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30 years after Oslo Accords, peace is far away for Israelis and Palestinians

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It was on a clear and cloudless morning this very day 30 years ago on the South Lawn of the White House, and peace felt palpable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: This bold new venture today - this brave gamble that the future can be better than the past must endure.

KELLY: President Bill Clinton stood alongside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the signing of what came to be known as the Oslo Accords. The two men, long steeped in conflict, shook hands.

(APPLAUSE)

KELLY: A handshake meant to lead to peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Well, 30 years on, peace feels very far away. Violence persists almost daily. Sitting in the audience at the White House that day was Aaron David Miller. Back in 1993, he was the State Department's deputy special Middle East coordinator. He then spent years trying to help implement the Oslo process. Aaron David Miller, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Always a pleasure, Mary Louise, to be with you.

KELLY: Take me back to that day. Y'all were - what? - in the folding chairs they set out on the South Lawn...

MILLER: Yeah.

KELLY: ...September 13, 1993. What was going through your mind?

MILLER: Sunny, hot, beautiful day. And I must admit, I was caught up in the moment. This was not process. This was substance. I think no one anticipated the breathtaking scope and expanse of what the Israelis and Palestinians had worked out by themselves - an interim process. Yeah, I thought - wrongly and horrible misjudgment, I must say - that the peace process, so-called, had become irreversible and there was no going back.

KELLY: Before we move on from that handshake, you know, for those who don't remember, for those who aren't familiar with those personalities, how big a deal was that handshake between Arafat and Rabin?

MILLER: I think it was huge. In fact, in many respects, there was a good deal of Israeli nervousness about Rabin actually shaking hands with Arafat.

KELLY: It was the first time, right? They'd never done it.

MILLER: Right.

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLER: Right. It was a beaming Arafat and a very awkward and uncomfortable Yitzhak Rabin, somebody - an authentic, genuine Israeli leader who had taken a huge decision given Israeli politics and would pay for his life in making that decision.

KELLY: So in that moment of hope, when, as you put it, you believed the peace process and forward momentum were irreversible, what exactly was promised? Like, I know this is incredibly complicated to sum up, but in a few sentences, what was the Oslo agreement?

MILLER: Well, there were two pieces to it. One was a package of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, which was really quite controversial. In fact, that actually endures for better or for worse.

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLER: The second was on the substance - a series of interim accords which were to be negotiated, which essentially had the Israelis withdrawing from large pieces of the West Bank, and a promise that the interim period would eventually end in five years. And permanent status negotiations would begin between Israelis and Palestinians. The logic of Oslo, Mary Louise, was that this interim process could generate the kind of trust and confidence that would allow the leaders in their respective publics to essentially then face the excruciatingly painful issues of what to do about Jerusalem, refugees, border security, and, of course, how to end conflict. That never materialized. In fact, Oslo, I think, produced precisely the opposite - lack of confidence, lack of trust, profound suspicion.

KELLY: Yeah. So I want to dwell a moment on the U.S. role here, because the U.S. has always maintained that Palestinians and Israelis have to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly. But obviously, the U.S. was deeply involved. You were deeply involved. And the U.S. was then and is still seen as favoring Israel. Was that problematic? Did that seep into the talks?

MILLER: There's no doubt about it. We were involved. But then again, remember, this was their process. We were all quite surprised by the specificity and the breathtaking nature of the compromises that both the Israelis and the Palestinians had made. It was their agreement. And unfortunately, it was structurally flawed. We did enter the process first to - we catered for peace. We were firemen and women who essentially were called on at moments of crisis during the negotiations. We really were far too often Israel's lawyer, when in fact we should have been an attorney for an agreement, lawyering both Israelis and Palestinians.

KELLY: So bottom line, how much responsibility do you think the U.S. bears for the collapse of the peace effort?

MILLER: I think we bear a fair share. I would never argue that the primary reason you do not have an Israeli-Palestinian conflict-ending agreement today is largely because the absence or presence of a U.S. role. I think in the end, the old expression in the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rental car, is profound and appropriate here, Mary Louise. I mean, people don't wash rental cars usually because they care only about what they own. So, no, the primary responsibility for why we don't have Israeli-Palestinian peace, despite the asymmetries of power between Israelis and Palestinians, rests with the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

KELLY: Well, this brings us to where we are now, which, to sum up - and correct me if there's anything I'm about to say that you disagree with - but we have Israel with the most right-wing government it has ever seen. Its senior leaders openly want to undo Oslo. We have Palestinians who are also deeply divided - two rival leaderships, and many ordinary Palestinians do not see the Palestinian Authority, which was set up under Oslo, as legitimate. What promise do you see? What hope do you see going forward?

MILLER: You know, Elie Wiesel once said, without hope, there's no life. And I agree to that. Do I think a two-state solution or separation through negotiations into two polities - do I think that's still possible? Yes, I do. But you need leaders who are masters of their politics, not prisoners of their ideologies. You need a sense of ownership. And you need an end state. You need some organizing principle. I mean, I still cling to the notion that the only logical, rational outcome is separation through negotiation. I don't see any other way.

KELLY: You're making me think back to that day on the lawn at the White House, 1993. And I want to just step back and look at the wider stage. The early '90s, when that happened, we were marking the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had fallen. In Northern Ireland, the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement was being laid. There seemed to be windows for peace opening in many parts of the world in that moment. Today feels so very different, not just in the Middle East, but more widely. So can you imagine another window like that opening for the Israelis and Palestinians?

MILLER: Frankly, as I mentioned to my kids in their 40s, I'm not prepared to say never. And the answer is yes, I can imagine it. But it needs, essentially - we can no longer delude ourselves or fool ourselves. We need leaders. We need an effective mediator. And we need a sense of ownership and a sense of partnership. And you simply don't have it. I would say to you that there are no rewind buttons on history. The '90s was the only decade in the last century in which there was no major Arab-Israeli war - '48, '56, '67, '82. The '90s came and went with no conflict. And that was in large part because of the hope and promise, and because of the U.S. role.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Aaron David Miller, who today is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was the deputy special Middle East coordinator for Arab-Israeli negotiations. Aaron David Miller, thank you.

MILLER: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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

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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.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.