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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Aaron David Miller abandons the Religion of Peace Process

Aaron David Miller arrived at the State Department in 1978, and has become known as a peace processor par excellence. Now, in a lengthy piece in the upcoming issue of Foreign Policy, Miller refers to the 'peace process' as a religion and explains why he can no longer believe in it.
Although many experts' beliefs haven't changed, the region has, and dramatically, becoming nastier and more complex. U.S. priorities and interests, too, have changed. The notion that there's a single or simple fix to protecting those interests, let alone that Arab-Israeli peace would, like some magic potion, bullet, or elixir, make it all better, is just flat wrong. In a broken, angry region with so many problems -- from stagnant, inequitable economies to extractive and authoritarian governments that abuse human rights and deny rule of law, to a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial -- it stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point to argue that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most critical issue, or that its resolution would somehow guarantee Middle East stability.

The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict is still a big problem for America and its friends: It stokes a white-hot anger toward the United States, has already demonstrated the danger of confrontation and war (see Lebanon, 2006; Gaza, 2008), and confronts Israel with a demographic nightmare. But three other issues, at least, have emerged to compete for center stage, and they might prove far more telling about the fate of U.S. influence, power, and security than the ongoing story of what I've come to call the much-too-promised land.

First, there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Americans are in harm's way and are likely to be for some time to come. Add to the mix the dangerous situation in Pakistan, and you see volatility, threat, and consequences that go well beyond Palestine. Second, though U.S. foreign policy can't be held hostage to the war on terror (or whatever it's now called), the 9/11 attacks were a fundamental turning point for an America that had always felt secure within its borders. And finally there's Iran, whose nuclear aspirations are clearly a more urgent U.S. priority than Palestine. Should sanctions and/or diplomacy fail, the default position -- military action by Israel or even the United States -- can't be ruled out, with galactic consequences for the region and the world. In any event, it's hard to imagine Netanyahu making any big decisions on the peace process until there's much more clarity on what he and most Israelis regard as the existential threat of an Iran with a bomb.


Governing is about choosing; it's about setting priorities, managing your politics, thinking strategically, picking your spots, and looking for genuine opportunities that can be exploited -- not tilting at windmills. And these days, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is a pretty big windmill.

Even if you could make the case for the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, could you make peace?


Looking ahead, that process looks much, much tougher -- and peace more and more elusive -- for three reasons.

First, Arab-Israeli peacemaking is politically risky and life-threatening. Consider the murders of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At Camp David, I heard Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat say at least three times, "You Americans will not walk behind my coffin." Leaders take risks only when prospects of pain and gain compel them to do so. Today's Middle East leaders -- Israel's Netanyahu, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas -- aren't suicidal. It was Netanyahu, after all, who once told me: "You live in Chevy Chase. Don't play with our future."

Second, big decisions require strong leaders -- think Jordan's King Hussein or Israel's Menachem Begin -- because the issues on the table cut to the core of their political and religious identity and physical survival. This requires leaders with the legitimacy, authority, and command of their politics to make a deal stick. But the current crop are more prisoners of their constituencies than masters of them: Netanyahu presides over a divided coalition and a country without consensus on what price Israel will pay for agreements with Palestinians and Syria; Abbas is part of a broken Palestinian national movement and shares control over Palestine's guns, authority, and legitimacy with Hamas. It's hard to see how either can marshal the will and authority to make big decisions.

Third, even with strong leaders, you still need a project that doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of either side. In the past, U.S. diplomacy succeeded because the post-1973-war disengagement agreements, a separate Egypt-Israel accord, and a three-day peace conference at Madrid aligned with each side's capabilities. Today, issues such as Jerusalem (as a capital of two states), borders (based on June 1967 lines), and refugees (rights, return, and compensation) present gigantic political and security challenges for Arabs and Israelis. One accord will be hard enough. The prospect of negotiating a comprehensive peace; concluding three agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon; dismantling settlements in the Golan Heights and West Bank; and withdrawing to borders based on June 1967 lines seems even more fantastical.

Bottom line: Negotiations can work, but both Arabs and Israelis (and American leaders) need to be willing and able to pay the price. And they are not.


If I genuinely believed America could impose and deliver a solution through tough forceful diplomacy, I'd be more sympathetic -- but I don't. And here's why:

Ownership: Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic advisor, said it best: In the history of the world, no one ever washed a rental car. We care only about what we own. Unless the Arabs and Israelis want political agreements and peace and can invest enough in them to give them a chance to succeed, we certainly can't.


The negotiator's mystique: It's gone, at least for now. When Americans succeeded in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it was because they were respected, admired, even feared. U.S. power and influence were taken seriously. Today, much of the magic is gone: We are overextended, diminished, bogged down. Again Summers: Can the world's biggest borrower continue to be the world's greatest power? Our friends worry about our reliability; our adversaries, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, believe they can outwait and outmaneuver us. Nor does there appear much cost or consequence to saying no to the superpower. After Obama and Mitchell's fruitless first year, I worry that the mediator's mystique of a Kissinger or a Baker, or the willfulness and driving force of a Carter, won't return easily.

Domestic politics: The pro-Israel community in the United States has a powerful voice, primarily in influencing congressional sentiment and initiatives (assistance to Israel in particular), but it does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy. Lobbies lobby; that's the American way, for better or worse. Presidents are supposed to lead. And when they do, with a real strategy that's in America's national interests, they trump domestic politics. Still, domestic politics constrain, particularly when a president is perceived to be weak or otherwise occupied. This president has been battered of late, and his party is likely to face significant losses in the 2010 midterm elections. Should there be a serious chance for a breakthrough in the peace process, he'll go for it. But is it smart to risk trying to manufacture one? The last thing Obama needs now is an ongoing fight with the Israelis and their supporters, or worse, a major foreign-policy failure.

U.S.-Israeli relations: America is Israel's best friend and must continue to be. Shared values are at the core of the relationship, and our intimacy with Israel gives us leverage and credibility in peacemaking when we use it correctly. But this special relationship with the Israelis, which can serve U.S. interests, has become an exclusive one that does not. We've lost the capacity to be independent of Israel, to be honest with it when it does things we don't like, to impose accountability, and to adopt positions in a negotiation that might depart from Israel's. It's tough to be a credible mediator with such handicaps.


The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who probably didn't know much about the Middle East, said it best: "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, then in half the creeds." And maybe, if that leads to more realistic thinking when it comes to America's view of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, that's not such a bad thing.
I don't agree with everything he says, but on the whole he makes sense, and I urge you to read the whole thing.

Jennifer Rubin agrees with me.
One can take exception to some of Miller’s argument, but the core of it is indisputable: the peace-process believers “need to re-examine their faith.” The peace process is not merely, as Miller argues, unproductive; it has proven counterproductive, at least in the hands of the Obami. We have reinforced Palestinian rejectionism, weakened the U.S.-Israel relationship that has been a stabilizing and peace-keeping alliance for decades, rattled other Arab leaders (whose main concern is a nuclear-armed Iran), and proven our own fecklessness. You want to promote peace in the Middle East? Stop the peace process.
But don't expect anyone in the White House to listen. You can force someone to go through the motions of abandoning their faith, but you cannot force them to stop believing in it. It's good that Miller has a job in a think tank - they'd never let him into the Obama White House after this article.


At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But don't expect anyone in the White House to listen.

But don't expect anyone in the Israeli cabinet to listen.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

ShyGuy, Ya'alon in fact did make the point that while the Oslo process has been discredited in Israel, it still commands influence in the media, in academia and in the international arena. For Israel's government, replacing it with a new paradigm will take patience and time. So yes, someone in the Israeli cabinet is listening. After all, he used to believe in land for peace, saw it didn't work and adjusted his thinking. The few people who are still true believers in the religion in Israel are on the Left, notably Barak and Peres. No one else buys it today.

At 3:29 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

What's annoying is that Miller still does not recognize the part played by the moral assymetry that has always governed Western thinking on this subject:

Jews being thrown out of Jerusalem and Muslim countries and desecration of Jewish religious sites are all accepted. Palestinians having to move is something that must be addressed because the "Muslim World" will get excited.

Instead of telling the Muslim World to grow up, they and their antisemitism are appeased.

Is it any wonder that this led to a lack of understanding of how unreasonable the demands put on Israel have been?

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Sunlight said...

This is the part I find nonsensical and pervasive among my lefty friends:

"Bottom line: Negotiations can work, but both Arabs and Israelis (and American leaders) need to be willing and able to pay the price. And they are not."

"Pay the price" in particular is in the category of trying to regulate the middle east from Chevy Chase. If the "known" formula were agreed to, the Palestinians would go through a phase of assassinations of their leaders (e.g., see Sadat), but would embark on a better life inside their borders (e.g., Jordan and Egypt). Israel, on the other hand, would embark on a worse life inside their borders, considering the rockets fired from lands Israel did evacuate their security and citizens from (Lebanon and Gaza). My suggestion would be that people like Aaron David Miller should take their families to live in the areas in Israel that they have subjected, through their charming negotiations, to threat, death and destruction. If the Iron Dome system were demonstrated as effective in knocking down incoming projectiles 100%, things could be different. The concept of defensible borders (line of sight, buffers, etc.) based on the proven behaviors of the countries and organizations involved make the "known answer" a green light for endless barrages on Israel.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Mr Miller
wash post
" But Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said failure to reach an agreement would bring real consequences: "Bottom line if it fails: The Israelis will keep their state, but the Arabs and Palestinians will never let them really enjoy it."

I truly believe that too.

I also truly believe that there is NO agreement that the "pals" will keep or perhaps are capable of implementing.

If I am correct then Israel will not be able to change the threats to its peoples safety, and must FIGHT the pals and their allies.

The trouble is that if I am wrong
Israel must STILL be prepared to
FIGHT to preserve its existence from Iran, Hiz, or Hamas !



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