With the announcement of Donald Trump’s first visit to Israel next week, it is useful to consider what would constitute a successful trip.
President Trump has been talking, in his inimitable way, about restarting peace negotiations and even solving this decades-old conflict that has confounded so many others.
In this respect, he is exhibiting similarities to other presidents who looking out for opportunity for major accomplishments early in their presidency, saw the seemingly unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a golden one — only to be disappointed and frustrated later on.
A more realistic goal for the president would be to pursue a dual approach that could set the stage later on for renewing serious negotiations for peace: asserting unswerving support for the Jewish state and making clear American intention to be a responsible and fair interlocutor between the parties to achieve a lasting peace.
For the Obama administration, these two goals were in contradiction. Indeed, the fatal flaw of the Obama years was the president’s early statement that being seen as too close to Israel would undermine America’s role in peacemaking. In fact, this approach made Israel more distrustful of the process and left the Palestinians with little incentive to change and move forward. This was a central factor in why the eight years of the Obama presidency saw only limited talks and limited hope for progress.
On the other hand, both the Clinton and Bush presidencies were premised on strong US-Israel relations as a basis for furthering peace talks. Before Camp David in 2000, Bill Clinton was an unabashed supporter of Israel and managed at Camp David to move Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace than ever before. The talks collapsed because of Palestinian rejectionism but what is clear is that American closeness to Israel, helped, not hurt, in moving the process as far as it went.
So too with George W. Bush. In 2002, in the president’s major address on the conflict, he offered what was widely described as the strongest pro-Israel statement by any American president. And yet, in the same speech, he called for an agreement that provided for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
The meaning of this was that the conflict need not be seen as a zero-sum game. Good news for Israel could also be good news for the Palestinians. American steadfastness for Israel did not have to be bad for the Palestinians.
And the same President Bush fostered the Annapolis process in 2008 which also moved peace talks forward but which, like Camp David, ended up without agreement because Palestinians weren’t ready to make the leap forward.
The relevant point for the Trump administration is that there is logic to this dual approach. American stalwart support for Israel serves the chances of advancing peace because at one and the same time, it reassures Israelis — so they can enter talks knowing America has their backs, but also encourages Palestinians — in the belief that American credibility with Israeli leadership puts the US in the perfect spot to draw critical concessions from Israel as long as Israeli security is assured.
The president is actually well-placed to pursue this approach on his first visit to Israel. Despite the hopes of some in Israel that he would give license for unbridled settlement growth in order to prevent the possibility of a Palestinian state from ever arising, Trump has to date showed a more balanced approach.
He has made clear his staunch support for Israel, for example at the UN where Ambassador Nikki Haley has condemned the anti-Israel bias that has dominated for so long.
On the settlement issue, he has distinguished himself from his predecessor who seemed to reject all settlements. Trump seems early on to be taking a path which amounts to restoring the Bush letter to Sharon of 2004, which distinguished between the settlement blocs and other outposts.
The message to both parties is that the president can restore confidence and trust between Israel and the US that was so sorely lacking in the Obama years, while making sure that an eventual path to a Palestinian state would remain open.
This is an approach that could make each side more open initially to confidence-building measures — whether in regard to the economy, security or education — that could at some stage create enough trust where serious negotiations could resume.
This would not be the Big Win that President Trump loves so much. It would, however, be a solid contribution to getting Israeli-Palestinian relations back on a hopeful track.
Kenneth Jacobson is Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League