Israel as a Foreign Policy Goal for American Presidents

Foreign Policy’s list of specialists’ assessments of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is quite good. Out of nine analysts, only five mention Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian arena; and of those, only three (Anne-Marie Slaughter, Heather Hurlburt, and Glenn Greenwald) directly reference either as a clear indication of failure (for Slaughter as a management issue but in a broader regional context, and for Hurlburt and Greenwald on the peace process). The bulk of the arguments focuses on larger global issues, Asia, and other developments in the Middle East (Syria, the Arab Spring).

The fact that Israel is included in some way on the list raises questions about what, exactly, would constitute a “success” for Barack Obama or any US president when it comes to Israel and the conflict.

In theory, a genuine and lasting peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians (and by extension between Israel and much of the Arab world) would be the ultimate goal. But since none of the extant peace treaties between Israelis and Arabs have been because of an American president, and the actors involved in the conflict have proven themselves fully capable of and willing to ignore American demands when it suits them, this seems well beyond the feasible.

If a peace treaty shouldn’t be the goal, the obvious question is: what should be? Conflict management might be a plausible objective. But the static nature of this process precludes change. It also assumes the Israelis and Palestinians will come to recognize the benefits of a resolution at some point on their own. They might (they did to some degree in 1993, after all); but in the meantime suffering on all sides will continue.

I would suggest that instead of trying to change their international behavior, which as Slaughter points out in the case of Israel clearly failed, it be an explicit American goal to change the domestic behavior of Israel and the Palestinians: the inverse of the standard operating procedure the US has for the most part held to regarding the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

The US can push both parties to resolve their internal differences first, before devoting serious attention to peacemaking. Low-level talks should continue, to keep the lines of communication open and to resolve the myriad of minor policy problems that crop up in such a tangled relationship.

Getting their own houses in order is critical for Israel and the Palestinian government to sell any final agreement to their own populations; to obtain the necessary support for implementation of said agreement; and to ensure that domestic groups cannot prevent execution of the pact’s stipulations. As Mira Sucharov and I argue in the latest issue of International Journal,* on the Israeli side this requires that the Israeli government be able to convince (not coerce) a significant number of West Bank settlers to move across the Green Line, back into Israel.   

Of course the US cannot directly or deeply interfere in the national politics of either actor, and the Israeli and Palestinian governments have tremendous work to do on their own. But there are things the US can contribute without overt intervention. Sucharov and I point out in our piece regarding Israel (but relevant for the Palestinians as well) that: (1) The US can promote legitimacy of each side’s narratives vis-à-vis the other, making it easier for the governments to argue to their own populations that their claims are recognized; and (2) It can provide time for both parties to do this. Pressuring either Israel or the Palestinians to move before they are truly able to can have dramatic consequences, as both the failed 2000 Camp David process and Obama’s focus on Israeli settlements indicate.

Above all, American presidents must recognize their limitations—and must be prepared to resist when others, whether domestic or international actors, ignore them.


 * Please email me for a PDF copy of the article.


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