According to an old Kurdish proverb, “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Iraqi-Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017, exercised in the face of global opposition, seemed to confirm this declaration. A sea of demonstrators filled stadiums, streets, and public squares after over 90 percent of voters chose independence, despite widespread opposition from countries such as Iran and the United States. Among the multitude of Kurdish flags, however, was an unexpected sight: the blue and white six-pointed star of the Israeli flag. To date, Israel remains the only nation to publicly support the Kurdish referendum, and the Kurdish independence movement has widely been dubbed “a second Israel” by adversaries. While a Kurdish state still remains unlikely, Israeli support for the independence referendum raises an important point: The Kurds may have finally found the friend they need.
Israel nevertheless sees great economic and strategic potential in an independent Kurdish state, and a secure relationship between the two nations would likely prove beneficial to both parties.
The relationship between the Jews and the Kurds dates back to as early as the eighth century B.C.E., when Jews were held captive by the Babylonians in the area corresponding to present-day Kurdistan. In more modern times, relations between the Kurds and Israelis began shortly after Israel’s creation. Many Kurds left Iraq to partake in the project of a Jewish homeland, and the persecution of the Jews in the early 1950s forced the remaining Kurdish Jews out of Iraq. Guided by a small group of Kurdish fighters, they fled over the mountains to Israel’s former ally, Iran, where many were then airlifted to Israel. One of these Kurdish fighters, Masoud Barzani, was president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) when Iraqi Kurdistan called for the referendum. Just over a decade later, during the first Kurdish-Iraqi war, Israel coordinated a covert operation via Iran to free Barzani, who was overwhelmed by Iraqi forces.
Since the 1960s, Israel has provided Iraqi Kurdistan with intelligence, military support, and humanitarian aid. The robust historical relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan has led many to criticize current Israeli support of the independence referendum as an effort to create “a second Israel.” The moniker is widely seen as a part of a larger effort among Israelis and Kurds to conflate Kurdish national aspirations with regional animus toward Israel. Israel nevertheless sees great economic and strategic potential in an independent Kurdish state, and a secure relationship between the two nations would likely prove beneficial to both parties.
In 2015, the Financial Times reported that over three-quarters of oil consumed by Israel—an extremely oil-poor state—comes from the Iraqi Kurdistan region. With few allies in the region, Israel has relied upon less geographically convenient nations for its oil supply. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan would have the potential to ease this geographical oil isolation. Israel also sees an independent Kurdish state as a new market for its booming agriculture and technology sector. In 2016, a member of the Israeli parliament formed a caucus to explore potential exchanges in these areas. The opening of new markets and the prospect of oil security are strong incentives for a formal alliance between an independent Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel.
This economic potential, however, is dwarfed by the strategic advantage that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would grant Israel. Due to the intertwined history of the Kurds and the Jews, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be a reliable long-term ally of Israel—a relationship sorely needed for a country with a history of regional isolation.
Bordering Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and most importantly Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan lies in a key geographical location. Just 416 miles west of Tehran, Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil was used as an operation center by Israeli intelligence during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Israel has since used the region to spy on Iranian nuclear development. The location of Iraqi Kurdistan also has the potential to act as a buffer against extremist groups and terrorist organizations.
And in the fight against ISIL, Iraqi Kurdistan has played a more active role than just a buffer: Its military forces, Peshmerga, have been some of the most effective in the region. If, however, Israel fails to support the Kurds, it can’t depend on the government to remain cordial. Iran’s influence on Kurdistan’s minority party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is growing, and so is the power of the party itself. The PUK, which has never been the majority coalition in the history of the KRG, is poised to capitalize on the decision to call the independence referendum. If Israel does not step in to support the KRG, it risks allowing the Iranians to become greater players in the region, but if it does, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be a stronghold for Israeli intelligence and prove to be a pivotal influence.
While relations with Israel are crucial to promoting an independent Kurdish state, it is important to recognize the aversion that other regional states have toward Israel. The budding Israeli-Kurdish relationship stokes regional fear that an Israeli-backed nation could be formed on the border of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Already, President Barzani has been called an “Israeli puppet” due to his deep historical ties with Israel. The Turkish press and other media have spread outlandish rumors that Israel plans to transport all 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel to the KRG following the independence referendum.
Western nations, including the United States and Great Britain, are frustrated by the recent push for Kurdish independence. They see the conflict between Iraqi forces and Peshmerga as a distraction from the fight against terrorist organizations and corrosive to the stability of Iraq. This frustration with the Kurds and the overarching opposition to an independent state call into question whether a Kurdish nation is still a viable possibility.
Since the September 25th referendum, the loss of Kirkuk, often called “the Kurdish Jerusalem,” has decelerated the movement for independence. Prior to the referendum, the KRG seemed to be in control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s most oil-rich city, and prepared to use it as an important bargaining chip in the fight for a Kurdish state. But it took just hours to dash these hopes, as Iraqi forces stormed the city just weeks after the independence referendum took place. Iraq is now planning to remove Iraqi Kurdistan’s control over border crossings, a major power of the semi-autonomous region.
These factors are worrying to the Kurds, who overwhelmingly support independence. Though cooperation with Israel is not ideal considering its polarizing reputation, Israel may be the only option the Kurds have to achieve their goal of an independent Kurdish state. Israel too should continue to seek out this relationship in the face of opposition. A Kurdish state could provide economic partnerships, strategic opportunities, and a secure ally. If the shared histories of Israelis and the Kurds conjure support that runs deeper than politics, the Kurds may finally be able to count more than just the mountains as their friends.
Leslie Lewin is the Executive Director of Seeds of Peace, a leadership development program founded in 1993 committed to developing mutual understanding among high schoolers from opposing sides of conflicts, with a particular emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Seeds of Peace takes place at Camp in Maine, where hundreds of teenagers and educators across lines of conflict come together to engage with each other. She is also a Term Member at the Council of Foreign Relations, involved in Womensphere, and is a board member at the Country Roads Foundation.
Can you give a brief overview of Seeds of Peace, its mission, and how the program works?
Seeds of Peace is a leadership development organization working in a few regions around the world to support and invest in social change makers. Our goal is to provide transformational experiences at a young age that can link to societal transformation at an older age. Seeds of Peace might be best known for the summer camp program that we run in the United States each year where we bring together hundreds of people from communities in conflict, primarily the Middle East and South Asia. We also have just launched a new program working with young people in the United States, and we have worked historically in the Balkans and in Cyprus. [Seeds] started as a pretty unique way to bring together young people from opposing sides of conflict who had no opportunities to meet one another to explore the identities and narratives of the other, let alone do so in such a structured, positive, safe environment that encourages dialogue.
Why did Seeds adopt this specific approach dependent on shared experiences among young people?
Camp offers young people the chance to come together at a critical age to engage in conversation and explore narratives that are different from their own in a substantive manner. Dialogue is at the heart of what we do. Seeds of Peace’s approach is very much toward the long term and, through Camp, is an enormous part of what we do; It is only the entry piece and leads to a series of life-long opportunities to build relationships that otherwise wouldn’t exist. We invest in leadership in unique and critical ways to put leaders in communities where they feel needed to address issues in new and pivotal ways. I think our approach for starting with young people is recognizing that they’re at an age that is old enough to be aware, to be able to represent themselves, and to engage in difficult conversations, but young enough to be open minded and to do something with the experiences and understandings that emerge. We do think this is a critical moment in the development of people, and the approach and program structure that we created gives an emphasis on the individual, an emphasis on recognizing and learning from the variety of different stories that make up each one of these conflicts. I don’t think there are many places in this world where people are coming together to talk about the direct impact of living in regions of conflict, talk about feelings, talk about ideas and personal impact and hopes and dreams. It’s very easy to stay home and be surrounded by people that are like-minded and share the same political, religious, and cultural identities as you. The harder thing to do is to surround yourself with people who hold different and challenging views from your own. Our tagline is “courage to lead change,” and I don’t use the word courage lightly because I think a critical part of what we do is create a space for people to come forward and engage in difficult and courageous conversations that can have critical impact [on] the lives of the people in the room.
How does the environment of Camp, including having sports games and activities, contribute to the dialogue?
I think that it is an important hybrid. There’s dialogue, which is a time that you know you are going to have a conversation [that] will likely be difficult, and then there’s time to build relationships and discover humanity in a much less formal setting. Every aspect of Seeds is reinforcing those themes. It’s not surprising that playing soccer or producing a music piece or engaging in a ropes course program is reinforcing some of those same critical components of building communication and trust building for dialogue conversations. Of course the shared living experience is pretty important too, bringing young people to literally sleep next to people that you have had no positive exposure to in your entire life is a pretty dramatic thing to engage in.
How does Seeds measure the success of the programs? What metrics do you use on to measure impact on a larger scale aside from individual impact?
Measuring long term impact is a challenge in the same ways for us as it is for many organizations and nonprofits that are investing in personal and societal transformation, which is not a statistically friendly thing. On a short term basis, we do a lot of work around additional shifts that happen at Camp and can show very strong percentages about the ways that ideas of the “other” and stereotypes are broken down. We’re able to show the shift in attitudes that takes place over the course of the Camp program. On the long-term spectrum, we’re looking at the endeavors, positions, and professions that we see our alumni in. Post-Camp programing is a trajectory to invest in young people who are taking their Seeds of Peace values and relationships into the positions of influence they find themselves in as parents, teachers, journalists, politicians, lawyers, doctors, etc. We’re able to draw a throw line in the way in which they’re doing their work, approaching their communities, and influencing their stakeholders.
In your view, what role can a foreign NGO play in the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How can Seeds have an impact given the general state of intransigence surrounding the conflict?
I think that this is a very tough region and it’s becoming more and more of a difficult political landscape to do this kind of work in. But for me, that only makes it feel more important. I think that we’re creating experiences that feel necessary and missing, regardless of the political situation. In the absence of leadership, it’s not just about signing a peace treaty. It’s something much deeper and more nuanced than that. It’s about creating levels of understanding and tolerance and appreciation that need to be nurtured and invested in.
How can Seeds transcend the a dynamic of conflict in American politics?
I think what’s playing out in our American political system is a complete lack of dialogue. We’re allowing ourselves to become more and more divided which in some ways speaks to the very heart of what we’re trying to do, which is to engage in conversation and allow for various voices to be heard and understood, even if they are incredibly difficult and different and challenging to one and other. In the US we’re missing that crossover so it’s the divisiveness that feels the most scary. I think it reinforces the need for dialogue in whatever way can be applied to the community or the local context. It is also a reason we have grown our work here in the United States, to provide spaces for kids here to engage in the dialogue process about issues surrounding racism, refugees, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and economic and educational disparity. These are the kinds of topics that have become so divisive for us. Investing in young people and giving them the tools to have these conversations and be leaders in their communities and cross lines of difference on these topics feels pretty important.
Do you believe peace between Israel and Palestine is possible? How can it be achieved?
Peace means many different things to many different people, and it’s really important to recognize that. Obviously we believe that we are building the conditions for peace so I think that the type of work that Seeds of Peace is engaging in to address change through linking individual transformations to societal transformation in the economic, political and social spheres is important. I think and hope that that is leading us in the right direction and creating the right conditions for peace.
On September 14th, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a 10-year military-assistance deal containing the largest package of military aid that the US has ever given to any country. The $38 billion pledge, averaging $3.8 billion per year, constitutes a roughly 27% increase from the last such agreement in 2007 — which already made Israel the recipient of the most cumulative US foreign aid since World War II. A week after the two leaders signed the deal, they met again in New York. Obama took this opportunity to publicly reprimand Netanyahu for the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a process that has systematically and increasingly endangered the viability of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want to make sure that we keep alive this possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he told reporters. Netanyahu showed no interest in halting settlement expansion, and only vaguely remarked on peace as something to be desired.
From a diplomatic standpoint it might seem bizarre that the United States, which has repeatedly condemned the Israeli military and civilian occupation of the Palestinian territories, would issue yet another high-profile rebuke only after forfeiting its massive leverage in the form of military aid. For years, the State Department has released periodic statements of anxiety over the occupation’s threats to American interests, as well as to Israeli safety and to Palestinian human rights. In Washington, though, many politicians in both parties have accepted the status quo US-Israel relationship as inevitable and unchangeable. Among the greatest contributing factors undergirding this dearth of political will toward a peace process is Congress’s submission to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. As US demographic tides shift and younger generations of American Jews enter the political arena, AIPAC’s domination of US-Israel relations and the global damage it perpetuates may finally be facing serious political counteraction. Whether such opposition can establish itself in time to ameliorate the effects of Obama’s deal with Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.
For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum. The lobby has more than 100,000 members and an enormous pool of donors. Between 2010 and 2015, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies to press its causes—primarily the continuation of military aid to Israel and new sanctions against Iran (before international negotiators successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). The lobby does not officially endorse congressional candidates or raise funds for them directly, but it encourages its members to do so.
For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum.
While it is not easy to track the sum of money that AIPAC members donate to candidates, congressional Democrats and Republicans are well aware of the group’s power. As Brian Baird, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle, explained: “In order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said in 2014: “AIPAC clearly has a great deal of clout in the Republican conference, and many Democrats still think that they have to be responsive to it.” Yarmuth, a Jewish member of Congress, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of AIPAC and Netanyahu. But he has insisted that placating the lobby too often obstructs real US interests: “We all took an oath of office,” he said, “and AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” In 2011, when the Palestinian National Authority petitioned the UN for statehood, AIPAC played a significant role in assuring the opposition of 446 members of Congress. During this U.S. election season, aid to Israel remains one of few relatively static topics. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s proneness to contradictory statements on Israel-Palestine, he has firmly promised a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Hillary Clinton has long established her consistent support for Israeli administrations, while secretary of state and otherwise.
At the same time, American voters are developing increasingly mixed views on the sort of unconditional support that their government offers to Israel. Differences of opinion follow the divides of political party and age group. A 2016 Gallup poll found that over 60% of Americans identified with greater sympathy toward Israel than toward Palestinians — but nearly 80% of Republicans were sympathetic to Israel, while only 50% of Democrats said the same. Separately, a Brookings poll revealed that roughly half of surveyed Democrats saw Israel as exerting too much influence on the US government. Further, young Americans are generally far less sympathetic to Israel than older voters. In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of respondents between 18 and 34 favored support of Israel over that of Palestinians, versus 58% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 74% of those aged 55 and older. During the Democratic primary season, Bernie Sanders won praise from his distinctly young base for criticizing Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — which demands that organizations in the US and abroad sever their financial ties with Israel — has steadily gained popularity on college campuses, especially after its endorsement by the Movement for Black Lives this year.
For decades after Israel’s founding, American Jews understandably sought collective self-definition through their united, largely unconditional support for the state. But a growing portion of the community, and particularly its younger membership, chafes at the impenetrable lack of progress toward peace in the area. Many have found that AIPAC does not represent them. In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami consolidated a political challenge to AIPAC through his founding of J Street, an advocacy group that claimed the tagline: “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The organization has attracted American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution and denounce the occupation as a direct impediment to both Israel’s wellbeing and its claim to democracy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas recalled that in 2010, AIPAC’s clout was great enough to pressure Congress members into removing their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “I don’t view criticizing Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said Doggett, and added: “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.” Although the group’s funding and influence in Congress are minuscule compared to AIPAC’s, it is still, as Husam Zomlot of the PLO said, “the first organized Jewish group with a different agenda in Washington since Israel was established.”
If there remains a hope for redemption in US-Israel relations, it lies in the potential for public backlash against US military aid, and the tacit support of the occupation that such packages represent. Shifting popular views on Israel among Americans, combined with a growing political space for alternative understandings of the “pro-Israel” position, may be building toward such a backlash. But the timeline for any public pressure to change the status quo grows more and more constricted, as Israeli settlement expansion continually imperils the viability of a two-state solution and the possibility of peace.
Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the United States and Mexican border has arguably become the most memorable talking point of his presidential campaign. While his statements have fundamentally polarized the American public, Trump’s sentiments are not unprecedented in the global context. Some may praise globalization for its unifying effects, but today’s globalizing trends have also made our societies more divisive. This is especially apparent with the rapid construction of walls and escalation of border security worldwide. To ostensibly protect domestic labor forces, governments are building more borders, thereby reinforcing national or cultural differences and fostering a culture of global suspicion and uncertainty.
There is no doubt we are living in an era of globalization. Never have so many people been connected economically, culturally, and politically. But despite the crumbling of metaphysical borders, there has been an unexpected surge in physical boundaries. An increasing number of governments, frightened by often irrationally perceived security threats, are trying to restrict migrant labor and strengthen the identity of the nation-state. In fact, since the end of World War II, 51 boundaries have been built, and approximately half of these have been constructed in the last 15 years. Most recently, in September 2015, Hungary constructed a wall along its border with Serbia; within hours of completion, nearly 60 people were arrested for attempting to cross the wall. Brazil has also made a recent move to strengthen its borders: In 2013, the government announced its plans to employ drones and satellites to create a virtual wall and secure its 9000-mile border. Within the past two decades, walls around the world have drastically increased in length, surveillance, and ambition.
In most cases, wealthier countries are building borders to isolate themselves from their poorer neighbors. Ron Hassner and Jason Wittenberg, professors of Political Science at UC Berkeley, examined this trend and found that border walls, such as the US-Mexico and Israel-West Bank barriers, have generally been constructed by the wealthier state. They were all created with the stated purpose of keeping out migrants from less wealthy nations. As a result, barriers have taken on a new meaning to become a physical representation of inequality and power dynamics.
Furthermore, some have argued that these walls are built not just for practicality, but also show. James Anderson of Queen’s University, Belfast points out that if the US were truly trying to solve migrant labor issues, it would prosecute more employers rather than build walls. It is becoming increasingly obvious that walls tend to derive their value from visual impacts and relations to political agenda. Walls act as symbols and political tools for nations that wish to secure sovereignty, sharpen their nation-state identities, and deliver a powerful political message to their neighbors.
But these trends still leave unanswered questions: Why has border construction increased exponentially in recent years, and what are the results of this escalation? To answer these, we can look to the discourse and effects surrounding two well-known border walls — the Israel-West Bank border and the proposed US-Mexico wall. Although these examples do not encompass the diverse array of issues that come along with reinforced borders, they are nevertheless representative of several cross-cutting themes.
The construction of border walls prevents countries from adequately dealing with the root causes of illegal migration by offering a temporary and symbolic solution.
The act of building walls is a self-perpetuating cycle, exacerbating fear in the global community and lending credence to isolationism. Borders reinforce national differences and obstruct peace-building efforts. According to Wendy Pullan, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge, the construction of barriers disrupts the urban order. In her view, “A divided city changes its whole metabolism. And divided cities do not flourish.” She further claims that wall-building results in a tendency to vilify the “others.” In his book Border Walls, political geographer Reece Jones adds that building physical borders bolsters ideas of inferiority and dehumanization.
The potential construction of the US-Mexico border is a textbook example of this argument. The long-standing and extensive trade ties between the two nations allow millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to flourish in the US. These communities in turn reinforce the US-Mexico bilateral relationship. However, if a wall is built between the countries as Trump suggests, historians believe there could be a sudden power shift between the two countries that could cultivate problematic ideas of racial inferiority. These political and racial shifts would likely shatter decades of bilateral cooperation in one fell swoop.
Similar patterns can be found between Israel and Palestine. Since the completion of the Israel-West Bank barrier, tensions have risen among the civilians of both nations. For example, the terms used to refer to the wall are politically charged on both sides. While the Israelis refer to the wall as an ‘antiterrorist fence,’ Palestinians call the security fence an ‘apartheid wall’ or the ‘colonization wall.’ To the Palestinians, the barrier is merely a land grabbing mechanism utilized by the Israeli government. Their frustration manifests itself in the frequent protests against the completion of the wall and the increased violence along the West Bank.
Not only can walls exacerbate global tensions, but they can also be ineffective in meeting their original objectives. The example of the Israel-West Bank barrier epitomizes the sheer inefficacy of border walls. Although the walls were created in part to deter Palestinian migrants, the announcement of border construction precipitated a sharp influx of Palestinians into Jerusalem. Nearly 70,000 Palestinians who had left Jerusalem immediately moved back to avoid being cut off from the services they required.
Other commentators have argued that building walls doesn’t solve the migration problem. The Christian Science Monitor Editorial Board, for instance, has written that walls “merely divert migration elsewhere and make it more dangerous.” Although Israel often cites the decrease in suicide bombings as a direct consequence of the Israel-West Bank barrier, researchers have pointed out that there is no evidence to show that the border prevented attacks; the decline may well have been caused by the increase in policing enacted by Palestinian and Israeli officials. In fact, Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, in its 2006 annual statistical report, stated that the drop in terror attacks in 2005 was primarily due to the Hamas-called truce in their territories. They even conceded that the “security fence is no longer […] the major factor in preventing suicide bombings, mainly because the terrorists have found ways to bypass it.”
Moreover, a common critique of the Israel-West Bank barrier is based on humanitarian grounds. The wall cuts through the cores of Palestinian villages, limiting the mobility of their citizens and dividing communities. Some portions of the border separated Palestinian farmers from their local schools, jobs, and even their fields, rupturing their ways of life. Health reports also suggest that a third of Palestinian villages located near the West Bank will be denied open access to healthcare after the completion of the barrier. The report points to Palestinian towns Abu Dis and Aizaria in particular, where the time for an ambulance to reach health facilities in Jerusalem has increased from 10 minutes to over an hour. These human rights violations are only complicating territorial negotiations and encouraging divisions.
So perhaps there is a lesson American policy-makers can learn from the ineffectiveness of the Israel-West Bank barrier. Even with the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border, it seems unlikely that many immigrants would be deterred from attempting to cross over. Tightening border security would only make traversing conditions more dangerous for the immigrants. In fact, research from the University of Arizona indicated that there was a rise in migrant deaths around the border whenever there was an increase in border enforcement. It is also predicted that the more difficult the cross-border travel becomes, the more likely immigrants will rely on smuggling organizations. This would only therefore financially fuel the networks that drive illegal immigration. Experts warn that the more lucrative smuggling becomes, the more likely that other criminal organizations would get involved in the business. A close examination of the Israel-West Bank barrier could provide an enlightening harbinger for the negative implications of the US-Mexican wall.
The construction of border walls prevents countries from adequately dealing with the root causes of illegal migration by offering a temporary and symbolic solution. But the global community requires cooperation instead of isolation; after all, globalization is by definition an international problem and requires a multilateral response. Yet there appears to be hope for a solution. To circumvent the burgeoning isolationist mindset around the world, the Mexican architect Fernando Romero proposes a practical alternative: binational border cities. He suggests constructing border cities that straddle national borders and foster cross-national cooperation. The architect has already proposed a design of a master plan for a multipolar metropolis with several specialized economic sectors on the US-Mexico border. Hyper-connected cross-border cities can thus represent the future of urban centers, transforming walls from a symbol of isolation to a symbol of cooperation.
Charles “Chas” Freeman, Jr. is an American diplomat, author, and writer. He served as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 during Gulf War and was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993 to 1994. From 1997 to 2009, Freeman served as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a leading think tank in Washington, DC.
For its Middle East foreign policy, the United States has historically relied on unconditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many assert, however, that this is no longer in America’s best interest. What are your views on this argument?
No two countries have identical interests. The interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia have never been identical with those of the United States, despite the tendency of supporters of those partnerships to make that claim. Today, the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia are markedly different and quite at odds with the interests of the United States. Israel pays no attention to international law or United States’ desire for a halt of settlement expansion in the occupied territories. Israel acts as it will towards its neighbors without regard to American advice.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia, after many decades of a quiet and unassertive approach to affairs in the region, is now acting on its own without regard for the United States and demanding, as Israel does, that the United States back it. Is it in the United States’ interest to enable such behavior and to create moral hazard by covering the risks of such behavior? I would say that [such behavior] is emphatically not in the interest of the United States, and it is a major problem in our relationships in the region. We need to focus on our own interests and not automatically back actions by others that contradict those interests.
How can we justify maintaining a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia, despite its human rights record and private funding of radical Islamist groups?
Well, I’d like to start by taking issue with the word “alliance.” The United States has no treaty obligation to Saudi Arabia, or Israel for that matter. Saudi Arabia has no obligation to the United States whatsoever. We have unilaterally extended our protection over them — that is not an alliance, although that word is bandied around with great abandon in the press and universities these days.
As far as whether there is an inconsistency between offering protection to Israel, Saudi Arabia, or others in the region despite disagreements with their human rights practices, the fact is that we have never been consistent on that score. We have talked a lot about human rights, but we have never made it the principal deciding factor in our foreign policy, not even at the height of the Cold War. Are there other interests that justify our cooperating with Saudi Arabia? I think there are, and we have chosen to give priority to those matters.
What are those specific interests that justify our relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Historically, we have had six major areas of converging interests [with the Saudi’s]. The first is the famous bargain of American preferred access to Saudi energy supplies in return for our protection of Saudi Arabia from its external enemies. That bargain, which was struck in 1945, is now greatly weakened by many factors, not least of which is that the United States is now a competitor in the market of oil exports with Saudi Arabia. The second interest has been cooperation on Islamic interests, and that has been overtaken by the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and the estrangement of the Saudis from the United States’ policies. We have also been dependent on the Saudis in a third area, which is transit through Saudi Arabia’s airspace and adjacent seas as part of our global power projection. That dependence continues, as there is no formal agreement on our use of Saudi airspace or sea space.
Saudi Arabia has also been the largest US commercial market between Morocco and India for years, by quite a large margin. That position has now been taken by the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia remains an important source of revenue for the US and its companies, including its universities, where over 70,000 students are studying in the United States at the Saudi government’s expense. We also have had a close cooperation on foreign policy and intelligence matters. That has largely gone away, as the Saudis who used to pay for that no longer are able or inclined to do so. We are left only with the sixth area of convergence, which is an interest in combatting Islamist terrorism, and there the cooperation is quite robust. These are all important interests, but most of them are, at the moment, in a state of uncertainty.
It seems as if the United States no longer has a cohesive strategy in the Middle East. What should our overall foreign policy goals be in the region?
I agree that we have no cohesive strategy, but frankly that does not distinguish the Middle East from any other region where we currently operate. We have an extremely dysfunctional political situation in the United States with a government that is not governing. It is unrealistic to expect that a government that can’t make decisions domestically would be able to do so in the foreign policy arena. The United States has lost a great deal of influence in the Middle East for precisely that reason. Our interests, which once converged with those of our partners in the region, now diverge. Our partners are frustrated that we no longer back them unconditionally, and we are essentially estranged from many of our former stalwart partners in the region. This provides an incentive for them to diversify their international relationships, and it provides an opening for others like India, Russia, China, and major members of the European Union.
Part of the weakening of our position in the Middle East is due to our own rigidity and ineptitude. We have no relationship to Iran which we can use to influence Iranian policy. We have a bad relationship now with the Saudis, who are the principal rivals of Iran, and do not have much influence over their policy. Israel has essentially decided to go its own way without regard to our views on key issues of war and peace in the region. Egypt, having undergone turmoil and a political and military coup, is also not paying much attention to the views of the United States. Iraq is in a state of turmoil as is Syria, and neither have met US expectations. The entire situation is in flux. A good part of the reason for that can be traced for the knock-on effects of the US invasion, occupation, and destabilization of Iraq, which catalyzed sectarian warfare in the region.
In your view, what is the best immediate course of action for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to take regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The United States is no longer in a position to mediate the conflict. Our [previous] mediation turned out to be part of an essentially fraudulent diplomatic posture by Israel. The United States does not have much credibility with Israelis these days and has even less with Palestinians and other Arabs…Israel is currently resisting attempts at mediation by the French and other Europeans, suggesting that it does not want any outside hand to help shape the contours of Palestine…If we were serious about promoting a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we would use the leverage of our aid programs to Israel, as we have done in the past, to compel the Israelis to confront the need to reconcile with their fellow Arab inhabitants of Palestine.
Given the current facts on the ground, what do you believe is the ideal solution to the conflict moving forward?
At this point, a two-state solution, which would have been the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, is impractical. The issue is coming down to a human rights and civil rights struggle within the area controlled by Israel, which encompasses all of Palestine now. We are talking about a one-state solution in which it is likely that over time Jews will cease to be a majority.
In this one-state solution, how do you envision governance structures changing? How can the occupation end?
Israel does not face any serious military threat. The threats to Israel are primarily internal and derive from its own actions within the area it controls. It is unrealistic to expect Palestinians to remain docile when they feel oppressed, and therefore we see spontaneous eruptions of violence by young people primarily directed at the occupiers and the settlers, and if they can’t reach the settlers, ordinary Israelis. This is making life in Palestine extraordinarily insecure for everybody. It is making life for Israeli Jews insecure in much the same way that it has for Palestinians, including Arab Israelis, for a long time. This is not a situation that can continue and endure.
What current actions should the United States take regarding the Syrian Civil War?
There is a basic rule in dealing with civil strife that there often comes a time, usually early in the conflict, when it matters less which side wins than stopping the fighting and the misery it produces. There are now between 300,000 and 450,000 dead Syrians. There are over 11 million who have been displaced or forced to flee abroad, and Syria has essentially been destroyed. It has been destroyed with the collusion of many outside powers, including the United States. The priority in Syria should be ending the violence and restoring Syria to a form of domestic tranquility where people can live their lives and not have to flee to foreign lands for safety. That means cooperation between the United States and Russia in brokering a peace between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and other supporters of Syrian factions…It requires the involvement of the United Nations to put together a coalition of Western and Islamic powers to deal with [ISIL], an embodiment of extremism and evil, to which everyone should be willing to cooperate to remove from Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the other places where it has taken root. Stopping the war would involve overlooking other differences with opposing countries, like Russia, and trying to broker some sort of ceasefire between the regional actors so that the parties on the ground in Syria can be encouraged to make local ceasefires and bring some degree of stability out of the current anarchy and chaos. That is a difficult task, but it is not undoable. As part of this, the United Nations should take up the issue of terrorism for which there is no agreed international definition. Terrorism should be dealt with like piracy or any other criminal activity. Although it sometimes does require a paramilitary or military response, it is primarily a law enforcement and rule of law issue, and it needs to be returned to that realm.
The majority of our readers are currently Brown students. Do you have anything specific you wish to say to them as a college audience? The generation now at Brown has an opportunity to fix the peculiar inversion of military means and diplomacy in US foreign policy. Normally, the use of force is considered a last resort. That has not been the case in the United States recently, where the first refuge of decision makers has been to call on the military. The United States needs to be clever in our democracy…Diplomacy is a great deal cheaper, less bloody, less risky, and more predictable than the use of force. Therefore it is very much in our interest to rediscover it as a tool of foreign policy. This generation at Brown has an opportunity to better understand how the United States should make use of its two broad oceans, its enormous human and physical resources, and its potential to lead not with force, but with diplomacy.
Hagai El-Ad is an Israeli human rights activist and currently serves as the director of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
BPR: Have actions against your organization by the Israeli government and private groups been a tipping point for political discourse in Israel? How do you push back against that?
HEA: This is perhaps the peak so far of a process that began a number of years after Operation Cast Lead [the 2008-09 Gaza War]. It’s a process of delegitimizing human rights organizations, portraying them as enemies of the state, as terrorists, as agents of anti-Israeli foreign powers, and so on. Concurrent with this process is the wave of violence in recent months and the utter failure of the right, which has basically been a policy of “occupation status quo.” That policy isn’t working, and the government doesn’t seem to have any coherent constructive plan to address the situation. Instead, they have opted for a classic fascist move, which is to try and target imagined traitors from within society.
BPR: What is the perception in Israel of non-Israelis who oppose the occupation in the West Bank?
HEA: I’m not sure how aware people abroad are to the tale that government officials here are saying, which is that anyone who dares to comment from abroad about the situation in the West Bank is meddling in Israel’s internal affairs. That needs to be refuted in the most direct terms. Contrary to the way the government portrays the issue here — that the world is exerting all this pressure against Israel because of the occupation and so on — facts are very different. In reality, world governments and Jewry are, broadly speaking, very patient with the occupation. Sometimes statements are made, but anyone can see the difference between statements and action. And anyone who understands that the terribly symbolic moment — 50 years of occupation — is getting closer and closer needs to ask themselves: What can and should I do so that we don’t continue the same conversation and have another 50 years of occupation?
BPR: As Israel has tried to crackdown on terrorism against Palestinians, have you noticed a reduction in settler violence?
HEA: It’s still too early to draw conclusions, but at the same time I think it’s important to not let settler violence, which is unacceptable and a serious issue, distract us from the main source of oppression of Palestinians. Most of the violations are “legal” actions, taken by the state, justified by the courts in Israel, and considered acceptable, mainstream, and sensible. A lot of attention is given to settlers building illegally over Palestinian lands, and of course it’s terrible and unacceptable. But in reality, the main way Israel takes control over Palestinian lands is not by building illegal outposts, but instead in a way that is completely legal, which is [designating territory to be] “state lands,” and other similar mechanisms — firing zones, nature preserves, and such. I understand why the attention shifts when there are terrible and violent incidents, but we should not confuse ourselves, because this is something that becomes very convenient for the government.
BPR: Is Israeli occupation of the West Bank static, changing, or moving to some sort of climax?
HEA: Zooming out, what you see is a constant vector, moving in the same direction, sometimes picking up pace, sometimes slowing down but always progressing in the same general direction. That direction is the further solidification of Israeli control of different areas of the West Bank. This has been allowed to continue under the convenient backing of the “peace process” [which is] always process, never peace, as long as negotiations and no pressure are applied. Israel has used those 20 years very well to advance its interests in the West Bank. The other thing that has happened over time is growing despair…The occupation is here to stay: Israel is continuing to advance its interest in the West Bank and any hope for a different future is diminishing for more and more people. In Gaza, there are no settlements, and Israeli control over Gaza is external not internal, but there is the issue of despair, a lack of progress, and seeing in the future more of the same, more poverty, no rebuilding. The question is, will Gaza be livable in a few years? I’m talking about basic things like electricity and drinking water. The government presents human rights organizations to the public as if we are the source of all the problems. What is its plan? Let’s imagine [the Israeli government] would achieve everything it desires — close down every human rights organization in the country, manage to have a Knesset [parliament] with no Arab members. Get rid of all the excuses [the government] makes — and then what? How will children live [in Gaza], in what reality will they grow up with, in 5 years, 10 years? There is no answer.
BPR: How do you give Palestinians voice and agency in your work?
HEA: That’s a very important question, which we think about all of the time. One of the main ways is through our video project, which is a leading global example for self-empowered citizen journalism. Palestinian volunteers, more than 200 of them all over the West Bank, have video cameras, and are empowered to document life under the occupation. Of course, the footage later released is the original footage the way it was shot by Palestinians.
BPR: College campuses are a battleground of public opinion and activism on Israel-Palestine. What would you like to say to an audience of American college students?
HEA: It’s surprising to me that there can even be an argument about the justification of the occupation…Why should we all somehow argue about this when it’s a glaring injustice that has been tolerated by the world for 50 years? For Americans, I wish that people would really educate themselves about the reality in the occupied territories. Ask yourself, what ways are the US and the policies of consecutive US administrations responsible for this?…It is the stated policy of the US administration to support the “two-state solution.” But everyone sees that what Israel is doing is contrary to the viability of a two-state solution. B’Tselem doesn’t take a position with regard to a future mutually agreed upon political solution, but the same steps that negate a two-state solution are also responsible for the worst human rights violations in occupied territory. What is the connection or lack thereof between the stated policy of the US and complete lack of action by the US government?
The following are two separate interviews presenting contrasting opinions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran Deal, negotiated between Iran and the “P5+1” nations, including the United States, in 2015.
Mark Dubowitz is the Executive Director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank, which opposed the Iranian nuclear agreement
BPR: One of your criticisms of this deal is that it gives Iran access to billions of dollars of its oil revenues that had been frozen, allowing it to potentially fund terrorism, while at the same time, lifting the arms embargo. Supporters counter that these funds rightfully belong to Iran, and that weapons it purchases can be countered by military support for allies, or interception of shipments. How do you respond?
MD: There was an alternative to giving Iran direct unlimited access to those oil funds. The idea being proposed was that Iran needed that money for its economy, not for funding of terrorists or buildup of its regional posture. If that is true, and there is an argument that Iran will spend most of the money on imports, even though there will be billions of dollars left for terrorist proxies, the option is to move funds from escrow accounts [all over the world] to accounts in the EU where Iran wanted to buy European goods and could have used them to pay for European imports. That would have been a much better way to control the use and access of those funds, rather than repatriating $100B+ back to Iran’s Supreme Leader so he can use it any way he wants … If you believe, which isn’t the case, that every country would comply with the embargo and not allow Iran to procure heavy weaponry, the fact of the matter is that when that arms embargo goes away in 5 years, countries will be able to do it legally, and China and Russia have been waiting, they are already negotiating multi-billion dollar deals. I find it hard to believe we will be able to police the use of this money, and stop weapons shipments.
BPR: A main concern of yours is the sunset clauses (points in time where provisions of the deal expire). Why are they such an obstacle? Won’t the US have the same or better military options in the future as now?
MD: We will still have the same military options, but Iran will be a much more difficult target. They will be a stronger power, moving toward an industrialized nuclear program that is much more widely dispersed, with multiple facilities buried under a mountain, with stockpiles of low and even highly enriched uranium. Military operations by their nature will be much more difficult then than today, when Iran’s nuclear facilities are relatively small and concentrated. We may only have a military option, we won’t have a sanctions option, because Iran’s economy will be stronger with hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment. People will be reluctant to agree to snapback sanctions, including our European allies. All the Iranians have to do is safely comply with the deal, not do anything that would precipitate a snapback sanction, and just wait patiently for these key restrictions to expire, so that at year 8 they can do advanced centrifuges R&D, at year 10 they can install unlimited centrifuges at Natanz, at year 15 they can build multiple emissions facilities and heavy water reactors, they can stockpile enriched uranium to 60% and keep thousands of kilograms around the country.
All the Iranians have to do is safely comply with the deal, not do anything that would precipitate a snapback sanction, and just wait patiently for these key restrictions to expire
BPR: Opponents strongly objected to a provision stating that Iran can block for up to 24 days being forced to provide access to suspected (not-declared) military nuclear sites. However, supporters contended that the 24 days is a hard maximum, the first such provision in a non-proliferation deal, and that fissile material cannot be cleaned or hidden that fast. Respond
MD: My biggest concern with the inspections regime is not necessarily the 24 days, but is that the Iranians have made clear over and over that they will not allow the IAEA into military sites. The Parchin (a suspected military site) arrangement will be the Parchin precedent. The Iranians will say, we didn’t let you in to Parchin, we are not going to give you physical access of a military site, we may not even give you monitoring. Without physical access to military sites our ability to go in and verify that Iranian weaponization [is not taking place] will be severely curtailed. Whether or not we can get in in 2 days, 24 days, or 80 days for the process to make its way through, we can’t actually physically get in to that military site to see what they are doing and verify they are not engaged in weaponization activities, and the verification and inspection regime becomes meaningless. Most experts agree the Iranians are not likely to build a nuclear weapon in their declared facilities. What they are much more likely to do is use their declared facilities to expand from an industrial side, perfect the use of advanced centrifuges, accumulate huge stockpiles of enriched uranium, and then divert uranium to clandestine facilities where weaponization will take place. We will be blind with respect to what the Iranians are doing on the weaponization side, and a lot of weaponization activities do not involve the use of enriched uranium, and so there will be no telltale signature signs of that activity even if we ever get into that site. [An expert testified before Congress that] if he had to judge the inspection and verification regime on a scale of 0-10, he would give the declared facilities 7-8, ability to monitor and detect suspicious sites, 5, and the access to those facilities where Iran might engage in military activity related to its nuclear program, 0.
BPR: Is snapback (immediately restoring sanctions in the event of a violation of the deal) realistic and functional? Why or why not?
MD: Snapbacks are a delusion. The very nature of a snapback assumes a few things. The target needs to be susceptible to a snapback, and I think the ability to inflict asymmetric shocks on Iran’s economy as we did between 2010-13 will be significantly diminished. Second, we will require at least the support of the Europeans to snapback anything, and even though technically speaking we can snapback sanctions without Russian or Chinese or European support, practically speaking we will not do it without European support. The snapback assumes transatlantic unity throughout this process, which becomes doubtful when you move into a world where the Europeans have sunken tens of billions of dollars into Iran’s economy and don’t want to risk their economic interests. The Iranians will also threaten a nuclear snapback to neutralize their economic snapback, so they end up with a much more formidable snapback option than we have.
BPR: If Congress had succeeded in blocking the deal, what would the day after that vote have looked like? What comes next?
MD: This is where we are today. The US Congress has rejected the deal. 61% of Congress is on record having opposed the deal.
BPR: But the deal is in force under US law; an effort in Congress to block enforcement of it was filibustered by Senate Democrats. What if it had been blocked under law?
MD: That was an impossibility. Congress could not have stopped the deal, even if it had 67 Senators to overturn the President’s veto, the President retains enormous executive power to neutralize any sanctions block that was put in the Corker-Cardin legislation. There was no scenario in which the deal was not going to be in force. The real question was, would the deal enjoy bipartisan support in the US congress? Would that give it the kind of political durability to ensure that the deal would outlive the current administration? The deal was protected by a narrow partisan minority in Congress, and now with a bipartisan majority having rejected the deal, and certain polls showing only 21% of Americans supporting the deal, the real question is then what does this mean for the next administration?
BPR: So what was your goal then in opposing this deal in Congress?
MD: To delegitimize it. There was nothing else that could be done but to delegitimize the deal. It couldn’t be stopped, it was going to move forward regardless of how many members of Congress opposed it. The question was, could the deal be delegitimized, what would that take in terms of Congressional opposition, what would that translate to in terms of public opinion polls, what would this mean for positions in the general election, and what would this mean for the next President, whoever he or she is. It would matter if it is a Republican or Democratic president, a Republican president is more likely to want to aggressively move forward to try and unwind the deal, and a Democratic president, even in the case of Hillary, who says she supports the deal, is going to be much more aggressive in enforcing it, and imposing sanctions against Hezbollah. That is still part of the strategy – how do you mitigate the damage of the deal?
BPR: If, by your admission, it was not ever possible to block the deal through Congress, was a “better deal” ever possible?
MD: Sure. Over the history of arms control agreements, many were treated as treaties, where Senate advice and consent was required, and in some cases, the Senate required the administration to go back and renegotiate a deal in order to get specific amendments, and once the amendments were given, the deal was ratified. In this case, the administration decided not to treat it as a treaty, but instead as a non-binding executive agreement. From the administration’s perspective, the advantage is that they did not have to get Senate ratification. The disadvantage is that it is a non-binding executive agreement. By delegitimizing the deal, you lay the predicate for the next President to come in and negotiate a follow-on agreement, for example, that would address the sunset provision today, or in 2017, rather than waiting 8-10 years and having the sunset provision create all the problems I’ve described
By delegitimizing the deal, you lay the predicate for the next President to come in and negotiate a follow-on agreement
BPR: And if the next President comes in and wants to do that and the rest of the P5+1 is not on board, how would that work?
MD: What the next President would have to do is initially go to the French, who were very unhappy with the deal, and see if there is a meeting of the minds between Washington and Paris on some specific aspects of the deal that can be addressed. Again, you are not going to be able to rip up the agreement, or start from day 1, or dismantle Iran’s entire nuclear program, or deny it enrichment, you are not going back to square one. But there are specific provisions of the deal that are highly problematic, the sunset provision, the lack of physical access to military sites, the nuclear snapback, specific provisions that the President would have to reach out to the French and see if they can get agreement in Paris and Washington to begin with. If they got that, it would be easier to get agreement from London and Berlin and then you’ve got a transatlantic agreement in trying to negotiate some follow-on agreement. I’m not suggesting this is easy, or will happen quickly, but I think there will be, particularly if there is a Republican president, a strong push to try and address some of the fatal flaws.
BPR: Is pushing back on the revolutionary guard’s activities complicated by US cooperation with Iran vis-a-vis ISIL?
MD: I think US cooperation with Iran regarding ISIL is foolhardy and wrongheaded and likely to [increase] ISIL’s advantage. If the US pursues a policy of partnering with Iran to fight ISIL, that will only help ISIL. If anything it will feed the fears of Sunis and Iraqis who are convinced that we are partnering with their mortal enemy, who is responsible for brutalizing them. We’ve got to make it very clear that we are not going to partner with Iran, not going to partner with Asad, or support the Russians….As long as we don’t it’s going to be a massive recruiting boon for ISIL.
BPR: Why were conservatives in the US uniformly opposed to this, while conservatives elsewhere, such as in Great Britain under David Cameron, were supportive?
MD: I can’t think of a time since the Suez Crisis that the US and Great Britain split apart on major national security issues, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or Democrat in the White House, or a Conservative or member of the Labor party in London. That so-called special relationship transcends party politics and ideology. The other reality is that Britain was quite disengaged with respect to Iran. Of the European powers, the French were most engaged and committed and had the longest experience and most expertise. The UK took a backseat. The other factor is that after the Syria chemical line debacle where Cameron felt very much let down by Obama, he wasn’t going to risk his political capital in any way on the Iran deal, so he sort of just quietly went along. Heading into reelection, he also understood that his road to reelection didn’t run through foreign policy.
BPR: How will this deal reshape the balance of power in the Middle East, the standing of the US and Israel individually, and their alliance?
MD: It is too early to tell. The US Israel relationship will certainly stabilize and grow closer again in 2017 probably regardless of who is elected. With respect to US credibility in the Middle East, that is where we are already seeing results, and the next President and the one after that will have to devote time and resources to repairing it. At this point, our enemies don’t fear us and our allies don’t trust us. That is going to be a challenge, because the next few decades are going to bring enormous national security challenges in the Middle East with respect to proliferation. You are starting to see the Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians moving in the direction of building their own civilian nuclear program, concluding multi-billion dollar deals with the Russians and South Koreans to build their own nuclear capability. None of the Sunni powers are willing to accept a status quo where Iran is permitted enrichment and is able to expand that enrichment capability over time.
BPR: Was the strategy that organizations opposed to this deal took wise? Was it worth the money and political capital to set the precedent you wanted for the next administration?
MD: Overall, most organizations I’m aware of had defined publicly or privately what their objectives were in a similar way, which was to delegitimize the deal. I think there were some organizations perhaps who believed you could actually block the deal, and there were others who knew better…. Absolutely [it was worth it]. Without 61% of the US Congress opposing this deal, or most Americans opposing it, there would be no follow-on strategy in 2017. …. With 25-30 Democrats opposing the deal, and deeply anguished statements even from supporters, saying the deal is dangerous and deeply flawed in the words of Cory Booker, and will trigger all these terrible consequences but I have to support the deal because I feel like I have no other choice, there’s a combination of opposition and deeply anguished support. That creates the necessary predicate for a potential reversal of the more dangerous elements of the deal and consequences it will trigger. And certainly it lays the foundation for a more aggressive posture towards Iran and its regional behavior.
Joseph Cirincione is the President of the Ploughshares Fund, which advances global denuclearization and nuclear nonproliferation through advocacy and funding of nonproliferation efforts.
BPR: How did your organization evaluate the terms of the deal?
JC: In the non-proliferation community this was a no-brainer. The overwhelming consensus of nuclear experts was that this was a great deal. It wasn’t so much that one organization or one expert thought this – I can’t name a major non-proliferation expert who opposed the deal. Almost all the opposition was political, not based on policy analysis. What happened was because a group disagreed with making any deal with Iran, they started cherry picking the agreement and exaggerating and distorting certain aspects to make it seem like it was a cave in to the Iranians, or that it was paving the way to a bomb rather than preventing one. It was one of the most intensely politicized policy exercises that I have ever seen. When you strip away the politics and the advocacy groups like AIPAC or FDD, or the Emergency Committee for Israel or the Israel Project, all groups with a political agenda, and you look at what the policy experts thought, it was an open and shut case.
BPR: Can the US realistically counter Iran’s regional ambitions after they gain access to additional resources?
JC: Any agreement with Iran was going to lift the sanctions, even if you had negotiated an agreement that completely bulldozed the entire nuclear complex of Iran, you would still lift the sanctions. If you object to lifting the sanctions because it will somehow aid Iran’s other activities, what you are really saying is that you are against any deal at all. In fact, the monies that will flow to Iran are much less than critics claim, and even after government officials repeatedly testified that the amount released would be under $50B, opponents continued to throw around false numbers, $100-150B. US officials testified that of the monies released, they felt very little of it would flow to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and I believe that to be the case. Finally, the years of sanctions against Iran have crippled their economy, but there is no evidence they ever slowed the Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and there is no reason to think that keeping these sanctions in place would somehow prevent Iranian support for those groups.
BPR: But opponents say that opposition to the cash repatriation is not opposition to any deal, but rather, that conditions should have been placed on how those funds could be spent.
JC: How do you do that? How do you dictate to a government how they are to spend money you are releasing to them? Where has that ever been done? It’s never been done.
BPR: A main concern of opponents is the sunset clauses in the deal. Supporters say that the US will not have any reduced leverage when the sunsets hit. Is that true, since Iran will have access to much more capital by then and be tied into the global economy?
JC: Most arms control agreements end over a certain period. Even the non-proliferation treaty was negotiated for only 25 years. The very first strategic arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union only last 5 years. Having an agreement that lasts 15, 20, 25 years is a remarkable achievement and it is longer than most agreements.
The ideal solution to the Iran problem is to eliminate Iran’s nuclear complex entirely. Many experts 10 years ago were in favor of such a solution, myself included. You want to have 0 centrifuges. We ran that play and it didn’t work. The Bush administration favored the 0 option, no capability ever. They tried threats of war, and increased sanctions, and the result was that Iran went from 0 centrifuges to 6000 at the end of the Bush administration, and 19,000 by the time the Obama administration started negotiations. The only negotiated solution you could get was one that allowed Iran some capability with limitations. The goal was then not to eliminate entirely Iran’s capability, but to make sure they couldn’t use that capability to build nuclear weapons.
That’s what this deal does. It rips out 2/3rds of Iran’s centrifuges, it forces them to ship out of the country almost their entire stockpile of uranium gas, they have to pull out the core of the plutonium reactor, drill it full of holes, and pour concrete into it, and they have to then agree to the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated, which runs for at least 25 years, at which point some of the terms lapse, but most of the inspections are like diamonds, they last forever. Iran is forever banned from producing or deploying a nuclear weapon.
In the course of doing this, at some point you have to relax the restrictions so that Iran can pursue a program for civilian use of nuclear technology. Some of the restrictions end at 10 years; it allows them for example to start developing more advanced centrifuges. But the limit on the number of centrifuges and the gas lasts for at least 15 years, so for 15 years you have a full 1-year breakout time. The key is what do we do between now and years 15, 20, 25? How can we take those restrictions on Iran and apply them to global standards, so that when Iran leaves one set of restrictions they actually enter a new global set of restraints that exert the same constraints on their nuclear program? There are experts already working on this. … There is not one treaty or agreement that solves the problem, rather what we’ve built up over the last 70 years of the nuclear age is overlapping, interconnected treaties, agreements, and security assurances that can slow, prevent, and reverse the nuclear threats. … It is a false claim that this is just kicking the nuclear can down the road.
How can we take those restrictions on Iran and apply them to global standards, so that when Iran leaves one set of restrictions they actually enter a new global set of restraints that exert the same constraints on their nuclear program?
BPR: Is snapback realistic and functional?
JC: Absolutely. This agreement allows one country, say the US, to re-impose the sanctions if it believes there is a violation, no matter what the UN security council does. I’ve never seen a provision written like this. If one country believes there a violation they can bring a resolution before the UN security council, and the resolution is in the form of a double negative, so if one country, say Russia, vetoes it, it has the effect of putting the sanctions back in place! It is remarkable. They built in enough flexibility so there can be selective application of sanctions to meet the perceived violation. You never want to be in a position where it is all or nothing, so if there is a minor violation you are afraid to call it because it would jeopardize the entire agreement.
BPR: Opponents say that the 24 days before the US can force access to a suspicious site is too much time, that there is not anytime anywhere inspections, and that the Administration crossed its so-called “red lines.” How do you respond?
JC: These charges are complete nonsense. They are polemical tricks rather than accurate assessments. All of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities are under 24/7 inspection. State of the art tools are being applied – fiber optic radio frequency seals, for example, that can detect any violation just as a home alarm system reports a break in to the police. The solution they developed for the inspections of suspect sites is a breakthrough in non-proliferation agreements. Up to this point, there has been no time limit on how long a country could block a challenged inspection. Disputes have gone on for years. UN inspectors have been trying to get into the Parchin facility for 10 years, this agreement limits any obstruction limits a challenge to any inspection for 24 days! In the inspection world that is the blink of an eye. Here is why. It is impossible in that short of a time to hide evidence of nuclear material experimentation. How do we know this? Because our nuclear scientists tested this provision out at secret facilities in the US, where Department of Energy nuclear scientists intentionally contaminated the site and then tried to clean it up in 24 days. They couldn’t do it. This is what you have to understand: the objections to this agreement are being raised almost exclusively by political opponents, but every sentence, every phrase was vetted by our best intelligence experts and nuclear scientists. We actually built Iranian model centrifuges and ran them at DOE laboratories to test out various formulas for how much uranium gas could be allowed, how many centrifuges could be allowed to operate, what quality the centrifuges could be. This is one of the most rigorous, detailed, non-proliferation agreements I have ever seen. It is a model for how you stop a country from misusing their nuclear technology.
The objections to this agreement are being raised almost exclusively by political opponents, but every sentence, every phrase was vetted by our best intelligence experts and nuclear scientists.
BPR: Do think this bill could lead to Saudi Arabia and other nations working to match the nuclear capacity left to Iran?
JC: This deal stops a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it doesn’t start one. It makes an example of Iran. In fact, if there is another country in the Middle East that wants to have uranium enrichment capability, they will have to agree to the same onerous inspection regime that Iran has. I don’t believe there is any other country that is going to start up a uranium enrichment capability. There has been some loose talk from a few political officials in some of these governments, and a lot of wild claims raised by political opponents of the agreement, but there has been nothing actually done. There is no government that is moving to develop this kind of capability. Nothing, no sign, no research program, no procurement. And remember, if any country wants it, to have an uranium enrichment capability, they would have to buy it from the few countries who control this technology, and there would be strong opposition to the sale of technology to countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc. Any country that was investing in fuel technology at this point would be looked on as suspect.
BPR: Some members of congress have introduced legislation to bolster enforcement of the deal and shore up alliances. What is your position on this bill?
JC: Congressional oversight is going to be absolutely essential to the successful implementation of the Iran agreement. Congress needs to be involved. What is not needed is more sanctions, trick legislation to try to subvert the agreement before it is even implemented, or massive new military aid packages. None of that is necessary now. This agreement reduces the military threats in the Middle East, it doesn’t increase them. I don’t see any justification for increased military aid to any of our allies in the Middle East.
BPR: Iran claims that the biggest source of regional instability in the wake of this deal is Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Do you support that position? Should Israel be opened to international inspections, and forced to relinquish its arms?
JC: We don’t believe any country in the world needs nuclear weapons, and we are working to reduce and eventually eliminate everyone’s nuclear weapons. This includes Israel. But Israel is never going to agree to giving up its nuclear weapons as long as there are unresolved conflicts in the region, so the path to a nuclear free middle east has to go through a resolution of the conflicts now plaguing the area, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BPR: Did you agree that the choice facing Congress was this deal or war? How do you substantiate that claim? Was a better deal possible?
JC: If we had walked away from this deal, General Brent Scowcroft said, we would walk away alone. One of the most important briefings that Senators got during their deliberations was the meeting they held with Washington based ambassadors of our partners in the negotiation: the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China all came and met with Senators, and they told them that it was this deal or nothing. No one was going to go back and negotiate a new deal because politicians killed this one. For the rest of the world this was not a controversial agreement. The only country in the world that opposed this agreement was Israel. Among our allies, including the conservative governments of the UK, France, and Germany, it was unanimous support. This is a damn good deal.
If the US tried to impose unilateral sanctions, even our closest allies would not conform to them, and you would be faced with a collapsing sanctions regime, an Iran that was now free of any restrictions on its nuclear program and doing business with the rest of the world. Iran would restart centrifuges, install new centrifuges, enrich more uranium, start operating plutonium production reaction, and that would put tremendous pressure on Israel or the US to consider military action. It would put us on a course for military conflict. That is why this deal became so much more than just an agreement on limiting nuclear technology. It was clearly a war and peace issue, and most objective observers saw it exactly that way.
Fueling concern about this was that most of the people who had supported a US invasion of Iraq were now against this agreement. They were now playing the same playbook, arguing there were no negotiations possible with this Middle East regime, that it was so evil that it could not be trusted, that it had links to terrorists that would threaten the US, and that in the end, only actions to overthrow this regime would solve the problem. Thankfully people understood what was going on here, rebuffed their attempts, and the agreement got overwhelming support in the national security establishment of the US, among our allies, and eventually, enough support in the US Congress to stop all efforts to kill the deal.
BPR: What was the reason for opposition if this deal was so universally recognized as a good?
JC: The opposition to this agreement came from three sources. One was the people who genuinely had doubts about the deal, as would be the case in any discussion of this magnitude, and were wrestling with the issues. But the majority of the opposition was political. The Republicans in Congress decided early on they would not give a Democratic President a major foreign policy victory. There was not one Republican vote for this agreement – that should tell you something. And they were very clear about it, they spoke quite frankly about blocking this agreement on political grounds. The third source was ideological opposition to any agreement with Iran. And that really fueled the fire here in a way that mere politics could not. Much of this stemmed from the position taken by the government of Israel, even though the Israeli military and intelligence officials disagreed with the assessment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. A lot of it came from supporters of the Likud party in the United States, like AIPAC and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and Israel Project and others, who were opposed to any agreement with Iran that would legitimize the government. Their goal was to overthrow the regime, not to come to a compromise with it. Those groups have a lot of political influence in the United States, a lot of donor money involved in it. They poured resources into this in a way that I have never seen in a national security debate. You think this is normal? It’s not. This is not the way we normally debate major national security issues.
BPR: All of the Republican candidates for President oppose this deal. What will happen to this deal if one of them becomes President? Can it be unwound?
JC: Presidents can pull out of treaties. George W Bush abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and he walked away from the agreed framework with North Korea, which allowed that country to then go build and detonate nuclear weapons. The next President can do this, but is that what they are really going to want to do? Will they want to lift all restraints on Iran’s nuclear program? Are they going to want to have Iran reinstall centrifuges, rebuild polonium production reactors, or enrich uranium to near weapons grade? Is that what they are going to want to do? I don’t think so. I find it inconceivable that the next President of the United States would jeopardize US national security in such a cavalier manner just to make a political point.
BPR: What is next for US foreign policy, with regards to Iran, non-proliferation, and your work? JC: There are three schools of thought now contending. The opponents to this agreement will continue their efforts to kill it, to slow or delay its implementation, and to put on a confrontation with Iran. The second approach has been articulated by Hillary Clinton, who embraces the deal, but wants a new policy of containment toward Iranian influence in the region. The President has laid out the third path, which is to explore the diplomatic openings that have been created by this deal. By solving the biggest disagreement we had with Iran, it opens the door to conversations with Iran about other security issues in the region: Syria, fighting ISIS, stabilizing Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan. We don’t know if those conversations will prove fruitful. We do know they would have been impossible to have without this nuclear agreement. I think it is in the United States national security interest to be exploring those discussions, to see if there are ways we can cooperate with Iran to reduce some of the conflicts that are now ripping throughout the middle east.
From the Temple Mount to the Israelite Tower to the Monastery of the Virgins, the significance of excavations in Jerusalem is unparalleled. Layer by layer, human history is being uncovered in the Holy Land. But these excavations are more than just an archaeological pursuit — they’re being used to solidify a national identity for the state of Israel. One artifact at a time, the “Green Line” separating Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalem becomes blurrier as Israeli claims to the land grow louder.
Nationalism and archaeology often go hand in hand — some even argue that the two are inseparable. “Nationalism requires the elaboration of a real or invented remote past,” says Philip Kohl, a professor of anthropology at Wellesley College. That doesn’t mean the pairing always produces negative results. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the newly consolidated nation of Italy used archaeology as a connecting force. Ties to their Ancient Roman past gave Italians a communal sense of pride, and a walk through modern-day Rome proves that this concept of Italian identity is alive and well.
In Israel, however, these nationalistic impulses have caused archaeology to transgress its academic purview and become a political tool. Like any discipline — intellectual or otherwise — that engages with the Israeli-Palestine conflict, archaeology is interpreted differently depending on bias. Jerusalem, as one of the most complicated and disputed locations in the conflict, has become a test case for how archaeology is understood politically in the region. When emotions run high — as they tend to do in such a contested region — biases are vastly more evident.
One of the biggest sources of debate lies just outside the walls of Old Jerusalem. The City of David is an archaeological dig that sits amongst and underneath the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, long a target of Israeli settler organizations. After the passage of the “Jerusalem Law” in 1980, establishing that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” political and social efforts to dilute Palestinian presence in the West Bank escalated. The dig at Silwan has since become a flashpoint for these Israeli territorial claims, as it investigates the ancient Jewish presence on what is now a contested demarcation line. Through their work, Israeli archaeologists are doing more than investigating a people’s ancient past. They have sought to provide a narrative of “Jewish continuity” on the land, rooted in archaeological finds, to justify Israeli settlements.
At the center of this controversy is a foundation known as Elad. Through the purchase of Palestinian homes, Elad began to move Jewish families into the land above the City of David over 10 years ago. In 2005, the keys to the City of David were handed over to Elad, thus transferring archaeological control over this site and much of the Old City to the group. Today, the Israeli Antiquities Authority acts almost as a private contractor for Elad, conducting the digs under a self-granted license for “salvage excavations,” which allows it to dig without oversight from the Archaeological Council. Furthermore, the salvage licenses also give Elad control over presentation of the found material, as they do not require all findings to be revealed.
The group’s influence extends above ground as well as below. Hundreds of Israelis, along with private security guards, now live above a dig that connects them to their collective pasts. Approximately 700 Israelis live amongst 50,000 Palestinians in Silwan. Elad’s archaeological efforts may have helped protect the City of David, but they have also created problematic conditions on the surface. The Israeli security guards clash with locals on a regular basis while Palestinian teenagers are arrested for throwing stones almost daily.
Despite this, the results of the controversial dig have been astounding. Sprawling below the City of David site are the strata of Jerusalem’s history from the Early and Middle Bronze Age to the Byzantine era, exhibiting a near complete archaeological record of human existence in the area. Since 2005, however, when the presentation of these incredible findings was left to Elad, the focus has been overwhelmingly on the Kingdom of David and its link to the modern Israeli state. While this focus obscures thousands of years of human existence on the land, attractions like the Herodian Street and Hasmonean Tunnel also draw in tourists — Zionist and otherwise — from all over the world, bringing more funding to the projects.
The newest controversy in Silwan comes in the form of a massive crater at the entrance to the Wadi Hilweh area, just past the wall of Old Jerusalem. An expansive new visitors’ center for the City of David National Park, known as the Kedem Compound, is set to be built there. The project has been met with protests from Palestinian residents, human rights lawyers, and urban planners, who fear that it would give Elad control over entrance and exit to the largely Palestinian village. The seven-story building will contain lecture halls, exhibits, classrooms, and an underground parking lot, which many activists say will damage the artifacts lying underneath the building. Excavations on the lot began in 2003, and they have uncovered a neighborhood from the early Islamic period, a Byzantine structure, and an extensive structure from the Roman period. In addition to covering up these discoveries, the Kedem Compound will block views of the Old City.
The compound is indicative of a much bigger problem with Israeli archaeological projects in the area: the outright exclusion of Palestinians from the historiography of the region. Like many Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Silwan is a place of decaying infrastructure and government neglect. According to the human rights group Ir Amim, Palestinians receive only 10 percent of Jerusalem’s budget, even though they make up 40 percent of the city’s population. Massive tourist developments in the face of such inequality have been criticized by human rights groups, archaeological organizations, and the UN. Local archaeological groups have not consulted with the Palestinian people about excavations in the area, which have become a “permanent nuisance” to those living in Silwan — already one of the poorest areas of the city.
Perhaps most poignant is the invisibility of the Palestinians to the casual visitor. Uninformed tourists visiting sites like the City of David see almost no Palestinian presence on the land; the only story that is told is one of a Jewish history. This minimization of Palestinian history affects tourists’ perception of the region. If the Palestinians, both past and present, cannot be seen, how can their protests be heard?
Many prominent archaeologists have verbalized their dissent against bias in their field. In 1998, a group of archaeologists filed suit against Elad and its monopoly over sites like Silwan, and the Israeli High Court ordered that the authorities hand over management of the area to an unbiased party. Unfortunately, no such party existed. Elad simply outstayed the attempts to have it replaced.
Some dissenting archaeologists are attempting to bring Palestinian narratives out of the shadows. One group of archaeologists, Emek Shaveh, has become an important political organizer in Silwan. Dubbing itself “archaeology in the face of conflict,” Emek Shaveh offers alternative tours of the City of David that encompass all layers of history. Run by archaeologist Yonatan Mizrachi, the group’s “fundamental position” is that “an archaeological find should not and cannot be used to prove ownership by any one nation, ethnic group, or religion over a given place.” But such organizations do not receive nearly as much publicity or funding as projects that fit into preconceived ideas of conflict. While Elad’s tours of the City of David receive almost half a million visitors each year, Emek Shaveh’s alternative tours educate about 1,500.
Moreover, groups like Emek Shaveh represent only a fraction of archaeologists. According to Brown University Professor Katharina Galor, many archaeologists continue to see their work as apolitical. Galor thinks this is an erroneous view, because “you’re so easily implicated into the political situation when you dig in East Jerusalem.” In addition, like many intellectual practices, archaeology lacks unbiased sources of funding, making it even more difficult for archaeologists to stay above the political fray. “When you cash millions of dollars to conduct research — no matter how conscientious a scholar you are — you use right-wing money to conduct your research,” Galor says, “and your scholarship is compromised.”
Regardless of the extraordinary findings from the excavations in Israel, it is easy to view Israeli archaeology as work “co-implicated in the Jewish colonial-nationalist project,” as Barnard College Anthropology Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj describes it. A critical review of archaeology in Jerusalem demonstrates that there is not one persistent political agenda at play. The collusion of settler organizations and archaeologists certainly raises red flags, but there are still digs that exist independent of any Zionist narrative. Still, in such a polarizing political situation, digs that provide ammunition against one side or the other are often given more clout.
“Nationalism is always problematic,” explains Professor Galor, but in Israel “the stakes are very different.” If nationalist Israeli groups choose to “zoom in” on one time period in history, Palestinian residents suffer. With each artifact documenting an ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land comes more justification for Elad to extend its sway into East Jerusalem.
Over the past few years, the European Union has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, particularly as it relates to settlement policy in the West Bank. While this shift in European-Israeli relations has resulted only in exchanges of veiled threats, Israel has responded with alarm and frustration. The European community, on the other hand, considers this change of posture little more than an overdue moral recentering. Perhaps that’s all it is, but this development has already produced a slew of ancillary consequences for European security and global stability that policymakers should find troubling.
Every few months, the EU gives Israel a little political prodding as a reminder that it hasn’t forgotten about the Palestinians’ horrific living conditions and the Israeli policies that perpetuate them. And each time the Israeli government sees the EU discussing proposals requiring the labeling of goods produced in the West Bank or circulating diplomatic memos suggesting restrictions on trade, it gets understandably unnerved. The EU is Israel’s largest regional trading partner, and new data on the impact of ongoing European boycott and divestment activism demonstrate the magnitude of the economic pressure Israel already faces from a frustrated Europe. Last year, for example, Jordan Valley farmers saw a 14 percent drop in revenue, largely as a result of European boycotts. In light of these circumstances, it’s easy to understand the Israeli leadership’s concern about how European policies might impact Israel’s economy. Consequently, Israel has begun to establish new economic partnerships outside of Europe that could prove geopolitically disadvantageous to the West.
In the aftermath of the 2010 discovery of the Leviathan natural gas deposits off of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, for instance, Russia pushed the Israeli government for an energy partnership. The terms of the subsequent negotiations between Russia’s state oil and gas company, Gazprom, and the Israeli government have long been the subject of rumors, among them the accusation by members of the Israeli Knesset that Russia offered to stop exporting advanced weapons to the Assad regime in Syria in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to export gas to Europe. Moreover, Israeli officials have confirmed that Gazprom pursued several positions on the Leviathan license and submitted a high bid for a 30 percent stake in the field’s ownership. Throughout the negotiations, Gazprom’s expressed intention was to export Leviathan’s gas throughout the Middle East and East Asia. The company has further moved to set up a subsidiary in Israel, and in 2013, Gazprom signed a letter of intent to help finance an offshore liquefied natural gas facility drawing from the Tamar gas field, also in the Mediterranean, to which it now has exclusive export rights.
Europe shouldn’t take this lightly. For years, Europe was Gazprom’s biggest export market, accounting for 40 percent of the company’s revenue in 2013. This interdependency has since turned problematic for both Europe and Gazprom. On Gazprom’s end, there are concerns that Israel’s entry into European gas markets would severely undermine the company’s market power. For its part, Europe has been troubled by its dependence on Russian energy for over a decade, and those worries have only been exacerbated by the recenttension in Euro-Russian relations. While access to Israeli gas deposits would go a long way toward helping insulate Europe from Russian influence, it’s hard to ask Israel to resist Russian solicitations when European language threatens trade restrictions.
More recently, Russian-Israeli cooperation has stalled, though Russian gas company SoyuzNefteGaz has entered into an agreement with Syria to support the development of its offshore deposits. Furthermore, Israeli gas development generally has stagnated due to a maritime border dispute with Lebanon and an antitrust controversy that divided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. In spite of this, there is momentum in Israel to accelerate gas production sooner rather than later because of predictions that the lifting of sanctions on Iran will cause global energy prices to plummet. Europe would do well to keep Israel’s energy ambitions on its radar, for Russia remains eager to buy control of the enterprise.
Israel has been seeking new economic partners in sectors unrelated to energy as well. Countries across South and East Asia — including China, India, South Korea and Japan — have been flooding Israel’s economy with new investment and expanding the scale of their trade with the country. This money has flowed into a wide variety of industries, ranging from food production and pharmaceuticals to weapons and technology. Just last year, Israel welcomed nearly $4 billion of Chinese investment, and between 2009 and 2014, Israeli technology exports to China increased by 170 percent. Japan has entered the race, too, with a 500 percent increase in investment in Israel between 2012 and 2014. Japan’s annual totals, however, have yet to exceed $10 million of direct investment. Accordingly, today, China is poised to overtake the United States as the largest foreign investor in the Israeli technology industry. Moreover, though a quarter of Israel’s exports go to Asia at present, projections indicate that trade with the region will soon outpace trade with Europe and the United States. And with steps in place to normalize trade relations with major economies across Asia, trade volume is expected to increase dramatically in the near future. Indeed, there is talk in the Israeli government of expanding trade with Asia — already around $20 billion annually — to up to ten times its current volume within the next several years.
This shift may prove troublesome for Europe for a few reasons. First, while some of the technologies Israel has started selling to these Asian economies are used to accelerate desalination or to enhance cybersecurity, many of them are used to kill people. Asia is Israel’s largest export market for military technology, with annual purchases of around $4 billion for several years running. Israel is India’s second largest source of arms; weapons deals between the two nations are responsible for upwards of $1 billion of Israeli exports each year, making India the world’s top purchaser of Israeli arms by a fair margin. This exchange of advanced military technology should concern Western states hoping to check the potential escalation of India’s longstanding conflict with Pakistan. Additionally, India’s purchases from Israel may prompt Pakistan to further pursue its own arms buildup, which, given regional instability and pressing economic development needs, would be unfortunate. Furthermore, if the West hopes to stem burgeoning Japanese remilitarization or prevent China from gaining access to cutting edge military technologies (both of which would help avoid war over the Southand East China Seas), it has good reason to be concerned about Israel’s weapons dealings expanding to those two countries.
These arms agreements play into a broader pattern of the West losing diplomatic control over both Israel and its Asian partners as they grow closer. Little captures this dynamic better than Israel’s eagerness to join China’s newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Conceived in response to Chinese frustrations with American rulemaking at the World Bank and Japanese rulemaking at the Asian Development Bank, the AIIB is a Chinese effort to sponsor global development according to its own agenda, through an institution at which it has the plurality of votes and the ability to make its own rules. The fact that Israel joined the AIIB in spite of American opposition exemplifies the West’s recent loss of influence over Israel.
The political implications of this can also be seen at the UN. India, for instance, shocked many in early July by breaking its historically pro-Arab voting streak to abstain (along with just four other countries) from a vote of the UN Human Rights Council condemning Israel for its handling of last summer’s conflict in Gaza. The United States was the only country to vote against the condemnation. While this is a new step for India, Japan and South Korea have a history of abstaining from UN votes critical of Israel. The impetus for this silence is clear. In India’s case, it was almost certainly moved by its substantial defense partnership with Israel. India’s changing ties were also apparent last March, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was nearly alone among world leaders in expressing public pleasure at Netanyahu’s recent reelection.
To those who view the economic isolation of Israel by the West as a moral imperative, these ancillary harms are unlikely to be meaningful. And perhaps Israel will recognize that European governments aren’t ready to move their responses to the Palestinian crisis beyond token gestures acknowledging negative public sentiment on the ground. That said, the current lay of the land shows an ever-cautious Israel preparing for the possibility of an end to full-fledged Western support with understandably little regard for the geopolitical impacts this preparation will have on the interests of its Western partners. So while the measure of these consequences might be irrelevant to the moral weight of the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, the EU should understand that it may wake up in 2020 to find that the Israeli government doesn’t particularly care where Europe directs its business. It should understand that Russian and Chinese leverage will only increase with time. And it should consider whether the strategic realities of the present permit such a rigorous moral stance. Perhaps they do, but the risks are substantial.
In just a few short months this summer, the world has borne witness to a rapidly and profoundly altered status quo. In the United States, five out of the four justices of the Supreme Court, faced with public opinion across the nation increasingly in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, declared a landmark decision affirming marriage equality as a right. In the wake of a destructive rampage carried out by a young man operating under a neo-Nazi creed in a historically black church in Charleston, SC that killed eight churchgoers, , legislators in that state voted to remove the Confederate flag that flew beside the state’s capitol building. Abroad, significant political changes are afoot as well: A massive crackdown on corruption within FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, and this week, a finalized a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program that will hopefully serve as the first step to ending its status as a pariah state.
Perhaps that’s the reason that less attention has been given to small but noteworthy shifts in a struggle that has commanded negative headlines in recent times: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly one year has elapsed since the launch of Operation Protective Edge, the third incursion into the Gaza Strip in the previous six years by the Israeli military. Little ground has been given since then. Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza still remains mostly in place, Hamas still governs there, and Fatah still retains a tenuous hold on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel’s domestic political situation continues to be relatively stable. In spite of occasional threats to his political power, Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party won a resounding victory in the Knesset elections this year and remain the largest party in the parliament, heading a coalition that includes, along with Likud, one centrist party, two religious orthodox parties and one far-right ethno-nationalist party.
To the casual observer of this situation, which in many ways remains unchanged since Netanyahu came to power in 2009, it may be easy to ignore the fact that Israel’s standing in the global community is slowly but surely eroding and that the nation’s leaders are scrambling to form a cohesive response. Like other symbols of traditional power now rendered untenable, Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian issue is in need of substantial alterations. And while the South Carolina Legislature and the U.S. Justice Department, among others, stepped up to spearhead change, Israel is botching the job horribly. This should be cause for alarm in Washington and elsewhere.
There are a number of reasons for Israel’s unresponsiveness to changing global political conditions. Perhaps the oldest of these are the personnel that have been working on the front lines of Israeli foreign policy for the past half-decade, many of whom have consistently brought militantly conservative stances to the table and, with them, little hope for change. Immediately after forming a coalition with Likud in 2009, the Yisrael Beitenu, a right-wing nationalist party, had one of its own appointed as foreign minister: Avigdor Lieberman, a character far from diplomatic in persona. More recently, appointments of various far-right politicians to important foreign policy posts has chipped away the legitimacy of Israeli diplomacy and pushed Prime Minister Netanyahu to articulate Israel’s foreign policy himself. The results, as clearly seen in Netanyahu’s controversial speech in March to the U.S. Congress on the Iran negotiations, have not been promising. There exists little reason for the international community to engage with Netanyahu. His negative attitude towards the ultimately productive dialogue with Iran was indicative of a direct challenge against and disrespect for the sensible diplomatic efforts of President Obama’s administration, and his decisions regarding the composition of his coalition’s leadership suggest that he seeks to sabotage diplomatic efforts rather and lacks interest in rational decision making.
Beyond Israel’s leadership, the harsh realities of the nation’s conduct during the Gaza conflict one year ago have also placed it at odds with the rest of the world, even as it publicly absolves itself of guilt. Following the invasion, both sides in the conflict were blamed for war crimes. Hamas came under fire for the supposed use of human shields and for indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians. Israel was blamed for wreaking havoc on civilian life within Gaza and destroying the region’s infrastructure, all while Gazans had little or no chance of escaping the violence. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a comprehensive advertising campaign defending its actions, employing “What would you do?” tactics that referenced Hamas rocket fire on Israel and ultimately taking a defensive stance about its military strategy. Testimonies from soldiers on the ground at the time proved the IDF’s defensive claims to be largely false. And with on-the-ground reports of the situation in Gaza numerous and freely available, it has seemed easy for even a casual observer to see just what kind of a war took place. One year later, the state of affairs appears mostly unimproved, even if the headlines have disappeared. The global community has collectively raised an eyebrow at Israel’s claims of benevolence. On July 3, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution criticizing Israel for its handling of the invasion. The vote was a resounding 41 to one with five abstentions. The dissenting voice was, unsurprisingly, the United States, a longtime ally of the Jewish state. Among the majority were all three influential European members of the Council: Britain, France and, most interestingly, Germany, a nation known for standing reliably with Israel. Though Hamas was also indicted by the report that preceded the resolution, the main message of the vote was clear: Israeli actions in Gaza have not flown under the radar. Since then, Tel Aviv’s reaction has been predictable. Netanyahu stuck to his rhetorical line, insisting that Israel is “innocent of any crime.”
The nature of Israel’s response to growing criticism from the rest of the world has merely served to exude desperation on its part. Hints of shell shock have accompanied Israel’s retreat from the moral high ground that the nation occupied after the Second Intifada, as is evident in statements from its most important officials. Netanyahu’s aforementioned speech in Washington was a laughable affair, noticeably catering to the far right (and particularly the Christian sector) of the U.S. Congress, a group that believes in Israel’s divine right to exist as it does and advocates for the foolhardy move of attacking Iran. Even more regrettably, it was just the latest example of a long legacy of hawkish rhetoric directed at Iran by the Likud government. However, it seems that the West is taking Netanyahu less and less seriously, especially after the ratification of the nuclear agreement with Iran in mid-July.
In the meantime, Israel’s moves on a number of other fronts are similarly indicative of turmoil. Faced with the specter of increased international involvement bolstering the Palestinians’ desire for reparations for the damage inflicted on Gaza, Israel radically changed tacks this month by agreeing to engage with the International Criminal Court, strictly for the purposes of “[making] its position clear to the court.” Although a small gesture, it is nonetheless unprecedented. While it may seem a positive development, this reversal of policy coincides with rumors of Israeli engagement with Hamas. Given the intransigence of both parties, it is hard to imagine that these are serious talks. More likely, Israeli outreach, coupled with the olive branch extended to the ICC, represent an Israeli attempt to undermine the Palestinian Authority on two fronts. Opening proceedings with the court, as a signal of Israel’s reasonable stance, could somewhat mute loud cries for justice from Hamas. And talking with Hamas in secret would undermine the already fragile and tentative cooperation between Hamas and Fatah, perhaps escalating tensions reminiscent of 2007, when armed conflict broke out between the two groups. A fractured Palestinian resistance would give Israel both legitimacy and leverage, two assets recently in short supply for the nation.
Resorting to this sort of realpolitik is not likely to work out well in the long run. Israel’s aggressively Machiavellian approach to the Palestinian issue, both in its choice of representative personnel and policy, has only contributed to its current dilemma. Instead of using its position since the Gaza conflict last summer as a reason to harden its belligerent, military-centric attitude, Israel should remain flexible in the face of a changing global geopolitical landscape. It ought to take steps to bolster a prospective unity government between Hamas and Fatah; when the two sides are prodded to cooperate, the chances of a forced moderation of Hamas become much stronger and its grip on Gaza weaker as its citizens no longer see Hamas as a guarantor of well-being. Hamas is an obstacle to peace, and with the group marginalized, it becomes easier for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority on the core issues that are preventing any two-state solution. This would far from assure an end to the conflict, but it would be an excellent start.
During his speech to both Houses of Congress on March 3, 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was either delusional or believed he was addressing a delusional audience. Whichever one it was, Netanyahu unfairly mischaracterized Israeli foreign policy and the nature of its relationship with Iran.
Netanyahu was invited by house speaker John Boehner to address the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations. In opening his address, after several witty jokes and trite expressions, Netanyahu invoked the spirit of Purim to introduce his views on dealing with the Iranians. He remarked that, “tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people…the plot was foiled. Our people were saved.”
For good reason, the applause from both Houses could not be contained: who doesn’t like a good story? Even aged congressmen could not resist the emotional frenzy of finding out that the good guys won out in the end.
However, Netanyahu wasn’t just trying to rile Congress up with their favorite tales of the Old Testament to score bible-study points. He invoked the tale of Purim to make a political case against Iran. And if the connection was not evident enough, Bibi asserts that Ayatollah Khamenei, the theocratic leader of Iran’s Islamic Republic, is Haman of ancient Persia.
Netanyahu drew an unjustifiable parallel between Haman — a man that attempted to destroy the Jewish people of Ancient pre-Islamic Persia — and Khamenei, who is the head of an Islamic government. Khamenei has been Iran’s Supreme leader for almost 26 years. There are 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. They have 11 synagogues, and two Kosher restaurants. They have a representative in parliament. There is no Jewish genocide in Iran. If anything, Netanyahu could have done a closer reading of the Book of Esther, as the King of Persia ends up saving the Jews from Haman, and not Esther herself.
But regardless, such analogies are pointless at best. Living on apocalyptic fantasies derived from ancient, unverified religious text is fear mongering at its finest. It is beyond egregious to come to the US Congress, and try to stir up irrational fears based. The rest of Netanyahu’s speech follows a similar path of half-truths and fabrications. For example, he claims that Iran is on a “quest for nuclear weapons.” He believes that Iran would be armed with “intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.” However, more credible sources believe otherwise. For example, in 2007, 2010 and 2012, America’s 16 intelligence agencies agreed that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program since 2003. Even the Mossad’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear program stated that “Iran was not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has openly stated that “Iran has no intention of destroying Israel and has actually saved the Jews three times in history, but the current Israeli regime is a threat to Tehran.” Uncritically establishing a connection between past sufferings of the Jewish people with modern day politics has grave political repercussions.
The United States and Iran are currently in one of the most important negotiations of the decade. The United States is adamant that Iran does not obtain a bomb; however, it is essential for Iran to be allowed to re-enter the global system. Continued alienation will further embolden Iranian hard-liners to want to obtain nuclear weapons.
Living on apocalyptic fantasies derived from ancient, unverified religious text is fear mongering at its finest.
In the past, the United States— in coalition with Britain— overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed a dictator. This created the perfect situation for anti-American sentiment, and ultimately to the formation of the Islamic republic in 1979. Iran has been under sanctions since 1995. These punitive measures have ushered in an era of distrust and miscommunication.
Netanyahu is attempting to sway Congress to believe that Iran is a state that cannot be trusted, with a fanatical and “radical” regime. This is far from reality. Even if the Iranian regime’s rhetoric is overtly aggressive, their actions prove otherwise. Peter Beinart, contributing editor to the The Atlantic, makes a powerful analysis on the issue. He points out that Iran’s actions throughout the Middle East mimic actions of any regional leader during a cold war, similar to Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Furthermore, if Iran was so diabolical than how come it has not invaded “a Saudi ally in the Persian gulf or launching chemical or biological weapons at Israel.” In short, Iran has not done anything to put itself or its people at great risk. Its moves are entirely calculated and self-interested. Netanyahu’s claims do not seriously take into account Iran’s 36 years of rational foreign policy.
Clearly, what Netanyahu brought to Congress was a sham. Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent, put it best: “Literally, not one new idea; not one single concrete alternative; all rhetoric, no action.” Such fear mongering is a sign of weakness on Netanyahu’s part, as it takes a great man to want to strive for peace instead of war. It easy to continue US imposed sanctions. It is a much more monumental task to approach Iran as a friend and not an enemy— to want to open up, and start living peacefully with his neighbors. Viewing Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish people shows just how far on the brink Netanyahu has gone. Yes, as the situation currently exists, Iran is a threat to Israel. Diplomatic negotiations do not mean the end of Israel, but rather the ushering of a new era of mutual understanding. Calling for war only causes more war.
With Israel’s latest elections, it is clear that Netanyahu’s inflammatory rhetoric is part of a political ploy: From his latest statement that he will not allow a Palestinian state under his watch, to his racist remarks about the dangers of allowing the Arab coalition to vote, it makes one wonder if his claims at Congress weren’t made as a similar attempt to win an election. If that is true, the world may lose an essential deal between the United States and Iran. One of which will bring long needed peace and stability in the Middle East.
Michael Salberg is the Director of International Affairs for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the world’s leading center for the eradication of anti-Semitism.
Brown Political Review: How should Europe respond to rising anti-Semitism?
Michael Salberg: There has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe. Since 1980 in France, around 17 French Jews have been murdered by terrorists, most recently in a kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack…We expect the government to protect all of us in a democracy. It’s very easy to say it, but it’s much more difficult to do it. Anti-Semitic attitudes extend to more than a third of the general public [in France]. The government needs to [ensure that] French Jews have a sense of safety and security. In the days following the attacks, the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, delivered a speech in the National Assembly that was incredibly powerful and passionate. He expressed his sense of deep regret that Jews in France are subject to these kinds of violent acts. He pointed out to Parliament, and to the French people, that the French Jewish community expects more of France — more outrage, more action. That’s the speech we want to hear from leaders all across Europe. Now the question is: Will there be the resolve to take the actions that are necessary? Today, the French Jewish community is protected by the military so that their kids can go to school. French Jewish parents have to decide between keeping their kids in a Jewish day school and sending them to public school because the kids are subjected to anti-Semitic bullying. The other choices are to lose one’s Jewish identity or to leave the country. That reality is heartbreaking, something that American Jews cannot imagine.
BPR: Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism? Is it possible to hold one without the other?
MS: I think it’s nearly impossible. Look at behaviors, not necessarily concepts. People have an absolute right to take to the streets to blog, tweet and post about their dislike for what the government of Israel does and how it does it. But when you go to the streets to protest those policies and actions, and then you look for somebody wearing a kippah and punch them in the face, or you go to a synagogue and graffiti “Free Gaza” on it, that’s an attack on Jews. It has nothing to do with being against Zionism. If you are against Zionism, the nationalist aspiration of the Jewish people for a homeland, what other nationalist aspirations do you oppose? If you are opposed to all nationalist movements, then I would say, perhaps it isn’t [anti-Semitism]. But when you single out Zionism, then I don’t think it’s that difficult to say there is an anti-Jewish element.
BPR: How do you reconcile that viewpoint with the perspectives of people who self-identify both as Jewish and as anti-Zionist?Some may support a bi-national state including both Jews and Palestinians.
MS: The natural result of that would be that the Jewish character of Israel would disappear, which would require Israel to forsake its Jewish nationalism and identity along with its status as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and to no longer be the Jewish homeland. One has to look at and consider whether that outcome is what the people of Israel want. [American Jews] don’t get to vote there. I would suspect that most of the people who hold the view that you just described aren’t prepared to emigrate so that they can have a real impact on the outcome.
BPR: How has the ADL acted on its survey of global anti-Semitism?
MS: The major conclusion we have reached is that somewhere around 26 percent [of adults in the world] harbor strong anti-Semitic views. Our index consists of 11 statements that represent anti-Semitic stereotypes. If individuals answer “probably true” to six or more statements we classify those respondents as having firmly held anti-Semitic attitudes. The region that has the highest level of anti-Semitism is the Middle East and North Africa, at about 74 percent of the population. The lowest levels are in the English-speaking countries — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — at around 13 percent. But the attitudes reflected in our polling are just one piece of the puzzle. You have to look at specific incidents — the public discourse, rhetoric and societal responses…When we first started polling in the United States [in 1964], levels of anti-Semitism were north of 30 percent. In the most recent poll we did, the United States was at 10 percent. Progress can be made, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
BPR: How do you respond to the success of radical fascist parties, like Golden Dawn in Greece?
MS: [These parties] are dangerous, and it isn’t just in Greece. In Hungary, another anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, ultra-right-wing, neo-fascist political party called Jobbik has 17 percent [of the seats] in the parliament. In France, the National Front has cleaned up its image, but the founder expresses anti-Semitic views on a regular basis…The leaders of Golden Dawn are in jail awaiting murder charges, and they still did well in elections! There is a serious problem with anti-Semitism in Greek society. But there has not been a real opportunity to address it because the economic circumstance in Greece fuels a sense of desperation…When people feel desperate, they don’t ask, “What did we do wrong?” They ask, “Why are they doing this to us?” It’s very difficult to begin to chip away at the ingrained tendency to look for scapegoats.
BPR: Recently, ADL commented on the controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled address to the US Congress. Why did ADL choose to do so?
MS: One of the hallmarks of US support for Israel, over 67 years, has been its unified bipartisanship. At ADL, we feel this should be preserved and enhanced. What we saw in the invitation and in the reaction was partisan politics. That’s why we thought [the speech] was ill-advised — it was divisive. But even more importantly, we felt that the Prime Minister has a critically important message regarding the existential threat that Israel feels, which was being drowned out by the controversy and the politicization of the invitation.