Why Kush­ner’s Peace Plan Is Doomed

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Aaron David Miller


the fall of , while in Is­rael as part of a small US team try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate an end to a par­tic­u­larly se­ri­ous and vi­o­lent cri­sis be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans, I learned that my mother’s can­cer had pro­gressed, and I re­turned home to be with her for those last pre­cious days. Al­though nei­ther re­li­gious nor ob­ser­vant, I de­cided that to honor my mother, an ex­traor­di­nary woman, I’d say kad­dish, the rit­ual prayer for those de­parted, ev­ery day for a year as per Jew­ish cus­tom.

Weeks later, after her pass­ing, I went back to join my col­leagues, who were al­ready im­mersed in Is­raeli-Pales­tinian ne­go­ti­a­tions which in­cluded Mah­moud Ab­bas and Muhammed Dahlan.

One night, dur­ing a ne­go­ti­at­ing ses­sion at the home of the US Am­bas­sador Martin Indyk, I re­al­ized that it was near­ing mid­night and I had not yet re­cited the kad­dish that day.

I whis­pered to Martin that I knew this was a di…cult call, but I won­dered whether we could take a break and do a short ser­vice.

Martin smiled and said it shouldn’t be hard to as­sem­ble ten Jews, the num­ber re­quired by Jew­ish law to form a minyan and say the kad­dish. As I looked around the room at the num­ber of Jews on Is­raeli and US del­e­ga­tions, I couldn’t help but laugh.

He was right. Be­tween our team and Is­rael’s, we made a minyan, the ten re­quired by Jew­ish law. And to­gether, we re­cited the kad­dish ser­vice as Ab­bas and Dahlan watched.

Later, Ab­bas would re­mark fa­vor­ably how ex­traor­di­nary it was that an Amer­i­can would in­ter­rupt a ne­go­ti­a­tion to honor a re­li­gious tra­di­tion and pay re­spect to his mother.

Still, over the years I’ve of­ten won­dered about the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of that kad­dish, and whether I crossed some line. De­spite their kind words, I’ve won­dered what Ab­bas and Dahlan might have re­ally been think­ing watch­ing the Is­raeli del­e­ga­tion and the Amer­i­can one — which was sup­posed to be the ob­jec­tive ne­go­tia­tors, the mid­dle ground — bond to­gether in a Jew­ish rit­ual.

Most cru­cially, I’ve won­dered about

the ob­jec­tiv­ity of Amer­i­cans Jews, who have strong at­tach­ments to Is­rael, work­ing on this prob­lem.

Is it re­ally pos­si­ble for Amer­i­can Jews work­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions to play an ob­jec­tive role?

The is­sue isn’t an aca­demic one. I told the kad­dish story to Jared Kush­ner and Ja­son Green­blatt, who helm Pres­i­dent Trump’s Mid­dle East team. Hope­fully, they’ll have no need for a kad­dish; but I couldn’t help but note that if they did, they would clearly have no prob­lem get­ting a minyan, ei­ther.

I’m not the only one to joke about this topic with them. In­ter­view­ing Kush­ner in De­cem­ber ‚ƒ„… at a fo­rum that bears his name, Haim Sa­ban, the Is­raeli-Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire and Demo­cratic donor, ob­served that the Pres­i­dent’s peace team was com­prised of “a bunch of Or­tho­dox Jews who have no idea about any­thing.”

In his half-jok­ing way, Sa­ban was bring­ing up the very ques­tion I’d asked my­self many times. Does be­ing Jew­ish, let alone Or­tho­dox, dis­qual­ify one from lead­ing or par­tic­i­pat­ing in a US team charged with me­di­at­ing a com­plex con­flict that re­quires a high bar of fair­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity to the needs of both sides?

So, have there been and are there now too many Amer­i­can Jews work­ing the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian ne­go­ti­a­tions?

Ob­jec­tiv­ity, With Al­lowances

There is no per ect, gold stan­dard for ob­jec­tiv­ity when it comes to mea­sur­ing one’s views on the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict or how best to re­solve it.

In four decades of an­a­lyz­ing this con­flict, no­body I’ve ever en­coun­tered is truly ob­jec­tive on this is­sue, what­ever that means. We are each the sum to­tal of our ex­pe­ri­ences, bi­ases, prej­u­dices and pre­judg­ments, col­lected over the years. Some­times we’re aware of them, some­times not. But they serve as a fil­ter, col­or­ing the way we per­ceive the world.

As an Amer­i­can who hap­pens to be Jew­ish, I do have a strong com­mit­ment to the sur­vival and well be­ing of Is­rael as a Jew­ish State. And as I have made clear, re­peat­edly and hon­estly over the years, that sen­si­bil­ity did in fact help shape my views on what a so­lu­tion to the con­flict might look like.

But through­out my ca­reer, my own views evolved too. I have tried to un­der­stand and rec­og­nize the bi­ases I have. I have tried to set them aside and un­der­stand the needs and re­quire­ments of Pales­tini­ans and key Arab states. I have tried to un­der­stand what it would take to gain their sup­port, what would be re­quired to cre­ate a so­lu­tion that was fair, durable and eq­ui­table.

Above all, I have strived to do what I be­lieved to be in the best in­ter­ests of the United States. That has been my prime di­rec­tive.

Still, I very much doubt that from the per­spec­tive of my Pales­tinian, Arab, and even Is­raeli in­ter­locu­tors, let alone their sup­port­ers here at home, I met their ex­pec­ta­tions. My wife Lind­say col­lected let­ters and ar­ti­cles over the years full of the worst pos­si­ble in­vec­tive di­rected at me and my col­leagues. They came from Mus­lims, Chris­tians, and es­pe­cially Jews, and called us every­thing from Jew­ish Bene­dict

Arab-Is­raeli con lict is a com­pli­cated case o com­pet­ing jus­tices, where both sides have le­git­i­mate needs, even as they both be­have in il­le­git­i­mate ways that pro­long the con lict.

Arnolds to un­apolo­getic Zion­ist tools.

While I re­ject the most ex­treme at­tacks from those who are un­able to see be­yond their nar­row worlds and prej­u­dices, I do be­lieve we could have used more bal­ance on our team, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the Clin­ton years.

We should have in­cluded ex­perts who were Amer­i­can Arabs and Mus­lims, who would have made our eorts stronger. We also too fre­quently chose to ex­clude the views of our own am­bas­sadors in the Mid­dle East who might have ar­gued the Pales­tinian case in stronger terms as we pre­pared our ne­go­ti­at­ing strat­egy.

Still, as prospec­tive me­di­a­tors, it’s re­ally not your re­li­gion or eth­nic back­ground that should mat­ter, but how you see the con­flict, and the lengths you will go to un­der­stand — hon­estly and em­pa­thet­i­cally — the re­al­i­ties on both sides, and the lengths you will go to fight for an eq­ui­table set­tle­ment.

The Mid­dle East Is Not A Fight O Good Ver­sus Bad But O Com­pet­ing Jus­tices

One thing is or cer­tain: No one who chooses sides in the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict will suc­ceed in re­solv­ing it.

This is not be­cause it’s wrong on some moral level to iden­tify and sym­pa­thize with one side over the other, but be­cause of the na­ture of the con­flict it­self. Though there are two sides to the con­flict, they both have valid and just claims, and some­one who is un­able to see that will never make head­way.

Iron­i­cally, I would learn much on this is­sue from an ob­ser­vant Jew with whom I worked closely on this is­sue since the Rea­gan Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Of all those I have en­coun­tered over the years, my close friend and men­tor Dan Kurtzer, for­mer US Am­bas­sador to Is­rael and Egypt, is per­haps the fairest, most sen­si­tive and skilled ne­go­tia­tor and an­a­lyst of this con­flict that I know. Dan’s bal­ance and fair­ness has bought him his fair share of de­trac­tors, par­tic­u­larly on the Is­raeli side. Still, his point of de­par­ture is mine as well, though we’ve ar­gued and de­bated the is­sue of the US role over the years.

We both be­lieve that the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict is not some kind of mo­ral­ity play that pits the forces of good against the forces of evil in some epic Manichean strug­gle.

Rather, the con­flict is a com­pli­cated case of com­pet­ing jus­tices, where both sides have le­git­i­mate needs and re­quire­ments, even as they (both) be­have in il­le­git­i­mate ways that pro­long the con­flict and in­flict pain on one an­other.

If you want to pick a team and root for on, go ahead. It can feel emo­tion­ally em­pow­er­ing and it’s much eas­ier to re­main in the warm com­fort of the tribe. But if the con­flict is to be man­aged and re­solved, the eort must be made to try to rec­on­cile two valid and just sets of needs. That’s much harder and re­quires some­times be­ing out in the cold and alone.

Those who make this eort — how­ever im­per­fectly be­cause nei­ther side is go­ing to get every­thing they want— are likely to have more suc­cess than those who choose to pick sides and sup­port one side over the other.

The his­tory of U.S. pol­icy has cer­tainly borne this out. When the U.S. has suc­ceeded in Arab-Is­raeli ne­go­ti­a­tions — and the set of suc­cesses has been pretty lim­ited — the US suc­ceeded in find­ing ways to de­velop pro­pos­als that all sides could ac­cept, al­beit some­times re­luc­tantly.

Fur­ther­more, when ask­ing if Amer­i­can Jews work­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions can be ob­jec­tive when it comes to Is­rael, it’s crit­i­cal to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate that ad­vis­ers ad­vise and set up op­tions and choices for their prin­ci­pals; they are rarely in a po­si­tion to make uni­lat­eral de­ci­sions on the big is­sues.

It’s worth not­ing that many of the same Jew­ish ad­vis­ers who worked for James Baker un­der the Repub­li­can Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ge­orge H. W. Bush also worked for the Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton. Cir­cum­stances were cer­tainly dier­ent. Iron­i­cally, Baker was more dis­crim­i­nat­ing in re­ject­ing ad­vice from ad­vis­ers he thought were too sup­port­ive of Is­rael, and much more amenable to be­ing tough with the Is­raelis both in pub­lic and pri­vate.

Clin­ton, on the other hand, who was truly com­mit­ted to a peace agree­ment in a way few of his pre­de­ces­sors have been, was re­luc­tant to push the Is­raelis, or the Pales­tini­ans for that mat­ter. He was more in­clined to lis­ten to the views of his ad­vis­ers, who, de­spite the best of in­ten­tions and im­pressed by how much Ehud Barak was pre­pared to oer, weren’t pre­pared to push for terms that might have pro­duced an ac­cord un­til it was too late to ne­go­ti­ate a deal, partly out of con­cern that Yasser Arafat would pocket more con­ces­sions.

Tellingly, when Clin­ton put pos­si­ble terms on the table in De­cem­ber of ™ššš which might have pro­duced an ac­cord, Arafat, hav­ing im­proved his lever­age and ac­qui­esced to and even or­ches­trated vi­o­lence, fig­ured he’d wait to see what Bush ›œ would oer.

To suc­ceed in peace­mak­ing, we need to main­tain our cred­i­bil­ity and in­de­pen­dence.

We Aren’t Is­rael’s Lawyers. We’re Sup­posed To Be Ad­vo­cates or Both Sides

No mat­ter who is ad­vis­ing the Pres­i­dent on Arab-Is­raeli peace­mak­ing, it’s es­sen­tial to un­der­stand that while the U.S. has a stun­ningly spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael based on shared val­ues and in­ter­ests (though hardly across the board), spe­cial can’t be­come ex­clu­sive.

In ™ššž, I wrote an ar­ti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post en­ti­tled “Is­rael’s Lawyer” — a term I didn’t cre­ate but drew from Henry Kissinger’s mem­oirs. Kissinger knew he couldn’t just push Is­rael’s point of view and suc­ceed. In­deed, it was Kissinger — the first Jew­ish Sec­re­tary of State — who called for a re­assess­ment of U.S. Mid­dle East pol­icy to pres­sure Yitzhak Rabin.

To suc­ceed in Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace­mak­ing, we need to main­tain our cred­i­bil­ity and in­de­pen­dence in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. That means ig­nor­ing nei­ther Is­raeli nor Pales­tinian in­ter­ests and mak­ing our own judg­ments about pos­si­ble ways to bridge gaps, while not try­ing to im­pose a so­lu­tion.

Even with our spe­cial bond with Is­rael, we need to be an ad­vo­cate for our real client: the Amer­i­can na­tional

in­ter­est which in­cludes an eq­ui­table and durable Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace.

That’s not the role the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion peace team is play­ing to­day

The prob­lem with Trump’s Mid­dle East team is not that it’s made up of “a bunch of Or­tho­dox Jews” as Sa­ban put it.

Sure, the team lacks ex­per­tise about the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict — its his­tory, pol­i­tics, and ne­go­ti­at­ing record; and no one on the team has prior gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence, or ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing im­mersed in the re­gion.

But the real prob­lem is that the team has com­pro­mised and un­der­mined Amer­ica’s abil­ity to present it­self as an e†ec­tive, hon­est bro­ker.

Trump’s team, helmed by Kush­ner, Green­blatt and David Fried­man, a bank­ruptcy lawyer, are pur­su­ing an ap­proach that hews far more closely to a Ne­tanyahu nar­ra­tive, and is not only hos­tile to a Pales­tinian one, but seeks to dis­man­tle the el­e­ments of a two state so­lu­tion, in­clud­ing on bor­ders and Jerusalem.

Now, we don’t know the de­tails of their plan. Maybe we will be sur­prised when the “ul­ti­mate deal” is put on the table.

But right now, it seems as though the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion, both in their ap­proach to­ward Is­rael and their pres­sure cam­paign against the Pales­tini­ans, are do­ing a lot of lawyer­ing for the Is­raelis — in­stead of for a deal that both can ac­cept.

Of course, now as al­ways, the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for mak­ing those de­ci­sions rests with the par­ties them­selves, and right now, you could bring back Henry Kissinger and James Baker to ne­go­ti­ate and given the gaps and mis­trust be­tween the par­ties, you still couldn’t reach a deal. Nei­ther Ne­tanyahu nor Ab­bas is will­ing or able to make de­ci­sions that will pro­duce a con­flict-end­ing so­lu­tion.

Still, if we want to have any chance of play­ing a cred­i­ble and e†ec­tive role in bring­ing peace to the Mid­dle East, we’ll have to re­turn to an ap­proach that’s far more bal­anced and in sync with the needs of both sides.

The odds of re­sum­ing se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions with this peace team and with Ne­tanyahu and Ab­bas are at best un­cer­tain and at worst slim to none.

But one thing is un­mis­tak­ably clear: If we con­tinue to take sides, pro­vid­ing Is­rael with all the honey and Pales­tini­ans with all the vine­gar, we might as well hang a “closed for the sea­son” sign on any hope for a mean­ing­ful US role in Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace­mak­ing — now and in the fu­ture.

Aaron David Miller is a vice pres­i­dent at the Woodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars and a for­mer State De­part­ment ad­viser and Mid­dle East ne­go­tia­tor in Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic Ad­min­is­tra­tions. His most re­cent book is “The End of Great­ness: Why Amer­ica Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) An­other Great Pres­i­dent.”

The real prob­lem with Trump’s team is that it has com­pro­mised and un­der­mined Amer­ica’s abil­ity to present it­sel as an e ec­tive bro­ker, let alone an hon­est one.



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