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Middle East Scholar Shares Regional Response To Trump's Jerusalem Decision


Let's take a minute now to unpack a phrase we're hearing a lot this week in the wake of President Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The phrase is Middle East peace process, meaning some sort of negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has dominated and fractured the region for so long. For generations of negotiators, it's been seen as the key to unlocking peace across the Middle East. Is that still true?

Well, we're going to put the question to Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami, who joins us from the University of Maryland. Welcome.


KELLY: So let me put this question to you. Is the Middle East peace process as central to the troubles and futures of people across the region as it once was?

TELHAMI: To put this in context, let's be clear. Our conversation is not directly connected to what President Trump declared yesterday on Jerusalem because frankly, no one I know argues that what he did was good for the region or advances America's interests in the region. So the only debate that is being waged is, how consequential - is it going to be really bad, or is it going to be only somewhat bad? And that's where this conversation on the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is.

KELLY: Where would you rank the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a list of urgency of conflicts in the region right now - I mean, a list that would for starters include wars in Syria and Yemen and Iraq and Libya?

TELHAMI: Well, as it stands in the status quo, it wasn't ranked very high because there wasn't much bloodshed. Yes, there's occupation, and there's humiliation, and there's frustration. Think about it this way. Just a couple years ago when there was the war between Israel and Gaza, the Palestine question and the Gaza War became the top story in the Arab world.

KELLY: When you think about just that actual phrase, Middle East peace process, does that still feel apt? Does it capture what's really happening? Or should we start talking about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

TELHAMI: Its value has diminished - no doubt about it. There's no one I know who would disagree with that. But it still is more important than a lot of people think. It's still tied to the concept of Arab identity. And therefore, in times like this when there is such a deep crisis, it plays into the hands of a lot of the groups that want to mobilize public opinion.

KELLY: Let me put this controversial premise to you, and you can agree or disagree. Might we be moving toward an era where the central polarizing issue in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but a Saudi-Iran conflict, a Sunni-Shia divide?

TELHAMI: Let me tell you I don't agree with that. I think at the strategic level, there is no question that now the biggest strategic game is between a - Saudi Arabia and Iran at the strategic power level. But when you look at it at the popular level, that is not the scheme that people buy into. That's not what defines their identity and their core position on issue. It hasn't in the past and it still doesn't.

KELLY: Last quick question for you. As we watch to see how reaction continues to unfold, reaction to Trump's Jerusalem announcement, we know that there are protests expected tomorrow after Friday prayers in Jordan and in Iraq, protests after that in Lebanon. What will you be watching for?

TELHAMI: Well, of course everybody's watching to see how big they are, how important they are, how sustained they are, even though I think if they don't go into the streets they go into the basement. So don't...

KELLY: You're saying if they're not big, don't underestimate the...

TELHAMI: Don't underestimate...

KELLY: ...Outrage this has sparked.

TELHAMI: But I do say the following. You know, when we say it's a risky strategic move, it doesn't mean that odds are that it will lead to disaster. There is a serious risk we may have a sustained intifada. Is it going to happen? Of course none of us know for sure. It depends on so many things. But, yes, this opened up the possibility that it could happen.

KELLY: Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, thanks very much.

TELHAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 7, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the introduction misidentified Dr. Shibley Telhami as Dr. Shelby Telhami.