Mideast deputy pushes peace, ducks questions, in S.F.

As the old saying goes: If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck.

Just don't call it a duck if an official from the State Department calls it a mallard.

During an unprecedented public relations tour of California, Aaron Miller, the deputy Middle East coordinator, balked at the suggestion that he was trying to garner public support for the stalled peace process or spur the Jewish community to turn up the pressure on Israel.

Rather, Miller said he stopped in San Francisco simply to reassure those who are discouraged by the halted negotiations.

But don't call his mission public relations. It's "public outreach."

"I find a high degree of skepticism and cynicism of this [peace] process," Miller said in an interview Monday.

"I think people are highly distrustful and…worried that it will not go forward."

While there wasn't any progress or negotiations of late to report, Miller said he wanted to remind Americans just how far the peace process has moved since the Oslo accords of 1993.

The historic pact brought together two sworn enemies — the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — who promised to end five decades of Arab-Jewish bloodshed with a land-for-peace swap.

"I don't want to make [people] believe," Miller stressed. "I want to give them a way to look at the problem, particularly during this period when we have to wait for the outcome of the [upcoming Israeli] election."

An adviser to Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, Miller spoke to the media, members of the New Israel Fund and gatherings of the World Affairs Council and Stanford's Hoover Institution during his Bay Area visit. From here, he was off to similar engagements in Los Angeles.

"I don't make policy but I advise people who make [policy] decisions," he said in the interview. As a result, "I feel responsible to make myself available to people who are interested."

Yet the Middle East expert most expertly avoided answering questions about the peace process. He refused to discuss the impact of recent political developments on future negotiations — "We don't speculate." And he kept quiet on U.S. strategies to influence the talks. He instead preferred to focus on previous inroads made.

"The real question to ask," the diplomat said, is "not `Why has the process not progressed?' The real question is `How did we make so much progress despite efforts by extremists to use terror to obstruct the process?'"

Miller cited the Rabin assassination, the Hebron mosque massacre and a spate of Hamas bombings as evidence that even the worst nightmares cannot derail the determined course of peace.

Outside the realm of negotiations, he pointed to indicators of long-term progress, such as the formal recognition of Israel by most Arab nations as well as efforts in Israel's private sector to form commercial ties with Israel's neighbors.

Miller then narrowed his gaze and lowered his voice to an incredulous whisper, "I think that would stun people."

He conceded that there are still obstacles to overcome on the road to peace: Israelis and Palestinians must make a mutual commitment to the process. Both parties must change their attitude from a tendency to spar over small details to single-minded dedication in solving substantive issues. And finally, he said a feeling of partnership must evolve.

The conversation struck a personal note when Miller expressed a deep faith in the prospects of a final settlement. A Ph.D. in American diplomatic and Middle East history, he has devoted nearly 20 years to the issue and steered five secretaries of state through the shifting sands of Middle East affairs.

His wife has been active in the Arab-Jewish relations group Seeds of Peace and perhaps just as important, he said his two teenagers are relying on him to solve the thorny conflict.

Miller said his peace team will be equally committed to whichever Israeli government emerges from the May elections as long as both Israelis and Palestinians show interest in the implementation of the Wye agreement.

"This was the 10-year period during which the foundation for resolving this conflict was laid," he said. "We are witnessing an historic transformation of the conflict of a people, five years in the making."

But don't call it an impasse.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.