Op-Ed: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict On Back Burner

Israeli warplanes attacked targets in Gaza a day after the first deadly attack in four years struck Jerusalem. As revolutions rise throughout the Arab world, Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller argues that this issue has moved to the back burner.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page.

Almost unnoticed amid the flood of news from the Middle East, fighting has resumed across Israel's border with Gaza. Hamas launched mortar bombs and rockets, and there was a suicide attack in Jerusalem, the first in four years. Israel responded with airstrikes. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly referred to the attack in Jerusalem as a suicide attack.]

And if that sounds old hat, argues Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy magazine, that's because it is. Miller argues that events in the Arab world have moved the Israeli-Palestinian issue firmly to the backburner.

As you look at the unrest in the Arab world, particularly in Israel's neighbors, how does this affect the Israeli-Palestinian standoff? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center and joins us from a studio there. His piece "No Spring in Palestine" ran last week in Foreign Policy.

Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): Pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And you argue the Arab uprisings have captured the imagination of the region and the world and created really a new set of priorities.

Mr. MILLER: I think that's right. And I'm desperately trying to search as an analyst and as someone who would like to see a serious negotiation in a conflict and an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians how this Arab spring and, unfortunately, Arab winter would impact the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And although it's too early to tell about many things, both within the Arab world and the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it strikes me that this is only going to make it more complicated.

CONAN: The search for a solution between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think that's right. I think in some respects, I quote a line from one of my favorite British rock groups, The Who - paraphrased somewhat - by saying the Arabs won't be fooled again. I think, to a certain degree, a tumerical(ph), elusive quest to support Palestinian rights and a solution to the Palestinian issue if it means confrontation with the Israelis or, frankly, confrontations with the West, is really no longer in the collective Arab interest.

Priorities have shifted. The Arabs have now shaped their own story, and economic justice, political freedom, they're tearing down, if you will, of the Arab-Berlin wall. All of this is extraordinary. I mean, a development like this comes along maybe once a century, and I don't think it's going to be easily or quickly jeopardized by a return to fanciful solutions to problems that right now lack solutions.

CONAN: You wrote in your piece the days when manipulative leaders can use Palestine as a rallying cry to mask their own abusive behavior may be numbered.

Mr. MILLER: I mean, I think that's true. There was an argument that has been made for years that the Israeli-Palestinian issue provided justification or an excuse for extractive regimes who want to divert their publics and their elites from meaningful political and economic reform to do so by, basically, waving the Palestinian flag, and I think, to a large degree, it works - it worked.

I don't think that's possible anymore. I think governments will be accountable more and more - perfect democracy, no, but more transparency, more accountability. And I think it's going to mean a process of maturation and, certainly, distraction for many of these regimes as they focus on rising economic expectations, elections, redrafting constitutions and, frankly, revolutions or popular uprisings yet to come.

CONAN: Yet you have at least two of Israel's neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, which - the leaders of which negotiated peace treaties with Israel, which are not necessarily popular with their people.

Mr. MILLER: It's true, and I think this is a very tricky sort of counterintuitive counterpoint to my argument. By extension, you could say that for the first time since the onset of these treaties, the public will now own them. That they're no longer the purview of regimes that sought to delicately manage them and acquiesce, in large measure, very often to Israeli needs and to American needs.

Now, you're going to get a new accountability. The Arab public's parliaments, presidencies, popularly elected will now be forced, it seems to me, to look at these peace treaties to see whether or not they make sense, and that by extension, you might argue that since Israeli policies and, frankly, many American policies are not very popular in the Middle East that this could, in a sense, cause additional confrontation between the Arabs and Israel. And I think that that's certainly possible.

CONAN: And additional confrontations, we are seeing this exchange between Hamas, the government there in Gaza and Israel. And is it possible that Hamas, by launching mortar bombs into southern Israel, is trying to force various people's hands on this issue?

Mr. MILLER: You know, this movie we've seen before. I frankly do not believe that either the government of Israel or Hamas, either in Damascus or its internal leadership in Gaza, has a stake in going back to the situation that existed in 2008 and 2009, in which over a period of three weeks, and as a consequence of confrontation, 1,400 Palestinians were killed by some estimates and 13 or 14 Israelis. I don't think either side has a risk in - or has an interest right now in doing that.

But the undeclared war between the two sides, the political military security confrontation that flows from them, an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to continue, and it will, from time to time, erupt. I just don't believe this time around it's enough to put the Israeli-Palestinian problem back on the center stage of the Arab world and international politics. It's going to take something much bigger, either much more spectacular in a positive way or something much nastier in a negative way to do that.

CONAN: I'm afraid all of us can imagine something nastier. What could you imagine that might be more spectacular positively?

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, I've been accused over the last several years of becoming very annoyingly negative in my own views of this problem. And I'm kind of like Groucho Marx who once said, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

I mean, I see what I see on the ground. I see relatively weak leaders. I see big issues in which there are huge gaps. I see divisions within Israeli politics and within the Palestinian polity, which make it very difficult to imagine the kind of heroic decisions.

But I would lay out one idea. I don't think it will work because I don't think the United States has the capacity or the will to do it, but should the president of the United States identify or choose to say to himself, you know, Israeli-Palestinian peace is the core issue. I really want to leave - make my legacy. He might lay out, in a presidential speech, American positions on the core issues: Jerusalem border security and refugees. And he then would take a trip.

He would take a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah, and he would give the - he would give a speech to the Israeli Knesset and the - in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah. And he would take with him on this trip three or four Arab foreign ministers who would stand on each side of him as he laid out for the people of Israel and for the people of Palestine what, in his judgment, would constitute and endgame for the Israel-Palestinian conflict with the Arabs in tow, literally pledging reconciliation with Israel and huge amounts of capital for the Palestinians to develop their economy.

Now that wouldn't create an agreement overnight, but that sort of electricity, that sort of stunning initiative might just begin to set into motion the kinds of forces and balance of forces that might in fact recreate these landscapes, political landscapes, and lead to a serious negotiation that could lead to an agreement. I could dream about such a thing, but I think the chances of it actually being undertaken are slim to none.

CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson International Center about the Arab spring and how it's affecting the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And let's go to Steve, and Steve's on the line from Sacramento.

STEVE (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

STEVE: One sentiment I heard recently from an Israeli politician was that if they could have one thing more than anything - and I'm speaking about the Israelis - one thing more than anything other, it wouldn't to, for example, get rid of the Israeli - the Iranian nuclear program but rather to develop a life-extending serum for Mubarak.

And the reason for that is that Mubarak and his policies were so they fostered such a sense of stability in that area, but they did so at the expense of what the general public in Egypt was in it didn't express the true will of the Arab street. And that's not to say that the Arab street wants to be in conflict with Israel, but rather that they're seeking to have more of a balanced interaction with Israel in which there both sides benefit from having a peaceful settlement.

And so I think that now, ironically, you know, what your guest said earlier about the Arabs having to own the peace agreement, I think, ironically, now Israel will also have to own the peace agreement. They will Israel will no longer be able to rely simply on maintaining a sense of stability through a set of autocrats that are in control and dictators. They will actually have to stand behind a peace process and peace agreement that actually respond to the needs and to the desires of the Arab people, as represented by the democratic aspirations of those people.

CONAN: Aaron...

STEVE: Thank very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Aaron David Miller, I wonder what you think.

Mr. MILLER: Well, it's an intriguing notion. I do believe that the space available, both for Israel and the United States, as a consequence of the demise of the autocrats, the authoritarians, is going to contract. There's no question that on a range of policies, including Gaza, containment of Iran, counterterrorism, and the Arab-Israeli peace process, the space available to Israel to operate, and by extension the United States under its current policies, is going to shrink.

The real question though is whether or not in this new democratizing Egypt, where the Egyptian military will still be the recipient of $1.3 billion and hundreds of million of dollars in excess defense articles, where the military has no interest in returning to the confrontation line, what the new interaction will be toward these more conservative forces as represented by the military and an emergent parliament, which will have the Muslim Brotherhood, maybe 20, 25 percent of its representatives, a more accountable Egyptian president. So I think the ride will get bumpier.

But I do believe that the basic contours, scrupulous adherence to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and no return to the confrontation line, will probably be maintained at least for the foreseeable future in whatever polity emerges in Egypt.

CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller on the Opinion Page. There's a link to his piece in Foreign Policy, "No Spring in Palestine," at npr.org. On Wednesday, we'll get another view on the repercussions of the uprising across the Arab world with Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Aaron David Miller, as the previous caller mentioned, Israel was not necessarily thrilled with the removal of President Mubarak and the stability that he represented from their point of view. Might they be looking with greater optimism to the north and what's happening in Syria?

Mr. MILLER: You know, it's interesting, because the Israelis, from, sort of, a mythic ideological perspective, have always feared the Syrians. Certainly, it was true of Assad. I think this time around...

CONAN: This President Assad's father is who you're talking about.

Mr. MILLER: Exactly. But even with Assad Jr., I think that the Israelis had gotten used to a certain amount of stability and predictability in dealing with the house of Assad. And I think, given the alternative between the demise of the current Assad regime and opening up a period of prolonged sectarian civil war and conflict in Syria - which would, of course, have tremendous consequence for Lebanon and potentially across the Golan Heights - that they would prefer the status quo than to take a risk...

CONAN: Even with a...

Mr. MILLER: ...or a chance on opening up this black box.

CONAN: Even with a Syria, who's the biggest ally of Iran in the Arab world?

Mr. MILLER: You know, it is a mixed blessing. There's no question that a collapse of the regime - see, look, if the Assads were replaced with a central government that was accountable, transparent and responsive and more democratic, I mean, who wouldn't want to see that?

But the reality is in Syria, with 15 percent of the country being governed by an Alawi minority - or more exact with an alliance between an Alawi minority and a Sunni elite, the reality is if that splinters and Syria goes through a prolonged process, not a fragmentation but of civil and sectarian conflict, there's really no telling what will emerge. And I think the concern on the part of the Saudis and the Israelis, they may well have a community of interest here, is to prevent the emergence of a more radicalized Sunni regime that would emerge.

So again, whether it's devil you know is better than the one you don't or not, I just think there's an enormous amount of uncertainty.

CONAN: Let's get Doug(ph) on the line. Doug with us from Whitehall in Michigan.

DOUG (Caller): Hi. I certainly agree with what you've been saying that the whole mythology that the Arab world has used over the Israeli-Palestinian question is going to have to come to an end here. But doesn't that mean then that the issue between Israel and Palestine is going to be shown for what it is without all that extra layer of romanticism? It's going to look like an incredibly violent situation, a violation of human rights. And I can't help wondering if Israel's policy isn't going to look like a long, slow extermination of - or elimination of Palestinian culture.

I also wonder if it's - if lifting all that mythology doesn't mean that the United States is going to emerge as the wrong country to motivate Middle Eastern peace. We've got too much blood on our hands. It might require a Scandinavian nation to be involved in that.

CONAN: A lot to chew on, Doug, and a minute for Aaron David Miller to respond.

Mr. MILLER: You know, as far as the United States is concerned, with all the imperfections in our policy and the absence of our credibility, there's a consequence of associating with the devil's bargain that we cut with these authoritarian regimes, and what is perceived widely to be our blind support for Israel. I'd suspect that we still remain, to a certain degree, on this narrow issue: If the Israelis and the Palestinians were really serious about cutting an agreement, conflict-ending agreement, we still would be, assuming we knew what to do with an opening from the Israelis and the Palestinians, looked to as the key third-party broker.

When we use our relationship with the Israelis correctly, our special relationship, we can actually have success. When we allow that relationship to become exclusive, which we've done, in my judgment, over here over the last 16 years - eight under Bill Clinton, eight under George W. Bush - we end up not being able to succeed. So I still believe we have a role to play.

CONAN: Doug, can I...

DOUG: Can a president pull that off except for in the last 10 minutes of their administration?

CONAN: A question that's going to have to wait for another time, Doug, but thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Aaron David Miller, as always, thanks for your time.

Mr. MILLER: A pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. You can find a link to his piece at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Again, another view on this Wednesday with Shibley Telhami. Tomorrow, reaction to the president's speech on Libya.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Correction March 31, 2011

We incorrectly referred to the attack in Jerusalem as a suicide attack.

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