Aaron Miller, Deputy Special Coordinator for Middle Eastern Affairs at the State Department since 1993 - Dennis Ross's #2 for all the peace process negotiations - addressed the Middle East Forum on October 26, 2000.
Over the last 20 years I have been privileged to play a role in a historic enterprise: the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the course of these years, I have seen terror, trauma, and violence, but I have also seen the resilience of this process time and again. I admit to not being an objective observer, for I have developed a profound faith in the logic and the power of diplomacy to resolve this particular problem. I believe that pronouncements that the peace process is dead are wrong.
But rather than predict and moralize in the wake of the worst violence since the Oslo process began, I shall provide six observations.
Not a Morality Play
The Arab-Israeli conflict is not a morality play between the forces of good versus the forces of evil. It is a complex historic, and existentialist problem that involves matters of political and religious identity, demography, and strategy. It is a conflict of competing grievances, traumas, and justices. Like all historic conflicts, the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolved over time and will be resolved over time.
Those of us on the outside who choose to help the parties reach that resolution - and the parties do want us to mediate - cannot afford to turn this conflict into a question of good versus evil because every agreement that has been reached between Arabs and Israelis has been about creating a win-win proposition, not a zero-sum game.
Two Competing Stories
Over the past weeks we have heard two competing stories compete for attention and primacy.
Israelis argue that they made historic concessions at Camp David II and then faced an eruption of violence orchestrated by Arafat. Palestinians desecrated Jewish holy sites and murdered Israeli soldiers, while the international community is biased against Israel. Hizbullah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers despite the latter's withdrawal from Lebanon, and Israeli Arabs have opened a "second front" by joining the riots. Israel, in short, is the victim, not the aggressor.
Palestinians, on the other hand, argue that they responded to Ariel Sharon's provocation on the Temple Mount and the death of five Palestinians the next day. Israel employs overwhelming military power, including helicopter gunships, tanks, and missiles, to fight Palestinians armed with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and guns. To parallel the two Israeli soldiers lynched in Ramallah, they have the case of Muhammad al-Dura, the 12-year old boy who was shot as his father tried to protect him.
The Continuing Validity of Oslo
There is a view that the Oslo process - certainly an imperfect process - has been permanently crippled and rendered irrelevant by the recent outbreak in violence.
I acknowledge that Oslo may not be relevant to the current crisis but it will prove itself over the longer term.
Its great accomplishment has been to turn an insoluble existentialist conflict into a solvable political one. By doing this, Oslo locked Israelis and Palestinians into a relationship from which it is very difficult for either of them to escape.
Oslo also profoundly changed the situation on the ground: 99.9% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza today - with the exception only of those living in Jerusalem - are under some form of jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. That fact, I should add, is irreversible.
Oslo is powered by two forces that are difficult to change: forces of history and forces of geography. For better or worse, Israelis and Palestinians suffer from a problem of geographic proximity - and neither has any intention of leaving the neighborhood or the other. This means that Israelis and Palestinians have no alternative to Oslo but violence, and I believe this is a less preferable option for both sides.
One of the most remarkable things about the peace process as it has unfolded over the last ten years is its resiliency and its capacity to reassert itself in the face of tremendous pain. Note how the search for an Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi has reasserted itself after every single exposure to trauma and violence. It has done so because Israelis, Palestinians, and key Arab states made a fundamental judgment during that decade that they need to find a way out of a protracted conflict that has cost them all too much. They were going to test the proposition of negotiations. This decision, which rests on the self-interests of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and key Arab states, is the best foundation on which this process could ever hope to rest.
Defending Camp David II
There has been an enormous amount of controversy about what happened at Camp David between July 11 and 24, and about the outbreak of the violence that we see.
The Clinton administration was criticized for overreaching at Camp David by attempting to resolve the four core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians - security, territory, Jerusalem, and refugees - in one summit. But neither Arafat nor Barak wanted, or could politically accommodate, anything less than a comprehensive agreement. The administration thus responded to what the sides wanted.
The second line of criticism is that Camp David II caused the current crisis. But in fact, President Clinton decided to convene Camp David in part due to an impending fear of a serious confrontation if no agreement was reached by September.
The American Role
The United States has to exercise its responsibility very carefully. While I am passionately devoted to my work, I understand that I do not live in the Middle East. There are no cross-border shelling, refugee camps, or checkpoints where I live, in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In an existentialist conflict, mediators do not simply come in and make proposals; it is too dangerous and risky. The United States cannot impose its will on the sides. But as the only power that has maintained the confidence level of Israel, the Palestinians, and key Arab states, the United States has a heavy responsibility.
When all is said and done, the forces of history and geography will impel Israelis and Palestinians to try to find a way out of the predicament and forward. Ultimately, it will be up to Israelis and Palestinians to determine whether the future that they want for their children is one based on unending confrontation and violence, or one based on accommodation, negotiation, and, one day, on real peace.
Summary account by Assaf Moghadam, a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University