Peace in the Holy Land and Campaign Politics
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up on the campaign trail this week thanks to the released of a clandestinely recorded video in a closed-door fundraiser in May for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney spends over three minutes replying to a donor who asked the candidate how the “Palestinian problem” can be solved and his answer is providing plenty of fodder for columnists and pundits. Many address his statements regarding the Palestinian desire for peace and the feasibility of the 1967 lines and a two state solution while others raise new questions about the role of the U.S. as a mediator in the conflict and how President Barack Obama has fared thus far.
Romney begins his answer saying,
“I'm torn by two perspectives in this regard. One is the one which I've had for some time, which is that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.” After presenting his case for the geographic infeasibility of Palestinian sovereignty, he tells the donors, “And I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, ‘There's just no way.’”
The Washington Post took Romney to task for saying that Palestinians have no interest in peace and are committed to the destruction of Israel. The article remarks, “Romney’s comments could marginalize the more moderate Palestinians seeking peace negotiations with Israel and empower the armed groups, which argue that peace talks are futile.”
The same article goes on to provide some nuance regarding the different Palestinian factions that is missing in the candidates remarks. The article explains,
“The armed Islamist party Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and calls for its destruction in its founding charter. But the secular Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main umbrella organization that excludes Hamas, recognized Israel in the early 1990s and continue to seek a two-state solution.”
PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat also responded to the comments saying, “It is unreasonable to say that Palestinians do not want peace; these words are not acceptable at all…The Palestinian community needs peace the most as peace means freedom and independence for us. If the peace process is killed, the Palestinians' suffering will continue.”
Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, later emailed the Huffington Post to clarify the candidate’s remarks on Palestinians not wanting peace. He writes,
“Governor Romney makes clear as he has in the past that peace is not possible if the extremist elements on the Palestinian side refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Currently the Palestinian government is discussing a unity pact with Hamas. Should that agreement be reached, it would cast great doubt on the prospects of the peace process. But as Mitt Romney indicated he is committed to a two state solution, and will not throw up any barriers to both sides negotiating that solution…”
Romney also explains the infeasibility of a Palestinian state in his remarks.
“Some might say, well, let's let the Palestinians have the West Bank, and have security, and set up a separate nation for the Palestinians. And then come a couple of thorny questions. And I don't have a map here to look at the geography, but the border between Israel and the West Bank is obviously right there, right next to Tel Aviv, which is the financial capital, the industrial capital of Israel, the center of Israel. It's—what the border would be? Maybe seven miles from Tel Aviv to what would be the West Bank…
And of course the Iranians would want to do through the West Bank exactly what they did through Lebanon, what they did near Gaza. Which is that the Iranians would want to bring missiles and armament into the West Bank and potentially threaten Israel. So Israel of course would have to say, "That can't happen. We've got to keep the Iranians from bringing weaponry into the West Bank." Well, that means that—who? The Israelis are going to patrol the border between Jordan, Syria, and this new Palestinian nation? Well, the Palestinians would say, "Uh, no way! We're an independent country. You can't, you know, guard our border with other Arab nations."
New York Times blogger Robert Mackey gives some background on these comments, writing,
“Mr. Romney’s argument about the region’s geography also seemed to echo remarks made last year by Mr. Netanyahu, who told President Obama last year that Israel ‘cannot go back to the 1967 lines,’ because the country’s borders before it seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem that year were ‘indefensible.’ In an address to Congress the same week, Mr. Netanyahu insisted that, in any negotiated settlement, it would be ‘absolutely vital for Israel’s security that a Palestinian state be fully demilitarized. And it is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.’”
In addition to those comments, critics jumped on the conclusion that when it comes to a Palestinian state, “There’s just no way.” Ali Gharib writes for the Daily Beast, “It won't happen. It's a nice idea, but just impossible to do. That's about how Mitt Romney feels about the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In July, Romney told the Israeli paper Haaretz that he supported two states, saying,
“I believe in a two-state solution which suggests there will be two states, including a Jewish state. I respect Israel’s right to remain a Jewish state. The question is not whether the people of the region believe that there should be a Palestinian state. The question is if they believe there should be an Israeli state, a Jewish state.”
The day after the video clip was released, more footage came to light that picks up where the original leaves off. In the full clip, Romney does not rule out the possibility of a Palestinian state. He continues,
“But I always keep open: the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world. We have done that time and time and time again. It does not work. So the only answer is show them strength. American strength, American resolve, and the Palestinians will some day reach the point where they want peace more than we’re trying to force peace on them. Then it’s worth having the discussion. So until then, it’s just wistful thinking.
Another lightning-rod moment came as the video concludes with Romney saying,
“And so what you do is you say, ‘You move things along the best way you can.’ You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently.”
The comment divided the pundits and the Huffington Post reports an array of perspectives. Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator and policy adviser for President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton disagrees with Romney’s “kick the ball down the field approach. He told the Huffington Post,
“I'm a big believer in not creating a false set of expectations, but I'm also a believer in that if you think something is stuck, you come up with an approach and try to change the dynamic. If you basically just say it's all hopeless, you just make hopelessness a self-fulfilling prophecy…I don't think we would want to convey an approach that says there is nothing to be done. If you say there's nothing to be done, you're going to find it very difficult to sustain stability."
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center also told the Huffington Post that he found the comments accurate. “To me, the idea that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement may not be possible is simply an acknowledgement of reality. In my view, the emperor has been seen to have no clothes on this issue for quite a number of years.”
Finally, Daniel Levy, former negotiator in the Ehud Barak government believes that while the statement is true, it is not in the United States’ interest to actually say it. He said,
“Of course the peace process is dead -- totally dead. But if you officially declare the peace process is dead, you encourage what is already an existing if not growing part of the Palestinian side that says, well, forget it, let's have equal rights, or one state, or a full-on boycott of Israel -- all of which might be wise from Palestinian perspective, but none are going to be helpful from an American perspective."
Daniel Drezner of Foreign Policy simply questions the political wisdom of such a statement and writes, “One of the best critiques that a GOP challenger can make of Barack Obama's administration is that he's made a hash of the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. In this video, Romney pretty much revealed that he wouldn't be changing that policy anytime soon.”
Romney's remarks have been used to criticize the work of President Obama with Israelis and Palestinians since taking office in 2009. In July, the Washington Post published an in-depth piece examining “Where Obama failed on forging peace in the Middle East” that revealed interpersonal conflicts and domestic politics on all sides that hampered the peace process, creating the stagnate situation seen today.
Tony Karon writes for Time, that while “President Obama came into office vowing to jump-start the process,” after several setbacks, “His reasons may have been quite different from Romney’s, but Obama had also concluded that pressing the Israelis to give up something they don’t want to give up is ill advised. Instead, like Romney advocates, Obama by the end of 2010 had opted to ‘kick the ball down the field’ and hope for a better day”
Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin welcomed the remarks and contrasted them with the president’s policies.
“Well, finally a real, realist! Is there any doubt what he says is true? ...Candor about the Israeli-Palestinian situation and focus on the utter lack of leadership from the Palestinian Authority — which has chosen to walk out of negotiations, go to the United Nations for a unilateral declaration of statehood and team up with Hamas — stand in sharp contrast to the actions of Obama, who seems to think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is all about Israeli’s settlements.”
With the campaign season in full swing you have an opportunity to raise your concern for peace in the Holy Land. Incumbents and challengers are spending their time on the campaign trail talking with constituents like you. Asking questions now, when candidates are asking for your vote, can influence their actions when they come to Washington. In town hall meetings, meet and greets, letters-to-the editor and through individual correspondence you can let your candidates know your concerns about the role of the U.S. in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The New York Times continues coverage of the deteriorating economic situation in the West Bank. Palestinians are protesting the rising cost of living and recent austerity measures that aimed to mitigate the crisis.
A group of Palestinian women has formed an all-female bloc to run in Hebron’s municipal elections slated for next month. They have ambitious election goals and are confident because, as one candidate says, "Women can make the impossible possible.”
The BBC investigates the criminals behind the spate of “price tag” attacks in the West Bank and Israel.
Ynet reports that Defense Minister Ehud Barak made a surprise decision to not impose a closure on the West Bank over Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in contrast to previous holidays in the last few years. Instead, Israeli authorities will remain on high alert with an increased presence.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.