Arab-Israeli Peace: A 'Much Too Promised Land'?

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David Aaron Miller

For two decades, David Aaron Miller served as an adviser to six secretaries of state and helped formulate U.S. policy on the Arab-Israel peace process. Connie Reider hide caption

itoggle caption Connie Reider

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, talks about his new book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. Miller details the conflict in the Middle East and America's role in the peace efforts. He believes that peace in the region is still possible — and he explains why.

Miller is a Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served for two decades in the Department of State as an adviser to six secretaries of state.

Excerpt: The Much Too Promised Land

Much Too Promised Land Book Cover

Chapter One

A Negotiator's Tale

The room was packed. Secretary Baker's press secretary and close advisor, Margaret Tutwiler, had seen to that. Late Friday afternoon in Jerusalem-usually a time of quiet preparation for the Jewish Sabbath-had suddenly seen a frenzy of excitement. As scores of journalists had gathered in the banquet hall of the King David Hotel to await the arrival of the American secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, anticipation was high.

The two men now entering the hall could not have represented a greater contrast in style or power. Boris Pankin, clad in a dark boxy Soviet-era suit out of the 1950s, embodied a once great empire in decline. Hungry for prestige and respectability, the Russians seemed not to care that they were being used as a decorative ornament in a ceremony orchestrated by the United States. And if they did care, they weren't complaining.

By contrast, Secretary of State James Addison Baker III was riding high. Tall and self-assured, he wore a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and a trademark boldly colored tie. He had reason to be confident. Baker represented a country that was enjoying unprecedented influence in a region still shaken by America's lightning military victory over Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

On that late Friday afternoon, October 18, 1991, Baker and Pankin, on behalf of their presidents, Bush and Gorbachev, announced that formal invitations would be sent to Israel and to the Arabs to attend a historic peace conference in Madrid. That fall the United States was the only great power in an arc of small ones that stretched from Rabat to Karachi. If there was to be an American moment in the Middle East, this was surely it. And Baker knew that the moment might not last long. Later that day in Jerusalem he would quip with characteristic caution, "Boys, if you want to get off the train, now might be a good time because it could all be downhill from here."

I had no intention of getting off the train. For me the ride was only just beginning. The nine-month period of nonstop diplomacy in the run-up to the Madrid conference had been the most exciting time of my professional life. A dozen years had passed since Jimmy Carter's heroic success in bringing Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to a peace agreement. And while holding a peace conference of procedures like Madrid was certainly not the same as achieving a peace treaty of consequence between Egypt and Israel, it was still the most important breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peacemaking in more than a decade. To me, Madrid was reason enough to believe that with enough will and determination, American diplomacy could fashion something positive and hopeful from the raw material of a turbulent changing region. And I could become part of it. I had become a believer.

Banking on No

As I look back now, it astonishes me that I ever got into the business of negotiations and diplomacy. Changing the world was definitely part of my family's history, but while I was growing up, it wasn't part of my personal temperament or interest. Born into an affluent Cleveland real estate family, I had parents and grandparents who were leaders in both the Jewish and the secular communities. During the 1950s my grandfather Leonard Ratner had been active in Zionist politics and philanthropy and would count Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and its fourth, Golda Meir, as personal friends. Leonard was an extraordinary man, an immigrant from Poland, one of nine brothers and sisters, who with piety, love of family, and an uncanny business acumen had sought his fortune in America, made one in the lumber and later the real estate business. My grandfather's love of Judaism and family was rivaled only by his passion for service to the community. He would talk to me endlessly about the importance of the Talmudic concept of tikkun olam, or "fixing the world." I'd listen respectfully, wondering most of the time what it had to do with me.

My father, Sam, a brilliant, driven man, was as tough, smart, and intimidating as anyone I'd ever known. Born to Russian immigrant parents, he'd served in the navy at Guadalcanal, then went to Harvard, married my mother, and entered the family real estate business, where his toughness and smarts made him an indispensable asset in dealing with the unions and zoning boards. Like so many second-generation American Jews, he was captivated by Israel's stunning military victory in 1967. Unlike most, he struck up close personal ties with Israeli prime ministers Begin and Rabin. A masterful fund-raiser for Cleveland's Jewish community and for Israel, he used persuasion, and, when needed, pressure. According to one story, he camped all night long outside the hotel room of a reluctant donor until the guy came up with an appropriate pledge for the United Jewish Appeal.

My father's view of the world was a grim one. And while he was tied deeply to America and its promise of success, his Jewish identity also ran deep. For him, the dark cloud of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were ever present. He once challenged my brothers, sister, and me to name three of our non-Jewish friends who would hide us in the event the Nazis took over America. No matter how hard we tried, we could never win this game. To my father, Israel and the Jews were constantly in jeopardy, and in the end they could rely only on themselves. That in his later years he has emerged as a key philanthropist in both the Catholic and the black communities is a testament to a broader worldview not evident then. But growing up I remember him as a guy for whom the glass, at least when it came to what non-Jews would do for Jews, was half empty at best.

If my father's view of the world was based on what was probable, my mother Ruth's was based on its possibilities. She was a remarkable woman, way ahead of her time. Having never finished college, she went back for a Ph.D. in educational psychology. Active in Cleveland city politics as health director and community development director, she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1980 and was active at the national level in Republican Party politics, representing the United States abroad on women's issues and serving on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. She later went on to represent the family's real estate interests in Washington and to lead its development of downtown Cleveland.

For my mother, nothing was impossible. She saw life as a glass neither half full nor half empty but filling every day with new challenges, setbacks, and opportunities. What mattered in life, according to my mother, was how you handled these challenges. She taught me to look for the good in people, to accept their imperfections, and to believe in the capacity of human beings to change for the better.

Since I had powerful parents and grandparents who had a history of doing something about the world's problems rather than just talking about them, I of course shied away from anything to do with such aims. When I was thirteen, I made an obligatory bar mitzvah trip to Israel, and I made another with friends as part of a European excursion at twenty-one. My parents even created opportunities for me to meet important Israelis. During that second trip to Israel I attended a Druze wedding party in the hills near Haifa as the guest of my parents' friend Avraham Yoffe, one of Israel's storied military heroes in the 1956 Suez campaign. One of the other invitees was a slim and energetic Ariel Sharon, then commander of Israel's Southern Front, who arrived by jeep and within minutes was hugging and kissing the relatives as if he were a member of the family. At lunch I watched our Druze hosts crack the skull of a young lamb and offer its brains to the special guests. Sharon and Yoffe were eating and appeared to be enjoying themselves, so I had no choice. It was my first but not my last culinary adventure in the Holy Land.

Nonetheless I steered clear of anything that was either serious or political in nature, or that required a commitment. In fact, my parents nicknamed me Hamlet because they saw me as indecisive, contemplative, and rarely engaged. Growing up, I cared about only two things: playing tennis and reading history-in that order. Instead of doing something useful or educational during the summers, I played tournaments, taught tennis, or just goofed off. When my hope to compete in tennis at the college level went bust, I fell back on academics, specifically the pursuit of a Ph.D. in American history.

To this day, the exact reason for my professional interest in the Middle East is still not clear. I was Jewish and had been to Israel a couple of times, but I was by no means active or interested in Jewish or Zionist politics. My entry point into the Middle East was undoubtedly my Jewish upbringing and family connections. But I knew that mine was a narrow view of the region, seen from a highly skewed perspective. When it came to Israel, I had never been all that comfortable with the insular and exclusive Jewish vantage points of much of the Jewish community and of my parents. I saw myself as an American who happened to be Jewish, not the other way around. Nor did I like the tendency to divide the world into Jews and non-Jews and to assume the worst about the latter. Intellectually and emotionally pulled by the secular non-Jewish world, I was open to a vantage point that was broader and more complex. A fair amount of my discontent was the natural rebellious soul-searching of a twenty-something acting out against parental controls and values. But it felt good, and it was something I owned.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I had taken a couple of Middle East history courses from Richard Mitchell, a former Foreign Service officer who had written the authoritative study on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. I'm sure it's still true for college kids today: there are people whom you meet along the way, outside friends and family, who can have a real impact on you and who, at the risk of sounding dramatic, can change your life. Dick Mitchell was one of those people. He was a real character-a goateed, chain-smoking, sandal-wearing, sheikhlike figure who attracted both Arab students and controversy. His office in Haven Hall was like a Middle East hooka or shisha bar. It smelled of tobacco (and the pungent scent of people who are not accustomed to using either deodorant or cologne). A soft-spoken, gentle man, Dick was open to new ideas and steeped in very old traditions. With his stooped posture and furrowed brow, he seemed at times literally burdened and bent by the weight of the Middle East history that he loved to pass on to his captivated students. To me, with my Jewish background, he became a kind of Pied Piper, telling stories that led me down the dim and narrow alleyways, through the bazaars and coffeehouses of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, all the while never leaving Ann Arbor. Dick Mitchell pushed me out of my comfort zone into a virtual world of danger and possibility.

Well into work on a master's degree in American Civil War history, I began to have doubts about whether I wanted to teach American history, or even to teach at all. Frankly, I was bored. Studying Appomattox was fine but, as I thought about it, not nearly as alluring as the worlds of Arabia and Arafat. Moreover, the two professors at Michigan who influenced me most, Mitchell and Gerald Linderman, a historian of Americans at war, had both been Foreign Service officers before entering academia. Linderman, like Mitchell, was soft-spoken and thoughtful, possessed of the quiet confidence born only from years of practical and difficult experience. Gerry had been part of the American team that had opened the consulate in Kaduna, Nigeria. Both of these guys taught not merely from lecture notes and libraries but from recollections of their experiences and adventures abroad. The more I considered their pathway, the more sense it made to me. Why not offer students something more than book knowledge? I decided then that I needed to have some of those adventures.

In negotiations with the history department, represented by Mitchell and Bradford Perkins, a well-known historian of American diplomancy, we cut the following deal: if I could learn two Near Eastern languages (choosing from Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, or Hebrew) and pass preliminary exams in three fields of Middle Eastern study, the potentates would allow me to earn a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history. What initially seemed to me like a well-thought-out plan was really a leap into the unknown.

The truth is, I really had no idea what I was doing, or what I was getting myself into. How I thought I'd manage this transition-the new languages and fields of study-without any structure or guidance, I don't know. Staying in Ann Arbor, taking courses, and studying languages would have made more sense. But that would have been too rational. Risk-averse by nature, I pushed myself to become risk-ready. In 1973 there was only one place in the world where Arabic and Hebrew (my two choices) were spoken and studied seriously, and that was Jerusalem. I was married that May, and a week later my wife, Lindsay, and I, together with two footlockers containing two hundred books, moved to Jerusalem.

That year transformed us and pushed me in unanticipated directions. The Arab-Israeli conflict, I discovered, really did have two sides. It's hard to imagine now, but in 1973 you could still take a rickety blue bus from the central Arab bus station in East Jerusalem to Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron in relative safety. And we rode that bus, meeting Palestinians from the West Bank. These encounters-one in particular with a young man from the village of Battier south of Bethlehem-were not political but personal. We took long walks with Salih, whose tanned leathery skin made him appear much older than he was. Salih had soft brown eyes and a high-pitched voice, and when he laughed, which he did constantly, his entire wiry frame seemed to shake to its core. He made sure to keep our conversations far from politics, and we were only too happy to oblige him. We ventured to his village and got to know his large family, who greeted us with a warmth and hospitality we never forgot. Later that year we brought Lindsay's parents and grandfather to Battier-quite an adventure for the three of them.

Through these encounters I became familiar with at least part of the Palestinian story, which took its place alongside the Israeli narrative that was already fairly well ingrained in my consciousness. And I began to understand that whether by circumstance or design, Israel was an occupying power. That occupation was then only six years old, in its infancy really. In 1973 no more than several thousand Israelis lived in the West Bank and Gaza, and the Israelis had built few checkpoints, guard towers, bypass roads, or military installations. Even then Palestinians were hardening in response. As Salih's older brother, a teacher, made clear in a quiet but determined manner, "The Israelis will not be able to stay on our land."

Excerpted from The Much Too Promised Land by Aaron David Miller Copyright © 2008 by Aaron David Miller. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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The Much Too Promised Land

America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace

by Aaron David Miller

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