Sean Durns
Sean Durns

Groundhog Day for Middle East ‘peace processers’

If, as the saying goes, “nothing breeds success like success,” it is equally true that, as far as much of the DC foreign policymaking elite is concerned, “nothing breeds arrogance like failure.” Writing in POLITICO Magazine, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky proclaim that “elections have consequences” and herald that new US President Joe Biden “will end the Trump sugar high for Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Both Miller and Sokolsky have decades of public service to their credit, serving in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Their years of service should be commended. But both, regrettably, have failed to learn either from their experience or from recent events.

First, Miller and Sokolsky assert that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have the “two biggest egos” in the Middle East. While certainly subjective—and prime ministers and princes are not usually known for their humility—this claim omits the dictatorship in Tehran, where both the power and likeness of Iran’s self-styled “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are omnipresent.

It is unsurprising that the two analysts omitted Khamenei. The rest of their op-ed reveals an inability to recognize the strategic challenges that confront the United States in the Middle East.

Iran is the main threat plaguing the U.S. in the region. Long listed as a chief state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic has, in recent years alone, plotted to blow up a restaurant in Washington D.C., murdered U.S. servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan, planned attacks at major U.S. airports and power grids, and sheltered and supplied both Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the progenitor of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Tehran has also acted as arguably the greatest imperialist power in the world, with its proxies seizing power in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and, to a different extent, Syria.

While Iran lacks the conventional military power of previous U.S. adversaries like the Soviet Union, it has shown no great reluctance to export its ideology and to act as a foil against the West. The U.S. won the Cold War against the Soviets thanks in part to regional alliances and allies—both democratic and undemocratic alike. Allies are also required to fight back against Iran. As Middle East analyst Mike Doran observed in a Feb. 4, 2021 Wall Street Journal op-ed: a “normal policy” in the region “would respect the fundamental commandment of statecraft: strengthen friends and punish enemies.” While this dictum seems like common sense, it escapes Miller and Sokolsky, both of whom incorrectly assert that when it comes to the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and Israel: “Never in the history of U.S. relations with either country has so much been given with so little asked for in return—and with so much bad behavior swept under the rug.”

Indeed, a key part of the Trump administration’s strategy was to rely on these regional allies to counter Iran—all while seeking to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. And both Israel and the Saudis have been fighting Iran and its proxies in battlefields across the Middle East.

The two analysts also assert: “Without making Israel earn U.S. favors with any concessions of its own, the Trump administration orchestrated a campaign of maximum pressure on Iran; declared Jerusalem Israel’s capital and opened an embassy there; turned a blind eye to Israel’s settlement expansion; recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; promulgated a peace plan that all but conceded 30 percent of the West Bank to Israel before negotiations with Palestinians had even begun; downgraded U.S. diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority; drastically curtailed U.S. assistance to the Palestinian people; and perhaps most significantly, made a major effort to facilitate normalization between Israel, the Gulf states and other Arab countries.”

Trump, however, didn’t “declare” Jerusalem to be “Israel’s capital.” He merely recognized reality and implemented the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act—a two-decades old piece of Congressional legislation, passed with bipartisan support, which acknowledged that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state. Recognizing “Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights” was similarly recognizing reality as well as the strategic need to deny a key area to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran. Would Miller and Sokolsky have preferred that the Golan go to the genocidal Assad—thus rewarding another state sponsor of terror who helped ferry men and material to murder Americans in Iraq? Had the Golan gone to Syria in the 1990s—something which many of Miller’s colleagues pushed for—it would’ve likely wound up in the hands of ISIS.

Nor did the administration “downgrade U.S. diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority.” Rather, the PA itself effectively chose to do so when it refused to stop paying salaries to terrorists and declined to resolve outstanding issues in bilateral negotiations—actions which violated the Oslo Accords that Miller, among others, helped broker.

Finally, it is true that the Trump administration helped foster peace between Israel and several Muslim nations. But it is odd to view this as a “gift from the United States.” Not only do the Abraham Accords help shore up U.S. collective security in the region—thus serving American regional interests—but peace between Israel and Arab states is a longstanding objective of the United States. Indeed, it was also one of the chief goals of self-styled “peace processers” like Miller who tried for three decades and, with the exception of Jordan (whose Hashemite rulers had secret relations with Israelis that predated the Jewish state’s formal recreation in 1948), failed to achieve it.

Three-plus decades of “peace processing” and very little peace to show for it. One can’t begrudge Miller and his like-minded colleagues for trying, but one can certainly lament their remarkable inability to learn from their failures.

Miller and Sokolsky also lament U.S. arms sales to the Gulf allies, done, in part as part of the Abraham peace process. Yet, as CAMERA has noted, arms sales were part of previous peace agreements. Indeed, American military aid to Egypt, promised as part of a peace deal with Israel, was among the largest in U.S. history. That aid wasn’t meant just as a reward for reaching peace with the Jewish state—it was also meant to assist a U.S. ally in the war against Soviet aggression. Similarly, military aid to the Gulf states is also meant to help counter Iranian imperialism.

Elsewhere, the two analysts speculate that a “reset” in relations with the Kingdom and Israel “would likely focus on injecting real accountability for actions Israel takes on the ground toward Palestinians and some conditionality with respect to U.S. assistance should Israel ignore American expectations.”

Biden, they suggest, could “call for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opposing all construction beyond the 1967 lines, including east Jerusalem, as inconsistent with international law. The U.S. would not expend effort defending Israel in the U.N. and other international organizations from actions resulting from its settlement activities. And Washington would enforce its longstanding determination that no U.S. government funds could be used to support settlement activity and establish a monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with this requirement. Biden would also make clear that any Israeli initiative designed to annex territory would result in severe consequences, including a potential cut-off of assistance or recognition of Palestinian statehood.”

How innovative!

To a great extent this laundry list is a repeat of the Obama administration strategy which, as Shany Mor noted in a recent Mosaic article, was the first in decades to fail to produce substantiative Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. By any and all accounts: it failed. Such actions only alienated a key ally while simultaneously emboldening shared enemies like Iran and Assad. But why bother learning from failures—why start now?

As Mor observed, American peace processers like Miller have shown that they are more motivated by moral impulses than policies informed by reality and history. With decades of failures to their credit, their advice reads more like a list of what not to do and can—and should—be safely ignored.

The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis

About the Author
Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for the Washington D.C. office of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
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