“I never thought I would see the relationship between Israel and the United States used as a stick to hit people over the head,” or that there would be a “litmus test on what it means to be pro-Israel.” Those were the words of Aaron David Miller, former U.S. State Department analyst and Middle East negotiator under six secretaries of state.
Now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Miller spoke to about 70 American Jews at the Tillie & Max Stein Family Lecture series held March 3 at Congregation Or Hadash.
Miller not only shared his observations about the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community, he brought his insight from 25 years at the State Department, much of it focused on the Middle East, which ended in 2003 when Colin Powell was Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.
A trained historian, Miller attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with Ken Stein, who set up the lecture series to honor his parents.
Miller revealed what he learned from traveling on the negotiators’ highway.
“For the last 17 years, I’ve been trying to define what we did right and what we did wrong,” he said.
For instance, he no longer believes that solving the Israel-Palestine issue would resolve all the issues in the Middle East. Miller noted that there are only three highly functional countries in the region: Israel, Iran and Turkey, all of which are non-Arab. Repeatedly, Miller pointed out that the frame of reference of large countries, such as the United States, is very different from that of small countries like Israel.
“The United States is distinguished by being sandwiched between two non-predatory nations,” Mexico and Canada – and fish – he said, referring to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “No other nation in the world has such a luxury.”
Since he’s left the State Department, through books, articles and TV appearances, Miller said his goal has been to help people understand how difficult it is for the United States to find its way in a very broken, dysfunctional part of the world. Using the self-definition of late President John F. Kennedy, Miller calls himself an “idealist without illusion.”
He believes that what is important in negotiations, and in marriage, is finding the balance between the way a person wants the world to be and how it really is. And while he urges the American Jewish community to conceptualize the Middle East conflict more broadly, he recognizes how difficult it is because it’s “a very vocal, passionate community.”
In fact, he stated that he believes American Jews worry too much about U.S. support for Israel. He called it the “cosmic oy vey.” American Jews have a deep suspicion that the United States would sell out Israel, but he thinks the exact opposite is true. “This country has always been supportive of Israel. And when the Republican Party or the Democratic Party becomes the go-to party [for Israel], you can kiss the U.S.-Israeli relationship goodbye. I worry when one party thinks it’s the most pro-Israel party and denigrates the other party.”
When asked about his view of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which held its annual conference days before he spoke in Atlanta, Miller cited that a problem arose when AIPAC transitioned to lobbying the executive branch rather than Congress. “The relationship that counts is the one between the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president,” he said. “And I’m concerned that the current prime minister and the current president have willfully tried to turn the Republican Party into the go-to party on Israel. Bipartisanship is what makes the U.S.-Israeli relationship special.”
In his introduction to the speaker, Stein explained that the goal of the Stein Family Lecture series was to bring to Atlanta “smart people who know what they’re talking about, who are pragmatic and not left or right. The acid test is whether my mother and father would want to be here tonight.”
He added that he wanted people to walk out after Miller’s talk, and say, “I didn’t know that.”