FIVE QUESTIONS: How Israel Should React To The Crises Unfolding Around It

aaron david miller israel palestine

Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons

The Israel-Palestinian conflict has been largely out of the news in the six weeks since President Barack Obama called for reinstating the 1967 borders—an idea Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed as “pointless.” But with another flotilla sailing for Gaza this week, Palestinians pushing for statehood in September, and continued uprisings across the Arab world, this could be a pivotal summer in this conflict.As an adviser on the Israel-Palestinian conflict for six secretaries of state, Aaron David Miller played a crucial role in structuring American involvement in peace talks in the region. His 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search For Arab-Israeli Peace, drew widespread praise as an even-handed, insightful mix of diplomatic history and personal memoir. Business Insider spoke to Miller to get a sense of where things are now, and where they might go from here:

1. Palestinians recently dropped their demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction before peace talks can start again. It seems that their confidence in the U.N. route is faltering as U.S. resistance becomes more apparent. Will these revised preconditions have any effect on the peace process? Does this seem to indicate the Palestinians are negotiating from a position of weakness heading into September?

I don’t know that they actually dropped that demand. It’s unclear what exactly their conditions would be until they are faced with an offer to talk. You can’t treat these as formal conditions. It’s virtually impossible to understand this on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. This is going to change all the way up to September or to the point where the United States makes a proposal.

I don’t think the Palestinians have given up on going to the U.N. in September, at least not from a bargaining point of view. Now that some Europeans have backed away from supporting it, Abbas may be less enthusiastic. They cannot gain membership at the U.N. At most what they’ll get is a General Assembly resolution with no legs. Or maybe they’ll try to gain permanent observer status. None of this is going to translate into sovereignty.

Even if they succeed at the U.N., they’ll face a major problem. All of this is going to leave the Palestinian public dissatisfied. It’s a no-win situation for President Abbas: if they drop the initiative, Abbas will be accused of giving in to the Americans, as he did with the Goldstone Report. If they succeed, they will face what I’ve been calling “the day after problem.” A resolution won’t produce statehood.

2. There were widespread fears a few months ago in Israel and among American Jews that regime change in Egypt would be bad news for Israel and bad news for the Jews. In hindsight, were these fears warranted? How do things stand now?

I wrote a piece in the Washington Post early in the Arab Spring—which I actually call the Arab Winter, I think it’s more appropriate—arguing that we’ve come out somewhere between business as usual on the one hand and Armageddon on the other. You’re not going to see the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel collapse, you’re not going to see the Muslim Brotherhood come to power. 

Who would want to run Egypt right now? Foreign exchange reserves are running out, there’s a 30% decline in tourism, and rising expectations of the population. The Brotherhood does not want to run Egypt any more than the army does.

Freedom of the press and open public discourse have already led to a toughening of the public posture toward Israel, though you are also seeing a warming of the Israeli-Egyptian military relationship. We are somewhere near where I thought we might be, somewhere between where we were when Mubarak was president and the revolutionary change that the Arab Spring promised.

3. Many of the same questions can be raised regarding Syria. Do you buy the devil-you-know argument about Syria, which says that Israel would rather see President Bashar al-Assad stay in power than face the uncertainty of what comes next? Does Israel have a dog in this fight?

I don’t buy the devil-you-know argument, I never have. The arc on the Assads is heading south, and I don’t fear the consequences of the end of this regime. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to be complicated—we don’t know where this is going. The opposition cannot overthrow the regime, and the regime cannot quell the opposition. One plausible scenario is the end of the Assads, but the continuation of some Alawi coalition with Sunnis and a weaker regime.

The important thing with regard to Israel is that no successor government in Syria will have a stake in heating up the Golan Heights. The Syrians tried that twice last month by orchestrating the Palestinian border crashers. It didn’t work and that tactic was proven to be counterproductive. The same logic with Egypt applies here, too. Syria and Israel have maintained the quietest border in the region, and that will probably remain even if the Assads go.

4. A new flotilla is setting sail this week to the blockaded Gaza Strip. Last year, of course, a similar attempt ended with Israel killing nine people and receiving international approbation. Do you see Israel learning any lessons from last year? What options do they have?

Israel has to be smart about this. But so do the Palestinians. There is no conceivable explanation for sending a large group of ships other than to create a P.R. extravaganza and to provoke or risk violence. I heard a quote today that there will be no goods and no guns on the boats. If that’s the case, what’s the point? This is theatre, and it will be bloody theatre if both sides push this.

I think the Israelis have a problem. You have a maritime blockade, and we can argue for days about whether it’s within Israel’s legal rights to maintain it; and whether it’s smart.
I think the odds are that this time you are going to see a different outcome. Neither side will be able to declare clear-cut victory. For Israel, the question is, how do you balance your needs? How do you establish the fact that the blockade must be respected without a deadly confrontation?

5. Where do things stand regarding Israeli pre-emptive action against a potentially nuclear Iran?

It’s a question of probabilities. I judge the probability of Israel launching a unilateral military strike on Iran to eliminate a nuclear weapons program as slim to none in the next year. The same goes for the U.S. If the Israelis do it, we will be viewed as complicit. If we do it, we will face serious consequences. Iran has the means to strike back. The price of oil will skyrocket. Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq would become a lot messier because Iran would turn up the heat there.

Still, the odds of an unprovoked American or Israeli attack on Iran in the next year are low.

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