Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was a strange sight to behold at last Thursday’s Republican presidential debate – a lower-volume rumble now reduced, mercifully, to four participants.
As expected, each candidate played the same role they had in past debates: Donald Trump, the economic populist and extreme anti-immigration hawk; Marco Rubio, the sweaty policy wonk; Ted Cruz, the holier-thanthou movement conservative; and John Kasich, a candidate with relevant job experience.
One issue, however, was a stark exception to the rule. When it came to discussing the US-Israel relationship, which initially came in the form of a question about Trump’s recent statement that he would remain “neutral” in Israeli-Palestinian talks, it was Rubio who demonstrated an astonishing lack of depth by saying Trump was promoting an “anti-Israel position.”
This exchange was nearly identical to the one that took place in the Republican debate before Super Tuesday, underscoring the Groundhog Day nature of the primary season.
Like most alliances, the US-Israel relationship contains various parts and roles. In theory, when it comes to deterring Iran, fighting terrorism and maintaining regional stability, the US and Israel are steadfast allies. This is reflected in the annual billions the US transfers to Israel in military aid, making up about 20 percent of the Israel Defense Force’s budget, and the close cooperation between American and Israeli security and intelligence officials.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, the next president will inherit a mediating role, as every incoming president since the signing of the Oslo Accords has. President Bush may not have agreed with the Clinton administration’s approach, but he did not dispense with the basic structure. Nor did President Barack Obama, and despite his protestations, neither in all likelihood would a president Rubio.
On the question of whether, say, Ariel should be a part of Israel or Palestine, there are no discernible American interests at stake. Neutrality is the most productive position to take, or rather a “productive neutrality” that will help the parties resolve their differences wherever possible.
One could even argue that it is Trump’s position on the peace process – which, at least nominally, is the traditional American position – that produces the best result for Israel. If America were to openly side with Israel in the talks, the Palestinians would not participate and the US would no longer be seen as an upright broker. In America’s place, the European Union, which many Israelis regard as particularly unsympathetic, will step in to fill the void.
Here is what’s even more bizarre: Senator Rubio’s approach most closely resembles that of Secretary of State John Kerry during the 2013-2014 talks.
Instead of playing a mediating role, Kerry and his envoy, former ambassador Martin Indyk, coordinated for months with the Israeli side on a framework agreement. According to a lengthy report in Haaretz in 2014, this resulted in Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accusing Kerry of “pulling ‘a Dennis Ross.’” Of course, there is one substantial difference between Rubio and Kerry: judging from the tone and content of his answer on Thursday, the junior senator from Florida does not plan to engage in the peace process at all. This would only accentuate the void for the EU to fill and encourage the Palestinians to seek more unilateral recognition.
Trump can be assigned many negative attributes and positions, from his stance on immigration to treatment of the press. Hostility toward Israel is simply not one of them, and it’s certainly not reflected in his “neutral” statement.
It is, in fact, a rough précis of what it means to be a mediator.
Inevitably, one must circle back to the question of qualification. If Senator Rubio wins the Florida primary on Tuesday and becomes the candidate of the beleaguered Republican establishment, his foreign policy positions must be closely scrutinized. After all, this is the one area where the president has vast latitude in setting policy.
On the relationship with Israel, Senator Rubio is letting his inexperience show. The US-Israel alliance is not dependent on, or damaged by, the ostensibly neutral role the US plays in the peace process. The same can be said for Senator Ted Cruz, who pledges to cut off US funding to the Palestinian Authority, a proposal that AIPAC has previously opposed.
On this issue, and perhaps this issue alone, it is Trump who is showing judiciousness and prudence among the leading Republican candidates.The author is a political writer based in New York.