'United Nations could step in': Aaron David Miller, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Miller says Israel-Saudi Arabia normalisation is still possible

231012-N-SK336-1051 Eye in the sky: An E-2D Hawkeye early-warning aircraft launches from the world's largest aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford deployed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea | US NAVY
Aaron David Miller Aaron David Miller

As Israel continues to pound the Gaza Strip following the October 7 Hamas attacks, Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said both Israelis and Palestinians should invest in negotiations for their own reasons and not to satisfy external powers. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Miller spoke about the role of the US and the future of the normalisation process between Israel and the Arab states. Citing the precedent of the UN trusteeship in Kosovo, he suggested that an intervention by the United Nations could be one of the solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Excerpts:

Q/ President Joe Biden’s visit to Jordan got cancelled after the hospital attack in Gaza, limiting the scope of intervention by the United States. Is it a huge setback?

A/ I think the president had three objectives. The first was to reassure a badly traumatised Israeli public that had lost faith in the leadership and I think he accomplished that goal. Second, to press the Israelis on the need to open the Rafah crossing (from Egypt) so they could provide humanitarian assistance to families of an ill resourced, underserved and overpopulated southern Gaza that has the makings of a huge humanitarian disaster. And third, to have a very tough conversation with the Israeli prime minister about what the Israelis are planning in Gaza. On that score, the president pressed the need for proportionality. I think he even raised with the prime minister whether or not there were any alternatives to a massive ground campaign. The trip was affected by the strike on the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. And while intelligence assessments are not yet complete, it appears that that strike was carried out by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad missile, which fell short of target. That unfortunately led to the cancellation of a summit in Amman in which the president was supposed to meet with the president of Egypt, Jordan's King Abdullah and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. It created a bad impression throughout the region, that Biden was here on an Israel-only trip that denied him the possibility of engaging with these three leaders. But since it was very important, it was followed up by a phone call because the Egyptians are absolutely essential as they control the Rafah crossing. It is necessary that their concerns are met and humanitarian assistance is carried out. So I think it was a tough trip, a difficult one but it was important that the president went there now.

The questions now are twofold. First, will enough humanitarian assistance be able to get into Gaza, at least to relieve and alleviate the short-term catastrophe? Second, what about the Israeli ground campaign? It seems inevitable to me. The Israelis are also contending, of course, with a situation in the West Bank, where many Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers. The northern front is also very worrisome.

Q/ When we consider peace talks and a permanent solution to the Palestinian problem, how do you see Hamas playing a role?

A/ The idea of a comprehensive settlement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far away. First, you need leaders on both sides who are masters of their politics, not prisoners of them. Second, you need a sense of ownership. Israelis and Palestinians need to invest in these negotiations for their own reasons, not to satisfy external constituencies. Third, you need effective mediation, if not by the US, then by some third party. And finally, you need an agreement on what the end state is, at least a general agreement. Whether it is a confederation of two states, the parties need to be operating within the same political space. We have never had those four factors aligned.

I cannot predict the outcome of this crisis, even though most of the breakthroughs in Middle East peacemaking were preceded by terror, war and insurgency. But this is not the same as the attack on Israel in 1973, which had the limited objective to enlist the United States and to inflict a military defeat on Israel that would enable them to come to the negotiating table. Hamas’s objectives here are hard to define. They have no grand strategy. They are not interested in negotiations with Israel. And the barbarity and savagery of the attacks on October 7 was clearly drawn from an Islamic State or Al Qaeda playbook.

Q/ The US is lending a lot of military assistance to Israel.

A/ As far as the US military is concerned, we have deployed two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean and I think that is largely to warn Iran and the Hezbollah to not enter this conflict. I don't think that the US navy in their deployments are designed to deal with Hamas. The Israelis, on the other hand, have already killed two senior Hamas commanders and I am absolutely certain, whatever is the outcome of this particular round, that all of Hamas’s top military commanders are marked men. And whether they are in Gaza or out of Gaza, I think the Israelis will over time, try to kill them all.

If I could paint you a scenario in which Gaza would actually be redeemed, it might not become a Singapore in the Mediterranean, but it would offer humans who live there more security and prosperity. And that means the United Nations, the Palestinian Authority and key Arab states like Saudi Arabia, fund this effort and the international community backs it up. But that would require a degree of focused leadership on the part of the international community.

However, there is a precedent for a UN trusteeship. It happened in Kosovo, including a multilateral security force. I could easily see a UN deployment here. The UN has been active in a number of observer roles in the Middle East, Lebanon or the Golan Heights and even in Jerusalem in the early years. So the elements that are possible to create this transition are there. The question is, will the post-Israeli campaign situation in Gaza lend itself to a more hopeful solution? And will the international community, which is preoccupied with so many other challenges, rise to the occasion?

Q/ How do you see the setback to the US-led efforts of normalisation of ties between Israel and the Arab states?

A/ I think that the Israeli-Saudi Arabian normalisation process has taken a hit. But I don't think that is the final story. It may well be that in a post-Hamas Gaza, if we can even use those terms here, the Saudis would play a role and you end up promoting an Israeli-Saudi Arabian context in the solution to Gaza. But I think we need to be very humble about what we don't know, particularly with respect to the issue of hostages. We need to exercise real humility, in terms of what comes after. The arc of history can bend in very strange and unpredictable ways.