CRISES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
[TN WAC/Patrick Ryan] Welcome to the Tennessee World Affairs Council’s inaugural Global Focus webcast. I’m Patrick Ryan, President of the Tennessee World Affairs Council, and we’re very pleased that you’re here with us for this special broadcast.
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With us today is Mr. Rami Khouri who is joining us from Beirut this morning to talk about the crises in the Middle East. Rami Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut and Nazereth. He is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, as well as a columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, and he has a twice weekly column that you can find at www.RamiKhouri.com, and he’ll soon be writing a series for “Bloomberg View.” You can get the links to all these websites and more in our Global Focus page on the TN WAC website.
Rami Khouri is an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, and a fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School and the Dubai School of Government. He has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Syracuse, Tufts, Mount Holyoke and Northeastern universities. In November 2006 he was co-recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East. He was a Nieman Journalist Fellow at Harvard University in 2001-2002, and recently served for four years in the International Advisory Board of the International Committee at the Red Cross. He has a B.A. in political science and a M.S. in journalism from Syracuse University.
His column byline is required reading for specialists in Middle East affairs, and I have been fortunate to meet him at conferences in Washington and elsewhere, and at a special appearance he made several years ago at Maryville College here in Tennessee. It’s incredible the travel schedule and the writing schedule and the work he does at the American University in Beirut, how he keeps up with it all.
Rami Khouri, welcome to the Global Focus, and thank you for joining us today.
[Rami Khouri] Thank you, Patrick. I’m happy to be with you.
[Ryan] As we noted our topic today is the crises in the Middle East, and we’re going to focus if we can on Iraq, Syria, and the emergence of the Islamic State, and then move on to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the current crisis in Gaza. If you’d like please share with us your opening comments and thoughts on the topic today.
[Khouri] Thank you very much, and thank you for the participants for being with us and anybody who might be watching this later on the web, and thank you for hosting me, Patrick. I’m happy to do this.
The situation in the Middle East is so dynamic and dramatic, and turbulent and often violent, and always confusing to many people partly because, not just partly but mainly now, because what you’re seeing is the convergence of all of the major fault lines and tensions and deficiencies and distortions that have defined this region for forty or fifty years. They’re all coming together now at the same time.
So what you’re getting are Arab-Israeli flare ups, fighting again. You’re getting the sectarian, religious, ethnic warfare that’s taking place in Syria and in Iraq and a few other places here and there. You’re getting the overspill of the uprisings that started in late 2011 and have only in Tunisia led to some kind of democratic transition. In other Arab countries that process is still playing itself out including the warfare that we see in Syria. In Egypt, and in Libya, and in Yemen and other places there are still processes of constitutional change that people are trying to achieve. At the same time you have huge structural problems of economic distress, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, in some countries illiteracy among segments, particularly among rural women in places like Yemen and Morocco.
Now you have serious environmental problems. The environmental problems in places like Syria and elsewhere are part of the reason that the political strife has been speeded up in the last three or four years. You’ve had probably over a million Syrians leaving the northeastern steppe regions and coming into the cities, mostly unemployed, and that creates demographic and political tensions.
So all of these things have been happening locally. You’ve got sectarian strife that has been instigated, and this is new. Sunnis and Shiites killing each other is not part of modern Arab history, and it only really started in Iraq after 2003 when the American invasion wiped away the Iraqi state and created a situation, a vacuum, in many areas that allowed people like Abou Musa’ab Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda guy, to come in and start instigating anti-Shiite killings, which have spread now all over Iraq and led to the creation ultimately of the Islamic State – that is the so-called Islamic State. So sectarian religious strife, nationalist conflicts between Kurds and Arabs, between Arabs and Israelis and Palestinians and democratic aspirations for transformation and good governance, environmental stress combined with continued foreign military intervention. Now the Americans are bombing in Iraq in a cause that most people think is a good cause, because they’re bombing these killer Islamic State guys who are just barbarians, and the Americans are helping the Iraqis, and the Kurds push these Islamic States fighters, push them back.
So most people think what the Americans are doing is actually okay, but not everybody. The issue that many people continue to discuss today is the American and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military action in Libya in 2011 and the consequences of that, the Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon, the Russian involvement with Syria. Foreign interventions – military and political – continue to be an added element for tension, conflict, destabilization, whatever. In some cases you see it in Iraq and Syria but also in other places – the central state and its authority is not totally crumbling but it’s certainly fraying at the edges. This is really what we have.
It’s very hard to take any one of these instances or situations or dynamics and isolate it from the others. This is the culmination of sixty, seventy years of poor national management, lousy government, autocratic police states, inequitable development, not paying attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict and letting that fester, corruption, mismanagement, and military intervention from abroad.
All of these things have been going on for fifty, sixty years, and we’ve really pretty much reached the bottom. It’s hard to really go any lower than we are now, and perhaps what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria is the first effort by Americans, Iranians, Arabs, Kurds, different people to work together to push back the Islamic State, which is the single greatest manifestation of the incoherence and the violence and the criminality that has defined so much of the modern Arab world.
So I’ll leave it at that, but just to show how complicated this is, and not to let people feel that they can just look at one issue whether it be an issue like Arab-Israeli peace, or religious tolerance, or women’s education, or environmental protection, or human rights – you cannot take any one issue like that and separate it from the rest and try to address it anymore. This is one of the reasons why it’s so, so challenging to really respond to what is going on in the region today.
Mr. Rami Khouri (R) talks with host Patrick Ryan about developments in the Middle East including the crises in Iraq/Syria and Israel/Palestine.
Date of Webcast: August 20, 2014
[Ryan] Thank you, Rami. I’ll remind our audience that this is “Global Focus” produced by the Tennessee World Affairs Council, and you can submit your questions for Rami, that we’ll turn to shortly, through your control panel.
Rami, you talked about the complications of these topical issues, and it’s interesting for specialists who look at this region to try to come up with an understanding and an approach to resolving some of these problems because it is quite so complicated. Any one solution to a problem that presents itself to a particular government’s interests may in fact result in an outcome that is deleterious to other interests it holds. So I think rather than coming up with overarching solutions to problems, people are ranking the listing of the greater and lesser of evils and attacking the worst case, even if it may – the blowback may result in a negative outcome elsewhere.
There’s probably no better case for that to be made than in the case with the Islamic State where ironically the United States finds itself allied with what it had seen as enemies, and still does – adversaries – the regime of President Assad in Syria and the Iranians, but the Islamic State has coalesced a community of adversaries into dealing with a threat.
How did we get to this point in Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State? Can you give us a snapshot of what the consequences of the Syrian civil war have been in regard to groups like ISIS? Clearly they’re foremost among the anti-Assad forces and have spilled across into Iraq and have taken great swaths of territory and demonstrated a level of barbarity that has rarely been seen in modern times. What’s your take on the Islamic State and how did we get here?
[Khouri] I think we got here through three fundamental dynamics that are kind of like concentric circles. The oldest one is the fifty, sixty years that I just mentioned of bad governance in most of the Arab world with mismanagement, corruption, abuse of power, lack of democracy, lack of accountability, lack of participation, and all the bad things that happened in forty, fifty, sixty years leading to cumulative tensions and grievances, people getting more and more dissatisfied at their living conditions, quality of their education and health care, job opportunities, and they’re not being treated decently by their own political system in terms of freedom of expression, redress of grievance, or any aspect of life.
So that’s been building up for fifty, sixty years, over half a century, and that created the foundation for discontent within a lot of Arab countries. No Arab countries were able to generate major, popular rebellions based on discontent to overthrow regimes because the regimes were so strong. They were one man, one family, military systems and supported by the Americans or the Russians during the Cold War. So it was very difficult to dislodge these regimes, and that’s why while discontent was developing, it didn’t overthrow the regimes.
The second level is what happened in 2003, when the Americans and the British led the invasion of Iraq, and that created a vacuum to a large extent in parts of Iraq where for some years, especially between 2003 and 2007, there was really nobody in control even though the American Army was there and the Iraqis were trying to recreate a system, but it didn’t work very well. It hasn’t worked very well at all.
That created zones of chaos and zones that were ungoverned, which allowed a small number of al Qaeda-type extremists who were linked to al Qaeda to move into Iraq, and the leader of this process was a Jordanian called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was later killed by an American airstrike. These fanatic Sunni Muslim killers came into Iraq and started fomenting anti-Shiite strife. Iraq is predominately Shiite – about sixty, sixty-five percent – but it was ruled by a Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. So after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the Shiites of course won the election because they’re majority. The Sunnis, some of them started getting worried and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came in and started instigating violence, blowing up Shiite mosques, killing people, and that triggered a very new and unusual kind of sectarian violence – Shiites and Sunnis killing each other. This is not the modern Arab history.
There’s different kinds of tensions we’ve had in the Arab world, but Sunnis and Shiites killing each other is not one of them, or has not been one of them. So that’s the second tier, and that started in like 2004, 2005 and started building up. And Zarqawi was playing on the discontent of some of the Sunnis in the northwestern region mostly of Iraq who were worried about the Shiites taking the government control and marginalizing the Sunnis like the Sunnis had marginalized the Shiites before. So that was the second thing.
And the third thing was the war in Syria, which opened up again zones of chaos once the rebellion started against Assad in 2011. There were areas of Syria that the government had withdrawn from. Opposition groups took over, and some of these opposition groups were Islamist groups close to al Qaeda and these kinds of Sunni extremist Salafist-type groups. And the Iraqi Islamic State guys – they call themselves al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was their first name. Then they became the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria when they moved into Syria, and they were able to grow very quickly in the last two or three years in Syria, and now have moved back into Iraq and taken territory in both Syria and Iraq.
So that’s how we got here. A whole series of actions going back over many years with many culprits, many people responsible including Iraqis, other Arabs, and Americans, and British, and Arab governments. So there’s nobody who comes out of this looking good.
Essentially this is a process of discontented people acting in a very radical, violent way. The thing about the Islamic State that we need to keep in mind is that it has never in its short life really found huge popular support of any kind. It’s only expanded by physically, militarily taking over territory, killing people, cutting their heads off, crucifying the minorities, acting with great barbarism and vulgarity.
These guys have no anchorage in society. Nobody’s asking them to come and rule them, and therefore they don’t have a future. They’ll be gotten rid of at some point. But because of the chaos of the past two or three years they were able to get territory, get some money, recruit people, and most of the recruits they get are people who would have joined cult movements twenty years ago off in some rural place, some mountain or desert or somewhere. These are not sort of politically normal people who want to engage in the political process. These are fanatic extremists and they’re very, very alien to the mainstream of Arab culture.
[Ryan] Rami, we have, as you know, an audience today, and presumably a wider audience when we have this webcast in our archives, but the World Affairs Councils of America including our colleagues in South Dakota; Peoria, Illinois area; and elsewhere – and we invite them to submit some questions through the chat function here – but it’s primarily an American audience that you’re speaking to.
Can you talk a little bit about America’s equities in what’s going on in Iraq and Syria because as you know many Americans are weary of foreign engagements after Afghanistan and Iraq and what they see as Iraq having been thousands of American lives and billions of dollars spent and now the result is an Islamic state. The government in Baghdad is in turmoil as Nouri al Malaki only recently grudgingly stepped aside for a new prime minister.
So what should Americans know about what’s happening with the Islamic State in Iraq and what the American interest and role in dealing with this crisis might be?
[Khouri] Well at one level the American government certainly has a share in the responsibility for allowing Iraq to reach the point it’s reached. The rhetoric rational from George Bush when he went into Iraq in 2003 and invaded Iraq and got rid of the government and the armed forces and brought down the whole state – the rationale was that this was going to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction and bring democracy.
Well the weapons of mass destruction was false – there weren’t any – and the democratic transition hasn’t really happened. And I think the simple reason is that anybody who looks at Middle Eastern history – and I’m talking about serious history, like four, five thousand years of history – would have been able to see very clearly that you can never, ever get a foreign military government – a foreign government that sends its military forces to an Arab or Middle Eastern country and tries to rearrange the political situation to suit the interest of that foreign country.
The Romans were trying it in the 1st Century B.C. The Greeks before that, and others before them, and ever since you’ve had many foreigners with their armies, and it just doesn’t work. If it’s the Americans in Iraq, if it’s the Russians in Afghanistan, if it’s the British and the French one hundred years ago, it simply is not doable. So that’s the first thing I would say is that the whole concept of an American military adventure in the region to try to reorganize things for the better, even if Americans are trying to promote democracy and stop weapons of mass destruction, which are laudable, very noble goals, it can’t be done with the American military.
The difference now with the American strikes against the Islamic State is that this is in response to local requests, people asking the American government — the Iraqi government asking the Americans to come in and help us with these strikes so that we can push back these terrorist groups and the Iraqis will do the rest of the fighting. There’s a qualitative difference there. So I’m not saying you should never have American military or foreign military involvement, but it needs to be legitimate, it needs to be responding to local requests, and it needs to be done in a manner that does not itself define the political process. So that’s the first thing I would say – how the U.S. should use its military power much more judiciously and much more legitimately if it is ever thinking of doing that.
The second thing I would say is that the overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East, including Iranians by the way – and I saw this when I went to Iran a couple of years ago for the first time – the vast majority of Arabs and Iranians have very, very close values to Americans in terms of fundamental human values – justice, fraternity, peace, moderation, a life defined by religious values but not run by religious clerics.
Ordinary people in our region are very close to ordinary people in the U.S. in terms of their core values. And people in the Arab world and Iran and Turkey welcome closer relations with the United States, but they want that relationship to be one that is mutually beneficial and is not defined by the American military or right-wing neo-con-type ideologies, or certainly in some cases not defined by pro-Israeli interests who are telling or asking the Americans this or to do that.
So the potential for really good American-Arab-Middle Eastern relations – the potential is huge. Unfortunately it’s never been really achieved because the actions of the American government by and large, with some exceptions, the actions have been perceived by most people in the region as not aligning closely with the fundamental interests of ordinary people across the region.
This is now much more clear in lieu of the uprisings that have happened over the last three or four years. We see in the Arab world a very clear divergence between sentiments of popular opinion of millions and millions of ordinary citizens and the policies of their governments. There’s a huge gap between governments and people in most of the Arab world. It’s not every country, but most of the Arab countries I think you have a big divergence between people and government, and the United States has tended over the years to work with governments and ignore what ordinary people have felt. That has created strong criticism of American sentiments, which have been intensified on the basis of two major factors – I would say three major factors. One is the long history of American government support for Arab dictators and autocrats. The second is the military invasion of Iraq and using American military forces in that way. And the third is the very, very strong bias in American policy towards Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead of being a mediator and treating Arabs and Israelis equally with equal rights it’s been very much on the Israeli side, as we can see in the Gaza situation again today.
So for those three reasons you have strong anti-American sentiments expressed by ordinary people. When I say anti-American sentiments I mean criticisms of the American government. But American individuals are rarely if ever in danger in the region except in situations of warfare or recently we had this American journalist killed by the Islamic State. But these guys are criminals. These guys are not ordinary, normal Arabs. But if you go back over the last forty, fifty years there’s very, very few cases of Americans, ordinary Americans being threatened or hurt in any way because fundamental perceptions of the United States’ people, by Arab people, by Middle Eastern people are essentially quite positive, and people want to have closer relations.
Obama a few years ago made some very beautiful speeches about supporting Arab democracy and rights, etcetera. There was a moment there when I thought possibly American policy and American values may actually connect finally with millions and millions of ordinary Arabs and Iranians and Turks, but it didn’t happen, unfortunately.
[Ryan] Those are all excellent points and a great perspective for Americans to have on the view from the region. Before we turn to Israel-Palestine, which you pointed to as one of the areas that is of concern to people in the region and certainly to Americans, can we button up the case in Iraq/Syria, the Islamic State, for the Americans who – you know, you’ve heard it here – everyone uses the phrase boots on the ground, and no one is looking for boots on the ground.
A Pew Research study released the other day indicated that there is a slight majority in America that supports what President Obama is doing in terms of providing air support in the north to turn back the Islamic State fighters, first at Mt. Sinjar and then around the Mosul Dam. But for Americans, help us understand what the reach of the threat is. In fact this morning I saw a press account that the Chinese might be thinking about the threat in China from the Islamic State. Clearly a little wide of the current mark of topics, but this has emerged in a bolt out of the blue to be a threat in the region. There’s talk about protecting Lebanon from the Islamic State. So American interests in the region – how would you sum it up for Americans who after thirteen years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are tired of Middle East entanglements?
[Khouri] Well I completely understand why most Americans would be very careful about getting involved in any military action in the Middle East or South Asia. The last two experiences the U.S. has had in Afghanistan and Iraq have been quite catastrophic. The one before that in Lebanon in the 1980s when the Marines came in wasn’t very good either – hundreds of Marines were killed – and then you had before that of course Vietnam going way back. Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam – I was a college student in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
So American military actions in Asia, whether it’s Southeast Asia or West Asia, have not worked very well, have not worked well at all, and really I would say catastrophes, and fundamentally reflecting quiet incompetent government policymaking in the United States in terms of foreign policy.
The U.S. has done many great things around the world with the Marshall Plan and other things, but in Asia with its military it’s done only really catastrophes. And the Americans have paid the price in dead young men and women, injured, and huge expenditures, and bad will all around the world. It’s to the point where the U.S. today is unfortunately – I would say this is a little bit of an exaggeration – but the United States is, broadly speaking, neither respected nor feared around the world. So if the U.S., if Obama today says we’re going to do this in Iran, or Turkey, or India then the local people say well do what you want, we don’t care. So if the U.S. threatens to invade them, or if the U.S. comes and says we want to help promote democracy, in either case the general reaction from people on the ground across Asia I would say is one of total lack of credibility. They don’t believe the U.S. They don’t think it’s serious, and they’re not afraid if it threatens to invade them. So that’s a really sad situation but I think it’s a reality. And that’s why the people of the U.S. are concerned about being very carefully about getting involved and why Obama I think has understood that and has been extremely careful about doing anything militarily.
American interests clearly would be hurt. The interests of the United States, or the interests American allies, or global interests like the free flow of energy – all of these would be hurt severely if the Islamic State phenomenon were to expand and were to grow into something stronger, perhaps geographically expand across the region.
I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think the Islamic State is a totally reactionary, short-term process that is the consequence of initially a few hundred, later a few thousand discontented, marginalized young men who really were totally de-territorialized and de-anchored from their societies, and people who were looking for something to do and lashed on to these extremist movements.
A lot of the people who joined these groups like the Islamic State or al Qaeda groups came from other countries. This is one of the interesting things. Most of these guys are kind of outcasts and losers and people who are social misfits and they can’t figure out how to live a normal life and they gravitate to these kinds of movements like people would have joined Charles Manson’s cult or something like that. So these guys have no anchorage in society, but they are now there for the reasons that I mentioned before. They can only operate where there’s chaos, where there’s no government, where there’s no order, where there’s no normal life and no hope for people. They can only work in those conditions. So you see them in Iraq after 2003 and then a little bit in Syria recently, before that in rural Yemen, parts of Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali. These are all zones of chaos and ungovernability and warfare. That’s the only place where these people can work, which tells us a lot about what they really are.
The fact is they do now have some territory, they’ve been able to get a hold of some natural resources, they have sources of income, and they’ve attracted some more people. There’s estimates of them having forty, fifty thousand soldiers. These are mostly people who are not ideologically deeply committed to an Islamic State concept, which by itself is a concept that scholars tell you nobody knows what it really means. The fact is they control territory, they have some money, they have manpower, and they’ve tried to expand, but clearly they’re going to be pushed back because they don’t have that natural support in society. And we’ve started to see in the last week only, ten days in Lebanon, on the border in Lebanon, in northern Syria, and in northeastern Iraq – three places simultaneously where people have pushed back against them with American military support and other military support from Europeans in Iraq, the Syrian government pushing back against them in Syria, and in Lebanon, the Lebanese government and Hezbollah working together to push back.
So once these guys are confronted with a serious response from local legitimate authorities and local society they get pushed back, and I think we’re going to see more of that. The problem is they’re so vicious, they’re so evil that they can create a lot of trouble. So they need to be defeated quickly but the long-term challenge is to address those underlying conditions that allowed these kinds of groups to emerge. And that’s where you get back to the problem of bad government, corruption, lack of order, lack of hope and opportunity for ordinary Arab people, the spillover of the Arab-Israeli conflict and how that promotes radicalism and despair across the region, and the impact of American and other foreign military invasions. So these underlying reasons that created the conditions that allowed groups like the Islamic State to take shape – those need to be addressed, and that’s a really big, tough menu. It’s not something that can be done with a snap of a finger but it’s the menu that has to be addressed, and hopefully people will start moving in that direction in different Arab countries.
[Ryan] We’re talking with Rami Khouri from the American University in Beirut. Rami is a distinguished columnist, scholar, commentator. You can find his byline in a number of outlets worldwide. He’s a syndicated columnist with the “Daily Star” newspaper and elsewhere. You can find his work at RamiKhouri.com. Rami is here with us for the hour for “Global Focus.” I’m Patrick Ryan, President of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.
Rami, let’s shift gears a little bit. We’ve taken a really good look at not just the Islamic State, the threat in Iraq and Syria, but you’ve also given us some great insights into the perception of Americans in the Middle East, and you mentioned that part of that is shaped by the American relationship with Israel. It’s a historic conflict, an issue in American foreign policy and regional policy. It drives a lot of other things that are happening across the region. We’ve seen efforts in the current Administration of President Obama. Early in the administration he asked Senator George Mitchell to go to the region and try to improve the prospects for peace. Most recently Senator John Kerry launched an extensive effort to bring the sides together. That ended this spring without any consequence. And most recently we’ve seen the disastrous consequences of the violence between Hamas in Gaza and Israel. Can you open up this topic with your perception and perspective to help us understand what’s happening between Israel and Palestine and what Americans should know about the conflict there?
[Khouri] Well I would say the Arab-Israeli or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the single oldest and most destabilizing and radicalizing force in the entire Middle East. It’s been going on effectively since the 1930s and then in 1947-1948 you have the high water mark of the fighting that led to the creation of the State of Israel and the war of 1948 and the ethnic cleansing and the fleeing of the Palestinians and the expansion of Israel. And so ‘48 was the critical moment, but this conflict started really going back in the 1920s and the 1930s.
Essentially it’s a conflict between two people who claim the same piece of land. People will argue this as I have done in my life, for days and days on end, essentially it’s a situation where you had a land – if you look on the map there [refers to map displayed in video] you see the land labeled Israel and then the West Bank, and Khan Yunis, west of Jerusalem is in Gaza. That land was historically around ninety-three, ninety-four percent Palestinian Arab. Mostly Muslim, maybe eight, ten percent Christian. That land was about ninety-three, ninety-four percent Arabs with a small indigenous Jewish population that had lived there always.
Something happened between the 1930 and the 1950 where this land became eighty percent Jewish and twenty percent Arabs. So that’s not a natural process, that’s not a normal situation, and the conflict is about how did that happen and how can that be rectified.
So we don’t have time to get into history lessons, and anyway whatever I say people are going to challenge it who don’t accept the Arab perception of this. But let’s just say this is a conflict that I believe can be resolved peacefully, to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Israel withdraws from the land they occupied in ’67. A Palestinian state is created. The Palestinians and Arabs recognize Israel and live totally at peace, and you resolve the refugee-hood of the Palestinians. The refugee-hood meaning in ‘47, ‘48 the Palestinian population was about one and a half million. Half of those, around 750,000 were either ethnically cleansed by the Israelis – and Israeli historians have documented this and they use that same term. Some of them were deliberately expelled and ethnically cleansed, violently in some cases, and others fled during the war of 1947-48, which happens in any war situation. And the 750,000 who left in 1947-48, those Palestinians now number around four and a half, five million people. They’re the refugees who are outside in camps and living in middle class situations in the Arab world, people like myself.
So you have to solve that refugee problem of the Palestinians and their refugee-hood in a way that allows Israel to remain as a majority Jewish state which it is now – about eighty percent Jewish – but addresses the rights of the refugees and the Palestinians. So I believe it can be resolved, we just haven’t had very good leadership in Israel or Palestine, and we’ve had really mediocre American mediation over the last 20 years, which has not allowed us to reach a peaceful resolution.
In the mean time the tensions keep flaring up and exploding into active warfare as we’re seeing in Gaza. What you have in Gaza is Palestinian resistance groups like Hamas who will not passively acquiesce in being treated like colonial subjects and being laid siege to by the Israelis or bombed or put in prison or assassinated.
This is the Palestinian response, which is that they’re resisting Israel’s subjugation. The Israelis accuse the Palestinians of initiating fighting and trying to destroy Israel, and the Israelis feel that they’re acting in self-defense. This is something that the court of public opinion around the world has to decide. And most people I think around the world believe that the Palestinians have a case to be made, that they should not be subjected to the kind of siege and colonization and occupation that Israel has subjected them to, and the Palestinians need to live in more normal conditions. And Israel has a right also not to be attacked.
Those two things go together, and this is why we’ve never solved this problem because the American approach, the kind of government approach with American mediation has generally focused on is saying Israel’s security has to be guaranteed, and then the Palestinians might get some of their rights, but Israel’s security comes first. That’s not going to work. That doesn’t work in any situation around the world.
If you look at situations of conflict that were resolved like North Ireland or South Africa – really tough issues. They were resolved because the people who were fighting were convinced to stop fighting because they were both going to achieve equal rights simultaneously – not sequentially, but simultaneously.
That approach has never been applied in the Arab-Israeli conflict except in the cases where peace has actually worked, which is between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan. And those peace treaties worked and have held because the Israelis and the Jordanians or the Israelis and the Egyptians were treated as two parties that actually had equal rights, that the Israeli security, the security of Israel was not given primacy over the security of Jordan or Egypt, and that approach will work if one day it is applied for Israelis and Palestinians.
So it’s a complex conflict that’s gone on for about 80, 90 years, but I think it’s imminently solvable but we need to really get better leadership than we have now.
[Ryan] Those two treaties between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan came when all the parties were at the point where internally, domestically they could reach that kind of agreement. In the case of the Palestinians we see that Hamas in Gaza remains divorced from Fatah in the West Bank. So how do we reconcile the internal divisions within the Palestinian side?
[Khouri] Well that’s a bit of a red herring argument that the Israelis often put up. The Palestinians for many, many years were united. They had unity governments. They were speaking with one voice, and still the negotiations ended up going nowhere. They just recently had a unity government before this fighting started. In fact many Palestinians believe the reason Israel wanted this war to happen is to break up the unity government where Hamas and Fatah were in one government where technocrats were appointed as ministers, not political personalities. And the divisions among the Palestinians are no greater than divisions among Republicans and Democrats in the United States, or Tea Party and MSNBC in the United States, or whatever dichotomy you want.
[Ryan] If it wasn’t such a serious topic we could have a very good conversation on the comedic side about Rs and Ds here in the United States, but getting to your point about the unity government. Is it your view that a unity government would be in position to negotiate with credibility with Israel? Israel says it doesn’t negotiate with Hamas, but under the umbrella of a unity government could there be talks that might be fruitful down the road?
[Khouri] Oh, absolutely. I think the Israelis should jump on the unity government because it is a government of technocrats. It’s supported by Fatah and Hamas and many of the other smaller groups. The unity government has agreed to the three conditions that the Israelis and Americans and Europeans and the UN has put on it, which is to respect previous agreements, not to use violence, and to deal with the political realities in a serious and non-violent way.
The Palestinians have basically said they’re open to negotiating with Israel if the Israelis are willing to negotiate seriously. So I think the Israelis should jump on the unity government option and to test the waters.
Hamas, by the way, has made it clear for many years that while it doesn’t recognize Israel, it resists Israel militarily because of the way Israel treats the Palestinians and continues to colonize Arab land and lay siege to Gaza and many other terrible things.
Hamas has also said that if the Palestinian government negotiates a peace agreement with Israel and this is put to a referendum of Palestinians and the majority of Palestinians accept it, Hamas will go along with it. They will respect the majority will of the Palestinian people.
Of course the Israelis do the same thing. Any agreement they have has to go to a vote of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and I think this is a very wise way to go. Let popular credibility and legitimacy be the final determinant of the positions of both Israelis and Palestinians. So Hamas is not an obstacle to political negotiations. They will not themselves sit and negotiate with the Israelis simply because they don’t feel the Israelis are ever going to be serious about finding an agreement that responds to international law and meets the reasonable demands of both sides.
[Ryan] You mentioned the perception in the region about the American connection with Israel. In the recent conflict in Gaza some of the right leaning members of the Likud Party said some things that were not very favorable about John Kerry and his position in trying to develop ceasefires and getting American hands involved in resolving this tactical conflict.
Also during the peace talks he was the subject of some opprobrium about the American role in forcing the Israelis to do things they didn’t want to do. Do you see a discernable change in the attitude in Israel as far as the partnership with America in terms of American pressure for an accommodation to be reached. President Obama has been seen as not one of the most popular American leaders among the Israeli public. Is there a shift in attitudes towards the United States as its role evolves in dealing with Israel and Palestine?
[Khouri] You know, the Obama Administration did try some new approaches that were quite novel, almost unprecedented in terms of relations with Israel, so when Obama came out about three years ago, the first time asking the Israelis to freeze their settlements — the colonies that the Israelis build and occupy Arab lands — the Israelis really fought that very hard. They agreed to a partial freeze but not a full freeze under intense American pressure, and many Israelis feel that Obama is actually closer to the Palestinians on the settlements issue, which I think he is.
It’s not that Obama is closer to the Palestinians, it’s he’s closer to international legitimacy and law because the settlements are illegal under international law, the Geneva Conventions, and the whole world recognizes this including the United States. So when Obama asked the Israelis to freeze the settlements, so that a negotiation can be started with the Palestinians, that’s intended to be something positive to let peace negotiations start.
It happened once and then didn’t really happen again because the Israelis refused to give into the American demands again. This has created tensions between the Israelis and the Americans, but in a very, very limited manner because when it gets right down to it – like we see the fighting in Gaza now – when it gets down to it in a situation of war or danger or anything, even though there’s no danger to the Israelis – the Israelis are so overwhelmingly stronger than the Hamas guys, but the Israelis can call on the United States to give them anything it wants in terms of political support, military aid, financial aid, diplomatic backing, and the United States will almost always do this.
So I think Obama tried in a daring way to push the Israelis politically, freezing settlements to try to get peace negotiations going, and it just didn’t work. It didn’t work for many reasons, but the Israelis and the Palestinians were not able to agree.
My impression is – and this is a Palestinian perspective – is that the main reason is the Israelis were not willing to comply with the dictates of international law about ending settlements and addressing the refugee problem. The Israelis made demands of their own like we need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and we refuse to do that. Therefore – we were willing to live with an Israeli state like it is now, majority Jewish, and to live with it in peace, which was the Arab Peace Plan of 2002, which is still on the table. The Arabs have all said they’re willing to coexist peacefully with Israel if it gets out of the occupied territories of 1967 and addresses the resolution of the refugee problem in a way that both Israelis and Arabs agree to. Not an imposed resolution but one that is negotiated and agreed by both sides.
So there are still problems on both sides in accepting what the other side wants, and this is where the mediator is so important, and the Americans have been incompetent, amateur mediators, I think unfortunately. They’ve had the mediating monopoly on this for 20 years and they haven’t been able to do anything.
[Ryan] We’re talking with Rami Khouri from the American University in Beirut, syndicated columnist. You can catch his byline at www.RamiKhouri.com. We are closing in at the end of our hour. We’re going to double back a little bit.
We have a question from Mac Pogue who asks, “Is there an emerging group within Syria which could be supported?” And this is probably relative to the question of the Islamic State, ISIS, and its role as having emerged from the Syrian civil war. We look at it in Iraq, but it is a major actor in the opposition to President Assad in Syria. And one of the arguments put forward in Washington for not supporting the opposition in Syria has been that there are these radical groups that emerged, such as ISIS. Do you see that there are alternatives to ISIS that could be supported against the Assad regime?
[Khouri] Well I think the basic answer is yes there are, but they’re very weak now. They should’ve been supported two and a half years ago when the rebellion broke out against Assad and it was a peaceful process and demonstrations all across Syria. Then it slowly became militarized because the government of Syria started bombing its own people and killing them, then the opposition started arming and trying to create some kind of military capacity to defend itself.
Initially the opposition forces who were rebelling peacefully, non-violently against Assad then had to defend themselves militarily because Assad was killing them. And as this militarization of Syria happened the so-called moderates were kind of pushed aside and the more extremist Islamist groups became more dominant because they were better funded. They had better arms. They were more motivated, and they were able to play a bigger role militarily than the so-called moderates. And now the non-Islamist, secular opposition is much smaller compared to some of these bigger Islamist groups. And not all the Islamist groups, by the way, are like Islamic State. Islamic State is the most extreme, most violent. But there’s many other kinds of mainstream Islamists like Muslim Brotherhood-types and local Islamic groups, and many of them are tribal groups at the same time, not just religious groups. But they’re all opposition groups, and the United States at some point I think has to – not just the United States, but the Europeans and others have to decide if they really want to get rid of the Syrian government they’re going to have give the opposition a lot more military help. That simply hasn’t happened. And I think it’s probably too late right now because the opposition groups that the U.S. could support are very small and not very influential on the ground. Things might change six months down the road, but right now that’s a very, very difficult process.
[Ryan] Rami, we’re going to ask you for your closing comments here in a minute, but first let me remind our audience that this is “Global Focus,” produced by the Tennessee World Affairs Council. I’m Patrick Ryan here in Nashville, Tennessee, and we’re talking with Rami Khouri from Beirut and he’s given us a fascinating insight into what’s going on in Iraq with ISIS and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
We welcome your participation in the audience, and we note that this and other “Global Focus” sessions will be archived on the Tennessee World Affairs Council website, TNWAC.org. You can go there to view these sessions. This is our innagural Global Focus, so we’re just getting started. We appreciate any feedback and suggestions on topics or how we can improve this feature.
We also welcome your support and membership in the Tennessee World Affairs Council, which is a non-profit educational group without a particular political objective other than to help educate Americans about international affairs. We’re based here in Nashville, Tennessee at Belmont University.
We’re pleased that Dr. Sam Glasgow has sponsored Global Focus, and thanks to him we’re able to bring you this program through our webinar service.
Rami, I’ll note that you were born in New York, grew up a Yankees fan. I was born in New York, grew up a Mets fan, but we can still have a decent conversation, regardless.
[Khouri] That’s right.
[Ryan] And I’ll thank you greatly for taking time out of your busy schedule today to join us. Any last thoughts or comments to share with our audience as we wrap up our hour here in Global Focus?
[Khouri] I would just make one comment. I spend two or three months in the United States every year and I know it well. I follow things closely there. I would just say that the mass media coverage in the United States of the situations all across the Middle East is pretty bad, generally speaking, with only a few exceptions of quality work.
So most people in the United States have a pretty distorted picture of what’s going on around the region, an incomplete picture. It’s important for people who are interested in this, who are concerned about America’s situation in the region and American long-term interests to make the effort to get better informed. That’s why I think that the work that you’re doing at the Tennessee World Affairs Council with your colleagues all across the country is so valuable.
Thank you again for having me.
[Ryan] Thank you so much. Again, this has been Global Focus, produced by the Tennessee World Affairs Council, and I’m Patrick Ryan from Nashville, Tennessee. We thank you for participating. Check back to TNWAC.org for a schedule of upcoming Global Focus sessions. We hope to bring these to you at least monthly and as world situations warrant.
Thank you again, and we look forward to your participation in the future.
[Khouri] You bet. Thanks.
About Rami Khouri
Rami George Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and US citizen whose family resides in Beirut and Nazareth. He is the Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, as well as a columnist at the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.
He is an internationally syndicated political columnist and book author, and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Dubai School of Government. He has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Syracuse, Tufts, Mt. Holyoke and Northeastern universities, and in November 2006 he was the co-recipient of the Pax Christi International Peace Award for his efforts to bring peace and reconciliation to the Middle East.
He was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University in 2001-02, and recently served for four years on the international advisory board of the International Committee of the Red Cross. He has a BA in political science and MSc in journalism from Syracuse University.
- Rami Khouri Home Page
- Recent Articles by Rami Khouri
- CNN Presents “In God’s Name” – Christiane Amanpour, President Bill Clinton, Rami Khouri, Queen Rania of Jordan, Dina Habib Powell, Shimon Peres
- Rami Khouri on Bloomberg View – Topics: Israel/Palestine
Global Focus is a Tennessee World Affairs Council flagship program designed to bring distinguished leaders from the United States and around the world into our communities, schools, businesses, organizations and homes through the use of Webcasts.
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The Global Focus international affairs Webcast was launched in August 2014 and provides, at least monthly, an opportunity to talk about current developments, long term trends and important topics from across the spectrum. In addition to a regularly scheduled monthly Webcast we will add additional broadcasts as panelist availability and developments in the world dictate. So stay up to date with our calendar.
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