Mideast Expert Offers Cold Dose of Reality on Region’s Problems

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Anyone seeking an optimistic outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or the state of the Middle East in general — should probably steer clear of Aaron David Miller.

A former State Department specialist in the Middle East who has advised six different secretaries of state, Miller now reports to work as a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he regularly pens columns on global affairs for Foreign Policy magazine. Miller’s clear-eyed but generally pessimistic views on the Middle East might not be encouraging, but they inject the debate with some much-needed realism.

That realism is born of experience. Miller first joined the State Department in 1978 and served as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations until 2003, when he retired from government. Miller has also authored four books, the latest a 2008 tome titled “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.” Miller’s fifth book, an analysis of the declining power of the U.S. presidency, is due later this year.

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Photo: Woodrow Wilson Center
Aaron David Miller

In a Diplomat interview, Miller said Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon and to some degree Iran are all in chaos and there’s not much prospect for improvement. He also noted that since 1950, only 22 countries in the world have maintained functioning democracies, a longstanding goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

“I don’t believe there are comprehensive conflict-ending solutions,” Miller said. “There is no country in the Arab world right now that can claim democratic status. It’s going to be a very long road, a very long movie. Iraq and Syria are literally melting down as we speak and are likely to emerge as profoundly more decentralized polities than they were under Saddam Hussein or any of the Assads.

“I’m not arguing for the return of the dictators, to be sure, but the future here is going to be marked by increasing weakness of the Arab state and dysfunctional governance.”

At the same time, Miller said the United States can’t fully withdraw from the region because its interests are too vested.

“We are stuck in a region we cannot leave because we have allies, interests and adversaries, but at the same time we can’t transform it or fix it or find conflict-ending solutions to any of these problems,” he lamented. “My strong tendency is to look for what I call transactions not transformations. The best America could do is to come up with proximate solutions to insoluble problems and that’s how I tend to look at this region. Certainly since leaving the State Department in 2003 I’ve seen nothing that would indicate any kind of comprehensive or definitive endgames to any of these problems.”

That includes one of the most frustrating problems in the region for the last 66 years: the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The former State Department official quoted famed German philosopher Karl Marx in describing what he envisions could lead to a major breakthrough in the Middle East peace process.

“Marx said men make history but rarely as they please,” Miller told us. “It’s the interaction between leaders and circumstance. The reality is the only time there have been breakthroughs in this region, you had two ingredients: You had a positive or negative shock which changed the calculation of the local players, and you had leaders who were masters of their political houses, not prisoners of them. We’ve had plenty of violence but we haven’t had the kind of shocks that have precipitated breaks in the Israeli-Arab conflicts.”

In the latest shock, Israel pounded the Gaza Strip while Hamas lobbed thousands of rockets at Israel in weeks of fighting that have killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, many of them civilians, and 67 Israelis, all but three of them soldiers. As of press time, several intermittent ceasefires had collapsed and the specter of renewed fighting loomed large.

This is not the first time Hamas and Israel have come to blows since the Palestinian faction took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Previous rounds of fighting in 2008 and 2012 took a heavy toll on the tiny, densely inhabited coastal enclave of 1.8 million people but failed to dislodge Hamas from power or ease a crippling blockade that Israel imposed when Hamas took power.

Hamas, though, hopes this most recent clash will finally lift the blockade that strictly controls the movement of goods and people in and out of the economically shattered territory — a blockade that Israel says is necessary to prevent weapons smuggling.

Miller thinks Hamas isn’t exactly in a good position to bargain. “It is badly isolated in the Arab world; in particular, both dependent on and squeezed by Egypt. More than that, it must find a way to justify, explain and compensate Gazans for the painful reality that its rockets courted such death and devastation. It has raised high expectations — ending the blockade and siege — that it alone cannot meet,” he wrote in a recent FP article on the violence.

At the same time, Miller notes that in an asymmetric conflict, Hamas “won something merely by not being destroyed outright. Its military leadership remains intact; it was able to launch rockets into Israel right up until the cease-fire … and it rattled Israel’s nerves and security by launching several tunnel-infiltration operations during the confrontations.”

Israel’s priority now is to keep Hamas from rebuilding its arsenal of rockets and underground tunnels to prevent future attacks. Israeli leaders have called for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip as a precursor to any permanent ceasefire — a “lasting quiet” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it in July.

Palestinian leaders, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have said demilitarization is a nonstarter — a demand reserved for the end of comprehensive peace negotiations, not the beginning of temporary truce talks. But Miller said the notion of demilitarization in Gaza has been misconstrued.

“The Israelis talk about demilitarization but they really don’t mean a forcible effort to take Hamas’s high-trajectory weapons away or dismantle the 15,000-to-20,000-man army they have,” Miller told us. “I don’t think Hamas has any plans for demilitarizing. When they talk about demilitarization, they don’t talk even about decommissioning. They talk about stanching the resupply of weapons to Hamas, or not adding to the stockpile.

“Demilitarization would be a transformative result and Hamas is not going to willingly commit suicide,” Miller added. “Demilitarization to them would mean simply that they would emerge as a relatively dysfunctional political party with no capacity to govern.”

Military resistance is, in fact, Hamas’s raison d’être. An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was formed in 1987 — with tacit encouragement from Israelis to undercut secular Palestinian liberation groups — to oppose the Israeli occupation. Today, Miller says Hamas has “won the hearts and minds game” against the moderate but seemingly ineffectual leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has failed to rein in Israeli settlement expansion or secure a lasting peace deal.

Abbas could be strengthened, however, if his Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority winds up securing Gaza border crossings as part of any ceasefire settlement, or if the Palestinians join more U.N. bodies this September, namely the International Criminal Court, which could in theory prosecute Israel for war crimes (though it’s unlikely Abbas would jeopardize U.S. assistance with such a provocative legal maneuver).

Miller says Abbas’s future success depends on the now defunct peace talks, which collapsed earlier this year in the face of mutual recriminations and, some say, the announcement of new Israeli settlements. But the divisive issue of settlements — which are now home to more than half a million Jews in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on land Palestinians hope to claim as their own — is not to blame for the current impasse, according to Miller, who says the real problem is that the two sides are simply too far apart on the core issues: The maximum Netanyahu is willing to offer doesn’t line up with the minimum Palestinians are willing to accept.

“In order to dismantle Israeli settlements in the West Bank you’d need two things: You’d need a [Israeli] leader with extraordinary courage and will, a leader who is prepared to risk, and you’d need a deal that would provide the Israeli state with the legitimacy and the authority to begin to confront the problems and challenges of dismantling the settlers,” Miller said.

“Even if 80 percent of the settlers agreed to relocate you’d still face the incredible nation-wrenching challenge of how to deal with the remaining 10 percent or 20 percent willing to use violence to challenge the legitimacy of the state,” Miller continued. “For any polity that would be a huge crisis, but you’d need at a minimum an Israeli leader willing to define that challenge, describe it as a legitimate one and explain why it is central to the American interest. You don’t have one of those.”

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A Palestinian man searches through the rubble of his home, which was destroyed by Israeli strikes in southern Gaza Strip. Weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas have killed over 2,000 Palestinians and 67 Israelis.

While Miller is pessimistic about the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough any time soon, he doubts the alternative that some have floated — a one-state solution in which Israel would assimilate Palestinians under one flag — will ever come to pass.

“A one-state solution never made much sense to me,” Miller told us. “It’s an outcome, not a solution. No one is pushing it in a real way and the Israelis are clearly resisting it. The idea that Israel and the West Bank and Gaza would somehow all live in the confines of a unitary state in a happy harmonious manner? The answer is no — that could never occur.”

But some prominent experts — including Secretary of State John Kerry — say that in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal, a one-state solution could become the de facto solution, leaving Israel with an impossible dilemma: Create an apartheid-like state where Palestinians are second-class citizens, or absorb millions of Palestinians to preserve Israel’s democracy, at the price of diluting its Jewish character. Miller doesn’t buy the dire warnings and says no amount of outside pressure or cajoling will affect the domestic political calculus each side faces.

That’s especially true in Israel, which boasts a thriving, rancorous democracy — a rarity in a region where the idea of democracy can be both malleable and dangerous.

Former President George W. Bush trumpeted the spread of democracy in the Middle East, but didn’t always like the results — such as when the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, its dominant political faction, got trounced by Hamas in parliamentary elections in 2006.

Miller said Bush should have seen the rise of Islamic-centric parties coming.

“The Bush administration should have understood that when free and fair elections are held anywhere in the Arab world, the Islamists are going to do very well,” he said. “Just look around: Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt under [Mohamed] Morsi. That’s essentially reality.

“There should have been candidacy requirements in that [Hamas] election,” he added. “You can’t have a democratic election in a society when one side is promoting fair and free elections and the other side is promoting violence. That is not how democracy is supposed to work. On one hand we have the vote and the other hand we have the gun — that should never have been tolerated.”

Hamas, though, campaigned largely against corruption in the West Bank, not necessarily violence against Israel. Fatah refused to recognize the results — backed by the U.S., Israel and Egypt. But Miller defends America’s right to criticize the vote that ushered Hamas into power even as it calls for democracy.

“It’s one of the anomalies of a democratic enterprise,” he said. “You support free elections and basically you accept the results, but great powers don’t have to do that. Neither do small powers. They behave in an inconsistent and anomalous and contradictory fashion. Hamas is a threat to the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Egypt and by direct implication has a very negative resonance in the United States.

“There is little consistency in foreign policy,” Miller added. “We take military action in Libya but not Syria. We support an Arab Spring in Egypt but not Saudi Arabia. We call for free and fair elections and we oppose Hamas.”

Miller is equally blunt in his belief that it is impossible for the U.S. to be an honest broker in a dispute in which America clearly has much deeper bonds with the Israelis.

“We have an extraordinarily close relationship with Israel driven by many things — value affinity, domestic politics and also the behavior of the Arab states, which constitute the most effective talking points you could fashion as to why the U.S. supports Israel,” he said. “We don’t have the same kind of relationship with the Israelis that we have with any other parties to the conflict.”

Miller cited a 2014 Gallup poll that showed Americans’ support for Israel is at an all-time high.

“What’s happened in the Arab Spring in the last four years becomes the poster child for why it’s easier for Americans to understand and relate to Israelis than it is for others in the region,” he said. “We aren’t an honest broker — we never have been. We can, in my judgment, be an effective broker.

“When we are prepared to be tough, fair and reassuring — and when the parties are inclined to want to deal — we can be a broker,” he said, noting that former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were effective brokers. “We’ve only succeeded three times in producing actual agreements between Arabs and Israelis.”

Miller’s candor has made him one of the most sought-after experts on the region, appearing on CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, NPR, the BBC and other new outlets. Still, he’s just one of many in a crowded field. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, in fact, produced a whole cottage industry of high-profile, well-connected former government officials who were unsuccessful at forging Middle East peace but now readily give advice on it.

Miller, though, downplays the importance of his role as a commentator and says that while the list of experienced pundits on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process might not change much, what matters is that the people in charge do.

“You change the president and secretary of state and national security advisors,” Miller pointed out. “In my view, people [such as himself] are looked to because they have experience and expertise — full stop. I’m not running for anything; I haven’t been involved in government in over a decade and I’m not interested in returning.

“Secretaries of state and presidents change all the time,” he added. “The reality is the key decision makers on this issue are the president, secretary of state and the national security advisor. Ultimately, it is the president and secretary of state who make the decisions.”

On that note, Miller isn’t hopeful that current Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested a huge amount of time and sweat to bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer to an agreement, can be an effective broker. He suggested that Kerry back off and save his energy for other crises.

“Why would you want to continue to try to resolve a problem which you cannot resolve?” Miller asked. “Failure has a consequence. The notion that trying and failing is better than not trying at all is more appropriate for a high school football team than it is a substitute for strategy for the most consequential power on earth.”

A far more pressing problem — for both the U.S. and Israel — may be the dramatic rise of the Islamic State, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and seeks to establish a Muslim caliphate throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Miller said President Obama will most likely continue his deliberative, risk-averse policy in confronting the group, launching occasional strikes but reluctant to resume “his predecessor’s trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq,” as Miller puts it.

While the emergence of the Islamic State is equally if not more troubling for Israel, Miller suspects Israeli officials are prepared to deal with the hardened radical group, and the possible splintering of Arab states, for years to come.

“I don’t think the Israelis believe they are going to [go away],” Miller told us. “This is the trend line for the future: Weak, fragile, decentralized Arab states and transnational movements taking advantage of this weakness. Look around, everywhere you see non-states trying to behave as states. Lebanon has been a non-state for years, Syria is still in civil war, Iraq is melting down, Palestine is like Noah’s ark — two of everything. Even in those states that are cohesive like Egypt you have political and economic dysfunction.”

And the cold, hard reality is that this dysfunction might not be fixable. “The world is a pretty cruel and unforgiving place,” Miller wrote last month. “It’s beset more by tough challenges and problems without solutions than it is by slam-dunk opportunities. Ukraine, Syria, the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that’s a pretty fun-filled list. Add the fact that the nature of those challenges is simply no longer quite as amenable to the conventional application of American military, political and diplomatic power as it used to be, and you have a pretty nasty witches’ brew.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 26, 2014