Why you should care
Because others have tried, and failed.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The President-elect has promised to turn President Obama’s Middle East policies on their head. Whereas the current U.S. administration has criticized Israeli policies almost from the start, Donald Trump has spoken of the “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel and, upon winning the presidency, called Israel a “beacon of hope.” Does this mean his presidency will herald a new era in U.S.-Israeli relations?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to the Donald as a “great friend of Israel,” and the two men are reportedly planning to meet soon and discuss America’s partnership with the Jewish state. Trump may indeed restore the historical alliance to its previous level, but ushering in a new era is altogether unlikely.
Many presidents enter the Oval Office believing failures of diplomacy have more to do with their predecessors than with adversaries.
The U.S.-Israeli connection is resilient largely because the two countries share similar values, but relations have not always been tight. While Harry S. Truman supported Israel’s establishment for idealistic and emotional reasons, his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a realist. There were more than 20 Arab states — many rich with oil and gas — and only one Israel, which had no natural resources of which to speak. It was for this reason that, in 1956, Eisenhower sided with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser against not only Israel but also NATO allies, the United Kingdom and France. Eisenhower’s gambit to win Arab allies failed, however, and Nasser doubled down instead on the Soviet Union. Within two years, Eisenhower concluded that Israel was simply a better ally than the Arab states, no matter how many there were.
This is why nefarious whispers about the Israel lobby’s influence signal profound ignorance: It was realism that led the United States and Israel into a tight embrace, no matter the personal proclivities of presidents. Both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, for example, stood by Israel even though neither was particularly sympathetic to the Jewish state. In the present day, consider the U.N. voting record of both Israel and Arab states: In 2015, Israel voted with the United States at the United Nations more than 90 percent of the time; the closest Arab state, Tunisia, voted with the United States only 35 percent of the time. And that was an outlier, as most Arab states voted with the U.S. position less than 29 percent of the time — less frequently than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) November 9, 2016
Many presidents enter the Oval Office believing failures of diplomacy have more to do with their predecessors than with adversaries. Every president since Ronald Reagan has engaged both Israeli leaders and the Palestinians, each believing they could do better than those who came before. But Obama’s early demand for a settlement freeze reversed decades of Israeli understandings not only with the United States but quietly with Palestinian leadership as well. By the end of the Clinton administration, both Israelis and Palestinians recognized the broad contour of an eventual agreement: There would be no return to the 1949 armistice lines (which is what the pre-1967 borders should be called), but rather land swaps by which Israel would formally incorporate most settlement blocs. Simply put, there is a difference between establishing an illegal outpost and adding an extra bedroom onto a house in a Jerusalem suburb.
The problem was never settlements; it was the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to make the final gamble for peace. After multiple rounds of negotiations mediated by the United States and others, Israeli Premiers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert presented their counterparts — first Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat and then President Mahmoud Abbas — peace agreements, only to have the Palestinian leadership reject them and walk away without counterproposals.
For Trump, Palestinian-Israeli peace would be “the ultimate deal.” “As a deal-maker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake,” he said. As with his predecessors, however, ego trumps reality. Politically, it is questionable whether the Palestinian leadership has the authority to make a deal. Hamas, with its genocidal covenant forswearing any compromise with Israel, controls the Gaza Strip. Eighty-one-year-old Abbas, currently serving the 12th year of his four-year term, has refused to appoint a vice president, guaranteeing a debilitating power struggle when he dies.
The question then becomes, what can Trump do? There is no undiscovered magic formula. If Trump really wants to unleash a new era, he might forgo traditional diplomacy. How? By reminding the Palestinians that they do not have the demographic advantage some assume. Or by taking the 2008 Olmert offer directly to the Palestinian people in a referendum. If they vote yes, celebrate fruition of the two-state solution. If they vote no, let the Palestinians suffer the consequences as the world leaves them behind.