SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, deadly anti-immigrant violence continues in South Africa. But first, a lot of news out of the Middle East this past week. A new political arrangement in Lebanon that gives Hezbollah more power. A new Israeli-Syrian peace process, what may be missing is a U.S. role. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how little influence the administration seems to have in the region in its final year in office.

MICHELE KELEMEN: For a Secretary of State who has made Middle East peace a priority this year, Condoleezza Rice is sounding a bit more like an observer than a negotiator; someone waiting for a better turn of events.

Sec. CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Obviously there is not going to be a comprehensive peace if there continues to be support for terror. But we're gonna work very hard on the Palestinian-Israeli front. We hope for the best on the Israeli-Syrian side and we do believe that there is work to be done, vis-à-vis, the outstanding issues with Lebanon as well.

KELEMEN: Bush administration officials never came out and said it, but privately they didn't like the idea of the Israelis negotiating with Syria at a time when the U.S. accuses Syria of behaving badly in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. Richard Murphy who was the Assistant Secretary of State for the near East during the Reagan years says he found the U.S. opposition to the Syrian-Israeli track bizarre.

Sec. RICHARD MURPHY (Near East): You have to wonder where is the United States? We were, after all, Mr. Peace Process for decades. We were very proud of that, even jealous of the role to the point that we were telling others, you stay out of this, we can manage it because we have open channels to all of the parties and influence on all of the parties. That is not the situation today.

KELEMEN: Today Turkey is mediating between Israel and Syria. (inaudible) did talks on Lebanon that resolved in 18-month old political crisis, and Egypt is acting as the go between for Israel and Hamas. Murphy says the Bush administration's problem is that it tried to divide the Middle East between good and evil.

Sec. MURPHY: Dividing the areas and the countries neatly into friend, enemy, democrat, autocrat are distinctions which are not all that useful at the end of the day when you're trying to drive ahead to the overall goal of a peace settlement.

KELEMEN: It certainly didn't help in the case of Lebanon. According to Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she says the U.S. tried to take a hard line against Hezbollah, a group it considers a terrorist organization and help its friends, the government of Fouad Siniora.

Unidentified Male: It wanted the Siniora government to take a harder line position and to hold out against Hezbollah, but in the end it could not provide enough support to make that possible.

KELEMEN: Though Hezbollah gained ground politically from the agreement reached in Qatar, U.S. officials continue to try to put the best face on this situation. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch argues that Hezbollah may be accomplishing some of its objectives, but it hurt its image when it took over parts of Beirut earlier this month.

Sec. DAVID WELCH: The veil of resistance was ripped off this organization on the fifth of May when it took up guns against innocent people, against press establishments, against other political parties. I think the reaction to it has been extremely negative from most Lebanese and certainly throughout the region.

KELEMEN: That may be true, says Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, but Malley says the deal in Lebanon is not what the U.S. wanted. And he argues the U.S. may have been better off had it gotten involved in the peace talks rather than letting regional actors take the lead.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): It costs us when we exclude ourselves and we take away from ourselves the ability to play a role diplomatically in the region.

KELEMEN: In Malley's view, countries in the region are moving on. At this point basically ignoring the lame duck Bush administration.

Mr. MALLEY: It's an index of the depth which we've lost credibility and leverage in a region at a time when President Bush and others in the administration keep saying that the region is more critical to our interest than it's been in the past.

KELEMEN: Malley doesn't see the Israeli-Syrian track getting very far without U.S. involvement so there may be opportunities for the next U.S. president to help move ahead those peace talks. He also doesn't see the Israeli-Palestinian track moving much. Though Secretary Rice and her colleagues keep saying they think they can reach a deal before President Bush leaves office. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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