Neutrality or Peace in the Middle East?

by Jim Talent

The discussion between Senator Rubio and Donald Trump on Israel during the last debate was quite important, because it highlighted the fundamental difference between an approach to the Israeli–Palestinian issue that has a chance of succeeding and one that not only will not succeed, but will bring more conflict and war.

I realize a few days have passed since that debate, and the political world has moved on; and many people didn’t much care about this aspect of the debate anyway.  But they should care — not as an academic exercise and not because of the impact on the election — but because national-security issues affect them.

That point is worth addressing for a moment.

The hardest part about national security is explaining how and why it matters, in the sense of having an actual impact on the lives of Americans. Our security policy has been failing for years, and has failed so badly in the last seven years that the failure is now resulting not just in growing risk but actual attacks on our people and our way of life. 

Radicalized Muslims are killing Americans, in the United States. Our homeland is being attacked through cyber space. American sailors and citizens are being seized abroad, in violation of our rights. Terrorist governments are getting lots of weapons, including nuclear weapons and cyber weapons and maybe bio-weapons, and that means there is quite a good chance that terrorists will get those weapons too. 

The Chinese are establishing hegemony in the East and South China Sea, a part of the world that is vital to our economy, which means vital to your job, your family, and your ability to pay your mortgage. And the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party don’t care about you; they care about their own power and their own interests. As a matter of fact, all other things being equal, they’d just as soon hurt you as not.  

That’s true of all our adversaries: ISIS, the other terrorist groups, the leaders of North Korea, Russia, and China. They kill their own people when it advances their interests and sometimes when it doesn’t, and they’ll kill Americans if it advances their own interests, and maybe even if it doesn’t, when they think they can get away with it.

Right now they are getting away with it. The United States is slapped around all over the world, and if America doesn’t elect a president who takes that seriously, the next stages of escalation will be something you won’t be able to forget after two or three days.

Now let’s discuss how America should approach potential Israeli–Palestinian negotiations.

Mr. Trump’s attitude is that the United States should be a neutral party, an honest broker, between Israel and the Palestinians. That approach can work when both sides to a dispute want a deal — when there is some congruence between the objectives of the two parties. 

But the Palestinians (and especially the leaders who represent them — Hamas and the Palestinian Authority) don’t want a deal with Israel; they want to destroy Israel as a Jewish state. And to the extent the United States presents itself as neutral between the two sides, it encourages Hamas and the PA to believe that they can use America to force concessions from Israel that decisively undermine its security. 

That means that if they negotiate at all, it will be to achieve ends the Israelis can’t possibly agree to, which means the negotiations will fail — which is exactly what has happened under Barack Obama. It only makes matters worse when an administration blames Israel for that outcome, because that drives further distance between the United States and Israel, and further emboldens Israel’s enemies, reducing even further the chance for peace.

In theory, the “two state solution” is possible, but the indispensable precondition is a Palestinian leadership that is truly willing to accept Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. That hasn’t happened yet and may never happen, but it certainly will not happen as long as Hamas and the PA believe that they can use American neutrality to compromise Israeli security enough that it can be destroyed by terrorism or military action.    

In short, the United States must be a firm and consistent partisan on Israeli’s behalf; otherwise the conditions necessary for a successful agreement will never exist.  

The tactics of negotiations are important, but if a president gets the strategic context wrong — if he doesn’t understand the motives and objectives of the people on all sides of the table — no amount of negotiating brilliance will accomplish what he wants.

As Senator Rubio said during the debate, Palestine is not the New York real estate market. I presume that in that market, everyone has the same objective: to make as much money as possible. A good deal would allow everyone to maximize their profit achieves everyone’s goal, and I have no doubt that Mr. Trump is adept at negotiating such deals. 

But the Israeli–Palestinian dispute is not about money. It’s not even about whether there should be a Palestinian state. The world, and Israel, have accepted that as a goal. It’s about whether there should be a Jewish state. On that subject, the United States cannot be neutral, and cannot sound as if it is — not if America cares about honor, interest, or peace.

The stakes in this game are higher than most people realize. It’s become fashionable for many in the Western world to disparage Israel, as French official Daniel Bernard once did, and to support Israeli national security, if at all, only to the extent necessary to gain some additional trade or hold a few Jewish votes back home.

The Israelis, however, don’t regard themselves and their continued existence in those terms. Zionism has been around for a long time, but Israel as a nation arose on the ashes of the Holocaust, and that episode is still the central dominating feature of Israel’s national identity. 

No matter how isolated the Israelis get, no matter how much the world wishes they would just go away, the Jews will not walk into another Holocaust again. They have a toughness and courage that much of the Western world not only does not have but no longer even recognizes.  If they are backed far enough into a corner, they’ll fight, and the last thing we need is more escalating conflict in the Middle East. American “neutrality” sounds fair and seems safe, but it’s another match in a powder keg that could well explode during the next four years.

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