Word on the Street: The Privilege and Burden of Leadership

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on February 28, 2016

Suddenly, Israel is at the center of the 2016 presidential campaign and was at the heart of a brawl between the three leading Republican candidates in their debate last Thursday night.

Donald Trump started the exchange a week ago when he said he had the best chance of brokering peace because he was the “ultimate deal-maker.” For that reason, he would try to stay neutral on the rights and wrongs of the conflict so as not to prejudice either of the parties against him.

Trump’s statement immediately brought attacks from Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who both vowed unconditional support for the Israeli government in all circumstances.

In last Thursday’s debate, Rubio and Cruz pushed this theme. Neither referred to a two-state solution as a way to end the conflict — which has been bipartisan US policy for the past seven administrations. Neither gave any credit to the Palestinian leadership, which has renounced violence, or to the daily cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in combatting terrorism.

Trump tried to tout his pro-Israel credentials –- but stuck to his contention that “it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors, because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace, finally, for Israel and for their neighbors.”

The most shocking and scary moment came when Rubio baldly declared, “Here’s what the Palestinians do. They teach their four-year-old children that killing Jews is a glorious thing.” The Republicans appear to have reached the point where a candidate who says he wants to preserve the possibility of negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians is seen as more outrageous than one who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and shamelessly brands an entire nation as terrorists.

Cruz’s echoed Rubio’s sentiment: “When you have terrorist strapping dynamite around their chest, exploding and murdering innocent women and children, they are not equivalent to the IDF officers protecting Israel. And I will not pretend that they are,” he said.

Hillary Clinton’s response earlier in the week struck the right note. She said the United States should stand by its ally, Israel, but “I happen to think that moving toward a two-state solution, trying to provide more support for the aspirations of the Palestinian people is in the long-term best interests of Israel, as well as the region, and, of course, the people themselves.”

Bernie Sanders did not weigh into this particular exchange but has made it clear in the past that he does not see a “magic solution” to the problem but strongly believes in a two-state solution.

It’s encouraging to see the candidates discussing the issue because of the almost total paralysis on the peace front between the parties themselves. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have worked so hard and invested so much in trying to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict –- but there is still more they can and should do before they leave office. A good start would be to publish detailed parameters of what a peace deal should look like, creating a base line for the next President.

France is currently taking the lead, making preparations for an international peace conference in the summer that Israel seems unlikely to attend. Kerry acknowledged in testimony to Congress that the French initiative grew out of international frustration at the political void that has developed and said Washington was still trying to learn details of the French plan.

Multilateral initiatives can be useful and constructive, especially at a time when events are drifting so dangerously. We’d like to see the Administration take a leadership role in shaping an initiative that could make a real contribution to stabilizing the situation. Vice President Biden will be in Jerusalem next week, which will give him an opportunity to explore what, if anything, the Israeli government is willing to do.

We hope Biden doesn’t only listen. There are important things he should say. On his last visit almost exactly six years ago, the Netanyahu government caused a scandal with a major settlement building announcement beyond the Green Line. Since then, the settler population of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, has grown from 297,000 to 370,000 (as of the end of 2014), according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, an increase of almost 25 percent.

The United States must put some real muscle into its opposition to settlements. We’ve been pleased to see the Administration pushing back against attempts by Congress to blur the Green Line by seeking to pass legislation aimed at striking back against European Union regulations to label products from Israeli settlements as such. But it can and should do more.

In an election year, it is natural for the parties to pause and take stock. But the current situation does not permit such a luxury. Israelis continue to face terrorist attacks; Palestinian hopelessness and despair is growing; the Gaza situation remains highly unstable.

The candidates should discuss their policies, visions and plans. But the next President does not take office until January 2017 -– and the privilege and burden of leadership remains on the United States.