Middle East


President Bush laid the groundwork for an upcoming Middle East trip this week in a White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Bush continued to express optimism that he could broker the outlines of a Palestinian state before his term ends, but Mr. Abbas told the Associate Press on Friday that a deal is unlikely this year.

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He was an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to six secretaries of state. He joins us in the studio to talk about all of this.


Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars): It's a pleasure to be here.

YDSTIE: Did anything come out of Abbas' meeting in Washington this week, given that his main goal, as I understand it, was to get the Bush administration to pressure Israel to stop building new settlements on the West Bank?

Mr. MILLER: I doubt it. I think the main point here, John, is that the story of the Arab-Israeli negotiations right now is not an American story. There are some hopeful signs, but neither of them involve right now a primary role for the United States.

First, you've got historic negotiations underway for the last year between Abbas and Olmert, an empowered Israeli prime minister and an empowered Palestinian president, on the four core issues that drive the conflict: Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security.

And second, the Egyptians, as you pointed out, are in the process of brokering a very important informal accommodation between the Israelis and Hamas.

If both of these issues advance over the course of the next six months, you could end up by the end of the year with a reasonable basis on which to continue pursuing a two-state solution to this conflict, but under no circumstances will the Bush administration be able to broker a conflict and an agreement that can actually be implemented by the end of the president's term.

YDSTIE: Let's talk about these negotiations in Egypt. Hamas said Egyptian mediators will bring up this truce idea again in talks with Israel next week. Any chance that Israel will reconsider and agree to the cease-fire in Gaza?

Mr. MILLER: I think there is a chance. The Israelis have reached a couple conclusions about the current situation on the ground. Number one, reoccupation of the Gaza Strip is simply not militarily feasible or politically wise, and yet on the other hand, they have to find a way to deal with the Qassam rockets.

So it seems to me that they're seriously considering the possibility of at least an implicit endorsement of a stand-down with Hamas.

YDSTIE: Could former President Carter's meeting with Hamas leaders prove to be productive, do you think?

Mr. MILLER: You know, I've described this elsewhere as the key to empty room, and it's not that Hamas doesn't have to brought into this process. At some point, a unified Palestinian polity must emerge if in fact there's going to be a serious agreement that can be implemented.

I just don't believe that Carter's mission right now is relevant to the issues at hand. The issues at hand are an Egyptian-brokered informal agreement on the ground between Israel and Hamas and conversations between Abbas and Olmert.

What's driving this now, it seems to me, are two things. Number one: demography. The reality is that in the next 20 years - even if the demographers are wrong and it takes 25 years - there will be an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, not even to mention the fact that 20 percent of Israel's citizens, those who are presumably entitled to the same rights as Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis are not well integrated.

So if you add that constituency to the pot, you really begin to see that the idea of a Jewish state, a democratic Jewish state, is increasingly problematic as the years go on. That and the security issue - Hezbollah in the north, Hamas in the south, threatening with rocket and with low-level technology and terror - are matters of real concern.

YDSTIE: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. His new book is "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. Thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. MILLER: It's a pleasure.

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