Why has the United States made settlements such a big issue with Israel in the last few weeks? Two veterans of Middle East peace negotiations — from opposite sides of the political spectrum — say they are puzzled by the president’s approach.
Both Aaron David Miller, who advised Secretary of State Jim Baker on Arab-Israeli issues during the George H.W. Bush and was at the Camp David negotiations during the Clinton administration, and Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, agreed last week that the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel over settlements isn’t the correct move right now. And both said they saw virtually no chance of a conflict-ending agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians anytime soon.
They spoke at a Bethesda, Md. synagogue at a forum — sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the American Jewish Committee’s Washington chapter. The crowd seem jarred from Miller and Abrams’ pessimism, after hearing all the hope for a peace deal that has come out of the White House and some quarters of the Jewish community since Obama’s inauguration.
Miller’s criticism of the White House was particularly notable, because he is not opposed to getting tough with Israel – he pointed out that every time the United States has succeeded in achieving a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict, there has been “some measure of unhappiness” and tension. He also believes that settlements are a big problem (although he said even his old boss Baker knew he couldn’t get Israel to freeze “natural growth” of settlements).
But “as legitimate a problem as settlements are with respect to undermining the environment toward a negotiation,” said Miller, they are a “distraction” given all the problems that need to be addressed.
“Given the stakes and reality, we are going to need a relationship with Israel of great intimacy in order to do this. We need to think very carefully about how we’re going about it, where is the strategy, what is the objective,” he said.
And while fighting with the Israelis in pursuit of a true “breakthrough” is worth it, he sees virtually no prospect of an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians on the four core issues of Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees.
“There’s a tension between two realities” that “cannot be reconciled” at that time, said Miller. “The commitment on the part of a young and transformative president who does not want to be the president on whose watch the two state solution dies, competing with the almost unimaginable possibility that Israel and Palestine can enter into a negotiation and reach a conflict-ending agreement.”
Abrams also said that the settlement issue was not being handled “in a way that is likely to produce the most from Israel,” particularly the fact that it was happening “on page one” instead of behind close doors.
“You catch more honey with flies than vinegar,” he said.
But Abrams added that he didn’t understand “how we got to where we are today,” considering that media reports have revealed that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas 96 percent of the West Bank along with land swaps that added up to virtually 100 percent and “the answer he got back is nothing.”
“I would have thought this puts the onus on the Palestinians to do something, I would have thought that offer by Olmert shows the settlement expansion issue is phony” because Olmert’s offer was better than the one made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barack at Camp David 10 years ago, said Abrams.
“I don’t understand,” he added, the apparent decision “to take the position that Israel is the problem.”
What is the most significant issue right now? For Miller, it is the Palestinians being able to control security in their territory.
“A state must maintain a monopoly over the legitimate forces of violence within its society,” he said. “If you do not control all the guns, then you constituents will never respect you, and your neighbors will respect you less.”
As the night went on, both Miller and Abrams continued to agree — there was no reason to be hopeful about a breakthrough.
Abrams noted that while everyone has thought they have known the basic terms of a Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement for decades, such a deal still hasn’t happened. Maybe that’s because “they don’t want them” and “neither side, looking at what the deal would be, is prepared to say OK.”
Miller essentially concurred, saying, “Neither side is prepared to realistically protect its own interests while meeting the interests of the other side.”
Why did these two advisers associated with opposite ideological camps find themselves agreeing so much? Miller said it was a “fundamental testament to just how deep-seated and nasty this conflict really is.”
“I’m not here to say it can never be solved,” said Miller, but “America cannot afford to have a policy based in illusion.”