by Robert E. Hunter
On the occasion of Israel’s 69th birthday, it is worth reflecting that every US president, from Harry Truman onward, has tried to arrange peace between Israel and its neighbors. Some have produced partial success, notably Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the most important step ever towards ensuring Israel’s security. Now Donald Trump will give peacemaking a try. Although people of good will must wish him the best, the odds are still that he will become yet another American Sisyphus.
President Trump has set an ambitious goal: not just to promote a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, including revival and achievement of the so-called “two-state solution,” but also to embed this effort in broader security and other productive arrangements across the Middle East. This week, during a visit to the White House by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (and styled by some countries also as president of the state of Palestine), Trump said: “I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement—to mediate, to arbitrate anything they’d [Israel and the Palestinians] like to do.” Further: “We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done…”
For old Arab-Israeli peacekeeping hands (at least those without bias), the answer lies in what’s called the “Clinton Parameters.” These were contained in a statement made by President Bill Clinton in December 2000 at the end of his administration, which contains all the central elements for Israeli-Palestinian peace and security.
To summarize, the state of war would come to an end. Palestine would become a fully recognized and independent state. It would be demilitarized. A large part of the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank would become part of Israel proper, with land swaps to offset this movement of the pre-1967 borders (the “Green Line”). Jerusalem would be the capital of two countries, with the holy places to be administered by local religious leaders (who have shown for decades that, left alone, they know how to do that). A limited number of the Palestinian refugees from Israel (or their descendants)—the so-called “1948 refugees”—could return, with compensation for the rest. Assuming that Gaza were included in the process—a huge assumption, to be sure—there would be some form of direct access for Palestinians between the two parts of the new state. All economic impediments on Palestine would be removed. To help grease the ways, there could be some form of outside military presence in the new Palestinian state, ideally run by NATO under a United Nations mandate (but not a UN operation, which is understandably anathema to Israel).
This summary of all the essential elements for an agreement took less than a paragraph to state. But in the 17 years since President Clinton advanced these ideas—obvious to unbiased practitioners and informed observers—there has been precious little progress. In fact, circumstances for moving toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement are less auspicious now than they were when Clinton concluded his abortive Camp David Summit in late 2000. Political relations between Israelis and Palestinians are still frozen, as are both sides’ internal politics on this issue. Abbas has limited credibility among his own people and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his closest advisors are dead set against any serious movement toward a settlement. And, to put it mildly, other developments in the region do not augur well. Terrorism is almost omni-present. Iraq is still in receivership. Syria, sitting right on Israel’s doorstep, is being ripped apart. And the region as a whole is riven by rivalries between Sunnis and Shias and the struggle for regional primacy by many countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey, to name just the leading contenders.
A Way Forward?
Although President Trump has not revealed his hole card—or even much in the way of strategy beyond the tactics of meeting with most of the contending parties, save Iran, in his first few months in office—he seems to be betting heavily that unstinting US support for Sunni states in their confrontation with Iran will strengthen their willingness to build on the anti-Iran strategic partnership they have forged with Israel.
The US president also seems to have bought into three propositions:
1) America, as a true friend of Israel, should help it try to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, so that it will not, as a unified country from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, have to choose whether to be either a Jewish state or a democracy;
2) Peace and security for Israel and an independent state for Palestinians will help to reduce the opprobrium in which the United States has long been held among Arab and other Muslim peoples of the region
3) Israeli-Palestinian peace will aid the United States in reducing its strategic and military engagements in the Middle East, which are preventing it from focusing more on the bigger issue of China’s future.
As a side benefit, a Palestinian state would also reduce Iran’s capacity to curry favor with other Muslim states with its verbal assaults on Israel. This Iranian tactic does little to make it popular with other Muslims and just damages its prospects of reengaging with the outside world and especially with the United States and its anti-Iran domestic politics.
It is even possible that success in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking would reduce the potential for Russian meddling in the region.
All this would be a neat trick if President Trump can pull off a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. However, in the current and likely future conditions of regional turmoil, no Israeli government would be willing to take “risks for peace” without iron-clad guarantees, including against terrorism, that would be almost impossible to craft, with the added problem of the almost universal lack of confidence in Trump’s consistency or determination.
Yet more tiny steps here and tiny steps there and “confidence-building measures,” both of which keep career diplomats in business, are not likely to move things forward, just as they have failed in the past. Rather, what’s required is a clear declaration by President Trump that the content of the Clinton Parameters (with a few tweaks) is the policy of the United States—full stop. Such a commitment proved to be too much, in US domestic politics, even for President Obama, who endured political slings and arrows for dealing with the Iranian devil, even though he thereby made Israel, the region, and the world much safer. At the same time, the US government would need to craft and then demonstrate a coherent set of policies for the entire region, which the preceding two administrations woefully failed to do and which this administration has also so far shown no inclination to do.
President Trump has taken the optimistic high road. Maybe he can succeed where others have failed. But he will have to follow the preceding prescriptions to have a fighting chance. If he does, then history will thank him. If not, he will join a long line of US presidents, with a few exceptions, whose efforts in this cause were noble but insufficient.