Repudiated presidents and Israel

The end of the Trump Administration has prompted much stock-taking. Many have argued that Donald Trump was good for Israel. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, brokering the Abraham Accords, applying “maximum pressure” on Iran—it’s no wonder that most Israelis would have preferred a second term for Trump.

Yet by the usual measure of presidential success, he was a dud. He joins the short list of only five American presidents who failed to win reelection over the past century. And he has the unique ignominy of having been impeached twice. Many pundits, partisan and otherwise, are predicting that he’ll go down in history as “the worst president ever.”

In truth, nothing is as unpredictable as history. But at the moment, Trump looks like yet another variation on a familiar type: the repudiated president who’s done well by Israel. Scanning the past half-century, the previous two presidents who did the most to secure Israel and bring it peace also were cast aside by the American public. The comparison is revealing, although its lessons are elusive.

“Nixon did not break a single promise…”

The first case is Richard Nixon. From the outset, Israeli leaders and officials liked what they saw in Nixon—none more so than Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. In a 1972 interview, he said of Nixon that “never in America’s history had any president gone so far in his pro-Israeli declarations or in expressing America’s commitment to Israel’s security.” Coming in an election year, that caused a firestorm, and led to a Washington Post editorial decrying Rabin as an “undiplomatic diplomat.”

At the time, Rabin insisted he had no intention of playing favorites. But in his memoirs, he described Nixon as “the more desirable candidate from Israel’s point of view” even as compared to Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and expressed disappointment that “America’s Jews did not share my opinion.” He worried that this dearth of Jewish supporters might turn Nixon against Israel. To his relief, he found that Nixon’s views on Israel “were founded on more than political expediency. My fears proved to be groundless.”

The proof arrived in October 1973, when Israel came under a combined, surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. It was Nixon who, in the words of some Israelis, “saved Israel,” first by sending Israel massive arms shipments by air and sea, and then by facing down the Soviet backers of Egypt, to the point of threatening nuclear war. Nor did Nixon flinch when Arab oil states retaliated with a punishing oil boycott.

Israelis felt vindicated for trusting a man many Americans reviled as “Tricky Dick.” “I knew that President Nixon had promised to help us,” wrote Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir, in her memoirs,

and I knew from my past experience with him that he would not let us down. Let me, at this point, repeat something that I have said often before (usually to the extreme annoyance of many of my American friends). However history judges Richard Nixon—and it is probable that the verdict will be very harsh—it must also be put on the record forever that he did not break a single one of the promises he made to us.

When Nixon ultimately resigned in disgrace over Watergate, it pained Meir:

It should not come as a surprise that his resignation—under circumstances unprecedented in American history—caused me deep regret. I was familiar with his virtues and his faults, both of which he possessed in abundance. But above all I had great respect for his broad vision and understanding of global politics…. [H]is doctrine that the United States should help those nations willing to help themselves found very concrete expression in regard to Israel…. Nixon helped to provide Israel with more arms than any other American president. For this, and for his strict avoidance of imposing an unwanted political solution on Israel, he is deserving of this country’s profound gratitude.

In rankings by presidential historians, Nixon has risen a bit over the years, but he still figures in the bottom third of all presidents. In contrast, he would be at or near the top of the list of “best friends” of Israel in the White House.

“Carter has done more and gone farther….”

The second case is Jimmy Carter. Today, it’s usual to view Carter as hostile to Israel, based on the harsh criticism he leveled at Israeli policy after leaving the White House. His 2006 New York Times bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, made him anathema to supporters of Israel.

But that wasn’t the perception of Carter when he was president, and Carter’s success in brokering Israel’s peace with Egypt at Camp David today looms large, in comparison with the many failures of subsequent presidents. Without Carter’s unique set of skills, Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 might have led nowhere.

In late 1979, Moshe Dayan, who had been at Camp David, sang Carter’s praises. “Carter has done more and gone farther than any former president in order to bring peace between us and the Arabs,” he announced. As part of that peace deal, “we have achieved first-class agreements, better than Israel ever had with the United States.”

The later praise by Israeli future-president Ezer Weizman, who also witnessed Carter at Camp David, carried even more weight, since he offered it long after Carter’s political demise: “From an Israeli viewpoint,” he wrote,

Jimmy Carter had been a good president. He was the prime mover in the conclusion of the Camp David agreements and in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that resulted. He granted Israel lavish economic and military aid.

But as in the case of Nixon, here, too, American Jews didn’t appreciate what Carter had done:

There was no reason why American Jews should not have supported [Carter in 1980], as they had supported other Democratic candidates like Humphrey, Johnson, and Kennedy—and Carter himself in 1976. But that was not how it worked out. Only 54 percent of Jewish voters opted for Carter [over Republican Ronald Reagan]—a relatively low proportion of Jewish backing for a Democratic candidate.

Of course, it wasn’t only the Jews. No incumbent president was repudiated by the electorate as decisively as Carter in 1980. Reagan’s electoral college victory, 489 to 49, represented the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent.

Carter’s presidency also ended in humiliation. Iran freed the U.S. diplomatic hostages it had held for 444 days only as Carter left the White House on his last day in office. He is regularly ranked by presidential historians in the bottom half of the class.

But the Egyptian-Israeli peace, his greatest achievement, is still considered the gold standard of peacemaking in the Middle East. Another president, Bill Clinton, ached to replicate that miracle in his own Camp David talks with Israel and the Palestinians in 2000. When he fell short, he angrily told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

No one today would call Carter a “great friend of Israel” (although Menachem Begin did just that in 1977). But just as Nixon rescued Israel in its most desperate war, Carter secured for Israel its most precious peace.

“The best friend Israel has ever had…”

Donald Trump now joins the short list of repudiated presidents who did well by Israel.

It will take some time to sort out just how much good he did. As it now looks, Trump’s actions regarding Israel don’t rise to the level of Nixon’s or Carter’s, for sheer impact. That’s because circumstances didn’t present him with an opportunity to make a comparable kind of difference. “We have the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a year ago. But Trump’s “best friendship” was never stress-tested, so we’ll never know.

That’s the role of chance in history. One man, Egypt’s Sadat, created opportunities for both Nixon and Carter. On Nixon’s watch, he launched a war that shook Israel’s foundations. On Carter’s watch, he shook Israel again with a surprise visit to Jerusalem. If Sadat hadn’t acted, there would have been no openings for Nixon and Carter to exploit.

Nothing of similar magnitude happened on Trump’s watch, and his initiatives toward Israel were mostly cost-free acts of recognition. His most substantive achievement, the Abraham Accords, required real diplomatic ingenuity, but it’s too early to judge their long-term significance for Israel, or gauge their resilience in crisis conditions. All that’s certain is that as Trump leaves Washington, he has the potential to be remembered as a president who made a historic difference to Israel. But that’s a call only future historians will be positioned to make.

Not the president you’d like to have

So is there some explanatory connection between leaving the White House under a cloud, and having done exceptional good for Israel? Or is it just coincidence?

If there’s a connection, it’s not obvious, at least to me. But even if there isn’t one, there may still be a few lessons here, for both Israelis and American Jews.

In each election cycle, there is much brouhaha over which candidate is the greater “friend of Israel.” But the evidence is that doing right by Israel counts for only so much in American politics. As we’ve seen, a gallant president can rescue Israel from peril or bring its adversaries to the peace table, but neither will compensate for mistakes he makes arising from vanity, arrogance, or miscalculation.

But even a floundering president must protect U.S. strategic interests. And a wounded one is more prone to obsess over posterity’s judgment. It’s in these two realms that helping Israel adds value to a president, and it’s here that Israel and its supporters should focus their appeals. The political payoff for supporting Israel may be negligible, but the other rationales are persuasive, and deserve greater emphasis.

For Israel, it’s vital to remain non-partisan and non-judgmental when it comes to presidents. Not only does Israel have no decisive influence over who will be president. Israel doesn’t fully control the timing of crises that might require presidential intervention.

When that happens, it shouldn’t matter to Israel what controversies or scandals embroil the president. It shouldn’t matter if he’s a self-righteous prig (like Carter) or a “grab ’em by the pussy” bully (like Trump) or even a country-club antisemite (like Nixon). To paraphrase a quotable American, you go to war with the president you have, not the president you’d like to have.

These failings do matter to American Jews: unlike Israelis, they have the right to take sides, pass judgment, and cast votes. But if they care about the well-being of Israel, they shouldn’t busily delegitimate supporters of Israel on the other side of the partisan aisle. It’s self-defeating, because you don’t know whether your hero or your antihero will be in the Oval Office precisely at the moment of crisis for Israel. If it’s not your hero, Israel will have to rely not on you, but on your opponents.

A certain dispassion may be especially hard to maintain when you view the president as insufferable, as many American Jews viewed Nixon, Carter, and Trump. That’s the time to take a deep breath, remember past precedents, and repeat: “The work of the righteous is done by others.”

Cross-posted at Times of Israel, here.

The Trump plan: history doesn’t run in reverse

On February 5, Gregg Roman of the Middle East Forum interviewed me on the Trump plan for Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve written about it elsewhere; in the interview, I offer some further reflections. (If you prefer, click here to listen.)

MEF: What’s your take on the Trump peace plan?

Kramer: Well, the first thing you have to do is separate analysis of the plan from the partisan political atmosphere that prevails the United States today, and just look at the plan on its merits and limitations. I understand that’s hard to do, but it’s really important because otherwise, you’re letting your political prejudice influence your analysis, and we want to neutralize that.

The plan has three key levels of analysis that you could do. There are the assumptions of the plan; there are the principles of the plan; and there are the details of the plan. It’s important not to reverse the order of discussion and get lost in the details before you look at the assumptions and the principles.

The core assumption is that the end of the conflict is important. [Otherwise,] why have a proposal? There have been administrations that didn’t make a proposal. The Obama administration basically dropped the whole issue at one point, and focused elsewhere. The idea that resolving the conflict could have a positive effect on the US position in the Middle East and on Israel’s position in the Middle East, is the basic underlying assumption of this initiative.

There’s a bit of linkage here—in other words, it’s important because it connects with the way the US is perceived in the region and the way Israel is perceived in the region.

So that’s one core assumption. The second core assumption is that you can’t reverse history, history only goes in one direction.

And that’s reflected in the principles. Now there are two key principles here. One is that there’s no way that you’re going to see the massive movement of peoples or parts of peoples as a consequence of, or as an element in, any solution. What does that mean? Anyone who thinks that 80,000, or 50,000, or 20,000 settlers can be removed from settlements under any political constellation which is imaginable in Israel today, is simply dreaming. It’s not going to happen.

And the second, that anyone who imagines that the West Bank or Gaza could absorb other huge numbers of Palestinian refugees—really, descendants of refugees—from other countries, is also dreaming.

So everyone stays in place in this plan. And I think that’s a core principle.

Another core principle—and you can’t get around it—is that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution. It has been since 1947. Even a man now described as Israel’s best friend ever still cannot put a plan on the table that doesn’t highlight two states.

The rest are details. We can discuss the details; [but] I think that they’re the most flexible part of the plan. In fact, Jared Kushner indicated they’re all open to negotiation. I’d say that even includes Jerusalem; it certainly includes the borders that are proposed on the conceptual map.

So, in a way, it’s pointless to get lost in the details at this point. It’s much more important to focus on the assumptions and the principles.

MEF: So let’s talk about the conditioning of the Palestinian people before we even have any principles associated with the peace deal. Because as far as they’re concerned, anything that this president or Benny Gantz or Benjamin Netanyahu offers to them, they’ll say no. A hundred years of Palestinian rejectionism.

And I’m sure you’re familiar with the campaign that the Middle East Forum ran in Israel last summer, associated with our Israel Victory Project: the idea that you can only make peace with defeated enemies, those who recognize a sense of defeat. What’s your take on that idea? Do you think that there’s a way for the Palestinians to give up on sumud, their “steadfastness,” the rejectionism, sarbanut as it’s called in Hebrew, or are we in for this for another hundred years?

Kramer: Look, let me first begin by making a minor correction to the way you described the plan. You called it a “peace plan.” It’s not a peace plan, it’s a partition plan. And a partition plan doesn’t have to be accepted—no partition was ever accepted by the Palestinians—in order to have historic effects. The 1947 plan by the United Nations, which was accepted by the Zionist movement, and was rejected by the Palestinians, still had transformative historic effects: creation of the State of Israel.

What characterizes a partition plan, is that basically it’s a proposal of a third party, looking from the outside, that has some authority, whether it be the British in 1937 when they proposed a partition plan, or the United Nations in 1947, or the United States today. So in a way, the importance of the plan transcends whether either of the parties accepts it.

And I don’t think that the Palestinians can accept it, or will accept it, given the state of their myth-making in their political vision. There are plenty of elements in the plan which Israel really can’t accept either, although Israel will accept the assumptions and the principles without accepting necessarily the details.

But that doesn’t mean that the plan won’t have an effect. The question is, even if the plan is never implemented (and it will never be implemented in all its details), what will be its historic effect?

What will be transformative here for the Palestinians is that they will begin to understand that history only runs in one direction, and the world is moving gradually to an accommodation with the facts of history. The Palestinians haven’t done that. And the reason they haven’t—part of the reason—isn’t just because they’re hidebound. It’s because the world has told them again and again that history can be reversed. Even the United States at various times has told them that history can be reversed. When people stop telling Palestinians that history can be reversed, that is the beginning of wisdom for the Palestinians. That’s the effect of the plan.

And that’s why the plan is so important. It begins with the United States, it will percolate to other states in the West and Arab states, and the Palestinians will begin to understand that their demand for the reversal of history has no support from anyone else.

MEF: You write, in an article that you wrote on the 102nd anniversary of the Balfour plan on October 31 of last year, regarding this issue, that the declaration “did clearly mark the beginning of the end of the Jewish problem as Weizmann and the Zionists understood it: a total absence of power that left the Jews as wanderers, vulnerable and weak.” What will it take to realize, on the Palestinian side, that there is a vacuum of power there, they have no legitimacy in the eyes of many Arab states (in the eyes of the Arab populations, maybe)? They have no ability to tell their leaders what to do unless they openly revolt and even if that happened, the IDF might come in and save those leaders who are providing sort of a Faustian bargain for security as it relates right now to, at least, the West Bank. And they’re suffering; their brand is crisis. How do we get the Palestinians to realize, like the Jews realized—I guess it was 1948, seventy-two years ago now—that the gig is up, you’ve lost, it’s time to develop your own polity not based on rejecting another. How do we get there?

Kramer: Well, you just did it yourself. You have to begin to tell them the truth. Now coming from Martin Kramer, or from you, it will have no effect on them whatsoever. But when they start to hear it from the very same quarters which historically and traditionally have been supportive of their demands, then that will begin to have an effect.

And that’s why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, what’s really important, [in order] for the Trump plan to have that historic effect, [is that it] be marketed to the Europeans, to the Russians, to the Arabs, so that while they may not endorse it—in fact, very few of them will openly endorse it and many will reject it—they will begin to echo some of the assumptions and principles that are in the plan, and go to the Palestinians and say: “Look, we understand why you reject the plan, it’s full of flaws, and so on and so on. But the basic assumptions and principles have some validity.” And when the Palestinians begin to hear that from friends—not from you and me but from their friends—then that will have an effect.

Much of the responsibility for the predicament of the Palestinians today lies not just on them but on their friends, or would-be friends, or supposed friends, who lied to them, misled them and promised they would deliver to them on fantasies, which were completely detached from reality.

I think Jared Kushner wouldn’t see the Trump plan as some unilateral American act. Even the Balfour Declaration was cleared with all Britain’s allies in advance, as I showed that in an earlier study. It was like a Security Council resolution in practice. The US has put this plan on the table. Now what it has to do is, not to get the endorsement of the full plan from anyone, but get other parties to echo elements of its assumptions and principles, and play those back to the Palestinians.

How does Trump’s partition plan compare?

Left to right: Peel plan 1937, UN plan 1947, Trump plan 2020

It’s officially called the “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future.” But the scheme devised by Jared Kushner for his father-in-law President Donald Trump is basically a partition plan, replete with a map.

The President seems to think that his plan is unprecedented in its detail:

In the past, even the most well-intentioned plans were light on factual details and heavy on conceptual frameworks. By contrast, our plan is 80 pages and is the most detailed proposal ever put forward by far.

But past partition plans also were heavy on details and accompanying maps. The British partition plan of 1937, produced by a “royal commission” and popularly named after its otherwise-forgotten chairman, one Lord Peel, ran to 231 pages. Its follow up, the Palestine Partition Commission Report, had 310 pages and thirteen maps. The 1947 partition plan written by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine had 83 pages (including “annexes, appendix and maps”). The two follow-ups of the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine, with additional details, added more than a hundred pages.

That’s a long time ago, and one might be forgiven for categorizing Trump’s initiative among the more recent and conceptual “peace plans.” But it’s really the successor to the two preceding partition plans, both in its level of detail and, especially, in its maps.

The most striking consistency in these three partition plans is that the Zionist or Israeli side helped to fashion them so as to say “yes,” while the Palestinian Arabs refused to help prepare them, and so ended up saying “no.” Each rejected plan has been followed eventually by another, which has offered the Palestinians still less.

Comparing the 2020 map to 1947, and the 1947 map to 1937, makes that graphically clear. The Palestinians have appealed every verdict of history, and have lost every time. Odds are that this pattern will be repeated yet again, because the Palestinians remain too weak and divided, or resentful and myth-infected, to say “yes.”

Gradations of legitimacy

But while there’s consistency in the way these plans have been received, there are major differences in their authority. The most legitimate partition plan was that of 1947, because it was put together by an international commission, and it enjoyed the overt support of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. On that basis, it garnered two-thirds support in the UN General Assembly, and became enshrined as Resolution 181.

While the resolution wasn’t more than a recommendation, it was strong enough to figure in Israel’s declaration of statehood. “By virtue of our natural and historic right,” the declaration reads, “and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, [we] hereby proclaim the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

The earlier 1937 partition plan didn’t get nearly as far. The royal commission’s report was no more than a recommendation to the British government, which then convened another commission, which then declared partition impractical. The League of Nations, in whose name Britain ruled Palestine, never weighed in. For all the heft of the Peel plan, few remember it, although it was the first to establish partition as a possible solution.

At this moment, the Trump partition plan is closer to 1937 than 1947. True, it’s officially and overtly promoted by the president of the world’s leading power, which works in its favor. But it’s the brainchild of a handful of Americans, and it has no wider buy-in, except by Israel. A partition plan, to make history, doesn’t need Palestinian backing, as 1947 showed. But it can’t go very far if it doesn’t have what the 1947 plan had: some degree of international endorsement.

Russia, Europe, the Arab states — all of them could advance or retard the plan. Wooing them is especially important for Israel, since it seeks “recognition” for what it’s possessed for half a century. Borders gain legitimacy by mutual agreement (Israel’s borders with Egypt and Jordan) or international certification (its border with Lebanon). It isn’t enough for Trump to wave a scepter, or Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to evoke the Bible, however potent both instruments may be. The United States and Israel will have to canvas the world for support, just as they did in 1947.

Dancing in the streets?

Another difference is the degree of urgency: past plans emerged from crisis situations. In 1937, Palestine was in the midst of an Arab rebellion and violent turmoil. Jews fleeing Nazi persecution sought a refuge. In 1947, surviving Jewish refugees in Europe cried out for entry to Palestine. Partition was conceived as a kind of emergency surgery.

In 2020, in contrast, Israelis and Palestinians are living through the calmest decade-plus in their modern history. They have hammered out a status quo that’s far from perfect, but that still functions. The Trump partition plan emerges, instead, from the urgent political needs of Trump and Netanyahu. Since no one else is desperately awaiting such a plan, few will be keen to make sacrifices for its success.

That may be why the Trump plan is such a conservative one, grounded in realities as they are. Remember that the 1937 plan, forged in a different moral climate, proposed the involuntary “transfer” of more than 200,000 Palestinian Arabs out of the Jewish state. The 1947 plan left more than a third of the country’s Arabs within a Jewish state they opposed. (Most ended up fleeing it.) 1937 and 1947 gave rise to huge debates and fed deep passions all around.

Trump’s partition, by contrast, doesn’t imagine anyone moving, or (with few exceptions) living under a new kind of rule. That’s why its map is also so convoluted, compared to its predecessors. All partition maps have had strange anomalies, with awkward corridors and crossing points. The Trump map is full of enclaves, bypasses, and even a tunnel, precisely so that no one need relocate or submit to alien rule.

Because the plan so closely hews to the status quo, it won’t spark much jubilation among Israelis or much violence among Palestinians. But perhaps that’s its best hope. On the ground, there already exists a kind of two-state reality. Israel is a very strong polity, the Palestinian Authority a very weak one. But both have presidents, cabinets, security forces, anthems, and control of territory. Trump’s plan is focused on drawing final borders and building Palestinian state capacity. It may be a fool’s errand, but it’s not as radical as its predecessors.

History books or recycle bin?

So is it “historic,” a word regularly abused by politicians? Netanyahu: “I believe that down the decades — and perhaps down the centuries — we will remember January 28, 2020.” He even bordered on blasphemy when he compared the occasion to May 14, 1948, arguably the most significant date in Jewish history in the last two millennia.

At this point, it’s not even clear we’ll remember January 28 six months from now. A plan on paper doesn’t make history, even if it’s called “The Vision” and gets launched to strains of “Hail to the Chief.” The Trump partition plan isn’t “dead on arrival.” But for an American plan to stand even a chance of survival, the president must put his and America’s full weight behind it for years to come, perhaps even “down the decades.”

Does Trump’s America, does anyone’s America, have the attention span, grit, and finesse to see the “deal of the century” through? That’s the question of the century.

Cross-posted at the Times of Israel.