Will Obama's Visit Shape A New Middle East?

President Obama's visit to the Middle East has both inspired cheers and raised eyebrows among policy experts. But will his visit help reshape the debate over the region's future? Host Michel Martin discusses the trip with Peter Beinart, who edits The Daily Beast's Open Zion blog, and Saeed Khan, a lecturer and Middle East expert at Wayne State University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TMM from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in this hour we'll talk about why gender matters in matters of health and issues such as drug effectiveness and even how your eyes work. We'll speak with the head of Women's Health Research at the National Institutes of Health in just a minute. That's part of our coverage of Women's History Month.

But first, we wanted to talk about President Obama's visit to the Middle East. He made his first trip to Israel as president and spent much of his time talking about the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. During a speech in Jerusalem, he called on Israeli young people to become more involved in the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's where peace begins. Not just in the plans of leaders but in the hearts of people. Not just in some carefully designed process but in the daily connections - that sense of empathy that takes place among those who live together in this land and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about President Obama's trip to the Middle East so joining us now, Peter Beinart. He is a professor of journalism at the City University of New York and an editor at the Open Zion blog on the Daily Beast. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Also with us is Saeed Khan. He is a lecturer and expert in Muslim and Middle East history and politics at Wayne State University and he joins us from member station WDET. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SAEED KHAN: Thank you.

PETER BEINART: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Peter Beinart, I'll start with you. Because you've written a lot about - how can I put this? - the dissonance between the kinds of conversations that Israelis often have about the peace process and the kinds of conversations that Americans often have about the peace process. So I wanted to ask you first about why you think President Obama took this trip now and did he accomplish anything with it?

BEINART: Well, there was one tangible accomplishment at the end of the trip, which is that he seemed to begin to foster a reconciliation between Turkey and Israel. And relations between Turkey and Israel have been ruptured above all because of Israel's response to a Turkish ship that went to try to break the blockade of Gaza.

And from the United States' point of view, given that Turkey and Israel are two key allies in the Middle East both of which are important for U.S. policy. The other semi-tangible accomplishment, I think, was that it appears at least that he got some breathing room from Prime Minister Netanyahu on kind of a one-year window for the U.S. to try to pursue a diplomatic deal with Iran.

It at least appears from the public - from what Netanyahu said publicly, that he kind of accepted the idea that there is a year that the United States and Israel could wait before military action and that might give the Obama administration some time to try to pursue a diplomatic initiative.

MARTIN: Professor Khan, it was also the president's first trip as president to the Palestinian territories, and while a lot of the sort of the buildup to the trip was focused on the frosty relations that Mr. Obama is seen to have with the Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, there was a little less attention but I think also should have been some attention to the fact that the president hasn't been seen to have made a lot of headway on the Palestinian side or in sort of improving relations there. So talk about that side of the trip, if you would.

KHAN: Well, public perception in the Arab world in general has been quite negative and, in fact, has eroded since the president made his Cairo speech. And we find that the approval rating or perceptions of the United States, and particularly for President Obama, have not really increased in places like Jordan and Egypt and certainly in the Palestinian territories.

Part of that may be perceived as a bit of fatigue of the status quo being maintained as much as it is. Part of it may be seen as a cynical approach to the rhetoric that was occurring over the last year, and particularly in the midst of a re-election campaign whereby overtures regarding the Palestinians were seen to be less than neutral, less than balanced, on the part of the American president.

I think the biggest danger that comes from this is the idea that the Palestinians would take this current trip to the Middle East by the president as being part of a pattern; that this is not going to shift the proverbial needle. And I think that that would be unfair and unwise for the Palestinians and for the Arabs in the region to see it that way.

MARTIN: Just to clarify that, the Cairo trip was in 2009. So Professor Khan, do you feel that anything was accomplished on this trip?

KHAN: Well, there are two different ways to look at the trip, Michel. I mean, one is of course the symbolic and then there is the substantive. On the symbolic, I think it is certainly important to recognize that the rhetoric used by President Obama was a shift.

The recognition in the minds and in the eyes of the Palestinians of their condition, the fact that he, in fact, invoked the word occupation, which seems to have been absent in the public discourse for quite some time, would resonate with the Palestinian people and certainly has resonated with Arab and Muslims in the United States as well.

Whether or not this is going to be seen as a game changer is, again, an open question. But the fact that he is then asking young Israelis to empathize with their neighbors at a time when the narratives of these two people - despite the fact that they share a common physical space - is so divergent and is so different could have the prospect of bringing about a rapprochement at least in this generation.

MARTIN: We're talking about the president's trip to the Middle East last week. We're speaking with Saeed Khan. He's a Middle East and Islamic studies lecturer at Wayne State University. Also with us Peter Beinart, editor of the Open Zion blog at the Daily Beast. Well, Peter, there are always two audiences for a trip like this, aren't there?

I mean, there's the domestic audience and then there's the place that you're actually visiting. Do you feel that the president's hand has been strengthened in any way? Or do you think that his sense of what he's able to accomplish is changed by the fact that he's just won re-election? And, I mean, do you feel that that has changed policy in any way? Or how he thinks about the problem in any way?

BEINART: I don't think him winning re-election changes that much. I think the strategy behind the trip on the Palestinian front seems to be that for Obama to have more leverage over Netanyahu, he has to be more popular among Israelis. And that if this trip manages to change Obama's relationship with the Israeli public, then potentially it gives him the ability to put pressure on Netanyahu in a way that Netanyahu finds it harder to resist.

Unfortunately, the political reality of this newly created Israeli government is that, given its own druthers, it is very, very unlikely to make any significant moves towards the creation of a real viable Palestinian state.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Khan, would you expand on that point? And also something that you said earlier - you think it would be a mistake for people in the region to misread the president here. I wanted to ask you to expand on that. I'm also - I'm thinking also about the fact that many of the people who many of our reporters interviewed over the past week on the Palestinian side expressed a lot of disappointment for the president's performance overall on the issue.

KHAN: In taking a look at the speech, Michel, and the remarks of President Obama throughout the trip in the region, it has to be taken in the totality. There were, of course, what would be seen as finger pointing and finger wagging at the Palestinian authority when he said that the insistence of Mahmoud Abbas on calling for the Israelis to free settlements as a prerequisite to negotiations is untenable.

That is going to be seen as obviously very harsh upon them. But I think that if one takes a look at all that was being said, one has to then concede that there was a strategic vision that the president had and it reflects the interconnectivity and the complexity of all of these issues when it comes to the Middle East.

The fact that there was this apology that occurs where Prime Minister Netanyahu contacts Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey over the Gaza flotilla episode is proof positive that Turkey is going to play a major role in any future diplomatic negotiations with Iran. This interconnectivity, I think, is something that should be emphasized and highlighted when people look at the region and not focus just on one axis of Israel versus Palestine.

MARTIN: Yeah, to that end in the time we have left, I wanted to ask each of you about Jordan. Just some interesting events there in recent days. The president stopped by Jordan on his way back to the United States. It was a brief visit. He spent just over 24 hours there.

But this comes at a time when there was this very interesting piece in The Atlantic written by Jeffrey Goldberg where King Abdullah, the leader of Jordan, made some provocative, I guess, comments about various sort of actors in the region. He ridiculed the leader of Syria for not knowing the meaning of jet lag. He talked about the Muslim Brotherhood as a Masonic cult and wolves in sheep's' clothing. He had some tough words for Islamic fundamentalists.

And the palace is now pushing back against this article, suggesting that the author has confused his own opinions with those of the king, but then the writer stands behind it and says that none of his quotes have been challenged.

Peter Beinart, I was just curious. What's your reaction to this? Do you think that this means anything?

BEINART: You know, Jordan is kind of a pillar of the American system in the Middle East, you know, a critical ally of the United States, an enormous amount of intelligence sharing, especially when you think about the relationship with Iran and now with Syria on the border. You know, it's a cliche, but it's kind of a bulwark of stability.

And I think that one of the things that when one takes a step back in the Middle East, that one can see is these regimes that the U.S. has relied on to be its kind of proxies and its allies in the Middle East for many years. Certainly, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah in Jordan, to some degree, also Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. Look, Mubarak is gone. The Saudi regime, which was another one in this system, is less pro-American than it was, and I think there are real questions about whether King Abdullah and his family can remain in power and whether Mahmoud Abbas will remain in power in the Palestinian Authority.

And so, for me, when one takes a step back, it's a story about probably the gradual erosion of American power in the Middle East and the emergence of some new kind of political system in which it's probably likely that we're going to have over the long term less control.

MARTIN: But, finally, just a final brief word from each of you. What's the Obama administration's next step here? Saeed, do you want to start?

KHAN: From the rhetoric of, and the overtures of this trip, it doesn't appear as though the United States is interested in disengagement from the Middle East. Rather, it is a shift to a much more nuanced perspective, a more strategic perspective and a more multilateral perspective.

MARTIN: Peter Beinart, final thought.

BEINART: I think 2013 is going to be, more than anything, about Iran. The president has backed himself into a corner by saying that we can't contain or deter a nuclear Iran and I think this is the last year in which he's going to be able to have a realistic shot, I think, at trying to get a diplomatic deal.

MARTIN: That was Peter Beinart. He's the editor of the Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast, as well as an associate professor of journalism at the City University of New York. Also with us was Saeed Khan. He is a lecturer and expert in Muslim and Middle East politics and history at Wayne State University.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

KHAN: Thank you.

BEINART: Thank you.

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