A presentation by Shlomo ben Ami: Can Someone Really Tell Me What is Going On in the Middle East?

Anyone who gives you a glib answer as to how the problems of the Middle East can be solved simply does not know what he is talking about.  And, of course, just when it appeared that things could not become more confusing, the Arab spring and the civil war in Syria and the election of a “moderate” in Iran have all made everything even harder to understand.

Well, if you can’t expect anyone to know how to solve the region’s problems, you have to go for second best – that is, someone who can explain the nuances of the region clearly and comprehensively.  One such person, I have discovered, is Shlomo ben Ami, currently vice president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, and formerly an Israeli diplomat and politician who, for a brief time during the premiership of Ehud Barak, held the title of foreign minister.

Ben Ami spoke on Thursday at American University, under the auspices of the university’s Israel Studies Center.  An oversubscribed lecture held in the Founders Room at the School for International Studies, it turned out not to be just another Israeli politician giving his take on the perils facing his country, but rather a scholarly and nuanced analysis of various of the issues challenging the region today.

During his time in government (and perhaps now), ben Ami was a member of the Labor Party, which represents Israel’s moderate left wing.  And he is not a member of the government today.  Yet he did not use this opportunity to bash Benjamin Netanyahu, or to set forth his own program for the future.  Instead, he analyzed and explained.

It was a detailed speech, lasting almost an hour, requiring intentional concentration, and so would be impossible to outline in a brief blog note.  So I won’t try to repeat everything, but give some of ben Ami’s thoughts, those which stuck to me after I got home.

Much of what he said related to the Muslim Middle East.  Israel, he pointed out is surrounded at the present by failed states.  Egypt, still trying to restructure itself after the deposition of Mubarak. Syria embroiled in its awful civil war.  Lebanon, where both al-Quaeda and Hezbollah (opposed to each other) are making inroads.  In fact, he pointed out, that the three most stable countries in the Middle East are Israel, Iran and Turkey, the only three countries which are not Arab.

A large portion of the problems in the Muslim Middle East come from divisions with the Muslim Arab communities – the Sunni Shiite division.  Egypt is Sunni.  The Gulf States and Saudi Arabia are Sunni. The Lebanese Muslims are Sunni. Jordan is Sunni.  Syria is largely Sunni, but its faltering government is Shiite.  Iraq, on the other hand, is largely Shiite with a history of being ruled by Sunnis (thus the opposite of Syria), but now with a largely Shiite government, finding it hard to satisfy its northern Sunni population.  Iran, not Arab, is Shiite.

The strongest military nation in the Sunni world is Saudi Arabia; in the Shiite world, Iran.  Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, not to mention of course Israel, is determined that Iran will not get nuclear weapons to destroy the political balance (such as it is) in the region.  Is it possible that they (the Sunni nations without a common border with Israel) will overtly or covertly ally themselves with Israel to oppose Iran’s ambitions?

Iran of course is trying to become a nuclear power.  It has financed (with money and weapons) Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon.  It has vastly increased its power in Iraq with the installation of a Shiite government in that country.  It is supporting fellow Shiite Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  Its goal?  Not, as its rhetoric might suggest, to wipe Israel off the map, but rather to gain power and influence in the Arab Middle East, to really become THE regional power.  This is what Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni states wish to avoid.  Israel is not a factor.  (Ben Ami points out that throughout much of Israel’s history, Iran has been more of a friend than a foe – that even the 1979 Iranian Revolution did not really change that – that the Iranian anti-Israel propaganda did not really start until the early 1990s. And that Iran, with no borders common to Israel, has no reason to be Israel’s enemy, except to the extent it helps them in their goal of Middle East, Shiite Middle east, dominance.)

But of course, there are the Palestinians, after all.  They are out to destroy the government of Israel and to create a Palestinian (or a multi-ethnic led by Palestinians) state in what now constitutes Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.   The United States and other major powers and alliances have been working to establish a long term peace arrangement between the Palestinians and the Israelis which would create two states.  But up to 500,000 Israelis now live on what might be designated Palestinian land (particularly if the 1967 borders are closely adhered to), and Israel has clear security needs to make sure that a Palestinian state does not become a permanent and stronger antagonist.  But the new Palestinian state may not be viable on its own.  It is small, relatively poor lacking in resources, and if the Palestinian state is composed of both the West Bank and Gaza (now of course, Gaza is controlled by Hamas and not by the Palestinian Authority) it will be a state with its two parts cut off from one another.  This will be very difficult.  Is it possible that the Palestinians in fact don’t want this kind of a state?

Ben Ami also pointed out that Israel’s relations with some of its neighbors is not too bad right now.  Israel and Jordan, he says, have a stronger relationship, and are cooperating on more activities, than ever before.  And the Egyptian government, under its current military control, is afraid not only of the Shiites moving in from the east, but does not want to get mired down in Gaza again, and it is cooperating with Israel in many ways.

He also talks about how American influence has plummeted.  Starting with the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, but continuing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which have not helped either of those countries, both of which are considerably less stable than before), and continuing even further with America’s seeming inability to do anything to stop the Syrian slaughter, America has proven itself (at least to the Muslim countries) as a nation upon which they would be foolish to rely.

But that brings us to Iran which now has a government willing to speak to the West and to talk about its nuclear program, perhaps as a result of the world’s economic sanctions on the country, perhaps for other reasons.  Whether its change in position under Hassan Rouhani is simply one of tactics (that is, to fool the west into thinking the policies have changed so that the sanctions will be lifted or lessened) or one of strategy (that is, Iran can accomplish its goals as well or better as a non-nuclear power than as one with an arsenal of bombs) is, according to ben Ami, impossible to know at this time.

Obama and the United States, he says, is looking at this question in the long run, saying that engaging the Iranians in discussions, even if it does not help relieve the situation today, may open things up for the future.  Netanyahu, he says, is look at the situation in the short run, keeping the pressure on and refusing to negotiate is the only way to end an existential threat to Israel.

Ben Ami obviously does not believe that the threat is existential in the way Netanyahu does.  He does not think that dropping bombs on Israel is the goal of Iran, but rather increasing their influence as regional leader.  Thus he thinks we can afford to look at the situation in the long run, and not worry about what might happen next week.

I hope I have commented on Mr. Ben Ami’s remarks accurately and sufficiently comprehensively.  You see that he has no solution to offer.  Only a long term path.  I tend to agree, and I think that individuals with a broad and scholarly approach to the subject can help us all see our way through the thicket of the Middle East and catch a glimpse of what might work sometime in the future.

Shlomo Ben Ami is certainly someone whose voice should be heard.

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