This has been quite a period in the political echo chamber on Middle East peacemaking. First, in a piece entitled “The False Religion of Mideast Peace,” former American peace negotiator Aaron David Miller made a policy argument proclaiming that he no longer believed in the power of the U.S. to craft peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Then, leading American Jewish supporters both of Israel and President Obama engaged in one of the more personal bouts of political finger pointing in recent memory.
On the policy substance, Miller was both provocative and challenging.
In a piece he wrote for Foreign Policy on April 19, Miller stated that Middle East peace “true believers” should “… re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The U.S. needs to do what it can… but America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.” As I’ve written on these pages before, the U.S. has a national security interest in forging Middle East peace. Yet as Miller correctly points out, it is facing serious limitations in its ability to do this, in my view largely because of the fallout we’re still experiencing as a result of the disastrous Middle East policies of the Bush Administration.
Miller is no novice on this topic. He is one of the titans of American diplomacy towards the Middle East, having served on multiple State Department negotiating teams for the Bush and Clinton presidencies. His words concern me because he’s been there. He’s always been a true believer in Middle East peace. His loss of confidence should make us all contemplate how high our expectations should be about peacemaking.
Yet whether our expectations are too high, as Miller argues, or whether efforts on all sides have fallen short, supporters of Obama, friends of Israel, and friends of peace ought to wonder whether punishing, divisive rhetoric ultimately serves their position – or whether it undermines the willingness of the larger American political community to take risks for peace and for Israel.
This is where the politics comes in.
Earlier, in an April15 letter to the New York Times, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami waded into the policy debate by saying that “An analysis of the Obama administration’s calculus on Middle East policy should reflect that many in the Jewish community recognize that resolving the conflict is not only necessary to secure Israel’s future, but also critical to regional stability and American strategic interests.” This view echoed remarks made not only by the president and vice-president, but also by General David Petraeus and many other American national security leaders.
Apparently this realistic assessment was too much for Alan Dershowitz, who lashed out.
Dershowitz proclaimed on April 21 in Huffington Post that “J Street has gone over to the dark side.” He followed by saying that J Street “…claims to be ‘a pro-Israel, pro peace lobby.’ It has now become neither. Its Executive Director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has joined the off key chorus of those who falsely claim that Israel, by refusing to make peace with the Palestinians, is placing the lives of American soldiers at risk.”
This isn’t what Ben-Ami said. And in turn, he reacted harshly, placing a piece in the Huffington Post stating “Alan Dershowitz, you are wrong on the merits of America’s strategic interest in making peace in the Middle East. You will lose in the court of public opinion and in the national policy debate. But more important you are wrong to press the ‘case for Israel’ in this way. Engaging in these sorts of attacks will not only set back the cause of peace and security for Israel, it will ultimately undermine the strength of the U.S.-Israel friendship.”
When policy and politics mix, it’s combustible, and taking sides matters. Yet are Dershowitz and Ben-Ami on such different sides? You may not know it, but Dershowitz, who supports a two state solution, endorsed candidate Obama for president against John McCain. As he stated in his endorsement in October 2008 in the Huffington Post, “Nothing could help more in this important effort to shore up liberal support for Israel than the election of a liberal president who strongly supports Israel and who is admired by liberals throughout the world.”
The troubling outcome here is that while Ben-Ami and Dershowitz both support President Obama, Israel, and peace, Dershowitz failed to convince that it is not in America’s interest to seek a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, as Miller had implied, and instead resorted to finger pointing, leading to a similar response.
Unfortunately, this kind of spat only helps to reinforce the notion that touching Israel policy is fraught with political danger. I hope that the Obama backers who support Israel and peace will strive to make their case in a different manner in the days ahead. Middle East peacemaking is a tough enough job for the president without having to worry about his own supporters battling each other.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)