Aaron David Miller Shares His Unique Perspective With Heart of a Nation

A lifetime of engagement informs his comments on the Biden Administration’s priorities

Shelley Greenspan: I’m a senior foreign affairs officer at the State Department and it’s really an honor to introduce our guest speaker. Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For two and a half decades, Aaron served at the State Department as a historian, analyst, negotiator, and advisor to five Presidents and six Secretaries of State where he helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.

Aaron David Miller: Thank you Shelley. Heart of a Nation is an extraordinary enterprise, and I’d be willing to do everything I possibly can to support it. Time is short so let me make four or five basic observations.

No president gets to do everything, so governing is about choosing. The prime directive that guides this administration is fixing America’s broken house. There is not a single foreign policy issue out there, or any combination of issues, that presents a greater threat to this Presidency or to this Republic, than the challenges we face at home. That leaves a relatively narrow bandwidth for serious presidential involvement in foreign policy.

In the Middle East, the most important priority for this Administration, without a doubt, is re-entering the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In large part, because it is the only issue out there that can threaten and distract a remarkably busy president from his real priority, which is fixing America’s broken house.

The Palestinian issue, to which I’ve devoted most of my professional career, is clearly not a priority for the Biden Administration, but the Hotel California principle clearly is at work here: You can check out of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but as the May Crisis demonstrated, you can never leave it.

I also devoted most of my professional life to believing that there was a conflict-ending solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Where both sides would say, “There are no more claims to be adjudicated, our conflict is over.” It’s exceedingly difficult for me to believe that those words will be spoken anytime soon. Which means you need a longer-term strategy which is composed of two elements. One is transactional, which only empowered governments can do, and the second is transformational, which involves fundamentally changing attitudes.

I ran Seeds of Peace for three years, and I know that attitudes can change, it’s about saving the world one person at a time. It is imperative that such transformational activities continue, and Heart of a Nation has an important role to play here. Transformational change is possible, but you must approach this with your eyes wide open.

Halie Soifer: I am CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and a proud member of the Editorial Committee of Heart of a Nation. How do you assess the relationship between Israel and the Democratic party and how can Joe Biden make progress toward a two-state solution given how politicized that issue became in the last Administration?

Miller: Halie, it’s really good seeing you, and I really appreciate the work that you do.

Never have I seen a relationship — and it’s not just as a consequence of the last four years — that has become more fraught, or more at risk.

The Republican party has tried to make itself the go-to party on Israel. They want to demonize and undermine the notion that the Democratic Party offers anything more than grudging support for the State of Israel.

The Administration is caught in the middle. They’re trying to navigate a course between a Republican Party that wants to use Israel as a political issue, and a deeply divided Democratic Party. Divided because of generational changes that have occurred. Divided because the image of Israel is changing in the mind of America. I don’t think there’s any question about that. David has long ago been replaced with Goliath in the minds of many people who know the issue well.

But this isn’t some kind of morality play, pitching the forces of goodness, the Palestinians, against the forces of darkness, the Israelis. This conflict exemplifies Goethe’s definition of a tragedy: Two competing justices. There are profound flaws, imperfections, and faults on both sides, which accounts for the continuation of the conflict — despite the asymmetry of power.

The Administration is trying to figure out a way to navigate a course which takes it off the hook by getting the Government of Israel to change some of its policies, which would lessen tensions within the Democratic Party and diminish the advantages the Republicans have for exploiting tensions and demonizing those Democrats — looped together under the Progressive banner — in what I call the other Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Aziz Abu Sarah: My name is Aziz Abu Sarah, I’m a Palestinian activist and I run a company called MEJDI Tours which innovates dual-narrative experiences in Israel and Palestine. What can be done to bring about changes within the Palestinian Authority, or push for changes, given that the U.S. is renewing financial support for the PA?

Miller: It would be nice to see the Biden administration take a more balanced view. If they’re going to hammer the Israelis on occupation practices, they can certainly press the Palestinian Authority on state security courts, arbitrary punishment, and respect for human rights. But in large part, this is a question of internal change generated by internal actors. Not by external ones.

Amanda Wilkerson: My name is Amanda Wilkerson. I’m African American and a Democratic Party activist who’s visited Israel and Palestine. How much of his own time, if any, you expect President Biden to invest in Middle East peace-making?

Miller: It’s a fascinating question, Amanda, because it cuts to the core of what U.S. policy is going to be. They have an incredibly talented national security team. The next six months will be determinative as to whether or not this Administration is able to carry out its domestic agenda. If you were to give me a choice and say: “Joe Biden could solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem,” or “Joe Biden could begin to fix America’s broken house and lay the predicate for a second term,” despite my passion and attachment to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as an American, I would choose fixing America’s house. Barring some major event that either makes this problem more tractable — or, more likely, some violent act or series of acts which makes the situation qualitatively and quantitatively worse than anything we’ve seen — I think the President will try mightily to stay out of it.

Leore Dayan, a journalist and the grandson of Moshe Dayan, sent in the following question: How you see the relationship between Israel and Egypt, on the one hand, and Israel and Jordan on the other, since the United States has invested so much in those ties. What will happen with those relationships over the next couple of years?

Miller: It’s fine that the Emiratis, the Sudanese, the Moroccans, the Bahrainis, have relations with Israel. But the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was a fundamental strategic change. The Israeli Jordanian peace treaty was a fundamental change. One relationship is in reasonably good shape: Israel-Egypt. And Sisi, despite the preternatural human rights abuses of the Egyptian regime, has once again demonstrated his importance to the United States by brokering the May 20 ceasefire.

The other relationship is not in good shape. I think the Trump administration took it for granted. King Abdullah did not agree with Jared Kushner’s notion of ignoring the Palestinian problem. This Administration, especially Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, who served as Ambassador to Jordan, understands the importance of the U.S.-Jordanian relationship. So does Jake Sullivan, Tony Blinken, and the President as well.

I will only say one more thing: Whenever you need me, please call. You’re doing an extraordinary thing. It’s unbelievably ambitious. It’s incredibly important.

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