Mideast big topic at JCPA Washington gathering

Former negotiator Aaron David Miller called worry about the U.S.-Israeli relationship “nonsense.”
Photo by Justin Katz

Former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller offered this advice to the 200 Jewish community relations professionals at the Jewish Council of Public Affairs conference on Monday: When it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, don’t do “the cosmic ‘oy vey.’”

Now the vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Miller said, “It’s the notion that somehow the U.S-Israeli relationship is always at stake. There’s always a crisis. We’re about to sacrifice Israel’s interests on the altar of expediency. It’s all nonsense.”

He told the crowd, “No American official should ever have to appear before a Jewish audience and be hammered and criticized because the U.S. has not provided an extraordinary degree of financial, economic, political, moral support” to Israel.

The U.S. role in pursuing Middle East peace was the day’s big topic. Miller said America’s core interests in the region are: protecting the United States, weaning the country off of Arab oil and preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon. The most likely would-be major power in that area is Iran, Miller said, but it wasn’t clear how hegemonic Iran could be.


Speaking alongside Miller, Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution told group that the 1993 Oslo Accords — which acted as frameworks for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict — needs to be replaced.

“That framework that worked for 20-odd years of bilateral direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations mediated by the United States exhausted itself,” said Wittes. “Until we have a new framework, we will have a vacuum filled with mostly bad ideas.”
In one session, people heard from clergy who attended the Interfaith Partners for Peace mission to Israel, which aims to show the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The essential message [of the trip] is that [the conflict] is complicated, because it seems simple,” said panelist Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “We all think whatever narrative we’ve understood to be the case is truth, but truth is complicated.”

The theme of competing narratives — Israeli and Palestinian — dominated the discussion.

“From my understanding, the Jews don’t understand the Palestinian narrative, and they need to,” Steinlauf said. “Because you can’t have a conversation with people if you’re sure you’re right, and they’re wrong.”

The Rev. Timothy Warner of Emory Grove Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, said the trip succeeded in showing him the complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He said that building relationships with fellow clergy helps people to understand the Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

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