An Arabist Admits Mistakes — and Makes More
Aaron David Miller had a long and distinguished career in the US State Department — distinguished that is by failure to achieve the objective of Israeli-Arab peace. Nevertheless, he has continued to advocate the wrongheaded policies he pursued, and to criticize President Trump’s Middle East policy. It was a shock, therefore, to read his mea culpa in The Washington Post. Even while admitting his errors, however, he could not abandon ideas that are equally mendacious.
He starts by confessing that he and other “peace process veterans” were wrong in their insistence the Arab states would not normalize relations with Israel before the Palestinian issue was resolved. Miller concedes that, in May, he had expressed skepticism about Arab countries establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
What Miller does not acknowledge is that he and other Arabists turned their views into a self-fulfilling prophecy by refusing to make much of an effort to either help pressure or entice Arab states to make peace with Israel. Instead, their obsession with the Palestinian issue, and misguided ideas of how to resolve it, led them to advocate pressure on Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands. By doing so, they reinforced Palestinian intransigence. By lauding the Arab Peace Initiative, they endorsed giving the Palestinians a veto over Arab states’ normalization of ties with Israel. Due to a lack of imagination, rather than jettison an approach to peacemaking that failed for decades, they insisted there was no alternative.
The misreading of Arab sentiment dates to before and after partition, when the Saudis made no secret of the fact that they cared less about Palestine than the survival of the monarchy. Had the State Department exploited their weakness and pressured them to accept Israel rather than behaving as if Saudi Arabia was the superpower and fearing their reaction, history might have been much different. Perhaps unconsciously, Trump’s advisers understood this and used the Gulf Arabs’ fear of Iran — combined with their rapacious desire for US weapons — to their advantage and helped nudge the UAE and Bahrain to expand their quiet ties with Israel to open and full diplomatic relations. The Saudis are still holding out, but cooperation with Israel is an open secret and normalization may follow.
Miller says “three long-held assumptions that have guided US policy haven’t borne out, and in the process have upended American thinking about the centrality of the Israel-Palestinian dispute long considered to be the core of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.” This is the Arabist problem in a nutshell. Their assumptions were always wrong, as was the idea that the Palestinian issue was the core of the conflict.
Let’s take the last statement first. From the beginning, the Arab states had little interest in the Palestinians. They did not invade Israel in 1948 to help the Palestinians establish a state; they were interested in carving Palestine up among themselves. After the war, Jordan occupied what was supposed to be the Arab state. For 19 years, no one from the State Department (or anywhere else) demanded an end to that occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.
None of the Arab-Israeli wars that followed had anything to do with the Palestinians. The crux of the conflict was the unwillingness of Arab leaders to accept a Jewish state in their midst. Normalization has become possible because they have reconciled themselves to Israel’s existence. Miller and the other Arabists fail to understand the conflict is not between Palestinians or other Arabs and Israelis; it is a jihad waged by Islamists against Israeli Jews.
Miller admits to mistakenly viewing the status quo as unsustainable. As with most of the Arabist ideas, the amazing thing is they believed this in the first place. No political situation is sustainable forever, but Israel’s administration of the disputed territories has lasted for more than five decades. As Miller put it, “the supposedly unsustainable status quo has proved remarkably sustainable.”
The Palestinians may complain, but their actions indicate a contentment with the status quo, exemplified by their unwillingness to negotiate for the last 12 years while the growth of Israeli settlements has erased the viability of the Palestinian state envisioned by Miller and other peace processors. The Palestinians do not hide their objective of establishing a state from the river to the sea, but that possibility disappeared once it became clear the Arab states could not and would not destroy Israel.
Still, in true Arabist fashion, Miller manages to blame Israel for the situation. If only the United States would bring “serious pressure to bear on Israel” the status quo could be changed. Israel’s “fractious politics” are one obstacle, as are gaps on the final status issues. Though he acknowledges the divisions between Hamas and Fatah are a problem, he ignores that Israel has repeatedly offered compromises, while the Palestinian position has not changed in a century — that there can be no Jewish state. As if there were any doubt, Palestinian Media Watch documented one Palestinian response to the normalization agreements: Fatah posted on its Facebook page maps of Palestine which, as usual, encompass Israel.
Miller acknowledges his second misperception was that Israel would become a pariah. “The opposite has happened,” he notes. Today, Israel has relations with more countries than ever before and Miller notes its expanded trade with east Asia, ties with India, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meetings with leaders in Africa and Latin America. “Israel now has better relations with all five permanent members of the UN Security Council than at any time in its history,” he observed, adding, “much of the international community is no longer prepared to tie their own interests to the Palestinian cause and they see real advantage in dealing with and benefiting from Israel’s technology and expertise.”
Not surprisingly, Miller has not abandoned hope that whenever Trump leaves office, the next administration will refocus on the Palestinian issue. Given his view that Trump is too pro-Israel, you can be sure he and the other failed peace processors will ignore their mistakes and return to advocating the failed policies of the past — pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, rewards for Palestinian intransigence, restoration of aid, public criticism of Israel, and neglect of the possibilities for facilitating ties between Israel and Arab states.
If Trump loses this election, let’s hope the next president builds on the achievements of recent weeks and rejects advice to return to the failed policies of the past from those who still don’t fully recognize their mistakes and are intent on repeating them.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.