Aaron David Miller offered his take on America, Israel and the Middle East at an event Nov. 9 at Temple Beth El that was co-sponsored by the JCRC/AJC.
For two decades, Miller served in the State Department as an analyst, negotiator and adviser on Middle Eastern issues to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Between 2003 and 2006, he served as president of Seeds of Peace, a program in conflict resolution and coexistence.
Now, he is vice president for new initiatives and a Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He also is a CNN commentator.
Before the Beth El program, Miller stopped at the JN office for an interview. Here are some excerpts on a wide range of Middle East topics.
What’s your take on how Americans view prospects for Mideast peace?
“Sensible people, Jews and non-Jews, would look at the Middle East and, unless you are really interminably obtuse, you have to come to the conclusion that prospects of anything remotely resembling a peace agreement, and I choose my words very carefully — I’m talking about a conflict-ending agreement, when the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president would stand before their legislative bodies and say the following: ‘On the six core issues that drive our conflict — borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews and the end of all claims and conflict — we’re done! No more issues to be adjudicated’ — the chance of that happening is a fantasy.
“You have an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that is highly functional and has fundamentally reshaped the nature of Israeli’s security predicament in the region; and paid off huge benefits to the Egyptians as well. You can’t look at this and say they have peace in the same way we have peace with Canada or Mexico.
“If you want to understand American foreign policy, you have to understand where we are — sandwiched in between two non-predatory powers north and south. And fish to the east and west. These oceans, theses liquid assets, are key to understanding why we behave the way we do and why we continue to misunderstand what it’s like for smaller powers like Iran, Israel and Egypt, and the medium-size powers like the Chinese and Russians.
“They are trapped by history and geography in a way we will never be and that critical distinction is why we consistently don’t understand the world and what it’s like to be a tiny power …
“The thing I worry least about is Israel’s ability to take care of itself. Israel is an extraordinary country, resilient, vibrant, and it has agency. And it’s my view that Israelis don’t look at themselves as victims … without any power to act. The Israelis know how good they are at what they do. They don’t trivialize their security problems, which are significant, but that’s also important for Americans and American Jews to understand: The reality is that we live on different planets. We are not Israelis and they are not us … Israelis and Arabs are out there dealing with stuff and we’re protected.”
What is going on with Saudi Arabia in regard to Lebanon, Iran, Israel and the U.S.?
“We have never seen anything like this before; neither have the Saudis. [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed Bin Salman, MBS as he is called, is to the Saudi system what Donald Trump is to ours: a force never seen before. MBS, at home and abroad, has demonstrated a degree of risk-readiness unparalleled to any of the Saudi kings, with the exception of Abdul- aziz, who founded the kingdom …
“MBS is determined to acquire an enormous amount of power and to confront Iran and the hand of Iran through proxies anywhere he sees it.”
Is a war in Lebanon likely?
“It would be insane. Look at 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006 — the Israeli experience with Lebanon has been miserable … Hez-bollah shut down Israel for 33 days in 2006 … I would judge the odds of a major Israeli-Hezbollah war to be remote, but if you ask me what is the most likely major act of confrontation, it would be that, at some point.
“It’s part of an Iranian-Saudi cold war, which is growing increasingly hotter, and an effort by MBS to demonstrate a degree of toughness and to plan Saudi nationalism … The problem is the Saudis don’t have the assets on the ground to roll back Hezbollah or Iran’s influences. But this is one of the major themes that defines this particular period of modern Middle Eastern politics — this single rivalry.”
Can Jared Kushner help the peace process?
“I met Mr. Kushner for the first time several months ago and I said to him, ‘I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as yours seems to have in you. He’s given you ‘mission impossible.’ I wish the guy well. We worked on this for 20-plus years; let the Trump administration give it a whirl.”