On 12 June Austria withdrew its contingent of 378 peacekeepers – more than one-third of the total — from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force established in 1974 to maintain the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire. With Austria’s elections slated for September, Vienna feared a popular backlash should the end of the EU’s arms embargo on Syria lead local armed groups to attack European forces. But with Austrian soldiers the largest and most professional component of the Force, Vienna’s decision unsurprisingly prompted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to conclude: “The disintegration of the UN force in the Golan makes trenchant the fact that Israel cannot lean on international forces for its security”. The premier was not alone: this episode has only confirmed Israel’s historical skepticism of peacekeepers and the Israeli right wing’s conviction that Israel can rely only on its own brute force. The event did not help Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in which a major sticking point is Israel’s security needs in a purported peace agreement.
The irony is plain to see: after decades with nary a shot fired near the border, the Austrian peacekeepers were withdrawn just when sporadic Israeli-Syrian fire became increasingly common and the peacekeepers presence became vital. Vienna’s rationale is understandable: several UNDOF peacekeepers were kidnapped (and quickly released unharmed); more broadly, as it redeployed assets elsewhere, the Syrian regime left UN forces in this area exposed. Right or wrong, Vienna’s decision to withdraw – as opposed to UNDOF rising to the challenge by bolstering its mandate and numbers — dealt a significant blow to the credibility of peacekeeping forces in the Arab-Israeli context. With Netanyahu today rejecting an international presence along the Jordan River – an element long considered integral to any peace agreement — and insisting instead on a long-term Israeli military presence, the consequences of Austria’s decision may reverberate further than Vienna intended. Israeli officials who argue the insertion of a robust international force can answer Israel’s security needs henceforth may have a harder time bringing their people around.
The timing could hardly be worse. Ungoverned areas around Israel have become an enormous challenge both to Israel and regional stability. The Sinai Peninsula is plagued by arms trafficking, including into the Gaza Strip, and the area around Quneitra – just to the Syrian side of the armistice line with Israel — may emerge as an enduring battleground between Assad and parts of the diverse opposition. With Arab upheavals violently shaking the Middle East, thinning the international presence can only augment the risk of the Syrian conflict spilling over into an Arab-Israeli conflagration. Even a strengthened UNDOF presence cannot guarantee that the border will not witness an escalation. But there is every reason to avoid its collapse, as peacekeeping forces still have the potential to minimize and defuse provocations along the front.
Furthermore, any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will require robust peacekeeping forces. For Israelis to pull back their army from the West Bank, they need virtual certainty that they will not face attack from these areas. Should a Palestinian state someday be established, even a conciliatory Israel –after a major policy change or under new leadership – would not entrust its security to Palestine’s security forces for some time and so would require the presence of a particularly robust international force as guarantor. Palestinians also would have a stake in the arrangement: they would want to be assured that international peacekeepers whose very presence would somewhat dissuade Israel from incurring into the West Bank would not disappear when the going gets tough.
This is why it is so important that Western governments respond positively to Ban Ki Moon’s call to significantly beef up the UN force. The UN Secretary General called to expand the force by nearly a third to 1,250 soldiers, strengthen its self-defense capabilities and expand its mandate to include at least the ability to defend itself in the battlefield; he also presented the option of temporarily cutting back patrols and briefly closing a few observer positions to deal with escalations without entirely pulling out the UN forces. While in extending UNDOF’s mandate the UNSC accepted his recommendations to strengthen self defense capacities and reduce the riskier night patrols, so far only Fiji, in committing to replace the Japanese and Croatian contingents and now also nearly all of the departing Austrians, answered the call. (Russia did as well, though under the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement it cannot participate in peacekeeping missions because it is a permanent Security Council member.) The Fijian army’s professionalism notwithstanding, in Israeli eyes the loss of the Austrians is a blow to the force’s perceived status: Western soldiers, whose competence Jerusalem does not doubt, are turning tail, while only a Pacific mini-state comes to the rescue. Recent reports that the Philippines would withdraw their forces unless UNDOF was provided heavier weapons and robust means of protection aggravated the problem. If future Western commitments to Israeli-Arab peace are to mean anything, Western governments now need to back up their words with actions.
The commitment of Western states to bolstering the mission with western peacekeepers would be a step in the right direction in light of the historic importance of peacekeeping forces. Israelis — and parties to conflict around the world more generally – should be brought to understand that should peacekeeping forces suffer a pull-out, the gap quickly will be filled and forces beefed up. The alternative is to reinforce Israel’s long-standing conviction that, in the face of an unreliable and fickle international community, it has no alternative to the kind of Hobbesian self-reliance it already is blamed for relying too heavily on. In the more immediate term, if Secretary Kerry will be able to get negotiations going, such steps can only improve the odds to actually make progress on the issues he wants to start with.