In the coming weeks, President Obama may announce his support for—or at least his non-objection to—a U.N. Security Council resolution defining the terms of a Palestinian state. This would represent an unprecedented break with Israel and mark the culmination of the Obama administration’s six years of confrontation with and animosity toward the Jewish state.
Yet President Obama’s campaign against Israel also provides an opening for those vying to be the next president to describe a pro-Israel agenda. Because American public opinion is solidly pro-Israel, the next president—Democrat or Republican—will be able to move quickly to repair much of the damage caused by the current administration. What kinds of initiatives should 2016 candidates who are friends of Israel consider making part of their foreign policy platforms?
The first thing the next president, Democrat or Republican, might consider doing is downgrading the peace process as the central feature of the U.S.-Israel relationship. On Inauguration Day 2017, the peace process will be more than 25 years old—with very little progress to show and in some cases, such as Gaza, with a situation much worse than before. The pursuit of Palestinian statehood over the past quarter-century has damaged U.S. credibility. It has committed our country to a diplomatic proceeding whose expectations have always been set too high, and in which corrupt and violent figures are promoted as peace partners while an ally is set up to play the role of scapegoat.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The next president can acknowledge the benefits of a Palestinian state that is truly and permanently at peace with Israel, yet recognize that such a state is unlikely to emerge soon, given Hamas’s control of Gaza and the corruption, sclerosis, and terror-friendliness of the Palestinian Authority (PA). There will be a time, the next president could say, to discuss statehood. Until then, our emphasis should be on encouraging Palestinian reform. A good place to start would be insisting that the PA stop paying benefits to terrorists and their families, and conditioning further American aid on the cessation of such payments.
Having freed him or herself from this diplomatic rut, the next president can move to rebuild the alliance on a foundation that serves American interests and strengthens Israel’s security and legitimacy. The broad goal should be a reduction of the kind of ambiguities about Israel’s borders and territory that have created opportunities for mischief-makers around the world to manufacture diplomatic crises.
The next president could recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem, to which there is no Arab claim. This would in no way curtail Israel’s options in future negotiations with the Palestinians or prejudge any legitimate diplomatic outcomes. It would merely recognize the fact that, since its founding in 1948, Jerusalem has been its capital, just as it will always be Israel’s capital.
There are two more things the next president could do to help clarify and legitimize Israel’s borders. The first is to revive and codify the understandings that were reached in the 2004 Bush-Sharon letter, which was endorsed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the House and Senate in June of that year. The letter drew an important distinction between major settlement blocks that will remain part of Israel in any peace deal, and farther-flung and much less populous settlements that may not. Since the major settlement blocks, especially those around Jerusalem, will never be part of Palestine, the letter said the United States would cease contesting construction within them.
The Obama administration discarded this understanding upon taking office and instigated crisis after crisis over “settlement construction” inside these blocks. The crises were contrived and needless. The next president should recognize the legitimacy of these communities and tell the EU that the United States will vigorously block any effort to punish Israel for construction in them.
The second thing the next president could do to help clarify Israel’s borders is to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. The Golan was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, after it had been used repeatedly during previous decades as a launching pad for attacks on the Jewish state. Today, because of the ongoing war in Syria, the Heights—which sit above Israel’s major source of fresh water and much of its farmland—are more vital to Israel’s security than ever. It’s time to end this territory’s purgatory and discard the fantasy that the Golan will one day be handed back to Syria.