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Trump's one good foreign policy idea: neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Most of what Donald Trump has to say is either ignorant, offensive or both. That's especially true when it comes to foreign policy. Yet when he's pushed to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — among the more politically charged issues in this election cycle — Trump actually makes some sense.

During an MSNBC town hall meeting in South Carolina on Feb. 17, the Republican front-runner described a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians as “probably the toughest deal in the world right now to make” and promised that he would “give it one hell of a shot.” In trying to make this deal, he declared that he would be “sort of a neutral guy,” and when asked whose fault it was that no agreement had been reached so far, he parried the question and refused to assign blame to either side.

In a subsequent Republican debate on CNN, as all the other candidates engaged in what has now become a ritual contest over who is the most pro-Israel, Trump briefly departed from the usual script.

“It doesn't help if I start saying, ‘I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage,” he declared. Nevertheless, he went on to insist, “With that being said, I am totally pro-Israel.”

However contradictory Trump's statements might be — he cannot be both “sort of a neutral guy” and “totally pro-Israel” — he is absolutely correct in claiming that impartiality is necessary in order to broker an Israeli-
Palestinian peace agreement.

Since the beginning of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, successive American presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have tried and failed to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Although there are many reasons for this failure, one contributing factor is the perception that the United States is not an “honest broker.”

A comprehensive peace agreement depends on both the Israelis and the Palestinians making significant, emotionally painful compromises over thorny issues such as the future of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian refugees and the demarcation of borders. Moreover, for a peace agreement to stick, these compromises cannot be completely one-sided, with the Palestinians, for instance, capitulating to all of Israel's demands.

Since Israel is by far the stronger party in the conflict, it is highly unlikely that it will meet the Palestinians half way without external pressure. This is where the United States comes in. If an American president acts as a neutral mediator in peace talks, coaxing Israel along when necessary, then he or she can in effect level the playing field and achieve a more equitable, long-lasting agreement.

Unfortunately, U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have not been honest brokers. Instead, as Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime participant in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, once put it, they have been “Israel's lawyer.”

“For far too long,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2005, “many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations.”

For example, in the failed peace talks at Camp David in July 2000 (in which Miller participated), President Clinton in effect teamed up with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in presenting Israeli proposals to the Palestinians and trying to persuade Yasser Arafat to accept them. Arafat, predictably, refused to budge.

More than 10 years later, little has changed. Despite his testy relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama has not recast the United States' role in the peace process.

Before the latest negotiations collapsed in April 2014, for instance, Secretary of State John F. Kerry behaved less like a mediator than a messenger, running back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah. When Israel balked at releasing more Palestinian prisoners despite having promised to do so, Kerry didn't play hardball. Instead he offered Netanyahu incentives and urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to not abandon the talks.

The U.S. wasn't always such a diplomatic failure in the region, in part because it wasn't always so reluctant to pressure Israel. In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was tasked with achieving a second disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt. But he ran up against Israeli resistance, leading then-President Ford to call for a “reassessment” of U.S. policy toward Israel. Eventually, the Israeli government (then led by Yitzhak Rabin) relented, paving the way for a historic peace deal a few years later .

If there's one thing that Trump knows, it's how to make a deal. Granted, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is not simply another real estate transaction. There's much more at stake and a lot more emotion involved. But having negotiated countless business agreements in the boardroom, Trump has apparently learned that tough negotiations sometimes need an impartial and credible mediator. This is one lesson that even he can teach us.

Dov Waxman is a professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University and the co-director of its Middle East Center. His latest book is "Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel."

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 09, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Trump's only good idea - He is right that impartiality is necessary to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe