Middle East Peace: Will It Ever Come?

Fifteen years ago today, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for signing the Oslo Accord with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. This was an historic turning point in Arab-Israeli relations. But since Rabin's death, peace still has not come to the Middle East. Host Michel Martin gets an update on the negotiations from Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians, and Mark Regev, spokesman for the prime minister of Israel, and author Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are going to end the program today by turning to the ever complex topic of peace in the Middle East. This is the anniversary of a hugely significant moment in the effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, something the Obama administration is trying to revive right now.

Let's go back to 1993, early in the tenure of President Bill Clinton, and Mr. Clinton was hosting the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords. That day the world witnessed an historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat. This is Mr. Rabin at the White House.

Mr. YITZHAK RABIN (Former Prime Minister, Israel): We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears. Enough.

MARTIN: But just two years later, on this day, November 4th, in 1995, Rabin was gunned down at a rally in Tel Aviv. His assassin was a radical Jewish student who was protesting the peace accords. Since Rabin's death, a lasting peace has continued to allude the region and many argue that bitterness has filled the void on both sides.

President Obama made a pledge to make Middle East peace a top priority. But two months after he brought the main players together again at the White House, the talks have already appeared to be in jeopardy. On this historic day, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat is in Washington as a guest of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. So we've invited him here to join us to give his perspective.

Also with us from the Woodrow Wilson Center, his host, Aaron David Miller. He's advised six different secretaries of state on the Middle East and took part in the negotiations over more than 20 years. And I thank you both so much for being here with us today.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Chief Palestinian Negotiator): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: And I will note that we will be hearing from a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister a bit later in the program. So Mr. Erekat, if we could go back to 1993 at the White House signing ceremony - I don't know if you've permitted yourself to think of the things in those terms. But I was wondering what you thought the state of things would be today in 2010.

Mr. EREKAT: No, I thought it would be different. I thought that it was a turning point in our history, it was a new chapter. It was - I thought that life will never be the same for us, Palestinians and Israelis. And unfortunately I was proven wrong. And not that peace is not going to come -it's going to come. But the mistake I made was that I thought it was just like any other conflict - once you build a common ground, once you define the end game, once you, you know, go to the win-win situation, that you reach an agreement. We have come a long way. We have come a long way. We are different people. Unfortunately we don't have peace.

MARTIN: We've just had, as you know, a very significant election in the United States, one of the houses of the legislature will change. Do you think that the elections will have an effect?

Mr. EREKAT: I don't see that. Some people ask me the impact of this on the peace process, on that. I think Americans will help. Americans may show us the incentives for peace, minimize the risk for us. But the decisions(ph) at the end of the day are required from Palestinians and Israelis.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about that perspective, Aaron David Miller. You - as we, of course, know - you know better than anybody - a lot of energy and attention has been spent by American negotiators over the years. Do you think that that should continue?

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Middle East Adviser): I mean I think we have to continue to engage. We have friends and allies: Israelis, Palestinians, Arab states that depend on us. We have a demonstrated track record when we use our power, political power, effectively. And an unresolved Israeli/Palestinian issue does threaten American interests. It may not be the most important issue. We have forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're dealing with an effort to constrain Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

But the reality is, I think, the one Saeb referred to. It's not our politics that are driving the issue, it's theirs. And every breakthrough that has been achieved in this conflict has been achieved when Arabs and Israelis, Israelis and Palestinians, were brought to a point either by prospects of real pain or prospects of real gain to recalculate their own positions. Then and only then did the United States intercede effectively, sometimes ineffectively.

MARTIN: So what's the U.S. role in this? I also want to mention that you recently wrote a piece in Foreign Policy magazine headlined "The False Religion of Mid-East Peace and Why I'm No Longer a Believer," saying that in the last couple of decades there's been more process than peace. What does that suggest?

Mr. MILLER: I mean I think it suggests that - and it's appropriate on the anniversary of Rabin's assassination - it suggests in my judgment one thing more than anything else, and that is the absence of real leadership, determined and dedicated to taking the kinds of decisions that are required. I mean this is the endgame now. These are the core issues: Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees.

It's going to take nothing short of heroic decisions by Israelis and Palestinian, and Americans, to get this done. And the fact is we don't have that kind of leadership. Mahmoud Abbas is well-intentioned, committed to this. Whether he has the capacity to deliver, I don't know. On the other side, Prime Minister Netanyahu really has not proven that he has an effective strategy. But he certainly needs to be tested. Some people have come to the conclusion that he is not serious. That may well be the case. And as you pointed out, Michel, Barack Obama is now in some respects, constrained not by domestic politics, by his other priorities, jobless recovery and the like. So I think it's the absence of leadership.

MARTIN: I wanted to play a short clip. And I'm not even sure it's relevant, given what we've been talking about here. But I did want to play it, because this is the voice of the young. And we had two young activists - one a Palestinian, one an Israeli activist - on the program in September as the peace talks began, you know, again, before they ended again. And I just want to play a short clip of what he had to say about the start of the negotiations. Here it is.

PALESTINIAN ACTIVIST: Well, what you hear in the Palestinian community is basically that people have a lot of superstition and quite skeptical because they, up to the moment, they don't see any supportings of something that can get out of this as a consistent solution, especially with the experience of the last 20 years of negotiations.

MARTIN: And I'm thinking back about what you were saying about in 1993, and the sense of optimism that you had, is this the sense of the region, that there's nothing really to be done at this point?

Mr. ERAKAT: I think the people of the region are sick and tired of using their ears. They want to use their eyes. They - we could not deliver. And I beg to differ with Aaron. As Palestinians, you know, I don't know what else to do. We have organized a state for (unintelligible) to resist in these southern borders; accepted to establish a Palestinian state to live in peace and spirit with Israel the remaining 22 percent of the land. Then when it came to their legal settlements, we accepted to have slots of land to accommodate this. And then we accepted to be a state with limited arms and third-party in our borders, our airports, our harbors. Having done all of this, the question is, what do they want from me?

MARTIN: do you agree that there is not the leadership at this juncture...

Mr. ERAKAT: No, I - dont think...

MARTIN: ...to advance the negotiations?

Mr. ERAKAT: I don't think it's about leadership. It's about the maturity of the matrix of interests. We as Palestinians - and Aaron knows that - we've come a long way.

MARTIN: But who is to articulate that, if that's not a question of leadership? Who is to articulate the interest?

Mr. ERAKAT: I think the interest are articulated and very well specified when we were negotiating with Mr. Rabin. I knew when I sat with him that I was looking at a man who was thinking of Israel's security 300 years from that day. And there is a difference between someone who looks at Israel's security for 300 years or a prime minister who looks at the nine o'clock news. And there's a difference between someone who is a tough negotiator and someone who's an un-negotiator.

MARTIN: So you don't consider - but Mr. Rabin is not here, as we've discussed -so you don't consider Mr. Netanyahu a person with whom you can do business?

Mr. ERAKAT: No, on the contrary. Mr. Netanyahu was elected, like Mr. Rabin, by the Israeli people. I don't choose who I talk to. But I want the Israelis to know that they cannot, you know - what does Mr. Netanyahu say? He's saying, in his speeches, openly: I will not negotiate Jerusalem. I cannot go back to the seven lines. I will not negotiate refugees. I cannot - I need a demilitarized state. They need to accept the Jewish state.

And once he qualifies all these conditions, he tell me, come here boy. Let's negotiate without conditions. So after he speaks of 30 minutes of conditions he wants to tell me, I know what's best for you. And I tell them Mr. Netanyahu, that's dictation, not negotiations. If you want to dictate you can do it with your occupation and military force. You want me to be your partner, you know what it takes.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. As I mentioned, for those who are seeking for elucidation of your views in your own words, you've recently written a piece for the Washington Post. It's titled "Impasse in the Middle East," and we will link to it on our website. If you go to npr.org, click on Programs than on TELL ME MORE and you can read it for yourself.

Mr. Erakat is a chief Palestinian negotiator and he was here in Washington visiting the Woodrow Wilson Center. Do you have a final thought Mr. Erakat?

Mr. ERAKAT: Well, at the end of the day I did not wake up one morning and felt my conscience aching for the Israelis that I sit and negotiate with them. I'm doing myself the favor, not them the favor. I hope and pray that they would come to this conclusion, that when they sit with me they are not doing me the favor - they are doing themselves the favor. My word - my final word here: life is not divided between those are pro Israel and those are pro Palestinian. My world is divided between those who are pro peace and those who are against peace. And that's the truth. When we have a determined American administration that works in the corners for the matrix with defined interests, I think it can be done.

Saeb Erakat is with us now in our Washington, D.C. Studio. Thank you so much.

To provide additional perspective, we have Mark Regev with us now. He's the international spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu): It's my pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: And staying with us, is Aaron David Miller. He's the public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And, of course, he's the author of the book "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."

And Mr. Regev, of course, if we could start at the same place that we started with Mr. Erakat, which is that today is the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And I would like to ask your prospective on this day. Do you feel that that was the point at which the discussions went off the rails?

Mr. REGEV: I remember the handshake. I remember it very well on the White House lawn, with Chairman Arafat on one side, my Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the other side, President Clinton in the middle. I remember the hope, feeling that we've turned the page - that Israeli-Palestinian relationships were going to fundamentally change, peace would be close. And I suppose we were all terribly disappointed.

MARTIN: Mr. Regev, we had played earlier, as you heard, a brief clip of a Palestinian student talking about the sense of his friends, community, neighbors. And so I wanted to play a short clip of an Israeli student at Tel Aviv University. This is a young man with whom we spoke earlier in September.

ISRAELI ACTIVIST: Israelis are quite indifferent towards it, because we've been through a lot in the past 20, almost 30 years, of negotiations and talks, so people are not seeing it as a different thing than anything else before.

MARTIN: So given that, Mr. Regev, do you think that that's a generally widespread feeling?

Mr. REGEV: I know there's a lot of skepticism on the Israeli side. I think there is also skepticism on the Arab side. There's skepticism around the world because, as you said, we've been there and done it before. I think the challenge of leadership is to prove the skeptics wrong. And we committed ourselves, at the beginning of September in Washington, when the process was re-launched, to finding a historic peace agreement within a year. And we are committed to that, and we think it is possible. We are ready to share the flexibility, we are ready to share the creativity; and if the Palestinian side is willing to meet us halfway, peace is possible. We can't throw away the chance.

MARTIN: Within a year, you mean with, by the end of 2011 or by the end of this year?

Mr. REGEV: One year from the 1st of September. That was the goal that was articulated by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. And to many people that sounds like an impossible dream. But we think it's real. It requires both sides, really, to demonstrate leadership. I heard the guests before. They said, clearly, the issues are well known. What we need is leadership on both sides to take historic decision. It's not going to be easy. There are historic gaps that separate Israelis from Palestinians, but I think it's incumbent upon leadership to take the steps to overcome those gaps and try to reach a historic peace understanding.

MARTIN: Mr. Miller just said that he doesn't believe that that leadership is there, if I'm accurately quoting his thoughts. How do you respond to that?

Mr. REGEV: I can tell you, I sit with my prime minister, hours, every day. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has come back for a second term. He was prime minister 15 years ago. He says to us directly, he says, I didn't come back to do a second term as prime minister of Israel just to keep the chair warm, just to sit down and let time pass. I came back to make a difference. The fundamental formula has to be a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. On that basis, we can have, I think, a historic agreement.

MARTIN: Do the election results in the United States affect your calculation about this, in any way?

Mr. REGEV: I don't think so. I remember - Aaron probably remembers well - the Clinton administration was very intensive in its efforts of pursuing peace in the Middle East. And the fact that the Congress wasn't always of President Clinton's party, didn't make any difference.

MARTIN: Mark Regev is the international spokesperson for the Prime Minister of Israel. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Jerusalem. As you can hear, the phone line is not serving us as well as we would've liked today. Mr. Regev, any final thought for you on this historic day?

Mr. REGEV: Yeah. I think we have to seize the opportunity. We know that there are obstacles. We know there are difficulties. People can find excuses to torpedo this process if they want to. I think it's incumbent on all people of goodwill, to overcome the obstacles, not to look for excuses not to engage; but to engage, to sit around the negotiating paper - the negotiating table, to put all our concerns on the table, the Palestinians will put their concerns on the table and let's negotiate. Let's find common ground.

MARTIN: Mark Regev from Jerusalem. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. REGEV: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Aaron David Miller, obviously we werent expecting to advance the negotiations here today. That - doesn't going to happen. But it really does seem to be a very stark difference of, not just of worldview, and of substance of policy positions, as we said; but really, just a sense of malaise, if I can use that term.

Mr. MILLER: I think it's a good term, Michel. I mean in reality that the impasse is driven by huge gaps between Israelis and Palestinians on the core issues: Jerusalem, border security and refugees - huge political constraints. The Prime Minister's coalition - by the way, Mark Regev was right about one thing, Benjamin Netanyahu is probably the strongest Israeli prime minister since Ariel Sharon, but he is presiding over a coalition, which is not supportive enough to sustain him throughout the process. So he's constrained and he'll need a new government if he is going to make big decisions that Mark Regev referred to.

On the Palestinian side, you have what is tantamount to a Palestinian Humpty Dumpty. You've got Abbas versus Hamas, two different sets of security services, patrons, streams of funding, two different visions of Palestine. So the circumstances are not ideal. And here at home, you have a president who has just been handed a shellacking, who's prospects in 2012 will be driven much more by jobs and reducing the deficit, than by a heroic effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, the sun the moon and the stars are not currently aligned in the right position. But, at the same time, it's clearly worth continuing to test the proposition.

MARTIN: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His book, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace" is in stores now.

Earlier we were joined by chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat. He is being hosted by Mr. Miller here at the Woodrow Wilson Center this week. And from Jerusalem we heard from Mark Regev, the spokesperson for the prime minister of Israel.

Mr. Miller, thank you so much for speaking with us and think you Mr. Regev.

Mr. MILLER: Been a pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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