Opinion // Let Foreign Policy Guide Your Vote
An experienced negotiator (not Trump) is the key to good relations with Israel.
by Abraham D. Sofaer
Observers rarely have much luck guessing whether a given presidential candidate will actually help Israel achieve a secure peace. U.S. supporters of Middle East peace should start by assuming that the candidate most likely to advance America’s security is the one most likely to advance Israel’s. Beyond that rule, they should evaluate candidates’ proposed policies based on something we know: which ideas work in Middle Eastern diplomacy and which ideas fail.
Here is a short list of failed ideas that continue to dominate Middle East diplomacy:
Now or never. We often hear U.S. negotiators assert that Israel and the Palestinians must make peace “now” or lose the opportunity forever. But helping Israel and its neighbors to make peace has been a long-term process. Progress has come slowly, in steps, sometimes unilaterally. Time can even open new opportunities, such as Israel’s chance now to develop meaningful relationships with additional Arab states. The United States should respond to concrete opportunities rather than claim that some imaginary train is “leaving the station.”
All or nothing. Comprehensive plans to settle all the major issues Israel faces, usually advanced by presidents and secretaries of state, have repeatedly proved futile. They disappoint expectations and often miss opportunities for partial progress. The 1978 Camp David Accords succeeded because the participants gave up on settling the Palestinian issue. The Camp David II summit in 2000 failed because President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak insisted on a comprehensive agreement rather than accepting more limited progress. President George W. Bush’s 2002 “road map for peace” was a two-year trek to nowhere. And Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013-14 initiative to reach a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians in nine months was absurd from the start. The parties only pretended to take Kerry’s effort seriously, and the bitterness its failure generated is a reminder that poor diplomacy is not cost-free.
The solutions are obvious; just adopt them. Presidents (and candidates) hire well-known “experts” to help them form opinions on what Israel and the Palestinians should do to solve their disputes. The experts think they know the answers to all the complicated issues, such as settlements, security, right of return and Jerusalem. They help prepare and announce peace plans with outcomes regarded as obvious.
Any professional negotiator would advise against this top-down prescriptive approach. The key to resolving complex differences begins with assessing what each side is prepared to do on each difference and then focusing not on what the negotiator thinks they should do, but on what is possible at that time. Pressure can and should be brought to bear. But lasting solutions to complex issues cannot be imposed, however fair they may seem.
We know better than previous players. Every major step toward peace has been achieved through cumulative bipartisan efforts. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel under President Jimmy Carter could not have succeeded without the withdrawals negotiated by Henry Kissinger under President Richard Nixon. At Camp David II in 2000, both parties accepted that Israel would get sovereignty over the major settlements around Jerusalem in exchange for a corresponding territorial concession. President George W. Bush incorporated this position into his April 14, 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as an incentive for Israel to withdraw from Gaza. But President Barack Obama disregarded the Bush letter in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, calling instead for Israel’s withdrawal from “all” settlements beyond the 1967 lines. Eventually, the Obama administration affirmed it had no objection to the parties agreeing to a territorial exchange. But the damage had been done. After Cairo, no Palestinian leader could be less hard-line than the American president on Israeli withdrawal from settlements, and Israeli leaders felt they could not trust the Obama administration to adhere to important understandings.
Which of the candidates still in the race are likeliest to adhere to these failed policies? Based on their statements, the most likely are Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump. Both are excessively confident in their ability as negotiators and have signaled their intent to pressure Israel by proclaiming their “neutrality” (though Trump has also expressed solidarity with Israel). Sanders would bring a Carter-like zeal to the process, as he plainly regards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as insincere and condemned Israel’s use of force in Gaza on the basis of factually flawed assumptions.
Hillary Clinton’s frequently reiterated support for a two-state solution implies that she intends to press Israel to withdraw from settlements in Palestinian areas. But she properly blames Yasser Arafat for the failure at Camp David II, and she is against forcing negotiations likely to fail. At a small meeting at the Brookings Institution in 2005, I heard Clinton express skepticism about pursuing peace talks when the Palestinians were not prepared to respond. On the other hand, she repeatedly says “inaction is not an option,” which gives some concern that she may push even when nothing good is likely to come of it.
Governor John Kasich thinks the parties are not prepared to compromise. Senator. Ted Cruz promises to be a committed ally of Israel in the peace process and, judging from his comments, would not press for negotiations likely to be fruitless.
In short, a Clinton or Cruz administration would have better relations with Israel than presently exist, and Clinton would push pragmatically for peace. If either Sanders or Trump is elected, prepare for a turbulent process leading to disappointed expectations.
Abraham D. Sofaer, George P. Shultz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former State Department legal adviser, successfully mediated the Taba border dispute between Egypt and Israel.