I confess to being a sucker for "ba'al teshuva" stories. The type I prefer, the ones that always leave me crying, are those of Jews who find their way to Torah from far away. But to tell the truth, I am moved by almost any story of someone who has the courage to reexamine the presuppositions that have guided him until that point, and the strength to say, "I was wrong."
But that standard, Aaron David Miller's lengthy mea culpa, "The False Religion of Mideast Peace," in the current issue of Foreign Policy ranks very high. For Miller was not just a believer in that religion, but one of its high priests. From 1988 to 2003, he served in the State Department as one of the chief architects of the peace process. Together with Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, both of whom have resurfaced in the Obama administration, he was affectionately or not, depending on one's point of view, known in the administration of George H.W. Bush as one of "[Secretary of State James] Baker's Jew boys."
Miller, who is currently a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at Princeton, has now come to view the "peace process" to which he dedicated most of his professional career as a form of secular faith, "alluring and seductive precisely because driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate." That faith was based on three assumptions – "articles of faith, really." Those assumptions formed a "catechism," which Miller and his peers in the State Department could recite by heart, with little nuance or variation, and which formed the basis of hundreds of memos to his superiors during his 15 years working on Middle East peacemaking.
The three assumptions underlying American involvement in the peace process were: (1) pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region; (2) peace could be achieved only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and (3) only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring peace to fruition. With the exception of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, every American president since Richard Nixon has subscribed to this "unbreakable triangle of assumptions, with President Obama the 'latest convert.'"
"The Arab-Israeli issue seemed perfectly suited to Obama's transformational objectives and his transactional style," writes Miller. "After all, this was the engagement president, who believed deeply in the power of negotiations."
Miller no longer believes in the faith to which he dedicated his life. "After two decades of inflated hopes followed by violence and terror," he asks, "can we still believe that negotiations will deliver?" The answer is no. He now rejects all those memos arguing for the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue that he wrote as an intelligence analyst, policy planner and negotiator. Despite the smoldering conflict, American has been able to advance all its major strategic core interests in the Middle East – containing the Soviets, maintaining access to Arab oil, and strengthening ties, on the one hand, with Israel, and on the other hand, with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Nor could Miller write today with a "clear conscience or a straight face" that Arab-Israeli peace would "like some magic potion, bullet or elixir, make all better," in a "broken, angry region" characterized by stagnant, inequitable economies, authoritarian governments and human rights abuses, and a popular culture mired in conspiracy and denial. The biggest threats in the region, from Afghanistan to the dangerous instability in Pakistan, it is now clear to Miller, have little to do with Israel.
Not only does Miller no longer view the Arab-Israeli conflict as central to the region, he now labels a speech he gave in 1998, in which he argued that the momentum towards peace was now irreversible as "one of the great howlers of the decade." The peace process has been, at least since 2000, "more process than peace."
(For another account of precisely how little would change in the Middle East from America's point of view if the Palestinians received a state, one would be well advised to turn to Richard Haass's April 26 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, "The Palestinian Peace Distraction." (Haass, like Miller, is no neo-con. He was Secretary of State Colin Powell's right-hand man in the State Department, and is currently the president of the establishment Council on Foreign Relations.)
America's biggest investment in the Middle East is in Iraq, and not one of the issues over which Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are currently divided, sometimes murderously so, would change one iota if the Palestinians were handed a state. Afghanistan will soon overtake Iraq as the focus of American concern, and here too, "the emergence of a Palestinian state would have no effect on prospects for U.S. policy in Afghanistan or on Afghanistan itself." Finally, Haass argues, "peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran's nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them." The Palestinian-Israel conflict is a fatal distraction, concludes Haass, "given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.")
Finally, Miller does not think that America can do much about the situation. "The Middle East is "littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes." America does not have sufficient power to do so today. Under an Obama administration that has caused "our friends to worry about our reliability [and] our adversaries, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, believe they can outwait and outmaneuver us," the last thing the administration needs is a major foreign policy failure.
He is critical of President Obama's focus on the issue of settlements, first because it set an unattainable goal, and second because it was not part of a broader strategy that could have made the fight worth it: "Going after the Israelis piecemeal on settlements to please the Arabs or to make ourselves feel better won't work unless we have a way of achieving a breakthrough."
There is much with which one could quibble in Miller's analysis. He is far too even-handed for my taste, writing that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are led by strong leaders nor are they prepared to make the necessary concessions on crucial issues. Missing is any discussion of how far down the road of compromise Israel has traveled and how each of those adventures in peacemaking has ended by blowing up in Israel's face. Also absent from his account is the importance of the religious dimension – the inability of Arabs to accept the existence of Israel on any centimeter of land once under Moslem sovereignty.
Miller has done no more than restate what has been blindingly obvious to many, at least since Camp David. Nevertheless that restatement is quite important. By virtue of his status as one of the most prominent peace-processors, and sometime Obama advisor, Miller's warning that American should not be expending valuable diplomatic capital on the quest for the Holy Grail of Peace may well attract some attention.
DANIEL PIPES recently wrote a far more original piece than Miller's. While there is little chance that any of his policy prescriptions will gain a hearing, his article contained a real chiddush, and perhaps the proverbial silver lining for which readers of this column are always searching. Pipes insight is that the low state of American-Israel relations is a good thing as far as Israel is concerned.
How could that be? Simple, says Pipes. Whenever there is a friendly administration in Washington D.C., Israel seeks to reciprocate the good vibes coming from Washington and fulfilling the wishes of the Americans to the maximum extent possible. And that always works out poorly for Israel because what Washington wants is more Israeli concessions towards the Palestinians. And those concessions, according to Pipes, are by definition counter-productive.
For Pipes, the model of successful peace-making is that between the United States and Germany and Japan after World War. Germany and Japan not only became friendly nations, their militaristic cultures were transformed into democratic ones. But the necessary pre-condition for that to take place was their unconditional surrender: Germany and Japan had to admit that they were totally defeated. Only then could cultural transformation take place.
While Israel has repeatedly defeated its Arab enemies on the battlefield, it has never succeeded in convincing them that they have been defeated once and for all. Israeli concessions, whether forced or voluntary, convince the Arabs that time is on their side, that Israel has lost the will to continue or the world will impress upon Israel a set of one-sided conditions vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As long as the Palestinians believe that their "you-love-life-we-love-death-strategy" will eventually prevail, there is no hope of societal transformation.
Pipes' theory about how to transform Palestinian society rings true to me. And the corollary that an unfriendly administration serves Israel's interests by making it reluctant to make concessions that are inevitably ill-considered has more than a touch of plausibility. But only to a point. Let's say Israel were drawn into an all-out war on the several fronts at the same time. A hostile American administration might seize the opportunity to bend Israel to its will as the price to pay for vital new armaments, just as Henry Kissinger did in 1973. At that point, we would certainly wish for a more sympathetic president than the present one.