The depth of knowledge of the Middle East shared by David Makovsky and Hisham Melham is striking; their obvious respect, admiration, and fondness for one another charming.
The chemistry between the two journalists and Middle East experts has made them regular commentators on shows like PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and was on display during an insightful interview sponsored by AU’s Center for Israel Studies Sept. 16 at the Katzen Arts Center.
Responding to probing and nuanced questions from Melham, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya who was the first person to interview President Obama after his inauguration, Makovsky discussed his new book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.
“People look at the Middle East from 50,000 feet in the air,” said Makovsky, Ziegler Distinguished Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “From 50,000 feet, everything looks very clear. The realists tend to say, ‘Just impose peace.’ The neoconservatives say, ‘Just impose democracy.’ We think there are a lot of maladies and dysfunctions in the Middle East that have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. We don’t deny that this issue is evocative; we just have our doubts that it will solve the other conflicts. Will it have side benefits? Yes, but the Iran nuclear ascendance will retain its power, the sectarian problems in Iraq will continue. We shouldn’t oversell it.”
A former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, Makovsky wrote the book with Dennis Ross, a longtime diplomat in the region who served in the Clinton and Bush administrations, and now works in the White House for Obama.
“We want America to be engaged, but we draw a clear line between imposing and engaging,” said Makovsky, who made it clear that he was speaking for Ross only in regard to what they wrote in the book. “We’re passionate about the need for a peace process. [The book] is a call for peace; it’s a call for coexisting; it’s a call for not seeing the Palestinians as a monolith. Any solution that doesn’t give hope and dignity for both sides by definition doesn’t succeed.”
The discussion touched on myriad other players in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and most prominently, Iran. Makovsky recounted a recent conversation he had with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s clear that the Iran issue is No. 1 on his mind,” he said. “In 2010, if sanctions or diplomacy don’t work, I think there’s more than a 50-50 chance that Israel will attack Iran.”
While Melham, a native of Lebanon, and Makovsky, who’s from St. Louis, often took positions at odds with one another, they did so in a thoughtful and civil manor that kept the conversation productive and friendly.
“Sometimes they call us the Shields and Brooks of the Middle East,” Melham said, referring to political commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, who also regularly appear on NewsHour. “But maybe Abbott and Costello is better. When we disagree, we disagree in a cordial way. We are both driven by the desire for peace in the Middle East.” “Our goal is always to bring more light, less heat,” Makovsky said.