Why A Perry Presidency Would Be Bad For Israel

Rick Perry

Presidential candidate Rick Perry's Evangelical Zionist beliefs about the Middle East "contradicts key components of established U.S. policy in the region," the author writes. Credit: Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore.

In a flurry of recent activity Rick Perry made his national debut into the national debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict with two op-eds and a press conference within a week of each other. His op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, published ten days ago, and the Wall Street Journal op-ed the next day varied in style but made the same criticism of U.S. shuttle diplomacy, which the United States has used in lieu of direct negotiations, and the injection of “the issues of 1967 borders” into the peace process.

Perry addressed the same themes in a press conference the following Tuesday, arguing for a change in the U.S. “policy of appeasement toward the Palestinians,” achieved partially by punishing them and the UN for the Palestinian application for statehood, in addition to strengthening existing U.S.-Israeli ties. Perry’s attempt to capitalize on a reported Jewish-American disaffection with Obama over his Israel policies, supposedly illustrated by the results of New York’s ninth congressional district special election.

Gallup Polls show Jewish-American support for Obama closely following overall voter trends, so there is not anything exceptional about current rates of growing Jewish Americans’ dissatisfaction. That being the case, the basis for Perry’s timing may be flawed but he did stick to his campaign theme of positioning himself as the conservative antithesis of Obama.

This is not to suggest that Perry is merely posturing; quite the contrary, Perry’s ardent support of Israel dates back to his time working as the Texas Agricultural Commissioner and as governor of Texas, where he founded the Texas-Israel Chamber of Commerce. He endorsed some of Israel’s most hawkish policies, euphemistically calling it “supporting Israel.” His alliance with ultra-nationalists, most of whom are opponents of the peace process, marks a clear distinction from Obama, and contradicts key components of established U.S. policy in the region.

For well over forty years Democratic and Republican presidents alike have balanced strong Israeli ties with the need to reassure Arab leaders that the United States is an honest broker in the conflict. In practice, the United States usually acquiesces in diplomatic confrontations with Israel over settlement issues, but has still managed to remain the only viable mediator. Despite Obama’s disappointing speech at the UN last Wednesday and the expected veto of the bid for Palestinian statehood in the Security Council, Abbas remains open to U.S.-mediated negotiations. Perry’s recent statements and alliance with particularly hawkish elements of the Israeli and Jewish American community are important because they show that a Perry presidency would undo this critical feature of established U.S. foreign policy in the region.

If the United States has remained the only viable mediator after decades of perceived U.S. favoritism toward Israeli interests, and even George W. Bush’s low approval among Arab nations in the region, how would Perry’s stance alter the consistent acceptance of the United States as the sole mediator?

Obama Netanyahu

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in 2009. For several decades American presidents "have balanced strong Israeli ties with the need to reassure Arab leaders that the U.S. is an honest broker in the conflict," the author writes. In contrast, Perry's rejection of a two-state solution "would sever any hopes of a U.S. role in the peace process." Credit: Commons/Pete Souza.

President Perry’s endorsement of this narrative, instead of acquiescence to it, would mean that a U.S. mediator would only serve to reinforce an uncompromising Israeli position instead of trying to reconcile differences based on competing national narratives.

Admittedly, tensions between the Obama administration and Arab states have grown over Israel’s relationship with Washington and there have been questions raised about the viability of U.S. mediation. While these sentiments among Arab leaders are important, the Palestinians have not openly considered any other frameworks for negotiations.

There are two reasons that a Perry presidency would change this fact and significantly reduce U.S. influence over the conflict. The first is that Perry believes his faith requires him to support Israel, suggesting that his Evangelical Zionist belief that the Jewish return to our biblical homeland must precede the end of days informs his positions on this matter. Such a view would deny the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty over “Judea” and “Samaria” (the biblical names for the area of the West Bank). Even George W. Bush, known for his open evangelicalism, avoided theology when discussing foreign affairs because he understood the need for the United States to seem like an honest broker. Perry’s theological view that the Palestinians have no right to self-determination in the biblical land of Israel would sever any hopes of a U.S. role in the peace process.

The second reason a Perry presidency would derail the peace process is his opposition to “injecting the issues of … settlements,” which suggests carte blanche support for Israeli settlement growth. Perry’s faith-based policy bears a stark resemblance to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s (Yisrael Beitienu) two-state solution, which proposes a border that includes most existing settlements and excludes Palestinian population centers located along the 1967 border in Israel.

Most agree that this is not a viable two-state solution.

Palestinians are not likely to peacefully validate, even tacitly, over forty years of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The attempt to impose such a plan would likely result in a spike in violent Palestinian actions. Many Israelis would likely respond in the same way to a similarly one-sided proposal in the other direction.

Perry blames the “freeze in Palestinian negotiations” on U.S. support for Abbas’s demand for a halt to settlement construction as a precondition for talks. Perhaps Perry is unaware that prior to U.S. support for a Palestinian state, including during Ronald Reagan’s support for West Bank sovereignty as part of Transjordan, Israeli stubbornness on settlements was considered an obstacle to a final status agreement. It appears that Perry’s administration would be unsympathetic, and potentially openly antagonistic toward others’ attempts to pressure Israel on settlements in any context, thus subverting decades of stated U.S. policy.

Despite the periodic U.S. attempts to pressure Israel on the issue of settlements, they ultimately acquiesced to Israeli stubbornness. Perry’s unabashed endorsement of the settlement enterprise would mark a distinct shift in presidential rhetoric, but would it appreciably change the outcome of U.S. policy on the settlement issue?

The added considerations of a sitting president, including critical U.S. interests in the Arab world, could potentially alter Perry’s views, but he is still the first presidential candidate to openly adopt an ultra-nationalist Israeli perspective that is distrusting and often hostile toward its regional neighbors. He believes that “the Palestinian leadership’s … ‘solution’ remains the destruction of the Jewish state” and suggests openly that the Palestinians are threatening Israel’s very existence, rather then seeking self-determination. Israeli Knesset members Danny Danon (Likud) and Nissim Ze’ev (Shas), who were both on stage at Perry’s recent press conference, have actively opposed the peace process and supported annexation of the Occupied Territories. Perry’s association with—or perhaps embrace of—these radical views would mean a U.S. opposition to the notion of Palestinian statehood and self-determination.

This shift may please opponents of the two-state solution in Israel and the United States, but it should offend the majorities in both countries that support peace through a viable two-state solution that fulfills the national aspirations of the Jews and the Palestinians.

Skokie Protests

A 2008 pro-peace demonstration in Skokie, Ill. Perry's candidacy should worry American Jews interested in a two-state solution, the author argues. Credit: CC/andendquote.

The ethical problem of Perry’s endorsement of the conservative Israeli narrative, relying on biblical claims, practically denies the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. A hypothetical President Perry’s endorsement of this narrative, instead of acquiescence to it, would mean that a U.S. mediator would only serve to reinforce an uncompromising Israeli position instead of trying to reconcile differences based on competing national narratives. This would significantly exasperate the very power imbalance that Abbas hopes to address in his UN statehood bid, making the United States an ineffectual and unacceptable broker.

Jewish Americans who support a two-state solution should be particularly worried. Without U.S. mediation, the bilateral framework will be replaced, perhaps, by Palestinian appeals to international bodies to impose a settlement. Supporters of Israel and a two-state solution must press for U.S. efforts to reestablish its image as an honest broker so that bilateral negotiations will receive the mediation they need to achieve a viable peace agreement.

Chisda Magid graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University/Bloomington in 2008. He was an intern at J Street in Washington, D.C., in 2010. He presently lives in New York City.
tags: Israel/Palestine, US Politics, War & Peace   
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