Is Peace Really Possible In The Middle East?

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U.S. officials often insist that a Middle East peace deal is essential and can be negotiated. They argue that it is only the U.S. that can make that happen. Former diplomat Aaron David Miller tells Steve Inskeep that he no longer believes in the process. Miller is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's focus on even more basic conflict - the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. A former U.S. diplomat questions some basic American beliefs about finding a peace deal. Aaron David Miller is his name, and he argues that Americans often insist that a peace deal is essential, that it can be negotiated, that only the U.S. can make it happen. He says he's not longer a believer in any of this.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Former U.S. Diplomat): You can get committed -too committed - to your beliefs because you want to believe. And while it is in America's interest to continue the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace, the real question is whether or not negotiations can resolve it. My ultimate conclusion is that right now negotiations can't. And that is the cautionary tale for this administration.

INSKEEP: Well, this is a provocative thing for you to say just now, because President Obama has defined resolving Middle East peace as, quote, "a vital national security interest of the United States."

Mr. MILLER: Right.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that it doesn't matter quite as much as maybe we've believed?

Mr. MILLER: I think that it doesn't matter as much, certainly not more than the other interests that we're currently pursuing. We're bogged down in two very difficult wars. We're trying to contain Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We are coping with the problem of terror and the likelihood, perhaps, in coming years, of another attack against the continental United States.

Dealing with the Arab-Israeli issue would, in fact, help deal with these other issues, but it's certainly is not the key to Middle East peace or stability. And frankly, I'm not even sure you could make the case that it is going to ultimately help us address any of the other issues that I just identified.

INSKEEP: What do you mean when you write that the region is nastier and more complex than it was 10 or 20 years ago when you believed in the possibility of Mideast peace?

Mr. MILLER: I mean, I think then you had strong leaders, leaders who were masters of their political houses and constituencies. Today, you have leaders that are prisoners of their politics. Back then, you had a region that was not nearly as combustible and as volatile. You didn't have an Iran in search of a nuclear weapon. You didn't have a Pakistan, which according to some, provides a sort of perfect storm of persistent volatility. And you didn't have issues like Jerusalem, like refugees that the Arabs and the Israelis needed to address.

The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was about oil, air fields, land. And you had two hugely, galacticly power leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, who prepared, frankly, to make a separate deal. You don't have any of those factors now.

And finally, then in the '70s, and even as late as 1991, you had the perception of American power, the perception of American competence and mystique of the negotiator, Henry Kissinger, James Baker. A lot of that mystic frankly, has been lost.

INSKEEP: Now you're getting to another one of your beliefs: the belief that only America can make this peace deal happen. You're basically saying we don't have the ability, even if we wanted to.

Mr. MILLER: I'm saying that - to borrow a wonderful phrase from Larry Summers, who once argued that in the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rental car: We care only about what we own. And Arabs and Israelis, if this is going to succeed, have to own their own negotiations. They have to invest in them. That has not happened. So the real question is whether or not an American president can compensate for the absence of urgency, the absence of leadership, the absence of will, which is missing from the Arab-Israeli arena today with his own leadership, urgency and will. That's the question.

INSKEEP: So where do you start?

Mr. MILLER: If you ask me, if I had my five minutes with the president, I would argue focus on an issue among the four core issues, borders, where the gaps are probably narrowest between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Don't hype this issue. Don't talk about resolution of the Arab-Israeli peace in two years. Help build Palestinian institutions. Talk to the Israelis and press them hard on settlement activity, land confiscation, opening up checkpoints so the Palestinian economy can breathe.

You can do a lot. But if you go for broke on this one, you put out your own plan, you try to get these guys together and try to substitute your own sense of urgency for the absence of theirs, you're going to fail.

INSKEEP: Aaron David Miller is author of "The False Religion of Mideast Peace" in Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks very much.

Mr. MILLER: It's a pleasure.

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