What’s a progressive to do when Trump seeks Middle East peace?
We are living in a season of deep political turbulence and passions are justifiably running hot. #Resist calls pop up everywhere. In moments like these, Democrats and progressives like myself reflexively — and often justifiably — reject anything that President Trump proposes.
But what happens when Trump decides to take a risk on the thorniest diplomatic challenge in the Middle East: Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? What’s a progressive, pro-peace Israel supporter to do?
That’s why this moment is incredibly tricky for those of us who care deeply about Middle East peace. Trump’s election was cheered by the Israeli right. Settlement construction announcements spiked. Fever took hold amongst those who are opposed to any territorial compromise.
But then something strange happened during Trump’s Feb. 15 press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, made famous for Trump’s one-state, two-state “I like the one that both parties like” formulation. While that phrasing was odd, to say the least, and threw the foreign policy wonk crowd into a tizzy, Trump also said something at that press conference directly to Bibi that seemed to escape the headlines:
“I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump said. “We’ll work something out.”
What is going on here?
And then more happened. Just this past week, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, Jonathan Greenblatt, went to both Israel and the West Bank. And according to a statement from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem after his meeting with the Palestinians in Ramallah, “President Abbas told Mr. Greenblatt that he believes that under President Trump’s leadership a historic peace deal is possible, and that it will enhance security throughout the region.”
Ok. Now this is beginning to sound like something that progressive pro-peace advocates should be paying attention to. So what should progressive supporters of Israel do at a moment like this, when Trump is flirting with resolving an issue that has been at the core of our hopes and dreams for decades?
We should guide him in the right direction. And we should continue to reasonably criticize him when he gets off track.
For example, when Trump strays, as he did during the presidential campaign when he called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, we should point out how that will harm his — and our — goal of achieving peace.
And it seems that his administration has heard this message about the dangers of moving the embassy — particularly from Arab allies — loud and clear. A core critique of the embassy move is that it would undermine peace efforts, as well as harm broader American efforts to advance counter terrorism partnerships with our Arab allies like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Since then, Trump’s push for the embassy to move has been fading away. So it seems that such constructive criticism can work.
Let’s also remember that Trump was panned last year during the Republican primaries for saying that he would work to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. His right flank, led by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), attacked him as being anti-Israel for calling for peace. Those attacks failed to politically damage Trump. And apparently, failed to dissuade him as well.
After all, there is only one possible, achievable path for peace that guarantees both Israel’s Jewish character and its democracy. That’s the two-state solution. That logic was not lost on voters.
There will continue to be major stumbles however, as the David Friedman appointment to be our ambassador to Israel shows. This is a person who never uttered even tepid support for the two-state solution until his Senate confirmation hearings. Yet there he was, stating that it was the most practical outcome for achieving peace.
And then there was Ben Cardin, the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime supporter of Israel, rejecting Friedman’s nomination in part due to his skepticism about Friedman’s commitment to two states for two peoples.
As Cardin said when he announced his opposition to Friedman, “There is no realistic, sustainable prospect for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians other than two states living side by side with security.”
To be clear, supporting a push for Middle East peace does not mean giving the administration a free pass on everything else. For instance, the administration’s tepid response to the wave of bomb threats (165, according to the ADL) against Jewish Community Centers, schools and other institutions, the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and the sharp spike in anti-Semitic vandalism has been disconcerting and should be criticized. We should not hesitate to point these and many other concerns out, and we should do so with vigor. But neither should we hesitate to support a sincere effort by the administration to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace if one is there.
And we should do this by making sure that we state clearly when that effort is off track.
There are a lot of reasons why Donald Trump and his team could fail on Middle East peacemaking. And there will be many opportunities in the future to point out those moments. But for now, subtly, the Trump administration, leading figures from both parties, and regional actors are conspiring, perhaps unwittingly, to give new life to the Middle East peace process.
As a progressive American Jew who deeply supports Middle East peace, I stand ready to do my part to egg this process on in the right direction, even while not relenting in my other critiques of the Trump administration when they’re deserved. And if you’re a progressive Israel supporter who cares about Middle East peace, then you should too.
Joel Rubin is a columnist for the Washington Jewish Week and is president of the Washington Strategy Group, a global government affairs advisory firm. A Pittsburgh native, he’s also a former deputy assistant secretary of state and a was a candidate in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District.