Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lessons Partially Learned

Aaron Miller was intimately engaged for decades, under numerous presidents, in efforts to further an Arab-Israel peace. Between 2003-6 he served as president of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young leaders from regions of conflict with the leadership skills required to advance coexistence and reconciliation. (Seeds of Peace had been conceived in the early days of Oslo, but like many other efforts, never succeeded in dealing with the harsh reality of the Arab unwillingness to make peace a priority rather than a price.)

Currently, he is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.; his latest book is The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (Mar. 2008, Bantam/Dell).

He spoke about America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace at the Foreign Policy Research Institute on April 28, 2008 and wrote an essay based on that talk.

In his essay, Miller made a number of observations. Some were wise; others seem not. We include some of each.

The essay may be viewed on the Foreign Policy Research Institute web site.

At the start, Miller observes:

For eight years under Bill Clinton, we stumbled at Arab- Israeli peacemaking; for eight years under President Bush we stumbled at how to make war, at least in this part of the world. What is it about America, the greatest power on earth, that accounts for this situation? Why can't we seem to get it right?

This is an important question, and Miller hints at a reason with the salient observation:

Most of the problems there are not caused by America. And this region is not going to be "fixed" by us.

Indeed, when we meddle, we will almost inevitably make things worse.

Second, we don't read the present correctly. We don't see the world the way it is. We want to see the world the way we want it to be. … I lived with this practical, we can fix anything, split-the- difference worldview for 20 years.

The effect of this is that we propose a solution that splits the difference between the extreme Arab demands and the reasonable Israeli position. The Arabs totally reject that solution, which is already heavily biased in their favor, while the Israelis, eager for peace, accept all or most of it.

We misinterpret this as progress, since the stated difference between the parties has been cut in half, ignoring the fact that all the compromising has been done by the Israelis. We then repeat the process.

During the Oslo Experiment, the effect was the at Camp David, Israel had moved ninety-five percent of the way towards the Arab demands, while the Arabs didn't budge an inch.

No matter how much America wants Arab-Israeli peace, unless the raw material is there, the political will and the urgency among the Arabs and Israelis, we can try all day long without success. Every breakthrough that has occurred in this conflict--Egypt-Israel, Jordan-Israel, Palestinians-Israel, came as a consequence of secret diplomacy about which the Americans were informed afterwards. That is very instructive.

This is perhaps the most useful observation made by Miller. We cannot force the Arabs to make peace. Indeed, our efforts are generally counterproductive, usually just rewarding Arab intransigence.

You need a brickmaker. Every successful negotiation that has endured involved an American role at some point.

This is where Miller goes off track. Indeed, the involvement of Jimmy Carter in the negotiations between Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat was extremely counterproductive, encouraging intransigence on the part of Sadat, delaying agreement and leading to the coldness of the peace that followed.

When we maintain the special relationship, which I think is in American interests, and not allow it to become exclusive, it actually can serve our interests. This is both because it is in our interests to support like-minded societies and because our special ties with Israel give us a primary role and ability to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The problem is that we have used that relationship in an unbalanced fashion, pressuring Israel to make concessions without exerting any effective pressure on its Arab enemies.

Sixth, regarding George W. Bush. Governing is about choosing. You come to Washington, you decide what's important to you, you pursue it. Arab-Israeli peace wasn't important to Bush throughout the first administration; he had another agenda.

Which is why he didn't muck up the works as much as other presidents, except for when he did get involved. We cite two such instances: Reversing American policy by coming out in favor of another Palestinian Arab state and proposing a road map which gave equal weight to Arab terrorism and the existence of Jewish communities in the disputed portions of Eretz Yisrael.

Both fed Arab intransigence and set back prospects for peace. The first also undermined the "War on Terror" by rewarding the Palestinian Arabs for the terror offensive they launched after rejecting peace in 2000.

Finally, to end on an optimistic note, John F. Kennedy said something very important. He described himself as an idealist without illusion. That's what America needs to be.

How true.

America needs to stop deluding itself that Israel's Arab enemies are interested in living together in peace when the unfortunate truth is peace remains a price they are unwilling to pay unless the alternatives are unpalatable. And, unfortunately for us, forcing their own people to live in misery remains less unpalatable to them than peace.

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