JS: Hello everyone and welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. My name is Jacob Shapiro, I am the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures and I am joined again this week by Kamran Bokhari, who is our senior analyst, welcome Kamran.
KB: Thanks for having me, Jacob.
JS: I just want to apologize to our listeners, I know that we didn’t manage to get a podcast out last week, so we’re going to try and get two out this week. In general, we are going to try to stick to one a week, so we appreciate you guys bearing with us as we go along.
Last time we talked, Kamran, we talked about the Islamic State and we talked about the Islamic State’s origins and its futures. And one of the things I think is interesting right now is that the Middle East is really in a state of flux. The balance of power in the Middle East is changing. We can see it changing all the time. One of the things we are chronicling in our writing is how the balance of power in the Middle East is changing all the time. You brought up to us when we were thinking about what to talk about today, that we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and also Lebanon and Iraq had some token forces in there, but really it was between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Egypt. The 50th anniversary is coming up in June. How about you lay out for our readers why you think this is such an important anniversary to note?
KB: I think 50 years is a good point in time to go back and review and measure just how things have unfolded in the region. And 1967 is particularly important because it really shaped the way the region has unfolded. It was a pivotal moment. Israel, as a result of that war, its massive victory over three Arab states, really established it as a military power in the region. And it was only 19 years old, Israel was only 19 years old when that war happened. And at the time, no one could’ve foreseen that Israel would be able to defend itself against three major Arab powers, at least they were perceived as major Arab powers. And the whole perception of Arab strength was essentially laid bare. The image of the Arabs was tarnished. I mean the fact that in the collective Arab memory, June 5, 1967, is seen as Yawm al-Naksa, which is loosely defined or translated as the day of setback, although ‘naksa’ in Arabic is far more, if you will, stronger than just the word ‘setback’ as we know it in English, but nonetheless, it left a deep imprint on the Arab world and established that the Arab world was very much hollow and it could not impose a military solution on Israel.
JS: Kamran, I think this was one of the things you brought up last week that was interesting, which was when we were talking about the Islamic State and we were talking about the rise of radical jihadist Islam as a major ideology in the region, you pointed towards this moment as the moment at which the political ideology of the time, which was secular nationalism, Arab nationalism – in 1967 Egypt was still known as the United Arab Republic technically, right, which is an ode to the short-lived entity that existed when Egypt and Syria were part of the same republic from 1958 to 1961. So you sort of pointed out last week just how important this moment was in history and how it really defined how the Arab world was going to move forward. It amounted to the failure of Nasserism and in some ways, it was the moment that Egypt abdicated leadership in the Arab world, wouldn’t you say?
KB: Absolutely, and I think that it was forced to do that. I think that nobody could argue and nobody could sustain the image of this leadership role that Egypt had projected, that it was the leader of Arab nationalism, the Arab soul, the Arab world. When the Egyptian Air Force was destroyed in a matter of hours on the fifth of June, you couldn’t make that argument anymore. And it was essentially the beginning of the end of the Nasser regime, at least Nasserite Egypt – though some would argue that we are still living in the legacy of Nasserite Egypt – but Nasser himself didn’t live too long after that. He died in 1970, and that really closed that chapter of Arab nationalism, but it also demonstrated that the Arab states, and here we are talking about Egypt, I mean Egypt is the heart of the Arab world given it is the largest Arab state by population, any type of cultural renaissance, new ideologies that take shape in Egypt, in Cairo particularly, and then disseminate to the rest of the Arab world. So that was the status of Egypt. That war really, really demonstrated the impotence of the Egyptian military in the face of Israel, which was seen as a weak state at that point, and it really established many of the boundaries that we are currently dealing with and the relationships that Israel has with many of its Arab neighbors. So we know that in 1978, Israel and Egypt made peace and in many ways the outcome of 1967, really laid the foundation for that eventual rapprochement and the diplomatic relationship, the uneasy diplomatic relationship that has existed since then.
Likewise, the relationship with Jordan, even though the formal peace treaty between Jordan and Israel did not emerge until 1994, but it is well known that Israelis and Jordanians have had a very close security relationship, especially as it pertains to the Palestinians and those living in the West Bank. The Israeli-Syrian relationship was also established. The hostilities that exist till this day, the state of war as many would refer to it, was established in 1967 when Israel conquered the Golan Heights and was able to seize that territory from the Syrians and the Syrians have not been able to take that back.
So the entire geopolitical landscape that we now know as sort of the defining borders and the boundaries that established the Arab-Israeli dynamic were set in the aftermath of the 1967 war with a little bit of modification within the case of the Sinai, which Egypt was able to take back in the form of the peace treaty.
JS: Well you are right to an extent, I will say that you are overlooking a little bit just how important 1973 was. So Israel and Egypt again fight another war in ’73, and as much as 1967 was a success for the Israeli Defense Forces and for the strategy of preemptive attack, I mean Israel was in a weak position in some sense and it was forced to attack Egypt preemptively if it was going to be able to achieve its objectives. This led to a certain amount of arrogance on the part of the Israelis and in ’73, there was a massive intelligence failure where they dismissed Egyptian mobilization in the Sinai. Israel ended up winning that war with U.S. support and then that sort of is what led to the peace treaty in the end. But I think you are right in the sense that a lot of the geopolitical realities that have defined this part of the world, which is the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, the sort of frozen state of conflict between Syria and Israel as I would call it, Israel obviously went into Lebanon a couple more times after that.
But another thing that I think we need to point out here is that before ’67, there really wasn’t a very strong relationship between the United States and Israel, at least not the way that people think about that relationship now. Israel’s success in the ’67 war was really the moment the United States realized two things, first of all that most of the Arab states were in the Soviet Union’s camp and that there was no getting them back, and second of all, that Israel could be a meaningful partner in balancing power against the Soviet Union in the Middle East. And I bring this up because I think it raises an interesting point, because you’re right that a lot of the seeds of how things developed after ’67 were laid in the results of that war.
But at the same time, if we look 50 years later, a lot of those things are beginning to fall apart, right? The Soviet Union has collapsed, people are making a lot of Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, but it’s very miniscule compared to the chest pumping that everybody talks about. You know the Russians are not funding or massively arming states that are thinking about attacking Israel or other U.S. allies in the region. Egypt is an economic basket case, it just went through a pretty massive political transition, which began you know with the Arab Spring around 2010-2011, and they have issues of their own. Jordan is sort of the miracle of the region, how Jordan hasn’t been affected by the stuff that’s going on in the region is pretty incredible. Syria, I mean Syria is basically half a state right now. The Assad regime has been able to consolidate itself, but Syria, which really was one of the biggest vulnerabilities Israel faced from a military point of view, Syria is completely involved with its own fight against its own anti-regime rebels, and the Islamic State is there and they are having to rely on Hezbollah and all this other stuff.
So when Israel looks out at its current strategic landscape, it doesn’t see Egypt and Syria and Jordan as these major problems anymore. In ’67 the major concern was, well what if Israel gets attacked by three entities at the same time. Those three entities aren’t there. When you think about Israel’s strategic position right now, the sort of first, most immediate thing that comes to mind is Hezbollah. We had those reports recently of Israel just a couple days ago striking a weapons convoy, an alleged weapons convoy of Hezbollah in Palmyra, which is pretty far in for the Israelis to go into Syria. So that’s sort of the first thing. But Hezbollah is also completely distracted by the Syrian civil war. But then you take a step back and the challenges for Israel really aren’t set by 1967, they are set by different things.
So the first thing I would say is that, you know, what is going to happen with the Islamic State? Maybe the Islamic State is going to get defeated and maybe it’s going to collapse but the real concern for Israel is the state of disrepair that is in the Arab world won’t reign forever. Is there any potential for some kind of radical Sunni entity to rise in the Arab world and unite the factions and once again treat Israel as a common enemy? Taking a further step back, you look at Iran which was dealt a setback with the Syrian civil war and with the degradation of the Assad regime, but still maintains a lot of influence in Iraq and is still aggressively trying to push its influence in the region. And then farther back is Turkey. Turkey is rising, one of George Friedman’s most identifiable forecasts and one of the things we write about a lot and that we get a lot of attention for, is our position that Turkey is going to rise and it’s going to be the major power in the Middle East. Right now, there are decent relations between Israel and Turkey, but I think Israel’s long-term thinking is about what a strategic landscape looks like, it has to think about Turkey as this major power reasserting itself in the region.
So I agree with you in the sense that it’s important, and ’67 really did set the chain for a lot of different events, but in some ways, it’s become obsolete. Would you agree with that characterization or do you want to argue with any of that?
KB: No, I think you are right. I think we are still dealing with the post-1967 architecture but with the caveat that that architecture is in a meltdown mode. Defeating three of its neighbors at the same time established Israel’s superiority in a military sense and really consolidated the state of Israel, and since that time, what’s become clear, even though we had the 1973 war, it became clear to Egypt that there was no military solution. This almost romantic view of being able to establish Arab hegemony over all of historic Palestine through military means was shattered. That perception was completely shattered. And even though 1973 happened and was a surprise and intelligence failure for Israel, nonetheless the Egyptians I would argue did not think when they launched that war that they would be able to militarily defeat Israel. There’s always the possibility you could do that, but deep down you know and if you have been dealt a blow like 1967, that really weighs heavily on your national psyche and your military strategy moving forward. And if you look at the way the negotiations panned out after that, with the moderation or the intercession of the United States, it becomes clear that really 1973 from the Egyptian point of view was enhancing your bargaining power. Improving your position to achieve some sort of, if you will, win-win scenario in which the Egyptians can come back and say yes, we were able to retake the Sinai from Israel and we restored national dignity.
But 1967 really showed that the military option was no longer there for the Arabs. And moving forward from the Israeli point of view, those very states that were threatening them in 1967, Israel really relied on their behavior to not wage war against Israel as part of its natural security doctrine. Keep in mind that these are autocratic regimes that may view Israel in a certain way because they believe in it or maybe because it’s pragmatic and because they are in power and have to balance pressures from all sides. But the sentiment in many of these countries until this day is one of hostility towards Israel. Israel relied on these capitols: Damascus, Cairo and Amman, to make sure that that national sentiment did not alter the national behavior of those countries, and Israel would not be threatened again.
Now if you fast forward to the Arab Spring, that whole strategy seems to be falling apart, because if these countries, if these regimes cannot maintain order within their own country, then that is a problem. And if you have a power vacuum, we just recently published a couple of articles on how Jordan is weakening, and the implications particularly for Israel are massive, if the regime were to weaken much and God forbid fall, that could create a vacuum in which Israel faces a new kind of threat, an uncertainty. Clearly this is not a threat from a state, but non-state actors create a new dynamic. If we look at what is happening in Syria and how the Israelis have been trying to balance between the hostile forces on the Sunni side of the conflict, which includes ISIS, which includes al-Qaida and all those whom we call the moderate Sunni Arab rebel forces. They’re not friends of Israel. Given a chance, they would wage war against Israel. On the other side is Syria, Iran and Hezbollah – again enemies of Israel. And Israel has to do this careful balancing act. At the moment, the Sunni side is not in a position to threaten Israel and therefore Israel is trying to make sure that Hezbollah does not gain more power than it already has and pose a bigger threat than it already does to Israel. Should those circumstances be replicated in Jordan and Egypt, then that’s a tough balancing act for Israel to maintain. Because we’re talking three different countries on the entire periphery of the Jewish state.
JS: Well let’s dig into that a little bit then. We know that Syria is in a state of civil war, the Assad regime seems to have been able to consolidate control there. For the most part that situation is actually ok with Israel because it’s weakened an enemy, but not so much that there is just chaos reigning everywhere. But you’ve brought up Jordan and you’ve brought up Egypt. You said that Jordan is weakening. How about we dig a little more into that? What do you mean when you said Jordan is weakening?
KB: Well if you look at Jordan geographically, it is sitting at the crossroads of major areas of conflict. It borders both the countries in which ISIS is operating i.e. Syria and Iraq. It has the second largest refugee population coming from Syria after Turkey. We’re talking somewhere around 680,000 people. That’s a huge strain on an already poor country. The economy really historically hasn’t done well, it’s gotten by with assistance from both the West, the United States and the U.K., and of course assistance from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But with the price of oil declining, and we know that Saudi Arabia is in trouble on the home front, it has less and less financial bandwidth to come to the aid of Jordan. We also see the situation in the West Bank evolving towards a crisis where President Mahmoud Abbas is at an advanced age. He’s not ill or anything, at least apparently. But when you reach, go beyond 80, you are operating on borrowed time.
So what will happen to the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority, especially in the wake of Israeli policies that are now aggressively pushing more settlements? That creates a large pressure on the Jordanians whose population is somewhere a little above 50 percent of Palestinian origin. Many of those people came in the aftermath of the 1948 war, a lot of them came after the 1967 one. But there’s already an existing Palestinian population, which has been to one degree or another, if you will, assimilated into Jordanian mainstream political life. We recently had protests because of the cutting of subsidies by the government. There are no shortage of Islamist forces, from the Muslim Brotherhood, it has at least two major factions. You have a large Salafi population. You have al-Qaida there. The founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is from Jordan and the town of Zarqa. And you have Hizb ut-Tahrir. And then you have the spillover effect from Syria. So these are circumstances, to expect Jordan that it will continue to behave the way it has since the ’67 war or over the decades, I think that would be a mistake. I don’t think that the Israelis are looking at it that way. Recall the recent report in which the Jordanian ambassador to Amman told the IDF chief that he is worried about stability and security in the Jordanian kingdom. We’ve not had these kind of statements coming from Israel. So if the Israelis are worried, I would say that is a good barometer of how the situation is deteriorating in Jordan.
JS: Yeah although, I would challenge you to go a little bit deeper, which is to say that you’ve just laid out a pretty scary laundry list of challenges for any country let alone one like Jordan that really doesn’t have a lot of natural resources of its own, which like you say, has an incredibly diverse population. There’s a lot of Palestinians in Jordan. Really Jordanians are Hashemites right, there are actually very small numbers of people who can actually claim to be Jordanian, so many of them are Bedouins and Circassians and this, that and the other thing. How do you explain the fact that Jordan hasn’t succumbed to all this stuff? Because unlike Syria or unlike Egypt or unlike even Lebanon it has for the most part avoided a lot of the domestic political instability and a lot of the violence that a lot of the Arab states around it haven’t avoided and with much fewer resources.
KB: So I would say that there are three aspects to that in terms of how the Jordanian regime has maintained stability and security. So the first and foremost is that the Jordanian security establishment has been very competent. Particularly the General Intelligence Department, its main intelligence agency, it has a very good handle in pre-empting and not being on the reactive side that things happen and then the Jordanians act. They’ve been ahead of the curve in terms of making sure that any radical elements, be they ISIS or others, that they are kept under lock and key and so that’s one aspect.
The other aspect I mentioned earlier is that there has been this historic relationship between Israel and Jordan, a quiet one that is not really talked about much and understandably so from the Jordanian point of view, and that has helped quite a bit. Then it is a very close ally of the West, the United States and prior to that, the U.K., and the U.K. continues to be an ally of the Hashemite monarchy. They also have had assistance from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to the extent that they have been able to do that.
So I think a mix of forces has allowed Jordan to continue to maintain stability even though we’re six years out from the Arab Spring. But I think that the pressures are building and this is not a sustainable situation. Should there be a, we talk about the southern provinces of Syria where the government and different rebel factions and ISIS is in the mix as well. There’s sort of this lack of clarity over who has the upper hand, its sort of a balance of weakness in southern Syria when it comes to the civil war, it has not been a major theater compared to Aleppo or Palmyra or ISIS-land up near Raqqa or Damascus. These are the things that have maintained order and these are the factors that enabled the regime. But to assume that this will continue, especially at a time when the established states, I mean Saudi Arabia is the largest state in that region and it also shares a large border with Jordan, although historically a quiet one. But nonetheless, if Saudi Arabia is having less and less financial bandwidth to assist countries around its periphery, then we are looking at a situation that is not something that the Jordanians will be able to handle on their own. There’s a lot of hope that goes into this idea that Jordan will continue to manage its domestic politics and of course the wider geopolitics, it’s a balancing act. But I think we need to get out of this assumption that things will continue and nothing will go wrong and there’s a need for out-of-the-box thinking.
JS: Although I just want to drive home for our listeners that a lot of people when they think about geopolitics, they think about geographical determinism, and what I mean by that is they think that it’s as easy as looking at a map. And a map is going to be able to tell you exactly what’s wrong with a country and what is going to happen to a particular country. Jordan is a really good example of where just the basics of a map or just the basics of geography or a layout of resources isn’t enough to tell you everything. I think there is a conservative element in Jordanian society and an element that has always had to fight an uphill battle against a real lack of resources. I mean Jordan, its borders were not drawn in any logical way when you are thinking in terms of nationality or economic production or just about anything. So I agree with you that Jordan faces many challenges, but one of the things about Jordan is this intangible thing that has kept the kingdom together so far, and I think will serve it in good stead. But leaving Jordan aside for now, it’s a relatively small country.
One of the things that people brought up from the last podcast and I think it fits in exactly with this conversation, because we started by talking about 1967 and as you mentioned, in a lot of ways 1967 was one of the moments where Israel and the United States realized that they had interests in common. Those interests really were about blocking the Soviet Union and about Israel becoming a U.S. ally in a region that was becoming dominated by Arab states that were allied with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union obviously is no longer there, and the strategic basis of the relationship between Israel and the United States is not as strong as it once was. I know that there was a lot of talk about how special the relationship is and how close it is.
But that strategic reason for the relationship has gone away and I think you’ve seen the United States and Israel pull away from each other a little bit. That’s both because Israel has a lot more freedom of action than it did before and also because from a U.S. perspective the interests don’t line up quite as well as they used to. But the question that I am circling around here is, so we’ve talked about how we’re in this 50 years since 1967, but we’re also in a Middle East that is changing rapidly, how does the U.S. respond to the things were talking about here, how does the U.S. respond to the hollowing out of the Arab world, how does the U.S. respond to Jordan and the serious challenges that Jordan is facing and what is the U.S.-Israel relationship going to look like going forward?
I know that a lot of people were thinking that Donald Trump was going to make that relationship much different than the relationship with Obama, but as with so many things with President Trump, he said one thing before getting into office and continues to say things all the time, but the things that he’s actually doing don’t always line up with what he says. He has not moved the embassy to Jerusalem, he has criticized the Netanyahu administration for settlements at some level, all things that Trump said he was going to do, but when we look in practice, it looks remarkably similar to before and it also seems like Trump is willing to throw his hat in the ring and to be yet another U.S. president who wants to try and solve the eternal conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, so I just threw some things at you but I think the main thing is so what does the U.S. do, how does the U.S. deal with all these dynamics we’ve brought up?
KB: We’ve written about how the United States is pursuing a balance of power strategy. A balance of power strategy doesn’t mean that there is a nice balance, that you can essentially create this system that’s going to work for a while. It’s a constant act of balancing, it doesn’t end at one point, it doesn’t begin at one point. You just have to continue to play with it, tweak it, to make sure that it is working and the U.S. balance of power strategy relies on working with the major powers of the region, we’ve identified them as Turkey, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Now if you go into each one of them, we’ve talked about the historic relationship with Israel, and there is this disconnect between Israeli and American interests, but I still think that despite that divergence in interests, the United States and Israel aren’t really that far apart if you look at it from a strategic point of view. Yes, tactically there can be many differences, you know, we can say that the United States does not want Israel to build new settlements but I think that that’s sort of a minor issue in the larger regional geopolitical scheme of things. I don’t think that the United States does not want Israel to assume a posture or an aggressive interventionist posture in its neighborhood and I don’t think that the Israelis want to do that either. So if you look at the airstrikes in Syria, they do not demonstrate any desire on the part of the Israelis to intervene in the way they did in Lebanon, and that’s great from an American perspective, because the United States is already dealing with a whole lot. The United States under the Obama administration was able to end that hostility that erupted between Turkey and Israel over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, and there was the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations and a sort of normalization. So I think that there again is another example of the United States trying to balance. The United States needs Turkey to manage Syria, and it has made it very clear to the Israelis that we need your cooperation. If the Israelis and the Turks are going after each other, then that undermines the United States’ interests.
You flip over to Iran’s nuclear program and the way the nuclear agreement was forged, yes there was a lot of huffing and puffing on the part of the Israelis, there was a lot of bellicose rhetoric and unhappiness, and the media was all about how Netanyahu’s personality clashes with that of Obama, but at the end of the day, Israel didn’t do anything substantive to block that agreement from taking place. Israel maintains that it has very little faith in that agreement to produce the desired outcome, but that’s a different story than saying we will go and actively work against American interests.
JS: I am going to jump in and disagree with you a little bit in the sense that I think you are understating just how much the Netanyahu administration opposed the Iran deal. Israel didn’t do anything in terms of Iran’s nuclear program and won’t do anything in terms of Iran’s nuclear program, at least anything overt, because it doesn’t have the capability. It simply does not have the military capability to go in and knock out the Iranian nuclear program. If it did, I would submit that it probably already would have done it. It did that with Iraq, it did that with Syria. If it felt like it had the capability, I think it would have gone and done it already. And I don’t think it was a small thing what Netanyahu did when he came and addressed the U.S. Senate and gave that very flowery speech about how it was a bad deal and how the Obama administration had committed a catastrophic mistake. I don’t think that Israel had much of a choice in the end though.
At the end of the day, Israel knows where its bread is buttered and knows that it needs the United States as a key strategic ally. If this was the path that the United States would go down and this was the path that the United States thought was most in U.S. interests, Israel wasn’t going to be able to thwart that. But I think that Israel in general is very intimidated by Iran, especially by Iran’s rhetoric, and they would’ve preferred a much stronger U.S. reaction to Iran. I think that’s one of the areas where you see that there’s not going to be a break in relations between the United States and Israel but I think there you see a very, very different set of priorities. Israel is still a small country in a very hostile neighborhood that looks at things one way and the United States is the most powerful country in the world with a lot of different challenges in a lot of different regions. You’ve got everything going on with Russia, you’ve got everything going on with China, you’ve got allies all over the place, you’ve got a NATO alliance that isn’t working the way the United States wants it to, the United States does not have time to get involved in every little thing inside the Middle East.
The United States really can use Iran, not necessarily as an ally, I am not saying the United States and Iran are going to become best friends or anything, but the United States needs an Iran it can work with on a pragmatic basis, because there are bigger fish to fry. You’ve got ISIS sitting there right smack dab in the Middle East, you’ve got whatever is going to come after ISIS, you’ve got this huge jostling and competition for what’s going to come after the hulking carcasses of Syria and Iraq going on there, so I think that’s actually one of the areas where you see a little bit of the divergence and where you see that the challenges of ’67 and the challenges that have really defined relations in the region since ’67 are beginning to change.
KB: Yes they are changing, but what I was pointing towards or trying to make the case for is that there is the divergence, and yes it is a function of capability that Israel did not opt for a military solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and went along with the U.S. diplomatic option, but at the end of the day, this is that difficult balancing act we’ve been talking about. The difficulty in maintaining a balance of power strategy whether it’s between Turkey and Israel or Israel and Iran, I mean even between Turkey and Iran, although this is one of those relations that has yet to really emerge in terms of where it’s going at this point. Even though they are at odds with one another over the outcome of Syria, Tehran and Ankara are not going to be seeing eye-to-eye, but for now they have both decided that it’s not in their interests to go head-to-head with one another.
I mean similarly if you look at how the U.S. is sort of caught. On one hand, there is an Iran that can be useful in the fight against ISIS in making sure that Iraq functions in some kind of semi-coherent way. But at the same time, the more that the Americans appear to be working with the Iranians – that deeply upsets the Saudis and the other Arab states, and therefore yet again you have a balancing act. We saw a lot of this balancing, it’s not as if the United States can just say okay, Saudi Arabia has very little to offer and Iran has a little more to offer, therefore we’re going to sort of swing that pendulum in the direction of Tehran. I don’t think that would sort of undermine the entire thesis of a balance of power strategy, but once you immerse yourself into that, you put yourself in the shoes of Washington, it’s a difficult balancing act. How do you make sure that the enmity between the Iranians and the Saudis does not upset your interests in the region. On one hand, the United States does not like the Saudis sponsoring militias in Syria that are not very different honestly from al-Qaida and ISIS. But at the same time, the United States needs the Saudis to make sure that the Iranians don’t jump out of their box and become disproportionately powerful.
So I guess, I am talking about a very complex balance of power strategy that will continue to twist and turn whether it involves the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the U.S.-Iranian tensions, the tensions that currently exist between Turkey, which we have identified as being the key to the American strategy for the long haul in Syria and in the wider region. We see great tensions, at least in the short term, there’s a divergence of interests especially over the Kurds and the extent to which Turkey wants to commit forces in the fight against ISIS. But nonetheless the two sides have to work with each other, so Washington has been caught in between these four powers.
JS: It’s funny as you were talking, it’s really striking to me when you think in terms of, you know, if you think about the 1960s and ’70s, it was punctuated by these very intense wars. We call them wars in the full sense of the term. But overall it was a much more stable situation in the Middle East. You know, there were the people that were in the U.S. camp, there were the states that were in the Soviet camp and the states themselves were fairly stable. Egypt was a fairly stable state, Syria you know, there was the coup d’etat in ‘61 that brought the Baath party to power, but once the Assads eventually came to power, Syria also was very stable, the Hashemite kingdom has also been there since the 1940s. Right now, it’s not so simple.
The Arab world, as you said, really has been hollowed out. And there’s a great deal of instability and there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what is going to emerge out of it. I would suggest that if we are looking forward another 50 years, if we are talking about 100 years from 1967, I think that what we might see is we might see the pendulum swing back to the stability that we saw in ’67. I just think the actors are going to be very different. I don’t think that Egypt and Syria and war between Arabs and the Israelis is going to be the thing animating the region. I think the thing to really focus on is the rise of Turkey, how Iran is going to respond to that, how the Arab world is going to deal both with its own problems with radical Islam and then how Israel is going to try to navigate through all this and who the U.S. is going to use and how.
I want to close, I just want to hit one more topic while we’re here Kamran. It’s one we’ve sort of danced around and it’s the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it feels like the eternal conflict. And in some ways, it’s strange to go to this issue after talking about such large weighty things, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in strategic terms really does not matter that much. And I wonder how you are going to answer this question, because it’s something that I ask people all the time. Why do you think there is such a degree of fascination and attention with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East? The attention that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it gets, really I don’t think lines up with the strategic importance that it has overall, and I think it’s appropriate to talk about it in this conversation, because as you said 1967 is when Israel takes over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and it hasn’t relinquished them since. And the Palestinians, which used to be – the West Bank was a Jordanian problem and the Gaza Strip was an Egyptian problem. Since ’67 it became an Israeli problem. So why do you think that there is such a level of focus such that even the Trump administration is sending out envoys talking about solution to this conflict that has eluded every single president.
KB: I think there are two reasons for that. I think the first reason has to do with the fact that the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. In many ways there is, as time has gone by and as we move forward, the situation becomes more and more complex and resolution appears more and more elusive. But the fact is that the question of Palestine, the Palestinian issue, has not been resolved in some shape or form to where we can move beyond this idea of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though successive American administrations have failed to really tackle this issue. I think the closest that we ever came was in the Clinton administration when there were final status talks between Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the late ’90s. But we’ve drifted far from that and we’ve come to a point where the entire Palestinian landscape has become so incoherent that even before we talk about an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, there has to be some form of intra-Palestinian settlement and nothing tells me when I look at the Gaza Strip, when I look at the West Bank, when I look at Hamas, and when I look at Fatah and I look at the other Palestinian factions and the disunity and the incoherence, I look at it and I say we are moving even further away from anything called a Palestinian national entity. And therefore it becomes even less and less possible for a serious Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
But I think that there is another assumption built into the way we in the West look at this problem. Which is that if we were to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then somehow the Middle East becomes far more manageable. I don’t believe that. But that is the way I think that many within the various governments in the West, whether it’s the British government or the French or the German or the American. And in many ways, this narrative has been peddled by the Arab regimes and the wider Muslim world, you know Turkey has been pushing this as well on its end, that you need to solve this problem, if you solve this problem then we won’t have radicalism. Radicalism and al-Qaida, ISIS exist largely because of what has happened to the Palestinians and the wider fallout of that. I think there’s the failure to recognize that it’s not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Muslim world faces a deep malaise. We talked about this in our first podcast a couple of weeks ago. And that is at the heart of this issue, but I think that there is this obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being central to the wider problems of the Middle East.
I will argue that even assuming somehow we can miraculously solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and we have this quote-unquote two-state solution before us, the problems of Syria, Egypt and Iraq and the rest of that region are not going to go away. But nonetheless because it’s a historic continuing unfinished business, there is this tendency to sort of organically link it to the other problems, and if you look at every administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration and even now the Trump administration, there’s always this effort, this new effort to say let’s get the Israelis and the Palestinians to start talking in a serious way. But at the end, we haven’t seen any breakthrough, because the fundamentals have not changed, they’ve actually become worse. You have two Palestines, effectively there are two Palestinian Territories, not just geographically separated, they are ideologically separated, they are politically separated. Right now, the Israelis don’t occupy Gaza, that is a Palestinian sort of self-ruled territory spinning on its own axis controlled by Hamas. That will continue, I don’t think the Israelis are going to go in anytime soon or in the foreseeable future and reoccupy Gaza. So what can happen in the form of some negotiation is that there may be another Palestinian territory that emerges as a semi-quasi-sovereign in the West Bank. You will effectively have two Palestines. Does that solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? I would argue no, it just makes it much, much more complex.
JS: And I think just the way I always talk about the Middle East when people ask me about it is my favorite metaphor to describe it basically as a chess board, that really for over a century now the Middle East has been a chess board for major powers outside the region to try and make moves against each other. And for the most part since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, it’s been mostly pawns on the chess board with mostly people moving back less valuable pieces as they challenge each other. And I think the most important thing to think about going forward when we think about the next 50 years and where we are going to be 50 years from now is to watch the powers in the Middle East itself that are beginning to come up. I think really that means keeping a very close eye on Turkey, keeping a very close eye on Iran, keeping a very close eye on Saudi Arabia and whether and how it’s able to tackle many of the issues facing it. I know that here at GPF, we’re fairly bearish on Saudi Arabia’s ability to do that, they are just facing too much. And then Israel, as it always has been, you know smaller country in a very messy neighborhood trying to figure out its right place in it all and trying to build the right level of strategic relationships that allow it to exist with a maximum amount of independence. All right, thanks Kamran. Thank you for joining me. Thank you everybody for listening. If you want to send us questions or comments, you can comment on our website or on SoundCloud. You can also send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, I am Jacob Shapiro, I’m the Director of Analysis for GPF and this is Kamran Bokhari, and we will see you next time.