An expert on Middle East policy who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations believes the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be solved unless there is a drastic change in approach.
Aaron David Miller, 71, served for 25 years as a State Department analyst and advisor on Middle East policies and the Arab-Israeli peace process. He spoke about the intricacies of diplomatic negotiation in a March 3 lecture at the Congregation Or Hadash synagogue in Sandy Springs.
“Every time we failed in diplomacy and peacemaking was because we tethered our policies to the world the way we wanted it to be and disregarded the way the world actually was,” said Miller. “It is the balance between the two that constitutes the space for effective decision-making in government and, I would argue, in any good marriage. Without it, diplomatic agreements are not sustainable.”
President Donald Trump’s new and controversial Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which is in the hands of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, does not get high marks from Miller. Miller said he and Kushner met half a dozen times to discuss the matter, but that the latter ignored all the advice offered.
Among other proposals, the Trump plan, unveiled in January, would allow Israel to annex portions of the West Bank and have sovereignty over most of Jerusalem, and give Palestinians a four-year period to work on possible statehood with a separate capital city but no military.
“I’m pretty confident their approach is not going to advance this issue,” Miller said, adding that the conflict could well be insoluble “because to have a solution you need leaders and an administration that’s prepared to act skillfully and willfully to help the two sides, and none of that exists now.”
Miller argues that governments tend to commit two basic offenses in diplomacy that end up costing lives. The first is the transgression of omnipotence – great powers think they can do everything; the second is the sin of omniscience – they think they can know everything.
“History guards against these things,” he said. “It teaches prudence; it teaches humility.” Leaders don’t have to be scholars or intellectuals, he said, but they need to be curious “and they have to know what they don’t know and should be in a hurry to find out.”
He cited the 1978 Camp David Accords as a landmark example of decisive action rarely taken today. Those peace agreements were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in secret talks overseen by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
“You had two heroic, strong leaders, Sadat and Begin, who were masters of their political constituencies, not prisoners of their ideologies, and an American president, Jimmy Carter, who took control; it’s his most consequential achievement,” Miller said. “The treaty endures.”
He continued: “Change happens because of what Martin Luther King described as the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ The bottom starts to rise. Sometimes it’s violent, but it’s met from the top by talented politicians who understand how to use the system, how to compromise.”
President Franklin Roosevelt, who cut his own deal with Southern segregationists to secure the Democratic majority for his New Deal, is an example of how change is supposed to happen, according to Miller. Another is President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights bills that, though not perfect, laid the groundwork for significant shifts to come.
“These are leaders all driven by crises, all with tremendous character and the capacity to know what to do in a crisis,” said Miller. “That’s why [Nelson] Mandela’s passing is so significant – they don’t make leaders like that anymore. We appreciate greatness on the athletic field, in art and in science. Where is the greatness in our own politics? That’s unfortunate, particularly now.”
Miller excoriated former President George W. Bush for the 2003 Iraq invasion. “What was the Bush administration thinking? Why didn’t they look backwards [at the history of] Iraq and think through the consequences of this trillion-dollar social sciences experiment in which we are still stuck? And you can say the same thing about Afghanistan.”
John Kennedy was the first and last president who had any kind of emotional impact on Miller, who was 12 years old when Kennedy was shot in 1963. “He described himself as an idealist without illusion, and I think that’s where America should be — never giving up on the fact that the world can be changed for the better… But you have to go through the act of change or even transformation with your eyes wide open.”