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Americans Help Keep the Peace

With negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus emerging from their long hiatus and Israel inching ever closer to achieving its long-standing goal of making peace with all four of its immediate neighbors, talk is once again building about the need for a U.S. presence in the region to help cement peace.

While this idea has been the source of some controversy in the past, it would be consistent with a long tradition of U.S. support on the ground and in the air for Middle East peace. Under a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms — from UNTSO to U-2 to MFO to CIA — the United States has worked for over 50 years to maintain peace and stability in this troubled part of the world.

Founded in 1948 to help monitor the U.N.-brokered truce that ended the first Arab-Israeli war, the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is the oldest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. From the beginning, the United States contributed personnel and support; currently two U.S. military observers serve in its ranks. Over the years, UNTSO has supervised armistice agreements on all four of Israel’s borders. Today, its principle functions are monitoring the 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement on the Golan and the original 1949 armistice line between Israel and Lebanon. Neither glamorous nor obtrusive, UNTSO has quietly and efficiently done its job for over a half century.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States agreed to help Jerusalem and Damascus stabilize the border. Every week since then, an American U-2 reconnaissance plane has overflown the Golan Heights, taking photos of Israeli and Syrian positions in the limited forces zones established in the 1974 disengagement agreement.

These photos are given to Israel and Syria, supplementing their own intelligence and providing each state another means to verify that the other is not planning a surprise attack. The information allows them to defuse potentially flammable issues before they reach the crisis stage.

Twenty-five years of quiet on the Golan is due in no small part to the U-2’s — and America’s — crucial role in supporting peace.

The largest and most visible U.S. peacekeeping mission is the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). Charged with observing the demilitarized Sinai peninsula, the MFO was born out of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Broad Arab and Soviet opposition to the agreement made it impossible for the U.N. to assume its traditional peacekeeping role, so the United States organized an alternate monitoring force free of the highly-politicized U.N. Composed of a large military monitoring force and a much smaller civilian observer unit, the MFO has almost 2,700 personnel, about half of whom are Americans. By any measure, the mission has been a resounding success. Not only has the Sinai been incident-free for two decades, but the MFO’s U.S.-Israeli-Egyptian supervisory board has allowed Jerusalem and Cairo to cooperate in unprecedented ways.

Most recently, the CIA — known more for working in the shadows than the light of day — assumed an important role monitoring the implementation of the 1998 Wye River accord.

For Israel, the CIA has been useful in helping to ensure that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is meeting its commitments to fight terror. The CIA had already been working with the PA to improve its ability to detect and prevent terrorism, so this was widely viewed as a natural evolution of the CIA’s role in helping promote the peace process.

It is unclear at this point whether or not a U.S. presence would be required to help implement a Syrian-Israel peace deal, nor is it known what form it would take if the parties made such a request. Previous Israeli governments have expressed interest in the idea of U.S. peace monitors on the Golan, while Syria is amenable to the notion of international monitors, who could include Americans. To be sure, this issue will be front and center as the negotiations move ahead.

Source: Near East Report, (February, 7, 2000), AIPAC