A Diplomat's View

From Eyal Press

I spoke yesterday to Aaron David Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land and a former adviser to six different Secretaries of State, about the fallout from the war in Gaza and what, if anything, Barack Obama can do to revive the hopes for peace.  Few people who sit at the foot of power for this long fail to think through the consequences of disclosing what they've seen, which is why, on the issue of Israeli settlements, Miller's recent admission that in twenty-five years he could not recall one "serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister" about the settlements' damaging impact has caused some jaws to drop.

The aftershocks of Israel's war against Hamas will be deep and lasting, Miller told me.  "This confrontation will have an enormous impact.  A whole new Palestinian narrative is being created - of sacrifice, of struggle, of resistance.  You can't kill 1,000 people and not have an enormous blowback."  Does this make even attempting to play a constructive role a hopeless endeavor? "The first thing Obama has to do is ask himself a question," he said, "and if he doesn't answer it correctly you might as well hang a 'close-for-season' sign on the door. The question is: do you, Mr. President, believe the Arab-Israeli conflict is a core national priority for your administration?  Not an interest, not a serious issue, but a core national priority."

If the answer is yes, Miller went on to say, a lot will have to change, starting with the pattern of the US pretending to be an "honest broker" while actually serving as "Israel's lawyer."  "Effective brokers reach agreements that reflect a balance of interests," he said.  In practical terms, this would mean pushing for a truce in Gaza with provisions that benefit both sides: for Israel, an end to Hamas' rocket fire and a mechanism for monitoring weapons smuggling; for the Gazans, an opening of the crossing points and lifting of the economic blockade (Miller thinks working this out will take months, even if a temporary ceasefire is reached soon).  It would mean breaking the twenty-five year pattern he witnessed on settlements. "We've raised the settlement issue plenty [in the past], we've said it's bad," Miller said, "but 'serious' means why are you doing this? Give me a transparent accounting of what you're doing, because I'm not sure even you understand how vast and expansive the settlement project has become." And what if nothing changes? Instead of cutting off aid, which he views as neither warranted nor politically feasible, Miller favors "taking away our auspices" - that is, Obama telling the next Israeli Prime Minister "I am not going to say Israel is committed to peace when you are doing something on the ground which prejudges the disposition of the land you claim to be willing to give away." He believes not even Benjamin Netanyahu would be able to explain to Israelis why, at this price, expanding settlements should continue.    
The smart money in Middle East forecasting is nearly always on things getting worse.  Miller struck one note of optimism, the Israeli-Syrian front: "it is a doable deal - two states with a track-record of respecting agreements, no settlers, and a benefit that if it works Hezbollah and Hamas are presented with some tough choices." He was less sanguine about the general picture: "Obama's going to inherit a mess.  In terms of a conflict-ending agreement - that is, an agreement an Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian President can stand up and say to their [respective] people, 'it's over,' the chances of that happening are slim to none."

[hyperlinks corrected]