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Part 3 of this interview will be published later this weekend.

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Obama and the Middle East

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network and our ongoing coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama and in, now, the early days of his presidency. And President Obama will meet several critical foreign policy challenges. To help us unravel those challenges, I’m now joined by Larry Korb, who’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who was formerly in the Reagan administration. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So we’re going to do this in three segments, and we’re going to start with the question of Israel and Palestine. In President Obama’s inauguration speech, he didn’t mention too many places by name—I think only Iraq and Afghanistan. But clearly it’s something that people were waiting to hear if he would say something about the Israeli incursion into Gaza. I understand now that most of the Israeli troops are out of Gaza now, and I don’t know what that means. Do we go back to the blockade of Gaza or not? But if you go and step back into the bigger picture in the region, long everyone has said if you’re going to change the dynamics of the Middle East, you have to change the Israeli-Palestinian equation. And so does Obama need to have a fundamentally different approach towards the American-Israel alliance? And we certainly didn’t hear any suggestion of that in his speech at AIPAC. So what do you think he will do? And what do you think he should do?

KORB: Well, I think the first thing he’s going to do, he’s going to appoint a high-level, very distinguished American envoy to deal with the situation between Israel and Palestine. Former President Bush was the first American president just to take a hands-off attitude in this situation. And if you talk to people in the Arab world, that’s a very key issue to them, Israel and Palestine. And their feeling is if the United States is not involved, they’re basically giving a green light to the Israelis. And even if that’s not true, it doesn’t matter: that’s the perception. And so I think you will see a high-level envoy, direct involvement, to try and deal with the situation. Now, a lot of people will say, “Well, can the United States really be an impartial negotiator?” That’s not the way. Can we be effective? And I think President Obama, with attention to that, can be effective.

JAY: “Effective” meaning what? What’s your definition of “effective”?

KORB: “Effective” means basically two things. One, you keep the violence from getting worse. And the other is that you move toward implementing the two-state solution. And I think that’s really the key thing. And even if you don’t get there or President Obama can’t get there in his first year or his first term, the fact that you’re moving, I think, is very, very, very important.

JAY: Does President Obama have to rethink some of the things he said at AIPAC? And what I mean by that, at the AIPAC conference, he essentially signed onto a very traditional American position towards Israel, which is almost “Israel, right or wrong,” that “This is our fundamental ally in the Middle East.” And, I mean, I think maybe—I don’t know that—I was going to say Bush took it to an extreme, but I’m not so sure he did; it’s not that untraditional to take the position that we’re with Israel almost in anything.

KORB: No. I don’t think he said that. He said Israel is an ally of the United States, and they are. We’ve had a long-term alliance with the Israelis, going back to during the Cold War. And the fact is that Israel is a democracy, and we as a democracy—and President Obama was talking about, you know, our relations with countries that are democracies. But I don’t think it’s a question of Israel, right or wrong; I think it’s a question of how can we help Israel secure its own security. The Israelis are not secure, given the situation that they’re dealing with. They just had a—.

JAY: But the question is: do you treat Israel as one country amongst many? The argument comes kind of from two ways. You know, from some sections on the right, the issue is: just focus on American national interest, and this alliance isn’t necessarily in American national interest. The argument comes from the other side that this is unjust, much of Israeli—certainly the occupations, the increase of the settlers in the territories since Oslo Agreements and hundreds of thousands of people violating UN resolutions. The United States never takes a position on this that isn’t essentially, and certainly in Arab eyes and in many people’s eyes around the world, quote-unquote, “pro-Israel.”

KORB: Well, I think Israel is an ally, but like any ally, you’re going to have differences with it. When I worked for President Reagan, when the Israelis in 1982 went all the way up to Beirut, President Reagan picked up the phone and he called then-prime minister Begin and said enough is enough. Or Eisenhower in 1957, when the Israelis along with the British and the French wanted to overthrow Nasser, said no, stop. And I think that’s the key thing. All of our closest allies, the British, the French, the Japanese, we always have differences with them, and we have to bring those out in the open. And I think that’s the key thing. Yes, Israel’s an important ally, but they’re like any ally: when you differ, you have to let them know, and you have to try and help them. And it’s in our interest that the situation between Israel and Palestine get to where it should be. The first President Bush, for example, withheld money from Israel if they continued to build the settlements on the West Bank. And I think that’s the type of policy we’re talking about. But nobody ever—.

JAY: But is there no suggestion that Obama will go there? I mean, these settlements are still being built.

KORB: No, I understand. But, I mean, this is not something that he did. And I think that the issue, the question, is I suspect he’ll very much like [sic] the first President Bush, or President Reagan, or President Eisenhower, when Israel goes against what we stand for in our agreements, he will stand up. I mean, for example, right until the end of the Bush administration, then-Secretary of State Rice got help get [sic] the UN resolution about dealing with the situation in Gaza. Even though the United States was a sponsor of the resolution, when Prime Minister Olmert called President Bush to tell him to tell Secretary Rice not to support it, I don’t think that would happen in any other administration, where if, you know, I assume President Bush had Secretary Rice push that amendment, that resolution—. So I think that’s the type of—.

JAY: But Obama took a stand, which has not been talked about very much, although he has talked about it quite openly. He said he was against the elections that Hamas won, and he was against those elections because Hamas participated. But isn’t that creating a situation that we’re okay for a democracy if the outcome is going to be to our liking, but we’re not for a democracy if we don’t like who gets elected?

KORB: Well, I think what happened—.

JAY: And what about this whole issue, recognition of Hamas?

KORB: I think you go back, and he made the point, which I think is correct: elections do not equal democracy, alright? Before you can have a democracy and have meaningful elections, what you need to do is build civil society. And I think that’s the key thing we found out, that, you know, had elections in Algeria [sic] and, you know, that that would have taken that country almost back to the dark ages. The elections we had in Iraq were not elections; they were a census: people all voted for, you know, their own group. So I think that that’s important, you know, that’s a very important thing, not just for the situation in Palestine but throughout the world, that somehow you think, “Well, if we have an election, now the problem is solved.” No. You’ve got to build all these institutions.

JAY: But don’t you then, if you’re going to take that definition—and I understand it, but then you can’t use democracy as kind of a glowing thing to justify, “Well, Israel’s a democracy, that’s a democracy, so anything’s okay.”

KORB: No, no, it’s not. And I think this is where President Bush, you know, basically said one thing and many times did another. He claimed that he had this mission to bring democracy to the world, particularly to the Middle East. Yes, we should support them.

JAY: We heard some tone of that in the speech, in the inauguration speech.

KORB: Yeah. But I think the goal of US foreign policy has got to be stability. I mean, President Bush made an alliance with then-President General Musharraf in Pakistan. He’s not a democrat. And then he stayed with him too long when it was clear that the people [sic]. We’ve got to have relations with states not based on individuals. Look at our relations with Egypt. I mean, when President Carter—.

JAY: Not something you can call a democracy.

KORB: It’s not. And when President Carter brokered the arrangement between then-Prime Minister Sadat and Israel back in his administration, basically Sadat wasn’t a democrat. That was in US interests to get that arrangement, and I think that’s also helped Israel.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s drill into this just a little further. What precisely should Obama do to facilitate a two-state solution? And can it be a real state? In the next segment we’ll do it. Please join us for the second segment of our interview with Larry Korb.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Senior Adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics) under President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1985. In that position, he administered about seventy percent of the Defense budget.