A former advisor to six U.S. secretaries of state called for a "measured" American response to the new era of "fierce unpredictability" in Middle East politics.
Aaron David Miller - a senior State Department advisor during much of the Oslo peace process, who until recently headed Seeds of Peace, an organization that promotes Israeli/Palestinian dialogue - said during a Feb. 2 talk at the Union League in Center City that America should take a wait-and-see approach to the new Palestinian government, noting that it could take months to really solidify.
He made his comments in the wake of Hamas' convincing victory in last month's Palestinian legislative elections and the earlier incapacitation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Specifically, he told the 150 people gathered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute-sponsored lecture that the United States should not rush to cut off millions in annual Palestinian aid. A handful of bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress, including a nonbinding resolution passed by the Senate calling for a halt in all American aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas - which is designated a terrorist group by the State Department - recognizes Israel's right to exist.
"Do you punish the Palestinian people for exercising their right to vote?" queried Miller. "We will not cut aid. We have to find a way not to pinch the Palestinian public."
That doesn't mean he expects Hamas to change its tune; quite the contrary, Miller acknowledged that it may be decades before Hamas leaders decide to recognize the Jewish state.
"They have a belief system rooted in the condition that Palestine was never promised to the Jews; it was promised to the Muslims," said Miller, who holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan in American diplomatic and Middle East history.
But he said that despite the fact that Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian legislative council, he thinks that Hamas' leadership may decide to focus on social and economic issues, and cede international diplomacy to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose own Fatah Party won only 43 seats in the Palestinian parliament.
Miller did concede, however, that Hamas could indeed take a more aggressive stance.
Still, the speaker urged the United States to stick by its stated goal of promoting fair and free elections in the Arab and Muslim world, even if the results - as with the Palestinian polls last month - displease American policy-makers.
"It's very hard for us to push for fair and free elections, and then micromanage the outcome," said Miller.
And What of Iran?
In the question-and-answer period that followed Miller's talk, an audience member wanted to know what to expect from Iran - which is in the throes of developing nuclear weapons - and the relationship that could form between a Hamas-led Palestinian government and the fundamentalist anti-American regime in Tehran.
Miller answered that Iran does not have the financial capital to bankroll the P.A. should European and American aid dry up. He added that with the world focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions, that country's leadership would probably not want its "fingerprints" on terrorist attacks should Hamas decide to launch an all-out assault on Israeli civilians.
Does that mean America and Israel have no need to fear Iran?
Sounding a rather somber tone, Miller declared: "I cannot see how we are going to stop the Iranians from developing a deliverable atomic weapon."