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Abbas-Olmert Talks a 'First' in Mideast Diplomacy

Interviewee: Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 30, 2008

Aaron David Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, served for much of the past two decades as a Middle East negotiator for various U.S. administrations. He says the regular talks between President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that began before the November 2007 Annapolis conference mark the first time there has been such a high-level Palestinian-Israeli dialogue. While he does not expect President Bush to achieve the “peace agreement” between Israel and Palestinians he set as a goal for his time left in office, Miller believes that in the next six months or so, the Olmert-Abbas discussion could lead to “a declaration of principles on these four issues—Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security—that will go further than any Israeli and Palestinian elected politicians have ever gone before.” That could open the way for an energetic new president to seal a deal.

What do you think will happen with the Bush administration’s Annapolis initiative? President Bush said he expected a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians by the end of his term. Was that a pipe dream?

Annapolis was always about creating an event which would change the channels on the Middle East TV set from confrontation, violence, and bitterness to a situation where Arabs and Israelis were talking. Annapolis by itself could never have created the kind of process that would have led to real progress. Annapolis was very much an American story, but now what is afoot in the region are two pieces of potentially great significance, although neither one is being driven by the United States.

What is the first such development?

For the first time in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, you have a real relationship between an elected Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and an elected Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Weak and constrained though they both may be, the two of them have been having, even before Annapolis, a set of very quiet but fairly regular discussions on the core issues: Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security. I would call these discussions “informal negotiations.” But in my time on this problem we never really had the luxury of such a reality which you have now. Those discussions could in the course of the next six months or so lead to an agreement on a text, on a piece of paper—not a peace treaty as the president has said several months ago, not a detailed framework agreement—but perhaps a declaration of principles on these four issues—Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and security—that will go further than any Israeli- and Palestinian-elected politicians have ever gone before. That is the first reality.

And the second development?

The second is a set of very complicated, tricky negotiations—three-way negotiations that the Egyptians are brokering between Israel on one hand and Hamas on the other. These are not on the final-status issues of course, they are about the on-the-ground issues: security, prospective prisoner exchanges, movement of people, opening up Gaza, and regularizing some economic interaction. If these two things come to fruition you just might see by the end of the year the administration passing on to its Republican or Democratic successor something that looks pretty good, not a Palestinian state, not a peace treaty, but something that the next Republican or Democratic president won’t be able to walk away from.

That’s interesting. The possibility of the George W. Bush presidency producing something concrete after Bush seemed to be so disinterested in this subject.

Yes, and the reality is that these two events are not really an American story. I don’t see the United States involved either as a broker as [former Secretary of State Henry A.] Kissinger and [former Secretary of State James] Baker were in actually hammering out agreements. I don’t see that it involves the implementation of the Bush administration’s own “road map,” even though they have three- and four-star generals on the ground studying the security situation and doing training and facilitating some logistic support for the Palestinian Authority security forces.

Let’s say that you’re working for the next president and you’ve got to get a Middle East policy in place. Do you just follow  this kind of passive, supportive policy or do you think it’s time for a more activist role?

Governing is about choosing. The next president, Republican or Democrat, will really have to look at this soon. We’re in a pretty deep hole. We are not feared in this region, we are not liked in this region, and I would argue that we are not even respected in this region. All of this is coming at a time when America’s national security interests are more inextricably linked to the Middle East and the Arab-Muslim world than at any time in this country’s history. The real threat to America is not going to come from an ascendant China or an economically powerful Europe or a former Soviet Union seeking to regain its previous glory and empire. It’s going to come from a divided, dysfunctional, angry Middle East. The fact is that we’re in a trap out there. We can’t extricate ourselves from this region and we can’t fix it.

There has been talk lately in the press about feelers between Syria and Israel about restarting peace negotiations. Do you think there is something really there?

No. What is there is evidence that has been there for every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin with the exception of Ariel Sharon. Except for Sharon, all of them carried out back-channel third-party contact and probably direct quiet discussions through lower-level Israelis and Syrians on the issue of the Golan Heights. But neither side has been willing to face up to what price needs to be paid if the deal needs is to happen. That was always the case in the seven years that I was involved in this process during the Clinton administration and it’s the case now. If Israel wants a peace agreement with Syria then Israel is going to have to find some way to give back the entire Golan Heights and to find some arrangement that would assure Syrian sovereignty over the waterline on the northeastern portion of the Sea of Galilee and protection for Israel’s water sources on the other.

We are not feared in this region, we are not liked in this region, and I would argue that we are not even respected in this region. All of this is coming at a time when America’s national security interests are more inextricably linked to the Middle East and the Arab-Muslim world than at any time in this country’s history.

If the Syrians want the Golan Heights back, if they want the same deal that [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat got [in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979], which was 100 percent of Sinai and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements— which is what the Syrians will demand—then they are going to have to pay for it. They are going to have to offer Israel far more than some cold, formalized non-belligerency agreement. They are going to have to get serious. That is the real problem and Bashar Assad, who seems to me to have all the flaws of his father [Hafez Assad] but none of his strengths, has never seemed to understand that. And Olmert, who I think is more of a politician than a statesman, has been reluctant to commit himself.

You’ve created a situation where if the two sides really want to get serious there would be some back-channel discussion between them, like there was between the Egyptians and the Israelis, and definitely a robust role for the United States as a broker. We could help the two sides, as we tried to do for seven years during the Clinton administration, to work out a deal on security normalization and withdrawal. But we could also guarantee an agreement with forces—even though they could be international in character—as well as economic assistance, and a whole integrated approach to ensure that the Golan area becomes an integrated part of the Syrian-Israeli economy so that both sides will never risk conflict or confrontation again. I don’t think you can do this agreement without the United States, so you need an administration that is really prepared to get into this in a way that the Bush administration, for many reasons, chose not to.

President Carter was recently in Syria meeting with the head of Hamas. He came back saying that Israel should talk directly to Hamas and Hamas will respect the peace agreement if it’s approved by the Palestinian people in a referendum. You were talking about the Egyptians trying to work out a situation in Gaza. Should the United States do anything with Hamas or follow the Israeli line and refuse to deal with them?

I just don’t think right now that America has much leverage—incentives or disincentives—to use in order to test the possibility that Hamas behavior can change. It took us twenty years to get the secular manifestation of Palestinian nationalism, the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO], into a negotiating process with Israel. How long would it take us to get the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism [Hamas] into that same process? When and if it comes, it will come as a consequence of a secret arrangement between Hamas and Israelis, which we, just as we did when the PLO and Israel negotiated an arrangement in Oslo in 1993, will seek to validate. I just don’t think we have cards to play. A dialogue with Hamas will be a key to an empty room right now and I don’t think it will advance matters. I don’t think what Carter did represents the end of the world, but I don’t think it’s terribly positive either because what is really going on right now are two separate processes which Carter’s trip to Damascus is not going to affect—one is Abbas’s and Olmert’s conversation and the other is the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Israel deal.

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