The Folly of Being an 'Honest Broker' Between Israel and the Palestinians

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas / Getty Images
February 6, 2019

The notion that the United States should be an "honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians has long been a tenet of the American foreign policy establishment. The basic idea is that Washington should claim impartiality in the conflict and be an unbiased mediator in negotiations, equidistant between both sides.

It is worth noting, then, that a senior American official is saying that Donald Trump's White House is not interested in being an honest broker.

"The U.S. is a strong ally of Israel," the anonymous official told the Times of Israel. "The administration, from the president on down, is not embarrassed to defend Israel where Israel needs to be defended."

When asked about the perception that the United States is no longer an honest broker, the official dismissed the notion of impartiality as "a vestige of talking points from decades ago."

"We don't believe that in order for us to work on a peace effort we need to have an equivalency, where we can only say certain things about Israel if at the same time we also say something about the Palestinians," the official added. "Not only does that not work; we don't think it's right. We say what's on our mind; we speak the truth … we cannot solve the conflict without being open and honest."

Is the official right? In theory, the idea of Washington being an honest broker seems sensible. What about in practice?

To reach an answer, it is worth detailing what the role of honest broker entails. In 2009, Michael Singh, the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained in an important piece that the position rests on two objective attributes. First, the United States claims impartiality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because Washington's interest is in reaching an amicable deal that achieves a lasting peace, not in the substance of the dispute itself. This impartiality, Singh clarified, "should not be confused with indifference or disinterest," as though the United States is a neutral third party. Washington is still pursuing its own national security interests, and therefore has a stake in the resolution. Second, the United States is allied, or at least friendly, with both sides, putting it in a unique diplomatic position to mediate.

Singh expanded on these attributes in 2010, writing that what makes the United States an honest broker "is not equidistance between the two sides, but intimate friendship with both; not indifference to the talks' outcome, but a passionate belief in the two-state solution and a willingness and ability to deploy American influence to see it achieved."

One can debate whether the United States has been an honest broker. The more important question, however, is whether the United States should be an honest broker. The answer is no—in practice, the idea blinds the United States to reality and has proven unable to achieve peace.

Take Singh's criteria and examine the situation. Israel is America's closest ally in the Middle East and one of its closest allies in the world. The Israelis are on the front lines battling enemies of the United States—from Sunni terrorist groups to Iran, and beyond. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, supports America's adversaries—most recently Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro—and has even identified the United States as an enemy. Israel also has a thriving democracy, while the Palestinians are divided between the PA's corrupt authoritarianism in the West Bank and Hamas's tyrannical rule in Gaza. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly shown a willingness to compromise for peace. Take the Israeli peace proposal in 2008, which was as good an offer to the Palestinians as any fair-minded observer could wish for. Yet the Palestinians rejected the deal, repeating a pattern that has become all too familiar. The Palestinian leadership even refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus rejecting the basis of a two-state solution: two states for two peoples.

How can Washington be impartial?

There is a larger point here: while a two-state solution should be the goal, the creation of a Palestinian state tomorrow, or in the near future, would be disastrous. Put aside Hamas for the moment: Sunni terrorists, Iran, or both would turn a country run independently by the PA into their own personal playgrounds. The PA neither has the strength nor the legitimacy among the Palestinian public to be trusted with such responsibility. Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not recognize this reality.

The status quo, while far from perfect, is really not that bad for the time being. Ask a Palestinian living in the West Bank if they want to trade places with someone in Syria or Yemen, and wait for their response.

Still, the American official's comments to the Times of Israel are encouraging. Interestingly, however, the evidence suggests they do not necessarily represent the views of the president and his administration. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, writes in a recent, must-read op-ed that Trump has actually tried to play the role of honest broker more than many observers realize. Pipes outlines two themes in Trump's comments about the conflict—"neutrality toward Israel and the Palestinians" and "a tilt toward the Palestinians"—providing several quotes to support his claims.

"This drumbeat of comments—about neutrality, suspicion of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and expecting Israel to make the larger concessions—signals a potential crisis in U.S.-Israel relations," Pipes writes.

The administration is not expected to release its highly anticipated peace plan until after Israel's elections in early April, so we will know more then. In the meantime, Pipes's provocative take, which breaks with much of the conventional wisdom, is worth considering.

Whatever approach the administration adopts, the United States should stop trying to act as an honest broker. It does not make sense morally or strategically. And beyond that, it has not achieved peace. Just ask Barack Obama.