National Public Radio (NPR) (Interview)
March 30, 2011 - 12:00am


While much of the world attention focuses on anti-government uprisings across the Middle East, new violence has broken out across the Israeli-Gaza border. And Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank remains a flashpoint.

On Monday, we heard from former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who argued that the upheaval in the Middle East puts the Israeli-Palestinian standoff solidly on the backburner. Today, for a different view, we turn to Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami, who says that while the Arab spring makes a near term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict unlikely, shifts in the region could ultimately present some opportunities. And, Shibley Telhami, nice to have you with us today.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland): Always a pleasure.

CONAN: And we'd like to hear from callers as well. How do you see unrest in the Arab world and amongst Israel's neighbors in particular affecting the Israeli-Palestinian situation? 800-989-8255. Email:

Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, always nice to see you here in 3A. And this long-time dispute as, well, Aaron David Miller said, it seems to be old hat and makes everything that's going on -Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, on the short term, there's no question that it sets the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestinians back. No question. And that's for a lot of reasons. One, of course, is the attention is going to all these incredible events that everybody is (unintelligible), including the Palestinians, for that matter. They're all fascinated. They're all interested to see what's going on, but for other strategic reasons.

One the Israeli side, they don't know what the relationship with Israel - with Egypt is going to be. That's been an anchor of the relationship. They have to ask questions. Now, there's a lot of unrest in Syria. They have to ask questions. The Palestinians - the Palestinian Authority now, its legitimacy is shaken a little bit. It lost some of its allies, including Mubarak.

There's a lot of pressure in the Arab world as a consequence of these revolutions, including from Egypt, on the Palestinian Hamas to make up, which has not been kind of the trend in the diplomacy. So all of that sets it back, for sure. But to assume that it's going to go away is almost laughable, almost laughable.

CONAN: I don't think anybody thinks it's going to go away. But one thing that Aaron David Miller did say was that the rallying cry, the Palestinian flag that Arab kings and dictators used for so long to, well, as almost as a diversion, well, that no longer flies.

Prof. TELHAMI: I don't agree with him. I agree that in the short term, there's no question that changes - about internal change. This foreign policy hasn't been the mobilizing issue. But we have to understand what's going on here. What's going on here is that the Arab public, essentially, was fed up with the humiliation, the absence of dignity, the gap in its own identity, how they see themselves and how they see the government represent them.

Yes, that has a lot to do with their empowerment domestically, but it has also to do with the way these governments were representing them on foreign policy issues, where they didn't think they were in one place and the public was on another place. We've been documenting this.

And to be honest with you, the Palestine question in and of itself may not be so important for the Arab world, but it has almost got metaphoric power about the very sense of humiliation that Arabs have endured over these centuries. And let's talk about it. Until things are settled in place like Egypt, obviously, the Palestine question will be a sideline.

But you open up the politics, and you have a Democratic election coming up or parliamentary election, presidential election. We know where the public is on the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Immediately, it's going to surface in the debate. It's already surfacing even from sources that we didn't expect it, people like Ayman Nour, who had not been so much focused on this issue, bringing it up, Mohamed ElBaradei bringing up the issue. It's going to be tremendous pressure on people to deal with it.

And that, of course, even regardless of whether or not you're going to have an escalation. So if you have bloodshed, I mean, one thing over the past two years is we haven't really seen an escalation of bloodshed. If there's a war between Israel and Gaza, if there is an escalation of this conflict, it's going to rise to the top in the debates that are now more democratic and the public in the Middle East, most certainly, is angry with Israel and angry with the U.S. over this issue.

I also think, don't ignore the Iran element. Iran has benefited greatly from the absence of this peace. They've exploited it. And, clearly, when there is going to be some escalation, they're going to try to exploit it again now and they're going to try to compete with the Arab governments that are emerging over this issue.

So I think this is not going away. It's going - it's sidelined for now, but it's going to come up. But it's not going away also because I think there will be opportunities, not just risks.

CONAN: Well, in terms of the risks, Jordan and Egypt have peace agreements with Israel. It's been the basis of Israel's, well, ability to really stand still on this issue and not negotiate. At least some people would say that. In any case, the governments in Jordan and Egypt, well, they're going to be consumed by internal matters, are they going to want to have that destabilizing aspect of questioning their stability on the border with Israel?

Prof. TELHAMI: Absolutely. I think the opportunities, particularly for mediators like the U.S. will be in that the Arab leaders, whoever they're going to turn out to be in Egypt as the election is unfolding or the situation is unfolding in Egypt, they are so consumed by the stability internally, rebuilding the country, dealing with that issue that they don't want to be distracted by a conflict with Israel.

But their public is going to be distracted by it if there's conflict with Israel anyway. So they want something credible on the line to say, well, here's a project or here's a plan that we support. Here is some idea that we want. So they're going to have an interest in a more comprehensive plan that the international community or the U.S. is going to put in order for them to be able to carry through on their own politics.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have been so shaken by what happened in Egypt that if there is an Arab comprehensive plan on the table, that also, in addition to offering what was offered, revalidates the peace between Egypt and Israel, which is worth more to Israel than the peace with all of the rest of the Arab world put together, then there was another incentive.

So there are opportunities for diplomacy down the road. There may not be now because the change is still unfolding, but the game isn't over obviously. This is sure going to be with us. Right now, even the Palestinians themselves are more interested in what's happening in Egypt and more interested in what happening in Libya because they all profoundly understand the consequences, ultimately, for what happens on the Israel-Arab front.

CONAN: We're talking with Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland. He is Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Israelis were concerned when the bulwark of their stability, Hosni Mubarak, fell in Egypt. As they look across now their northern border, and it seems to be more demonstrations and more confrontation there every day - President Assad made a speech today that does not seem to have put a lid on anything - might they be a little bit more, well, optimistic about the possibilities of change in the Arab world?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, it's interesting about Syria, because Israel actually has the Syria situation presents Israel with a double-edged sword, to be honest. On the one hand, you can say, well, Syria hasn't been a good friend of Israel and, obviously, a friend of Iran and so forth, and a friend of Hezbollah. On the other hand...

CONAN: And Hamas, yes.

Mr. TELHAMI: On the other hand, the Syrian-Israeli front has been predictably stable. And Israel's relation with Syria have been so predictable and so stable that Israel could make plans even when it's dealing with Hezbollah or dealing with someone else that were predictable. If Syria goes into a period of instability, many Israelis worry about that. What are the consequences going to be for opportunities and non-state actors and other things that they have not taken into account in there? So it's a double-edged sword for Israel.

It does, nonetheless, again, sort of set back the prospects of any Israeli-Syrian peace agreement soon. I never thought the prospects were high without an Israeli-Palestinian deal. I never thought you can really do a separate Israeli-Syrian deal without a Palestinian-Israeli deal. Both of these are for now set back.

And I think if there is going to be a prospect any time soon, meaning in the next couple of years, it's really going to have to be framed in the context of a more comprehensive piece because so many actors are involved, and the Israeli themselves are going to be looking for incentives far greater than in the bilateral relationship with each one of their neighbors.

CONAN: Email question from Joseph(ph) in Baltimore. Will Egypt open the Gaza border after the September elections? Is that a breach of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord? What will Israel do? Won't this lead to a flashpoint war with Egypt and then with the other Arab countries?

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, that's a huge issue. And there's no question that there is already a lot of pressure on Egypt to change their relationship with Gaza. Actually, the current foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, made a statement about it yesterday, in essence saying that they are going to review their policy, particularly in terms of humanitarian opening of the gates, even arguing that there has never been a blockade from the Egyptian side against Gaza, putting it in that context.

So the Egyptian public certainly has not been supportive of isolating Gaza, and there's a lot of sympathy with Gaza. And I think as the political campaign in Egypt opens up, you're going to see a lot more of that. That's going to stress the Egyptian-Israeli relationship a little bit more. More importantly, it's going to affect the way the U.S. is waging diplomacy, because up until now, American diplomacy has been based on the assumption that the U.S. is going to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority and later deal with sort of in-house division within the Palestinians.

This issue is forcing the Palestinians in some ways to come together in large part because of the change in Egypt's position. So I think we're in a fluid situation that's going to be interconnected.

CONAN: Let's to the phone, and Ed's(ph) on the line calling from Berkeley.

ED (Caller): Hi, good morning. I think this situation is going to be much harder, much more difficult. Israel lost great chance, as well as the U.S. to make peace prior to this incident. The public is extremely angry how the people in Gaza were totally destroyed a couple of years ago. I think also - well, this is fact, the United States never acted as a fair broker. And also, truly, truly, the ruling elite in Israel and the support in America, APAC and the rest of them, do not really want any peace.

So it's going to be terrible. It's going to be really, really bad. And I think at the end, you know, the Palestinian - our people have been there for thousands of years. They're going to continue. I think the chance of Israel's survival has dimmed a great deal. Those people are...

CONAN: Israel's survival? Israel's survival? Is that what we're talking about here, Shibley Telhami?

Prof. TELHAMI: No, I don't think so. I think, really, the question right now isn't about anybody's survival. I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue whether we're going to have a negotiated settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict in any foreseeable future.

I mean, the alternative, obviously, is that we will have some instability and violence for maybe another generation and - because I think that the two-state solution is, in a way, is coming to an end in terms of it's either going to happen relatively shortly. One can't say this is the deadline, just like with revolutions you say, I know something's going to happen. I can't predict it.

That's going to erupt at some point, and people are going to say it's no longer viable. If it's no longer viable, we're in for a very turbulent period. I don't think anyone can predict what the outcome of that will be. I think that the Arab public certainly is angry over this issue. I think the Israelis in some ways now realize that they have wasted an opportunity over the past 30 years.

It took them 30 years, 30 years, from 1948 until 1979 to find a way to split Egypt from the rest of the Arab world strategically. And then the next 30 years, they failed to make a comprehensive peace with the Arabs, even though they understood the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was constant. And now, obviously, they're going to have to figure out a way to deal with it.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, as always, thanks very much.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

CONAN: He joined us here today in Studio 3A.


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