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What's Different About The Latest Push For Middle East Talks


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian officials to Washington to discuss a possible resumption of peace talks. Kerry announced on Friday that the two sides have tentatively agreed to preliminary talks but when and if actual peace negotiations will occur is uncertain. White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday he hopes the parties will be in Washington in the coming weeks.

To discuss whether these efforts feel different from past attempts to resume serious talks, we ask a former Mid East peace negotiator for the State Department, Aaron David Miller, to join us in our studio. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: How significant is Secretary Kerry's effort to restart peace talks? Is it what you could call a breakthrough of any kind?

MILLER: I'm not sure I'd call it a breakthrough, but it is the first significant effort by a relentless and willful secretary of state to not only get parties to the table but to develop some basis on which negotiations would not only start but would be sustained. And that's the key issue here. Can John Kerry do what none of his predecessors have done with, of course, the support of the president at the appropriate time?

And there's a certain mystery to this process right now that I think preserves its integrity. I've never seen in 30 years of doing this and watching this more radio silence surrounding the negotiations than I see now.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you say that, the silence indicating what? That something serious is going on?

MILLER: Well, you have two ways to read it. Either there is a lot there or there's not much there there. I tried to get my friend Saeb Erakat on a conference call the other day for the Wilson Center and he just wouldn't do it. And that's really quite remarkable. There's a discipline and a respect for Kerry's efforts that is really unprecedented in Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you speak of Saeb Erakat you're talking about negotiators.

MILLER: I am. And that's also true for the leaders. To keep a "secret," quote/unquote, from an Israeli government, given the egos and the tensions that exist, particularly in this coalition, is quite remarkable. So the Americans aren't talking, the Israelis aren't talking, and the Palestinians aren't talking.

MONTAGNE: So you've advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. Is this, then, a promising moment that Kerry is so deeply involved at such an early stage?

MILLER: Well, that's necessary, Renee, but not sufficient. The fact is, you know, someone once said in the history of the world nobody ever washed a rental car. And you don't wash rental cars because you care only about what you own. Kerry owns the process. The real question is whether Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will invest in it so that the will own it.

Because without their local ownership, without that urgency, no matter how badly John Kerry wants this, the president too, it's not going to happen.

MONTAGNE: Well, when would we know and how would we know if and when these two heads of their respective people do own it?

MILLER: Well, first of all you're going to have to get over the talks about talks and get into sustained negotiations between the negotiators, punctuated over time, I suspect, by meetings between Abbas and Netanyahu. That would be the first sign of seriousness. Second, the less these parties tear each other down in public, even while they're negotiating, is another indication that this is real. And finally, I don't think this could be done without the active mediation of the United States.

Will Obama own the process? Which ultimately is going to be a critical question. Will he risk the political currency and the intensity of presidential involvement that is going to be required to close this deal?

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

MILLER: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Aaron David Miller is vice president and distinguished scholar at the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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