Iran's Rise Prompts New Push for Mideast Peace President Bush is trying to revive the Middle East peace process with a conference early next week in Annapolis, Md. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk says that Iran's growing influence in the region has led Bush's to restart Middle East talks.

Iran's Rise Prompts New Push for Mideast Peace

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is trying to revive the Middle East peace process with the gathering early next week in Annapolis of Israeli and Palestinian envoys and representatives from dozens of other countries. The last time such a push was made was during the Clinton administration. That peace effort dominated Bill Clinton's final year in office.

His ambassador to Israel at the time was Martin Indyk, who continued as ambassador through the first month of the Bush administration. Ambassador Indyk reminds us that by the time President Bush came into office, a peace agreement had collapsed and the Palestinians' armed struggle against Israel, known as the Second Intifada, was raging.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel): I think it certainly affected President Bush's view of things. But it was a mistake to simply walk away and watch from the sidelines while the Israelis and Palestinians had at it. There was a whole edifice of peacemaking that had been established over the previous eight years by the Clinton administration, and essentially it was burnt to the ground, and that wasn't necessary. Particularly after President Bush decided to go into Iraq, it would have benefited his own policy.

Bear in mind that after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown, the whole region was looking to United States: The Iranians were knocking on the door wanting to engage with the administration. Yasser Arafat had lowered his profile and appointed a moderate prime minister, who's now President Mahmoud Abbas. The Syrians were behaving themselves. There was a moment there in which pursuit of diplomacy rather than ideology could have benefited the United States and peacemaking in the region - quite dramatically, I believe.

MONTAGNE: Well, you're saying, though, then that the invasion had done, for that moment, exactly what the Bush administration was hoping it would do, which is it had broken up the power structure, had changed fundamentally politics in the Middle East.

Mr. INDYK: Yeah, momentarily. But when we failed to follow through effectively in Iraq, the exact reverse happened. The symbiosis became a negative one, where our failures in Iraq had a profoundly negative influence on our ability to affect changes in the rest of the region.

Now, it's interesting that as a result of its failures, a new opportunity is being created; this is typical of the multiple ironies of the Middle East. The failure in Iraq led to the rise of Iran's influence in the region, particularly through the Shiite government in Iraq, but also through its connection with Syria and Hezbollah, and of course Hamas. And the Iranians, feeling the wind at their backs, started to make a bid for hegemony in the region. This became deeply threatening to the Sunni Arab states, and they, and Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians. And so that created a strategic opportunity which the administration has finally come to recognize, and that's more than anything else what's fueling the move to Annapolis.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get to that, this meeting early next week. Is Iran the essential thing that is driving the Bush administration's commitment to the peace process at this moment?

Mr. INDYK: I think it's probably the most important factor, but it's also driving the Arab states and the Israelis. Looking at it through the lens of their sense of a common threat from Iran and a common sense of urgency to make something happen on the Palestinian front lest the extremists backed by Iran will take over, not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank as well, that's essentially the motivation, I think, behind the opportunity that exists now.

MONTAGNE: Why think that this would work now in the waning days of the Bush administration?

Mr. INDYK: I think what can work now is the resumption of a serious negotiating process. In my view that would be enough. If the secretary of state is able to shepherd a negotiating process through the end of this administration so that the next president can pick it up, that would be a signal achievement.

And there is a broader point here to getting the process moving again. Iran's President Ahmadinejad and his acolytes - Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Khaled Mashaal of Hamas - preach a constant message, that violence, terrorism, what they call resistance, and defiance of the international community is the way to achieve dignity and justice for the Palestinians and for the Arab and Muslim peoples more generally. And what Annapolis represents is a chance for the international community to manifest a commitment to resolving conflict through negotiations rather than through violence.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Martin Indyk was an ambassador to Israel under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. He's now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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