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Gaza Conflict May Affect Obama Peacekeeping Vow

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The latest fighting in the Middle East comes just a few weeks before a new American administration takes office. And to talk about what they might or might not be able to do, we're joined by Leslie Gelb. He's on the line from New York. He's a former U.S. diplomat, now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the program.

Dr. LESLIE GELB (President Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations): Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Is it clear to you what the Obama administration's at least starting policy toward the Middle East is?

Dr. GELB: I think it's a mystery to me and I suspect it's a mystery to them. I think we can bet that he's not going to be as pro-Israeli as the Bush administration has been. George Bush has been the most pro-Israeli president I think we've ever had. The Obama administration will be less so and try to steer more of a middle course between Israel and the Arab states. You know, we know a good deal about the Obama people going into this new administration, and they are more tilted toward Israel, but basically middle-of-the-roaders, with the exception of Hillary Clinton who is quite pro-Israel. And as for Obama himself, he's made the requisite pro-Israeli statements during the campaign, but we don't know what this guy's going to do. And I suspect he's going to surprise us in areas like Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

INSKEEP: Does President-elect Obama have a reservoir of goodwill that he can draw on in the Arab world?

Dr. GELB: I think that President Obama will start off his tenure with very positive feelings throughout the world. People want the United States to be the leader. They understand if we don't lead, nobody is going to be able to lead.

INSKEEP: Although I wonder is there a limited window for the president-elect? People are very hopeful on January 20th around the world, or in the Arab world, but if something that happens that they don't like on January 25th, it's all over.

Dr. GELB: That's the way the press will put it. But it's up to President Obama to define his own priorities. And he is sitting on top of so many major problems, he cannot deal with them all simultaneously: Arab-Israeli, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Pakistan-India. You're going to have to do a kind of diplomatic triage and figure out the key one to start with and move from there.

INSKEEP: And persuade other people to be patient and wait?

Dr. GELB: And persuade them to be patient and wait, even though they're going to start criticizing you the minute anything flares up in one of the areas that you're not treating as the topmost priority.

INSKEEP: Let me remember, because you're talking about interconnected problems. The Bush administration approached this thinking that if they solved one big problem, it might have an effect on others. And I may be oversimplifying here, but, for example, toppling Saddam Hussein, some people in the administration thought might make it easier to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, might make it easier to deal with Iran, might make it easier to deal with Syria and get a lot of problems off the table over time. That's what they thought. Didn't precisely work out that way. But I wonder if you have any sense that people in the incoming administration think if we attacked this particular problem first, it's going to help us with the others?

Dr. GELB: Yeah, I doubt that they'll choose Arab-Israeli to go first - that is the first place to really invest American power. They'll do something to start a diplomatic process because you can't let the Israelis and the Palestinians feel that we're neglecting them. So you've got to get a diplomatic and political process under way in that region. And in the case of the Palestinians and the Israelis, they've got to feel we have a way of changing the politics among the Palestinians and the Israelis so that there will be support for a deal.

INSKEEP: Although if you're saying as the Obama administration, you can't go first with the Arab-Israeli conflict, you have to solve these other problems first, isn't that conflict this constant irritant that makes it harder to deal with Pakistan, harder to deal with Muslims all over the world?

Dr. GELB: There's no question that this infests everything else. And on the other hand, we're fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as I said, when you have so many first-order problems, you have to do a kind of national interest diplomatic triage. And in this case, it is not to ignore the Palestinian-Israeli situation, not in the least, but to set a process in motion that they will find a plausible way of solving it two, three, four years hence.

INSKEEP: Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for your insight.

Dr. GELB: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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