So what happened? What went wrong in that tortured peace process?
It is not easy to belittle Aaron David Miller’s renunciation of what he described as ‘’False Religion of the Mideast Peace’’ in his essay published in Foreign Policy.
Framed in impeccable logic with unchallenged knowledge from a man who more than any other senior US official has led our Middle East peace camp ever since 1978, that’s a big deal. Miller served as special envoy and senior advisor on the Middle East for 30 years across Republican and Democratic administrations reporting directly to several presidents.
Miller’s despair is more poignant coming from a Jewish senior American policy-maker, one of many who deeply sympathized with Arabs and Palestinians, so much he once accused a fellow Jewish peace-maker, Dennis Ross who is now a special advisor to the president, of being ‘’Israel’s lawyer’’!
When such a man now turns around to say the peace process is dead; that President Obama is wrong pressuring Israel; and the US has become tone-deaf to more important strategic threats including the Iranian nuclear issue, his thesis and his warnings demand attention. They will get plenty: the questioning is just beginning within the professional Mideast peace making-establishment and its lobbies.
Typically, the coolest answers come from military men. In the same issue of Foreign Policy, no less a figure than General Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command in 2001 and 2002 who worked closely with Mr. Miller said just about everything did. And what’s worse, he said we are repeating it all over again: ‘‘We should realize what doesn't work: summits, agreements in principle, special envoys, U.S-proposed plans, and just about every other part of our approach has failed. So why do we keep repeating it?’’ Gen. Zinni asks.
Undaunted, President Obama and his secretary of State Hillary Clinton are forging ahead with a new Broadway production of the same failed show dotted with ‘’indirect talks’’ because Palestinians do not want to face Israelis -- and more edicts to stop construction of settlements which Israel will roundly ignore, along with a panoply of international conferences and more special envoys.
The folks who have been there and back, people like Gen. Zinni and Miller and historian Michael Oren, currently Israel’s ambassador to the US, as well as a sizeable number of Egyptian and Jordanian experts who for obvious reasons do not voice their skepticism openly in their politicized Arab world, are in fact saying that the paradigm of peace has shifted. We are working off an obsolete database.
Forty years is a long time, especially in the Mideast where many countries are 50 to 70 years old. In other words the picture of 1979 -- when Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord under the gaze of a US president and the mid 80s when Jordan and Israel signed-- is not the same in 2010.
Antagonists out there today are not nation states alone . They now include armed militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. To use the famed expression of the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir, making peace now involves dealing with ‘’tribes with flags’’, a practically impossible task. That is part of the new paradigms.
Another is lack of leadership. Until Mideast leaders of the caliber of late Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, Yitzhaq Rabin and Menachem Begin of Israel and the late King Hussein of Jordan who are now all dead -- two of them at the hands of assassins-- emerge, there is not much leadership out there strong enough to strike deals and make them stick.
Paradigms-wise, furthermore, the Soviet Union is gone, robbing that Mideast challenge of its Cold War exigency.
The new enemy rising to challenge America is not an unresolved dispute between Israelis and Palestinians but Islamic fundamentalism that rejects all western concepts of modernization and equal rights for women and citizens. Its tentacles run out of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, ironically all three categorized as friends of the USA.
Finally, as paradigms go, strategically and tactically speaking, the US has no closer ally in the world than Israel. We could not operate in the Middle East without Israeli assistance and our population, the grand majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress, would never allow Israel to stand alone under attack. This is a basic fact of political life in America that the Obama White House understands too well.
Speaking as an Arab-American, I welcome the protection that Israel’s existence as a minority Jewish state in the Muslim Middle East projects for other minorities including some 25 million Christian Arabs under extreme pressure, 30 million Kurds and other tribal or religious populations who must live free of persecution. Israel stands as a symbol that it is possible to have a multi-cultural tolerant Middle East.
What Miller and Zinni and more analysts are asking is why, therefore, is this administration expanding such extraordinary resources to resolve what clearly has receded to a minor strategic threat when far greater menaces loom?
As Miller pointed out on CNN in an interview with John King: Would Obama become the first US president on whose watch Iran turns into nuclear power? He also wonders, correctly, if Israeli’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would accept being the first Israeli prime minister to let this happen.
Another primary strategic concern for the USA is the ongoing disintegrations of both Iraq and Afghanistan.
What is our strategy in Iraq should civil war break out again as it seems it could? How do we define “winning” there? And, will thousands of American forces in Afghanistan do baby-sitting for a decade, or longer?
These appear pressing issues with not a single indication of an American strategy.
On the Israeli side, one can assume the country can take care of itself militarily and otherwise. It has matured into a nation of 7.5 million including 1.5 million Arab Israelis who are not as unhappy as their Palestinian brethren suggest, and would, if pressed, more likely opt for an Israeli quality of life. Israel just hit a per capita income level of around $ 35,000, putting it squarely in the higher-ranks of the industrialized Western living standards, with an economy bigger than all its neighboring countries. It has never lost a war and can still win any.
Beyond this, the best strategy for the White House, when it comes to those Middle East ‘’tribes with flags,’’ may be “benign neglect.” When you think of it, despite predictions of dire consequences such as World War Three out there, the Middle East dispute has already survived quite well, with various accommodations, for over a 100 years.