Status Report: Obama And The Middle East
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
As Vice President Joe Biden wrapped up a visit to Israel, Palestinian-Israeli peace talks broke down yet again and set back the administration's attempts to put the peace process on the front burner.
In Iraq, plans to withdraw U.S. troops appear to be on schedule after Iraqis voted in national elections on Sunday. In Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that the U.S. surge could start to wind down earlier than expected, but much will depend on the upcoming battle for Kandahar.
Efforts to engage Iran have gotten nowhere, and the U.S. now argues for tough sanctions. All this less than a year after President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Cairo, where he promised to redefine the relationship between Washington and the Islamic world.
So what's changed? In a moment, NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us to talk with Rami Khouri of Lebanon's Daily Star, Yossi Klein Halevi of Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Farnaz Fassihi, the senior Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
And if you're from the region, or if you've traveled there recently that includes those of you in the military and the diplomatic service have perceptions changed? How? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, as always, nice to have you on the program.
TED KOPPEL: And it's nice to be with you, Neal, thank you.
CONAN: And it seems clear that since President Obama took office the rhetoric has changed. Are U.S. policies substantially different in the Middle East?
KOPPEL: U.S. policy, you know, moves a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right. Sometimes, it favors direct engagement by the United States. Sometimes, as during the early years of the more recent Bush administration, it moved in the direction of saying let them all stew in their own juices for a while and see if they come to their senses.
If they don't have the United States acting as intermediary, either way, what happens is that the people in the Middle East, just as the people here in the United States and the political powers, tend to operate in what they perceive to be their own best national interest, and that means that the what seemed to be the intractable problems 10 years ago still seem to be the intractable problems today.
CONAN: And, of course, there are new problems, which may or may not prove to be intractable, those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KOPPEL: Well, to the degree that the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly has an influence on U.S. foreign policy, I'm not so sure that it's going to have any direct impact right now on what happens between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but again, step by step, and you're quite right in what is implied by your comment, Neal, and that is it's all related.
CONAN: It's all related, and indeed, if this new approach that the president promised in his speech in Cairo, to some in the Middle East, it would look as if the policies the United States is engaged in in Iraq and Afghanistan we'll get back to the Israeli-Palestinian situation in just a minute are not distinctly different than those that might have been carried out under a Republican administration.
KOPPEL: And I think if anyone is really surprised by that, it's probably President Obama's more-liberal constituency in this country, which listened much too closely to his campaign rhetoric and didn't pay attention to the very factor that most influences all American presidents, and that is how they perceive the nation's national interest. And that always looks different from the Oval Office than it does from the campaign trail.
CONAN: One change that is different, and this is getting back to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, is the perception of the president of the United States in Israel, America's closest ally in the region.
KOPPEL: Well, by going to Cairo and making that famous speech shortly after taking the oath of office, the president was trying to say to the Muslim world and to the Arabs in the Muslim world in particular, you know, don't let yourself believe that the United States is intrinsically opposed to your interests. We do have very close interests in common with the Israelis, but that doesn't mean that I can't be your friend also.
And insofar as rhetoric is capable of moving the ball, I suppose it moved the ball a millimeter or two, but rhetoric tends to be irrelevant. It is ephemeral. It lasts only for as long as the echoes of the sound. And then you come right back down to the national interest again, and you come right back down to the fact that President Obama in Washington has to deal with the realities, the political realities, of dealing with Israel, dealing with a very active Jewish constituency here in the United States. And the fact of the matter is that really, very, very little has changed.
CONAN: And for many in the Arab world who are not necessarily in power, one of the things that has not changed is U.S. support for the regimes that are in power: for the president in Cairo, for the kings in Saudi Arabia and the sheiks in the Gulf. Those are still the U.S. the U.S. talk of democracy, but very little action on democracy.
KOPPEL: That's exactly right, and if you look at the two countries not just in the Middle East but in the world that receive the most foreign aid from the United States, they continue to be as they have been for the past 20 or 30 years: Israel number one, Egypt number two.
CONAN: For the rest of this hour, Ted Koppel and I will be talking with three smart people who are who spend a great deal of time in that part of the world and are close observers. We're going to be speaking with Yossi Klein Halevi, who is in Israel; with Rami Khouri, who's often based in Beirut; and with Farnaz Fassihi, once based in Tehran while that was possible, now following events in Iran from Beirut, as many Western reporters are forced to do now.
We want to hear from you, too, those of you have traveled in the region recently. That includes those of you in the military and the diplomatic corps. Since President Obama has taken office, since his promise of a new direction with the Islamic world, what has changed? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
But let's go first to Israel. Vice President Joe Biden is on his way back. Instead of sparking new peace negotiations, his visit devolved into a diplomatic embarrassment. Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and joins us from his home there. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI (Senior Fellow, Shalem Center): Thank you, Neal, nice to be with you.
CONAN: And how big a debacle has been this visit by Vice President Biden, not his visit but the timing of the announcement that 1,600 new housing units were to be built in East Jerusalem, which torpedoed any progress which might have been made?
Mr. HALEVI: Well, a debacle certainly from the point of view of the Israeli government's credibility. And any way that you look at it, whether this was a deliberate provocation, which my strong sense is that it was not, or whether it was a bureaucratic mishandling, the result is the same.
The Netanyahu government comes out looking amateurish or worse. It created a needless embarrassment for Vice President Biden at precisely the moment when he was reaching out to Israel and had come to mend fences between the Obama administration and the Israeli public.
CONAN: He had the vice president had spent much of an entire day in various appearances, in speeches speaking about how devotedly the United States was determined to make sure that Israel's security would be forever the interest of the United States.
Mr. HALEVI: Yes. And you see, if it were now the 1980s, and the prime minister were Yitzhak Shamir, then this would certainly be a deliberate provocation. But Prime Minister Netanyahu has done a great deal to try to mollify the Obama administration.
He's gone farther than any Israeli prime minister, since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993, to curb settlement building. And there's been a great deal of bitterness in the Netanyahu government toward the Obama administration for its failure to acknowledge just how far Netanyahu went and the risks that he took domestically. And this now has really undermined Netanyahu's case against the Obama administration.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Gene(ph), Gene with us from Columbus, Ohio.
GENE (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi, Gene.
GENE: I'm calling because I was in the Middle East last June. And I went to I went and visited Jerusalem, a few other cities, and I also visited a Palestinian refugee camp. And what I felt there was and I was there during the time President Obama made his speech in Egypt, and there was - seems to be some hope on the streets of Jerusalem for that. But in the actual camp itself, they were not really well, they weren't really impressed. They really wanted to they really wanted a piece of their land back.
I asked them what it is that they wanted, and he the guy I spoke to told me that he wanted to be included as either he wanted the land. He didn't want anything other than the land or participation in Israel as an Israeli or as an Arab, but he wanted the land that I guess he grew up on.
CONAN: I see. It sounds like he was saying either a one-state solution or a two-state solution, in either case, a solution that includes Palestinians. And Yossi Klein Halevi, the land of course is not President Obama's to give.
Mr. HALEVI: No, but we now have two Israeli governments, two Israel prime ministers, who offered the Palestinians a state in virtually all of the West Bank, the entirety of Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. I'm speaking about former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then most recently former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert, in fact, went farther in his territorial offers to the Palestinians than even President Clinton did in his Clinton plan of December, 2000.
The Palestinians would have gotten the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza with all of the Arab areas of East Jerusalem as their capital. And according to Prime Minister Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, didn't even respond to the offer.
And the reason for that is because the Palestinian leadership appears to be interested not necessarily in a two-state solution but in the right of return, in the question of refugees or descendents of Palestinian refugees going back not to a Palestinian state but to the state of Israel.
CONAN: Another sticking point might have been that...
Mr. HALEVI: No Israeli in fact there is no Israeli leader - left, right or center - that would accept that kind of arrangement and would justifiably see that as a form of national suicide.
CONAN: And no Palestinian leader who could accept an agreement on just the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem, not just East Jerusalem, but we'll talk more about that in just a minute.
Stay with us. We're talking about the U.S. and the Middle East on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.
We're talking about what's changed for the U.S. in the Middle East over the past year. We've focused thus far on Israel and the peace process. In a few minutes, we'll get a broader view with Rami Khouri of the Daily Star in Beirut. NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us.
If you're from the region or traveled there recently, including those of you in the military and the diplomatic service, have perceptions changed? How? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest right now, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Ted?
KOPPEL: You know, I wanted to ask Yossi a question, because what you say is absolutely correct about the offer that was made of the West Bank, but it leaves out one of the realities on the ground that has been incrementally built up year after year after year, and that's why the Palestinians I think are as frustrated by these 1,600 new settlement units as they are.
As you know, Yossi, there are approximately 200,000 units in East Jerusalem, 300,000 units on the West Bank; in other words, half a million units that have been built, constructed, over the last 25, 30 years, and that creates a reality on the ground that simply cannot easily be ignored.
Mr. HALEVI: Well, I'm actually speaking to you now from one of those units in Jerusalem. I live in French Hill, which is a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. It's very heavily university populated. It's a liberal neighborhood, and I mention that because I think that gives you an indication of just how differently Israelis perceive the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem than, let's say, our critics abroad.
For almost all Israelis, building in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is as natural and inevitable as building anywhere else in Israel, as opposed to the West Bank. I would also make a distinction between building in the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and building Jewish enclaves in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which many Israelis see as a provocation, an unnecessary provocation.
So in terms of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, in all of the negotiations between Israel and Palestinian leaders, it has been understood by both sides that these neighborhoods are here to stay.
There are proposals on the table for territorial swaps, and my understanding is that this has not been an obstacle in negotiations. Yeah, go ahead.
KOPPEL: Let me ask you a quick question. Do you believe my understanding is, just by reading the papers this morning, that the Americans who were with Joe Biden's party accept the fact that Netanyahu, the prime minister, really did not know that the announcement was going to be made on the same day that the vice president arrived in Israel.
But he very carefully made it clear that it was only the timing that surprised him. He clearly knew that the 1,600 new units were going to be built. So what difference ultimately does it make? Why do you think the timing was as it was? I mean, that has to be for domestic political reasons, doesn't it?
Mr. HALEVI: The problematic timing has to do with embarrassing the vice president. It doesn't have to do with the outcome of negotiations, because again, these are 1,600 units, which by the way, we're not talking about units that will be built anytime within the next year or two. This is just the very beginning of the zoning procedures. But these 1,600 units will be built in a Jewish neighborhood, an already existing Jewish neighborhood in Northeast Jerusalem, and that neighborhood is here to stay, as all the neighborhoods in Jerusalem are here to stay.
So and there's no question involved of land expropriation. This is simply building in a neighborhood that already exists, and it is not at all controversial domestically, and that goes from left to right.
The only controversy domestically surrounding the 1,600 units was in the timing and the very strong feeling on the part of many Israelis that this was an example, and not the first, of this government's incompetence.
CONAN: One final question before we let you go, and that is: Is there any urgency sensed in Israel for a resumption of peace talks, and is there any prospect of it in the immediate future, do you think?
Mr. HALEVI: You know, the problem is that once Israel has made the offer, and has done so now on several occasions, of a pullback to the 1967 borders or the equivalent of the '67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and received rejection after rejection, the Israeli mainstream is frankly frustrated and close to despair about the possibility of reaching a two-state solution anytime soon.
And if you throw the rise of Hamas into that mix, where you now have two rival Palestinian governments, one in Gaza, one in the West Bank, then the chances of unraveling this and creating a viable Palestinian state within the next couple of years is really close to nil.
What Israelis, I think, are hoping to see is a gradual resumption of negotiations that will lead to more economic prosperity on the West Bank, and this has been a very good economic year, relatively, on the West Bank; a gradual easing of security restrictions, which has already been put into effect, to some extent, there needs to be more; and building the infrastructure of a future Palestinian state, which every poll shows a strong majority of Israelis would support if they were to feel that we would get genuine legitimacy for a Jewish state in exchange.
CONAN: Yossi Klein Halevi, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. HALEVI: Thank you.
CONAN: Yossi Klein Halevi is senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, with us from his home, as he mentioned, in East Jerusalem.
And joining us now is Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for Lebanon's Daily Star, and today he joins us from a studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rami, nice to have you on a good line.
Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor-at-Large, Daily Star): Thank you, glad to be with you.
CONAN: And obviously, we want to talk to you about a broader view, but just on the Israeli-Palestinian side, clearly there is a very different impression from the Palestinian side.
Mr. KHOURI: Well, it's not only the Palestinian side. It's really virtually the entire world that sees what Mr. Klein Halevi called a natural settlement growth and the difficulties of the liberal community, the entire world sees it as an illegal, criminal act, according to international law and Security Council resolutions. Even the U.S. rejects it.
So I think we really have to be a little bit more honest and clear about what is actually going on. This is a process that we the Palestinians and the Arabs see as colonization, expropriation and theft of our land. The entire world sees it as unacceptable.
The way to a solution is to find a compromise that the Arabs and the Palestinians essentially agree to that would allow some of these large colonies to continue to exist and become part of Israel, especially the big ones right around Jerusalem and near the border, in exchange for land of equal value.
But the land issue is not the point. The land issue is one element of a comprehensive piece that should not be made the only element, as your Israeli guest said, because the crux of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is over the refugeehood of the Palestinians from our side, the exile, displacement and refugeehood, and from the Israeli side, it's the acceptance by the Arabs of an Israeli state that is predominately Jewish.
That's where the tradeoff is going to come and where the agreements have to satisfy the core needs of both sides. West Bank and Gaza is an important piece of land that will hopefully become the core of a Palestinian state or the territorial element of a Palestinian state, but the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict needs much, much wider parameters, and the refugee issue has to be resolved in a manner that is negotiated by both sides and acceptable to both sides on the basis of international law.
The Arab League has committed itself to that, the Palestinians accept it, and even Hamas has said that if Abu Mazen negotiates and an agreement is reached, and the Palestinian people in a referendum support it, Hamas will go along with it.
So I think the Israeli perspective we just heard is a very cogent one. From the Israeli view, from the view of the rest of the world, it reflects an essentially criminal activity that has to be stopped.
KOPPEL: Rami, could I just ask you a question that's more of an historical question, but I think it's a relevant one at this point? Until 1967, the Jordanians controlled what is now the West Bank. They had every opportunity to give the Palestinians what the Palestinians are now demanding from the Israelis. They never did.
And I think part of the confusion that exists in this country rests on that very issue, that when the Arab world had the capacity to fulfill the Palestinian dream, it did not do so.
Mr. KHOURI: Well, again, Ted, I would slightly correct you there, but both of us being Syracuse graduates, I will be more kind to you than I was to the other guest at the...
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CONAN: And I'm sorry to report the bad news from Madison Square Garden.
Mr. KHOURI: I heard the bad news already, but there's still the March Madness to come, and we will be back. The Orange will prevail. But the reality is that up until 1967 - first of all, the Palestinians did not have a political position that asks for a West Bank-Gaza state. Now, the idea of a West Bank-Gaza state came about after 1967. And second of all...
KOPPEL: I understand but this is - there's still part of...
Mr. KHOURI: ...the territorial part of...
KOPPEL: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. KHOURI: ...the territorial part, as I said, is just one element. So you can give the Palestinians a state anywhere in the Middle East. There's lots of empty places. There's places in Australia. But we want to have our territorial national reconstitution in parts of Palestine that are going to be made available to us, which is the West Bank and Gaza, essentially. We are prepared to live with a predominantly Jewish state in what is the 67 borders of Israel. But those political conditions and national consciousness conditions were not there before 1967. The Palestinians were not asking for a West Bank-Gaza state. Now, they are.
KOPPEL: No, but that's precisely my point, Rami. This is, after all -the Palestinian position is that this is people that has existed for many, many centuries - for millennia, indeed. To make the point that they didn't ask for it when they might have been in a position to receive it from sympathetic, other - from other sympathetic Arabs seems to me to be begging a question: Why didn't they ask for it at that time?
Mr. KHOURI: Because, you know, in the 19th century, there was a not distinct Palestinian consciousness, nor was there Jordanian or Syrian or Lebanese or Kuwaiti or Tunisian. The modern Arab world was a creation, essentially, except for places like...
KOPPEL: Of the British.
Mr. KHOURI: ...Egypt, and maybe others. But there was, essentially, a modern, post-World War I creation. Zionism, as a movement for the recreation of the Jewish homeland as the Jewish people see it, Zionism also started in 1895, 1896. So these are modern national movements. They - these are ancient people, but these are modern, national movements. And it was really only after the rest of the Arab world was carved up, the Palestinians were - in '47, '48 - found themselves mostly exiled and displaced and disenfranchised.
And then it took a couple of decades, five decades for the Palestinians, finally, to come around to a logistical compromise, saying, all right. We will accept the West Bank as a state. We will live with Israel. But we have to do it according to terms that are in compliance with international law and legitimacy, and that are in compliance with basic human decency.
CONAN: Rami Khouri of the Beirut Daily Star. And we're - youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to - this is Jamal, Jamal calling us from Portland, Oregon.
JAMAL (Caller): Yes. How are you doing, guys?
CONAN: Very well.
JAMAL: Thank you for giving me the time to speak. But I am originally from Syria, and I am a U.S. citizen now. And I voted for Barack Obama because I thought he would be able to move the peace process forward. And so far, I'm really very disappointed, and I am worried in the future there will be no option left but war. And the next war in the Middle East might be very devastating. And I think a lot of people there are getting more and more hard-lined. And, probably, Israel has a chance to negotiate with the people now who are moderate and reasonable. But in the future, these people might not exist, and Israel might find itself dealing with people who are refusing even to recognize the existence of Israel. So...
CONAN: At least, formally, that's the situation now. But...
JAMAL: This is - look to me - look, this is the last chance we have for real peace, because I know - I lived in the Middle East and I live in the United States now, and I know we are heading to a really bad situation.
CONAN: Obviously, I should correct, Egypt and Jordan, of course, do have relations with Israel. Let me...
JAMAL: But I would like to see Egypt and Jordan - the governments have peace with Israel, but the people, they don't. And people in the Middle East are very angry right now because the United States is very biased toward Israel. And I think the Palestinian - they suffered for the last 62 years, and it's about time they have their own state. And people are...
CONAN: Jamal, thanks very much for the call. We just want to move on and get a response, if you would. Thank you. And Rami Khouri, that kind of concern about the anger in places like Jordan and Egypt, well, that's not inaccurate, is it?
Mr. KHOURI: No, it's not inaccurate. There has been a radicalization and anger throughout the region. And if you look at the Middle East in the last 30 years, you - everybody has been moving to the right and becoming more militant. Certainly, the Israelis have. The mainstream Sunni movements and the Islamic world have. Certainly, the Iranians and Shiites, their Arab Shiite friends and allies have. And you even have a militarization in American foreign policy now in the last 20 years with American armies coming regularly, it seems, to the region.
So everybody in the region has become more conservative, more militant, more right wing and more militaristic. So the whole region is in a cycle of terrible extremism and violence, and we're seeing the consequences of it. I don't - I never believed in last-chance scenarios. Everybody keeps saying this is the last chance.
Mr. KHOURI: People will keep exploring opportunities for a negotiated peace, but they will also keep - if they have to, they will fight to defend themselves to assert their dignity and to achieve their rights. It's preferable to do it through peaceful negotiations. The critical element now is not the Israelis or the Palestinians. We know exactly where their positions are. The critical element now, the only thing that will come out of these proximity talks, I believe, is perhaps more clarity on the role of the United States as a mediator.
The United States has been an unsuccessful mediator for the last 20, 30 years. They have really not achieved any significant breakthrough on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, probably since the days of Kissinger and Jimmy Carter before. They have to come out - off the fence and say what is the American position on a fair and reasonable and achievable peace agreement that meets the bottom line of the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Syrians and the Arabs and the Lebanese and the others?
We don't know where the United States stands. And it has to show the kind of credibility that George Mitchell showed when he was successful in Northern Ireland. And hopefully that'll come out in the proximity talks.
CONAN: Well, finding those bottom lines is not so easy, either. Rami Khouri is with us from the Daily Star, which is based in Beirut. Also, of course, NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel. Stay with us. We're talking about U.S. policy and the Middle East.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: We're talking with NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel and, right now, with Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star newspaper, about U.S. policy and the Middle East. It's a year in which we've seen President Obama declare that there will be a new direction to U.S. policy with the Islamic world in his famous speech in Cairo. We've seen elections in Iraq, a surge in Afghanistan, and very little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as we've seen in Vice President Biden's recent visit to the state of Israel.
Let's get some callers on the line. And let's go next to Jeb, Jeb with us from Augusta in Georgia.
JEB (Caller): Hi. How are you? And thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
JEB: I studied the Arabic in Yemen in 2008, and was actually there for the presidential elections. And the general feeling among the people I knew and lived closed to was really an optimistic one after Obama won the election, which is the distinct change from the normal cynicism about foreign policy in the region, which is not necessarily unreasonable, of course.
And starting with the, I think, the 2008 war in Gaza, I've seen - at least with my Yemeni friends - kind of a return to normalcy as far as their optimism or lack of optimism about U.S. foreign policy changing in the region. And especially since the sort of media storm about Yemen after the incident in Detroit over Christmas holidays, there's absolutely no change that I've seen, at least with the Yemenis and other Arabs friends I've spoken with to this point...
CONAN: Mm hmm.
JEB: ...and I almost...
CONAN: Can I ask you, Jeb, do your friends in Yemen measure U.S. policy by the barometer of the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Or do they care about, well, like that incident in over Detroit on Christmas Day about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well?
JEB: Obviously, the biggest factor in their opinions about U.S. foreign policy is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But now, I think, for Yemenis, especially, they're starting to look at themselves and how the U.S. policy sees Yemen as the big issue for them after the after it's sort of made the national stage, national media stage in the U.S. But absolutely, yes, the main (unintelligible) would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
CONAN: All right. Thanks, Jeb. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And let me ask you, Rami Khouri, in Cambridge: Does the prospect of well, after reasonably successful elections in Iraq on Sunday - and the situation, unusual for the Middle East, to have an election where nobody knows who's going to win, does that make a difference at all?
Mr. KHOURI: It could make a difference in the long run, but, you know, you had also an election in Palestine four years ago, which Hamas won, and then the Americans and the Israelis immediately boycotted the victor. So I think we have to take with a grain of salt the American focus on the importance of electoral democracy when the Americans themselves don't accept the outcome of it.
And this is why people all over the Middle East will judge Obama and the Americans by their actions, not by their rhetoric, because there's a lot inconsistencies on what the U.S. does. And people around the Middle East look at that, so they look at Iraq and they see a place that is in a much bigger mess than it ever was in recent years. I think the overwhelming sense is that the cost of the removal of the Baathist regime in the Iraq was so high that nobody would like to see it repeated again.
At the same time, there's no doubt at all in my mind from travelling all over the Middle East for the last 40 years that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Arabs want to live in democratic, stable, accountable and pluralistic societies. There's absolutely no doubt about it. It's - that's verified also with massive public opinion polling by Gallup and the University of Maryland and many - and Zogby and many others.
So we know that ordinary Arabs want to have elections. They want to live in democratic societies. But they want to develop this on their own. They also want to live in societies that are not subjected to foreign armies or long-term Israeli occupation and colonization. You have to see all of these things together. It's hard to take any one element -whether it's human rights or woman or environment or Arab-Israeli or democracy - and isolate it from the overall lives that people live.
And this is why the Middle East is so much more complicated now than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago. And it takes a lot more work to really try to bring the temperature down and reduce some of these conflicts around the region, because they're all linked now: Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan. They're all - seem to be one regional cauldron in which there are many, many small, little boiling pots. And it's very, very tough, but it requires much more able leadership than the region certainly has generated.
Obama was a breath of fresh air. People really responded positively to him all over the region. Even Hamas and Hezbollah were making positive noises about we like his new language, and the Iranians made some nice noises. But the rhetoric never went very far, and this is the big challenge now that, I think, Obama's first year is over. He's now a sophomore. And sophomores tend to start thinking about what they want to major in, what they want to do when they grow up.
Obama's got to now start thinking more clearly about how to actually achieve what Ted was talking about, which is American national interests, and this is really important. The next six months are really critical - not for the Arab-Israeli conflict alone, because that will go on, hopefully not too long, but it's been going on for a long time.
But it's absolutely critical for the Americans to regain any credibility because the U.S. is in a weird situation now where it generates neither respect nor fear among most of the people in the Middle East. The Israelis, the Turks, the Iranians stand up to the U.S., the Syrians, Hamas, Hezbollah. The people are not afraid of the U.S., nor do they respect it. And this is a terrible situation to be in, because the U.S. is a wonderful place, and it should be in deep partnership with all the people in the region.
But through a process of incompetence, it's marginalized itself. And Obama, I think, understood this and is trying to change the environment, but he can only do that if he starts changing the policies. And this remains to be seen.
CONAN: Rami Khouri, thank you so much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Mr. KHOURI: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Rami Khouri, editor-at-large for Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, with us today from a studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Iran continues to be a flashpoint. At the beginning of his term, President Obama promised a new approach with Iran, perhaps even engagement. But Tehran remains as defiant as ever over its nuclear ambitions.
Contested elections last summer led to a government crackdown on members of the opposition, as well as members of the media. And today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in the Gulf, lobbying for stronger economic sanctions against Iran.
Farnaz Fassihi is senior Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She covered the Iran election for the Journal until she was asked to leave the country last June. She joins us now from Beirut, where she continues to follow the story. Very good of you to be with us today.
Ms. FARNAZ FASSIHI (Middle East Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And is there - well, I guess you have to divide it into different categories: the perceptions in Iran of - has that changed, of the United States? And we're - I guess we have to talk of the government and the opposition.
Ms. FASSIHI: I think that's right. I think the perception among Iranians before the June elections there was that there would be a breakthrough, possibly, with the Obama administration, that things after President Obama's New Year message last year to the Iranians, people - in which he acknowledged the Islamic Republic in its full name for the first time and also addressed his new message to the Iranian people and the Iranian government, there was a lot of hope that perhaps something would change, that the rhetoric would, you know, materialize into some sort of a negotiation and a different approach.
Of course, the June presidential elections turned everything upside down because, you know, there was real grassroots opposition. People came out. And I think it left the U.S. in a dilemma, because since then, the opposition has accused the Obama administration of not really standing behind it, of still trying to pursue negotiations with Ahmadinejad's government, which they do not consider legitimate. And there's fear that if you negotiate with the government of Iran, then you've marginalized a very real grassroots mobilization of people for democracy and for change in Iran.
And I don't think the U.S. has made its policy completely clear. On one hand, it's pursuing negotiations with the government because it needs to reach some sort of a deal about the nuclear issue with the government, clearly. But on the other hand, it's also pursuing sanctions. It's also pursuing, you know - every now and then - human rights issues. And I think this has left the Iranian people very confused about exactly where the U.S. stands, and a lot of people are disappointed.
CONAN: And, Ted, the Iranian people are not the only ones confused. The process toward nuclear negotiations has been, if anything, glacial.
KOPPEL: It has been glacial. You know, I'd like to come back to something that Rami Khouri said at the end of his remarks, and that is we do have a tendency sometimes to fragment each of these foreign policy issues as though they were completely unrelated to one another. And he was making the point that, of course, there is a very close interrelationship. There are threads that run through every one of these issues we've been talking about, and in particular right now - I mean, one of the things that the Israelis were hoping for, most of all, from Joe Biden when he came over.
And this is why I suspect the prime minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, was himself not just humiliated, but angered by the announcement of those settlements, is he wanted to talk about the nuclear issue in Iran.
And the Israelis desperately want to know that they are going to be supported by the United States. And, of course, the Iranians are fearful that the Israelis may launch some kind of a preemptive strike against them. All of this, at the moment, actually, has a far greater possibility of bringing real chaos to the region, far more than the Israeli-Palestinian issue - at this time, at least.
CONAN: And - well, let me turn back to Farnaz Fassihi from - obviously, with Western reporters are barred from Iran, it's very difficult to tell. But there was an impression in - when we could get the news out of there that, indeed, this opposition movement was gaining momentum, gaining strength and presenting a real challenge to the government. Is that your impression now?
Ms. FASSIHI: The opposition movement is still posing a challenge to the government. They may have lost tactically in the streets because of all the intense crackdowns and the massive arrests and the extreme security measures that the Iranian government have imposed on the opposition people coming to the streets. But in terms of the cracks and the divisions within the regime, the Iranian regime is now facing a kind of three-way challenge. The divisions within its ranks - from conservative clerics to hard-liners to even moderates - is deeper than it's ever been. So there's infighting among the leadership.
They also don't have popular support. The economy policies of Mr. Ahmadinejad are under scrutiny, even in parliament. This week, we saw that the parliament voted down his request to cut subsidies for oil. So he's facing challenges even from the public. And also, there - you know, this nuclear standoff with the West. So it's - I don't see how Iran can handle all these - the regime can handle all these three challenges simultaneously. Something has to give. And the opposition is, you know, pursuing and hoping that, you know, as they move forward politically, they can make some gains.
But, of course, it's very unpredictable. It depends - as Ted and Rami said, it really depends on all these other factors in the region - what happens with the Israelis, what happens with the Americans, what happens in the regional (unintelligible).
CONAN: Senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us. Also, we just heard Farnaz Fassihi of The Wall Street Journal. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get another caller on the line. Claudette is with us from Boston.
Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) it really depends on all these other...
CONAN: Claudette, are you there? Claudette seems to be listening to the radio. So let's see if we can...
KOPPEL: She's got a good program on.
CONAN: She does. Let's go instead to Allen(ph), Allen with us from Allendale in South Carolina.
ALLEN (Caller): Yes, how are you doing?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ALLEN: I was fortunate enough to be able to be in Jordan last year. And I'm going to tell you something: Most of the young people I had talked to around the universities and stuff like that, they're not - they see Israel as being in bed with the United States. And they see, inside the United States, elements in this country who keep supporting the powers of Israel, despite what this country does - what Israel does. And if we keep following the policy that we are following right now, we're going to open up a can of worms. Any type of attack on Iran would unify folks.
CONAN: Allen, let me ask you briefly, there - were your friends that you were talking to in Jordan much more focused on the situation regarding Jordan's neighbor to the west, Israel, as opposed to its neighbor to the east, Iraq?
ALLAN: It was both ways. They see - most of the young folks I talked to, they see the policy with Israel as being what it is, America being -mostly doing what it is doing in the Middle East, in the interests of Israel. They even see what happened to Iraq was in the interest of Israel.
CONAN: Hmm. And - thank you very much, Allan. I just wanted to point out - and Ted, this comes at a time when the president of the United States enjoys popularity ratings in Israel, I think, in the single digits, the last time I saw them.
KOPPEL: That may well be, because there is genuine suspicion, genuine fear that this president is going to be less supportive of Israel, perhaps, than some of his predecessors. Quite frankly, I don't see the evidence of that. I would like to ask Farnaz a question, if I may.
CONAN: Go ahead.
KOPPEL: And that is: Why do you think that when the president offered his famous outstretched hand to the Iranian government, why do you think there wasn't a more positive response?
Ms. FASSIHI: You know, Ted, it's - the issue of opening up relations with the U.S. has always been very contagious in Iran. Every politician who's tried to make any amends on that has kind of lost his political career. The Iranian government has made this slogan of death to America sort of, you know, as its leadership in the Muslim world. You know, their antagonism with America has given them some sort of a leadership of, you know, marching ahead in the radical Islamic world.
So I think for them to make a 360-degree turn publicly and say, okay, now, we're ready for the U.S., was not feasible. I think they - we did see the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei come out and say that, you know, we are responsive. Anyone who wants to be friends with us, we are friends. And we've heard the message. And that was perhaps the most vocal thing he could've said.
But I think there are genuinely a lot of people in Iran - particularly among the Revolutionary Guard's leaderships, who are now very prominent - who do not want to have a relationship with the U.S. because if they do, they might use their - lose their status in the Muslim world.
KOPPEL: And I think, Neal, it's worth pointing out that if there is one thing that the U.S. invasion of Iraq did, it was to increase the influence and the power of Iran, Iraq's great enemy, throughout the region.
CONAN: Farnaz Fassihi, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Ms. FASSIHI: Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: Farnaz Fassihi is the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, with us today from Beirut. Ted Koppel joined us from his home in Maryland. Ted, as always, thank you.
KOPPEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at genetically engineered crops. Can biotech deliver on its promise to feed the developing world? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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