Debate’s big winner: Israel. Big loser: Israel-Palestinian peace process

October 23, 2012

A Palestinian woman argues with an Israeli solider in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg called it "the kishke debate," the Jewish Daily Forward termed it "the Yad Vashem debate." President Obama and Mitt Romney competed at Monday night's foreign policy debate to champion Israel, repeatedly citing the country and their support for its security. But there was one major Israeli issue that got barely any reference: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The candidates mentioned Israel 31 times, bringing it up in response to questions on terrorism, the conflict in Syria, revolutionary Egypt and Iran's nuclear program. Obama name-checked the Jerusalem holocaust memorial and a rocket-barraged Israeli town near Gaza. Romney cited his speech at Israeli's annual domestic policy conference. Obama declared Egypt's support for the Camp David peace treaty a "red line" and made "standing by our interests in Israel’s security" the second of his five-point plan on the Middle East (economic development was number four). Romney criticized Obama's chilly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that the Israeli leader would not surprise his friends in a Romney administration with a strike on Iran, as some analysts have worried he might.

Even moderator Bob Schieffer drew out the emphasis on Israeli security, asking the candidates whether they would pledge to consider an attack on Israel as an attack on the United States as it had with Japan (although there are some key distinctions here). A sometimes-explicit question underlay much of the debate: Will your policies be good for the U.S. and for Israel?

But the Israel-Palestinian peace process was barely mentioned last night, a near-absence made even more striking for the otherwise heavy emphasis on Israel. The 2008 presidential campaigns had dug into the issue, even sparring over subset policies such as the status of Jerusalem.

Here, below, is the single reference to Palestinians or the stalled peace process during the debate. Romney brought it up as part of a larger point about failed Obama policies. Tellingly, Obama pivoted immediately to counterterrorism and didn't return to the issue:

ROMNEY: We’re also going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism. We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record, you look at the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No.

Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement? No, they haven’t had talks in two years. We have not seen the progress we need to have, and I’m convinced that with strong leadership and an effort to build a strategy based upon helping these nations reject extremism, we can see the kind of peace and prosperity the world demands.

OBAMA: Well, keep in mind our strategy wasn’t just going after bin Laden. We created partnerships throughout the region to deal with extremism in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan.

Neither candidate has a particularly strong hand on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Obama came into office pledging to revive the stagnant talks. His effort, which came at some political cost for the U.S.-Israel relationship when Obama pressured Netanyahu to curb settlement growth, produced few actual talks. The peace process has since largely stalled. Romney, for his part, has generated outrage among Palestinians twice during the campaign: first by seemingly attributing the West Bank's relative poverty to "culture" during a visit to Israel, and second with his leaked comments at a private fundraiser. "I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there's just no way," Romney said. "And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it."

Still, the issue's near-absence at the debate was striking, and noticed by both Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom pointed out the contradiction between championing Israel's interests without addressing one of its most existential long-term issues. "It should be clear” that without finding a peaceful resolution, “there will be no success for American policy in the Middle East," a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told AP in response to the debate. "Obama continues to show himself to be the most 'pro-Israel' president Israel has seen, and indeed," Israel-American blogger Mairav Zonszein wryly observed, "he did not bother to mention the P word once throughout the debate."

It's an irony of the foreign policy debate that the two candidates, though working so assiduously to highlight their focus on Israel and global leadership, seemed to be avoiding one of Israel's most important challenges, one in which the United States has historically played a lead role. Israel-observers have long characterized the unresolved status of Palestinian peoples and territories as a tremendous security challenge for Israel. "But you can seriously fault neither Obama nor Romney," former Israeli ambassador Alon Pinkas wrote at Al-Monitor. "Israelis and Palestinians cooperated and succeeded in a grand achievement: to myopically get U.S. foreign policy totally disinterested in them."

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Max Fisher · October 23, 2012