PORTLAND – The new leader of Seeds of Peace has no illusions about the impediments to a lasting resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For more than two decades, Aaron David Miller was a U.S. diplomat working to squeeze a Palestinian state into the small sliver of land occupied by Israel. It’s now been almost three years since those efforts collapsed.

Miller doesn’t hide his disappointment, but as the Seeds of Peace camp opens for its 11th summer on Monday in the Maine woods in Otisfield, he’s taking a long-term view of the Middle East’s future.

“Israeli-Palestinian peace is a long way away,” Miller said in a telephone interview from Washington before adding, “I would never let that disappointment and frustration prevent me from using every ounce of energy and strength I have to create a different reality.”

Seeds of Peace, which brings together youngsters from some of the world’s trouble spots, was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach. Miller, 54, became its second president following Wallach’s death from lung cancer last July.

At the camp, teenagers are encouraged to move beyond deep-rooted hatreds by eating, sleeping and participating in activities with youngsters from rival factions. Campers get the chance to voice their feelings to each other at “coexistence” sessions.

There may not be another American summer camp that’s so directly affected by world events. This summer organizers hope to host a small Iraqi delegation, but their efforts have been complicated by postwar political instability.

“Given the uncertainty of the situation on the ground, this is a very difficult proposition,” Miller said. “I’ll keep working on it, but I don’t want to raise anybody’s expectations.”

Campers this year include teenagers from rival factions in the Balkans, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Yemen, India and Pakistan, but the focus remains on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Miller said.

Seeds of Peace gained prominence during the hopeful early stages of the Middle East peace process, and a coexistence center was opened in Jerusalem in 1999. This year marks the first time Palestinians from the West Bank will make the trip to Maine since 2000, when the latest cycle of violence erupted.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a longtime obsession for both the camp’s late founder and its new president, though the two men brought different perspectives.

Wallach spent months in Israeli communities and Palestinian refugee camps while reporting three books. Miller has also written about the conflict but most of his experience comes from years as a negotiator inside the State Department.

Tim Wilson, the camp’s director since its inception, said Miller’s approach is more analytical than his predecessor’s, but the two men share a deep compassion for the Middle East’s people.

When Miller took the reins in January, he was not a newcomer to the Otisfield camp. He had spoken to campers as a diplomat, and his daughter attended Seeds of Peace before becoming a counselor herself. So he understands the responsibility he inherited.

“They’re impossible shoes to fill. John founded this organization. He gave it its inspiration and his perspiration for so many years,” Miller said.

One measure of the success of Wallach’s original vision may be that a camp for Arabs and Israelis in the Maine woods no longer seems farfetched. In fact, Miller is exploring the idea of a second camp in the state to accommodate more kids.

“I think Maine is the perfect setting for it,” Miller said. “It’s rare that a state opens its doors the way Maine’s opened its doors to Seeds of Peace.”

Miller says that in a generational dispute like the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s essential that hope remain alive.

“Aaron speaks of the lost generation. And those are the young people who are strapping bombs to their waists. And we hope to save that generation,” said Merle Nelson, a member of the Seeds of Peace board who lives in Falmouth.

Miller added, “I’m basically a patron saint of hopeless causes. I’m also a Baltimore Orioles fan, which puts me in the same boat.”

On the Net:

Seeds of Peace: http://www.seedsofpeace.org

AP-ES-06-19-03 1516EDT

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