Miller busts myths about U.S. policy on Israel

Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Aaron David Miller continues his five-day Interfaith Lecture Series titled “Religion, Culture and Diplomacy” with an examination of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Thursday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy.

In Aaron David Miller’s view, there is no subject that suffers from more confusion or more controversy than the relationship between the domestic politics of the United States and its policies on Israel.

“Some of it, I would argue to you, is willful misunderstanding and advocacy,” he said. “Much of it is simply a lack of exposure and experience.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy, Miller delivered his fourth Interfaith Lecture of the week, a discussion on six “myths” he has encountered surrounding U.S.-Israeli relations and how U.S. policies on Israel are formed. Miller is currently the vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He worked for 26 years in the U.S. Department of State as an intelligence analyst, a policy maker and a negotiator.

“Myth No. 1: The White House — no matter under what president — is Israeli-occupied territory,” Miller said. “This notion that American Jews, in collusion with millions of evangelical Christians … have essentially taken American foreign policy hostage … is not only wrong and not supported by the historical evidence, [but] it is a dangerous trope, a dark conceit.”

The notion that a minority group can take a nation’s foreign policy hostage is false, he said. Historically, willful, committed presidents have trumped domestic politics and political interests on the issue of Israel every time.

What Miller calls the three “great breakthroughs” in the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process — Henry Kissinger’s Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Treaties, Jimmy Carter’s Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the efforts by George H.W. Bush and James Baker to prepare the Madrid Conference — all involved tension between the U.S., Israel and pro-Israeli constituents. In each case, the American diplomats succeeded in realizing their goals.

“Myth No. 2: The U.S.-Israeli relationship … rests on shared values alone,” he said.

Even though shared values are likely the most important factor in maintaining the relationship between the two countries, Miller said, two others that need to be included in the discussion are the country’s common national interests and pro-Israeli lobbying.

The third myth Miller discussed was that all lobbying is evil.

It can be dangerous and corrupted by money, he said, but lobbying is an unavoidable part of America’s inherently competitive political system. In the end, it is the president’s responsibility to find balance among all the competing interests and execute the best foreign policy possible.

Miller’s four myth was that the president is forced into policies by his or her Jewish advisers.

No matter what an adviser thinks, Miller said, whatever happens in foreign policy is always based on decisions made by the president, the secretary of state and the national security adviser.

“Bill Clinton took our advice in terms of how we should present ourselves at [the Camp David Summit] because of his own predilections, because of his own convictions, because of who he was,” Miller said. “The same people also worked for George W. Bush, and the policies came out in a way much different.”

The fifth myth Miller discussed was that American Jews play a key role in influencing American policy in regard to the peace process.

“If you want to talk about somebody who has influence on an American president … it’s the Israeli prime minister,” Miller said.

What pro-Israel lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or J Street want from the president will always be peripheral to the interests of the Israeli prime minister, Miller said. What matters is whether or not an American president can establish a relationship with the Israeli prime minister and identify mutual objectives, pushing those objectives with incentives at some times and disincentives at others.

The final myth was that the president can always have his or her way, which Miller said he would discuss in more detail during his Friday lecture.

“Out of 43 different presidents, we’ve had three undeniably great ones,” he said, noting George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “And they’re not coming back. And tomorrow I’m going to try to explain why, and why we have to get over the fact that the president cannot be a combination of Clint Eastwood on one hand, Michael Douglas on the other and, of course, Harrison Ford.”