Stumbling Blocks

The Much Too Promised Land
America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace
By Aaron David Miller
Bantam, $16, 416 pp.

Innocent Abroad
An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East
By Martin Indyk
Simon & Schuster, $30, 512 pp.


In recognizing Israel on May 14, 1948, President Harry Truman set in motion an alliance that has endured for sixty years. That alliance has brought security to Israel but not peace—nor will it bring peace until the Palestinians have a viable state of their own. Back in 1948, American recognition gave implicit support to the continuing existence of the new state then facing the gathering forces of four Arab armies. In the sixty years since, American support has gone from implicit to explicit, from diplomatic recognition to full economic and military collaboration along with respect and friendship.

In the same period, internecine struggles have alternated with periods of negotiation—first between Israel and neighboring states and now between Israel and the Palestinians. All the while, each side has created conditions that push peace ever further out of reach: the Israelis with their settlements on the land promised for a Palestinian state; the Palestinians with their fractured politics and succession of terrorist groups that refuse to recognize Israel.

Does any country but the United States actually want peace? Are the Israelis and Palestinians each maneuvering to create and dominate one state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean? Is it good that the United States favors Israel in this struggle? The Clinton administration, amidst intense negotiations, favored Israel; a preference that George W. Bush showed as well, but without pursuing negotiations between the opposing camps. Has that preference impeded the ability of the United States to broker an agreement? Or has it kept a lid on all-out warfare by assuring Israel of our unstinting and uncritical support?

Does the new administration in Washington show promise of another approach? Is there another approach?

While a new Israeli government takes shape, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell are said to be taking the temperature of the Middle East. Yet on her early March visit, Clinton seemed to be shuffling around the Holy Land in sixty-year-old bedroom slippers saying pretty much the same old things and making the same old gestures. The new State Department team should spend some time reflecting on the words of caution coming from those who have worked long and hard at this Gordian knot. Though American and Israeli diplomats have written of their hopes, they more often speak of their frustrations. I have reviewed some of their books in these pages: The Missing Peace, by Dennis Ross, and Waging Peace, by Itmar Rabinovich (November 5, 2004); and Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, by Shlomo Ben-Ami (August 11, 2006). Recently two more seasoned diplomats have published books. Both give varying accounts of the same events, though each author, if not always the hero, is the centerpiece of the story.

The aptly titled The Much Too Promised Land by Aaron David Miller, historian and adviser to six secretaries of state, is a sobering account of failed negotiations, yet it calls for continuing efforts together with very modest expectations. Martin Indyk, President Bill Clinton’s Middle East security advisor and ambassador to Israel, focuses in Innocent Abroad on the various forays by Israel and the United States into a peace settlement with Syria. Those attempts having failed, the Clinton administration turned in its final months to an all-out pursuit at Camp David of an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Media accounts at the time reported a high-stakes negotiation almost sure to succeed; in fact, according to Miller and Indyk, it was almost certainly destined to fail: Barak couldn’t deliver peace and Arafat wouldn’t accept it.

None of the efforts described in these several volumes achieved a critical breakthrough, and the authors are not sanguine about the future. Still, none can even imagine a peace agreement without sustained U.S. engagement. Miller recounts the long history of this engagement through interviews with major U.S. participants, along with his own experiences. His assessment: Only Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (ending the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel), President Jimmy Carter (negotiating the peace treaty with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin), and Secretary of State James Baker (negotiating the Madrid Conference) achieved any genuine breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the most recent was almost two decades ago.

Why, in very different contexts, did these three men succeed? Miller describes them as “strong-willed, hard, a bit devious, and smart.” Each, he reports, was successful because he made the issue a top priority; each was able and willing to resist and answer critics (both foreign and domestic) of his policies; each was resolute in the search for common ground; each won the trust of the Israeli and Arab leaders and had a good grasp of what they could agree upon. Finally, the two secretaries of state spoke for their presidents (Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush), who backed them unconditionally.

Miller sees few of these factors at work in the Clinton or Bush II administrations. Clinton is described as self-indulgent, utterly convinced that he could charm Barak and Arafat into an agreement, while failing to read their true interests or intents. Bush uncritically threw in his lot with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was advertised as a peace gesture. Subsequent events have shown it to be quite the opposite, subverting the Oslo Accord and leading to more violence.

Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian relationship was destined to be the hard part of any Mideast settlement: how to divide a land that each antagonist wants for itself? In contrast, negotiating with the Arab states was easy. Treaties with Egypt and Jordan have held; the Saudis have advanced a credible peace plan; and the Arabs have lost patience generally with the Palestinians (though their anger was raised by the 2008 attacks on Gaza). In the meantime, the Iranians have dipped their oars in these roiling waters and Hezbollah and Hamas have acquired an eager collaborator in their attacks on Israel. Israel reciprocates by keeping Gaza under siege and subjecting it to bombardment and ground attack, which has not relieved the stand-off. The new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has stepped back from the agreed-upon two-state solution, while members of his coalition talk of expelling Arab citizens of Israel.

These events and all too many examples of diplomatic failure amply demonstrate that peace is not around the corner and that the United States can do little that will produce it. Peace will come only if the Israelis and Palestinians want it. Then, the United States, the neighboring Arab nations, Europe, and other world powers will have important roles to play in supporting them. Until that happens, what is the role of the United States? That is the great question facing Barack Obama and his new administration.

If the violence of both Israelis and Palestinians cannot be contained, can its contagion be isolated from the global community? Can Obama shift U.S. policy, finally objecting vigorously and effectively to Israel’s West Bank settlements while fostering in the Palestinian Authority the basic qualities of good government—security, accountability, and honesty? Israelis and Palestinians both deserve better leaders than they have, but there is little the United States can do about this except to stop kissing every cheek that presents itself.

Rereading so much of this history presents many tantalizing questions. What if President Truman had listened to General George Marshall? In recognizing Israel in 1948, Truman rejected the advice of Secretary of State Marshall, who opposed immediate recognition of Israel. Did Marshall, a World War II hero, foresee the continuing and bitter conflict between Jews and Arabs and think the United States should stand clear of it? Or (as standard accounts have it), was he in the sway of the unsympathetic Arabists at the State Department who opposed a Jewish state? Was Truman acting on humanitarian considerations, siding with the underdog? Or, as Marshall believed, was he counting Jewish-American votes in the 1948 election? Would an alternative proposal—to postpone recognition—have given the United Sates greater leverage in bringing Jews and Arabs to accept the partition and trusteeship then being debated at the United Nations? Might this strife have ended long ago with two nations at peace? That is a challenging and unanswerable question.

Alas, there are no what-ifs in history—no redoing Truman’s decision. Yet the conditions of the alliance between the United States and Israel very clearly need redoing. Is Team Obama capable of that? The United States will survive this alliance, but will Israel? That, after all, was part of Truman’s motivation.

Published in the 2009-04-24 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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