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However confused the signals emanating from the Trump administration’s policy on Israel, there are still only three basic approaches to making Middle East peace.
The first approach, to be found in many American pro-Israel groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, supports the vision of whichever Israeli government holds power, taking the view that there should be no daylight between the United States and Jerusalem. Certainly the “no daylight” mantra was the main Israel talking point of the Trump campaign—one that attracted his politically conservative, often Orthodox base. The analyst Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group has pointed out that supporters of this approach (whom he calls “embracers”) believe that “peace can be brokered only by embracing Israel tightly, reassuring it and alleviating its fears.” Embracers believe that “for Israel to have the confidence necessary to take generous steps, it needs unwavering American support.”
A cynic would call the “no daylight” argument a play by American politicians for Jewish votes, or by Jewish machers to ensure that they get invitations to the prime minister’s residence when they visit Israel.
There is, however, another motive, one based on classic Zionist theory: that it is the historical duty of the “exiles” of the diaspora to support the Jewish state. In any event, under the “no daylight” theory, Israel proposes and Washington disposes.
A second, more nuanced view is represented by Dennis Ross, Middle East guru for five presidents and numerous secretaries of state. Ross says Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible only if peace proposals do not push Israel beyond its comfort zone: The U.S. can’t preach ideas outside this domestic Israeli consensus, no matter how far the Israeli position diverges from, say, the Palestinian point of view. Ross expounded the virtues of this kind of “continuing management” in his 2015 book Doomed to Succeed: U.S.-Israel Relations from Truman to Obama. Critics have called Ross one of “Israel’s lawyers,” but that is not a fair criticism. Rather, he believes that you can’t get an Israel-Palestine peace process without an enthusiastic Israel. A person following this view would carefully take the temperature of what Israel felt comfortable with and view that as the red line for negotiations. News accounts of the round of meetings spearheaded in August by Jared Kushner’s team clearly reflect this approach. U.S. officials reportedly met numerous times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but declined to state U.S. support for a two-state solution, saying instead that it is up to the two sides, not U.S. negotiators, to agree on a way forward.
The problem, of course, is that the Israeli consensus is far from the Palestinian consensus, so U.S. proposals based on the former have historically gone nowhere. As just one example, U.S. proposals under President George W. Bush assumed that the near-Jerusalem settlement of Maale Adumim would be part of Israel in any peace deal (and thus exempt from any settlement-building ban), since the Israeli consensus demanded it. Palestinian negotiators pointed out every day, however, that such an exemption was anathema to the Palestinian consensus.
One can imagine a variant of Dennis Ross’s view, particularly attractive to those who fancy themselves experts in “the art of the deal.” After you carefully take the temperature of what both sides can accept, you do what practitioners of deal-making would expect—you work out how far you can push the parties beyond it. If, for example, I tell my lawyer that I will not settle my medical tort case for less than $550,000, and the other side physically places half a million in cash on the table, we might still get a deal. This stretching of each side’s comfort level might result in a deal that both sides sign but neither side particularly likes.
But there is a third approach, mapped out in Thrall’s recent book, The Only Language They Understand. Recognizing that both Israel and Palestine find it easier to do nothing unless they are pressured, either by internal events (i.e., the intifada) or by external pressure (i.e., from the United States), he supports the United States’ “forcing compromise” on both Israel and Palestine. In the past, such “tough love” has meant that the United States would lay out the terms, or at least the parameters, of a fair settlement. President Bill Clinton tried this, and President Barack Obama talked about leaving a set of parameters as his legacy, though he never followed through.
Unfortunately, the words of former undersecretary of state George Ball in a 1977 Foreign Affairs article, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself,” still carry resonance: “The parties will never come anywhere near agreement by the traditional processes of diplomatic haggling, unless the United States first defines the terms of that agreement…and makes clear that America’s continued involvement in the area depends upon acceptance by both sides of the terms it prescribes.” This sounds, on its face, as if it would be anathema to Trump supporters. But if there is any possibility at all for President Trump to move the ball forward in the peace process, it may well require him to lay out an American position (whatever it is at this point) forcefully and clearly.
Success in the Dennis Ross sense, which might well mean not a peace deal but rather successful Israeli management of the conflict, would fit better with the Trump team’s reported approach so far—but that approach leads ineluctably to a choice between a democratic or a Jewish state.
There are hints that Kushner and his team are interested in a different kind of tough love entirely, an “outside-in” approach by which the moderate Arab states would agree to peace parameters and then sell them to the Palestinians. If this is to work, though, Kushner will have no choice but to apply U.S. pressure on the Israeli side to push its position closer to the Palestinians’. Otherwise, the “art of the deal” is likely to look more like the “art of the status quo.”
Marshall Breger is a law professor at Catholic University.