WASHINGTON (JTA) – Depending on your view of the Middle East and the Obama administration, Aaron David Miller is either a hero or a turncoat.
Miller, a peace process functionary under both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration, published a declaration of independence last month from what he called the "religion" of the peace process.
Critics of the Obama administration's emphasis on peacemaking -- among them neoconservatives who once reviled Miller as an apostle of the process -- embraced his article, published in Foreign Policy, as the repudiation of the process.
"One can take exception to some of Miller’s argument, but the core of it is indisputable," Jennifer Rubin wrote on Commentary Magazine's Contentions blog. "The peace-process believers 'need to re-examine their faith.' "
Defenders of an assertive American role in the Middle East dismiss Miller out of hand as an effete academic now removed from policy.
"For all his pessimism about the future, Miller never asks if the United States should distance itself from an Israel that is in the process of becoming an apartheid state," Stephen Walt, the Harvard historian and author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” wrote on his blog on Foreign Policy.
It doesn't stop in the blogosphere: Miller, the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace" and now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, recently returned from a Middle East tour of Lebanon, Israel the Palestinian areas and Syria, and he found himself discussing his article with regional leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw validation in his own belief that the Obama administration is overly invested in the prospect of imminent Palestinian statehood, Miller and a Netanyahu confidant said.
In an interview last Friday with JTA in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue -- a 10-minute walk from the White House -- Miller took the reactions with equanimity.
"I was prepared to accept the possibility that the piece would be misinterpreted, hijacked, used by people for a variety of reasons," he said. "So be it. These are my views. Reality changed and it’s not honest in order to simply continue to repeat the same mantras."
This is the "catechism," outlined in his article, and referring to his State Department years from 1985 to 2003: "First, pursuit of a comprehensive peace was a core, if not the core, U.S. interest in the region, and achieving it offered the only sure way to protect U.S. interests; second, peace could be achieved, but only through a serious negotiating process based on trading land for peace; and third, only America could help the Arabs and Israelis bring that peace to fruition. As befitting a religious doctrine, there was little nuance."
A thorough reading of Miller's screed does not suggest an abandonment of the creed. Rather he counsels stepping back and re-examining its principles against the light of new Middle East realities.
Miller argues that the issues have become more vexing, and that there are no leaders who match the titans of peacemaking in years past, such as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat or Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
If anything, he said in the interview, his three weeks in the Middle East reinforced those perceptions.
"What I find difficult to reconcile is how you’re going to get to a conflict-ending agreement which addresses the four core issues that have driven the Israelis and the Palestinians and brought each issue to a finality of claims," Miller told JTA. "I just do not see how to do that given the gaps that exist and the inherent constraints on the leaders in the absence also of a real sense of urgency."
The four core issues are borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees.
Miller describes how the situation has worsened since the last major effort at a resolution, the Camp David-Taba talks of 2000-01: The status of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been wounded profoundly by the ouster of his moderate party, Fatah, from Gaza at the gunpoint of Hamas; Netanyahu is bound by a right-wing coalition (of his choosing) that is not ready to countenance a full-fledged settlement freeze, never mind compromise on Jerusalem; and Obama has had 15 months, distracted by the economy and health care, to match Clinton's six full years focused on the issue.
Then there's the region: "Hezbollah and Hamas," Miller says referring to the terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza, respectively. "You have two non-state actors, two non-state environments who are not proxies of Iran and or Syria but who clearly reflect their capacity to want to influence events -- and then you have Iran" and its potential nuclear threat.
The prospect that Miller says unnerves him most is that the Obama administration says it will step in with a conflict-ending agreement if the current proximity talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians go nowhere.
"I’m very uneasy because at the end of the day, I don’t see what the game is, I don’t see what the strategy is,” he said. “Even if it’s an initiative, what’s the objective, what’s the strategy?"
In his article, Miller advises that the United States stay involved but realize there are limits.
"The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance," he writes. "But America should also be aware of what it cannot do as much as what it can."
Such advice is beside the point for Miller’s new champions and detractors alike, who continue to perceive America's role in the conflict as either-or.
"It's had an impact, certainly for Netanyahu and his entourage," Steve Rosen, who is close to Netanyahu's advisers, said of Miller’s article in Foreign Policy. "What makes Aaron important is he's not from central casting. He's the man who bit the dog. He has credibility as someone who has been a lifetime proponent of the process."
That's exactly what irks those who advocate deep American involvement.
"We don't have the luxury of time; the tensions on the ground are too high," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, who directs J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby. "That's the difference between being an analyst and actually trying to assess outcomes."
Miller, once an eminence grise at talk fests warning of doomsday outcomes in insistent tones, now appears relaxed, jovial even, leaning back to make a point. He has retained his commitment to people-to-people dialogue. From 2003 to 2006, he directed the youth-to-youth, Arab-Jewish dialogue program Seeds of Peace.
"Talking is better than shooting, and talking in a neutral safe space can actually be pretty productive, particularly when your 14, 15, 16 years old, and your identity is up for grabs and you can really be changed," he said.
"The whole trope here is the leadership. If I could mention one word to summarize my concern, it’s the absence of leadership."
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