Mideast: 'Traditionally A 2nd-Term Problem' For U.S.

The peace process in the Middle East has been a back-burner issue for President Obama. Steve Inskeep talks to Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View, about whether the issue can get more attention after the November presidential election.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israeli officials made it known that Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to see President Obama during his visit to the U.S. For a variety of reasons, the president was not available. The two men have had a strained relationship.

Republican Mitt Romney has insisted he'd be closer to Israel on issues from Iran to the Middle East peace process. Romney drew sharp criticism last week when a leaked videotape showed him expressing a view of the Middle East peace process. Romney said he was torn, but described Palestinians as having no interest in peace.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes for The Atlantic and Bloomberg View, tried to help us sort through what Romney meant and what, if anything, the two candidates would do differently.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Part of Romney's analysis, I think, also has to do with the fact that Palestinians are in the middle of a civil war. Right now, it's a cold war, not a hot war, but it's been hot and...

INSKEEP: Between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, basically.

GOLDBERG: Palestine is divided between two warring camps. It is not analytically incorrect to say - if you're an Israeli or you're an American negotiator - well, who are we negotiating with?

INSKEEP: What about the Israeli side?

GOLDBERG: What he neglected to mention was the Israelis haven't shown a great deal of interest in even meeting the Palestinians halfway in some of their concerns. The Israeli behavior over the last three years, especially under this prime minister, has been to intensify settlement growth on the West Bank.

We all know that the settlements are an impediment - one impediment, not the only - but an impediment to a peaceful negotiation, a peaceful resolution. So there hasn't been a great deal of energy on the part of the Israeli government, as it's currently constituted, to move forward on this. And, obviously, the Obama administration got pretty frustrated by the Israelis first, and then later it got frustrated by the Palestinians. So it's sort of - there's an equal amount of frustration to go around. Romney neglected to mention that key part of the equation.

INSKEEP: Now, with all of that said, the Obama administration cannot claim to have made a lot of progress on this problem in the last several years.

GOLDBERG: The Obama administration has been lackadaisical on this question for a couple of reasons. A, this has been traditionally a second-term problem for presidents. All presidents are tempted by this. This is the big enchilada. This is - you know, if you can bring together the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael, you've won your Nobel Prize - or your second Nobel Prize, as the case may be. But often, presidents leave it for their second term, because it's so complicated.

So, yes, it's true that Obama hasn't put any effort into it in the last couple years. He came in somewhat naive, I think. He demanded something of the Israeli government publicly. He demanded that they freeze settlement growth. The Israelis gave a partial freeze under much pressure, didn't go as far as Obama wanted. And the problem here was that Obama had no response. He hadn't calculated out - or his people hadn't calculated - what if the Israelis don't do what I say?

Here's the interesting thing: the Palestinians had always negotiated with Israel while settlements were growing. Freezing settlements was never a precondition for the Palestinians. Once Obama made it a precondition, the Palestinians said - literally, President Abbas said: I can't be less Palestinian than the president of the United States. I can't agree to this.

So then everything got locked up in this issue of settlements. And, of course, settlements are a secondary issue. If you settle the borders of the future state of Palestine, you've settled the settlement question.

INSKEEP: Prime Minister Netanyahu is not seen as getting along at all with President Obama, in spite of his occasional protestations to the contrary, and the president is, in fact, not even meeting with Netanyahu in his visit to the United States this week. So how well do they get along?

GOLDBERG: You know, it's very funny. I talked to the president in March, and I asked him: Are you friends with Netanyahu? And the president came back with a very elegant answer. He said, you know, we're both so busy with our jobs, and...

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: He was nice enough.

GOLDBERG: ...there is no love lost. But here's the problem: If you're talking about Middle East peace talks in a second Obama term, it's not really possible to have constructive peace talks unless the prime minister of Israel and the prime minister and president of Palestine both trust the president. Right now, neither the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister trust President Obama to lead these negotiations - which is not to say, by the way, that one or both of those parties would trust a President Romney.

INSKEEP: So, if Mitt Romney were elected instead, would the president and the prime minister of Israel then be pals?

GOLDBERG: I think it's fair to say that President Romney and Prime Minister Netanyahu would get along. But I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is probably being naive about Romney's position on Iran, on the question of whether the U.S. should strike Iran or not. And, you know, ultimately...

INSKEEP: Meaning that Romney may not actually be that different from Obama on the issue...

GOLDBERG: I've always argued that it's more likely that Obama will take strong action against Iran, especially in the near-term, and I think President Obama is very sincere in his desire to make sure that Iran doesn't cross the nuclear threshold. And he's proven that through various actions. He knows the subject extremely well. Mitt Romney doesn't know the subject extremely well. There's a whole set of reasons.

I think on the peace process, I think Romney is less of an ideologue than Netanyahu thinks he is, and I think if a President Romney saw there was an opportunity to push Israel - certainly to push the Palestinians, but to push Israel toward a negotiation, there's no reason to suggest that he wouldn't - entirely clear to me that President Romney would be ideologically as predisposed to Netanyahu as he says he would now.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and of Bloomberg View.

Thanks very much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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