The Answers to Mitt Romney's Israel-Palestine Apathy

In a video leaked this week, the presidential candidate raised some legitimate concerns about Middle East peace. Here are the solutions he didn't seem to know about.

Mitt Romney speaks in Jerusalem during a July visit. (Reuters)

Just as Mitt Romney's campaign advisors promised this week that his campaign would start having real policy discussions, we receive the candidate's most substantive treatment of the Middle East to date, in the form of a leaked video from a recent closed-door fundraiser. His main thesis seems to be that, for Israelis and Palestinians, "the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish." He provides two general arguments to support his claim, both of which are problematic.

The first argument is that  "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace." As my colleague Max Fisher shrewdly responds:

It's unsettling to see a would-be leader of U.S. foreign policy, which includes stewardship of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so blithely and sweepingly dismiss an entire side. It would be surprising enough if Romney had suggested that, say, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has "no interest whatsoever in establishing peace," but to treat Palestinians as categorically opposed to peace is a rather extreme interpretation, one that would not seem to serve his potential role as mediator.

If Romney was referring to the Palestinian population at large (which gets him into the same murky territory as his "Palestinian culture" generalization a few weeks ago), he's also incorrect. Opinion polling has shown consistently over the past decade that a strong majority of Palestinians, ranging from 60-70 percent, are in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict.

And while I believe that Abbas is, in theory, committed to achieving a deal that would bring about such a solution (that was, in fact, the platform on which Abbas ran for president), it is safe to say that he has no faith in the current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be a partner in such a deal. This explains Abbas's reluctance to engage Netanyahu in negotiations even under the cover of an imperfect yet sufficient settlement freeze in 2010, and his subsequent foolhardy attempts to half-heartedly reconcile with Hamas and to achieve Palestinian statehood through unilateral United Nations recognition.

It is becoming clear that under the current pairing of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, no progress will be made on the peace process. Perhaps this is why the former secretary of state that Romney mentions in his video told him that Palestinian elections could renew the possibility of a settlement. (I'd argue that imminent Israeli elections harbor similar potential.)

Romney's second argument for why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "is going to remain unsolved" is that the "problems" of the conflict are "very hard to solve." If Romney is referring to the numerous final-status issues that will need to be resolved for an end-of-conflict agreement (let alone the nebulous "peace" that Romney mentions), he is not alone in thinking that the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians on issues like borders, refugees, and Jerusalem may be too large to ever reach a compromise. This statement alone does not make Romney particularly radical or wrong-headed, though he might be well-served to explore the myriad proposals to address the needs of both sides on these issues, as The Atlantic recently showcased in its "Is Peace Possible?" multimedia special report.

The only final-status issue Romney chooses to address is security -- certainly one of the most contentious of the final-status issues. In fact, in the most recent round of "negotiations," the current Israeli government made the satisfactory addressing of Israel's security concerns a pre-condition to discussing any of the other issues.  

Romney lists a number of security threats to Israel that might be created or exacerbated by the establishment of a Palestinian state: Iranians smuggling arms into the West Bank, the difficulty of patrolling the border between Jordan and the future state of Palestine, and regulating what aircrafts can land there.

These are all serious concerns. Personally, I would not advise an Israeli government to sign a final-status agreement that does not address them. And Romney is right that many measures proposed to address these concerns would be a serious infringement on Palestinian sovereignty. His mock response of a Palestinian government -- "No way, we're an independent country" -- is actually quite accurate.

But it's important to point out that Palestinians have already acceded to a major encroachment on their sovereignty -- a demilitarized state. This means that they will not be allowed to have an army, air force, or navy -- only a lightly armed police force for the upkeep of domestic law and order -- and strict regulations about what kind of weapons will be allowed into the future Palestinian state. (Read this analysis for an interesting comparison between post-war Japan and the future Palestinian state on the issue of demilitarization and sovereignty in the context of a peace agreement.) This is something that current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to both at the negotiating table and in public forums over the past few years.  

Romney is right to pick on the issue of airspace control. Of all the aspects related to demilitarization, this is probably the stickiest for the Palestinians. Many do see this as a significant infringement on their sovereignty, and have been unwilling to yield it in previous negotiations. Again, Romney's depiction of the Palestinian position is quite accurate: "We're not an independent nation if Israel is able to come in and tell us who can land at our airport."

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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