Byron Scott, a veteran newspaper and magazine journalist and professor emeritus of journalism, moderated this discussion in place of Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism. The weekly radio program “Global Journalist” airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.
Professor Byron Scott: The Middle East is today’s topic. But we’re not talking exclusively about oil, Iraq or the Israeli question, although those things usually pop into the typical American’s mind as he or she looks at the domestic news agenda. Some important and hopeful things are happening in the follow-up to President Bush’s recent visit to the Middle East, as well as some longer-term developments for peace talks between Israel and Syria. What’s happening in the Middle East today, and what may be developing into a new top story?
Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic writer, USA Today, currently on leave at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.: Various groups and factions are beginning to pull back from the brink. In March, everyone was worried about the prospects for another war between Hezbollah and Israel. Instead, there was a recent conflict between Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions, but there’s also been an agreement that should stabilize Lebanon for a while, bring Hezbollah into the Lebanese government and make it more responsible for that country’s fate. Actors are moving independently to resolve conflicts.
Nicholas Pelham, senior analyst, International Crisis Group, Jerusalem, Israel: The question is whether the move towards a ceasefire in Gaza, a reconciliation process in Lebanon, and talks between Syria and Israel is a pullback from the crescendo of polarization throughout the Bush presidency or a temporary lull.
Scott: Are we entering a new or a transitional period?
Claude Salhani, editor, Middle East Times, Washington, D.C.: It is a new phase. We’ve moved from the brink of disaster to renewed hope of peace. In Lebanon, various warlords showed restraint. On several occasions the Druze could have gone after Hezbollah, but apparently they gave word just to defend the villages, not to fight to the point of retaliation. Also, if one brings Syria into the peace negotiations with Israel, many Middle East problems can be solved. If Syria signs a peace deal with Israel, the next day Lebanon will sign a peace deal with Israel. Then Tehran is distanced from the Syrian/Iranian alliance, paving the way to facilitate agreement with the Palestinians. It was thought nothing could be done without U.S. participation, but the U.S. is nowhere in this, and things are moving ahead.
Scott: Was Bush’s Middle East tour a last hurrah?
Slavin: It was. Bush repeated many of the themes we’ve heard throughout his presidency. He seems to be a lame duck there, as he is here. The next administration probably will be intensively re-engaged.
Salhani: This administration started late and wasted precious time before it realized the key to solving a lot of discontent in the world — the “War on Terror” — begins by solving the Arab/Israeli disputes, specifically the Palestinian question. Bush won’t be able to solve it before he leaves office. The next administration will inherit it. This problem creates so many world problems that, as a superpower, the U.S. has to play a role in bringing together various parties.
Scott: Does Jerusalem feel the U.S. will continue to be important?
Pelham: Jerusalem is aware the world is tired of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and it wants to see a resolution. People were comforted by Bush’s speeches, but they also recognize this is the twilight of his presidency and there is no guarantee this enthusiasm might go into the next administration. Support for the American presence has waned since the conquest of Iraq and is going to change its ability to affect change in the region.
Scott: Will Iran join Israel as the major power in the region?
Slavin: Iran is a more important country than when Bush came into office. It has been able to capitalize on developments, mainly because of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had been Iran’s major rival. When Hamas won the 2006 legislative election and was ostracized by the U.S., Israel and much of the Arab world, the Iranians stepped in with support and built stronger links to Hamas. Iran had long-standing ties with Hezbollah, so Iran has been nimble. But its tactics aren’t pleasant. It allegedly gets weapons to Shiia groups that have killed Americans and Iraqis, and it twists, turns and calibrates the level of violence up or down. The Arab world has also become more leery of Persian Iran. There is more Sunni-Shiia tension than three years ago. A lot will depend on whether the next U.S. administration has a different policy toward Iran that might give Iran more incentive to play a constructive role.
Salhani: Iran has wanted to be a major player since the time of the shahs, and especially since the revolution. Like any revolution, if it stops moving, it dies, so that propels it to push forward. However, the recent violence in Lebanon has served as a wake- up call to Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to the potential danger that the Shiia in Iran represent to the rest of the Arab world.
Scott: The most recent chapter in the story has to do with the potential Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a term of a treaty with Syria. Is that really a practicality?
Pelham: It’s a practicality if one looks at a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in that Israel has security, water and other practical solutions. The broader question is how this will impact Iran’s influence in the region. Ultimately, Iran’s ascendancy is a product of the weakness of others. There’s a vacuum or waning of leadership, a waning of the nation-state mission.
Slavin: Perhaps because of a vacuum of leadership one sees the regional players stepping up. There have been lots of meetings between the Saudis and the Iranians, trying to resolve the Lebanese stalemate. This could be a good trend if they are taking responsibility. But, there is also the strengthening of non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. Another question is whether there is a way to bring these non-state actors into the structures of government, to give them responsibilities, to put them in a position where they are obliged to stop violent activities and become part of stronger units. If there is ever going to be a Palestinian state, it’s crucial to counteract this trend.
Salhani: Turkey also is playing an important role in bringing together the Israelis and the Syrians because it’s a Muslim country. It has good relations with the Israelis and the Arab world, so we’re going to see more of this track-two negotiation take place, with Turkey playing a prominent role in bridging a gap.
Scott: Is the colonial period in the Middle East finally over?
Slavin: It’s not over so long as the U.S. provides aid to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Money still talks, but perhaps it is waning.
Pelham: We need to wait and see whether we’re talking about a new foreign policy. The next election will be crucial for the region and the restoration of U.S. credibility.
Salhani: As we near November, the focus will shift to the U.S., and the Middle East will be left alone again. The U.S. also plays a crucial role because of the guarantees it can offer both sides. That is why Syria is interested in having the U.S. in negotiations because it can guarantee certain security steps that nobody else can.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Mark Stanley, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.