Advice on the Arab-Israeli Front: Try Pursuing Peace, Just Don’t Fail


By Aaron David Miller

Published November 13, 2008, issue of November 21, 2008.
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By January 20, President Barack Obama will, no doubt, have already received a tsunami of recommendations on what to do about the Arab-Israeli issue. At the risk of adding to the flood, let me offer up some observations gathered from almost 20 years of traveling the negotiator’s highway. Following this advice will not guarantee success, but it would give the new administration a chance to succeed.

First, keep in mind that there are no deals to be done on the cheap. In the Clinton administration, we never really understood what was required to reach a deal. Nor were we forthright enough with the Arabs and the Israelis about the price they’d have to pay. If Obama wants to succeed, he must free himself from any illusions that Israel can give much less than the West Bank and all of the Golan Heights, or that the Palestinians and Syria can evade their responsibilities when it comes to offering Israel meaningful peace and real security.

Second, keep the process honest. Arab-Israeli peace may not be the administration’s top priority, but if it wants a chance to succeed, it better make clear to Arabs, Israelis and to their domestic supporters that it won’t be pushed around or taken for granted. Neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush ever got this quite right. Obama should make it clear that his administration will not be part of a phony or self-destructive process in which Israeli settlement activity or Palestinian incitement, violence or half-hearted security efforts undermine the environment for negotiations.

Third, be Israel’s best friend, but not its lawyer. America has a special relationship with Israel. That will not change. Israel is a tiny country in a dangerous neighborhood. It deserves America’s support. That said, the new administration can’t allow its friendship with Israel to dictate its peace process tactics. Nor can it agree to every Israeli idea. (That’s what happened in 2000 when President Clinton agreed to Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s request that he host the Camp David summit, a move that didn’t serve American interests and didn’t end well for anyone.) We have to show that we can be both Israel’s best friend and an honest and effective peace broker.

Fourth, manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but don’t think you can immediately solve it. It’s a sad reality that while Israeli-Palestinian peace is key to an overall Arab-Israeli peace, there is no deal on the table now. Weak Israeli leadership, tough issues like Jerusalem and, most important, a dysfunctional and deeply divided Palestinian national movement are all deal-breakers. Unless Palestinians can create one authority that controls all the guns and has a unified negotiating position, chances of a conflict-ending agreement are slim to none. This leaves the next administration with the task of trying to manage the mess in the hope of creating better circumstances. That means maintaining the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, building up Palestinian Authority security forces, aiding Palestinians economically in Gaza and the West Bank, and quietly trying to help close the gap on final-status issues.

Fifth, go for an Israeli-Syrian deal. Two cohesive states, fewer settlements on the Golan Heights and no deal-breakers like Jerusalem make an Israeli-Syrian agreement more doable than an Israeli-Palestinian deal, though still a challenge to achieve. For the United States and Israel, a Syrian-Israeli accord would have the benefit of potentially rearranging a regional situation that has given too much influence and power to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. But to get an Israeli-Syrian agreement, Obama will have to understand that he will need to push Israel and Syria beyond where they are now willing to go on the core issues. Israel is going to have to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights, and Syria will have to come up with real content to normalization with Israel and meaningful security guarantees.

Sixth, pay attention to history. A new day may dawn in America on January 20, but not for Arabs and Israelis. They have long memories, and for them the history of their conflict looms large. Our policies can’t simply be measured in terms of administrations. That’s not how our friends and enemies think. Instead, they think in terms of generations. We also need to pay attention to where we’ve succeeded over the years, and where we’ve failed, and why. For this reason, Obama should pay attention to the past peacemaking of the three Americans who did serious and successful Arab-Israeli diplomacy — Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker.

Seventh, and above all, try to avoid failure. This is the diplomatic equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. Trying and failing, rather than not trying at all, is a fine approach — if you’re a college football coach. It’s not, however, serious foreign policy. We have been failing now for 16 years — eight under Bill Clinton in peacemaking, eight under George W. Bush in war-making. We need to pick our battles and create a policy toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking that is tough, smart and fair — and based upon realistic expectations. High-wire successes would be wonderful, but avoiding high-wire failures is imperative.

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace” (Bantam). He served as an adviser on the Middle East to six secretaries of state.

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