America's elusive search for Arab-Israeli peace

Its optimistic, split-the-difference world view doesn't suit the regional reality.

By AARON DAVID MILLER
May 12, 2008 20:05
rabin-arafat shake 88

rabin-arafat shake 88. (photo credit: )

My book The Much Too Promised Land had a very strange origin in that I really never intended to write it. I "resigned" from the State Department in January 2003 because I had concluded - and nothing has changed my mind in the past five years - that the road to Arab-Israeli peace was going to be a long and bumpy one. It had come time for me to take a break after 25 years of providing varying degrees of advice - some good, some bad - to a number of secretaries of state. I went on to run Seeds of Peace, which brings young Arabs and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis together, to try to forge understanding and respect. As I watched over the past five years, I was disturbed by the fact that America, a country I care a great deal about, was failing. Both of the Democratic presidential candidates are willfully deluding either themselves or us if they believe that the road out of Iraq will be quick, easy and fixed according to a neat time period. America has to assume responsibility for what it does. We invaded a country roughly the size of the state of California, with 28 million people. We ripped the lid off it and dismantled the army and other Ba'ath institutions of governance. What makes us believe that we can simply turn around and exit? Some would argue that that's the morally and ethically right thing to do. But when the Republican or Democratic successor to the current administration confronts the reality of the investment trap into which this administration has put us, from which we cannot extricate ourselves or fix the situation, what is he or she going to do? ALL THIS prompted me to think about the reasons for both America's success, and primarily its failures, in this region. 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? When I say "get it right," I don't mean "fix this region." Most of the problems there are not caused by America. And this region is not going to be "fixed" by us. We can't, for one simple reason: We don't live in the neighborhood. However powerful we think we are, these small tribes, these tiny powers, will always have a greater stake in the outcome of their struggles than we ever will. America occupied Japan for seven years, from 1945 to 1952. How many Americans were killed by Japanese in hostile actions during that seven-year period? None. Japan was a defeated nation. Despite all his imperfections, Gen. MacArthur understood the importance of preserving Japanese institutions that were very controversial, including the emperor himself. What were we thinking when we went to war in Iraq with insufficient forces to have even a chance of subduing an insurgency? And what did we expect would happen in the wake of our own incapacity and the determination of the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds to settle scores? We don't see the world the way it is. We want to see the world the way we want it to be. Why? It's related to where we are. We have attained a degree of physical security and detachment unprecedented, unparalleled, unrivaled in history for a great power. We have non-predatory neighbors to our north and south, and fish to our east and west. No other great power has ever had this kind of physical security. It explains our boundless optimism. Our political system was the first in the world to be founded on the basis of an idea - the primacy of the individual. We believe in individuals' capacity to transform themselves and to change the world around them, with all the imperfections, deficits and problems that America has. I Lived with this practical, we-can-fix anything, split-the-difference world view for 20 years. THE EIGHTH day of the Camp David summit of July 2000, Jerusalem, this extraordinarily complicated city, was to become the focus. A piece of it - what to do about the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) - 35 acres on which sit two mosques holy to Islam. Below are the remains of the first and second Jewish temples. Talk about overlapping sacred space. Here we are trying to convince the Israelis and Palestinians, who both assert sovereignty, that we'll take sovereignty from them and we'll reposit it with God. That's a logical fix - they're holy sites, after all. Or, when they rejected that idea, "We'll give you Palestinians sovereignty above ground, and you Israelis sovereignty below." They rejected that as well. Jerusalem, history teaches us, is not to be shared, it's to be possessed. In the name of God, and the tribe. It need not be so, but Americans need to understand the attachments of each side to it. There can be no bricks without straw. 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. YET YOU need a brickmaker. Every successful negotiation that has endured involved an American role at some point. There is tremendous misunderstanding on the issue of domestic politics, where there is a dishonest debate. Too many American Jews want to believe that domestic politics are irrelevant to the case for Israel; too many of Israel's detractors in America want to believe that it's all attributable to domestic politics. Unlike professors Walt and Mearsheimer, I actually went out to talk to the lobby and the lobbied. Among the conclusions I reached was that the pro-Israel community in America today (5.3 million American Jews, along with millions of evangelical Christians who for reasons of eschatology and value affinity have become stunningly pro-Israel) has a powerful voice. It's time we stopped deluding ourselves. But it does not have a veto. Since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have maintained their democratic character continuously. The notion of an emerging democracy - Kenya, for example - is a concept that may be legitimate, but the ultimate arbiter of everything is time. Israel is a democracy. We can argue about the West Bank and Gaza; I'm a vocal critic of Israel's policies there. But supporting societies that share our values represents the broadest conception of what constitutes our national interests. Clinton was one of the most empathetic, talented, brilliant presidents and negotiators you'd ever want to meet. No one cared more or tried to do more on this problem. But empathy alone is not enough. Achieving the conflict-ending agreements he sought required a toughness he and we didn't have during his tenure. 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 George W. Bush throughout the first administration; he had another agenda. It may still not be that important to him. There's a chance that between now and the end of the year something positive could happen between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, but this is really no longer primarily an American story. John F. Kennedy described himself as an idealist without illusion. That's what America needs to be. As you seek to change the world, you have to do so with your eyes open. Because the stakes now are much higher than they've ever been before. The writer is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He served at the Department of State as an adviser to six secretaries of state. His latest book is The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (March 2008; Bantam/Dell); this article is based on the BookTalk he gave at the Foreign Policy Research Institute on April 28.


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