Recapping the Annapolis Mideast Conference

Aaron David Miller
Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 12:30 PM

Aaron David Miller, a Woodrow Wilson Center public policy scholar and an adviser to the State Department on Israeli-Palestinian issues for 25 years, was online Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 12:30 p.m. to analyze the outcome of the Mideast Conference in Annapolis, Md., which is scheduled to end Tuesday.

The transcript follows.


Aaron David Miller: It's really important in the wake of Annapolis to have a frank and honest discussion about what's possible in the next year. The Arab-Israeli issue is too important to have any illusions.


Elma, N.Y.: In one sense, isn't this one of the least advisable times to hold a Middle East Peace Conference, when many of the leaders are in especially weakened circumstances (Bush, Olmert, etc.)?

Aaron David Miller: There's probably never a great time given the degree of difficulty, the challenges that exist in the region. It's true that Abbas and Olmert are prisoners of their politics, rather than masters of them, but weakness sometimes is a paradox. Weak leaders need to demonstrate their relevance and clearly can start a process, but they're gonna need help to finish it.


Teaneck, N.J.: Can an agreement that is negotiated by Abbas and Olmert hold up without any voice for Hamas, or can Hamas be defeated militarily by Abbas with Israeli help?

Aaron David Miller: Trying to solve the Hamas problem militarily is gonna fail, whether the Israelis do it or the Palestinians. I'm not trying to write a brief for these guys, but the fact is that only a unified Palestinian house can make any kind of lasting peace with Israel. If you're an Israeli prime minister, why would you make major concessions to a Palestinian president who doesn't control all the guns? So the key is to strengthen Abbas so he can negotiate with Hamas from a position of strength and reach an agreement with the more pragmatic elements in the organization (if there are any). I don't know if this will work, but it's worth testing.


Alexandria, Va.: I've just finished reading Barbara Slavin's new book on Iran, and she describes Iran's influence in the Mideast as significant. If her premise is true, how can the Mideast Summit exclude a country with valuable insight and influence? Iran: The Uninvited Wildcard in Mideast Talks (Post, Nov. 27)

Aaron David Miller: Iran was excluded because of its behavior. These days it belongs to the troublemakers, not the peacemakers. I think we should be talking to the Iranians about Iraq and other issues, including the Arab-Israeli peace process, but we shouldn't have any illusions about how far we're going to get.


Arlington, Va.: Because security is the cornerstone to any peace deal, I would like to ask you the following: As a U.S. political negotiator, did you keep close contacts with the U.S. security team to verify that the Palestinian Authority's security officers were implementing their part of the deal? It seems that the Palestinian security members are not motivated well enough to fight terrorism in the PA areas; do you have any thoughts on how to encourage them? Also, how much truth is there to the stories that Israel is obstructing the operations of the PA security? Thanks.

Aaron David Miller: Let's start with the second question. The Israelis argue that security assistance to Abbas is a double-edged sword. Any lethal aid they provide to a security service that is divided and rife with holes -- and in the past with individuals with ties to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades -- could end up being used against them. Any trust between the Israeli and Palestinian security services in the mid-'90s (there was a great deal) has since broken down and needs to be restored. Regarding the first part of the question, with Arafat there were brief periods, particularly in 1993 and 1996 where Palestinian security services functioned fairly effectively. Since they did not maintain control of all of their territory and were limited in their capacity to control much of it, their security performance was poor. Finally, Arafat never gave up the armed struggle as an instrument to gain advantage. He often turned a blind eye to discharging his security responsibilities, even acquiescing in terrorist attacks by groups outside his control.


Baltimore: I disagree with anyone who says the U.S. cannot force the Palestinians and Israelis to reach a peace deal. The U.S. can absolutely push Israel to carry out the concessions that it needs to in order to reach peace with the Arabs. My question is, do you think Olmert recognizes this fact, and therefore keeps insisting on bilateral talks as opposed to trilateral ones ?

Aaron David Miller: I disagree fundamentally with the premise of your question. If anything, America's behavior in the Middle East -- Lebanon, Iraq, certainly in the West Bank and Gaza -- demonstrate that great powers meddle in the affairs of small tribes at their own risk. We could no more impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians that they didn't accept, than we could impose a Pax Americana in Iraq. One of the chapters in my forthcoming book ("The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace") is called "Gulliver's Troubles: How a Great Power Finds Its Way in a World of Smaller Ones." This is one of our greatest challenges.


Minneapolis: Is Tony Blair participating in these latest talks? I thought this was his new job but haven't yet seen his smiling face anywhere. Talks Enable Tony Blair's Return to the International Stage (The Times of London, Nov. 28)

Aaron David Miller: Tony Blair is charged with institution-building for the Palestinians. He has no mandate to negotiate these issues, but he was in Annapolis.


Boston: What are the best-case and worst-case outcomes from Annapolis?

Aaron David Miller: Best case is that by the end of 2008, Israelis and Palestinians have reached a framework agreement on the core issues (no chance for a peace treaty). Worst case is that the negotiations after Annapolis sputter along with neither Israelis, Palestinians or Americans willing to do what's necessary to make them proceed, and the U.S. is tarred with another failure.


Boston: The issue of the refugees is on the agenda of the Annapolis peace talks, but does that include compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab States, or will the focus be exclusively on the issues of Arab refugees from Israel?

Aaron David Miller: The refugee issue is the toughest of all the permanent status subjects. The gaps between Israelis and Palestinians are huge. Israel is likely to put the issue of Jews from Arab countries on the agenda -- you can count on it.


Washington: Do you believe that the right of return is simply a ploy by the Arab World to destroy Israel demographically because they know they cannot accomplish that militarily?

Aaron David Miller: Some may believe that, may hold that view. I think right of return is both a deeply emotional issue for Palestinians and a card they will use -- not to destroy Israel, but to ensure that they get what they need on the issue of territory and Jerusalem. Palestinians know (thought they won't admit it publicly) that the chances of significant numbers of Palestinians returning to Israel proper are slim to none.


Lake Carmel, N.Y.: How many people of Arabic background are engaged in these negotiations on the American side? If none, wouldn't having a few build confidence in American's position as an honest broker?

Aaron David Miller: This is America, where merit and expertise and competency should determine who works on negotiations and who doesn't. Having been attacked by Israelis, American Jews, Arabs, Muslims and just about everybody else because of my Jewish background, I don't believe that we ought to be approaching who works on a negotiation from the perspective of their ethnic or religious identity. The only question should be what's good for America -- and that's what's important in determining the roles people play.


Northwest Washington: Hello Mr. Miller. Why is Israel reluctant to address the final status issues? Aren't they tired of this conflict, and doesn't it behoove them to resolve substantive issues with the Palestinians? Seems to me that all parties would gain security with a final status agreement, no? Thanks.

Aaron David Miller: The issue on both sides is not a reluctance to address permanent status issues. It's the gaps that separate them right now. Those gaps are huge, as are the responsibilities of both parties. Closing them will require heroic decisions by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as well as a balanced and effective role by an American broker.


Madison, Ind.: Hamas has maintained it never will recognize Israel officially as a legitimate state. However it also has maintained -- on multiple occasions -- that it will honor a long-term truce or end of combat with Israel, should Israel stop its assassination campaigns and targeting of Palestinian militants, and should the Palestinians finally receive nationhood based on the pre-1967 frontier.

Do you think that there is any hope for a truce to be formed between Israel and Hamas? This is important, because for this new peace initiative to be a comprehensive and substantial effort at resolving the conflict, Hamas -- which governs all of the Gaza Strip -- must be placed into the equation. It is unlikely, but do you think Israel will be able to settle with a truce?

Aaron David Miller: If you're looking for a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the answer is no. In fact, neither Israelis or Palestinians could accept this. I live in Washington. No matter where you're from -- Sweden, Madison, Ind., or Egypt -- states are only credible if they maintain a monopoly on the forces of violence; in short, if they control the guns. Neither Israeli or Palestinians authorities can allow armed factions to maintain the capacity to use force outside the authority of the state. This will be the single biggest problem both sides will confront in the coming year.


Wheaton, Md.: Have any of the Arab participants clearly stated that Israel has a right to exist? If not, what is the point of the conference? Isn't Arab refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist the reason for the 60 years of conflict?

Aaron David Miller: Jordan and Egypt both have acknowledged Israel's sovereignty, and as a consequence have concluded treaties of peace. Israel does have the right to be accepted, respected, by its neighbors. And yes, on the Arab side this issue -- failure to acknowledge Israel's right or actual existence -- has been the single greatest source of conflict on the Arab side.


Budapest, Hungary: Don't you think that as soon as the Israeli army leaves the West Bank rockets will flood in, and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be shelled daily -- as happened in Southern Israel after the Gaza withdrawal? The Bush administration kowtows to Big Arab Oil to weaken Israel. A weakened Israel is an easier prey in the future. Bloodshed of a greater scale will follow the 2008 "peace."

Aaron David Miller: Nobody can predict the future. The Bush administration hardly is pressuring Israel as a consequence of Big Oil. With proper security arrangement -- guaranteed probably by the presence of American forces -- and formal diplomatic relations between Israel and all the Arab states (which clearly will have to be part of a comprehensive settlement, as well as a Palestinian Authority that controls all of the guns on its side) the chances of the outcome you predict are reduced, if not eliminated.

Otherwise, if I were an Israeli, I probably would stay in the West Bank, with all of its complications.


Boston: Aren't there a couple of small tribes we are meddling with in Iraq called the Shiite and the Sunni? Do you think we were similarly foolish there (and continue to be overly optimistic)?

Aaron David Miller: We are by nature an optimistic and pragmatic people, never occupied or invaded, with tremendous abundance and security. We know little about living on the knife's edge. And yes, our premise and execution in Iraq show that we didn't respect or understand the power of the small to outwit and outmaneuver the big.

_______________________ What could these negotiations offer Hamas in exchange for granting consolidated authority to Abbas?

Aaron David Miller: It's not a question of satisfying Hamas. It's a question of going over their heads in a way, to the broader Palestinian public. If you could produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that could satisfy political aspirations and fundamentally improve the lives of Palestinian people, then you'd be in a position to make Hamas an offer of which Marlon Brando in "The Godfather" would have been proud. Hamas was democratically elected. The logic of the argument would be to create another situation in which they would have a choice: accept a two-state solution that satisfies Palestinian aspirations and come under the authority of that state, or risk being marginalized or pushed out of the way. The key to success here is producing the kind of deal that Hamas could not reject.


Arlington, Va.: Can Israel create a Palestinian Authority state in the West Bank, but not in Gaza? It's unrealistic to expect Israel to negotiate with a group that has declared they just want to destroy Israel.

Aaron David Miller: No, the idea of a West Bank state only is impractical. The Israelis never will agree to the kind of concessions required without Gaza coming under the authority of a responsible and peace-seeking leadership.


Washington: Frankly, I stopped reading about the summit after hearing that the Saudis stated that they would not shake hands with the Israelis. Why even bothering going through the motions of a summit when you announce in advance that you won't even shake your adversary's hand?

Aaron David Miller: I actually agree with that. The summit was worth having, but I agree with your criticism of the Saudis. It's not normalization -- it's just common courtesy. I was head of an organization for three years, Seeds of Peace, which brought young Israelis and Palestinians into coexistence programming. If these young children who have suffered loss and had childhoods taken away from them in conflict, can befriend one another, it's absurd that Saudi Arabia couldn't manage a simple handshake.


Wheaton, Md.: I guess the Arabs should be congratulated for realizing that war only has made Israel stronger, but that through a "peace process" they can infiltrate and even shrink Israel's borders. It is very unfortunate that Olmert and his supporters are unable to detect a "Trojan horse," even when it is made out of glass.

Aaron David Miller: I often wonder about advice-giving like this, covered in the security of living in America. The fact is that only the Israelis can decide -- rightly or wrongly -- what's in the best interests of the country. Not you or, frankly, me. They suffer the risks and gain if in fact the peace-making succeeds. We don't.


Washington: Has any government been asked to give up its capital before? It seems like a very, very large demand.

Aaron David Miller: Israel's claim to West Jerusalem and those parts of the Eastern portion of the city in which there is a demographic majority would never be contested in a negotiation. To declare a city your "eternal capital" when in fact others have as much claim to it as a political capital as you do is a stretch. Jerusalem has a political and religious component, and if the conflict is ever to come to an end, it will as a capital of two states.


Chicago: This may be a broad question, but what's happening with the Palestinians generally? I can't think of another population that seems to have let itself fall so far so quickly. It's almost like they're using their own wretchedness as a bargaining chip, daring the Israelis to push them further. Are there any internal forces that are improving quality of life for them?

And in the context of Annapolis, I wonder whether we're getting to the point where what the negotiators agree to will be worthless because the people in Gaza and the West Bank are becoming so extreme. Nothing to live for, nothing left to lose. Thanks.

Aaron David Miller: That's a danger of course. It's not a certainty. That's why improving the situation on the ground by improving economic life, freedom of movement and civil society is so critical. All of this must be accompanied by a political settlement, but the negative forces at work now run in the opposite direction -- years of bad leadership, Israel occupation, and a divided Palestinian movement, and the breakdown of civil society have generated despair, hopelessness and criminality, and real trauma.

There are brave and committed Palestinians in the social, economic and health care fields who continue against great odds to keep civil society and the human dimension alive.


Washington: You speak of a balanced approach by the U.S. to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but where do you see balance? I've been following this conflict for many years, and the U.S. very clearly provides more support (in many forms) to Israel. Do you disagree with this?

Aaron David Miller: No, I don't think we're an honest broker. I think we at times can be an effective broker, and there only have been three occasions -- Kissinger's disengagement approach in the '70s, Jimmy Carter's efforts for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and Jim Baker's efforts to put Madrid together. We have a special relationship with Israel that is critical in a peacemaking capacity but it can't become exclusive. When it does, we can't continue to be an effective broker. We've tipped far too much toward the Israelis through the Clinton and Bush years, and if the president wants an agreement, he's going to have to be tough on both parties, and nobody is going to plant a tree in his honor if he succeeds.


Freising, Germany: Were Lebanon and Hezbollah on the agenda in the Annapolis Summit?

Aaron David Miller: The president referred to Lebanon a couple of times, but it's not on the agenda.


Seaford, N.Y.: What role does economic development play in peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Can the U.S. and Israel help to build up their economy so that they feel they have a greater stake in peace with Israel?

Aaron David Miller: The economic component of peacemaking is critical, but it can't be done without reaching a political agreement. I've heard a lot of talk about a "Marshall Plan" for Gaza and the West Bank. And that doesn't work because the Marshall Plan in the wake of World War II was designed for a post-conflict situation. Sadly what we have in Gaza and the West Bank is a conflict that disrupts economic life, and if you can't move people and goods, you can't have a normal economy.


Aaron David Miller: I really enjoyed the hour; I appreciate the candor and frankness of the questions. I hope I've responded in kind. My only advice would be, keep your hopes high but your expectations low on Arab-Israeli peace -- it's a long movie and it's really going to require a lot of effort by everyone involved to see it through.


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