Interview

PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite
Style:MLAAPAChicagoClose

loading...

Mitchell's Prospects for Lasting Israeli-Palestinian Accord 'Slim to None'

Interviewee: Aaron David Miller, Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
January 26, 2009

Share

Aaron David Miller, who for more than ten years was a top U.S. Middle East negotiator, says naming George J. Mitchell as the new special envoy for Arab-Israeli issues shows the Obama administration at this early stage is substituting " process for substance." He says the administration  has "no intention of making major changes in America's approach to the Arab-Israeli issue, because right now, the prospects of any sort of conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palenstinians are slim to none."

In one of her first acts as the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton named a special envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs, George J. Mitchell, who was the chief peacemaker on Northern Ireland and briefly worked on the Middle East at the end of  President Bill Clinton's and the start of President George W. Bush's terms. In the latter role, his commission on bringing an end to the so-called Second Intifada produced eventually the so-called Road Map, which has never really gone anywhere. What can he accomplish off the bat?

[Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas has two relationships that Hamas does not have: a close relationship with Israel and a close relationship with the United States. And yet, he could use neither of these relationships during this period of critical importance to his people.

I think what's possible is to create what I call "station identification"--let the world know that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are serious about achieving Arab-Israeli peace, and they are going to devote a good part of the administration's attention on foreign policy dealing with this issue. Number two, it's clear to me that they've substituted at this stage process for substance. They have no intention of making major changes in America's approach to the Arab-Israeli issue, because right now, the prospects of any sort of conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palenstinians are slim to none.

Gaza has so many moving parts--antismuggling, opening the crossing points, dealing with securing a longer-term arrangement between Israel and Hamas on the security side, the prisoner issue, which is now higher priority for the Israelis than ever before, and of course, the tricky issue of reconstructing Gaza and providing enough humanitarian relief. All of this is going to prove a very contentious issue for the new administration. These things are going to absorb most of Mitchell's time and become the focal point of the Obama administration's efforts. And the truth is, because you are on the eve of a new government in Israel--the Knesset elections take place on February 10--there probably will be no visit from the new Israeli prime minister, whoever he or she is, to Washington, which is customary and traditional, until April.

How can you really deal with Gaza without having some contact with Hamas?

You can deal with it but not very effectively, and it's safe to assume that there will be no change--none, absolutely none--in the administration's approach to Hamas.

Why do you say that?

By statute, literally by legislation, the United States is prevented from providing any economic or material assistance to Hamas. We have made a judgment by virtue of our own politics and our own priorities that we have no intention of engaging Hamas politically. And for a new president, who is neither "a war president" nor "a peace president," but a president who is trying to fix America's broken house, the last thing he needs is a fight. It would be a messy one with the government of Israel and the pro-Israel political community in the United States even if he started an indirect dialogue with Hamas. And frankly, right now, dealing with Hamas is the key to an empty room. If you had a reconciliation which would produce a unified Palestinian polity on terms that the international community, the Americans, the Israelis, and most Palestinians would accept, and you had an informal relationship between Hamas and the Israelis--even if it was indirect--and you had proof that the Israelis and Hamas were working toward a deal and had come to some understanding, then it might be effective for the United States to begin that process. But right now, in the current vacuum, with Hamas's stock very high and getting higher, such a reconciliation is unlikely.

So what's likely--some kind of international conference on Gaza aid?

[Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas has two relationships that Hamas does not have: a close relationship with Israel and a close relationship with the United States. And yet, he could use neither of these relationships during this period of critical importance to his people.

What's likely is a variation of what occurred in Lebanon, which is a large-scale but slow-moving international effort to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid. Hamas, however, with plenty of money from the Iranians, is probably able to secure the kind of material and financial support that would boost its stock among the 1.5 million Palestinians who are suffering. In addition to that, you have to consider the anger and humiliation and rage giving way to a whole new narrative of struggle on the streets of Gaza. The chances of importing a new Palestinian leadership into this situation in an effort to undermine or replace Hamas are slim to none. No Palestinian leader who has not personally endured the last month of the Israeli aerial assaults and ground efforts would be able to have legitimacy on the streets of Gaza. So, the Israelis damaged Hamas's military infrastructure and did create a measure of deterrence--there will be no barrages of rockets of consequence for some time to come. But the Israelis clearly, at least as of now, have lost the hearts-and-minds struggle and the fight for who won the war. You know, how a war is perceived is very important.

The end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War gave Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger a major opportunity for diplomacy between Egypt and Israel, which led to the first disengagement agreement in 1974, which was followed by a Syrian-Israeli agreement that same year, and a second Egyptian-Israeli accord in 1975. But this is a different situation, I take it?

Let's look at the past. You have the 1973-75 example, which you referred to. You've got the first intifada in the late 1980s, which gave rise to a whole new set of relationships leading to a U.S.-PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] dialogue. You had the first Persian Gulf War, which gave President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker the opportunity to create an opening at the Madrid Middle East Conference. The problem here is that you're unlikely to get that kind of clarity from this particular situation, in large part because you've got two actors, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, who right now have no incentive or motivation, or frankly, opportunity to use a military confrontation to create a political opening. It's still not win-win.

And the role of President Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestine Authority on the West Bank,  is diminished severely, I suppose.

He will remain as president  because we and the Israelis, together with the international community, will continue to make him relevant. But if you look at what occurred during the Gaza conflict, in which Abbas was sidelined during one of the most critical moments in the history of the Palestinians , you have to wonder what Palestinians are thinking. Abbas has two relationships that Hamas does not have: a close relationship with Israel and a close relationship with the United States. And yet, he could use neither of these relationships during this period of critical importance to his people. He could not restrain the Israelis or persuade the United States to do so. And on his own, he could not do anything to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. In the end, if Israel wants quiet for its southern community, it doesn't go to Abbas, it has to go to Hamas. If Israel wants Gilad Shalit [the soldier kidnapped by Hamas in 2006] back, it doesn't go to Abbas, it has to go to Hamas. So, you have to wonder about Abbas' relevance.

And of course, right now the key player is Egypt, which is acting as a mediator between Israel and Hamas on trying to bring about a long-term Gaza cease-fire. Can Egypt really do much on the Gaza situation?

Whether or not the Obama administration is able to make the difference in the end is not going to depend on who they appoint as their envoy. It’s going to depend on how much Barack Obama, in the end, really decides to make the Arab issue a top priority.

The Egyptians will want, with the Americans in the background,  to shore up an Israeli agreement with Hamas. Frankly, without the Egyptians, we would have no strategy. We would have no approach. This is one of the curious differences between the Bush administration and the new administration. I've never seen a moment in Middle Eastern diplomacy where there are more chefs stirring the pot than now. The Turks were involved for the last several years in brokering an Israeli-Syrian series of discussions. The Qataris were involved in achieving an internal Lebanese reconciliation [in 2008]. The Egyptians were involved, along with the Yemenis and just about everybody else in the Arab world, in trying to create a basis for Hamas-Palestine Authority reconciliation. The Egyptians have been involved in brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. America has been marginalized.

Do you mean the United States is not in a position to do much, even though Obama says we should?

Frankly, the challenge that the Obama administration is going to face is that we are neither feared, admired, nor respected as much as we need to be in a part of the world that is increasingly important to our security and that of our friends. Whether or not the Obama administration is able to make the difference in the end is not going to depend on who they appoint as their envoy. It's going to depend on how much Barack Obama, in the end, really decides to make the Arab issue a top priority. Because if he doesn't, it'll take our friends and adversaries about five seconds to figure out that he's really not serious. And if that happens, that could be the end.

He certainly talks as if it is a major priority, but is it unusual that the secretary of state herself is not going to be the first U.S. representative out there?

I worked for six secretaries of state, from George P. Shultz [in the Reagan administration] to Colin Powell [in the Bush administration], and none of them agreed to bring in a high powered envoy like George Mitchell, who frankly could have been the secretary of state, who has political stature and negotiating skills and the kind of seniority to play the lead role on the Arab-Israeli issue. Secretaries of state very early in their tenure don't normally subcontract issues out. So in the end, it's something of a management problem for the secretary of state. More importantly, to become an effective and consequential secretary of state such as Henry Kissinger and Jim Baker, you need to "own" an issue, and not just own it, but you need to work it. And it has to be an issue that is perceived by normal human beings to be a really hard issue. You will be an effective and consequential secretary of state by taking on a problem that is really tough and is confusing at first and somehow resolving it. I'm struck by the fact, and I'm not really sure what it means, that this is an administration with an enormous number of talented people, most of them, I might add, who appear to be foreign policy leaders. It'll be interesting to see how all of this works itself out.

On the Gaza situation, is it going to take a lot of work to get Israel to agree to let in materials for rebuilding to help out the Palestinians?

It's going to be tricky. On the one hand, the Israelis are going to be under two sets of pressures: to help repair the damage they did, but at the same time, the Israelis want to use the crossing point as leverage to keep Hamas adhering to a cease-fire and probably to use it as leverage to get Gilad Shalit back, and to push the international community on Hamas. That is to say, if the Israelis don't get what they need on the security side, they will use the economic side to ensure that their own interests are protected. That's a really tricky situation, as is the reality of who is going to direct the humanitarian assistance that's done through nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations relief work.  Whose central authority is that going to be? The central authority in Gaza has been Hamas. I'm not sure how you get around that issue in order to facilitate effective reconstruction of schools, apartment buildings, clinics, and infrastructure, as well as ending food lines, repairing water treatment. I mean, it goes on and on and on. It may well be that Gaza reconstruction will be closed or will crawl because of this problem.

More on This Topic

Podcast

Mideast Not Ripe for Obama Plan

While the time isn't ripe for an Obama administration peace plan, the White House should try to reignite proximity talks and possibly work to...