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Author Aaron David Miller Talks About Challenges Facing Arab-Israeli Peace Process


This month marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. Although the Jewish state has much to celebrate since its inception, it has yet to achieve a durable peace with its Arab neighbors. Aaron David Miller, who for the last two decades has served as advisor to six American secretaries of State in helping to formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East, and particularly the Arab-Israeli peace process, has written a new book that sheds light on America’s role in trying to broker peace during this period.

In The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, Mr. Miller presents an insider’s view of the peace process that is filled with insights about why the world’s greatest power has – to this day – failed to broker or impose a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. He observes that the major breakthroughs all took place through “secret diplomacy about which the United States was notified after the fact.” And then, he says, America needs to function as an “honest and effective broker, understanding the needs of both sides.”

Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with VOA correspondent and former Jerusalem bureau chief Meredith Buel, Aaron David Miller says great powers can rarely become “conclusive brokers” to conflicts that are based on “history, memory, religion, and identity.” And the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serves as a prime example, he says. Regarding the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Mr. Miller says, it is based on “value affinity,” or shared values, but the “pro-Israeli community in this country” – 5.3 million American Jews and millions of evangelical Christians – present what he calls a “powerful case.” However, that domestic lobby does not hold a veto, and that, Aaron David Miller says, is the “message” of his book.

Mr. Miller writes in his book that Israel’s wellbeing became a part of himself – a sort of “ethnic DNA.” But, he points out, of those three men who have made it into his “peace process Hall of Fame” – namely, former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker and former President Jimmy Carter – only one was Jewish. Mr. Miller says he thinks that too many members of the Clinton administration – including himself – and certainly of the George W. Bush administration, allowed America’s “special relationship” with Israel to become what he calls an “exclusive relationship.” And when that happens, he adds, “we can’t possibly succeed in Arab-Israeli peacemaking” because “we’re not an effective broker.” And that’s because the United States doesn’t demand “reciprocity” from the Israelis and it countenances “land confiscation and settlement activity” that undermine American interests. Furthermore, Mr. Miller suggests, in July 2000, Washington failed to “examine closely enough” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “push for an agreement” at Camp David for which neither Mr. Barak nor Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was prepared. Aaron David Miller says that in diplomacy, “you must combine empathy, which Bill Clinton had, with toughness, which he didn’t have.” That, he says, is “key” to protecting America’s interests on this issue.

Mr. Miller says he resigned from the State Department in January 2003 because he was persuaded that the “road toward Arab-Israeli peace was going to be a long and bumpy one” and that after 25 years it was time for him to “take a break.” Nonetheless, he considers it an “enormous honor and privilege” to have been able to work with six U.S. secretaries of State on an issue that is extraordinarily important. Regarding Jimmy Carter, who has been “much maligned for his lack of objectivity since he left the White House,” Mr. Miller says that – as President – he delivered something no other president has ever delivered. That is, he brokered the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. He combined what Mr. Miller calls the “five T’s of effective diplomacy” – namely, he was tough; he managed to gain the trust of both Arab and Israeli leaders; he had an astute sense of timing; he was tenacious; and he made Arab-Israeli peace a top priority.

The single greatest impediment to Arab-Israeli peacemaking today, Mr. Miller argues, is that, unless there is a “unified Palestinian polity,” there is no way to reach an agreement that can actually be implemented. He suggests that two things need to take place for Washington to consider a dialogue with Hamas. First, there has to be a “measure of reconciliation” within the Palestinian community itself. Second, the Israelis and Hamas need to find some kind of “informal accommodation to stabilize the situation” – with a ceasefire, opening up Gaza economically, and a prisoner exchange. What makes it so difficult, Aaron David Miller suggests, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “conflict between an occupied nation on one hand and a threatened nation on the other.” Furthermore, he says, Hamas is divided between its factions in Damascus and in Gaza; Iran and Syria operate as “outside patrons and powers” with their own agendas; and the government of Israel is “uncertain and divided.”

Mr. Miller says that there is little evidence that Israel is curbing settlement activity, and the United States has “never really had an honest conversation with Israel on settlement activity.” He says in the current environment it is hard to bring pressure to bear on Israel, and he doubts that the Bush administration is “capable” of it. He adds that it will await a “new administration” and an “effective American strategy.”

Aaron David Miller says that Israel is popular because most Americans identify with “those they believe share like-minded values” – for example, a common immigration tradition, a common pioneering tradition, a democratic government, plus the perception that Israel is a “tiny country, despite its military power, living in a very dangerous neighborhood.” In contrast, he says, the Arabs are associated with “groups like al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the President of Iran, who isn’t even an Arab.” Mr. Miller says that not since the slain former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s late King Hussein has there been a “powerful advocate for the Arab cause.” He says Mahmoud Abbas is a good advocate and a good man, but he is “constrained” and “weak.” Aaron David Miller argues that leaders matter a great deal because, in the end, history becomes the “interaction between great men or women and circumstances.” Furthermore, he stresses, you need politicians who are “masters of their constituencies.”

Partly because of the war in Iraq but also because of its Middle East policy, the United States today, Mr. Miller says, is “not respected in this region, is not feared in this region, and is not liked in this region.” And that, he argues, is the problem the next president will have to confront in a region that has become “more critical and more dangerous” than ever before. Of the three leading candidates for president, if asked, “Who has the “skills and toughness and smarts to have the chance to do effective Arab-Israeli diplomacy?” Mr. Miller says he would pick Barack Obama.

After leaving the government five years ago, Aaron David Miller headed up Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization that brings Arab and Israeli young people together to bridge gaps. He says you need both government and non-governmental organizations to do serious conflict resolution, which includes “effecting political agreements” as well as “transforming attitudes.” He suggests that there is a risk of losing a whole generation of young Arabs and Israelis to the “forces of hopelessness and despair.”

Aaron David Miller is currently a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington.

For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.