How Not to Botch a Peace Deal with Israel 101

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a 2011 interview. Flickr/Israeli Embassy Washington

Trump's foreign-policy team should not contemplate any deal with Israel unless that deal clearly advances U.S. interests.

Of all of President Donald Trump’s priorities in the Middle East—defeating ISIS, countering Iran, and rebuilding damaged alliances among them—none is as surprising as his zeal for pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The prevailing sentiment in Republican foreign-policy circles had been that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry pushed too hard for such a deal when the time was not ripe and other regional priorities should have taken precedence. The two-state solution—which became firmly entrenched in the foreign-policy lexicon under President George W. Bush yet under Obama it became associated in Republican minds with wringing unilateral concessions from Israel—fell so out of favor with the GOP that reference to it was removed from the party platform in 2016.

Yet President Trump has taken up the issue with gusto. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House in February, and Mr. Trump took the opportunity to speak publicly on the issue of settlements. He has twice dispatched a White House envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the Middle East for consultations on the peace process. He welcomed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for an early visit—offered without any preconditions—to the White House, a major boost for a leader who had faced setbacks on both the domestic and international stage. And his first foreign trip will not be to Canada or Mexico as has long been presidential tradition, but to the Middle East, where he will visit with Netanyahu and Abbas again in Jerusalem.

Why the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Perhaps it should not be so surprising: the issue has been a presidential preoccupation for decades. As Dennis Ross has noted, even Ronald Reagan—associated in the public mind with the fight against communism and the fall of the USSR—lent his name only to one diplomatic initiative, the “Reagan Plan” for Arab-Israeli peace. Perhaps even more importantly, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be, in Mr. Trump’s words, “the ultimate deal,” a strong temptation for a president who regards himself as a consummate dealmaker.

Yet if in defiance of the odds President Trump is determined to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, those dealmaking instincts may prove useful. Indeed, he could do worse than to begin by analyzing the situation as he might a prospective business negotiation.

Parties and Interests

An Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not an end in itself, except perhaps for those negotiators who will forever trade on having cinched one. Instead, the parties engage in negotiations to advance one or more interests. In business, these interests tend to be straightforward: profit, access to a market or technology, or perhaps a desire to disadvantage a competitor. In politics, they need be no more complicated.

For Israel, the overriding interest implicated in any peace negotiation is security. A recent poll by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs found that 76 percent of Israelis felt Israel should retain full security control of the West Bank in any future peace agreement, and that 57 percent would not support a deal without such a condition. Israel has other territorial, economic and diplomatic interests, to be sure, but will only consider a prospective deal if it clearly advances the nation’s security.

Palestinians’ interests are more controversial, and more difficult to pin down. In the near term, Palestinians are preoccupied with the concerns of everyday life—a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Polling Studies and Research shows that as many Palestinians believe the “spread of unemployment and poverty” should be the Palestinian Authority’s top priority as those who answered “continuation of occupation and settlements.” Almost as many suggested “the spread of corruption in public institutions” should be the Palestinian Authority’s first concern. Yet while many would consider a peace agreement to be instrumental to addressing these concerns, polls also suggest that most Palestinians oppose the sort of compromises represented in past peace proposals and instead continue to harbor maximalist aspirations, as Daniel Polisar of Shalem College has noted.

That reality is harsh enough, and there is clearly no squaring Israel’s interest in security with maximalist Palestinian territorial ambitions. Yet negotiations turn not only on each side’s true position, but on what each side believes to be the other’s position, whatever the reality. On this score, the situation appears even bleaker. Both Israelis and Palestinians tell pollsters they are skeptical of the other side’s ultimate intentions, with about 80 percent of Israelis indicating that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would not bring an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, according to the JCPA poll.

In addition, the interests of decisionmakers may not match those of their citizenry—a misalignment known in business as a principal-agent problem. For the Palestinians, this problem appears acute—Palestinian Authority officials seem more likely to suffer a loss of status and reputation by making concessions to Israel than by refusing to do so. Yet even Israel, a vibrant electoral democracy, is not immune: its coalition politics mean that small parties can have outsized influence, and thus their narrow interests can trump those of the broader populace. Coalitions can be reshuffled, of course, but there is a cost in doing so; a right-wing prime minister would surely be reluctant unless a worthwhile peace deal seems truly within reach.