Aaron David Miller was an integral member of the United States State Department team, led by Dennis Ross, that tried to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
From the Madrid conference to the Oslo peace process, Miller was in the thick of things, working for Democratic and Republican administrations alike as he and his colleagues attempted to achieve reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria.
Miller, a Jew who regards himself as an American “who happened to be Jewish, not the other way around,” was involved in these herculean diplomatic efforts for 15 years.
Having resigned in 2003, he has now written an important and revealing book about U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search For Arab-Israeli Peace (Bantam Books) will be of interest particularly to readers who have paid attention to the permutations of peacemaking in that region.
Prior to the 1991 Madrid conference, which he claims “legitimized” Arab-Israeli negotiations, he was a skeptic. “I was always negative, ever cynical that American diplomacy could overcome the dead weight of generations of conflict,” admits Miller, now affiliated with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Middle East diplomacy seemed to be for dreamers…”
Miller’s views changed profoundly once the Madrid conference was convened. But in the wake of the second Palestinian uprising and the collapse of the Oslo talks in 2001, he was subjected to a cold dose of reality.
Having been chastened, Miller is more cautious today. “That I’m suspended now somewhere between despair and hope is not all that surprising given the turn of events,” he writes soberly. “It’s probably where I should have been all along.”
He has learned the hard way that the primary responsibility for peacemaking rests with Israel and the Arabs, not with the United States. Washington, nevertheless, has a key role to play. “We can’t produce peace… but we can help to diminish conflict, defuse crises and broker political agreements…”
In The Much Too Promised Land, Miller offers a keen analysis of the Oslo talks and Israel’s tortuous negotiations with Syria.
For Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Oslo was a trade-off. As Miller puts it, “In exchange for recognizing him as the only Palestinian partner for Israel and America, he agreed to an interim process that deferred big issues like Jerusalem and refugees.”
Miller believes that the logic of Oslo was sound. Interim accords would enhance mutual confidence and trust and prompt the Israelis and Palestinians to address permanent status issues such as borders and settlements. But this never happened, despite three false starts in 1996 and 1999.
He blames both sides for Oslo’s ultimate failure. Arafat never abandoned violence as a tool, nor did he crack down on terrorism and arrest terrorists. In addition, the Palestinian Authority-controlled media generated anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. Israel continued to build settlements, confiscate land and impose closures on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In retrospect, he thinks, Washington should have been tougher with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“I don’t recall a single, tough, honest conversation in which we said to the Israelis, ‘Look, settlements may not violate the letter of Oslo, but they’re wreaking havoc with its spirit and compromising the logic of a gradual process of building trust and confidence.’”
He concedes that the United States was also too easy on the Palestinians. “By any standard, we should have been far tougher with [Arafat] on violence, terror, incitement, the absence of rule of law, transparency of governance and honest fiscal management of Palestinian institutions.” Washington, too, did not retaliate when Arafat “indulged” Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he adds.
He has high praise for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who ushered in Oslo. Rabin was a great leader who combined courage, caution and pragmatism. Arafat, however, failed his interlocutors and his people, he notes.
In Miller’s judgment, Rabin’s assassination accelerated Olso’s demise. “Had Rabin lived, the crisis triggered by Oslo’s flaws would still have come, but it would probably have been less severe.”
He has cool words for Rabin’s successors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Netanyahu’s policies were “erratic and often obstinate.” As for Barak, he moved too quickly, jettisoning Rabin’s gradualism too abruptly.
His appraisal of the ill-fated Camp David summit in 2000 is clear-headed. Arafat bears “a huge responsibility” for its failure, but Israel is at fault as well. Barak offered Arafat about 90 per cent of the West Bank, but Arafat wanted nearly 100 percent, what Israel was apparently prepared to give the Syrians, on the Golan Heights.
In analyzing Israel’s talks with Syria, which unfolded between 1991 and 1996 and again from1999 to 2000, Miller is rather critical of Hafez Assad, the then-Syrian president. “To me, Assad, whom I dubbed ‘the Frank Sinatra of the peace process,’ wanted to make peace ‘his own way.’ This meant getting more than [Anwar] Sadat and giving less. The Egyptians got the international border; Assad wanted the June 4, 1967, lines.”
And Assad, at least in the early stages of the negotiations, had no real intention of normalizing relations with Israel, Miller suggests. “Assad seemed to want us simply to deliver the Golan to Syria. Forget cold peace. In 1993, his idea of the future with Israel looked like a blizzard.”
Once the Palestinian track was activated, he goes on to say, the prospects of signing a peace treaty with Syria faded. “Rabin’s Oslo deal… made any agreement to withdraw from the Golan almost unthinkable while Israel was giving up territory to the Palestinians.”
Miller, whose first boss was James Baker, the secretary of state, says that while he was not a grand strategist like Henry Kissinger, he had a knack for recognizing opportunities. Baker was smart and brilliant at times. He was a showman who honed his negotiating skills through humour, emotional reactions and a no-nonsense persona.
As for former U.S. president Bill Clinton, he “cared more about and invested more time and energy in Arab-Israeli peace over a longer period than any of his predecessors.” And he revered Rabin, whom he regarded as a teacher and father figure.
In closing, Miller says that the attainment of Arab-Israeli peace will be “ excruciatingly difficult, painful and time-consuming,” but not impossible.
“What stands in the way of a solution is the absence of political will and leadership on both sides to understand what’s necessary to meet the other side’s needs and to take the political decisions to move forward,” he observes in a trenchant comment.
He is convinced that a resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute would be of benefit to the United States. “It is now more vital to our national interests and to our security, than at any time since the late 1940s.”
Are presumptive presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain listening?