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Longtime Middle East analyst weighs in on how the Israel-Gaza conflict may play out

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About a month ago, we called an old Middle East hand here in Washington to the phone. His name is Aaron David Miller. He spent much of his career at the State Department trying to help broker a path to peace in the Middle East. When we spoke, the occasion was the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords - a historic peace deal between Israel and Palestinians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AARON DAVID MILLER: I thought wrongly - in horrible misjudgment, I must say - that the peace process, so-called, had become irreversible, and there was no going back.

KELLY: Fast-forward to today, Day 5 of outright war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules the Gaza Strip. Aaron David Miller, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MILLER: Mary Louise, it's always a pleasure to be with you.

KELLY: You know, when you and I talked a month ago, I could not have imagined that we could feel so much farther from peace. I could not have imagined how much worse things could get.

MILLER: It is true. But, you know, I was thinking about this the other day. The arc of history bends in very strange ways. I remember 50 years ago last week being in Jerusalem and hearing the sirens wail when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. And yet, within 6 years, there was an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Twenty years later, I sat on the White House lawn, watching Arafat, Clinton and Rabin sign the Oslo Accords, convinced that we'd reached a point of no return. And yet, that hope turned to trauma. So this is why I'm reserving judgment on the notion that this is going to result in a catastrophe and the devastation.

KELLY: This is so interesting because when I talked to you a month ago, you sounded cautiously hopeful. It's...

MILLER: Yes.

KELLY: Despite everything, you still sound cautiously...

MILLER: I am.

KELLY: ...Hopeful.

MILLER: We are about to enter, Mary Louise, a very long and deep and dark tunnel. The goals of the Israeli operation have not yet been made clear. But whatever they are, the nature of one of the most densely populated areas on the planet and the close-combat quarters and probably an expansion of Israel's rules of engagement, given the terror horrors that Hamas has created in southern Israel, are going to combine to create a catastrophe for the Palestinians who live in Gaza. There's no question about that. All I'm suggesting is the arc of history bends in very strange directions, and there is no military solution to this problem. So I refuse to abandon the notion that everything is lost, and I realize how strange that seems in the wake of the horrors we witnessed.

KELLY: I want you to listen to part of what President Biden said yesterday. He spoke at the White House. He described the attack over the weekend by Hamas in graphic terms.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is an act of sheer evil - more than 1,000 civilians slaughtered - not just killed - slaughtered - in Israel.

KELLY: Not just killed - slaughtered. Aaron David Miller, you have served many years, served multiple administrations, both Democratic and Republican, here in Washington. As you listened to Biden at the White House yesterday, I wonder, have you ever heard an American president so - not just so forceful, but so angry in his defense of Israel?

MILLER: The answer is no. That was the most personal and emotional speech I think I've ever heard Joe Biden give. His reference to the black hole of loss was deeply personal in view of the president's own experience. And it reflects a president of a different generation - a president whose love for Israel, the people of Israel, the idea of Israel is deeply impressed on his emotional and political DNA - not for Benjamin Netanyahu, not for the current government of Israel.

KELLY: On the specifics of the U.S. response, the U.S. has deployed a carrier strike group to the Mediterranean. The U.S. is sending weapons, military assistance. Is this the right move? What's your assessment of how the U.S. is responding so far?

MILLER: I mean, right now, we are not a central player. We can give all the advice we want to the Israelis, but this is being driven by an Israeli government who has presided over the largest loss in a single day of Jews since the Nazi Holocaust. And that frame, I think, is going to drive the Israelis to deepen and broaden this campaign, as they have said, and many Israeli officials, to, quote, "create a new reality."

KELLY: Create a new Middle East, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it. Israel is cutting off food and water and electricity to Gaza. We're getting word today from Gaza that the power there is now out. Does the U.S., even as it stands with its ally Israel, have a responsibility to stand with Palestinian civilians?

MILLER: I think that's absolutely the case. And...

KELLY: And how does it do that? Is that through pressuring Netanyahu and saying, we support you, but there are lines?

MILLER: I think - it's not a satisfactory response, Mary Louise, but, you know, the U.S. is now involved in negotiating with the Egyptians and the Israelis to create a humanitarian corridor which would allow humanitarian aid, food and medicine in through Egypt and allow Palestinians and U.S. aid workers - so in Gaza - to leave. I do not expect that you are going to see a blanket condemnation of Israeli tactics now, let alone a declaration that Israelis have violated international law in what they've done. That may in fact be the case, but you're not going to hear that from this administration.

KELLY: You will be aware there's a lot of talk about a coming ground invasion - that it is inevitable that Israel will try to completely crush Hamas in Gaza. Do you believe that? Is it inevitable?

MILLER: No. And I'll be looking forward to the articulation of Israeli goals - which they really have to do - to the public. Is this wash, rinse and repeat simply to retard Hamas' military capacity, try to kill its leadership? Or is this something more fundamental - to actually undermine Hamas' capacity to govern as an organizing body in Gaza? And if, in fact, that is the case, what does the day after look like? Do the Israelis stay for a semipermanent occupation? Do they call for the U.N. to come in and create a transition mechanism, bringing the Palestinian Authority from Ramallah, with the Saudis and the other Gulf states providing billions of dollars in reconstruction aid and the international community mobilized now for the first time with will, skill and resources to turn Gaza from an open-air prison into something that offers 2.3 million Palestinians a better quality of life and a future? Is that even remotely possible in the wake of these developments and all of the loss of life? I don't know.

KELLY: I mean, that's my question to you. Do you still stand by the notion that the only outcome - the only way this truly ends - is separation through negotiation? It does feel awfully far away.

MILLER: That's been my position from the beginning. I think it's driven, Mary Louise, by the proximity problem.

KELLY: The proximity problem - just explain - that's that they're right next to each other and claim the same land?

MILLER: Living on top of one another...

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLER: ...Futures inextricably linked. Separation through negotiation is the only solution that addresses the demographic, the political, the psychological problems, and the problem of overlapping sacred space.

KELLY: Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the State Department's deputy special coordinator for Arab-Israeli negotiations. Aaron David Miller, thank you.

MILLER: Mary Louise, thank you. It's always great talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND ARTHUR VEROCAI'S "BESIDE APRIL (REPRISE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
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Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.