By now you’ve probably read a lot of people expressing shock at Mitt Romney’s comments on walking away from an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. (If not, start with Dan Drezner.) Let’s zero in on something Romney doesn’t say, but which he’ll have to address if he becomes president now that these comments are out there. That’s the idea that Palestinian freedom is a reward for good behavior.
Romney questions whether the Palestinians — all of ‘em, from Ismail Haniyeh to Salam Fayyad to the dude on the street in Ramallah — want peace with Israel. Then he runs through a series Israeli security concerns about the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty, which he considers an inevitable Iranian proxy. These concerns have salience as modalities for independence. They do not have salience as grounds to oppose independence, unless you conceive of Palestinian independence as justly conditional on Israel’s comfort with granting it. Then they’re the whole ballgame.
There is an alternative available. That alternative says that Palestinians deserve independence by virtue of their humanity and their nationhood. The modalities of their independence ought to be worked out with Israel as part of a process moving toward that goal, since the security of both states on the day after independence is a legitimate concern. I believe Zionism, which advanced precisely this argument to establish the first principle that there ought to be a Jewish state in a Jewish homeland, compels accepting this alternative.
My understanding from Romney’s public remarks is that he cheers the Arab Spring, because of its promise to advance human freedom in a region lacking it. Maybe I’m misunderstanding. But if he accepts that proposition, there are no grounds to deny it to Palestinians. Should Romney become president, his Arab interlocutors will justifiably wonder what his position is on any of these foundational questions — a bitter irony for someone attacking President Obama for inviting Mideast embassy attacks through policy vagueness. Even if he walks the Palestinian comments back, he’ll probably have to deal with questions about his sincerity on the Freedom Question through his presidency.
U.S. policy in the Mideast does not reduce to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I’ve tended to find that people in the region, Arab and Israeli, consider an American president’s perspective on the conflict to be a threshold issue, a prism through which they can understand what sort of relationship to expect from the U.S., and whether that presidency ought to be embraced or endured. Romney may not be interested in the peace process, but the Mideast is very interested in Mitt Romney, and turning away from the peace process — either explicitly or through neglect — will have a cascading effect on anything else he wants to accomplish in the region.