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Week In Politics: Middle East Peace; Deficit


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, politics. This week, President Obama took a new stab at the Arab Spring and the Mideast peace process. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich ran into serious difficulties. And a gang of six is down to five.

Joining us now to talk about all that are our regular Friday observers, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

SIEGEL: And first, let's start with what President Obama said about Israel and the Palestinians. David, what did you make of all of this?

BROOKS: Well, I was Europe when the speech came and the press reaction there and the expert reaction was ecstatic. Finally, a president was spanking Israel, declaring Israel was the primary barrier to peace. Sort of the flip side of the Republican reaction, actually.

SIEGEL: Not that he actually said that.

BROOKS: Right. But that was their interpretation of the speech. I do think that's a bit of an over-read. You know, I think he was more balanced than that. Nonetheless, I do think it's a little obtuse to talk abstractly about the 1967 borders and ignore the specific realities of what's just happened. I mean, Israel did withdraw from Gaza and upset some settlements, and the result was not more peace, it was more wars. A similar thing happened in the north with Israel and Lebanon.

And so, the Israeli public is in a certain position right now - skeptical. It's also at a moment in time when Hamas and the PA have formed an alliance. It's also at a position in time when the Arab Spring is really the central issue in the region, not the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which really has no prospect of being solved any time soon. So, I guess I don't really mind what Obama said. I'm not sure why he picked a fight with Israel at this moment.

SIEGEL: E.J., what you make of that?

DIONNE: Well, I was astonished that people saw him as picking a fight with Israel. I mean, there were two central issues on which he took Israel's side. He said that Israel has legitimate questions about the inclusion of Hamas in the government of the Palestinian Authority. And he also backed Israel's position in the coming fight in September over a Palestinian state. So, there was a lot in there for Israel.

And when it came to his statement about 1967 lines, he was just repeating - he was a president, so unlike other officials. Hillary Clinton back in November of 2009 said the U.S. supported the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on 1967 lines with agreed swaps. So, I think the question is - why is Prime Minister Netanyahu picking this fight?

Jeff Goldberg writing in the Atlantic, said of Netanyahu, he seems to go out of his way to alienate the president. Why does he do this? My suspicion is that it's Israeli internal politics, but it's sure not helpful to the peace process.

BROOKS: Well, the fatal illusion of American policy for Republican and Democratic presidents is that if we somehow got a magic line on the map that we could solve this thing. This is not about territory. It's about moral systems, it's about narrative, it's about something much deeper. And so he, again, falls for the illusion that so many presidents have fallen for - that we just need the right map.

DIONNE: Although, I don't think this speech was mainly about a map. In fact, he talked about a lot of those other things in the speech. And a lot of people have just plucked this one line out and made it the centerpiece.

SIEGEL: He also talked a great deal about the Arab Spring, as it's called. And in the past, this year, David Brooks, you've noted that the president sometimes has been out in front on the Arab revolution, sometimes behind the curve. Here is what he said yesterday about Syria.

BARACK OBAMA: The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition or get out of the way.

SIEGEL: It's the policy of the times they are a-changing.

BROOKS: Yeah, and I thought this was an excellent part of the speech. You know, this was a guy who talks about engaging some of the more dictatorial regimes a couple of years ago but he's recognized what's happened and he's adapted this policy to the Arab Spring, to what's happened. And I think in this speech he did a very nice job of putting American values out front there and saying who we're for, especially in terms of Syria and Libya and other countries.

And I think he put the U.S. in a very good position where we can't always affect things the way we want but this is what we believe in, we'll do what we can.

SIEGEL: Let's go in to some Washington news. Newt Gingrich is running for president in 2012. Here's a man, E.J., who is long familiar with national media and national politics - he's had over a decade to think about running for president - and in a week he seems to have run out of toes to stub on various issues in the Republican field.

DIONNE: You know, at this point, it might be more relevant to talk about the impact of the end of the world on the 2012 election than to talk about Newt's possibility of becoming president. You know what I think is most unfortunate about this whole thing is I think he meant exactly what he said on "Meet the Press"...

SIEGEL: He said...

DIONNE: ...when he...

SIEGEL: ...he said the Paul Ryan plan, he was against it.

DIONNE: Is a form of social engineering and the American people won't buy it. Why did Newt Gingrich say this? Because he got totally burned by Bill Clinton back in the 1995-'96 budget fight over Medicare. He knows how sensitive this issue is. No Republican has actually come out and fully embraced the Ryan plan, I guess, former Governor Huntsman said he'd vote for it, but I don't expect any Republican to run on this.

But it's become, as the Democrats are saying, a litmus test for Republicans. So, now Newt has even denied saying what he said. It's a very strange position he put himself in.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, did Newt Gingrich reveal his profound weaknesses as a candidate here?

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean, he has a fatal weakness for hyperbole, fatal inability to control his ideas, a complete absence of management style. And I think I said on this program I wouldn't trust the guy to manage a 7-Eleven. You know, so he has these world historical ideas, about the seven or eight a minute and they're interesting to listen to, but as a presidential candidate, he's hopeless.

But E.J.'s point is a good one, though. This is actually a real debate on the Republican Party. A lot of people are saying that politically it's insane to do what Ryan's doing. I happen to think it's semi-insane but also semi-necessary. But Gingrich didn't come out of nowhere. There's a large talk radio segment saying we should never cut Medicare, we should never cut Medicare, and he was really speaking for that. It's got to be heard in the Republican Party.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you also, E.J., about the gang of six - six senators; three Republicans, three Democrats; have been sort of behind the scenes discrete hope of the deficit-cutting camp. They've been adapting ideas from the Bowles-Simpson Commission and elsewhere, it seemed, into some kind of bipartisan plan. Now, Senator Tom Coburn, the conservative Republicans from Oklahoma, says count him out, at least for now. What's going on?

DIONNE: Well, I think it's always been an illusion that if you had all the goodwill in the world in the current climate you could settle this problem. And I think Coburn's withdrawal shows that. You have a fundamental divide in that Republicans are very wary of putting revenue on the table. Yes, the Republicans involved in the gang of six have talked about tax reform but it's not clear how much they're willing to put on the table in new taxes.

And if you're not willing to do that, the kind of cuts you have to make to balance the budget are so deep that no Democrats can buy them. Perhaps if this special election on Tuesday in upstate New York, where the Democrat has made a big deal of the Ryan budget - if she wins, the Democrat, a surprise victory, maybe it would shake the debate a little. But I think Coburn was just reflecting a reality.

BROOKS: You know, we have to raise taxes, we have to cut Medicare - or at least tax revenues - and this gang of six was the best way to do that. Now, it's hopeless. There's a possibility we'll have a complete meltdown with the debt ceiling this summer.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for - also for disabusing our self-illusions left and right here. That's David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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