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Kerry Heads Back To Mideast To Reboot Peace Talks


Tomorrow, Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the Middle East and South Asia. In a week's time, he'll be meeting with Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis, hoping to advance the prospects for peace. Those prospects are not especially bright, even by the usual dim standards of Middle East diplomacy.

The Israeli government coalition includes parties and ministers who are adamantly opposed to a two-state solution. The Palestinians remain divided between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank where, in fact, the new prime minister of the Palestinian Authority has just resigned, claiming outside interference in his duties only two weeks into his tenure.

So, what might come of Secretary Kerry's visit? Well, we're gong to ask Aaron David Miller of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who joins us now.

And, Aaron David Miller, is this a mission impossible or is there some genuine possibility of meaningful talks coming of it?

AARON DAVID MILLER: I mean I think the challenge that the secretary faces is not just how to get negotiations resumed. They've been resumed ever since permanent status started, maybe 10 times, over the course of the last decade or so in one form or another. The problem is, once you get into negotiations, how to sustain them; how to create a credible framework around which the current government of Israel - with all its political travails and the current Palestinian Authority, with all of its problems and challenges - can invest it. And that is really the Kerry problem.

Because even if he succeeds, he and his president are now going to own these talks and they're going to be responsible for keeping them going. It's a tough play, Robert, under any circumstance.

SIEGEL: Well, there is a pantheon of American diplomats, and even presidents, who've been involved in Mideast Peace initiatives that didn't succeed. Does Kerry risk his credibility or U.S. credibility if he comes home empty-handed?

MILLER: I mean, I think if it turns out that he can't even preside over a restart of negotiations, then I think his mission, frankly, will have failed and it would have been better off had he not even started. Because resumed talks that end up in a deadlock will leave the negotiating process much weaker, if that's possible right now. And leave the United States in a position of much diminished credibility. And that, I think, for a secretary of State - particularly one who wants to be consequential - that really would be a blow. So, yeah, he's banked a lot on this.

SIEGEL: It is commonplace these days to say that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution, which has been barely open a crack for several years, is about to slam shut, the possibility is about to end. Do you agree with that assessment?

MILLER: You know, I think time is an enemy, there's no question. And I think, yes, the longer it goes on without a serious negotiation, the more realities are imposed on the ground. On the Israeli side, of course, it's additional settlement construction and activity; on the Palestinian side, it's a dysfunctional with the Palestinian national movement with Hamas ensconced in Gaza, and the Palestinians that's already barely in control of 30 or 35 percent of the West Bank. So, yeah, time is not an ally. It's an enemy of the process.

Do I think that the prospects for a two-state solution are going to come to an end because John Kerry says that time is running out? No. The facts that are worth paying attention to, yeah, are the facts on the ground, but also the facts that exists in the psychology and political reality of the Israelis and Palestinians. Look, you could have an agreement. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were prepared to pay the price of what it would cost to meet one another's needs on Jerusalem, border security and refugees - and if Barack Obama was willing understanding that to seriously get into this - you could have an agreement.

SIEGEL: Those are some pretty big ifs.

MILLER: It is but what you're talking about is Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after all. And so, yes, the stakes are high and we have consistently trivialized the obstacles that lie ahead. The U.S. is critically important to this process. There's no question about it. I do not believe this could be done without Kerry's involvement. But that requires, first and foremost, a sense on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas that they're prepared to invest in this and own their negotiation. Without that sense of ownership, I don't care how badly Kerry wants it or Obama wants it, we're not going to get there.

SIEGEL: Aaron Miller, thanks for talking with us once again.

MILLER: A pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Aaron David Miller is vice president and distinguished scholar at the Middle East Program with the Woodrow Wilson Center. He's also a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.