'There's no conspiracy here'

Aide to 6 secretaries of state downplays pro-Israel lobbyists' influence.

too much promised land (photo credit: Courtesy)
too much promised land
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A prominent former State Department official involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations has weighed in on the power of the Israel lobby, saying pro-Israel groups can complicate peace-making but neither dictate nor derail policy. Aaron David Miller, who advised six US secretaries of state on the peace process until he left government in 2003, devoted a 50-page chapter of his new book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace to exploring the influence of domestic politics. His conclusion contrasts with that of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy written by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt this fall. While he says that the well-organized and influential pro-Israel community can affect "the pace of American diplomacy" and has led to some "preemptive self-censorship" within the US administration, he couldn't think of "a single decision of consequence" made by him or his colleagues because of lobbying pressure tactics. Miller, now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, did, though, level heavy criticism at recent administrations, particularly those of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for leaning too far towards Israel in their Middle East policy. "If you want to succeed in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, you must be an advocate for both sides. Far too often the small group with whom I had worked in the Clinton administration, myself included, has acted as a lawyer for one only one side, Israel," he writes. At a lecture in Washington this past week coinciding with the publication of his book, Miller went so far as to take Walt and Mearsheimer to task for quoting him in support of their argument that pro-Israel minions had hijacked America's Middle East policy. Miller describes an "unshakable" American bond with Israel based on common values, cultural identification and shared strategic perspectives post September 11 which has been nurtured rather than created by pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and Christians United for Israel. "There's no conspiracy here," he said. Miller considers that strong relationship one of America's "best-kept secrets" when it comes to Mideast peace-making. "We alone, for a number of reasons, have something that no one else in the international system has - the trust and cooperation of the one country that's essential to this process," he said. He argued that trust actually allows America to pressure Israel more effectively to make the concessions essential to a peace deal and urged the US to take advantage of that position. "In our system domestic politics has a strong voice in, but not a veto over policymaking," he writes. "When presidents lead on foreign policy, domestic constituencies and lobbies usually follow, albeit sometimes uneasily." Another recent book also makes the case for the need for a firm American hand, though when it comes to domestic politics it praises Clinton for building and utilizing a broad coalition and argues that the lack of such support hurt former president George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James Baker. Still, the book, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East, also gives a better overall assessment to the first Bush administration than to the Clinton or second Bush administration. The negotiating primer, by former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer and US Institute of Peace scholar Scott Lasensky, assesses previous administrations and offers lessons for future would-be peace-makers, such as offering that the peace process "has moved beyond incrementalism and must aim for endgame solutions" and that "the direct intervention of the president is vital, but presidential assets are finite and should be used selectively and carefully." George H.W. Bush "had the clearest sense of strategy, which the administration pursued in a highly disciplined, committed, and effective manner," the authors explain of their decision to give him the highest marks. In contrast, they found that "the Clinton approach was less disciplined and less strategic" and "appeared to lack focus and follow-through." They are harshest, however, when it comes to the current president: "Washington disengaged, allowing the conflict to fester and deepen." Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace diverges from The Much Too Promised Land in offering a more optimistic assessment that future US peace-makers can learn from the past and improve on it. In Miller's view, when it comes to forging Arab-Israeli peace, "Our best years are behind us."