Open Zion

10.09.12

Daylight And The Peace Process

Mitt Romney certainly seems to have an idea about where he thinks the weak spots in President Obama's foreign policy are. Yesterday, after leading off with a comparison between 9/11 and the attacks on U.S. embassies, Romney emphasized Obama's rift with Benjamin Netanyahu:

The President explicitly stated that his goal was to put "daylight" between the United States and Israel. And he has succeeded. This is a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran.

Romney's right: Obama did argue for occasionally voicing differences with Israel: in 2009, he reflected on the George W. Bush administration and said, "[T]here was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that?" Though Obama has failed in his own right to forge Mideast peace, his statement about the Bush years is no less true.

And though Obama has been an exemplar of cooperation with Israel on security issues—"unprecendented," Netanyahu has said—there are instances where the U.S. and Israel have publicly diverged. Looking a few of the examples may prove instructive.

On perhaps the most pressing issue between Israel and the U.S., Obama and Netanyahu broke recently on setting "red lines" on Iran. It was Netanyahu who opened up the chasm, going so far as to publicly press the U.S. to change its policy. Romney, on the other hand, used his speech today to place his "red line" back firmly in line with Netanyahu, lowering the threshold for a U.S. war to an Iranian nuclear "capability." But rejecting the "capability" red line makes for sound policy: it would only box in what the U.S. can do at a point when flexibility might still avert both war and an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Other instances of "daylight" came with regard to the peace process. Contra Romney's suggestion that Obama deserves sole blame for the stalled peace process, Netanyahu certainly deserves some too. After all, the peace process initially stalled with Netnayahu's election at a time when the Likud leader had still not even endorsed a Palestinian state.

One public difference dealt with the rifts over Obama's ask for a settlement freeze, an actuation of longstanding U.S. policy on settlements—and a moral, legal and practical imperative. (Let's also not forget Obama requested it alongside reciprocity from Arab states.) The peace process collapsed when Netanyahu refused to extend a settlement freeze and resumed building apace, in contravention of international law, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Then Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, too, deserves some blame for refusing to restart talks without a freeze. Nonetheless, to view Obama's ask as an impediment to the peace process is absurd: settlement expansion is at the heart of deteriorating prospects for peace. Freezing growth would have stalled this deterioration.

Lastly, in May 2011, Obama again restated established U.S. policy that a two-state peace would be based on the "1967 lines" with mutually agreed land swaps. Again it was Netanyahu who opened up the daylight, in this case, by lashing out at the prescription (despite having himself discussed the lines as a basis for talks in the past). The speech that contained the unremarkable 1967 lines comment may have failed to restart talks, but Netanyahu's angry rejection of the widely-accepted basis for negotiations was what set the process back.

Anyone who thinks either of these efforts—though both faltered—were anything but good faith attempts to jump start talks in the Mideast is making a cynical attack on Obama's early efforts to get Israeli-Palestinian peace moving. And Obama eventually backed off anyway, failing to press the issue at all as the election ramped up.

Romney, in his speech today, said, "I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel." While Romney attacked Obama's optimimism, remarking that "hope is not a strategy," the Republican's own vision to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he described it at a fundraiser in May,  hinged on just that: "[W]e kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."

No settlement freezes, no 1967 lines, no pressure on Israel. What, exactly, would Mitt Romney's recommitment constitute? Instead of doing what Obama did, Romney's poised to do what Bush did. But Obama was right in 2009: that didn't lead to peace either.