THE BLOG
04/07/2008 04:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can the 44th President Move the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict To the Backburner?

It is fascinating, although not at all surprising, that the candidates for president almost never discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's not like it is some minor foreign policy issue. Ask Americans to name two or three of the most pressing foreign policy issues and they are bound to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict. How could they not? After Iraq, there is no other that is so extensively covered by the media nor is there another one of interest to as many voters.

Nonetheless, the candidates' silence on the issue is rather profound. Other than mouthing the usual pieties about standing with Israel, candidates approach the issue with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

The reasons for this reticence are obvious. Although most voters, and certainly most voters who care about Israel, favor active diplomacy to end the conflict, the loudest voices on this issue tend to be fervent supporters of the status quo. They are single-issue voters and single-issue donors and, accordingly, they have disproportionate influence despite their decided minority status. (That is the way it works in the current system. Those who vote and make contributions based on a full range of issues do not have anywhere near the clout of those who tell a candidate that their support is tied to the candidate's stand on one issue and one issue only).

The good news is that although candidates tend to tell the single-issue crowd what it wants to hear, it is unlikely that President Obama, Clinton, or McCain will continue the passive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in place since George W. Bush came to office.

Although the Bush administration has repeatedly announced various initiatives to move the parties toward an agreement, follow-through has been close to nonexistent until now. This is not the fault of either of the two Bush secretaries of state. Both Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have pushed hard but were stymied by a coalition of lobbyists, neoconservative administration officials, and a complaisant Congress.

It is hard to imagine, although not unimaginable, that the 44th president will relegate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the backburner, not when it is so clear that, absent U.S. leadership, the situation only deteriorates.

The candidates know this. In a March 27th interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Senator Hillary Clinton stated that she understands the need to go back to the diplomatic efforts that the second Bush abandoned.

"It was a mistake for the Bush administration to take a hands-off approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel is more vulnerable today that it was eight years ago," she said.

She noted the benefits of Oslo and her husband's leadership: "I think what we did in the '90s was beneficial in a strategic way and led to a period where, at times, there were no attacks being made, no suicide bombings and no deaths."

Clinton is referring to the last three years of Oslo, the safest three years in Israel's history. That period ended when, due to Arafat's intransigence and Barak's arrogance, the Camp David summit of 2000 collapsed. It may have been a mistake for President Clinton to convene the summit when he did. It should not be forgotten, however, that the Camp David summit and the Taba summit that followed in January 2001 brought Israelis and Palestinians closer to a final status agreement than ever before or since.

The next president, whoever he or she is, needs to build on that legacy and help wrap up the deal. It is not going to happen without U.S. leadership and it's up to #44 to provide it.

The problem he or she will face is that any president's political advisers are going to warn that it is way too risky to take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. They will inveigh against doing it in the first year of a new administration ("You don't need that kind of fight in the first year"). They will warn against doing it in the second year ("What? In a Congressional election year?") and certainly not in the 3rd or 4th years when a president runs for re-election.

The cynics will always find an excuse not to touch this issue and it all comes down to political expediency. That is because there is no solid argument against U.S. leadership; the argument against it all comes down to the perception that it is politically dangerous to take on the status quo lobby.

This is no different than the arguments against doing anything about any of the major problems that confront the country. Name an issue and I'll show you a special interest that wants to preserve the status quo. No matter if it's immigration, health care, education, the stagnating economy, or whatever, the forces of inertia usually prevail. The path of least resistance, no matter what the issue, is doing nothing.

Of course, no candidate will ever say that he or she favors the health care or immigration status quo. Just imagine them saying, "I think that 40 million uninsured is fine" or "the situation on our borders is precisely what I want it to be" or "our schools are doing a great job. No improvement is necessary."

But that is no different than simply uttering trite phrases about Israel's thriving democracy or opposition to terrorism.

These phrases mean nothing. Israel needs peace and security and it is not going to achieve it by means of lobby-crafted phrases designed to offend no one and say nothing. Peace and security can be achieved if the next president ends America's disengagement from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and puts America's weight behind the effort to achieve a final status agreement.

As for the politics, forget about it. Ronald Reagan opened relations with the PLO. George H. W. Bush encouraged Israel to negotiate with it. Bill Clinton stood on the White House lawn with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat and put the full weight of his presidency behind peace. And George W. Bush, the least forceful of the group on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, still managed to issue a stronger call for the two-state solution than any of his predecessors.

Despite everything, the next president will confront an Israeli-Palestinian situation in which, unlike the days prior to the first Bush and Clinton administrations, mainstream Israelis and Palestinians are almost in full agreement about what peace will look like. If George W. Bush could repeatedly endorse "two states, living side by side in peace and security," his successor can make it happen.

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.