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The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, by Aaron David Miller. Bantam Books, 2008. 407 pages. $26.00, hardcover.

During the past four decades, the United States has been seriously involved in diplomatic efforts to help resolve the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. In this timely volume, Aaron David Miller sets out to explain why America occasionally succeeded and more frequently failed in its attempts to bring about an Arab-Israeli peace. Miller is especially qualified to review, analyze, and evaluate the diverse approaches of recent administrations to Middle East peacemaking. He served as an adviser on Arab-Israeli issues to six secretaries of state over a 20-year period and was a member of a State Department negotiating team under the last three presidents. To supplement his personal observations, Miller interviewed 165 officials, including former American presidents, secretaries of state and national-security advisers, as well as several Israeli, Palestinian and Arab politicians and diplomats.

In the first part of the book, "America's Promise Challenged," Miller examines several obstacles to successful Middle East diplomacy emanating from both Arab and Israeli politics as well as the American domestic political arena. He attributes the huge gap between America's status as a superpower and its very rare success on the ground to the determination of Israelis and Palestinians to reject American peace proposals whenever they are perceived to pose threats to their survival as political entities.

Miller identifies four different types of responses and strategies that Israelis and Arabs have used when they were not interested in American ideas and initiatives. In some instances, the parties responded with an explicit and unqualified "No." Israel rejected outright the Rogers peace initiative in December 1969 and President Reagan's proposals in September 1982. Likewise, Arafat ultimately rejected President Clinton's proposals at Camp David in July 2000. More frequently, one or both sides avoid a clear-cut negative response in order to buy time or bargain for better terms. Miller notes that, while Arafat did not want to come to the Camp David summit in 2000, he was reluctant to say "No" to Clinton's invitation. Thus, "eager to get the best possible terms he could, Arafat did what Arafat did best--he prevaricated, warning us of the cost of a failed summit but never issuing an outright refusal to attend."

From time to time, one or both parties deliberately drag it out until the American initiative dies. In early 1989, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir proposed a four-point initiative calling inter alia for Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza. After that plan was modified by Secretary of State James Baker to meet some of the Palestinian objections, Shamir eventually led the "Nay" votes in the Israeli cabinet, thereby killing the entire plan. "Yes, but ..." has been resorted to when neither side likes the proposal but one party answers with a conditional acceptance in order to avoid the appearance of outright rejection or to maneuver the other into first refusal. For instance, when the Palestinian Authority accepted President Bush's so-called Roadmap in April 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded favorably to the plan but with numerous reservations because he strongly suspected that Arafat had no intention of implementing the plan. According to Miller, the Roadmap eventually died because neither the White House, the Israelis nor the Palestinians were serious about implementing it.

With respect to challenges originating in the domestic political arena, Miller dismisses the controversial views about the alleged potency of the pro-Israeli lobby, most recently articulated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The notion that "a small bunch of Jews and conservative Christians compels an entire domestic and foreign-policy establishment to support Israel against its collective will" flies in the face of considerable empirical evidence to the contrary. While acknowledging that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does exert influence over Congress, particularly with respect to levels of American assistance to Israel, Miller admits, "I cannot remember a single major decision on Arab-Israeli peace in which AIPAC, either directly or indirectly, prevented us from moving in the direction we wanted."

Miller further challenges Mearsheimer and Walt's thesis that the Israeli lobby has helped to produce policies that are profoundly damaging to America's national interest. To the contrary, he maintains that America's special relationship with Israel, dating back to 1948, "is rooted in the broadest conception of the American national interest: support for like-minded societies that, correctly or not, are perceived by Americans to be more or less 'like us.'" Miller concludes that without the close ties between Jerusalem and Washington, deeply rooted in a mix of shared values and common enemies, the United States would not be able to exercise much influence on Arab-Israeli peace making. When all is said and done, it is the special American friendship with the Jewish state that has enabled the United States to exert at least some diplomatic pressure on Israel while encouraging moderate Arab leaders to rely on Washington as a mediator.

The middle section of the book, titled "America's Promise Kept," consists of three chapters devoted to Miller's choices as the most successful Americans at Middle East peacemaking: Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker. This is the least illuminating part of the volume because it covers already familiar ground. As will become evident below, Miller's treatment of each of these actors is problematic, and his choice of Baker as a successful negotiator remains especially puzzling.

Miller identifies several reasons for Kissinger's, Carter's and Baker's success. Each placed the Arab-Israeli issue on the top of his priority list; each was sufficiently tough to push back when facing opposition from either or both sides; each was remarkably tenacious and persistent; each was able to garner trust from both parties; and each was blessed with an astute sense of timing. Kissinger's impressive accomplishments included the first Sinai disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt in January 1974, the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement in June 1974, and the second Sinai disengagement accord in September 1975. Miller attributes Kissinger's success to his intense personal involvement and perseverance, his penchant for risk taking, an acute ability to manipulate American carrots and sticks, and intellectual skills in formulating and then implementing a strategy designed to wean Egypt and Syria away from the USSR and to persuade them to rely instead on Washington as the key to peace.

Curiously, Miller has only one sentence on Kissinger's inability to secure an Israeli-Jordanian disengagement accord. He lays the blame for this failure on the Arab states that had taken Jordan out of the picture by designating the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians at Rabat in October 1974. Kissinger himself placed the blame on Prime Minister Rabin, who had tied his own hands by promising to submit any military disengagement from the West Bank to a referendum. Miller also says absolutely nothing about Kissinger's inability to help secure a second Israeli-Syrian disengagement in 1975 and 1976. According to Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall (p. 349), Kissinger had promised Sadat that he would seek such an accord after Sinai II. At the same time, Kissinger assured Israel in writing that the United States would not insist on a follow-up to Sinai II. Kissinger "was therefore obliged to defer to Israel's opinion on the possibility of an agreement with Syria." In short, Kissinger's record as a Middle East peace maker is less sterling than Miller would have us believe.

The same criticism can be applied to Miller's treatment of Jimmy Carter's peacemaking record. With the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Carter amassed diplomatic coups unequaled by any other American official. Miller notes that, unlike Kissinger and Baker, Carter was on a personal Arab-Israeli peace-making mission from the beginning of his presidency. He succeeded because he managed to earn Anwar Sadat's trust, was able to establish a working relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and treated both sides equitably while being persistent and tough.

Miller correctly notes that, although Carter believed that no comprehensive peace could be attained without resolving the Palestinian issue, he was unable to entice the Jordanians and Palestinians to join the negotiations. He also understood that he could not wring from Begin any meaningful concessions regarding the West Bank and Gaza. Hence, Carter ended with a framework agreement on Palestinian self-rule that provided Sadat with the necessary cover on the Palestinian issue. Here, Miller would have done well to emphasize the insurmountable problems rooted in Carter's approach. Because he failed to secure a tight linkage between the two components of the Camp David Accords, Carter made it possible for Sadat to regain the Sinai and for Israel to remain embedded in the occupied territories. In addition, Carter failed to exert meaningful pressure to prevent, or at least decelerate, the rapid pace of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and Gaza under Begin's Likud regime.

Perhaps because he served on the core team at the State Department that provided staff support to the secretary of state during the administration of the senior Bush, Miller heaps unlimited adulation on James Baker, whom he depicts as the paragon of pragmatism, persistence, evenhandedness, and toughness when it came to Middle East diplomacy. Given Baker's extremely modest record of success, particularly when contrasted with the more impressive achievements of Kissinger and Carter, Miller's praise of his former boss remains curious.

Baker's sole contribution to Arab-Israeli peacemaking was the convening of the Madrid Conference in October 1991. While Madrid was indeed significant because it provided, for the very first time, a collective forum for Israelis, Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians, the sad fact remains that Madrid simply raised hopes and expectations that were never fulfilled. The conference, it will be recalled, was followed by ten subsequent rounds of talks in Washington that dragged on aimlessly until December 1992 without producing a single formal agreement.

There are at least three additional reasons why Miller's paean to Baker is undeserved. First, as Miller himself acknowledges, Baker utterly failed to put together an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue throughout 1989 and 1990. Second, despite resorting to tough rhetoric and threats, including the eventual freeze of $10 billion in bank-loan guarantees, neither Baker nor the senior Bush was able to persuade the Israeli government to stop construction of additional Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Lastly, Miller provides neither evidence nor explanation for his and Baker's claim that "there would have been no Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty" in 1994 without the prior Madrid Conference.

In the third and final part of this volume, "America's Promise Frustrated," readers are treated to a keen and thought-provoking analysis of the disappointing performances of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as Middle East peacemakers. Miller, who stayed on as deputy Middle East coordinator under Dennis Ross, notes that "Bill Clinton cared more about and invested more time and energy in Arab-Israeli peace over a longer period of time than any of his predecessors." Yet, despite his indefatigable efforts and ability to gain the trust of the parties, Clinton ultimately failed in his diplomatic efforts because he "lacked Kissinger's deviousness, Carter's missionary focus, and Baker's unsentimental toughness."

Miller identifies several additional reasons for Clinton's lack of success as peace maker. Unlike Kissinger, Carter and Baker, Clinton and his top Middle East advisors, including Dennis Ross, Miller and Martin Indyk, tended to view issues from an Israeli perspective. Miller attributes this lack of balance to Clinton's desire to heal the rift with Israel and the American Jewish community left over from the Bush-Baker years. Clinton's tilt toward Israel was further reinforced by his intensely personal friendship with and admiration for Yitzhak Rabin. Complicating matters further, the office of the Special Middle East Coordinator failed to brief the State Department's Bureau of Near East Affairs and American ambassadors in the region about conversations that administration officials were holding with Israeli and Arab leaders.

In marked contrast to Ross, who in his The Missing Peace lays most of the blame for the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit on Yasser Arafat, Miller spreads responsibility for the failed effort among all the participants. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak allegedly arrived at Camp David anxious to reach a comprehensive settlement, yet without a realistic understanding of the kinds of concessions he needed to offer Arafat in order to strike a deal. Arafat, on the other hand, arrived at the summit "with no real strategy, little flexibility, and a suitcase full of complexes, including fear of an Israeli-American trap and a desire to get even with Barak for chasing Syria." Determined not to settle for anything less than had been achieved by Sadat (an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai back to the international line) and apparently offered by Barak to Syrian President Hafez Asad (an almost total withdrawal from the Golan), Arafat was determined to reject anything short of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank to the June 4, 1967, lines.

Miller holds Clinton responsible for numerous errors of omission and commission that doomed the summit to failure. Clinton allegedly "never developed or asked for either a strategy to maximize the chance for success or a backup plan to minimize the impact of failure." Like Barak, Clinton mistakenly believed that Arafat would accept something short of an Israeli retreat to the June 4, 1967, lines. Clinton was also poorly served by his advisors: In truth, "not a single senior-level official involved in the negotiations was willing or able to present, let alone fight for, the Arab or Palestinian perspective." At the same time, Clinton failed to be tough on Arafat on a number of serious concerns, including widespread violence, anti-Israeli incitement, terror and mismanagement of Palestinian governmental institutions.

In addition to all these shortcomings, Clinton and his top advisers overlooked the need to mobilize support for American proposals regarding the status of Jerusalem from several moderate Arab states prior to the summit. Miller also laments the failure to maintain comprehensive negotiating records during the summit. Lastly, following the end of the conference, Clinton joined Barak in castigating Ararat for the summit's failure. In retrospect, Miller "can't help thinking our behavior in blaming the Palestinians and facilitating Barak's campaign to delegitimize Arafat as a partner was immature and counterproductive."

Miller reserves his harshest criticism for the present occupant of the White House. He argues that President Bush was inclined to disengage the United States from Arab-Israeli peacemaking even before 9/11, primarily because he did not see the issue as an important component of America's interest in the volatile Middle East region. Not surprisingly, the Office of the Special Middle East Coordinator was dismantled. Unfortunately, the tragic events of 9/11 "intensified the tendency to see the Middle East problem as a clash of values rather than as a contest of interests over occupied territory, Jerusalem, water or settlements." Viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Manichean contest between democracy and authoritarianism, moderates and extremists, terrorists and antiterrorists, Bush was clearly determined to avoid dealing with Arafat and disinclined to impose any significant pressure on Israel.

Bush's regrettable disengagement from Middle East peace making came to an end in late November 2007, when officials from more than 40 countries assembled in Annapolis, Maryland, in an effort to give impetus to the resumption of permanent-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. At the urging of the Bush administration, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to resume negotiations with the goal of concluding a peace treaty by the end of 2008. Miller sees little chance that such a goal can be attained by the deadline, let alone that a Palestinian state may emerge soon, for two major reasons: the absence of a unified Palestinian leadership and the failure of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to understand what is necessary to meet the other side's fundamental needs.

Whoever enters the White House next January ought to read this book carefully in order to draw important lessons from both past failures and successes of American peace-making efforts in the Middle East. He would do well to heed Miller's call for a more active and balanced American approach and his warning to avoid two futile extremes: diplomatic disengagement and the pursuit of comprehensive solutions. He should also be persuaded by Miller's reminder that there are two modest goals that the United States ought to pursue: a framework that articulates principles for resolving the issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees, and a concurrent effort to end violence and Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Michael Rubner, professor emeritus, international relations, James Madison College, Michigan State University
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Author:Rubner, Michael
Publication:Middle East Policy
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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