Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday August 4th, 2013

By Barrie Dunsmore

About twenty years ago, I traveled to Israel with then Secretary of State Warren Christopher. It was early in President Bill Clinton’s first term and the hope was to get the Israelis and Palestinians back into peace talks. I’d been reporting on such diplomatic missions for 25 years, so I had no illusions and I knew the drill. When the talks were over I called the executive producer of ABC News World News Tonight – an experienced journalist I’d worked with for many years. I gave him a brief summary of what had been said and what it meant. Dozens if not hundreds of times before, he and his predecessors would have then told me how much time I could have on that night’s broadcast. But not this time. What he said was, “I’m tired of these ‘process’ stories. Call me when you have an agreement.” And he hung up on me.  

I was initially taken aback, but as I reflected upon it, less so. Following the end of the Cold War and the expense of covering the then recent Gulf War, big news organizations were cutting back on their foreign news coverage. This was a clear signal that Middle East “peace process” stories were going to be among the first to go.  

Actually there were some important Mideast news stories later in the Clinton era; the Oslo Accords - the breakthrough agreement which had Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn. And at the very end of his presidency, Clinton had a final peace agreement within his grasp, but it fell apart setting off a new, particularly violent chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  President George W. Bush drove the process further backwards with his invasion of Iraq (which many believe was at least in part to remove a threat to Israel.) And President Barack Obama, after unwisely choosing to make Israeli settlements in the disputed territories his first issue, has made no headway at all. Meantime the once promising prospect of a two- state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is now effectively dead. 

So what did I think this past week when the Israelis and Palestinians re-started actual face-to-face peace talks for the first time in five years?  The diplomatic response might be to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson’s comment about second marriages: “The triumph of hope over experience.”  My more honest reaction: I have seen this movie many times and it always ends badly. 

Among seasoned analysts of this intractable struggle which has resisted all efforts at peaceful resolution for more than sixty years, reaction to new talks has been almost universally pessimistic. Yet there is one man, who has more credentials than nearly all the pundits, who has tried to make the case that Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged effort to revive  the “peace process” has merit.  

Aaron David Miller served as a Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator for Democratic and Republican secretaries of state from 1978-2003.  He is now a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center and has become a media go-to-guy if you are looking for authoritative, unbiased analysis. Over the past week, both the Washington Post and the New York Times published op-ed pieces by Miller.  The two columns were not so much in conflict as they were examples of a thoughtful person arguing with himself.  

These are some of Miller’s notable points: 

-         “The gaps between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the core sticking points– such as the fate of Jerusalem and what to do about Palestinian refugees - are galactic. They don’t trust each other and “face ferocious domestic politics that prevent them from taking major risks.” 

-         The Arab awakening has so far produced only chaos. “Syria is convulsing in civil war. Egypt is mired in political dysfunction. Iraq is wracked by too much violence and not enough democracy. Yet the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is strangely quiet. Compared with the risk-to-reward ratio of intervening in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers a safer and indeed smarter bet. Indeed it’s the one issue in the region where U.S. interests and values coincide with the possibility that U.S. diplomacy might actually make a difference.” 

-         “The Israeli-Palestinian problem is a witches’ brew and is always dynamic. A conflict ending accord may not be possible now, but without a credible negotiation to manage the situation, it will only deteriorate further. For Israel the absence of negotiations would increase its isolation and rule out hope for a solution that could secure its values as a democratic Jewish state. Palestinians would grow even more polarized and aggrieved; they would find ways to challenge the occupation,” that could involve Islamic attacks on Israel with increasingly powerful weapons.  

-         “But if serious progress were made and even a partial agreement reached, it would significantly improve America’s image, help protect its interests, defuse a terrible predicament for Israel and facilitate a Palestinian state for an aggrieved people who have suffered without one for far too long.”  

-         “The broad theme of negotiations should be about the territorial (issues) – land and security. Specifically, the focus should be on defining a border for a Palestinian state” but even doing just this will be “excruciatingly difficult.” 

That’s just one man’s opinion - but a highly informed one. 

Secretary Kerry suggests even a partial agreement should take nine months of quiet negotiations. One of the signals to watch for is just how much you hear about how things are going. As I said at the outset, twenty years ago the mainstream media pretty much gave up reporting on the Mideast “peace process.” So if we start getting leaks from one side or the other on matters of substance, that could well mean these talks are going nowhere. Whatever my reservations about the chances of success for this new initiative, I sincerely want something to come of it – a triumph of hope over experience.

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