For nearly twenty years, Aaron David Miller has played a central role in U.S. efforts to broker an Arab-Israeli peace as an advisor to presidents, secretaries of state, and national security advisors. Miller is also the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. I spoke with the Middle East analyst and negotiator today about the continuing conflict in Gaza.
The New York Times said there was a shocking quality to Israel's attack on Gaza. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Israel's attack disproportionate. However, President Bush asked Israel to try and avoid civilian casualties.
Aaron David Miller: The Bush Administration has always given Israel enormous latitude to protect its security. That's no surprise.The subtext here is "keep going, but try not to kill a lot of people."
Military analyst Michael O'Hanlon said Israel is demonstrating its resolve, but may succeed only in making Hamas seek more vengeance. Do you agree with his appraisal?
There's no question there's going to be blow-back. Israel's operation is going to create anger and resentment on the street. It could lead to the resumption of suicide terror on the West Bank. And it's going to make pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement more difficult. But I think Israel reached the point where they had to demonstrate to their friends and enemies alike -- in the wake of their unsuccessful performance in August 2006 against Hezbollah in Lebanon -- that they are competent and serious about protecting their citizens.
If Israel wants the Palestinians to do a better job of policing terrorists, why do they keep destroying police stations in Gaza?
I've been asking myself that same question. I think Israel's goal is to undermine the authority of Hamas and kill as many operatives as possible. Obviously there's a co-mingling of military, civilian, and police functions in Gaza, and that complicates matters.
What do you make of the timing?
I believe the Israelis decided to act sooner rather than later because they knew precisely how the Bush Administration would react. Also, I don't think Israel wanted to put Barack Obama in the position of having this be his first foreign policy crisis.
Previous operations like this all failed to stop Hamas rocket attacks. So why is Israel repeating the same tactics? Is it political posturing before their elections in February?
I don't think election politics were uppermost in anybody's mind. However, I do believe the outcome of this operation will speak directly to who will be up and who will be down in Israeli politics when the dust settles.
Did Israel honor the terms of the last cease fire? I mean, did they ever really stop the sea blockade, or completely lift the land blockade?
From the standpoint of both Israel and Hamas, the cease fire had served its purpose and was no longer functional. I'm sure Hamas thought that by breaking the cease fire they could focus the world's attention on their economic crisis. I'm sure the Israelis thought the notion of a cease fire had become fiction. In the past, some real breakthoughs were proceeded by violence like this. But I don't see that happening this time.
Does Israel's all-consuming focus on security make them less secure in the long run?
It is a paradox: their focus on security makes them insecure. The Israelis have a legitimate problem, though, because they're a tiny country living in a difficult neighborhood. They need to find a balance. We can't do it for them, because we don't live on the knife's edge. We don't know what it's like. The United States doesn't have predatory neighbors to the north and south. And we have fish -- literally fish -- as our neighbors to the east and west.
You've said that Americans have many illusions about peace-making.
Americans don't see the world the way it is. We see the world the way we want it to be. We are pragmatic and optimistic and naive and idealistic. These are some of our better qualities. But they also get us into trouble.
You've also said that success -- not democracy -- has become the world's most compelling ideology. The U.S. hasn't been very successful in the Middle East lately. Does this hurt our ability as negotiators?
Failure creates weakness and the impression of incompetence. Right now the U.S. is not admired, feared, or respected as much as it should be given the Middle East's importance to our national security interests. Turning the situation around will not be easy because the new Middle East is a lot nastier than the old one. The Obama Administration is going to inherit a crisis that will require vision, leadership, fairness, and toughness. It's no fun to be a mediator. You end up pushing people farther than they want to go.
Could the Egyptians play a key role?
Yes, they could. The United States has no contact with Hamas, so if the objective of this enterprise is another cease fire or some kind of accomodation, somebody has to broker it. Our relationship with Egypt has been better than it is now. One piece of unsolicited advice I would give the Administration is to shore up that connection. We need the Egyptians now more than ever.
Israel and Hamas both have said they will fight to the bitter end. Does anyone ever win one of these things?
The best outcome is when both sides win. That's not a cliche, it's a recognition that agreements -- like good business propositions and good friendships -- are based on each side getting what it needs from the other.
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