Can Trump Find an Israel-Palestine Solution?

Donald Trump speaking with supporters in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

A pro-Israel reputation could let him create unexpected pressure on Netanyahu.

When two right-wing Israeli prime ministers assumed power in Jerusalem just a few months after left-of-center American politicians entered the White House, it meant that the presidential stars had failed to align for them.

Talk about bad timing. Menachem Begin, the founder of the Likud Party and a proponent of a vision of “Greater Israel,” was elected to head the first right-wing government in Israeli history on June 1977, six months after Americans elected Democrat Jimmy Carter, a president who rejected the realpolitik policies of his Republican predecessors. Carter was also committed to a liberal internationalist agenda, to improving relations with the Soviet Union and to friendship with third-world nations.

Begin had hoped that Washington would welcome treating Israel as an ally as part of its Cold War strategy. Instead, he was forced to contend with a U.S. president who rejected the notion that Israel had an historical right to maintain control over the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, and believed that Israel should not be allowed to continue building Jewish settlements there, a view that was also shared by previous U.S. administrations.

Carter pressed ahead with an activist American policy aimed at working with Moscow on reaching an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, which would involve Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories in exchange for peace. And like his United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, he seemed to perceive the Palestinians as oppressed third-world people who should have the right to self-determination.

Yet the never-ending tensions between Carter and Begin didn’t trigger a major diplomatic crisis in the Israeli-American relationship. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979, President Carter, as part of an effort to preserve U.S. interests in the Middle East, focused on negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which forced him to come to terms with Begin. The Soviets weren’t invited to participate in the talks and the Palestinian issue was relegated to the bottom of the agenda.

Fast-forward another thirty years, and once again trouble was in the air for Benjamin Netanyahu, another Likud leader who was elected to head a nationalist Israeli government in March 2009. Netanyahu became prime minister two months after Barack Obama, a young Democrat, was elected as president. Obama called for de-prioritizing the global war on terrorism, for accommodating the Arab and Muslim worlds, and for gradually disengaging from the Middle East.

Netanyahu had hoped that John McCain would be welcoming him at the White House. McCain was backed by an entourage of Republican politicians and conservative pundits who befriended “Bibi” when he had served as a diplomat in Washington during the height of the Reagan era. Netanyahu clearly wasn’t ready for the young African American and former community organizer whose liberal and globalist worldview conflicted on so many levels with his. Netanyahu was an older and conservative Israeli politician, an unabashed Zionist, a skeptic when it came to the credibility of the international community and a former captain in an elite commando unit.

Netanyahu was eager to market Israel as a leading strategic partner of the United States in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Israel could participate in a campaign to deny the ayatollahs in Iran a nuclear bomb and perhaps quietly move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the bottom of the Washington agenda.

But he and Obama, who refused to even use the term “radical Islam,” seemed to have different priorities when it came to restarting the peace process, placing a freeze on building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, welcoming the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and taking the diplomatic route to end Iran’s nuclear program.

Hence, Netanyahu aggressively campaigned against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran when he addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015. He also made it clear that he had wanted Republican Mitt Romney to win the 2012 presidential election. It seemed as though Bibi had transformed into a Republican politician, one who represented Israel on Capitol Hill.

But while Netanyahu had to deal for eight years with his nemesis in the White House in 1980, Begin and Likud supporters in Israel and in the United States breathed a sigh of relief when Carter, whom many of them branded as an enemy of Israel, lost the presidential election to Republican Ronald Reagan.

In fact, Begin saw the election of the ultraconservative Republican and former California governor, with his many Jewish pals in the film industry of Hollywood and political ties to pro-Israeli Evangelical Christian forces, remove as a fulfillment of right-wing Israeli dreams. Meanwhile, Reagan himself was celebrated as though he was a honorary member of the Likud Party.

Indeed, there was no doubt that Reagan and his top foreign policy advisors, who viewed the international system through the dark Cold War lenses, perceived the Palestine Liberation Organization as a radical left-wing terrorist group and Soviet pawn. Israel, on the other hand, was regarded as a “strategic asset” of the United States in the Middle East—a notion that would become an integral part of the neoconservative national-security guidebook.

That meant the Palestinian problem could be swept into the bottom drawer while the military relationship could gradually become a strategic alliance à la NATO. It was unsurprising that champagne corks were popping open at AIPAC offices in Washington, while so-called Arabists in the State Department looked as though they were preparing for a funeral.