Does Trump have skills to handle Israeli-Palestinian issue?

Rubio to Trump: 'Palestinians aren't a real estate deal'
Rubio to Trump: 'Palestinians aren't a real estate deal'

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Story highlights

  • Aaron Miller: Trump's views on Israel unusual for a candidate in a field of pro-Israeli hawks
  • It is striking how Trump appears fascinated with the challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It's a stunning testament to the durability of the all but forgotten Israeli-Palestinian peace process that it made a brief appearance during this week's Republican presidential candidate debate in Miami.

The proximate cause was a question about what has now become Donald Trump's standard talking point -- quite unusual for either a Republican or Democrat during an election year -- that he'd remain "neutral" on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
So what's the dump on Trump when it comes to Israel? And what are the odds that any of the candidates, particularly the likely party nominees at this point -- Hillary Clinton and Trump -- might actually be able to do an Israeli-Palestinian deal should they find themselves in the White House come January 2017?
Aaron David Miller
First, the easy part. In presidential election campaigns it's pretty much standard operating procedure for candidates -- whatever their personal views -- to compete for the title of who loves Israel the most. And given the dysfunctional relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, as well as the Iran nuclear deal, this pro-Israeli bidding war is in full swing.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has taken to referring to the West Bank and Gaza as Judea and Samaria -- the term used by Israeli settlers and the right. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz, among others, has promised to tear up the Iran deal and move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
On the Democratic side, Clinton has pledged to take the U.S.-Israeli relationship to the "next level" and promised to invite Netanyahu to Washington during her first month in office. Bernie Sanders has for his part said little on the issue during the campaign. And although he has expressed consistently pro-Israeli views in Congress, as a progressive and liberal he has also been very critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Indeed, speaking this week in Dearborn, Michigan -- an area with a heavy concentration of Arab-Americans -- Sanders expressed the hope that we could have a "level playing field" on the issue.
Still, the prize for the most unusual set of views, particularly for a Republican candidate in a field of pro-Israeli hawks, goes to Mr. Trump. He's clearly done his fair share of obligatory and heartfelt nods to the pro-Israeli community over the years.
For example, Trump proudly refers to his role as grand marshal in the New York City Israel Day parade; he did a campaign video for Netanyahu in 2013; during the Miami debate he proudly referred to the fact that his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish; and he has said repeatedly that he'd be the best candidate on Israel among the Republican field.
At the same time, though, Trump's instincts as a centrist and pragmatist on Israel -- and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- clearly run in another direction. Last December, addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition, he was booed when he refused to answer the question of whether Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel.
And even though in January he took a firm position, there's little doubt that if he became president he'd take advantage of the waiver provided in the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act also exercised by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. (During the same event, Trump was confident enough to suggest that most of of those attending "are not going to support me." Trump is willing to do his share of pandering on the campaign trial. But not, it seems, to the pro-Israeli community).
Despite this, it is striking how Trump appears fascinated with the challenge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the Miami debate, he suggested he'd make resolving the issue a top priority for his administration, and even the face of criticism from his opponents maintained that a negotiator must not favor one side or the other if a deal is to be reached.
The truth is, though, that governing is very different from campaigning. So if either of the current favorites, Trump or Clinton, becomes president, would either have a realistic chance of actually doing a deal between Israelis and Palestinians? And who'd be the better negotiator?
Clinton brings enormous knowledge of the issue, and the key players, to the table, particularly on the Israeli side. I accompanied her to Leah Rabin's funeral in 2000 and watched how she related to a wide range of Israeli political figures. After all, she's a Clinton and has a real sensibility and sensitivity to the Israeli narrative.
True, she has had her run-ins with Netanyahu, but she probably has a better sense than President Obama of when to press and when to avoid unproductive fights. The question is whether she is tough enough and skilful enough to deal with the tough-minded Israelis and Palestinians.
As for Donald Trump, despite his interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and his careful rhetoric on negotiations during the campaign, there's no telling how well he would actually deal with all this. In fact, there is much to suggest that he's not up to the challenge.
The two-state solution is of course partly about land, but this is far from the kind of real estate deal Trump is used to negotiating. Dealing with Arabs and Israelis isn't about threatening lawsuits and issuing ultimatums.
Instead, it requires tremendous patience and discipline, the capacity to read people well, and also to push, press and even threaten to walk away, if necessary.
Above all, there is no room for temper tantrums, narcissism or a focus just on what the negotiator needs as opposed to trying to reconcile the positions of the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.
And perhaps, in the end, that's the real takeaway. Whether the parties themselves are willing and able to make decisions on the core issues of their conflict matters far more than the will or even skill of these two candidates themselves.
That suggests that right now, whether it's Clinton, Trump or someone else in the White House this time next year, reconciling Israeli and Palestinians positions on issues like Jerusalem and refugees may present a mission impossible.