Middle East

Has U.S. Lost Its Role As Main Peace Broker?

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Several countries have been working to bring about a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Aaron David Miller has been a Middle East adviser to six secretaries of state. He gives Ari Shapiro a snapshot of the would-be peace brokers.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And as Eric mentioned, several countries have been working to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians. I asked Aaron David Miller, a Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of State, to give us a snapshot of the main players.

Dr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Author, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace;" Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): Well, the French clearly have a large Muslim population, around five million. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict has generated enormous tensions. Sarkozy also fashions himself to be a broker, a friend of the Israelis as well. So, France is playing its traditional role, reflecting both its Middle East and domestic interests. The Egyptians have a much more primary, critically important interest.

SHAPIRO: Because they share a border with Gaza.

Dr. MILLER: They share a common border with Gaza. One Egyptian official described Gaza as one of Egypt's kidneys. It's quite clear they're very concerned about Hamas. And the Egyptians normally are considered patrons of the Palestinians - brokers of inter-Palestinian reconciliation. So, they have an enormous amount of equity. The Turks, a very interesting role over the last year or so; of course, they've emerged as informal brokers of indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiations, and they fashion themselves, to some degree, as a bridge between East and West. And the United States, of course, with its traditional interests.

All of these mediators, and rarely have I seen so many chefs stirring the Middle East pot, reflect the reality that America's role has to some degree been eclipsed. Since the early '90s, we have had very little success, and as a consequence of that fact, others have sought to intercede in a problem in which everyone appears to be interested. The other reality is that we don't have relations with some of the key actors. We don't have a relationship with Hamas; we don't have a relationship with Hezbollah; we have no relationship with the Iranians right now; and a very strained, not terribly substantial, relationship with the Syrians. So, others, the Egyptians in particular, will seek to fill the bill.

SHAPIRO: Does the reduced role that the United States is playing in this particular conflict have anything to do with the U.S.'s strong support for Israel? Because the other major players seem to have more sympathies for the Palestinians than perhaps the United States government does.

Dr. MILLER: The fact is - I'll speak personally here - my phone, and the phones of six secretaries of State, would not have been ringing all these years if the United States was not perceived to have the kind of relationship with the Israelis that could lead to leverage. And when we use that relationship wisely, we can actually get something done and make a very bad situation better. But what's happened, I'm afraid, is that the special relationship has morphed into an exclusive one, and that exclusive relationship, which is perceived to be too acquiescent in Israeli behavior, has created a situation in which our influence and credibility as an effective mediator has been diminished.

SHAPIRO: You have advised six secretaries of State on Middle East issues. What do you see looking ahead to the Obama administration?

Dr. MILLER: Barack Obama is inheriting one of the most complicated international environments and perhaps the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. He has a limited amount of political currency and capital to spend.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're not optimistic.

Dr. MILLER: Unless he gets very lucky, there are regional changes which inspire and/or compel the Arabs and the Israelis to go beyond where they have gone in the past, then there are great odds in favor of his trying to manage these problems. But the prospects that they can be resolved, or that he will resolve them, are probably slim to none.

SHAPIRO: If the U.S. does not become a substantial force for Middle East peace in the Obama administration, can it be achieved with the other players, Turkey, France, Egypt?

Dr. MILLER: I do not believe that Arabs and Israelis are capable of conflict-ending agreements without a meaningful role by the United States. We alone have the kind of confidence and trust that is required to persuade the Israelis to take the kinds of existential risks that are required. No one else has that capacity - not the Brits, not the French, not the UN, not the Russians, not the Turks.

SHAPIRO: Aaron David Miller is a public-policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He's author of the book "The Much Too Promised Land." Thanks very much.

Dr. MILLER: You're welcome.

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SHAPIRO: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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