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(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Middle East is a region without a sense of humor and little tolerance for error, a tinderbox on the perpetual verge of conflagration. In the Middle East, what an American president does, or just says, matters. It is not a region for foreign policy neophytes. There is no room for casual remarks and half-baked thoughts. Destinies are determined, conflicts erupt, people die.
The next US president will face a number of major challenges in the region, including the ongoing turmoil following the “Arab Spring,” which is likely to continue and even grow worse; the Syrian and Iraqi tragedies; Iran’s continuing nuclear aspirations; Islamic State and Islamist extremism generally; and Israeli- Palestinian peace. An experienced, unflappable and judicious hand at the helm of the world’s superpower, Israel’s foremost ally, is essential.
A president who is not in command of the details, who avows neutrality on the peace process one day and then blithely adopts hardline policies the next, is neither a reliable ally nor a potential peace broker. It is easy to call for recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital as a candidate, but a president who does so, in the absence of a peace agreement, would likely cause violence throughout the Muslim world. For 50 years, Middle East diplomacy has been based on the intentional deletion of just one word – “the” – from UN Security Council Resolution 242, which as a result states that Israel should “withdraw from territories” occupied in 1967 instead of “withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967.” Sensitivity and nuance are crucial.
A US president who incorrectly believes that Aleppo has fallen and that Syria and Russia are focused on fighting ISIS, rather than preserving the heinous Assad regime, cannot put an end to Syria’s tragedy. The US cannot simply scrap or renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. Iran may cross the nuclear threshold in response, with much international support, and US credibility would be shot. A cavalier attitude toward NATO and other allies, as well as nuclear weapons, would be highly unnerving both for Israel and US Arab allies, who deeply fear Iran’s nuclear program.
The next president’s tenure will coincide with much or most of the lifetime of the Iran nuclear deal. It is critical that this period be put to the best use to ensure that Iran does not violate the agreement and that it is unable to develop nuclear weapons after its expiration.
A combination of deft diplomacy, including a follow-on agreement and credible military posture, will be needed. Clinton is better suited to handle this.
The window for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is limited and will likely not survive another eight years. Peace will require that Israel dismantle the settlements outside the three “settlement blocs.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands the stakes, but has shown that political longevity is his foremost priority. A Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon he is not. His current government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history and is hell-bent on settling the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic Israel out of existence.
The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected dramatic proposals which would have given them an independent state on virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital (Camp David and Clinton Parameters 2000, Olmert proposal 2008). Peace will require that they forgo their self-proclaimed “right of return.” The Palestinians are currently undergoing a protracted succession and it is unclear when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be succeeded and by whom. Until then, they cannot conduct true negotiations. In any event, a final agreement cannot be concluded as long as the West Bank and Gaza remain divided.
Peace will require that both sides agree to share Jerusalem and make other painful concessions.
Wanting peace is not enough. Both sides also need the willingness and political wherewithal to make the concessions necessary.
The conditions simply do not exist today in Jerusalem, or Ramallah.
They also have to exist in Washington.
Both Israel and the Palestinians are past masters at stonewalling and making unwanted US peace initiatives dissipate. They will do so again if faced with anything but a highly focused, committed, experienced and adroit American president.
Again, Clinton is better suited to handle this. She is also far better suited to being the demanding but warm friend and ally that Israel will need as it navigates what will be one of the most wrenching hours in its history.
Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate, as 30 years of political life and her mixed electoral performance have shown. She is, however, one of the most experienced candidates to run for office in decades, in both domestic and foreign policy, including the Middle East. Casinos and reality shows just do not cut it.
Israelis cannot vote in the US, of course, but they should pray for Hillary. Few have more at stake in the upcoming elections.The author, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.