American foreign policy Barack Obama Israel Middle East peace process Palestinians

Will Obama, Clinton or McCain make Israel-Palestine a priority on Day 1?

To gauge what the presidential candidates might do about the ongoing Arab-Israeli nightmare, one has to make inferences based on inflections, hints, nuances and tea leaves. What they or their campaign staffers say now is at least as important as the identity of 4 or 5 of the many “foreign policy advisors” who have communicated with them.

One of the measures I am using to judge candidates is not only who is most likely to have a robust, creative and at least occasionally evenhanded Middle East policy, but also who is most likely to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a high priority from their first day in office.

In “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace –American Leadership in the Middle East” published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Daniel Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky have offered a host of concrete, practical suggestions to the next administration, based on interviews with dozens of diplomats and others who know what they are talking about. Several of their recommendations require a commitment to putting the issue on the front burner and keeping it there:

1) The president needs to adopt a hands-on policy from the beginning of his/her term. The Arab-Israeli question ought to figure prominently in an early presidential speech, sending a loud and clear signal that the issue is high on the agenda.

2) From the first day in office, the president ought to charge those responsible for Middle East policy with developing…a comprehensive and durable strategy not just to manage the conflict, but to end it. Such a strategy must include concrete proposals for monitoring and judging compliance by all sides.

3) The United States should lock in the gains of earlier negotiations, especially before public support in the region erodes or events on the ground further undermine prospects for a peaceful settlement.

Interestingly, Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, appears to agree with Kurtzer/Lasensky, based on an interview with Roger Cohen in the NY Times last month (“No Manchurian Candidate,” 2/11/2008):

Foreign policy will roar back once this is a straight Republican-Democrat fight. A Democrat who’s going to win has be strong on core American defense principles, which include Israel’s security.

Obama feels Israel in his kishkas, all right. Equally, he feels dialogue, which has been his way of getting things done since he became a Chicago community organizer in the 1980s. There would be no six-year time-outs on Israel-Palestine under an Obama presidency. “He’d be actively involved from day one,” said Axelrod.

That does not mean that Hillary or McCain disagree. We just haven’t heard from their campaigns about the extent to which the conflict will be an early, and high, priority. But we do know that Hillary’s foreign policy advisors who are actively campaigning for her include the estimable Mara Rudman, former NSC Chief of Staff and Deputy National Security Advisor in the Clinton Administration. She is clearly an advocate of vigorous American engagement in the region (and on the board of Americans for Peace Now)…

Anyone else have tea leaf readings, inflections, dreams or visions that are worth sharing?

22 thoughts on “Will Obama, Clinton or McCain make Israel-Palestine a priority on Day 1?

  1. “Occasionally evenhanded…?” Isn’t that a bit like being “occasionally pregnant?” The U.S. should show both sides it will treat them fairly and take an unbiased view of the conflict all the time, not just when there is the right diplomatic moment based on the standards and whims of the Israeli government…

  2. I don’t read tea leaves, just acts (“It doesn’t matter what Israel/Palestine/USA says, what matters is what they do).

    I am waiting for the ONLY sign of seriousness that would be immediately visible as such to all the world, and also might be effective as a push toward a just and lasting peace:

    The US president-elect says, day after the election, that he asks President Bush to announce as a new US position

    >>> that the international law of occupation will be enforced by the US under all circumstances and that, therefore, Israel is required to remove all settlers and all vestiges of the wall from within all occupied territories, including occupied East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, according to a schedule that Israel shall publish to the world on January 1, 2009, and which Israel shall comply with, which calls for a steady removal of settlers and wall to be completed by January 1, 2010.

    I have little doubt that letting Israel see that it cannot HAVE all of Palestine without a treaty will get Israel to seriously consider what it wants — endless occupation without any settlers or wall, or a peace treaty which might allow some settlers to remain — that there is at least a CHANCE that peace might result. There appears to be PRECISELY ZERO chance of peace as matters have heretofore been conducted by the US.

    This proposal, to enforce the law, is NOT an attempt to dictate terms of peace, or even to dictate an end of occupation. The latter would certainly be best, but making the occupation lawful (and here I refer to the ICJ’s July 2004 advisory opinion which called the settlements and the wall illegal at international law) is the next best and will do the Palestinians the most good during the SECOND 40 YEARS of the occupation.

  3. There is no chance that a new US president will expend all of his/her political capital on a contentious issue like Israel/Palestine from day one.

    They will focus on what they are confident that they can accomplish.

    The only way an American president will focus on Israel/Palestine from day one, would be if some external event compelled him/her to.

    Otherwise, the economy, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, conflicts in Venezuela, will take primary stage.

    Even proactive no-brainers like encouraging energy conservation will take a back burner to the emergent.

  4. The comments here is why the “peace movement” is viewed with trepidation by so many people like me who are fed up with the killing: the suggestions for “even-handedness” do not even start to talk about even the most basic things: recognition of the existence of the State of Israel (60 years old now), stopping the intentional rocketing of civilians, suicide bombers, etc. If the even handedness that is sought includes these basic requests of Israel’s proposed neighbors, and they accept, then fine. But the blind moral equivalence of Israeli violence and that of Hamas, etc., is just wrong, and that is a position where the “peace movement” falls down flat.

  5. Randy,

    I cannot speak for anyone else but to me, evenhandedness clearly means making the demands you mention of Palestinians who expect to be trusted as partners for peace. All it means is making reasonable demands of both sides and not just one side

    The kind of unilateral surrender of territory that Peter calls for could not possibly work unless there is a credible partner for Israel to turn the territory over to.

    But such a credible partner, with the willingness and ability to thwart terrorism,will not emerge unless Israel strengthens Palestinian moderates by stopping the madness of settlement expansion (among many other things, of course). The US needs to demand that not because settlements are morally equivalent to the rockets falling on Sderot, but because it would be a smart diplomatic move

  6. “”””he U.S. should show both sides it will treat them fairly and take an unbiased view of the conflict all the time,”””

    The US and Israel should be biased in favor of the survival of the US and Israel.

  7. I just attended a presentation by Gerson Baskin and Hanna Siniora urging support for the peace process, and some description of recent history, and the US bumbling of it.

    Hanna (a Palestinian man, a representative of the PLO in the late 80’s) described the reality that the PLO has recognized the state of Israel and the Arab League has agreed to recognize Israel if Israel concludes a consensual peace agreement with Palestine.

    It is a substantive change from the historical three no’s of two decades earlier.

    He described that Abbas’ term will be over in one year, approximately the same time as Bush’s, and that noone is likely to follow in his footsteps if significant demonstrable progress is not made in that time frame.

    And by significant progress, he means actual starting to dismantle roadblocks, release of non-lethal prisoners, etc.

    He also described how the Bush administration (combined with the Sharon administration) has pushed back the peace process, and functionally empowered Hamas and militancy, whereas there was a path and hopefully still is a path to establish civility as the prevailing norm.

  8. Dan,
    I’m afraid that you are going to be disappointed if you expect the winning candidate in 2008 to made Mideast peacemaking a top priority from day one as president in 2009. McCain will be busy attempting to win the war in Iraq and keep from losing in Afghanistan with a military that is increasingly overstretched. He will also soon find out what happens when we revert back to pre-surge troop levels. He may in his three or fourth year decide to withdraw and declare victory. The Democratic president would be faced with trying to keep a withdrawal from transforming into a rout. Either of these tasks will be a fulltime job. The Democratic president, if the present candidates are to be believed, will also be faced with the task of renegotiating NAFTA with two foreign partners who see no reason why it should be renegotiated in our favor. The Democrats purport to be offended by Mexico’s environmental and labor standards but not offended that the Mexican authorities have a deliberate policy of dumping Mexico’s unwanted poor on our doorstep while sealing off their southern border from illegal immigrants from Guatemala.

    After a failed colonial war the electorate always grows more isolationist for a period. It wants less encumbrances and commitments and not more. At best the U.S. might have a role in mediating between Israel and Syria.

    And as for being even-handed, why should Americans favor Islamists and corrupt fascists over illiberal democrats? Why should we favor our allies during WWII and the Cold War to those who either sympathized or actively collaborated with our enemies during those conflicts? Last time that an exercise like this was attempted Herbert Samuel ended up promoting Amin al-Husseini as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in order to appear “even handed.”

    Better to let the anti-semitic and guilt-ridden Europeans display their natural sympathies and provide the balance for us. All we have to do is imitate the Anglo-Irish model from their mediation effort in Northern Ireland. If McCain, Clinton, or McCain were smart–and they all are–they would institute a policy of collaboration with the European Union in Mideast diplomacy and leave the attempt at a final settlement to their successors.

  9. Tom,

    Of course I will be disappointed. That goes without saying. But a good case could be made that the withdrawal from Iraq could be aided by a renewed peace process with the Palestinians and Syrians, as the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended..For that matter, engagement with the Iranians might even help that process (long shot, of course). As for your question about why should we be evenhanded? Teddy answered it very well.

  10. Dan,
    I agree that the mediation should be even handed. I just think that it is unrealistic for unilateral American mediation to provide that evenhandness for reasons that I outlined. That is why we should bring in the Europeans.

  11. “””release of non-lethal prisoners,”””

    We have discussed this matter before.

    The law if for the protection of the people. For this reason, Israel may choose to release only innocent convicts or those near the completion of their prison terms. Meanwhile those convicted of serious crimes, including non-lethal crimes, will remain in jail.

    If someone can show that freeing rapists, burglars, arsonists, terrorists who failed to kill anyone, etc. enhances the safety of the public then great. But I doubt that it does.

  12. Of the 12,000 non-Israelis in Israeli jails, how many have been tried? How many have been accused (by anyone) of lethal crimes? You don’t know. Best that you acknowledge that.

    Please don’t spout off with certainty that “they are there for a good reason”.

    I think “even-handedness” is a low bar for this diplomatic need. At least even-handedness is the criteria that I would use.

    The speakers that I saw yesterday, sited that although they don’t have a lot of faith in the Bush administration, that unless real progress is negotiated this year, that both Olmert and Abbas will be up for reelection next year, and would likely lose to rejectionists in both communities.

    That unless an accomplishment is realized this year, that trying will be delayed for a decade.

  13. “””Of the 12,000 non-Israelis in Israeli jails, how many have been tried?”””

    You are conflating two concepts: (1) whether persons who are accused of non-lethal crimes should receive a fair trial; and (2) whether they should ever be imprisoned at all.

    Yes, they should receive fair trials, and yes, if properly convicted in Israel or elsewhere they should be imprisoned.

    “””How many have been accused (by anyone) of lethal crimes?”””

    What is the difference whether the crimes they are accused of are lethal or not? It is usually proper to imprison someone for a non-lethal crime.

    “””You don’t know. Best that you acknowledge that.”””

    I don’t know how many people in Oslo, Norway are imprisoned for non-lethal crimes, either. However, I know that it is usually appropriate to imprison people for non-lethal crimes in Norway, Israel and everywhere in between.

    ”’Please don’t spout off with certainty that “they are there for a good reason”.”’

    YOU PLACED WORDS IN QUOTATION MARKS and accused me of speaking them, BUT THOSE QUOTED WORDS ARE NOT MINE. They are your invention.

    Don’t use quotes when you are quoting yourself if you are accusing me of speaking the words.

  14. Guys, Clinton was hands on, engaged, and all the rest. Arafat practically lived at the White House. And it all came to nothing. Because the Arabs are psychotic lunatics. .

  15. I attended a speech which Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) gave at Lasalle University in Newton, MA on 3/3/08. Frank said that Arafat may turn out to have been one of the biggest villains of the past generation.

    Arafat turned down President Clinton’s peace plan, which was a land-for-peace deal that gave the Palestinians almost all of the West Bank, some of East Jerusalem and a small part of Israel as well.

    But Arafat rejected the deal and kept the fighting going.

    There will never be peace in my lifetime as long as the Palestinians insist on a right to immigrate to areas inside of pre-1967 Israel.

    In order for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to give up this demand, or else redefine it so that it does not apply to the Jewish state of Israel.

  16. “For this reason, Israel may choose to release only innocent convicts or those near the completion of their prison terms. Meanwhile those convicted of serious crimes, including non-lethal crimes, will remain in jail.”

    This is your quote Jonathon.

    The 12000 have not been tried. There is no way for you or anyone to know of their innocence or guilt. You inferred that they belonged there, guilty.

    Sorry for the quote marks. I wish there were “gist” marks in common usage.

    The need for peace is profound. And the reality, that I really didn’t understand prior, is that there is urgency to it, due to the FACT that both Abbas and Olmert are old, and facing contentious elections, with the prospect of rejectionists assuming permanent control.

    The rejectionist view is that the other has no right to be there and each will apply their chosen immoral means to impose it. The Zionists by incrementally expanding settlements and annexing territory (after making it UNCOMFORTABLE to remain). Hamas by incrementally expanding its mosquito strategy to be more aggressive, enlisting deranged “solidarity” whereever they can find it.

    War in other words, in which either’s success is humanity’s failure.

    Better we come to understand urgency that is.

  17. I never said “they are there for a good reason.” Those were your words. You put them in quotes and attributed them to me.

    Don’t do that.

    “””The 12000 have not been tried.”””

    Palestinians go on trial in Israel every year. Some have gone on trial, such as Marwan Barghouti, convicted of organizing drive-by shootings.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=429965&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y

    “””There is no way for you or anyone to know of their innocence or guilt.”””

    I know some are guilty. I have reasonably concluded that Marwan Barghouti is guilty, based upon his trial.

    “””You inferred”””

    I inferred now? I didn’t say it.

    “””that they belonged there, guilty.”””

    Some. S-O-M-E. Barghouti.

  18. “For this reason, Israel may choose to release only innocent convicts or those near the completion of their prison terms. ”

    Of the 12000, how many do you think were convicted in a court?

    Of those convicted in a court, how many do you think received a fair trial?

    Of those that received a fair trial and were convicted, how many do you think have been rehabilitated?

    Barghouti was sited as one prospective successor to Abbas that could lead Palestine and have the respect and will to reconcile with Israel.

    Peace is victory for Israel, recognition, acceptance.

    The gamble of seeking “all of the land” is a gamble with the people’s lives (Israeli’s and Palestinians’), and a gamble with the reality of an internationally accepted state of Jewish self-governance.

    Our self-respect is at stake. Our claim to be potentially or actually “a nation of priests” is at stake.

    Those efforts are not succeeded at by word play. They succeed by focus and effort.

  19. “””Of the 12000, how many do you think were convicted in a court?”””

    Some. Israel may choose to keep those properly and duly convicted in prison.

    “””Of those convicted in a court, how many do you think received a fair trial?”””

    Some. Barghouti for one. Israel may choose to keep those properly and duly convicted in prison.

    “””Of those that received a fair trial and were convicted, how many do you think have been rehabilitated?”””

    Some. Israel may choose to keep those properly and duly convicted in prison.

    “””Barghouti was sited as one prospective successor to Abbas that could lead Palestine and have the respect and will to reconcile with Israel.”””

    Perhaps. He also organized drive-by shootings which killed a Greek Orthodox priest. Israel may choose to release Barghouti. It may not.

    Israel would be within its rights if it kept Barghouti imprisoned, and Israel would be within its rights if it freed Barghouti.

    Even if it freed Barghouti, who by the way engaged in a lethal crime, that would not obligate Israel to release all prisoners.

  20. Your original comment that I quoted implied that Israel had the legal right to retain all of the prisoners.

    Do you think that pursuing peace with EVERY effort that can be relatively safely should be done, or do you think holding back is better?

    I don’t know what can happen so long as Hamas “blesses” the murder of teenagers. Solely terror, solely murder.

    The individual responsible was reported to be a part-time employee of the yeshiva.

    Not a suicide bomber, and without a martyr video tape. Who knows why in fact?

    Hamas is succeeding apparently, in organizing and “inspiring” acts of hatred against Israel.

    What changes hatred? Defense definitely, but also changing the conditions that create the hatred, also.

    How to do that without unnecessarily exposing oneself to danger?

    Credible Palestinians suggest negotiated and orderly transfer of power, demonstrating that civil institutions accomplish, while fanatics fail.

    Israel currently is serving the propaganda of the fanatics, by failing to realize the fruits of negotiation.

    Its a need, not a game, not even a war strategy.

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