The Pessimism Process

Aaron David Miller worked for the State Department for twenty-four years. His career began during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and ended in the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Miller took part in a wide range of US-led Mideast peacemaking efforts. He described his experiences, what he saw as reasons for successes and failures, and his interactions with figures in both the Middle East and the US government in his 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace,.

Miller’s book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the dynamics of American Middle East diplomacy. He gives a largely unvarnished picture of the dealings and discussions in Washington and the region, both formal and informal. What you get, from the book and from talking to Miller, is a very clear understanding of the US approach to the peace process. Agree or disagree with it (I disagree with a lot, both in the book and in the ideas Aaron put forth to me,) but if you want to know just what that American approach is, Miller is your man.

Aaron David Miller is an insider, and takes that view of current developments in the region. In recent months, he has become more cynical in his writings about the prospects of Israel achieving peace with its neighbors. That’s a remarkable statement, as I’ve known Miller for several years, and would never have characterized him as optimist.  However, in an era defined by the Arab Spring, with dramatic change now the norm, rather than the exception, the former State Department official finds himself averse to advocating big, risky steps.

Miller and I caught up last week. The following conversation is what transpired.

Mitchell Plitnick: At the J Street conference, Special Assistant to the President, and long-time diplomat Dennis Ross garnered more than a few snickers when he repeated the Obama Administration’s mantra about the status quo being unsustainable. It struck a lot of people, myself included, as unbearably ironic coming from the very symbol of the status quo. Do you see Ross’ involvement as a sign that the same failures will simply continue to be repeated?

Aaron David Miller: I’ve made this point repeatedly. US foreign policy is not made by mid-level or even senior officials. They make recommendations to be weighed by the principals – the Secretary of State, National Security Adviser and of course the President. Those principals are responsible for policy and the choices that are made. They make the choices, so it has always been a mistake to vilify or even identify individuals as being the key architects of whatever the United States is doing. That responsibility sits with the President. If the status quo prevails—if the US doesn’t act boldly—it is not the fault of Dennis Ross. It is the responsibility of the president.

Mitchell Plitnick: The recent announcement of the so-called Israeli Peace Initiative has been largely ignored. Do you see any significance in this proposal? This plan essentially echoes the Geneva Initiative, Clinton Parameters and numerous other similar plans; is it now too late for the same old formulation? Is something completely new needed?

Aaron David Miller: I’ve long argued that one of the problems confronting the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not the absence of clever fixes, wise solutions to the four core issues (final borders, the status of Jerusalem, security and resolving the issue of Palestinian refugees). Rather, the problem lies with the absence of political will and leadership.

The conventional trope that “everybody knows where this is heading,” that we essentially know the resolution of these issues in a two-state framework, is only part of the problem. The parties may know the contours of an eventual deal, but that hasn’t been enough to get them over the real problem, which is: Are Israel, the Palestinians and, yes, the Americans prepared to make tough choices to bring these ideas to fruition? The answer to that is no; I’m not sure how many times I can say no to this question.

I think you could argue that if you took all the plans, initiatives, parameters, etc., and put them all in a big blender and mix them up, took the best and most creative parts of the mix and poured it out, then yes. Assuming you accept that a two-state solution is the least bad option (and I stress, the least bad option) to resolve the conflict then that mix, plus whatever new ingredients will flow from trying to reconcile the needs of two sides, then yes, it is still the right framework. You would still need the will and political courage to do it but that’s what it would be.

Mitchell Plitnick: Could President Obama use the Israeli Peace Initiative, being an Israeli plan that largely echoes the Arab Peace Initiative and most other plans, to create the political will and bolster that courage that you say is so lacking?

Aaron David Miller: Like everyone else, the Obama Administration sees this sort of agreement as the best option available, but they can’t be seen to be reinventing the wheel. Anything the Administration comes up with will just be old wine in new bottles. It’s not going to offer up a lot that people haven’t heard before. But they can’t so parrot any single initiative to allow people to believe that they have embraced that approach. It has to be uniquely American, and also Obama’s. He can borrow from different places but you don’t want the takeaway to be “well, that’s Bill Clinton,” much less “that’s what the Israeli Peace Initiative said.” That’s not good for Obama. It will have to be new at least in some singular aspect. Even though, it will be by and large old wine.

Mitchell Plitnick: The United States just postponed a meeting of the Quartet where, it was rumored, the European Union was going to propose putting forth a proposal for a peace agreement to restart negotiations. Did the US see this European initiative as a threat to its exclusive position as broker?

Aaron David Miller: No, I think the Quartet understands it can’t do that. Form follows function with the American role. There’s a reason why, when we’re smart about it, we become the indispensible player. Because we are the only ones that have the relationship with Israel that can be an asset, not a liability. The EU is not trusted so they can’t do it. I’m not sure most Israelis trust Obama on a gut level, but that can be addressed. But when it comes to the brokering, the US will have to play the central role.

Mitchell Plitnick: What about the contention that American domestic politics make it virtually impossible for the US to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller: I argue that a willful president that sees an opportunity in the region will trump domestic politics like Kissinger (with Nixon behind him,), Carter and Baker (with George H. W. Bush backing him) did.

AIPAC does have a powerful voice but it does not have a veto. This notion has been willfully skewed by Israel’s supporters, trying to enhance AIPAC’s reputation, and advocates for changing American policy, who seek an easy explanation for why policy is what it is. We don’t have an honest discussion in this country about the role of domestic American politics in this issue. Walt and Mearsheimer (Editor’s Note: Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the co-authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy) also are not serious because they have gone to one extreme. I think the best view is the one I just laid out: that the forces lobbying against any sort of pressure on Israel have a powerful voice. but they do not have a veto over policy.

The absence of the power of a veto over policy appears when you have a marriage of two sets of circumstances. That “no veto” comes about when Israel and the Palestinians both want to seriously pursue an agreement because of their own domestic pressures and the US is smart enough, tough enough and fair enough to know what to do.

I don’t think it’s entirely dependent on Obama, or any other president. I depart from those who think it’s about American will alone. There has to be that confluence of circumstances. You need three horses to pull the wagon – the United States, Israel and the Palestinians. A supportive Arab world and European Union helps, though Arab leaders are under so much pressure domestically on internal matters that they’re not much of a factor right now. The problem is not only the absence of American will; that’s a problem but it’s not the most consequential problem. The most consequential problem is the absence of leadership and urgency in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

In the absence of that, you could argue that an American President could get things going and that is where the debate lies. To what degree can a US pres do that? George Schultz once said that when you don’t have a policy, pressure builds to give a speech. Obama will make a speech, and the speech will be an effort make judgments about the entire region, including the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I question, given what we already know about the Arab Spring, whether now is the time for President Obama to try to identify where it is going. I’m also not sure he should mix an Israeli-Arab speech in with the general upheaval in the Arab world anyway.

But can an American president, in the absence of Israeli and Palestinian will and urgency, do anything that will really move this forward in a consequential way? I can’t argue that with certainty. I think it will be hard. He’ll make a speech, but what do you do after the speech? Once it’s made in this atmosphere, you get a lot of “yes buts” and “nos”, and that’s not good. Saying no to the United States without cost has become everybody’s favorite pastime. Leaders throughout the region say no to us and there’s no cost. Our street cred is way down.

Mitchell Plitnick: Many argue that Israel’s lack of political will to forge a peace agreement stems, at least in large measure, from the support the United States gives it. Isn’t this a way the US might then motivate Israel to energize the process?

Aaron David Miller: Israel’s actions fall into several categories—unilateral steps on the ground, such as settlements, bypass roads, checkpoints, etc.; economic restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinians; actions related to security, which mostly means matters connected to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Fighting with Israel is a reality for realistic peacemaking. So why fight over an issue that won’t get you where you want to go? This has been my problem with settlement freeze. Others think we have a moral responsibility to fight Israel on settlements. I think the last 20 months make my point. The settlement freeze turned out to be the key to an empty room; even worse, it was a room where our credibility was undermined because we are not prepared to seek sanctions against Israel – recalling ambassadors, cutting aid, or any other significant penalties— if the Israelis refuse to cooperate with us.

There are many reasons for that reluctance, but if we’re not going to do it, why start down a road where, at the end of the day, you’re just going to back down? That’s what happened. To me, fighting with Israel is worthwhile under only one circumstance—where it is over a breakthrough, something really consequential that makes a difference to both sides.

I put Baker’s stance on loan guarantees in that category. He was not going to let [former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir have both a peace process and loan guarantees which, since money is fungible could be used for settlements. So he said no. Congress supported him and AIPAC lost. It may well have led to Shamir’s loss to Shimon Peres in the next Israeli election. You will have to fight with Israel eventually, but it has to be part of a strategy and it’s got to be over something worth having the fight.

Mitchell Plitnick: A lot of eyes have turned toward September and the possibility of a UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood. Do you think, particularly in the wake of the recent UNSC veto by the US, that this vote will actually come about and do you think this a wise strategy on behalf of the Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller: The notion Palestinians are cooking up, for U.N. action on Palestinian statehood this fall, takes dumb to a new level. Yet another resolution won’t deliver Palestinians a state or even bring them closer to one. The result will be the opposite of what the Palestinians want: forcing the United States to oppose Palestinians’ efforts, energizing Congress to restrict much-needed assistance to Palestinian institution-building, and probably prompting Israel to do very real (and dumb) things on the ground.

A paper resolution, even one with monitoring and the threat of some collective action against Israel if no movement is made toward statehood, won’t produce a state. In fact, a U.N. campaign for statehood will reflect Palestinian weakness, not resolve.

The Palestinian national movement today is divided; there are no guarantees that Hamas would support a U.N. campaign. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t control Gaza, most of the West Bank or its putative capital in East Jerusalem. An empty resolution in New York will score points where it doesn’t count and reflect a lack of capacity where it does — on the ground. Hamas gets more attention from Israel through its rockets than the Palestinians have gotten from their resolutions.

Second, actions produce reactions. No matter how artful and skillful the U.N. campaign is, the United States will almost certainly oppose it. Washington will veto the resolution in the Security Council. While it can’t block resolutions in the General Assembly, the United States won’t concede either the principle of declaring statehood outside of negotiations or marshaling international pressure against Israel.

To say that the Obama administration won’t risk spending political capital on an international campaign to isolate Israel in the U.N. General Assembly the year before a presidential election is probably the understatement of the century. And if the campaign pressuring Israel gets serious, Congress will be only too ready to restrict critical aid to the Palestinians and perhaps to Egypt as well if it helps lead the effort.

Third, there’s Israel, which is worried about isolation and de-legitimatization and very concerned about the Palestinian campaign. Time and again, however, the Israelis have shown that they will defy rather than submit to international pressure. Anti-Israeli resolutions at the United Nations will give Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a perfect issue to rally support and to claim (yet again) that Israel has no partner with which to make peace.

The Palestinian campaign will also prompt intensified Israeli settlement activity in an effort to remind Palestinians that Israeli actions are real, not virtual. Should the Palestinians declare statehood, Israel will probably act to demarcate what part of the West Bank it intends to keep.

Averting a train wreck on Palestinian statehood in New York this fall will require a serious Israeli approach to negotiations, a display of guts and strategy from the Obama Administration, and a Palestinian national movement ready to make tough choices. If none of this materializes, we’ll have a leadership vacuum. And sadly, what’s likely to fill it are paper resolutions, rhetoric, more violence and empty promises.

This article is licensed to Souciant courtesy of Babylon Times.

1 comment

  1. In sum, this is going nowhere, since both Israel and the US (despite what Clinton and Obama say) support the status quo. That leaves only a binational state, i.e., Greater Israel in exchange for full political rights for Palestinians. But not even that can happen without an agreement between the PLO and Hamas. And that doesn’t look likely either. So, Apartheid it is.

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