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.

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."

The Israeli demand is not necessarily for control of Palestinian airspace, but rather access to it, so it can intercept airborne threats before they reach Israeli airspace, which in many cases would be too late. Despite public opposition, most Palestinian officials I've interviewed on the subject admit that they will be forced to concede on this issue as part of any final deal.

There are also ways to address Israel's security needs -- proposed by Israeli generals and high-ranking security officials -- that don't violate Palestinian sovereignty. Palestinians are emphatic in their refusal to allow Israeli troops physically within Palestinian territory (which is not surprising, given that the current presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is the most tangible manifestation of the Israeli occupation for Palestinians). But there are technological ways that Israel can cooperate on border security, such as sensor warning systems and remote video link-up.

The Council for Peace and Security, a group of former Israeli generals and security officials, has published a convincing rebuttal to the notion that Israel needs troops stationed along the Palestinian border with Jordan, and outlines numerous alternatives in addition to those I mention above. "Force deployment on the slopes turn the entire Jordan Valley into a 'killing zone' of the attacking ground forces ... and in constant threat of encirclement," the report argues. "'Strategic depth' with regard to the Jordan Valley and the West Bank makes a mockery of the term."

As to aerial threats, previous negotiations have also provided for Israel to control early warning stations within Palestinian territory that would allow Israel to detect attacks coming from the East. While not a full-proof defense by itself, Israel's multi-tiered missile defense system -- including the U.S.-funded Iron Dome battery -- is another layer of protections against these airborne threats that could emanate from a Palestinian state.

Romney raises another important question in the video: It's all well and good to design a peace treaty that includes all these restrictions on the Palestinians, but who is going to enforce them? On this question, too, there has been a lot of interesting work.

Almost all formulations for a final status-agreement include some form of multi-national force that could include monitoring and enforcement functions. Check out this report from the Center for New American Security that explores how such a force could avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts to use multinational forces in the region, such as UNIFIL in southern Lebanon and and the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) along the Israel-Egypt border.

But perhaps the greatest assurance Israel has of the treaty's effectiveness will be a performance-based, benchmarked process of implementation. As President Obama said in his May 2011 speech at the State Department, "The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated." In other words, Israel will not be forced to withdraw from any territory until the treaty's security parameters are not only implemented, but also proven to be effective.

These implementation and monitoring mechanisms, as well as the security measures I mentioned above, are explored in-depth in the "Security" section of The Atlantic's "Is Peace Possible?" special report.

Despite raising serious concerns about the security risks posed to Israel by the establishment of a Palestinian state, Romney ignores the other side of the equation: The security risks to Israel of not establishing a Palestinian state. The list is long.

Forget the arguments about Israel retaining its democratic or Jewish character as Arabs slowly become a majority in the land it controls. A third intifada -- particularly in light of the Arab Spring -- may not be too far off if the peace process continues to stall. The lack of progress will also drive the last remaining Palestinian moderates from power; as many legitimate gripes as one might have about Abbas, his successors are sure to be worse. And Israel's international isolation and delegitimization will only continue gaining momentum, and undermine its most crucial security partnerships with even traditional allies in Europe.

Any astute observer of the region -- even those who are skeptical of the feasibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace any time soon -- would thus scoff at Romney's "hope for some degree of stability" if "we kick the ball down the field." (I wont even begin to parse his misguided analogy to the China-Taiwan conflict.)

As Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, recently argued in the National Interest, "There is no such thing as a status quo in conflict situations: things either improve or get worse. This conflict -- if left to develop on its own and subject to the machinations of those on both sides who are intent upon disrupting any resolution effort -- will get much worse, much faster than anyone can anticipate."

Romney may have correctly diagnosed some of the most serious impediments to achieving a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his apathy about confronting those challenges is dangerous. The status quo is not sustainable, even from strictly a security perspective. Pretending it is doesn't serve Israeli or American security interests.