Limmud Address — 26 December 2016

Limmud Address 2016 – Monday December 26, 2016 – Ivan Ciment

I’ve had several months to think about what I am going to say and it certainly has been humbling reading the texts of my remarks at Limmuds given in 2001, 2002 and 2006. The world really was a different place 15 years ago and even 10 years ago – what we thought were the biggest threats at that time are not even on the radar today. Often, we would go from year to year and feel that nothing really important was going on and I certainly was feeling as I wrote my columns that there was little I could say that people couldn’t read elsewhere and at a certain point I began to feel that nothing would ever change and that it was a waste of time to even write about the Middle East.

If you look back and tonight we will, you’ll see that in certain respects I was very much right and very much wrong.  Even if we don’t see the change from one year to the next, the world in certain ways is very different now than it was then but in certain ways it appears not to have changed at all.

I want to start by stating things in conclusion you would expect me to say at the end of my remarks and then move backward to prove the points.

  1. The Middle East has not changed in 15 years. What has changed is our perceptions of what we expect the Middle East to be. Some people will say that this just shows the naiveté of those that had certain expectations and that might be true. I want to redefine what I think the reality is, given the past 15 years of observations.
  2. We are entering a disturbing period in foreign relations where orthodoxies as to what constitute the interests of America are about to be redefined. In this situation, it doesn’t matter what we thought for the past 15 years because we are entering a new phase of history.

Here are some questions to think about that I will try and answer tonight:

  1. Has anything happened these past 15 years in the Middle East that really matters?
  2. What have we learned during the past 15 years in the Middle East?
  3. What are the prospects for this region? Is it a doomed cesspool for wasted resources?
  4. Can anyone with good intentions and pragmatic policies make anything work?
  5. Should we care?

I think if we can answer these 5 questions, it will give us the foundation for reaching the two conclusions stated above.

The first question was has anything happened these past 15 years that really matters? I think the most important thing to talk about are the things that did NOT happen that we thought would happen. I recall meeting someone at University of Pennsylvania in 1988 who made a speech. He is an Israeli economic and political analyst named Oded Yinon. He basically said that nothing would ever change with regard to the Israelis and Palestinians and that the status quo would basically go on indefinitely. The only thing he thought would happen in the region that might be important was that Egypt would in 25 years become a fundamentalist country. I have always found his worldview to be somewhat depressing but I would have to say that over the past 25 years Oded Yinon has been more correct than anyone else I have ever met – Egypt did indeed get a fundamentalist government roughly 25 years later although the army threw out Morsi after a year. But other than that, nothing has really changed between Israel and the Palestinians in the sense that there is generally autonomy for the Palestinians and they co-exist with Israelis under roughly the same borders as existed 25 years ago. There may be Palestinian flags in Gaza and the West Bank but life hasn’t really changed for either side and the Israelis are still mainly in control.

People expected positive change; people thought that reasonable people would eventually come to the fore and effect positive change. That didn’t happen – the names of the people in charge may have changed, but the substance of life hasn’t changed and no new ideas have been implemented.  Here are the names of people who mattered 15 years ago: Yasser Arafat, Osama Bin Laden, Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein, Bibi Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak. Think about it – the only person who still runs a real country today is Bibi Netanyahu. That gets you credibility in this region. Considering that he is a survivor who does not take risks and offers no surprises, it makes him a strong partner and a good neighbor in that region, despite the fact that he offers no hope for the Palestinians.  What this means is that the talk and dreams of some kind of two-state solution have not amounted to anything, but Netanyahu is getting along just fine with anyone who has to operate in that region.

Some specifics:  People thought that if citizens could vote freely, they would exercise democratic rights to usher in democratic solutions of government and vote for things that furthered their economic interests. Instead, people in Gaza voted for Hamas. People in Egypt voted for Morsi. But why should we be surprised? People in the UK who had the most to lose by it voted for Brexit. People in the US who had the most to lose by him voted for Trump.

People thought that if you took away foreign elements, people in civil wars would get tired of fighting each other and that civil war ought not to be inevitable just because the dictator that held the country together by force was gone. That didn’t happen. Just look at Iraq. People in Iraq have been at war now for close to 15 years and the reason the various factions exist is that no true national leader has arisen that would create a national entity that would unite Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

What has changed is that Syria is no longer acting as a state with any importance in the region. It has been consumed in its own civil war. That is a new reality that is unlikely to change in the short term. The same is true for Libya. Ten to fifteen years ago the fear was that World War III would come from Pakistan; today we hardly hear of that country. Afghanistan is also not on people’s radars. It’s a far cry from the post-9/11 world where all eyes were trained on those two countries.

Tunisia changed a bit but it’s still not going far and it is a small country. Egypt changed and then changed back again so I guess it didn’t really change. Saudi Arabia has a young prince who is making noises of change but there are tons of people around him waiting for him to fail so that they can put everything back the way it was and make sure nothing happens in that country. The odds are against the prince. Turkey changed but has realized that it has no friends in the world, so it has to decide if it really wants to change or if it should get back into its box.

I had said that if America engaged Syria and Iran it could work to constructively solve problems in the region. That turned out not to be true; Syria is no longer a party of consequence you can work with, and Iran is not interested in working with America to solve problems.

15 years ago, Arafat and Sharon were in charge of Israel and the Palestinians. The only leaders on the horizon from the Israeli side were Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. After some amount of Ehud Olmert it went back to Bibi with Barak serving as a defense minister. Nobody even remotely challenged him the past 10 years and Abbas basically took over from Arafat and nobody challenged him. All of the above did nothing of consequence.  The proposition that moderates from a new generation would take over and make progress turned out to be false. To be fair, Olmert was interested in doing a deal but his corruption made him too weak to do a deal and surprise wars in Gaza and Lebanon took up a lot of bandwidth.

How did I do with predictions regarding Israeli-Arab relations? 15 years ago I didn’t think the two-state solution would work, and 15 years later we are no closer to that solution.  15 years ago I said that both peoples were debating among themselves in a vacuum and not really trying to talk to the other side. That still seems to be true. Nobody’s attitudes really changed much in 15 years except to harden.  15 years ago we didn’t know if either side would accept reasonable offers and to some extent we still don’t know because the offers were never really made. I thought that up and coming Arab leaders with Western education would be more reasonable; leaders in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt proved that thesis wrong.  15 years ago 36 out of 38 armed conflicts in the world involved Islamic fundamentalists and that is probably similarly true today. 15 years ago I said that the so-called Arab Street didn’t matter. In a sense it did for the sake of the Arab Spring, but that was a passing phase which in many ways led to things being worse or the establishment becoming even more entrenched, and so I guess the Arab Street didn’t really matter. 15 years ago I said that Israelis were tired; today they are not tired – the country is vibrant and issues of peace are just not imperative because they are seen as pie in the sky and not relevant to life at hand. 15 years ago I said that the primary threats came from rogues and not states, and that remains true. ISIS and Al-Qaida were rogues that tried to become states and have certainly caused plenty of trouble.  I said that the biggest sin in this region is to be a loser, that the US had a history of half-assed actions that were weak and that left their allies alone and hanging.  15 years later it is clear that Arab regimes are running for cover because they see the US as unreliable and uninterested; they are even willing to countenance Trump as a hater of Moslems because they think he will at least act with strength if he doesn’t otherwise abandon the region. I thought that in a year or two both the Israelis and Palestinians would shake out their leadership with younger people coming to the forefront and we might see new signs of movement – that didn’t happen.  I said that Egyptians couldn’t stand the prospect of Gamal Mubarak taking over from his father and that turned out to be true. Even the army was willing to see him thrown out and risk what came afterward. I wrote in 2002, a good 10 years earlier: The Egyptians think the Americans are allowing Mubarak to try and run Egypt as a mom and pop shop and that the idea of installing his son as president is an insult to the intelligence of 70 million Egyptians.”  I said that the various states had a golden opportunity to discredit fundamentalists but that they would have to show their people that they offered a better solution. As it turned out, fundamentalists discredited themselves by showing people that they did not have better solutions. The establishment regimes are in power but they are still hated; they haven’t proven that they offer any legitimacy but at least they are not doing all the disgusting things that the fundamentalists did when they had their chances at power.

I stated in 2002 “What Arabs, particularly in the Gulf, fear most is that the Americans will attack Iraq, declare victory, pull out before they actually win, and leave the region in chaos. They accuse the Americans of doing the bare minimum in Afghanistan. If so, the Americans will have absolutely no credibility left in this region.” I guess I hit the nail on that one.

People today forget how scared the Arab countries were of Iraq perhaps having nuclear weapons. It was a real concern in neighboring countries. Today the Arabs are scared of Iran having nuclear weapons.

I said that Israelis would keep tightening the screws to get more security but would find themselves with less security. I was wrong – the Israelis figured out how to tighten the screws each time the Arabs made trouble for them until the Arabs cried uncle, whether in Lebanon, Gaza or anywhere else.  I thought the Israelis wouldn’t be able to re-create downtown in the Malcha or Mamila shopping malls and actually they did quite well with both of those, neither of which have been attacked, and interestingly you can walk directly from Jaffa Gate into the Mamila pedestrian shopping mall day or night without even being checked by security.  I just noticed that a few weeks ago. I said that the Palestinians felt that Oslo was a continuation of an Israeli-sponsored mafia running Palestine and that has remained true. Today, the main horse being touted as a followup to Abbas is Dahlan, the favorite of Arab money and Israeli leaders, who is classic Mafioso.

So much for what we’ve learned and what has changed and not changed in the region over the past 15 years. The next question I posed was what are the prospects for this region, is it a cesspool for drained resources and should anyone care. That is truly a crucial question because billions upon billions of dollars of Western taxpayers money have basically bought nothing in the Middle East. Money for civil development was lost to corruption, money used by the military to secure oil supply was wasted because in the end the West pretty much abandoned Libya and Iraq to rebels who pretty much destroyed oil production, and the whole issue of oil supply became less important as the US became an oil exporter through fracking, a term nobody used 15 years ago. Western populations are strongly against sending their children to war in this region feeling that they accomplished nothing and the Iraq war had a real impact on the American budget – money that could have purchased infrastructure in America was squandered in Iraq. President Obama wanted to ironically Put America First and keep his focus on jobs and staying out of foreign entanglements. He left a void that the Russians filled in Syria, and the refugees that came out of there became a threat to Europe, but not to America leading to the question that burns today – Do we care? This is a huge question because for the past 70 years or so the Western World had a basic idea of what it considered its interests which stayed fairly consistent. Whether the Democrats or Republicans ran the US, it didn’t really matter on the world stage because American interests remained fairly consistent and foreign policy infighting was generally expected to stop at the water’s edge, a reference to the rivers on both sides of Washington DC. Obama broke a bit with tradition and wasn’t sure if he cared about things that earlier would have been considered important American interests. He was sure that he didn’t want to be burned and suckered into bad situations. People said he was weak and inattentive but really, what were the alternatives? Hillary Clinton in the debates, when asked what she would do about Aleppo, said virtually nothing. She wasn’t going to put up a no-fly zone in Syria because it would mean American boots on the ground and casualties. The Republicans never said a word as to how they would get rid of ISIS in the Middle East or what they would do in Syria. And you had to consider that ISIS was initially funded by America’s Sunni allies who were not thrilled that Iraq had essentially been ceded to Iran after the Americans created chaos, declared victory and pulled out of the country. So just who were the coalition that America was going to join up with to defeat ISIS and who were the enemies of ISIS in Syria that were going to be our allies anyway?

Here’s a great joke I heard in synagogue from the Rabbi’s sermon this past weekend. A Swiss guy is driving around in a car in Switzerland and gets lost. His bad luck is to have run into two American tourists. First he tries speaking to them in German and they don’t understand him. Then he tries French, with the same result. Then he tries Italian and Spanish. Finally he drives off exasperated. One American turns to the other and says “You see, I told you we ought to learn a foreign language.” The other American says “What’s the point? That guy spoke 4 languages and it didn’t help him.” This joke makes sense when you think about whether or not there is a benefit in caring about a problem or deciding that it makes more sense to ignore it, such as the Americans who joked that learning languages to be more conversant had no value and that ignorance was more beneficial to them. This kind of know-nothing attitude matters much when the discussion turns to defining America’s interests in the Middle East under a Trump presidency.

Trump brings this whole situation to a new dimension. He just doesn’t care at all. It has occurred to me that the 10 hours or so I spent writing these remarks are probably more time than Donald Trump has spent in his entire life of about 70 years thinking about American Foreign Policy and may be more than he is likely to spend during his presidency thinking about it. Before you laugh consider that our new secretary of housing’s one qualification for office is that he owned a house. We don’t know if he is refusing national security briefings because he doesn’t care or because he wants plausible deniability while he engages in foreign relations that puts his business interests first or so that he can cause trouble before someone tells him not to do something such as talk to Taiwan after Bob Dole set up the call after he got paid $140,000 by Taiwan.

The point here is that we now have a president who declares that he doesn’t care, doesn’t even appoint a secretary of state a full month after he is elected (and perhaps he took advice from Bibi Netanyahu who might have told him that he could do without his foreign ministry), and who will be in a position to unilaterally declare what America’s interests are, because that is what a president does. This runs counter to everything we have known to be true, because generally a president’s actions are dictated by America’s interests which have always been taken as a given. Now that the underlying thesis is up for grabs, America’s allies all over the globe are running for cover. In Eastern Europe they are petrified as to what Russia might do. You could just see Putin sending an emissary to Trump to let him know that his son was just given a $10 billion piece of prime real estate in Moscow and by the way we’re invading Estonia tomorrow. Here’s a hidden lead: Last night I had dinner with the CEO of a British company who said that she cannot stay overnight in Estonia because the country risk is too high. So basically, my joke about Russia invading Estonia is not a joke to either Estonia or companies sending executives there. As Bibi Netanyahu waited out 4 and then 8 years of Obama, so too will the world wait out Trump. Washington has a good history of eating for lunch presidents it doesn’t like and bureaucrats know how to stop a president from making changes in the executive branch of government.  But you never know – maybe the guy is brilliant and should be challenging the orthodoxies that have not exactly succeeded in making the world a better place after all these years. It will be an interesting ride.

To conclude at the beginning, the Middle East has not substantially changed these past 15 years. Hopes for a brighter future were dashed when we saw that the prescriptions we thought would bring positive changes such as elections, younger western educated leaders, military campaigns to reshuffle the deck – all turned out to be false flags. Elections brought even worse results, younger leaders were no better than the older ones who never seemed to fade away, and military campaigns were so useless that they were thought best avoided to the point that voids were created that ushered in chaos and campaigns for territory and resources by rogue entities that verged on statehood. Nobody with half a brain could think that anyone with pragmatic ideas and well-intentioned policies would get anything but burned in this region. Everyone mistrusts America so much that no matter what America does generates a reason to hate it and see it as conspiring to do evil. The Middle East is a cesspool of drained resources, especially when the feeling is that America has its own oil and doesn’t need the Middle East anymore. Nobody thinks that bringing peace between Israel and Palestinians will create solutions to a single other problem in the region – people used to think it was the key to solving all the other problems.

The Arab Spring was a false flag that the West read placing its own perceptions of Arab reality on those developments. Those perceptions were wrong – the Israelis were actually right. They had a more realistic view of the region and did not have misty-eyed hopes and dreams of a brighter future for a new generation of Arabs who wanted to enjoy democracy and freedom. They correctly saw the chaos that was going to come from this. If you read my speech from 2002 you would have thought that we should have backed Morsi against Mubarak, but it turned out that a year later the Egyptian army threw out Morsi, the people approved of this and Sisi has been more authoritative than Mubarak ever was. In Turkey, you might have thought the coup against Erdogan who was increasingly playing the autocrat would have popular support but actually the people supported Erdogan. Obama went to Cairo and made a nice speech to the Arabs who basically spent the following 8 years ridiculing it. We just don’t get it in this region, so why try? Trump is basically saying we don’t need you and we’ll just stay out. If the Russians take over Syria it might be just fine with us and the Israelis who at least will know that someone they can deal with is in charge of that country.  I don’t know what that the new American policy means to Iran but so far it probably means nothing. The deal is done because nobody will join America with economic sanctions and sooner or later Iran will be a nuclear country and it doesn’t look like anyone can stop it. Whatever that means when it happens is what it will mean.

Saudi Arabia was identified as a potentially unstable country 15 years ago and it remains as such. But you have this new prince there who is shaking things up – at the same time there are tons of people around him waiting for him to fail so that they can put the screws back in place for another generation. The past 15 years indicates this is the likely result, so instead of hoping for change it is probably a better bet for the future to join the people waiting to pull the plug on him and not object when it finally happens. There is no good alternative to the House of Saud – 60% of the southern part of the country is Shiite and fodder for Iran to topple the kingdom. Imagine what the world would like with Iran as the world’s swing oil producer.

Yes, Israel and the Palestinians are likely to be no differently situated in another 15 years. The Israelis are looking forward to a Trump presidency – they just want to be left alone without any American dreaming of a new Middle East. They seem to be perfectly content with the Middle East as it is, and history has proven that having low expectations here as the future is the most likely outcome.

I’m sorry if this is depressing. But 15 years later looking at the evidence for better and worse, it is most likely the reality we can expect. Nothing has changed and nothing will change. It is just us who have to adjust our thinking to realize that this is a region that has not changed for hundreds of years. Colonial powers wrote up artificial international border lines last century – they really didn’t work out and tribal alliances have always trumped national boundaries. The West has changed – it’s been burned enough times in this region, its economic interests have changed, money is tight, and the Russians are willing to establish order in return for a warm water port in Syria and military influence in the Mediterranean., which for them is a vital interest. We may not be sure that we have vital interests in Syria but Russia is sure that it does and it does not have to be a given that we have to be involved just because they are.

Would it be better to try and turn back the clock and let each European country try to re-establish the spheres of influence it had in the region and use them to try and restore order? I’ve thought about it but then got over it. Nothing would come of it except for money down the drain, attacks by fundamentalists, corruption and the inevitable moral decay caused by occupation. Peacekeepers? Been there and done that. Build schools and roads? Yeah, money into the pockets of local warlords. Got any better ideas?  Were we proven wrong these past 15 years or were we just naïve to have silly ideas in the first place? That is a fair question and either answer can be proven. Nobody wants to believe that Oded Yinon was right in 1988 when he said nothing of consequence will happen here except maybe Egypt will go fundamentalist in 25 years. But he wasn’t wrong and we have all twisted and turned these past 25 years to see that while things around us appeared to change, they really didn’t. The internet came to the Middle East, but people are watching channels that say that man landing on the moon is a fiction of Hollywood.  So maybe we are just a bit wiser now even if we are more cynical. Or maybe this is just the consequence of my turning 50 this year with 30 years of experience under my belt. One thing I hate doing is reading old files of my op-ed pieces from 25 years ago when I was a student with too much time where I wrote about all sorts of ideas about the future of the Middle East. All that wasted thought and words, and yet they still seem like good ideas but may have been before their time.

Maybe less engagement in this region is better. The Chinese have no military entanglements and make a lot of money off our backs while we accompany ships through the straits of the Gulf. They are the ones with oil concessions in Iraq even though we fought the war there. They have good relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and everyone else in the region. Do they know something we don’t?  Maybe we should have fewer expectations of change in this region and trying to create stability and secure our supposed interests, and instead spend more time and money fixing our roads and bridges and let these people worry about themselves. You can’t want peace more than the Israelis and Arabs do. You can’t really stop Iran’s inevitable pursuit of nuclear power which is a vital interest to them. You can’t keep Russia out of Syria because it is a vital interest for them. So perhaps the new American interest is to realize the limits of its interests and to accommodate itself to the fact that change will not likely occur in this region and it is not worthwhile to try and effect change. Maybe we should stop the charade of pretending to create diplomatic momentum in the region when in fact we know that nobody in the region wants to move but simply participate in a conspiracy of appearing to promote some kind of new era of peace in the region. You can ask Dennis Ross if that was worth so much of his professional life. If all this is so, putting America First is a good policy prescription and one that is likely to lead to more prosperity at home. It might lead to more refugees in Europe, but that is Europe’s problem which it seems to be solving on its own. All in all, it is a new reading of reality, but one that is not unreasonable. It requires an adjustment of thinking but it can work, as long as fundamentalists do not send dirty bombs back into Western capitals to draw them into a new generation of jihad. Arguably the attacks were a backlash against American involvement in the region. The last 15 years have been relatively quiet for the West, despite all that has happened which constitute a nuisance but nothing close to an existential threat. If the next 15 years are the same, less is more will have been good policy for the West. It might not make us feel good or employ battalions of diplomats, but it might be efficient, profitable and keep a generation of young soldiers out of harm’s way.

I wish I could tell you something better after 15 years of attending Limmud and after about 30 years of observing the world hoping it would change, visiting the region, watching things appear to change and then realizing that things really didn’t change. You see all these experts talking all day long on TV and you wonder what they could possibly be talking about for so many hours on end. I don’t watch TV and sometimes I feel like I’m missing something and then I realize that I’ve missed nothing.  You can go to Amman Jordan and after 20 years you will see that it has hardly changed. But if you go to Israel, you will see change. Tremendous infrastructural improvements, all sorts of new technologies and transportation and scientific discoveries that have truly affected life in the world down to the flash drives you hold in your hand every day and the technology that makes your cellphones work. Israel was only 18 years old when I was born and it has turned out to be an amazing success story, even though 15 years ago I stated wrongly that the Enterprise of Israel was hampered due to the lack of peace. Virtually every Arab wishes they could be Israel. When you are in the country, you feel pretty good actually. There’s a reason why Bibi Netanyahu is the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history and it is that Israel itself is changing – the region around it is not, but you can get from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv in 10 minutes on an airport train, something you can’t do in New York. We can allow ourselves to feel good for a moment here with the knowledge that even if the region around us is not what we want it to be, at least Israel is that shining light on a hill that is the envy of the region and holds promise of new discoveries for the cure of disease, the food we eat and the technology we use every day. That is real change of consequence, it matters to us, and there is an open door for us to contribute to that enterprise at any moment should we choose to participate. There are more international flights in and out of Israel in an hour than out of Mumbai in a whole day – we can all parachute in there in a matter of hours, and almost anyone in this room can choose to live there. That is progress that Jews have contributed to the world through their partnerships with that country. It is something we can celebrate at Limmud which itself is a huge development over the past 30 years, and it is an important reason why I have come here several times, but this year for the first time with my wife and children who are now coming of age to be introduced to this, my favorite Jewish event in the world.

Thank you all very much for your kind attention.

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