Presidential candidates on both sides of the map have been called, inevitably, to address perhaps the world’s thorniest political problem: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Rubio’s “unconditional support” of Israel, through Trump’s promise to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, to Sanders’s support of Israel as part of a “two-state solution”, promises are many but actual details or plans are absent. The problem with these various declarations of support for Israel is that they often assume that supporting Israel means supporting (or at least tolerating) conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansionist policies in the West Bank.
But such an approach not only makes a territorial agreement between Israel and Palestine less likely, it also flies in the face of the history of Israeli territorial withdrawals. If the next president would truly like to push the Israel-Palestinian conflict toward a resolution, he or she would have to break with the now-failed Obama paradigm that sees careful negotiations as key. The new president should present Netanyahu with a choice: withdraw from the majority of the West Bank and reach a settlement over the remaining lands, or compromise the guaranteed American support in international arenas.
Over the past three year, Secretary of State John Kerry has displayed an enduring faith in the two sides’ potential to reach an agreement without international coercion. This is despite the increasing exasperation of U.S. officials at Netanyahu’s policies. The U.S. continued to exercise its U.N. veto power in Israel’s favor, even when a draft U.N. resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories by 2017 provided an opportunity to break through the standstill. Instead, American support has provided Netanyahu with a way to keep the settlers at home – one of his strongest constituent groups – appeased. Netanyahu’s vague promises to move forward in negotiation ‘once the Palestinians are ready’ have been repeatedly offset by his continuing authorization of Israeli settlement expansion on Palestinian territories.
Past U.S. stances on Israeli expansionism have been much sterner. When the 1956 Suez Crisis brought the entire Sinai Peninsula under Israeli rule, a firm letter from President Eisenhower to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion did the trick. In the exchange between the two leaders, Eisenhower demanded that Israel abide by the U.N.-brokered armistice, but Ben-Gurion also received guarantees to its freedom of passage through the Egyptian-controlled Straights of Tiran. A short and unyielding missive, then, did much more than extended negotiations. However, Ben-Gurion represented a liberal party, and Israel is now led by the conservative Likud party. Doesn’t this make such withdrawal scenarios unlikely? Not at all! Israeli history demonstrates, if anything, that the most significant withdrawals were executed by conservative leaders such as Netanyahu.
In 1982, only five years after Israelis elected longtime settlement supporter Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula as part of a peace treaty with Egypt. In 1998, only two years after election, Netanyahu himself (then in his first term) signed the Wye River Memorandum, agreeing to withdraw from significant portions of the West Bank. In 2005, ultra-conservative Prime Minister Ariel Sharon–first elected in 2001 for his hardline stances–shocked the Gaza and northern West Bank settlers by withdrawing Israeli forces from these regions and removing 25 settlements. These withdrawals stood in stark contradiction to the platforms on which these three leaders had run. They were not ideologically motivated, but pragmatic. In all three cases, international pressures along with unsustainable economic and human costs won the day. In all three cases, despite protests from the far right, Begin, Netanyahu, and Sharon received sweeping support from most of the political map.
But wouldn’t such a change of policy in Israel cause political turmoil in Israel, since Israelis just elected a conservative, anti-concession parliament? Again, not necessarily. Research has also shown that Israeli voters are far less invested in the Occupied Territories than their voting patterns may suggest. A survey conducted in March 2010, only a year after Netanyahu was re-elected for office, found a surprisingly high level of support for a land-for-peace agreement on the nationalist right-wing. 44 percent of the voters for the far-right party Israel Beytenu supported a withdrawal from all the settlements if this was the only obstacle to an end to the conflict. Policy studies with settlers similarly documented more benign stances about possible territorial solutions than right-wing politicians expressed. Perhaps the most striking evidence, though, is that despite the bitter objections of the settlers and their supporters, most of the Israeli public endorsed the withdrawals from Sinai, Gaza, and the northern West Bank (or at the very least, as sociologist Michael Feige noted, acted as “interested bystanders”).
Historically, when faced with a clear cut withdrawal plan, most Israelis backed their government – even when it went against its earlier platform. A U.S. administration that will increase international pressure on Israel, perhaps by withdrawing its automatic U.N. veto, will provide the true support that Israel needs, and will make a real change in favor of a land-for-peace settlement. It will clarify to Netanyahu that if he wishes to remain in power, he would need to do so on the international community’s terms or face real consequences. Much like Ariel Sharon, he would need to make a decision: continuing the occupation and facing international sanctions, or breaking hard news to the settlers and providing Israel the chance to regain its international standing.
Shai Dromi is a doctoral candidate at Yale University. He works on political culture, humanitarian movements, and collective trauma. His current projects examines the origins of the humanitarian NGO field.