Aaron David Miller was an Arab-Israeli specialist at the State Department for almost a quarter century. He served six administrations along the way, Democratic and Republican, beginning with the Carter administration in 1978 and ending with the second Bush administration in 2003. The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli peace, is a testament of those years, rather than to those years: From Miller’s vantage point, America’s mediating role in the Middle East has been more limited than the public realizes, and less effective and failure-prone than American policy makers like to believe.
America’s Limited Successes in the Peace Process
With one notable exception — Jimmy Carter’s mediation of the 1979 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel — the United States hasn’t brokered a single successful Arab-Israeli peace agreement. The 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and Palestinians, which led the Palestine Liberation Organization to accept Israel’s right to exist, gave rise to the Palestinian Authority and were designed to be a first step toward an independent Palestinian state, were negotiated in secret between Palestinians and Israelis under Norwegian sponsorship. The Clinton administration rode in on the tail end of the negotiations and took too much credit for Oslo which, in any case, turned out to seed more Palestinian-Israeli violence than lead to peace. The 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel was also negotiated bi-laterally between the two countries.
Where and when the United States has gotten involved directly, the results have been more caretaking, if not risible, than substantive. Henry Kissinger negotiated a pair of “disengagement” agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1974 and 1975 to separate the two nation’s armies in the Sinai Peninsula. But Kissinger made more of the agreements than they really were. It would be left up to Egypt’s Anwar Sadat three years later to break the deadlock with his historic visit to Israel and the kick-off of earnest peace negotiations with Israel. Ronald Reagan was not interested in brokering peace in the Middle East.
The Reagan-Bush Years: Squandered Opportunities
Reagan’s one attempt at a peace initiative, in 1982, was submitted to then-Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin “with every expectation that he would reject it,” Miller writes, even though Reagan was opposed to a Palestinian state. All he was asking for is negotiating with Jordan over the West Bank’s future while requesting a freeze in Israeli settlement building in occupied territories.
The first President Bush had a huge opportunity to advance peace after his successful prosecution of the Gulf War . Bush had assembled a coalition of armies, including several armies, to repulse Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Bush enjoyed enormous credibility and possessed great political capital abroad and at home. He also had Secretary of State James Baker, the toughest negotiator the United States has ever fielded in the Middle East (Kissinger included). Baker was unafraid to set Israelis straight about American priorities and the necessity of pressing for peace. It was Baker who told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in 1989, in what came to be known as the give-up-the-dream speech, that “Now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel.”
Yet Bush squandered capital and credibility by settling for nothing more than a “peace conference” for show — the Madrid peace conference of 1991. Madrid (“At Best... a stage-setter") is seldom remembered these days as more than a footnote to American presumption.
The Clinton Years: Overreach
The Clinton years would prove little better, even though Clinton was both the most pro-Israeli president since Harry Truman (who recognized Israel’s independence within 11 minutes of its declaration in 1948) and the American president who, next to Jimmy Carter, most empathized with Palestinians’ plight. But Clinton failed where every other president failed: he could not bring himself to be tough on Israel where and when it counted. He could not demand that Israel stop building its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. He could not demand that Israel stop using disproportionate violence, repression and terror tactics to control Palestinians, as he was demanding of Palestinians to stop using terror.
“Never,” Miller writes, after detailing the failures of the 2000 Camp David negotiations between Israel’s Ehud Barak and the Palestinians’ Yaser Arafat, “has so much time and energy been expended on a process that produced so little in the end.”
If Clinton was the most pro-Israeli president since Truman, George W. Bush “is the most pro-Israeli Republican president ever,” Miller writes. He’s also the least engaged, the least effective, and the most cynical, regarding Arab-Israeli peace.
George W. Bush's Drop-Dead Approach to Middle East Peace
Bush’s first impression of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict began in 1998, when he was learning foreign policy, during a helicopter ride over Israel and the Occupied Territories with Ariel Sharon. “We got driveways in Texas longer than that,” was his assessment of Israel’s geographic thinness in spots. “Already inclined to see things Israel’s way,” Miller writes, “persuaded that there was little he could or should do by getting in the middle of a white-hot conflict, and determined to be different in as many ways as possible from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush came into office with a mindset already predisposed to disengaging America from the Arab-Israeli issue. […] Forget trying to solve it; the administration didn’t believe it was even worth trying to manage the Arab-Israeli issue in a serious or sustained manner.”
No wonder one of Bush’s first official acts regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue was to ban the phrase peace process from his administration. As bloodshed from the second Palestinian intifada kept flowing, pressure mounted on Bush to do something. Here’s where the administration’s cynicism shone through, unadulterated. “If a serious diplomatic initiative wouldn’t work,” Miller writes, and the administration had certified that it would not stake its reputation on any initiative whatsoever, “then, in a pattern of Bush administration behavior that had already become clear, words would have to do. As George Schultz had once made clear, when all else fails, the pressure mounts go to give a speech.”