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Israel's Lawyer

By Aaron David Miller
Monday, May 23, 2005

I'm not a lawyer by training, but I know one when I see one. For far too long, many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel's attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations. If the United States wants to be an honest and effective broker on the Arab-Israeli issue, than surely it can have only one client: the pursuit of a solution that meets the needs and requirements of both sides.

The case for Israel-first advocacy is compelling. Israelis live in a dangerous neighborhood; they have only one real friend and critically important security requirements that the United States is committed to furthering. Practically speaking, Israel sits on land the Arabs want, so without Israel's trust and confidence there can be no peace process.

Having worked for the past six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, I believe in the importance of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship. Paradoxically, it is our intimacy with the Israelis that gives America -- only America -- the capacity to be an honest and effective broker. Arab governments have come to accept this reality. That is why -- even now -- when our credibility is so diminished in the region, they continue to press for U.S. engagement.

In fact, the Arabs may well understand something we have forgotten. When we have used our diplomacy wisely and functioned as advocates and lawyers for both sides, we have succeeded. In the history of U.S. peacemaking, only three Americans have managed to play this role effectively. Two secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and James Baker, gained Israel's trust but met Arab needs as well in brokering the disengagement agreements of the 1970s and the Madrid conference in 1991. President Jimmy Carter employed the same two-client approach in mediating the 1978 Camp David accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Unfortunately, too often we lose sight of the need to be advocates for both Arabs and Israelis. The most recent example of this was the Clinton administration's effort in 1999-2000 to broker final deals between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.

With the best of motives and intentions, we listened to and followed Israel's lead without critically examining what that would mean for our own interests, for those on the Arab side and for the overall success of the negotiations. The "no surprises" policy, under which we had to run everything by Israel first, stripped our policy of the independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking. If we couldn't put proposals on the table without checking with the Israelis first, and refused to push back when they said no, how effective could our mediation be? Far too often, particularly when it came to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, our departure point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides but what would pass with only one -- Israel.

This critique should not diminish then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's boldness at Camp David or Yasser Arafat's failure to negotiate seriously there. But the primary issue was neither Barak's generosity nor Arafat's perfidy; instead, the emphasis should have been on assessing, coldly and objectively, what it would take to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides. If we knew the gaps were too large (and we suspected they were), we should have resisted Barak's pressure to go for a make-or-break summit and then blame the Palestinians when it failed. What we ended up doing was advocating Israel's positions before, during and after the summit.

The "who lost Camp David" debate isn't worth having anymore. What is of value is learning lessons for the future. And one lesson is that there should be no inherent contradiction between our special relationship with Israel and our capacity to be an effective broker in Arab-Israeli negotiations. We can still be Israel's close friend and work with Israelis and Palestinians to ensure that the needs of both sides are met. In this regard, the Bush administration is not off to a particularly good start. It has been exceedingly deferential to Israel's political and security needs without any equivalent sensitivity to the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who has all the right instincts and intentions but needs our help.

Yet none of this is fatal. Abbas's visit to Washington this week will offer an opportunity to begin this process, perhaps with the same kind of letter of assurance on core Palestinian needs that President Bush gave to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year on Israeli needs. Beyond this, once Gaza withdrawal is secured and Palestinians can effectively control terrorism and violence, the administration must recalibrate its role -- lawyering now for both sides: Palestinians need a settlements freeze and a pathway to permanent-status negotiations; Israelis need a comprehensive end to Palestinian terrorism, violence and incitement.

If the administration is prepared to be tough, fair, and an advocate for both Israelis and Palestinians, it may find itself with a real opportunity not only to make Gaza work but also to move on and lay the basis for two states living alongside one another in peace and security. None of this will come quickly or easily, but then nothing of real value in life usually does. Just ask Kissinger, Carter and Baker.

The writer worked at the State Department for 25 years as a Middle East negotiator and adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs.

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