TOPICS > Politics

Mideast Conflict Looms for Next U.S. President

July 23, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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As the presidential hopefuls define their foreign policy agendas for the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to present a unique set of challenges to the next commander-in-chief. Analysts mull the obstacles to ending the decades-long conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: As Democratic hopeful Barack Obama visited Jordan and Israel this week, he promised to work on the Arab-Israeli conflict, quote, “from the minute I am sworn into office.”

But Obama also said he realizes that a U.S. president cannot just snap his fingers and achieve peace in the region.

For decades, Middle East peace has been an elusive target for presidents of both parties. For a look at the challenges that will face a President Obama or a President McCain on that front, we turn to our Mideast analyst team.

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, he’s a former editor of the Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Ha’aretz newspaper.

And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Al Arabiya cable channel and correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar.

And welcome back to both of you.

So if the next president decides to jump in to settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, what is he going to find on the ground? Hisham, let’s begin with you. Is it a more or less challenging, maybe even perilous situation than it was the last time the United States had a new president?

HISHAM MELHEM, Washington bureau chief, Al Arabiya: To begin with, the next American president will be forced, regardless of his intentions, to be focusing on the old so-called arc of crisis: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan.

If he’s going to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he’s going to find an arid landscape, because the Bush administration, essentially, not to stand in the pronouncement, to talk about the two states and all the vision, it’s an arid landscape because we have more settlements in the Palestinian territories.

We have deeper disenchantment and disillusionment on the part of the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s like we don’t want to live together anymore. And you have an accumulation of bitterness and cynicism.

And then you have the rise of the maximalists and the extremists. And they are carrying the day.

And for the first time, you have throughout the Arab world, in fact, but in Israel, as well as on the Arab side, weak leadership that is seen as ineffective or incapable of delivering on peace promise or making the tough — the required tough decision to move the peace process forward.

We all know what are the contours for finding peace. I mean, we’re not going to re-invent the wheel here. But the fact that sometimes you have the Arabs are not ready; sometimes the Israelis are not ready; sometimes the American administration is not ready; sometimes conditions are not ripe in the reason.

And so for the last seven years, the Middle East proved once again you ignore the Middle East at your own peril. And by that peril, I mean Palestinians, Israelis, and even Americans.

Hard to restore lost confidence

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share that feel, that the landscape is an arid one or certainly a more difficult one?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I would say it's a mixed picture. I share basically what Hisham said about the disillusionment and the jadedness. People think that they're building something and then that confidence is shattered. It's hard to restore it.

And the public on both sides, I think, believe the current negotiations have a kind of other worldly feel to it. They don't see it being translated. So there's that suspicion that you're going to face.

Also on the negative side, things that you didn't have at the end of the Clinton administration. You didn't have a Hamas in power. You didn't have stand-alone rockets firing 2,000 rockets into Israel out of Gaza after Israel got out. And you didn't have a security cooperation collapse.

When Bill Clinton sat down with the players in Camp David, none of those three things happened. All these things are harder.

But here's the good side, so we shouldn't always see the bad side. Here's the good side. The truth is, is that Abbas and Olmert, even though people say, "Look, they're too weak to make the deal," there have been more conversations about what we call the final status, you know, the terms for ending this conflict than there's ever been. And they have narrowed it much greater than the public realizes on territory and, believe it or not, refugees.

And we know now a lot of the refinements of the deal. And, therefore, I think, because they've been through this before, and because you have an Abbas instead of Yasser Arafat, who I think was more ideological, I think, you know, the cup is half-full. It's not fully full, but it's not completely empty, either.

HISHAM MELHEM: But the problem with all of -- but the American administration or the next American president, the next American president is going to inherit a situation in which today the Israelis are talking to the Syrians through a Turkish mediation.

We've seen troubles in Lebanon in May, the country on the verge of civil war. And who stepped in? The Qataris, a tiny country that has -- 10 years ago, nobody even heard of in the West, and now they brokered some sort of a deal which allowed Hezbollah to become really the de facto central power in Lebanon.

MARGARET WARNER: Isn't that -- both of you have raised this. You now have these non-state actors who are quite powerful, Hamas and Hezbollah...


MARGARET WARNER: ... that eight years ago were not major factors.

HISHAM MELHEM: Not only that -- I mean, Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel fought a thirty year war. The mightiest army in the Middle East fought the most important, effective non-state actor in the region to a standstill for 33 days.

Now, not only these two non-state actors are very active, they are relying on states like Iran and Syria, who believe in asymmetrical war. And now they're using these groups and other means to challenge the United States in the region.

And the Iranians and Hezbollah and Hamas and others do believe -- and they're true believers -- that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of America's moment in the Middle East. That's why we're at a dangerous crossroads.

Next president will have large task

MARGARET WARNER: I know you both hope that the next administration gets involved, but you're also both seasoned observers of the Washington scene, the competing pressures on an American president.

David, realistically, what chance is there, do you think, that this will be on the top of the agenda, the to-do list for the next president?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I think any American president who comes in, you know, has political capital that he's accumulated in an election. The question is, how does he spend that capital?

And, remember, it's not just foreign policy. There's a housing crisis. There's an energy crisis, et cetera, the economy. And any president, in my view, is basically going to say, "Listen, guys, I'm all for this, OK? I know we have to be engaged, but there's different levels of engagement. And you've got to tee it up for me to get to the point where it's ready for presidential, high- level involvement." So I don't believe it's...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, "While I take care of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan"?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right. It's not going to be like an inauguration today, Camp David tomorrow. It's going to be like, "You guys have got to do the work to condition the societal landscape and the political landscape to the point that then I'm coming in."

But if I come in prematurely in a way that I fail, I'm going to set it back. And that's what I don't want to do, especially as a new president.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that's the lesson that the next president will take from the previous three presidents we've had, the two Bushes and Clinton?

HISHAM MELHEM: Definitely, but the problem (inaudible) for the next president, he has to move on international scene in the first 18 months, before the first mid-term election on his watch, OK?

Now, as I said earlier, the next president is going to be focused, whether he likes it or not, on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The problem is, unless you have an overarching comprehensive strategy that will deal with Iran, not only in its own geographic setting, i.e., the gulf and Central Asia and the Caucasus, but how do you deal with Iran as a player in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean?

For the first time, the modern state of Iran is involved in Syria, because of a special relationship, with Lebanon, because of the relationship with Hezbollah, and with Hamas in Gaza.

For the first time now, when you focus on Iran, not only with the nuclear portfolio, you have to deal with their role in Iraq and the strategic challenge in the gulf, as well as what they are doing as a player in the eastern -- in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean.

This is new. And that's why you have to have that comprehensive strategy.

McCain remains popular in Israel

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, let's talk about, OK, if either of these men becomes president or whichever one becomes president, and he decides to take on this issue, what kind of credibility or standing does he bring to the table with the parties?

David, let's start with Israel. Now, the polls are showing that McCain is far more trusted by Israelis than Obama is, by 2-to-1 or 3-to-1, at least on the test of who would be best for Israel. Why is that?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: There's I'd say three issues that I think Obama was trying to address with this trip. And we'll only see in the days ahead if he succeeded, but I think he tried to address them squarely.

He felt he was facing a deficit of people saying, "Will you deal with a nuclear Iran and see this as a top challenge?" And in his press conference, he said it wasn't just a top priority for Israel, it is for the United States.

The second one is they want to know if he would pressure Israel to make unwise concessions to the Palestinians. And he tried to address that.

And the third set of issues is, faced with Hamas rockets coming from Gaza after Israel got out, does it have a right, Israel, to defend itself, by itself? And he tried to address that.

So I think this trip was a very kind of calculated effort by Obama to try to even the playing field and perceptions.

MARGARET WARNER: But then why do they like McCain?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, they feel -- first of all, in Israel, I mean, the polls are sketchy. We don't know enough.

MARGARET WARNER: They don't really matter...

DAVID MAKOVSKY: You know, we have to be careful. But I think he speaks about Iran in more menacing terms than Obama does. And that gives a kind of a gut...

MARGARET WARNER: Plus, he supported the Iraq war.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: ... sympathy, but it's important to say that Obama is trying to even that. And he gave a speech last month. He was there today. We'll see how that plays.

Obama narrative inspires Arab world

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the Arab world, it's quite different.

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, in the Arab world, yes, there is fascination with Obama. There's fascination with his biography. People are impressed sometimes with his narrative.

People are aware, because we've been telling them this for a long time, that he believes in engaging Iran, that he believes that the United States should leave Iraq as soon as possible, and not leave a chaotic situation behind, obviously, so that makes him more attractive, less threatening.

People are impressed with his heritage, the fact that his father was a Muslim, I mean, non-practicing, beside the point, the name "Hussein."

And yet, at the same time, they have their doubts whether the American people are ready to elect a man like that. But they like the narrative. They like the story, although many of them were disappointed with his...

MARGARET WARNER: What are their expectations with any new president?

HISHAM MELHEM: There is skepticism; there is cynicism. I mean, in one opinion poll that we found that was taken in April by the Zogby group, that 4 percent supported John McCain; 13 percent Hillary Clinton. And the question, who do you expect to push the peace process forward? Barack Obama got 18 percent.

Twenty percent said, "We are not watching the elections closely." Thirty-two percent said, "It doesn't make any difference." So that reflects the deep sense, that entrenched, deep sense of cynicism and skepticism that, no matter what you hear from the president, the candidate for the president of the United States, in the end, very little will change and, in the end, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, they will align with the Israeli view.

On the other hand, as far as McCain is concerned, they know that he's hawkish on Iran. They know that he's hawkish on Iraq. And those who are afraid of another conflict or a third front in the Middle East, in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, are afraid of John McCain.

One final thing, and that has something to do with the Jewish community and Israel, the relationship with Joseph Lieberman, which is seen by many Arabs as putting John McCain squarely in the Israeli camp.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, to be continued. We have to leave it there. David and Hisham, thank you.