputized and armed to enforce the orders of the military government. Palestinians saw the Village Leagues as a collection of collaborators and traitors, leading the Israelis to disband them.
Then, in 1981, as part of the Camp David peace accord signed by Israel and Egypt, Israel created its so-called “civil administration” to govern the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli officials touted the new governing structure, which employed Palestinians, as the replacement for the Israeli military government in the territories. But in fact this more elaborate third force was subordinate to the military and Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency. Palestinians, defiantly waving the outlawed red, white, black and green PLO flag, staged frequent rock-throwing protests against the continuing occupation, and Israel troops responded with tear gas, truncheons and widespread arrests. Many of those detained reported that they had been tortured in Israeli prisons.
The Fire is Lit
In December 1987, Palestinian nationalist sentiment in the occupied territories boiled over with the eruption of violent demonstrations that first convulsed the Gaza Strip, then quickly spread to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Unprepared for such widespread communal violence, Israel responded with live fire that killed scores of young Palestinians and harsh measures against detainees that included the deliberate breaking of their bones.
The violence, which became known as the first intifada, led to secret talks between Israeli and PLO officials, who voiced their willingness to recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders and accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. After huddling secretly in Oslo under the auspices of Norwegian diplomats, the Israelis and Palestinians emerged in 1993 with an historic accord that included mutual recognition, an end to their state of war and a roadmap for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement was officially sealed on the White House lawn, with President Bill Clinton presiding as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands.
Under the Oslo accords, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the ancient West Bank city of Jericho, turning them over to Arafat and his newly minted Palestinian Authority. Enforcing the agreement in these enclaves were U.S.-trained and armed Palestinian police —effectively a third force. But Hamas, which Israel had promoted earlier as a rival third (or maybe fouth) force to act as a counterweight to the PLO, launched a wave of deadly suicide bombings inside Israel to torpedo the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu, an outspoken opponent of the Oslo accords, seized upon the bombings and the public’s fears to attack Rabin, who was assassinated by a rightwing religious Israeli in 1995. In the elections that followed, Netanyahu’s hardline Likud Party won, and he became prime minister.
Over the following years, Netanyahu slow-walked the implementation of the Oslo accords, stoking Palestinian distrust of the peace process and U.S. frustration with the skeptical Israeli leader. In 2000, President Bill Clinton brought Arafat and Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, to Camp David for a summit aimed at reaching a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But despite the herculean efforts of the participants, the summit ended with no agreement.
With the promise of an independent Palestinian state now uncertain, it was only a matter of time before the tinderbox of Palestinian fears and frustration combusted. Providing the match was rightwing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon, who staged a visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to underscore Israel’s claim to what Jews believe to be the site of both the First and Second temples, Judaism’s holiest turf. But because the same site, known by Arabs as the Haram al Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, also includes the Dome of the Rock, where the Quran says Mohammed ascended to heaven on his Miraculous Night Journey, as well as the al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, it is considered the most disputed — and explosive — 35 acres in the entire Middle East.
The paroxysm of communal violence that followed Sharon’s visit became known as the second intifada. And because the Palestinian security forces—the third force of the Oslo accords—were now armed, the fighting was exceedingly bloody. When it finally ended in early 2005, more than 3,300 Palestinians, 1,000 Israelis and 55 foreign nationals were dead.
To the surprise of many, Sharon, who had ridden his Temple Mount visit to the premiership in Israel’s 2001 elections, ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli occupation troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The following year, Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian territories. A bloody power struggle ensued between the Islamist Hamas and Fatah, the secular party that dominated the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. The result was the division of the Palestinian territories into two rival entities—the West Bank governed by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, and the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip—and the end of any real “third force.
Still adamantly opposed to the Oslo accords, Netanyahu returned to power in 2009 and quickly implemented a divide-and-rule strategy to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. He weakened the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by repeatedly withholding taxes that Israel had collected for the Palestinian Authority, making it hard for Abbas to pay his civil servants. In exchange for releasing the funds, he demanded that Palestinian security forces arrest militants, making the PA look like Israeli stooges.
At the same time, Netanyahu allowed the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate Qatar to provide Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, betting it would buy Hamas’ moderation despite its charter calling for Israel’s replacement by an Islamist caliphate. And despite Hamas’ classification as a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States, Netanyahu never demanded that U.S. Treasury officials take steps to freeze the group’s investment portfolio, valued at a half a billion dollars.
The policy allowed Netanyahu to point to the two rival Palestinian governments—a weak and feckless Palestinian Authority that couldn’t deliver on any peace agreement with Israel and a radical Islamist Hamas sworn to Israel’s destruction—and claim he had no viable Palestinian partner for peace talks.
With that approach now in tatters and the Palestinian death toll in the Gaza war approaching a staggering 20,000, the Biden administration is pushing for a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority to take over governance of the Gaza Strip once the fighting ends. Netanyahu, who once presented himself to voters as the guardian of Israel’s security and who now hopes to remain in office despite his failure to prevent Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of some 1,200 Israelis and its seizure of 240 hostages, has vowed to prevent any Palestinian Authority takeover of Gaza.
Others still refuse to give up.
Udi Dekel, an Israeli reserve brigadier general who now heads Palestinian research at Israel’s prestigious Institute for National Security Studies, published a paper Thursday in which he proposes that Netanyahu should demand the creation of a U.S.-led body that will determine the criteria for the revitalization of the Palestinian Authority. In addition to a governing body that is “stable, responsible, effective” and “not tainted by corruption, Dekel says this new and improved Palestinian Authority must have an orderly procedure to replace the 88-year-old Abbas, now in the 18th year of his four-year term; a monopoly on the use of force and continued close security cooperation with Israel.
However worthy an idea, it’s a pipe dream, many say.
“First problem: after all the bloodletting, there will be no non-aligned Palestinians,” says Snepp, the former CIA analyst. “Second problem: not even the most gullible survivor of the bloodletting—the average Gazan on the street—would in the near term trust any such ‘non-aligned’ group to be truly independent of the old combatants, the Israelis and Hamas. Nor would the old combatants allow any such group real independence.
“Too much is at stake,” Snepp adds. “Suspicions would poison the pot, and the wizards behind the screen would be outed in short order.”
It is, in short, too late. Decades too late. But that won’t keep America from trying.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that “Jack” Downey was shot down in a C-130 over China in 1954. It was John Downey, in a C-47.. Jack Downey was a later CIA station chief in Beijing. We regret the error.
Bonus: Watch Antony Blinken play the blues.
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