Mattis Could Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
America’s forty-fifth president has indicated on more than one occasion that he would like to see his son-in-law and trusted advisor, Jared Kushner, negotiate a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a deal that has eluded all of his predecessors. While there is no reason to doubt Kushner’s abilities, President Trump might consider the importance of involving another member of his team—Secretary of Defense James Mattis—if the history of the failed efforts to resolve the conflict is to be defied.
Here is why: first, in a July 2013 Aspen Security Forum, Mattis—who was a retired U.S. Marine Corps general at the time—correctly identified the imperative and America’s national interest in addressing it. He explained why resolving the conflict was critically important for Israel. Mattis assessed that the current situation was “unsustainable” and that settlements in the West Bank were obstructing the possibility of a two-state outcome between Israelis and Palestinians. “It’s got to be directly addressed,” he said. “We have got to find a way to make the two-state solution that Democrat and Republican administrations have supported.”
Mattis further observed that if Israel continued to expand its settlement presence, then it would put its long-term character as a Jewish and democratic state at risk and possibly become an apartheid state. He then proceeded to explain why addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was also important to U.S. national interest. “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” he said, “and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
The second reason why Mattis is uniquely positioned to address the Palestinian-Israeli problem is this: he is now in charge of the most important realm that has paralyzed the Israeli side of the required peacemaking effort—the security realm. Security was not and is not the most difficult issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians, but for Israelis it is the most important one. Why? Most Israelis who are at the center and center-left of their country’s political map do not push their government to resolve the conflict because they are terrified. Why? Because implicitly, if not explicitly, even they—let alone those on the right and center-right of the map—accept the assertion that all concessions that Israel has made in the past two decades have placed them in greater jeopardy. They see the 1993 Oslo Accords as having resulted in the murderous 2000–2005 second Palestinian Intifada. They see the May 2000 withdrawal from South Lebanon as having led to the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Additionally, they see the summer 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as having already led to three military confrontations with Hamas.
Moreover, most Israelis accept the proposition that to enable the creation of a Palestinian state, Israel would have to withdraw from the West Bank. If the withdrawal results in consequences similar to Israel’s previous withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza, then the ramifications of such a withdrawal would be far worse for Israel’s safety and security. Why? Because in contrast to South Lebanon and Gaza, the West Bank is adjacent to Israel’s center core, which is where 80 percent of its population resides. The majority percentage of Israel’s GDP is also produced in that area.
Mattis is now in a position to initiate a security dialogue with his counterpart in Israel and to preside over a parallel dialogue between the Joint Chiefs of Staff—as well as the Israel Defense Forces general staff—on how to secure Israel under conditions that would allow the implementation of a two-state solution to the conflict. In the history of the increasingly intimate U.S.-Israeli defense relationship, this important issue never became part of the conversation. Indeed, during the last attempt to resolve the conflict (the negotiations launched by former Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013) the IDF was blocked from engaging retired Gen. John Allen, then senior advisor to the secretary of defense.
While Israel alone would judge what risks it can take for the sake of peace, the separation between this critically important issue and all other dimensions of U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation never made sense. The lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects Israeli security and the interest of the United States. Hence, finding a way to resolve the conflict without jeopardizing Israel’s security should become an important dimension of the defense dialogue between the two countries. Mattis is now in a position to make sure this happens.