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Reading The Tea Leaves Of Obama's Mideast Trip


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama travels to the Middle East next week. Before heading to Jordan, he'll meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Now, President Obama hasn't indicated that he goes with any grand plans to try to restart a peace process, but some analysts see his visit as an attempt to mend relations with both Israelis and Palestinians after peace negotiations faltered in his first term. To help us try to read the tea leaves at this visit, we joined by Jeffrey Goldberg, who, of course, writes for The Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Jeffrey, thanks for being with us.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Not a lot of expectations, but any goals for both the president and the prime minister?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. You know, the conventional wisdom is that this trip means nothing. But in fact I think that the potential outcomes for this trip are possibly pretty great. I'm an optimist and optimists are always punished when we talk about the Middle East.


GOLDBERG: But I think he's trying to reset his relations with not only the prime minister of Israel but with the Israeli people and he's also trying a bit of a reset with the Palestinians, who he alienated in the last round of negotiations. So, the best possibility is that he comes out being able to talk directly to the Israeli people and explain, look, I do like you, I value you, and together let's go figure out some of these challenges that you're facing. And that allows him to then talk about settlements and occupation in a way that's more constructive.

SIMON: Does the fact that President Obama was re-elected by a good margin, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been reelected but has a different kind of growing coalition, does that affect their relationship now?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, you know, someone told me a very smart piece of analysis. He said Obama should be much happier with his results than Netanyahu should be with his. I think in this next period, especially because Netanyahu wants something very big from Obama on Iran - the big elephant in the room - there is some opportunity for movement here. And I think that Netanyahu's new cabinet may make it slightly easier for him. Again, I'm an optimist.

SIMON: What does Netanyahu want on Iran?

GOLDBERG: Netanyahu wants what he's always wanted, which is a promise. He's not going to get a promise from President Obama saying, yes, I will attack Iran's nuclear facilities by whatever the date in Netanyahu's mind is, where it becomes right up to that line. But they both want to hear each other out on the subject and make sure that they're singing off the same page more or less. So, he really wants to extract from Obama as much of a specific sort of promise as he can get that he will never let Iran even approach the nuclear threshold. And, of course, this gives Obama a great opportunity to say you want something pretty big, I want something pretty big; let's talk.

SIMON: Given the anxiety both countries have about Iran and new governments in the region and anxieties about al-Qaida and its affiliates gaining a foothold, does the divide between Israel and Palestine become less urgent?

GOLDBERG: It has become less urgent. I mean, you know, when I interviewed President Obama last year, I sat with him 45 minutes and we didn't talk about Palestine. The subject was Iran. That is the overwhelming issue for the Israelis at the moment. And it really is the number one foreign policy challenge for the president. And what happens is that the Palestinian initiative sort of fades away. It fades in part because the Palestinian leadership is very ineffective. It fades in part because Palestinians are actually undergoing a bit of a civil war themselves.

So, there's not a lot of promise in the peace process in any case. Maybe it would be different if it felt like there was more promise. The huge missed opportunity here, obviously, is that Israelis and the Arabs don't agree on very much, but one thing they agree on is that Iran poses a huge threat to both of them. If an American president could sort of unify the Arabs and the Israelis on this question and work the peace process by being stalwart on the Iran question, well, that would be very interesting and promising. It hasn't happened, of course, because it's the Middle East. And so the thing that's logical doesn't necessarily happen.

SIMON: Jeffrey Goldberg writes for The Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Thanks so much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.