A Policy Shift On Middle East? This past week, President Obama said that reducing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a "vital national security interest to the United States." It was an explicit connection that demonstrates a subtle but important policy shift for the White House. Host Guy Raz talks about that shift with Robert Malley, Middle East program director with the International Crisis Group.
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A Policy Shift On Middle East?

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A Policy Shift On Middle East?

A Policy Shift On Middle East?

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GUY RAZ, host:

Diplomats took note last week when President Obama said this about the Arab-Israeli conflicts.

President BARACK OBAMA: Not only is it in the interests of each party to resolve these conflicts, but it's also in the interest of the United States. It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts.

RAZ: Now, it may sound like a pretty standard statement, but what Middle East watchers noticed was the term vital national security interest. The president was drawing an explicit link between U.S. interests in the region and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's something top policymakers rarely do.

I asked Robert Malley, a former official at the National Security Council and the Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group, whether this administration is taking a tougher stance on Israel than previous ones.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Middle East Program Director, International Crisis Group): Definitely. I mean, definitely tougher than George W. Bush and definitely tougher than Bill Clinton, who I served. I think it's a case where both leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, are not seeing from the same sheet of...

RAZ: That don't see eye to eye.

Mr. MALLEY: They dont see eye to eye about how important it is to resolve this conflict, how to resolve it, how quickly and what the actual resolution will look like. And of course, you add to that the fact that the coalition that Benjamin Netanyahu is leading today is far to the right of the ones that we had seen in the past, and that just creates a very complicated situation.

RAZ: I get the impression that personally, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu do not like each other, and I don't know if that's true.

Mr. MALLEY: Nor do I.

RAZ: With certainty. But how important is that? How important is it for leaders, in this case, to like each other?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, I mean, you know, one could overdo the importance of personal affinity. I'm not sure that President Carter and Prime Minister Begin were the best of friends even as they were negotiating the first Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israeli.

So it's not critical, but I think what's happening now, which is interesting, is that there's not just Netanyahu but a part of the Israeli political constituency that doesn't really know whether it should trust this administration. That's more significant than whether the two leaders get along.

If President Obama is going to get to the point where he wants to ask of Israeli to make certain compromises, take certain steps, it's going to be harder to do so at a time when part of the Israeli body politic thinks: Is he really looking out for our interest?

Now, that sounds very ironic when you say this to an Arab audience, and they think: How could Israelis not believe that the United States is going to try to defend its interests after their interests after all these years. But, you know, Israeli is a country that feels often very isolated, very vulnerable; and when it feels, as it does now, as some Israelis do now, that this administration cares more about its image in the Muslim and Arab world than it does about its reputation in Israel, again it just very quickly turns people into thinking, well, maybe this president is not the one we want to do business with.

RAZ: I'm curious to know whether this sort of long-standing belief among some policymakers in Washington that you shouldn't criticize Israel too strongly, at least publicly, is that idea fading, or has that idea faded?

Mr. MALLEY: I mean, I think things are different again because of the makeup of the governments in the United States and in Israel and also because we now have troops in the Middle East, and that is whether rightly or wrongly it has strengthened the impression among many in the United States that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to our interest, and therefore we need to take bolder action to get there.

RAZ: What leverage does President Obama have in pushing the Israelis and the Palestinians towards a final deal?

Mr. MALLEY: You're hearing two very interesting things coming from the administration. On the one hand, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, others have said it's a vital national interest. On the other hand, they've said we can't force or impose a solution.

It's hard to reconcile those two. If it's truly a vital national interest, maybe we should do everything within our power to resolve it. On the other hand, I think there's the political reality that there's constraints on what the U.S. could do. The U.S. is not about to impose punitive sanctions on Israel. That's not going to happen. So that's one limitation.

But the other limitation is it's not even clear that you could convince entities like Israel and the Palestinians to do things that they believe are fundamentally hostile to their interests or fundamentally hostile to their perception of what their national cause is about.

RAZ: Based on your analysis as a former you were involved in negotiations that were brokered by President Clinton at Camp David in 2000, a talk that broke down. I mean, how what do you envision happening if the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was resolved? I mean, would it have a ripple effect and happen quickly?

Mr. MALLEY: Let me put it this way. First of all, I think it's a critical effort to make to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a whole host of reasons.

Now, is it vital to U.S. national interests? I think the two arguments against that proposition, one is almost a red herring. It's people who say, well, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is not going to resolve every problem we face in the region.

It's not going to end the conflict in Iraq. It's not going to end the conflict in Afghanistan. It's not going to end al-Qaida. That's one argument, which again I think you can dispose of by saying it still is going to make things better.

There's a second argument, which you don't hear but which I think we have to think about. If you resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the lines that one could imagine two states, no to the right of return but some compensation and resettlement for the - many Palestinian refugees that will satisfy some, but those who today are most opposed to U.S. policy will also be most opposed to that resolution. And so you might actually find that you're galvanizing parts of Arab public opinion who will be opposed not to the fact that the U.S. is neglecting the Palestinian issue but that it has extinguished it.

None of those are arguments for not trying, but if we're going to go down this road, I think we should do it without illusions and do it for the right reasons and not expect too much from it.

RAZ: That's Robert Malley. He's a former Middle East negotiator and currently a program director at the International Crisis Group here in Washington, D.C.

Robert Malley, thank you so much.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

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