It’s a bright and warm spring Washington afternoon, a climate perfectly suited to a gathering of one of Washington’s most cheerfully sunny organizations, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. With U.S.-Israel relations at an all-time low, and both Washington and Jerusalem facing serious foreign threats, the institute’s 25th-anniversary meeting at the Renaissance Hotel is an optimistic, celebratory affair. With Lebanese lobbyists, Palestinian activists, and Turkish journalists mingling among institution trustees and other interested members of the American Jewish community, the scene in the beige ballroom resembles a gathering of a large extended family.
While the Institute produces sober analyses on a host of regional concerns from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, it is best known as the home away from home of the Arab-Israeli peace process. It is no surprise that the hottest topic of conversation at this family gathering is the seeming apostasy of everyone’s favorite uncle, Aaron David Miller. A former high-ranking State Department official who helped inaugurate the peace process in 1988 as an aide to Secretary of State James Baker and continued to knock Israeli and Arab heads together under President Bill Clinton, Miller just announced in a cover story in the new Foreign Policy that he no longer believes in the peace process. Recalling the hopefulness of the early 1990s and the Oslo process, Miller writes: “America had used its power to make war, and now, perhaps, it could use that power to make peace. I’d become a believer. I’m not anymore.”
Most people in the room don’t know what to make of Miller’s apparent about-face on the single issue that has united the major institutional players in the American Jewish community’s foreign policy establishment from the Washington Institute to American Israel Public Affairs Committee for the past two decades. Combined with the recent vitriolic public attacks on Obama adviser Dennis Ross from outside and within the Administration for his supposed “dual loyalties” and insufficient dedication to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which Ross oversaw under President Bill Clinton, Miller’s article suggests that a watershed moment has been reached in the history of the peace process, which once served to show how American Jews could serve their country while also helping to bring peace to Israel. It has become a dead letter—or, at worst, a wedge to pry Jews out of decision-making positions in the U.S. government and suggest that the interests of the United States and Israel are necessarily opposed to each other.
Some suggest that Miller’s article is a mere bit of showmanship, meant to get the former policymaker some attention at a time when everyone—perhaps even those in the Obama Administration—knows the peace process is stalled. “You get a lot of respect if you make one big flip-flop in your life resulting from an epiphany,” says Washington Institute scholar Martin Kramer. He cites Francis Fukuyama, who declared “the end of history” in 1989 only to turn against his neoconservative colleagues when the Iraq war didn’t work out so well, and Benny Morris’s public disenchantment with the Israeli left. “Do it twice,” says Kramer, “and you’re dismissed as a flake.”
Miller sees his views as consistent with his public statements over the past few years. “What I’ve seen over time is that prospects for peace are getting bleaker and bleaker,” he told me over the phone last week. Miller believes that he is the same man he has always been—it’s the Middle East that has gotten meaner. “My perspective changed because reality changed,” Miller says. “This region has become much nastier, more complex. The political leaders are hostages, not masters, of their fate, and the issues are much more complicated.” Problems like the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees—the core of the conflict since 1948—seem no closer to being solved then they did when Miller began his peace processing under President George H.W. Bush. In other words, the region hasn’t changed for the worse; Miller’s just frustrated that it hasn’t changed for the better yet. But as Miller himself admits, he has not entirely turned his back on the peace process. “I didn’t reject the religion of yes to embrace the religion of no,” he says.
The religion of yes, which is as good a name as any for the faith that Miller claims to have abandoned, has little in common with a naïve belief in unicorns and fairies or in the righteousness of Yasser Arafat. Rather, it was a coherent strategy formulated more than 40 years ago by American statesmen like Henry Kissinger and other cold, calculating policy professionals. Jewish-funded institutions like AIPAC and the Washington Institute shaped the peace process’s moral core and in doing so gave American foreign policy one of its articles of faith: Someday, Israelis and Palestinians will have a negotiated settlement allowing both peoples to live side by side in peace, prosperity, and security.
The Washington Institute, one of the pillars of the peace process, was founded in 1985 by Martin Indyk, then AIPAC’s deputy director of research who went on to be the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton Administration. Indyk is often an acerbic critic of Israel and hardly a member of American Jewry’s right-wing militant fringe.
“They obviously come from a pro-Israel framework,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told me on the phone, describing the Washington Institute. “But they’ve brought in real quality people, not just Israelis, but also Arabs as well as European scholars, to do important work. They’ve made the stew here richer at an important time.”
Perhaps the Institute’s best-known alumnus is Dennis Ross, who has worked in Republican and Democratic administrations and currently serves in the Obama White House. Someone in the Administration, under the cover of anonymity, leaked to a reporter the observation that Ross “seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests.” The accusation of Ross’s “dual loyalty” was quickly picked up by Israel Lobby co-author Stephen Walt, who used the opportunity to attack the Institute. “Isn’t it obvious,” Walt asked, “that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region?”
Walt’s article, as well as the charges made by Ross’s anonymous colleague, stunned Washington policymaking circles. After all, Ross is a lifelong peace processor whose willingness to ignore Arafat’s most egregious provocations earned him heaps of criticism in hawkish circles. Yet here was Ross portrayed as being yet another Jew whose loyalty to Israel trumped his obligations as a public official and U.S. citizen. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, wrote a rebuttal to Walt’s article. “If terrorism is the use of violence against innocents for political purposes, this is the analogue in the policy debate,” he told me last week by phone. “To use the worst sort of attacks on people’s loyalty, legitimacy, ethics, and values to try to undermine them doesn’t belong in a sober policy debate.”
Yet for all the intellectual fireworks about dual loyalties and the peace process, the American electorate seems to have firmly made up its mind about Israel policy. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows that while 48 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s foreign policy in general (with 42 percent disapproving), only 35 percent approve (with 44 percent disapproving) of the way the Administration is handling the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. Some 42 percent believe that the president is not a strong supporter of Israel. Half of American Jews polled say that Obama is a strong supporter of Israel, but only 23 percent of Protestants and 35 percent of Roman Catholics agree. The issue is not that American Jews fear that Obama has no deep reservoir of feelings for Israel but that American Christians believe Obama is out of step with the rest of the country on the matter of the Jewish state.
“To Stephen Walt, pro-Israel is a bad thing, but to the American people it is a good thing,” says Steven Rosen, director of the Middle East Forum‘s Washington Program. “If he thinks our national interests are not being followed, and that Dennis Ross and WINEP are instruments of a foreign power, then by that measure, the majority of the American people are instruments of a foreign power.”
Walt claims that his argument for favoring Israel less and pushing Jerusalem harder on making peace is based on a realist evaluation of U.S. interests. However, a sharper version of realism suggests that a real Middle East peace would actually weaken the U.S. position in the region. After all, it was U.S. arms shipments in the middle of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war that proved to the Arabs they could not hope to defeat an Israel backed to the hilt by the Americans. If the Arabs wanted concessions from Israel, they’d have to come through Washington. With that nifty bit of policymaking the United States went from being a Great Power to a regional power broker, capable of leveraging both sides against each other for our own national gain. A just and comprehensive peace between the Arabs and Israelis, allowing the two sides to deal with each other directly, would diminish our role dramatically.
The problem with the peace process, of course, is it makes no place for such cynicism. Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace is perhaps the most earnest book ever written about the Middle East, more plangent than all but a handful of King David’s psalms. Aaron David Miller is considered a skeptic because he says without a trace of irony that the Middle East is a nastier place than when he began two decades ago. Even a mild cynic might recall that 1989, the year that the peace process began in Madrid, was the end of two regional wars that killed millions of people: the Iran-Iraq war and the Lebanese civil war. Today’s Middle East is hardly the Garden of Eden, but the people living there are no worse off than they were two decades ago.
The peace process is perhaps the least cynical enterprise ever launched by the most optimistic country in world history, and the caretakers of that process are American Jews, a group for whom the peace process has indeed become the centerpiece of a kind of secular theology. Interestingly, Arab rejectionist movements such as Hamas see the peace process through a similar lens, though the language they use is quite different. In their telling, the peace process is a plot hatched by the Americans at the behest of their Zionist paymasters with the acquiescence of Arab quislings and Palestinian collaborators who would betray sacred Muslim lands.
Stephen Walt is an ideologue of a different sort than the rejectionists of Hamas, for they at least have to live with the consequences of their choices. Walt’s problem is that his realism and reality are totally incommensurate. He believes that the Israel lobby in the United States is blocking an attainable peace in the Middle East, when the rejectionists have made it quite clear that they don’t want any version of the peace that they have been offered, and would prefer an apocalyptic confrontation with the Zionists and the West. When Hamas says that the Middle East Peace Lobby and the peace process itself is a pro-Israeli front, there is an important sense in which they are right. Walt’s imagination can’t encompass the reality that no one cares more about the peace process than the American Jewish lobby, which is why he has to accuse Dennis Ross of being an enemy of the peace process and a traitor to his country.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).