Media Podcasts

On the Issues Episode 18: Emre Celik

My guest today is Emre Celik, President of the Rumi Forum. His work focuses on intercultural dialogue issues related to pluralism, social harmony, and peace building. Celik is originally from Australia, where he was involved in numerous interfaith and education projects in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. He has a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in teaching.

Below is a full transcript for this episode (lightly edited for clarity).

ABM: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Emre Celik, president of the Rumi Forum. His work focuses on intercultural dialogue issues related to pluralism, social harmony, and peace building. Celik is originally from Australia, where he was involved in numerous interfaith and education projects in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. He has a degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in teaching. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode. And thank you so much Emre for being here, especially now in D.C.

EC: Thank you, yes, thank you to be here. Nice, cool day.

ABM: Yeah. Yesterday was a summer day.

EC: Yes. In less than twelve hours we went from warm to very, very cool.

ABM: Yeah. You know we just had a meeting, you were there.

EC: Yes.

ABM: Talking about Turkey. David Phillips made a presentation about Erdogan and Erdogan’s attention. What do you make out of this, Erdogan’s effort now to basically legally become a dictator by changing, amending the constitution and pushing Turkey ever so steadily toward Islamization?

EC: Yes, we’ve been on that rocky road for depending on where you take as a reference point for the last few years, particularly since the corruption probe, the increased persecution of people affiliated with the Gülen movement, and then thereafter the coup. We have 130,000 people that have been suspended, and that’s just in bureaucracy, not including private enterprise. 90,000 people detained, 46,000 people imprisoned. And many of them are without a court date or access to their files. They don’t know why, other than the fact they’re somehow affiliated on this–

ABM: Now, in which way.

EC: And, this paints a broader picture of course where Erdogan unfortunately is taking Turkey. So he’s going to have legal precedents to be a formalized dictator, unfortunately.

ABM: Yeah. But you know, we’re talking—you mentioned earlier the Fetullah Gülen movement.

EC: Yes.

ABM: And knowing that the two, Gülen himself and Erdogan, were very close friends at one point.

EC: No, I would argue that they weren’t friends. I think there was a convergence–

ABM: Of interest.

EC: Around, yeah, around values. I think even though obviously many movement participants and Gülen himself can now look back and say this was a mistake to trust Erdogan and those affiliated with him, but many people–did you know many people in the EU, in the Obama administration, around the world, looked to Turkey as a model. It was known as a Turkish model because of these values. So just as–

ABM: Are you talking about the values?

EC: Yeah, the values of EU accession – constitutional reform, judicial reform – these are the issues that were on the table. It is around these issues that movement participants, particularly those in the movement-affiliated newspapers, and Gülen himself, said positive things. But similarly many people, many democrats around the world said the same thing. So the minute the AKP and really Erdogan took a u-turn, this is when there was a falling out between the movement’s media and the AKP, but specifically Erdogan.

ABM: But you see, when I have been looking at it, I didn’t see a specific point of departure in terms of the AK Party, pretty much. And the Gülen movement has supported by and large the same principles.

EC: Up until they veered away.

ABM: Yeah, up to a point.

EC: I think the movement held on to those principles. And as a result of those principles, we see that they’re being persecuted today.

ABM: OK. Why the rupture?

EC: They’ve taken the higher moral ground, and this is particularly important because we have a lot of other Muslim-inspired movements in Turkey that aren’t suffering. Why? Because they have bent over backwards to accept and accommodate Erdogan. Gülen, based on principle, didn’t succumb to Erdogan’s anti-democratic stance. The movement, institutions in particular, the public voice of the movement through its media vis-a-vis Zaman, which was Turkey’s number one newspaper, was the only newspaper selling that had a circulation of more than one million. Just three days ago it was its first anniversary, March 9, when Zaman went down in 2016.

ABM: Yeah, but the point is when Erdogan was pursuing aggressively political and social reforms, and certainly he focused a great deal on the economy. And he has managed to build a very powerful constituencies, specifically those who benefited from his economic development. So.

EC: But you’ve got other groups, you’ve got secular liberals, Kurds, many of them supported Erdogan.

ABM: This is true. So–

EC: So you have a broad base of support. So we can’t single out the Hizmet movement or Gülen as–

ABM: But why is it that he was against the Hizmet movement? What is it, what are the principal objections? Where did the cleavage come from? Where did the discord come from?

EC: I think the historical difference is the difference between how they view Islam in the public sphere and how Gülen views Islam. I think Gülen’s understanding, and I think the message that’s been brought home quite well in the Western media, is that there is a struggle between democracy and autocracy. The subplot I suggest was missed out to some degree in that the struggle really in Turkey is civil Islam versus political Islam. This is the ideological difference and the worldview by which Erdogan sees a top-down approach where the state has a role in religion, and Gülen sees it as a personal issue that religion remains in the personal and civic space. And for that reason, it was convenient both for the movement and the AKP as well as other actors–be them liberal, Kurdish, or otherwise–coming around to these values that the AKP initially sought to uphold. Again, judicial reform, giving rights to various minorities and communities, including Kurds.

ABM: But there’s no discord on this issue between the two sides. And the Gülen movement was also focused a great deal on building hundreds, thousands of schools, promoting Islam. So he was not exactly focusing solely on secular teaching, but he also promoted– I was myself several times in many of these schools in Ankara, in Istanbul, and elsewhere. So he pushed Islamic education in a very aggressive manner.

EC: No, the schools do not promote Islam. The schools in all the countries in which they exist, and remember, the movement is active in more than 160 countries. The schools follow the state curriculum. The state curriculum, this is important.

ABM: But there was emphasis on Islam as a subject, a great deal of emphasis.

EC: In Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey is a secular state, it has a subject known as Religion and Culture. Religion and Culture, I wanted to get the name right.

ABM: Okay.

EC: So this is a state sanctioned subject. For example, I’m from Australia. The schools don’t have a religious subject, because it’s not part of the state curriculum.

ABM: Exactly. Now Erdogan is–

EC: So if the school, and remember, these subjects existed pre-Erdogan. These subjects have existed under the Kemalist state. So some would argue that they instilled both. Remember that Turkey, despite the fact that it’s a secular state, has a Religious Affairs Directorate. Some people argue, and this existence was founded under the Kemalist state. They argue that this was formed so that religion could be controlled. And for similar reasons, that the state curriculum has a religious subject so that it can be used as a means to control religion both in the classroom and in the wider community through mosques. Remember, to be an imam or a preacher, and this includes Gülen, you’re a state bureaucrat. You can’t be an independent imam in Turkey. You’d have to be licensed with the Religious Affairs Directorate. So this is an issue that’s existed in the AKP period, but it’s also existed pre-AKP.

ABM: But when you–

EC: So the fact is that the movement-affiliated schools are similar to state schools. They teach religion and culture because it’s sanctioned by the state.

ABM: OK. But when I visit these schools–

EC: What Erdogan has done, he’s increased these types of subjects, he’s brought in—


EC: Quranic classes, other classes, and is enforcing these with people of non-religious background, people of non-Turkish background, people of non-Muslim background. This is something that we should all argue against, that people shouldn’t be forced to learn or have religion if you will rammed down their throats. So this is problematic. And this is what Erdogan’s introduced.

ABM: I understand. Let me just focus one second on the question of teaching religion in classrooms. From what I see, what Erdogan has been doing today, in the last five, six, seven years, eight years, he’s been forcing, introducing in high school and in the universities more and more courses teaching Islam.

EC: Yes.

ABM: This is very pervasive now throughout Turkey. The Gülen movement has also been promoting building these schools. And there was some emphasis, greater emphasis on Islamic studies in these schools than other subjects. I’m not suggesting other subjects–

EC: I don’t know of anything like that. I’ve been to these schools, I even did an internship in my early years when I visited Turkey, I taught English in those schools. Whatever the state requirement was, that was. These schools are well known for two things: science and technology. The students of these schools have brought home gold, silver, and bronze medallions in the various science Olympiads. These include international Olympiads. Chemistry, physics, maths, and information technology.

AMB: I know.

EC: So they produce the best students, which is why this movement has successful students that have ended up in successful universities, be it in Turkey, here in the United States, or elsewhere. So the emphasis of the schools in many of those 160 countries is science and technology, not religion. The only place, and I need to emphasize this, the only place that religion is ever taught is if it’s state sanctioned. Turkey’s one example I know of. I think Egypt’s another. I know of Indonesia as well.

ABM: OK, well let’s just focus on these schools in Turkey.

EC: Yes.

ABM: In Egypt, in Indonesia, where the Gülen movement have built many of these schools. And based on what I see, there was an emphasis on religious studies. I’m not suggesting other subjects were excluded, certainly science and technology was very strong.

EC: Well, I need the counterargument. I’ve visited these schools, I’ve worked in these schools, ok.

ABM: And they were also—

EC: I’m a participant of this movement. I’ve been involved for 25 years. I know Gülen at one level, personally. He has never encouraged this. He encourages at the personal level, you can read his books.

ABM: But what was then, what was—

EC: You can listen to his sermons and his preaching. But there is no avenue for religious studies to be taught in these schools, other than what is sanctioned by the state. So that’s important. What is emphasized, and this is my counterargument to what you’re saying, that religious studies or Islamic Studies is emphasized, no. I would argue, and that’s what I’ve seen. And this is what the competitions that the schools have won internationally – they emphasize science, physics, chemistry, maths, and IT. So I would be interested in your sources that suggest this.

ABM: Well, I’ve seen myself for example, I went to these schools – first of all it’s predominantly boys, OK. I have not seen a single girl student in these schools. And I asked the principals, the teachers, why? Well, they gave me all kinds of explanations, we don’t put it—

EC: But there are single sex schools. I’ve been to Jewish and Catholic schools that are single sex in Australia, so.

ABM: No, no, but as far as the Gülen movement schools are concerned.

EC: And there are mixed schools as well, which is what I spoke about today.

ABM: Well I haven’t seen it, but the vast majority of these schools were for boys by and large. Not all of them, but there were a vast majority. That’s what I know. And I also know from the teachers themselves, they were telling me– I want to get to the point, my point here is that when they were telling me yes, religious studies, whether consistent with the requirement of the state, I grant you that, but go back to the requirement of the state. Remember, from the time the Turkish Republic was created in 1923, there were several prime ministers who attempted an Islamic coup, basically trying to introduce Islamic studies and make Turkey more and more leaning toward conservative Islam. I mean, this is not the first time. So what I’m saying is—

EC: Which coup are you talking about?

ABM: Well there were at least two or three, two coups we had. Was it Arbadan? What was his first name? And the one who–

EC: There was no, it’s that all the coups up–

ABM: Well, there were two coups at least where the military intervened precisely because they were shifting or emphasizing.

EC: They were shifting in the Baltics, yes.

ABM: They were shifting into Islamic studies.

EC: But there was a soft coup of ’98, against Erbakan.

ABM: Erbakan, yes.

EC: But all the others were at the hands of Kemalist soldiers divided between the left and the right.

ABM: Yeah, but the religious component was very strong in these two coups. One of the prime ministers [Adnan Menderes], I’m sure you know, was actually executed subsequently because of that, because if he was very strong in introducing Islam. My point here is that Islam as such, in Turkey yes, Kemal Ataturk wanted a separation of powers so to speak. He wanted to create a secular state, a more westernized state. That is the case. But throughout this, almost 90 years now, throughout this process there was always a consistent effort by various governments to promote Islam, and in a consistent way. And I did not see a single government, going back 30, 40, 50 years, that did not want to have anything to do with Islam. Basically, they wanted to present the so-called Islamic democracy. That’s what Erdogan’s flag was – we have an Islamic democracy – when in fact he was moving very steadily and very consistently to make the country ever more Islamist. We know this to be the fact. Now my point is this: the Gülen movement, the religion Islam is not strange to the Gülen movement. They were also emphasizing the importance of religion. OK I’ll take your point.

EC: He’s a preacher, so I think we need to look at it not necessarily within institutions but in his private capacity as a preacher. So the institutions we need to separate from Gülen’s role as a preacher. He’s a preacher. He preaches Islam.

ABM: But this is exactly my point.

EC: So this is significant, so he preaches Islam. That’s his role. You believe this is an important part.

ABM: But there was no, yeah.

EC: Learning civil Islam from the pulpit, which is what he encouraged through the 70s and 80s.

ABM: And, ok.

EC: And, to this day in his public discussions on social media and what have you.

ABM: This is exactly the point. He does that, he preaches that.

EC: Yes.

ABM: And for him.

EC: But we need to separate him–

ABM: Well, but the separation.

EC: From the institutions. That’s significant. That’s significant.

ABM: Well you call it significant.

EC: Because these institutions exist in many countries that are predominantly Muslim, to predominantly Buddhist, to predominantly Hindu, to predominantly Christian. So these schools exist in these countries and do not emphasize religious studies or even within that, Islamic studies. So you may have one example or you may have some examples in the Muslim world, but you can’t point to examples and say that this is generalization that the movement is involved in. You can’t.

ABM: But you cannot suggest also that Islamic studies were not part and parcel of the curriculum.

EC: Only because, and I’ve mentioned this before, only because it’s part of the state curriculum.

ABM: And there also–

EC: So, whether it was a Hizmet movement-affiliated school or anybody else, including Kemalists, had to learn religious studies as sanctioned by the state.

ABM: And the fact.

EC: So I think that’s significant.

ABM: No, I think, I understand it.

EC: That’s important, that people listening to this need to realize that the movement is not about spreading Islam or spreading some type of ideology around religion. It is about serving communities, encouraging science and technology, and allowing communities, particularly those in the third world and poorer countries, to be empowered through knowledge to be successful.

ABM: But you can.

EC: To come back, and to serve the community.

ABM: But you would say then if this was the case.

EC: Yes.

ABM: Why would Erdogan object to all of this? This is exactly the point, that is, if there was no strong Islamic component.

EC: And this is the difference between civil Islam and political Islam, is that civil Islam exists in the civic space and in the personal spaces.

ABM: This is true.

EC: And there’s a lovely article I would refer you to read by Dr. [unclear], that differentiates the understanding of Islam in the modern era, civil versus political.

ABM: Now I grant you that, whereas Erdogan is moving more and more to a political Islam, no question, and there is perhaps less so.

EC: And this explains why the movement has been successful in 160 countries, except we can exclude Turkey now. And that’s got nothing to do with the movement itself. It’s to do with the persecution of the autocratic tendencies of Erdogan.

ABM: But in which way then are the schools that belong to the Gülen movement different than ordinary schools elsewhere, anywhere in the world? What was different, why, if—

EC: Emphasis on science and technology, number one. Number two, mentoring programs that incorporated not only the students, but the families and the wider community, and as a spinoff of that, encouraging service. So these are three of the main values: science and technology education; mentoring programs that incorporated the wider community, so not just students and families but everyone; and then the importance of civic and social activism, getting students involved. I’ll give you one example. We visited a school, I went back home to visit my family in December 2016 a few months ago, and I visited the school, I have friends there. I was a teacher at one of the schools in Sydney, which is where I’m from. And they had a garden, a large garden, maybe four, five times the size of this room. And students from K to 12, Kindergarten, played a role. A) It was a mechanism to learn about gardening, about biology and ecology, about the environment, that we realize where food and fruits come from. And they would raise the fruits and the vegetables out of this garden. They would fund it themselves, the produce they would produce, they would sell at a farmers market because they farmed this organically. And the funds that they made would help continue to run the farm, and the profits they would send to an orphanage in Africa. So all the students, big or small, contributed to the running of this vegetable garden. They make money from it. The profits went to an orphanage in Africa. So there’s many lessons. There’s science lessons, there’s social responsibility lessons, and there’s civic and social service to others that need it, helping that. So this is just one example.

ABM: No, I understand that of this, and I understand that they are involved in a very direct, effective way in all of these subjects and some, there’s no question. That does not still explain the fact that the Gülen movement and Erdogan finally split. What was the basis for that split? This is simply personal? It’s not, it can’t be personal.

EC: No, I think it’s principles around the fact that A) Gülen, and B) Hizmet movement institutions—

ABM: In which way these–

EC: Took a principled stance. One of the first signs was the fact that Erdogan came down hard on university prep schools. There were 4,000 of them. These help kids in government or private schools through extracurricular tuition at evenings and on weekends to help them get into university. Of the 4,000, it is alleged about 1,000, a quarter of them, were affiliated with the movement. He got rid of all of them, and many commentators in Turkey said–

ABM: The question is, why? What happened there? Why would he want to get rid–?

EC: I think this was a long term plan because—

ABM: What is the purpose?

EC: –by virtue of the fact that the movement has a strong conservative base. That’s, Gülen—

ABM: But in which way? The point is–

EC: Gülen historically never liked people using religion for the benefit of politics, he quoted often a very important Kurdish scholar.

ABM: But this is exactly what he’s doing now.

EC: Said, [unclear] he said, and this is an important statement. If you don’t mind, let me quote him. He said when religion and politics mix they both lose, but religion loses even more so.

ABM: But you don’t buy into that argument. I mean, this is–

EC: Gülen was very concerned with people using politics as Erbakan previous to Erdogan, and as Erdogan started to increase such rhetoric, using religion for political means.

ABM: But this is exactly what he was preaching against before. This what he was initially saying, we need to separate between politics and Islam.

EC: Yes.

ABM: But now he is actually pushing political Islam. For Erdogan today, it’s the method, it’s the philosophy by which he is governing today.

EC: Yes.

ABM: So. I want to go back. What was then the reason for the departure, for the conflict, between the two sides. From a theoretical perspective, the Gülen movement was pushing, all the subjects that you’ve been talking about. You know, science, chemistry, and technology and all of that, and doing social work which is very important. These subjects—

EC: I get Erdogan feeds the fact that Gülen’s principle stands against historical, stands against political Islam, and where Erdogan was taking Turkey, using these methods of politicizing Islam and Islamicizing politics. Sooner or later he felt that the strong base that Gülen had around him would reject Erdogan. So he saw this as an opportunity—

ABM: But why would he—

EC: –to quiet them down, quiet down Gülen and the public voice of the movement, the media institutions–and remember, after the corruption probe I just mentioned a few moments ago, the one number one newspaper that was being critical of Erdogan, Zaman newspaper–

ABM: Zaman, yeah, I know that.

EC: Was brought down. So that– and of course, the corruption probe became a great excuse to come down after. He used this as he gave this the title of civilian coup against the government. He suggested that this was backed by Western powers and that local agents who he inferred was the movement, was behind the corruption probe, move ahead —

ABM: This is, we understand that. I want to go back to the school, because this is an important point. That is, you would assume that Erdogan would not object to any curriculum that deals with sciences, technology, computer science, and all of that. If that was the emphasis of the Gülen schools, there should be absolutely no resistance to that on the part of– Now, there was another component. What is the other component to which Erdogan objected to?

EC: But these schools didn’t encourage the Islamization of knowledge or of politics, and therefore many of the students coming out were sympathetic to this understanding of Islam. Civil Islam, as opposed to using Islam for politics, when this was encouraged in religious schools or other schools that were affiliated or close to Erdogan—

ABM: This is where–

EC: And the various religious movements that were close to Erdogan.

ABM: So let us establish then, because we want to clarify this for people who will listen to this conversation. Now we are dividing civil Islam versus political Islam. Whereas the Gülen movement pursues civil Islam and for the good, all the reasons you just have mentioned. Erdogan basically is using political Islam to further his own political ambitions. And this is more than transparent in the last seven, eight, nine years. The point is this: there’s nothing in the Gülen school system that is inconsistent still with what Erdogan himself– And you are saying that he is afraid, that this teaching civil Islam in these schools is going—

EC: Represented through the participants in the movement, as teachers that are role models, because remember.

ABM: But why would that be contrary to Erdogan’s interest? Why would he—civil Islam and political Islam are not mutually–

EC: Because he never gained Gülen’s endorsement. And Gülen has always been critical of actors that use religion for political gain.

ABM: OK, so now we are getting to a point, so we are reducing it also to a personal conflict, not only ideological. I don’t think because civil—

EC: No, I think these are the values by which we understand Islam in the modern era.

ABM: No, true. But civil Islam, let me just repeat, civil Islam and political Islam are not mutually exclusive. They are not one against the other. Well, I’m not suggesting political Islam is the right route to take, the right path to take, but civil Islam is a positive approach to religion, to a way of life. But how do you in fact take countries where they use Islam as the political foundation of the state? Today, Turkey is not alone. I mean, this is what Erdogan is trying to do. Look at various Arab countries. Political Islam is what governed Saudi Arabia, political Islam is what governed many other states, in the Gulf and others. But in the same token, they’re also introduced to the school curriculum, other subjects. So what they’ve been able to do is basically find a formula where political Islam and civil Islam are not necessarily separated because they see that one could actually complement the other. Well, that is not the case in Turkey itself. That is, Erdogan saw a threat. So, he realized it’s a threat. But the Gülen movement is threatening what he wants to do, what he wants to achieve. So really, what I’m trying to establish with you is, because for me it is more than just the school system. It is not just pursuing political versus civil Islam, it was also an element of personal conflict between the two. It is not because necessarily ideologically they have a disagreement with one another from a political perspective. So what was beyond that? Why was there this competition between the two sides? Why? Why, to a point where now Erdogan is persecuting anyone that belongs to the Hizmet movement?

EC: That of course goes beyond the corruption probe in regards to– I think the movement became the go-to scapegoat. You know, he created, fermented enough hate and fear of the movement of Gülen, and used the pretext of the failed coup of July 2016 to complete. And remember, within hours of the demise of that failed coup, lists were ready, and many commentators in the west–

ABM: Yeah. But, but.

EC: Suggest at least, these lists were ready in advance, and that he used it to–

ABM: This is true, but the conflict.

EC: Start a new wave of purges against the movement.

ABM: But the conflict was started way before the last coup, between the two sides. I mean, we’re going back–

EC: I mean we can go back, we can go to Mavi Marmara for example, where Gülen made statements in the Wall Street Journal in regards to the incident. He suggested that the participants in the blockade, so these public statements of course– And remember, the individuals involved were closely aligned to the then-prime minister. He said, we gave them permission to sail off, and words to that effect. So Gülen’s stance both in terms of, he made two important statements there, that a) the incident was ugly and b) that they should have sought permission with the authorities. So this was not taken lightly by Erdogan and those close to him. So I think that there is a historical context, but I still think it comes to the fact that historically Gülen’s non-Islamist stance was always a threat to those that wanted to curb Turkey in that direction. And that’s what we’re seeing. We’re seeing the Islamization of politics, and I know we’ve gone over this, and the politicization of Islam, and this is something at the core of what Gülen believes. And the fact that the movement has been successful is the fact that relates to the tradition that Islam is not ingrained in the institutions, whereas Erdogan wants to ingrain these in these types of institutions.

ABM: No, I understand that. But let’s just go back. If this kind of understanding exists, it does not actually justify the major conflict between the two sides today. So when we talk about criticism, you criticize Erdogan about the Marmara event, you criticize Erdogan for various policies that he’s taken that have no relationship to religion; just it’s a political disagreement on specific issues. But I put all of this together, and I still don’t understand myself where this – other than you are suggesting that merely Erdogan was most concerned about how successful the Gülen movement was, and he did not want to allow it to continue to flourish because that is going to undermine his policy and his politics. But where is this going to? Where is this going to lead to? Now, yes. Now he’s in power, he’s persecuting those Turks who presumably belong to the Hizmet movement, to the Gülen movement. But what’s happening now?What is taking place now? Where is this going to go?

EC: Well you know, the movement of course is under a lot of stress in Turkey. The numbers of people as you know that have been purged, all the institutions have been closed down or expropriated. The movement’s become a [unclear] movement. It exists outside of Turkey. Those that are affiliated with the movement and have opportunities to leave have left. Many people are seeking asylum, and this includes others as well that are not affiliated. Turkey has gone down a dark path, and it appears to be getting even darker if Erdogan is granted super presidency. So that’s a difficult call. My biggest concern is beyond Erdogan; the levels of polarity that exist will take possibly decades. I’ve spoken to children of Holocaust survivors. They say that hate continues beyond the leader, because it’s been entrenched through government-backed institutions. And remember, there is no independent media, everything is in the hands of Erdogan. The media of Turkey has become a propaganda machine for Erdogan. So all the polarization against Kurds, against Alawites, and in particular against sympathizers or participants of the Hizmet movement, those that are close to Gülen, are seen as demons. And that has been pumped day in, day out. I quote Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. He said, if you lie to the people often enough, they’ll believe you. And this is what’s been happening for the last three years.

ABM: Oh, more than that. I mean, it’s more than that, of course.

EC: Yes. And in particular, in regards to the persecution of the movement, and the purges that began slowly but were ramped up as a result of the attempted coup, which in fact of course is anti-democratic. Gülen spoke against the coup. He even said if there was anyone affiliated with me, they’ve gone against all the values that I stand for and the movement stands for. We still don’t know, is it eight months on, we still don’t know who’s perpetrating this.

ABM: Do you have a hunch yourself? Do you believe in any conspiracy kind of theory of sort?

EC: I think that’s something that’s plausible, you know, Kemalist soldiers planned this and it was allowed to enact. Erdogan co-opted some of those soldiers, allowed for a small group that knew it was a coup, allowed it to take place in a controlled environment. And soldiers that didn’t know it was a coup thought it was either a terrorist attack, or a war game. And many lower-ranking soldiers that took part were interviewed, saying we were told that was either a terrorist attack, some people reported it as that, or a war game. But we don’t have enough. So they’re not allowing evidence to come out. So no one can really make informed decisions, other than, based on some of the evidence. And remember, David again, you just had a conversation with from Columbia University, suggested the same, that it was a controlled coup that Erdogan took advantage of. And that’s significant.

ABM: It it’s entirely possible, it’s possible. But a military coup in Turkey is not a new phenomenon. It happened before, and nobody suggested then that the military coups were contrived, two, three times before.

EC: But this was done so badly.

ABM: Well this was done–

EC: So badly. Again, I’m quoting David here, and I’ve forgotten his surname, just so people know, who was the Columbia University professor?

ABM: Yeah, David Phillips.

EC: David Phillips.

ABM: Yeah.

EC: He said it was controlled and it was it was meant to fail.

ABM: Well, we don’t know.

EC: Of course, and we may never know. And I agree with that, we may never know. This is a plausible scenario.

ABM: Yeah. The fact that–

EC: It’s more plausible than what Erdogan tells us.

ABM: Maybe, but what will support that is the fact that he had this ready-made list of nearly a hundred thousand people that they were able to round up the following two or three days. That suggests that it was something planned, and he may very well have some part in it.

EC: Yeah, he took advantage of it.

ABM: As part of it.

EC: Even if he wasn’t involved at all, he took advantage of it. As he said, it’s a gift from God. Quote-unquote, it’s a gift from God.

ABM: Now I want to just take it from here. The Gülen movement today is on the defensive. The Gülen movement today is on the defensive.

EC: Yes.

ABM: I just was invited to a meeting in New York City, was it three, four days ago? A group of Gulenists, actually we met. And they wanted to hear what people like myself and others can suggest, how to sustain, how to strengthen the Hizmet movement, because they feel that they are under attack.

EC: Yes.

ABM: Outside Turkey. Now if they feel attacked outside Turkey, what is happening now? Do you expect, do you anticipate that the Gülen movement at any point in time can come back and restore some of its philosophy, civil, within Turkey itself?

EC: I think that’s a long project. I would like to think so. But not under the current circumstances.

ABM: Do you consider yourself belonging to the Gülen movement?

EC: Of course, I’ve been a participant for 25 years.

ABM: Well that’s great. Now I know why you’re defending it so.

EC: Because I’m a participant of the movement. I’ve given up my creative involvement in these types of activities, I feel very privileged to be. I would assume you knew that.

ABM: No, I knew that, I just wanted to know what’s your take, because anyone who speaks the way you talk about the Gülen movement, you surely belong to the movement or are part of the movement. But being that you are, what do you suggest? What kind of path would you like to chart for the future? Are you going to stay on the defensive? Now, I don’t know how much longer Erdogan will last. Where do you see the future for the movement?

EC: I think continue to be active in the civil space while taking up the responsibility of assisting those that are in trouble.

ABM: Where?

EC: In each of the respective countries that the movement’s active in. So for me it’s Washington D.C. For others it’s New York, others the U.K., Spain, Australia, elsewhere.

ABM: So why—

EC: Remember, Turkey’s the major issue here. But the movement’s active in 160 other countries. So you know, steady as she goes and continue to serve.

ABM: And are you suggesting that with or without support from Turkey itself, or without, if the movement died in Turkey itself, it has resonance to exist elsewhere?

EC: Yes, the movement isn’t about just serving the Turkish people. It’s about serving all people. There are problems everywhere.

ABM: So, what is the difference between this movement and many scores of other groups and organizations, political, that do the same thing?

EC: That Gülen’s able to frame this within an Islamic understanding, theologically, and say that this is how Muslims around the world and those that are friends of these values – so that includes people of other faiths, and people of no faith – to come together to serve. But the motivation for many Muslims that are observant Muslims, Gülen frames this within a theological understanding. But he also frames it around, for those that aren’t Muslim or those that are secular, he frames it around a social responsibility aspect as well. So there’s two dimensions, that those that are observant have responsibility to the creator and creation, and those that are not observant have responsibilities to their communities, irrespective. And that’s significant.

ABM: It is, fine. But I want to go back and we’re going to conclude with this, right, more or less. Go back to where we started. And that is, the Islamic component of the Gülen movement is very important, that you cannot–

EC: For those that are observant Muslims. There are people that consider themselves part of the movement that aren’t Muslim. Is there anything wrong with that? No.

ABM: Where do you find these people?

EC: We have advisers, for example here in Washington D.C. You go to our website, look at the different ways. We’ve people that are rabbis and pastors that support our activities, that donate their money, that donate their time.

ABM: Support. But do they belong to the movement?

EC: Well, supporting the movement, participating in activities.

ABM: I mean, I can support many organizations. But I don’t belong to the organization.

EC: Well I think there’s a there’s a fine line. I never belonged to the organization, but I was part of the movement as a volunteer while I worked as an engineer, previous to my position.

ABM: I’m not being critical of what the movement is doing.

EC: No, I’m not suggesting you are.

ABM: And to me, what I’m saying. Do you feel that the movement has a future? And to what extent this actually can take place if there is no future for the movement in Turkey itself?

EC: I, I—

ABM: What will happen say after Fethullah Gülen dies, what would happen after that?

EC: I think it’s giving a creative opportunity for the movement participants to look at new avenues to grow within countries where they weren’t as strong as a result. And remember, a lot of people have been pushed out of Turkey. So this gives them the catalyst to be more active with the new people, to look for new opportunities, and to–

ABM: And are you suggesting it will last if Gülen is no longer there, if he’s no longer alive?

EC: I mean, I think that’s one possibility.

ABM: But, how do you see the future without him? Do you feel that his presence, his importance as such, the leader of the moment spiritually, practically, politically, and otherwise?

EC: Well not practically, he doesn’t control the activities in 160 countries, but the values he espouses.

ABM: Do you feel, suppose he departed the scene tomorrow. Do you have some–

EC: Well, he will eventually have to.

ABM: Well, who’s going to assume the helm of the movement and continue with the [unclear]?

EC: We don’t have him at the helm of the movement per se anyway. The institutions run independent of him. He doesn’t know what’s happening in Fiji or New Zealand or Nepal.

ABM: This is true.

EC: Or Norway. Of course there’ll be maybe a morale loss for a certain period. But I think he’s inculcated in the participants our dynamism and opportu–

ABM: But do you really feel that this can continue?

EC: Motivation to look for opportunities, and to find people that need the services that are necessary.

ABM: Without leadership?

EC: There’s local leadership everywhere. I’m at the head of the Rumi Forum, I have a team, I work with them, I don’t consult Gülen. I’ve been here eight years.

ABM: I mean historically speaking.

EC: He doesn’t know what the Rumi Forum does.

ABM: Well he doesn’t have to know the details. But historically speaking.

EC: Yes.

ABM: Any movement, any government, you’re going to have some leader–a leader to be emulated, a leader to be followed. If you do not have Gülen today, alive, and you don’t have somebody who can actually take his place and become the leader, are you suggesting that it can exist by simply perpetuating and promoting what each chapter is doing in various countries?

EC: I think that’s a big question. I don’t know. The movement can continue. There may be a demise, I mean that that’s a possibility. We don’t know. It’s a matter of crossing that bridge when we get to it.

ABM: But why wait?

EC: The circumstances.

ABM: But why wait? If this is–

EC: But we don’t know the circumstances that the movement will be in.

ABM: I mean.

EC: We don’t know the circumstances the world will be in, we don’t know the circumstances of Turkey, which has been a strong hub for the movement.

ABM: But this is all more so because of that. I would think that he himself would think in those terms. Well I am 70, 80, I don’t know how old he is at this point. About 80 years old?

EC: Coming to 80 years.

ABM: 80 years old. He knows there’s a time where he’s not going to be around. Shouldn’t you think that he himself would think in terms of how should we perpetuate, how we should continue to promote this idea?

EC: I think he’s laid out the plan by virtue of the values, by encouraging people to be involved, to be selfless and sacrificial, etc. These are in his books, in his preachings, and he has 80 books to his name. So whether he continues–

ABM: Do you really believe that any movement can survive unless you have significant leadership at the helm?

EC: I mean, we’ll find out. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the movement will grow or–

ABM: But my question to you, why do you want to wait to find out? I mean, we know you’re going to need some kind of leadership. If I were Gülen myself, Fethullah Gülen myself, I would say I’m 80 years old. I’m 85 years old, and I have to think in terms, if I want this movement to continue to grow, to be stronger, I’m going to have to find somebody who’s going to lead it. But I don’t see that’s happening.

EC: But the concept here is that you’re suggesting that he actually leads the movement. No, he doesn’t.

ABM: Well who does?

EC: He doesn’t. The movement in 160 countries is independent of one another. It’s a loose network of organizations that generally adhere to the principles that he’s espoused for 40 years. He doesn’t come in and tell me what I do at the Rumi Forum, or what other people do.

ABM: Of course not, I know that. But he–

EC: And beyond his life, we’ll see. I think it’s a matter of seeing when we get to that juncture, because the conditions of the world that will be the conditions of the individuals, and the status of the individuals.

ABM: My feeling is that if you leave this, since you don’t know what you’re going to be, obviously then you don’t know what’s going to be the future of the movement. So you cannot say I don’t know what’s going to happen in Turkey, I don’t know.

EC: Just as the coup was unpredictable and its effect on the movement, I think it’s unpredictable. I would hope that it continues to grow in strength, to look for new opportunities, to serve people in various areas.

ABM: The reason I’m raising this question is because if the movement basically is being decimated in Turkey itself and the head of the movement, Fethullah Gülen himself, departs the scene, passes away, then the future of the movement in my view will be in serious jeopardy. You do not have any longer the base where the movement was created in the first place, and you don’t have the leadership. And that is eventually where people like Erdogan will win the day. That’s how I see it. I see the movement needs to reconsider its position today. Where do we want to be 10, 15, 20 years down the line? Yes, a lot of things can change around the world, in Turkey itself, elsewhere. But we should have a vision.

When I talked to this group just last week, I asked them this very question. The whole movement, the Hizmet, Fethullah Gülen is the heart, the center, the soul, and the spirit of the movement today still. That’s why they look up to him. And I’m suggesting to him, you are under tremendous stress. They’re looking for ways and means by which to help perpetuate the movement in New York. And I raise this question. How do you see the future? Where is it going? And there’s no answer. There’s no answer. They’re saying, it depends. Do you really think a movement can continue, because it depends on what else is developing, unless you have some kind of strategy that can consider all kinds of developments.

EC: I think the virtue of the fact that there’s maybe more important issues at hand today than to be thinking about what’s going to happen with the demise or the passing away of Gülen. We have a new class of refugees, the movement has moved into a position of assisting these people that are trying to get out. The world’s a different place to what it was 3, 4 years ago. And I’m not just talking about Turkey, or autocratic tendencies here or in Europe. So these are new issues that have been brought on the table.

ABM: But it’s no longer–

EC: Not only for the movement but for all people, for all communities, for all civil society actors.

ABM: But it is no longer exclusive to the movement. That’s the whole point.

EC: So yes.

ABM: It’s no longer exclusive to the movement. Which means, this movement will become just like any other movement that deals with this humanitarian issues.

EC: I mean, that’s a possibility, I tell you. I’m not arguing against the fact that you know.

ABM: I mean, that’s what I really wanted to.

EC: You know, I’m not arguing against the fact that I think it’s unpredictable. I can’t guarantee the movement will exist in 15, 20 years. I don’t know.

ABM: That’s my point. My point is those who believe in it, those who want to have it, to see it last, in my view are not taking the kind of steps necessary to promote it. Because if you now agree with me that the movement is what it’s doing in terms of humanitarian aid–be that refugees, teaching, schooling, work, all of that–it is no longer exclusive to the Gülen movement. And that’s when a movement disappears, when it is not longer, if you don’t have the spiritual leader for it, and you don’t have a specific philosophy that is different than the other philosophies in terms of human needs, human dimension. Then the Gülen movement as such will not be able to survive. That’s how I see it.

EC: Watch this space. Let’s live and learn.

ABM: Okay. Thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time.

EC: You’re most welcome. It was a pleasure.

ABM: The pleasure is mine. I hope you don’t mind, we sort of– I wanted to argue with you.

EC: Not at all, I was testing you and you did okay. I’m willing to do this again.

ABM: Anytime, anytime. I’ll be better prepared next time.

EC: I hope. I hope so. I see potential, I see potential.

On the Issues Episode 17: Sahar Khamis

My guest today is Dr. Sahar Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago.

She is the co-author of the books: Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and Egyptian Revolution 2.0: Political Blogging, Civic Engagement and Citizen Journalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Additionally, she authored and co-authored numerous book chapters, journal articles and conference papers, regionally and internationally, in both English and Arabic. She is the recipient of a number of prestigious academic and professional awards, as well as a member of the editorial boards of several journals in the field of communication, in general, and the field of Arab and Muslim media, in particular.

Dr. Khamis is a media commentator and analyst, a public speaker, a human rights commissioner in the Human Rights Commission in Montgomery County, Maryland, and a radio host, who presents a monthly radio show on “U.S. Arab Radio” (the first Arab-American radio station broadcasting in the U.S. and Canada).

A full transcript is below (lightly edited for clarity)

Alon Ben-Meir: I’m Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Sahar Mohammed Khamis, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Dr. Khamis is an expert on Arab and Muslim media and the former head of the Mass Communications and Information Sciences Department at Qatar University. She’s a former Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting professor at the University of Chicago. You can find her full bio on the page for this episode. So thank you so much, Sahar, for taking the time to sit with me.

Sahar Khamis: Thank you, Alon.

ABM: And I really appreciate it.

SMK: Thank you so much for the opportunity, Alon.

ABM: It’s my pleasure, believe me. Anyway, so I’ve been doing this, talking to important people, scholars like yourself, in order to explore various conflicts, conditions, situations, especially in the Middle East. And one of the things that I have been engaging and working on, and I wrote scores of articles on, is the Arab spring. And there’s a lot of misunderstanding I think about what the Arab Spring was all about. Where does it stand today? Has it evaporated, has it become a cruel winter, or is it still reverberating someplace, and that the Arab world will, no matter what happens, one form or another every Arab country will experience some form of quote-unquote Arab Spring because the Arab youth, have risen. They are now awakened, and they are no longer willing to accept what used to be a generation or two ago. They want something more, they want something different. They want hope, they want opportunities, they want jobs. And this will be I think something that we would like to share with our listeners, especially coming from you, having been experiencing that first hand. And we can take it from there. Maybe perhaps we can start with what happened in Egypt, being that you are from Egypt, and what you see that went right, or went wrong as far as the revolution in Egypt is concerned.

SMK: Let me start first with the Arab Spring itself, and then we can zoom in more closely on the Egyptian case in particular. But when I start to talk about the Arab Spring in my Arab media course at the University of Maryland, I tell my students, which term do you prefer? Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, Arab Uprisings. And we start to talk about these different terms, and what the rhetorical meaning of these terms really is. Because when you say for example awakening, as much as it’s a beautiful word, I just say wait a minute, I don’t want you to get the false impression that the three hundred fifty million plus Arabs were asleep, and then all of a sudden in 2011 they just woke up, because that is not a correct depiction or accurate depiction of the situation.

ABM: You’re right. The awakening, however, as I see it, is awakening to new realities. They have been living their life, they’ve been aware of what’s going on, but they have awakened to a new reality. They want more. They’ve been exposed specifically because of the technological revolution which you are very familiar with, is communication.

SMK: Yes.

ABM: They now have the means by which to see how other societies live.

SMK: Absolutely.

ABM: And hence, in that sense I call it awakening, having come to realize that there is something else better there and we deserve to have the same experience.

SMK: Right. But what I’m trying to get at here, it’s not like it has been a complete, total lack of political will and participation and desire for change. Because there have been attempts well before the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring. Arab youth, Arab people have been sometimes going out to the street, and protesting, and talking and trying to change realities on the ground. It’s just that you can get 100, 200, 300 people out there in front of one of the syndicates, or out there in the street, and it would be easy for the police forces to simply round them up and arrest them and put them in jail. What happened in 2011 that was different was what I call the catalyzing effect of social media and new media, providing a platform for self-expression and for expressing the will of the people, and also acting as catalysts that speed up the process of mobilization on the street and acting as amplifiers that can make the voices of protest louder, and providing some kind of link or bridge between what is happening online and what is happening offline, between the virtual world and between the real world. So I always say that this kind of missing link was the reason for what we had before, which is called the safety valve paradox. The safety valve paradox means the governments will leave a small room for expression of opposition voices or voices of dissent or rebellion or disagreement, as a way for people to vent some of their anger. And therefore, just like the safety valve in the pots that you cook the food in, it is just the way to prevent this pot from reaching the point where it actually explodes. So that’s what they call the safety valve paradox.

So in 2011 there’s no more safety valve. Now you have the full explosion of the pot, or we can use a different analogy, we can say the genie came out of the bottle or the genie came out of the jar, and now it’s very hard for any government to try to put the genie back again, which is why really answering your question about whether the Arab Spring has evaporated or whether it has gone away is difficult. I say listen, we don’t want to go to either extreme, the extreme of painting a very rosy, euphoric picture like the one many people, including myself to be very honest. Back in 2011, six years ago, we were so euphoric, so optimistic, it’s awesome, the genie is out of the bottle, that’s it. Six years later, we have to revisit what went wrong. What were some of the gaps? What were some of the things we did not maybe pay attention to, or give sufficient attention to? But we should not also go to the other undesirable extreme of being totally pessimistic and painting a very dark picture as if it’s all doom and gloom, and everything went wrong, and there’s no hope. We want to be in the middle ground of cautionary optimism. You want to be optimistic, but you want to be cautious. You want to assess.

ABM: Let me interject here something. It is not a question of what we want. It is a question of reading it correctly. That is, we have aspirations. We would like to see that the Egyptian revolution succeeds. We would like to see, but the reality is this. What we are searching for, what actually happened is not what we want to project. We want to project optimism, we want to project pessimism, that is a personal viewpoint. In my thinking, my writing, I try to think in terms of what actually happened – regardless of my wishes, regardless of what I want to see happen. And this is really what motivates me to research and learn and study what actually happened. Yes, I would have liked to see the Egyptian revolution succeed and there would be full-fledged democracy in Egypt. But that’s not going to happen. Not now, and it’s not going to happen any time in the near future the way I see it. Not the way the United States wanted to introduce that political system or the same thing you might say in Iraq or Syria, but we’ll come to that point. But what you are saying, we do not want to paint the picture one way or the other. It is nearly in my view not up to us how we paint the picture. Let’s try to read it the way in fact it evolved.

SMK: You mean the perception of it, because I’ve attended talks and lectures where people are very optimistic, or people really, really paint a very dark picture. But it’s like, wait, just give me a moment here, because we cannot underestimate the amount of bravery and courage and heroism that was exhibited during these days of revolution, including in groups that were traditionally marginalized and left out of the public sphere, including women for example.

ABM: Exactly.

SMK: Just the fact that in a country like Yemen, which is one of the most traditional, conservative countries in the Middle East, you see women flooding the streets day in, day out. Not for days, not for weeks, but for months.

ABM: Yes.

SMK: So much so that the president at that time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, takes the microphone and he tries to play on the tribal, conservative nature of society and says, what are these women doing out there in the street? Shame on them, they have no business being there in the street and rubbing shoulders with men and protesting. This is a big shame. They should stay home. He’s trying to play on the social traditional view, cultural view of women and women’s place.

What did the women do in this conservative, traditional society? They flooded every inch of the country, not just the capital Sana’a, and they raised banners, saying it’s not shame on us to ask for our rights. It is shame on you to deny us our rights and to deny us democracy and freedom. So you’re seeing here something very big. Regardless of some of the things that went wrong, and we’ll talk about that, why there have been deviations from the right path, or the journey has not been as smooth as hoped for. But we cannot at the same time undermine the value of this kind of heroism and this kind of exceptional courage that was demonstrated by youth and by women and by many segments of society. That’s why I’m saying we need to have this middle ground.

ABM: No, I agree with you, this is very important, because once they were able to exhibit that courage and that tenacity to go out to the street and demand change, that has created a precedent which it happened once, it can happen again and again and again. Which means as I see it, how the Arab Spring is evolving – notwithstanding the major setbacks that already took place – the fact that the youth now are imbued, and understand I have power. I have power and I can use this power, regardless of the oppression I’m going through, regardless of the political conditions I’m going through. But we have power. And as long as we can work together, galvanize our resources and our forces, we can achieve a change.

SMK: And also remember, Alon, something very important. More than 70 percent of the Arab region are young people under the age of 30 or 35, and that percentage increases in some of the states – for example the Gulf states, including Yemen. Ninety percent are young people, so this is a very young, vibrant population. And we talk about youth in particular, they are the momentum, they’re the impetus of society. They’re technologically savvy, they’re agents of change, you want to see change. I always ask this question – do you know what is the number one country in the world that has the highest number of tweeters, people who use Twitter? When I ask this question in class, people say, the United States, Sweden, Germany, France. No, the surprise is, it’s Saudi Arabia. And my students go like, what? Yes, I know you’re surprised, but it’s really Saudi Arabia. So when you think about that, even in this conservative, traditional society you have young people, a very big percentage of the population are young people, and they’re technologically savvy, and they have the highest number of tweeters in the world. What does that tell us? Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years from now, I personally think that there’s a momentum for change and there is a momentum for a dynamic evolving in the region.

ABM: There’s no doubt. So what happened now? When I survey what happened since 2011, obviously a number of things went wrong. And my feeling is that one major element, or one major entity that has contributed to some extent to the failure of the Arab Spring in various countries is the West itself, the United States in particular. What the United States attempted to do is that, thinking that the youth are rising now because they want freedom, they want jobs, they want opportunities, and all of that. But I think the order in which they felt they can tackle that is first by using a political system that is really not consistent with the needs of the hour.

SMK: This is something very important, because when for example the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was this notion of, we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq. So I tell my students, this is an analogy that’s related to cooking in the kitchen, but I think it’s very valid here. You cannot buy a ready-made democracy off the shelf. You must cook your own homemade recipe for democracy. Why? Because I cannot go for example now to Osaka in Japan and say, oh look at that. The University of Osaka has a magnificent system of education. I’m going to take it and apply it in Alexandria, Egypt. Well guess what, it’s going to fail.

ABM: It won’t work.

SMK: It won’t work because the system itself, the different cultural, educational, political, social components are different. So if you do not take into account the very specific context of each country and each nation, each region historically, culturally, politically, socially, you are doomed to fail.

ABM: No, it is no question, and you’re absolutely right to suggest that even if you apply this method, you cannot apply the same thing to two different countries, because each country has a different culture—

SMK: Even within the same region.

ABM: Even within the same region. So that’s what compounded the United States’ mistake, by thinking we go we can introduce a democratic form of government when in fact any kind of democracy has to be consistent with the culture, and in this case, religion of the people involved, without which this is going to be a completely alien political system to which they cannot easily adjust and in fact reject for that matter.

SMK: I cannot agree more. And you know at the very beginning of the revolution in Egypt in 2011, there was an interview with some of the youth who were the impetus, the blood of the revolution, and the anchorman or anchorwoman at that time asked them, what do you expect from the United States? And one of the activists, his name is [unclear], he’s one of the bloggers I wrote about in my second book Egyptian Revolution 2.0. He said, we are not wanting the United States to send us any weapons or to send us any money. We just want one thing only. Please don’t support authoritarian or dictatorial regimes period. That’s all. We don’t want you to support Mubarak, we want you to stop supporting him. And that’s all we want. We don’t want weapons or money or supplies or any kind of resources of any kind. And that’s the whole thing.

I mean, people in the West, they really ask the question with goodwill and good heart like, how can we help? People in other parts of the world ask, how can we help in order to advance the cause of democracy? I say, just don’t try to back dictatorial regimes, and try to tell the governments not to back dictatorial regimes. But beyond that point, it has to be up to every country and up to the people of each country to decide which way they want to go and how they want to chart their own future. We cannot just give them a ready package and say, this is the ready package, go and apply it, you’re going to become the USA, or you’re going to become France, you’re going to become Britain. That’s not going to work. It has to be a home-made and home-cooked recipe of democracy.

ABM: This is absolutely true. And this is a very important component. That is, you can provide a democratic form of government consistent with the local culture and religion for that matter, but that in and of itself is still not enough. Look what happened with the elections in Egypt itself. There was you might say free and fair elections. Who was elected? The Muslim Brotherhood came to power. And the Egyptian people woke up in the morning and said, now we are free. And now where is the food? Where is the future? Where are the jobs, where are the opportunities? Which means when the West gets involved, not only were they mistaken by simply introducing democratic form of government more consistent with our system in the West, but it was also lacking a very critical component. And that is, freedom cannot exist unless it is sustained by other elements, and the other elements are other pillars to democracy. One of the most important pillars is economic development. What the United States has been doing is giving money to the Egyptian government to the tune of two billion dollars a year. Much of it is going to the military. Hardly any of it goes actually to the people themselves, in terms of using it for development projects so that the people will benefit. In my view, and I think you agree with me, to be able to empower the people, they have to give them an opportunity to do something, to be able to produce something on their own, to feel they are productive. So giving them freedom without giving them the means by which they can improve their life, it just won’t work.

SMK: I mean, even giving them the freedom, I would beg to disagree with the statement. The phrasing only of it. We agree in principle, but the phrasing of it, even giving the freedom, you cannot give freedom, the people have to earn it.

ABM: No, of course, no, I don’t mean giving, you cannot give freedom to anyone.

SMK: People have to earn it themselves.

ABM: They earn freedom, but let us say you have this political system that allows you to go and vote or be elected, and now you feel free in a sense. Politically free, but you are not free if you don’t have food. You’re not free if you don’t have health care. You’re not free if you don’t send to your kids to school. That’s what I’m talking about. And that has been missing and continues to be missing.

SMK: Two important things here, Alon. Number one, there is a chicken and egg question. In other words, when you say we need to fill the power vacuum with real civic engagement and civic society participation, for example having strong opposition and private institutions and NGOs, and real voices that represent the people. For that to happen, you need to have a degree of democracy and freedom. And for a degree of democracy and freedom that’s really healthy to exist, you need to have civic society institutions which are active and vibrant. So which one comes first? It’s the chicken and egg question.

ABM: Well the truth of the matter is, you cannot have one or the other. And to have an effective civil society and to have an effective political system, be that any kind of form of democracy, however adapted it is to the local scene, you’re still going to need the means by which to sustain it. And I keep emphasizing the importance of this when I talk to officials here, namely saying this. Democracy is a wonderful idea, and let us say it is adopted. But the people need more than just that. So you cannot develop the, for example, one of the pillars of democracy is having democratic institutions. Well, where are these democratic institutions? As a matter of fact, Egypt more than any other country has many institutions as such. You can call them democratic or not, but institutions do exist. But when the poverty is so rampant in Egypt, even those institutions that can actually function in a free and fair manner, they are unable to function.

SMK: It’s not only about poverty. You compound layers of issues that can impede the process of democratic transition, or can make it less smooth and less efficient and less effective. If you talk about the very high illiteracy rate – which I always tell my students is a big shame because the word paper as you may know comes from the word papyrus. So the whole notion of writing actually started in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago. That’s where the concept of writing started, with Hieroglyphics. So for us to have more than 40 percent illiteracy rate, I consider this a big shame. So we have a high illiteracy rate, which of course translates into less political participation, especially among certain segments of society. If you’re talking about rural populations or people in remote areas or women, the percentage is going to go even higher than that. And then at the same time you have economic challenges, you have infrastructure challenges. And there may be institutions in place, but how far are they really representative of let’s say the will of the people? You can have a political party that says I am an opposition party. That’s fine. But do you really have a popular base of support? Do you really have members, do you really have a voice? Do you really have a say in the political process? That’s a different story, and that’s why I want to make a very important point which is, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But it’s very hard to figure what to do next.

ABM: Oh, absolutely.

SMK: And that’s I think one of the main things that went wrong in the Arab Spring, is that people thought once Mubarak is out, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or Gadhafi is out, then things are going to automatically change for the better, and suddenly we’re going to have democracy. It doesn’t work this way, because once the dictator is out of office, then what do you do next? If you don’t have a clear strategic plan in place, if you don’t have a vision, if you don’t have the tools to implement this vision into action, then you’re going to have a power vacuum. Once you have a power vacuum, who’s going to jump on it? It has to be a group that already has some kind of organizational tools and techniques and some kind of support, basically. And in the case of Egypt for example, there are two parties here, or two players, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Why are these the two players? Because they are the ones who have structure, and they’re the ones who have organization. The visionaries, the young people who are really the blood of the revolution, the people who had the vision and the goodwill, they had the dreams for change. But they did not have a clear, strategic plan. When you talk to these young people, they say ‘we made mistakes. And one of our biggest mistakes was we did not really have a clear strategic plan or vision about what to do next.’ In fact, some of them were even offered places like, do you want to be part of the government or serve as a minister? No, no, no, we don’t want to be in that capacity, we just want to be observing what’s happening, or maybe in the opposition seat, or maybe correct the new government. And now they feel like they made a mistake, because they left a power vacuum that then became filled by the Brotherhood and then later on by the military.

ABM: But this is an important point to make. And what happened here, by introducing quickly a democratic form of government for example in Egypt, without giving time for other secular parties to develop, to have their own agenda, to be able to share it with the public, you didn’t have— When I talk about institution, I’m not talking about political parties because they didn’t exist really, de facto did not exist in Egypt. You had so-called parties, but the one who was organized, was really the only real organized one other than the military, is the Muslim Brotherhood. It was very clear to us, if there is going to be an election, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win. And why are they going to win? Because they were able over the years to provide help and means to the poor that didn’t have hardly anything. That’s why I go back to, if we are looking now for the future as I see it, if the United States or the European community wants to support any kind of Arab country, that is going to go through with a poor country, that needs to go through political development. You’ve got to be able, when you’re talking about illiteracy in Egypt. Well how do you change that picture? How do you make sure that more kids can go to school? You’re going to need funding. You’re going to need money. What the United States is doing and the European community has been doing is providing some financial assistance without demanding, where are you going to spend the money. Without making sure that the money is spent in areas that are going to help the people. And that is something that has been missing and will continue to be missing as long as we continue with a policy that is not addressing the needs of the people themselves. We say, now you can go to elections like I said before, but that did not work. Now, what lesson do we learn from that? That’s what we, you and I, want to look forward to the future. What will the future tell for us?

SMK: I mean, there are numerous lessons, many lessons. Number one I think is the idea of filling this power vacuum that we have been talking about. And let me just make a quick comment or quick remark about the Brotherhood, because the very paradoxical, very ironic point is that there have been decades of suppression of the Brotherhood; they were not allowed to play, and are not allowed to join, and they’re banned. They’ve always been called quote-unquote the banned group. And despite all of this banning and suppression and oppression, they still were able, like you said, to build a popular base of support because of two reasons you mentioned. One of them is the economic factor, which is, I’m going to provide subsidized services to the poor, and medical services, and subsidized—

ABM: And schooling sometimes—

SMK: Schooling items and all of the stuff, schooling and education. And if you are in an economically challenged country, then definitely providing these services at the subsidized rate is going to raise your popularity. And also Egyptians by nature, and many people in the Middle East, are by nature religious. We tend to be more religious people, whether we are Jews, Christians, or Muslims. We do have religion as part of our psyche and part of our identity. So I think these reasons together made that hard for any government to crack down on them, and I think that even when you crack down on them, that is not a good thing because they’re then prone to go underground.

ABM: Exactly.

SMK: And once these groups go underground that’s very dangerous, because that’s when you can breed the seeds of radicalization and extremism. As long as people are in the open and conversing and talking, right, sit with Sahar and hear me, and I hear you. You understand where I’m coming from. But if everything is kept in the dark and people don’t understand what this person thinks or what this group thinks, that’s when it’s really dangerous, because they’re going to be prone to go underground, and that will breed more radicalization and more extremism. So that’s an important point, one lesson for the future.

ABM: There’s no question. I think it’s a mistake to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not just a small organization that you can outlaw. They represent massive numbers, in Egypt specifically and elsewhere. But in Egypt, probably 30, 40 percent of the population believes in the movement, in the Muslim Brotherhood. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a very significant community in Egypt. To try to marginalize them or label them as a terrorist organization, that’s the worst mistake I think that the current government in Egypt has made. And this is one lesson—

SMK: This is one lesson.

ABM: One lesson that other Arab countries need to learn.

SMK: Yes. Please don’t suppress these religious movements because this is prone to really plant the seeds of radicalization and the seeds of extremism. That’s one important piece. The second important lesson I think is giving more visibility and more power to the groups that we have seen becoming in positions of leadership in the Arab Spring, specifically youth. Young people, as we said, it’s a very young and very vibrant population in the Arab world. These young people need a healthy space in order to breathe and to express their thoughts and ideas, because we don’t want them to be recruited by the wrong people. We don’t want them to fall in the hands of some skewed evil groups that are preaching terrorism or fanaticism. And for that to happen, you need to give them a healthy space for self-expression and for building their own identities and building their own future. And equally I would say about women as well, that definitely we can invest in women and women’s leadership, which is another very important lesson coming out of the Arab Spring movement. A third lesson is, as we said earlier, it’s easy to oust dictators from office. But then what do you do next? And this question of what do you do next is a very, very important question, because as they say, if you don’t plan, then you are planning to fail. Right? If you don’t have a plan–

ABM: Oh, there’s no doubt.

SMK: If you don’t have a plan in place, then you are planning to fail because it means that you can have non-revolutionary forces filling the vacuum – whether it is military groups, or whether it is sectarian tribal factions fighting each other, or whether it is some orthodox religious parties that may not be necessarily be always invested in the democratic process. In every case, you’re not having this vacuum filled by the right group. And by the right group, I mean those who really had the vision for change but did not have the means, or the strategy to do it. So now is the time for them to reflect and say OK, wait a minute. What went wrong, and how can we put together an action plan and a strategy that can really hold well in the future, and carry a swell, moving forward. Another lesson of course is communication—

ABM: But before you go into the next one, the point here is that theoretically what you’re saying is absolutely important and necessary. Now, how do you translate that into reality? That is, you can have a vision of what you want. You can also have a plan of action: this is what we want to do. How do you go about implementing that when you still have a political system that is not allowing you to make your plans or to have a new objective? And so this is why in my view, it is another failure as a result of the first failure. The first failure is introducing a system that was not adaptable as quickly as we would have liked, because that didn’t happen. And the second one was the fact that there was no follow-up. Who is going to follow through? And that’s what the youth today face in most of the Arab countries. What do we do tomorrow, given the reality on the ground? Now every Arab country is different—the Gulf States versus the Syrians versus Egypt versus the state. The countries in North Africa, each of them are different and each of them are trying to deal with— They are not trying to deal, but basically those who did not experience yet the so-called Arab Spring are doing everything they can to suppress it, that is, not to allow the people to rise again. For example, the Saudis and the Gulf state are giving them money to keep them quiet. Other countries, there’s suppression – you have to behave yourself or else. It’s still in North Africa, Morocco, and elsewhere. This is how it is. So the problem here—for the youth to have a vision for the future, it is not enough to have a plan. It is not to have to have a vision. What is it going to take?

SMK: Again, the chicken and egg question.

ABM: What is it going to take in order to be able to implement that kind of vision?

SMK: The chicken and egg question we’re talking about earlier in terms of what comes first, right? Democracy and then followed by civic engagement, or civic engagement followed by democracy. That is not an easy question to resolve. I think it’s a very paradoxical, very important issue.

ABM: But there’s a third element, however. Let’s say you are able to get these two together and work together. My feeling is that as long as there’s no equitable distribution—when I say equitable distribution of resources, I don’t mean everybody should make the same amount of money. What I am saying is, there is poverty, there is abject poverty. Egypt is one of them. I used to go to Egypt very often, and what I saw in some areas, it was appalling, and people are living—basically you can see kids, thousands of them playing in the mud, no place to go, no schooling, nothing like that. And so what I’m saying is that even with a vision, even with a perfect plan, you’re going to need the resources.

SMK: Of course, they have to go hand in hand, you cannot be either.

ABM: And the resources are not coming. I mean, Egypt today needs tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars to begin to develop some kind of economic system that is going to alleviate the poverty and everything that emanates from that, be that education, health care, and all of that.

SMK: Undoubtedly.

ABM: And so the question here is this: in the Gulf states, what these governments have been doing to stay in power, they’ve been actually giving money, trying to prevent the people from rising, because if I can make a living and I can live in a decent way, well I don’t have any reason to complain. But you cannot say the same thing in Egypt.

SMK: Of course, that’s why we say that every country, even when we talk about the Arab region, we cannot just put everybody in the same basket, we cannot think of a one size fits all transition to democratization or reform, because every country will have its own unique set of political, historical, and social issues.

ABM: Exactly, exactly. And the question is, how do you go about that? And when we spoke on the phone, I think we both agreed. I feel that the Arab Spring remains in its infancy. I mean to say that this is not the end of the youth uprising, or let’s call it awakening, regardless. It may well be almost at the beginning stages. Every single Arab country is going to be affected by it. And the only way they can avoid that is by making, exactly what you said. Look at the mistakes, what happened before. What is it that people really want? What do the youth actually want? Do we have the means, and whatever means we have, how should we use these means in order to be able A), not to repeat the same mistakes—

SMK: Mistakes, yes.

ABM: And to begin to correct what needs to be corrected in terms of providing the basic necessities – that young men and women need to have an opportunity, to have hope, to have a future which they cannot see. And when they cannot see that, they rise. They become radicals. And this is what we are experiencing today.

SMK: Right. And of course, just a few more lessons that I just want to quickly highlight is also I always tell my students that as much as social media is very important to give an impetus, to give the first initiate, inertia or momentum for these movements, they were not enough to keep the ball rolling. To keep the ball rolling you need all the stuff you just mentioned now about infrastructure, economic, political, social factors. All of these factors together have to be taken into account. Otherwise you could not keep the ball rolling. You can start the initial momentum, but to keep it rolling you need all of these other things in place. So I always say, great, social media is wonderful in terms of mobilization and networking and giving the initial inertia. But beyond that, they are not magical tools, and they’re not going to bring about change and transformation all by themselves. They can only compliment and supplement the process of social and political transformation, if you have all of the other criteria and all the other requirements in place.

Another thing I also want to highlight is, we have always had a very narrow, elitist focus and urban focus, like we talk about, oh Arab Spring, Tahrir Square. I always tell my students, there were also many people in Alexandria, in Tanta, in Upper Egypt, in places outside of Tripoli, outside of Damascus, outside of all of these capitals. We should not be blinded about all of these populations who are in rural areas, in remote areas, less privileged maybe but still very important, and we should pay attention to them in our own scholarship and writing and academia, and give them more attention because it’s not all about the urban areas. It’s not all about the capital, it’s not all about the two or three percent of the elites in these societies only. We need to widen our focus and widen our perspective. Another lesson also for the future is, pay attention to the activists in the diaspora. This is very important because we have so many activists and protesters who are not able to express their views inside their own countries. They are afraid of intimidation or repression by the regime. Many of these, where do they go? They exercise their activism in the diaspora. That includes women’s groups as well.

ABM: Oh, absolutely.

SMK: So we need to hear the voices of these people and to respect them and respect their experiences, and also learn from their own insight and learn from their own perspectives. I call these voices in the diaspora, and I think we need to really listen very carefully to these voices from the diaspora and learn from their own experiences and their own lessons.

ABM: So when you say ‘we,’ I want to define we, who is we? And this is really the problem we have. Obviously you’re referring to who, civil society?

SMK: I had academics in mind, I was saying we to be honest with you, what I was thinking was academics and scholars who are writing about these issues.

ABM: But that’s not going to be enough. You also need people who are able to read it. When you talk about illiteracy 30, 40, 50 percent, you can write all you want but that’s not going to go anywhere. So the we is important. That is, the current, various Arab governments in the Arab states, are they in a position? Have they come to that? Have they been awakened? That is the main question to me. Have they been awakened to the fact that they can control the population up to a point, another five years, another 10 years, and 15 years? But somewhere, sometime, it is going to explode.

SMK: Absolutely.

ABM: It is going to explode.

SMK: Absolutely, yes, the safety valve is not going to hold for a very long time, and the pot will explode.

ABM: Exactly. So the question is, what are the means, what are the methods, what is it that they need to do today in order to prevent it, regardless of the political system that exists in any of these countries. You have kings and emirs in some, you have dictators in another. You have semi-elected governments like in Tunisia. You have all kinds of mixtures of all types of political systems, but all of them share one thing in common. The young men and women are not happy. They are despairing. They want an outlet. They want a future. And each country is going to have to— When you say we, what is it that the ‘we’ need to do? Are they able to do it? Will they be wanting to do it?

And let me just say one thing about this, because when you look at these kings, like specifically countries in North Africa—Morocco is one, and others. From our experience, what they really want to do is continue to suppress the people, because the moment you give them more freedom—that’s how they think—then they’re going to want more. As the old saying goes, you give them a finger, they want to grab your hands. Take Syria for example. I know Bashar Assad, I met him. I knew, I used to Walid Moallem, he was a good friend of mine going back many, many years. And I know from him when Bashar came to power, he said, ‘I want to undertake some reforms. I don’t want to follow exactly what my father used to do.’ And he was open to reform, and when he was talking to the Ba’ath party and others, they were telling him no, no, no, no, if you do that, if you give them a finger, they’re going to grab your hand. You cannot absolutely do that. And so he basically followed what his father passed on to him. If the people rise against you, you have to chop them. You have to suppress them, you have to get whatever it takes. You cannot allow any uprising against you, or else you’re going to lose power. So what is happening is, even when you have reformers in any of these governments, the environment has not been created as yet.

SMK: We come back again to the chicken and egg question, because you need the environment in order to induce change, and to induce change you need to have a helpful environment.

ABM: Ok.

SMK: So we keep coming back—I think if we had a solution for this issue Alon, we would probably be billionaires by now.

ABM: No, but the point is, we cannot settle for the fact that there’s a vicious cycle here. One is linked to the other and if we solve one, you cannot solve the other. Which means in such kinds of conflict, we still have to come up with a solution. What is the solution? And one of these, I go back to in my view, economic development is central to begin a process that is going to allow for any political development to take place.

SMK: I agree with you. I think it’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think it’s important, , very important, but I think—you know what I think really, Alon, it is not the question that we can solve in this interview or any other interview for that matter. I think that these visionaries, the young people who had the vision, the young people who had this desire for change, to sit together and revisit again the exact same questions we are talking about in this interview. Right? What went wrong and what could be done about it? What are the lessons to be learned for the future, and how can we do things differently? And I think that in my own opinion I agree with you that there’s going to be a lot of room for these young people and these young voices to try to revisit their quote-unquote leadership. Because whenever people say the Arab Spring was a leaderless revolution I say wait a minute, I have an issue with this term. I think that it was semi-leaderless and I think there was some form of leadership, but it was not a top-down imposed leadership by a handful of people telling people what to do. It was rather a very diffused, grassroots, bottom-up approach which has its pros and cons. The pros of course are, these are young people, they have the vision, they have a desire for change. It is more participatory. That’s awesome. The bad side now as we’re learning six years later is that we have this challenge of the power vacuum that we’ve been talking about before. We have the infantile civil society that’s not developed sufficiently. We have the vacuum that needs to be filled. And as we said before, not having enough strategic vision, strategic planning among these young people, meant they had the goodwill, they had the dreams, they had the vision, but they did not have the tools or the means to implement an alternative reality.

ABM: Ok. That’s the point. They don’t have the tools, and they don’t have the means.

SMK: Yes.

ABM: They could have the vision, they could have the [unclear], have the [unclear]. But the question here is, how do you implement it.

SMK: They have to figure this out. I don’t think it’s up to me or you or anybody else. They have to figure it out.

ABM: It’s not we that have to figure it out. To figure out such a plan of action, I or you or anyone from the outside – you are not an outsider – can go and say to them, do A, B, C and D. First of all, this is going to have to come from them.

SMK: Exactly.

ABM: But coming from them in and of itself, they cannot do it on their own because they need all kinds of resources. That is, unless there is a collaboration in my view between the government, between the various institutions and the public, to realize that this is leading to a dead end at best, or to another bloodshed. Which means, as long as the current government does not come to this realization and decide, let’s work with the youth. The whole phenomenon of radicalization today, whether you call it Islamic radicalization or otherwise, it stems from the same source, from the same roots. The total despairing and unhappy youth throughout the Arab world, and I tell the European community who are suffering from radical Islam so to speak from their perspective. And I say to them, you can have all the mechanisms to combat radicalization, but you are not dealing with the root causes. And the root causes are not necessarily in Europe. Of course there is lack of integration in Europe, this is a different story.

SMK: It’s not in Islam either. It’s in the lack of the proper atmosphere of development and civil society participation. And economic resources—

ABM: In the Arab countries.

SMK: Absolutely. I mean–

ABM: And this is where the West needs to be helpful.

SMK: This is where we all need to really pay attention. We all need to pay attention. When I say we here, I mean academics, scholars, writers, thinkers, intellectuals, and also hopefully officials and people in power. Unless they realize these blind spots and really start to pay attention to these areas, I don’t think there’s going to be much hope in terms of a real, positive change. There has to be attention paid to all of these blind spots, and the new vision of trying to visit all of these important areas we talked about. But at the end of the day, let’s go back again to a very important point. It has to be a home-made recipe of change, that the young people themselves have to figure out for themselves. Which way do you want to go, and how are you going to go about implementing it? Nobody can just give them a ready-made recipe and say, go ahead, buy it off the shelf. This is what you need to do, it’s not going to work.

ABM: No, this does not work. But again I’m emphasizing the point that if they have the vision, they have the planning, they have all of that, that in and of itself will not be enough unless there is a collaborative effort—

SMK: Absolutely.

ABM: —by the government itself, and it serves the government’s interest to do just that.

SMK: Here’s a very important footnote. If the government itself, or governments, come to a realization that this is exactly what they need to do, then of course it would be ideal. But as long as they see it as a tug of war, as me or you, it’s me or you, it’s not us, it’s not we.

ABM: Exactly, exactly.

SMK: It’s not like we’re working together to achieve a goal. It’s a zero-sum game. Who is going to win? Me or you, let’s wrestle together. So unless they change this kind of mindset, if they change the mindset and they start to see exactly what you’re saying, that we need to provide the economic development and employment and all of these opportunities and a platform for expression so that we can fight or combat any form of radicalization or extremism, and also avoid the explosion that can go in many different directions, including God forbid full blown civil wars, as we saw in the tragic example of Syria, the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times, period. So to avoid this from happening, you need to have a change of mind. Now, whether the governments are going to come to this kind of realization, that is left to be seen, but I definitely certainly pray and hope that this will be the case. Because I don’t want to see a bloodbath. I don’t want to see civil wars. I don’t want to see innocent people being killed. I don’t want to see refugees, I don’t want to see rape. I don’t want to see wars. We don’t want these kinds of ugly things that are assailing us everywhere.

ABM: Yeah, this brings us back where we started, and I think we can finish with that. And that is where the Arab Spring is, and what lessons can be learned from the Arab Spring. This is exactly what you just said. The Arab Spring if anything, it teaches these governments that they need to wake up themselves and look at the population, look at the youth, which constitutes 70, 80 percent under the age of 25, and say to themselves, it’s only a question of time. What have we learned from the Arab Spring? How can we avoid another revulsion, another revolution, another bloodbath? And the only way to do it is to begin that kind of dialogue, and begin a process where the young men and women throughout the Arab world become part of this system, part of the process, in order to change the social dynamic.

SMK: There is no question about it. That means dialogue, dialogue, dialogue I think is the way to go. And I think unless more parties are open to this idea, open their eyes and hearts and minds to this idea of the importance of engaging in this kind of dialogue, we could not see much positive change. I very much hope and pray that there’s going to be more acceptance of this notion of openness and transparency, engaging in dialogue, in development, in true participation across the board. That would be the best way moving forward.

ABM: Exactly. Unfortunately, it may not come entirely from within. I mean it’s still those countries who depend to a great, some extent on the west. The West too ought to be nudging, or be pushing these leaders, tell them if you want to avoid a repeat of civil war in Syria, you want to avoid a repeat of what happened in Egypt and elsewhere, you’d better start to do something about it. But it all has to come from within, and has to be home-owned, home-grown.

SMK: Yes. Let me just make one last comment Alon, is the term Islamic radicalization. This term has been used a lot in the media. President Barack Obama refused to use the term Islamic radicalization, and the Pope actually said something very powerful. He said, don’t use the term Islamic radicalization, because if you do, then talk to me about Christian radicalization or Catholic—

ABM: Oh no, no, if I said that I didn’t mean it that way.

SMK: I know that you don’t buy into that, I know, but a lot of people, when they hear the term, just for your listeners, a lot of people when they hear the term, they automatically associate Islam as a religion with the idea of radicalization or extremism. So I always like to take the opportunity just to clarify this point, because radicalization or extremism is a mindset; it’s a frame of mind.

ABM: And it’s absolutely not limited to Muslims.

SMK: Or to any religion. If somebody says the Jewish extremist, I say wait a minute, Judaism is not about extremism. If some group of Jews happen to take the religion to a fanatical or extremist level, religion itself cannot be blamed.

ABM: Exactly.

SMK: We cannot say that’s Jewish extremism or Christian extremism or Islamic extremism, because that would mean that it’s the religion itself which is at fault. And it’s not.

ABM: No, no, absolutely. And talking about the three monotheistic religions, all of them preach peace, preach amity, preach friendship.

SMK: That can be a topic for another podcast.

ABM: And so there’s no question, there are those hypocrites within all communities who use religion as a tool by which to subjugate, by which to—

>SMK: Exactly. A tool to reach power and a tool to implement their own narratives.

ABM: ISIS is one example. Al-Qaeda’s another example.

SMK: We can think of many examples.

ABM: But I want to leave it on a positive note, I hope. And that is, when I see young men and women yearning for better days, and I feel strongly that the day will come, as long as they remain committed to what they’re feeling, and exactly what you just suggested before, they need to know their place and they need to know that they have rights.

SMK: Exactly.

ABM: And they need to know how to pursue and realize these rights. And the governments who are wise – any government in the Arab world that is wise enough to realize that they cannot sustain the current status quo, they must wake up also and begin this kind of process.

SMK: It seems to me that there are lessons for everybody to learn, right? There are lessons for the governments to learn, that they should learn exactly what you just said now, that suppression and repression does not cause stability, does not lead to stability. Because many of these regimes—

ABM: In fact the opposite.

SMK: Exactly. Many of the regimes say it’s either me or it’s anarchy, right, as Mubarak said for a long time. If I go, it’s going to become anarchy, it’s going to become chaos. They need to revisit this notion, that repression and suppression never leads to stability. It just leads to putting some kind of pressure on society. People are going to go underground. You’re going to become radicalized, and society itself is going to suffer big time, and all of a sudden you can have an explosion and you don’t even know which direction it is going to take you to. It’s going to become a disaster. So that’s a lesson for the government.

The lesson for young people is, it’s not enough to have the vision. You also have to have the tools and the means to implement this vision and take it to the right direction. So you must have strategic planning, and you must have coordination of different resources and coalition building to be able to implement your good vision and put it into good actions. And the lesson for intellectuals and academics and scholars is, we have to revisit many of these blind spots that we have been talking about today in terms of people in the diaspora, in terms of marginalized groups, in terms of the activism of youth and women, in terms of understanding the potential of all of these growing dynamic populations in this evolving region, in terms of revisiting what you just mentioned about the social and economic development and how it ties into all of these issues. These are also lessons for us as intellectuals, academics, and scholars, to re-think all of these notions. The cyber activists, they have to re-think about their tools and their means, right? Avoid things like clicktivism or slacktivism, the idea that by sharing the link, now you became an activist. Congratulations. Well it takes much more than that obviously. Right? So you need to think about your tools. Also, are they sufficient? Maybe they’re necessary but they’re not sufficient. So there are so many lessons for everybody. I hope everybody tries to really understand these lessons.

ABM: We hope so, and we hope there’ll be some kind of— Within each of these entities you mentioned, you need leadership, and that is unfortunately still lacking. But we have a role to play. People like yourself and myself, we have to talk more and more about it. The time has come, because we can all envision things, but we’re going to have to be able to try to define, to suggest some charts, some road. This is the path to take, and we hope that over time things will change without another revolution or without another civil war that has exacted so much pain.

SMK: And that’s why we need dialogue, right? I mean, me and you have been part of the Middle East Dialogue for many years now, and the whole idea of dialogue is to try to bring people together and try to have this kind of discussion and conversation. Because out of the inoculation of people’s ideas, that’s how you can get great ideas and get a much better path for peace and for development, which we hope is going to be the case.

ABM: Absolutely, and I fully agree with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

SMK: Thank you.

ABM: No, the pleasure is mine, I’m glad we were able to swing it.

SMK: Thank you.

On the Issues Episode 16 (Part 2): David Rabinowitz

My guest today is David Rabinowitz, Director of the Mental Health Clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care.

My discussion with him today focuses on the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A full transcript can be found below (edited for clarity).

Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is David Rabinowitz, director of the mental health clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.

What I wanted to talk about today is actually something that you and I have discussed several times in the past, and that is the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and look at it from a number of perspectives including history, religion, ideology, the mutual delegitimization, of course the concern over national identity, and what it is going to take to be able to reconcile these differences, if at all possible. So maybe we should begin with the history as we have discussed before. The historic narrative that the Israelis and the Palestinians have been using all along obviously contradicts one another, because they have developed such narratives that suits their objective, their goal, their purpose, and have been able to impart that to their own respective publics.

I think nowadays the majority of Israelis, perhaps the majority of Palestinians, actually believe in that kind of narrative that is certainly not accurate, but has been promoted in order to create a certain environment conducive to what the leadership would like to project. So what is that historic narrative from your perspective? How do you see that? I mean, I have my own views on it as well, of course.

David Rabinowitz: I do feel that a useful model to operate here is the idea of the Rashomon, based on that very famous Japanese movie, which has to do essentially with the subjectivity of perception. Because what is interesting is not that there are differing narratives, but those narratives are held with a passion and a certainty and a level of belief which often reaches the level of the sacred. And yet if we take just as an isolated example, what might have happened in the 1948 war is that certain events, this is clear, have been described differently by both sides.

ABM: Well that’s exactly the point.

DR: And we’re dealing however with the subjectivity of perception, first and foremost, which have been transformed into almost sacred narratives, believed with a passion and a certainty. To the point whereby I recall reading in the past when the Palestinians and Israelis did meet around the table, to deal with history, with their collective histories, it didn’t really resolve as a collective history even through the basis of dialogue. So the starting point is very problematic. The starting point is passionately held. Not just differing narratives, but passionately held narratives.

ABM: Yeah, passionately held narrative, this is exactly what it is, but here is what I see. That is, when you read the history, the way it’s been projected or written by the Israelis from their perspective, and you see that from the Palestinian perspective, this is like reading history and accepting it at face value, the way it’s been read, the way it’s been seen. And that obviously creates certain perceptions about one another. So how do you in fact mitigate that? In my view, and I’m sure you agree with that, you will not be able to bridge the gap between the two sides. Obviously history’s not the only impediment, we’ll be talking about other elements. But you cannot bridge the gap between the two sides unless you can create a narrative that is more or less acceptable to both sides.

Let’s talk about the real example here, in terms of the historical perspective. We can go back to 1917, from the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, one hundred years ago exactly. So from that time on, Palestinian resentment and narrative about Israel – what the Jews want to do and how are they going to go about it – has been written and established and promoted within the Palestinian body politic as well as the public itself. The 1948 and the Nakba, that is, the catastrophe that the Palestinians speak about, and that is from their perspective. Israel was the culprit that actually expelled the Palestinians from their own land, and occupied it. Whereas the Israelis maintain, know, that what happened is that the Palestinians left on their own, they had been encouraged by the leadership of the Arab states to leave, and come back for the spoils. So these are the two sets of narratives that have been juxtaposed to one another, and actually the discussion about these has been further deepened, and both sides have been trying over time to further prove this is the case. And obviously textbooks and, other than the public narrative is being now engrained in the mind of most Israelis and the Palestinians.

DR: I’m going to permit myself at this point to draw on the fact that I also have a separate life experience as a doctor in the field of mental health. And I permit myself to say it reminds me very strongly of how a couples therapists is to deal with a couple for whom one has had an affair outside of the marriage. The strategy of treatment is to bring the two to a point whereby they are able to draw a line and cease being historical.

ABM: Exactly.

DR: That is the key to it. Because I don’t think, I noticed that certain academics recognizing the complexity of the double narrative have attempted to propose bridging narratives. I don’t think bridging narratives are going to work because the ideas are too sacred. No one’s going to give up on them. But where it is possible is to shift the mindset from the past to the present and the future. But I have to qualify that by saying that it will not happen through persuasion. It will happen because something has changed. On both sides, that there is a will to do so. And what has to be changed to make the will is the problem.

ABM: The question here that you brought about, a couple, where the husband committed adultery.

DR: Can be the wife too.

ABM: OK, or the wife for that matter. Now what happened here, the fact that adultery has been committed, you cannot change. That is, to the extent that one or the other admitted that, you cannot change. The question now is, since this is a fact, can we in fact equate the history that is being manipulated, going back again to the formation of the state of Israel 1948? Can you in fact treat that as a fact, as if one or the other committed that kind of adultery that you cannot mitigate? You have to accept it and you have to move on by accepting it. In my view neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians, at least not at this juncture, are willing to abandon that whole narrative that they’re going to be proven, because neither side wants to admit that they were wrong in how they see history evolved from that point on. So that is one of the problems of course. That doesn’t suggest that it cannot be resolved. But I’m saying this is like a fact that cannot be disputed. The narrative can be adjusted or restated in order to reach any kind of process of reconciliation.

DR: Well let’s just identify it for a moment. Not so much what is required for change, but wherein lies the resistance to change. And I think an important factor in the resistance to change is that the political elites on both sides are invested in the stability of the narrative.

ABM: Yes.

DR: They don’t want the narrative to change for many reasons. Amongst other things is that those narratives are a source of political power. If the narratives change, political power is threatened. And I think that itself is a highly stabilizing factor. So therefore, I have to draw on something which I think came from you, Alon, in previous discussions, and that is, who is going to change the motivation for a rapprochement? It will not come from the political elites at this time. I don’t think the political elites want it, and it is in their best interest to maintain it. I remember in our previous discussions how you emphasized the importance of bottom-up. In other words, what about the populations? After all, the political elites are listening to their electorates in the democratic setting or in the social setting of the Palestinians.

ABM: And that’s I think a very important point, that the fear of change could compromise the position of the political elite, and the position they have been taking all along has to change. And since they themselves would not voluntarily change, two or three things will have to happen. A) a recognition that unless they change their narrative, things will continue to be stuck and there’ll be no progress. Right? But that’s changed, since they were not. And in my view, they will not do so voluntarily. Look at what’s been happening between the Israelis and Palestinians going back decades now.

DR: Absolutely.

ABM: Voluntarily, they did not change. Which means, what we talked about before is that the bottom up approach is still critical in my view to reconcile the historic narrative. Because on their own, they will not do that. That is, the political elite will not do that on their own, unless they’re faced with potentially catastrophic developments. That is, they want to prevent a catastrophic development. They may decide well, it’s better to change our approach rather than be faced with that catastrophe. And I don’t think that either the Israelis or the Palestinians today see the potential development of such catastrophe, albeit it may very well be in the offing.

DR: Now you see, we have to at this point mobilize additional concepts, because what you’re referring to as the potential catastrophe generated, or shall we say predicted by the current configuration, you and I see it, but the political elites do not. Or if they do, they have an interest in excluding it from the public narrative, because it affects their power base. I would like to add to that I think that there’s an additional reason, and that is the political elites on both sides are infused with intense ideological and religious convictions. An ideological or religious conviction has amongst other things, one of its functions is that it leads people to cherry pick data as they see fit. The right wing accuses the left wing of this as well, everyone accuses everyone of this. But I think it’s so clear that if the holiness of the land for the Israeli right-wing political elite is a powerful belief system, then they will have blind spots for everything else that interferes with their perception, and exactly the same on the other side.

ABM: Exactly, there is no question, you cannot single out the historic narrative and say, this is the only problem. That is, this has always been reinforced by what you just said. That is, there is a religious, ideological element that reinforces the narrative that they’ve been using all along. And so, naturally we can move to this, how religion in fact is further augmenting, strengthening the psychological impediment between the two sides. So we have the public narrative on one hand, and now they have to add to it the layer of religion – how religion is actually making that impediment much worse. And that is the Israelis, the Jews, and the Palestinians, from a religious perspective, they have a claim to the same land. And this is even more difficult to reconcile because it’s based on a set of beliefs.

So the question here is, whereas like I said before, you can rewrite some part of the history if you’re willing to admit that you have been misleading. You can change your ideology to suit you, to suit the time. We’ve seen ideologies – communism, fascism, all kinds of isms – that died because they failed to be able to get that kind of support, steady sustainable support, whether from the public or otherwise. So they disappeared, there was no support for it. Whereas with religion, you don’t have to concern yourself to prove anything. So here in my view, I’m not suggesting that you cannot reconcile the religious differences between the two sides. That’s a major, major element that’s preventing both sides from making the kind of compromises that’s going to be necessary. The question is, what sort of compromise can you advance from a religious perspective?

DR: Well, first of all, I have to make the picture worse. And that is that on the Israeli side, an important factor in my view is that right from the outset of the establishment of the state, religion was not separated from the state. And from the Palestinian side, what I understand, to my best understanding of Islam, is that it is inherently a political religion in that there is no clear distinction, as I understand it, between Islamic practice and government. The two somehow blend in a way that I don’t fully understand. Now here we come back to this remarkable thing we all notice from time to time, in this remarkable mirror imaging that takes place between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Both societies have an infusion of intense religious belief right up to the level of the political elites and the power structure, which means that we begin a greater difficulty, and that is the fact that religious sectors have political power and have the power to implement their own policies, and in this way influence government policy on both sides.

ABM: Exactly, exactly. Because when you use religion to augment, to support your political position, your political ideology for that matter, it’s extremely difficult to argue against it. That’s the whole point. So in Israel and among the Palestinians, religion was from day one part and parcel of the ideology and in terms of how that will translate to a political position. So that is, the Jews’ claim to all of the land, the ancient land of Israel is there, that has not changed. The current leadership continues to repeat that time and again. The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, has not changed. That is something that is. And then both sides have actually meshed that into their political positions, which is making things extraordinarily difficult again.

DR: Yes. I think it’s important to add that, similar to the discussion on narratives. Implicit in this discussion is that whatever is being decided upon, at a political level, the eyes are cast backward to history. It is the word of Abraham and Isaac, it is the ancient prophets in Islam who are speaking all the time. In other words, when we’re talking about this, there are other people in the room metaphorically speaking. They are the forefathers and the prophets, and they’re there in the room playing a role in decision-making at one level or another. Now, I think all this simply adds to the fact that this adds to the complexity and that it makes it at face value impossible to talk about reconciliation. But, where I think that the issues still may lie, the sort of only hope in inverted commas that we may want to talk about over here is that in both societies there are strong secular dimensions, secular elements of the public who, perhaps we might say that they are too silent. We do not hear from them enough. I just want to add that I also see this in a way as linking to that old debate between modernity and the historical and religious past. There’s an enormous tension there that I think is also infused in this debate as well. And to what extent can modernity win out? Well, modernity, that is to say the secular public, or the moderate religious public, have an enormous task over here because they perceive the existing power structure infused with religion as monolithic and extremely, extremely powerful. Too powerful to model.

ABM: Exactly, I agree with you. I mean, that is exactly the situation today. And this argument has been very effective and is being used by both sides very, very effectively, and that’s another thing that adds another layer to the difficulty of convening a real process of reconciliation. I think one of the reasons that they are trying to avoid such a process, both Israelis and Palestinians, is because they know that they have to obviously compromise on the religious precept itself. Albeit not changing their set of beliefs, but finding a formula whereby they can still believe in what they believe, but leave some kind of room for compromise. Otherwise, there will be no future—for example, what is the future of Jerusalem? How are you going to resolve that aspect? Which means, whereas you have that set of beliefs, both sides have it, if we assume that this cannot ever be reconciled, then there is nothing to talk about. So we have therefore to find a formula, that is the process of reconciliation. The purpose of it is to look for a formula where you can in fact reconcile even a set of beliefs that usually are taken at face value, that’s for granted, that you cannot modify.

DR: Well, I certainly agree with that, but I like to put forward not – I think it’d be most arrogant to even suggest that there is a solution derived from political psychology, but I do think that there’s some questions to ask over here that may be relevant to finding the way forward. The first question is, what would it take. To bring, first of all the people, you’re talking grassroots, you’re talking bottom-up. What would it take to bring the people, predominantly into a here-and-now type mode, rather than an essentially historical mode. Because if people who influence their governments, not necessarily in the media sense, but it comes about if there’s a change at the level of the electorates, and the change at the level of the people, and we’re coming back to the first point in a certain way.

And really the question is, the moment such a thing could be brought about, the time frame, the time perception, alters from the past to the present and the future. Only then can one perhaps give religion its honored place and an honored place for the prophets, but re-focus the here-and-now on the pragmatics, and bring about further change at the level of the elites. This is very, very utopian what I’m saying, but I actually think there’s no other way. Given the circumstances of the moment, I actually think there’s no other way.

ABM: But you need to look at the religious perspective, the Israeli makeup population-wise in Israel. Better than half of the population are Jews, but they might called secular Jews.

DR: Yes.

ABM: And so they don’t bother actually in even dealing in any direct, effective way with the religious implication of the conflict. For them they see question of territory, who can have what, how to divide the territory, what sort of political system – they are not as concerned because they really don’t see it. Their perception of the conflict does not have a strong religious component. Whereas among the Palestinians, religion, as you said correctly, religion is part and parcel of the political process.

DR: Yes.

ABM: From bottom-up, all the way. Top to bottom, bottom-up. And that is a significant difference there. That is one of the reasons I feel very strongly that under no circumstance the Palestinians will accept any solution that will not grant them a capital in East Jerusalem. Because for them, that is something that you cannot compromise, you cannot mitigate. Whereas the Israelis, the secular, as we have seen during the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas, there was basically an agreement on the future of Jerusalem. There was an agreement, which granted the Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem. So the Israelis can be more flexible from a religious perspective. The Palestinians will not be.

DR: Or you see, over here we’re touching a little bit on the zero-sum issue, because obviously no side can have hope to have Jerusalem exclusively for themselves. The issue here is the division of Jerusalem. That’s how I understand it. What I want to say on that, sorry, I think it’s a bit of a dangerous statement to make. Not so much the division of Jerusalem, but the sharing of Jerusalem. I think that’s better to say. Now, the thing is this. I’ve noticed, I’ve read that an enormous amount of effort has been poured into building proposals of a highly sophisticated and skilled nature, which could lead to the successful sharing of Jerusalem. The problem being that these proposals are essentially rational, whereas the religious component is not.

ABM: Yeah, but not only rational, I think it’s also practical. I’ve been saying all along, given the reality now in Jerusalem, how far the Israelis have gone in East Jerusalem, how many settlements they build there, the number of Israelis living in East Jerusalem, you have created now a set of conditions that is impossible to reverse. From any perspective, you cannot reverse it. Which means, in a way, that makes the solution to Jerusalem easier. Or depending on how you see it, much more difficult, from the Palestinian perspective. They continue to demand for example that the Israelis should be getting out of East Jerusalem, there will be no solution. Which means, if you accept now the reality that he’s talking about, how do you share the city? You share the city based on what exists today. That is, there is no way you can introduce major changes to the current status quo, and be able to agree. So the status quo will have to be accepted more or less the way it is. Which means, what is Israeli is Israeli, what is Palestinian is Palestinian, and both basically can have their cake and eat it at the same time.

What I’ve been saying this all along, you institutionalize what’s on the ground. And so the Palestinians can still have East Jerusalem, Israelis can still have West Jerusalem, that way you’re sharing the city, but everything else basically will remain the same. There’s no border, there are no fences, the city will remain precisely the way it is, united. And this is in my view one way you can mitigate one of the religious dimensions of the conflict, one aspect of the conflict. And that’s how I see it.

DR: Well you know that is of course a very creative approach, because as you correctly say, I’ll put it in slightly different terms, it permits ongoing perceptions which are not under assault.

ABM: Yeah.

DR: The Israelis can say it is all ours, the Palestinians can say it’s ours. And that’s really important. But I just have to add to that again, there is an intense religious involvement over here, which is monistic in its thinking and will not always permit creative solutions.

ABM: This is true.

DR: I mean, there’s a militancy here that is very problematic, arising out of a passionately held belief. And I think that the issue of faith versus reason is philosophically very complex.

ABM: This is true, obviously it’s very, very, very complex, and many philosophers try to tackle these issues. And once they reduce any political concept or religious concept into a reason, then it is no longer holy, it is no longer religious for that matter. So basically you’re reducing it to the human level, and that’s what both sides want to avoid at all costs. That is why I think to suggest that they can change their mind. The only thing is, if I were to negotiate now with a Palestinian on the religious perspective, I would say to them, look, you can go back to your forefathers, you admit Abraham, Jacob, Isaac were the prophets of both Jews and Muslims alike. Well, maybe God dictated, wanted that you, the Jews and Arabs, live in the same land. Because if God wanted otherwise, he would have not created this problem in the first place. So if you are a believer, you cannot pick and choose what you believe in. You understand what I’m saying?

DR: Well I think what I’m seeing, what you’re saying, are the seeds of a bridging narrative, at least at the religious level.

ABM: At the religious level. That’s exactly the point. Because you cannot change it, but you can change the narrative about it.

DR: Yes.

ABM: To create a common ground over which both sides can agree.

DR: Yes. In fact, you’re saying that those who can invest intellectually, politically, and theoretically in this area should do more because there are grounds for a bridging of the religious narrative, strangely enough, given the fact that the religious narratives on both sides are so rigid and entrenched.

ABM: That’s right.

DR: It’s a paradox.

ABM: Yeah. But there is a resolution to this particular paradox, that’s what I’m trying to say. And I think it’s there. And unfortunately, it has not been fully explored, and that is part of what you and I are talking about with a process of reconciliation. That is, you’re going to have to have that kind of dialogue about these particular issues, how you are going. Because notwithstanding who still believes in a two-state solution, they’re still going to have to face this.

DR: Yes.

ABM: How do you resolve this issue? Because it is there, it’s not going to disappear. So, I just want to move to the ideological conflict between the two sides. And here of course you have the Zionist, specifically the revision of Zionism that took over for all intents and purposes, at least in this current situation in Israel. And the idea here is that the Jews have the right to create their own state in that particular part of the world, and they’re invoking both historic and religious to prove, to show, to demonstrate, to insist on the fact that this is our land and it’s going to be all of it, not part of it. That’s the ideology that’s being held today with the right wing of the Israeli populace.

Now again here you have a question, how do you compare that, how do you reconcile that with the ideology that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority believe in, or try to promote? Because they have a different set, and I’m talking not religion now, not talking about history, but about ideology. Ideologically speaking, Hamas wants to get rid of Israel, wants to destroy Israel. That’s the ideology, that’s their political platform. The Palestinians—well, take it from there.

DR: Well you see, first of all I actually think that at heart, the Zionist ideology sprung from survival. I mean, its roots lie in survival.

ABM: Exactly.

DR: The older discourses, the historical discourses of the Jew in Europe, debating between assimilation and religion, and the third option of Zionism, all of this had to do with survival. What is the best way to survive in a given society? And I think that the survivalist instinct continues to be hidden within the Zionist ideology, it’s always there, in one form or another. But where I think the greatest importance about this, well let me step aside to one side for a moment and just say that I think that in certain respects ideology which is always present in politics, I mean it’s, no matter which politics, the real issue is the intensity of the conviction. And some ideologies are held with the conviction that people are willing to die for them, and blood is spilt over ideology. So let’s not trivialize it. It’s enormous.

ABM: No, it’s very powerful, and you put it very well. That is, the ideology here, it is driven by the Jews’ fear or concern over survival itself.

DR: Absolutely.

ABM: Absolutely this is exactly the case. Which means that is this is where the whole issue of National Security comes to play in Israel. That is, they attach borders to national security, their settlements are national security, their current political position is national security. And whether it’s genuine, even though it may not be genuine, does Israel really have that much concern about national security when it enjoys far greater powers over the Palestinians?

DR: That brings us to a ping pong you see, between on the one hand existential anxiety of the immediately operating kind. And the other one is also survival, which are really two sides of the same coin. Where I think that the Zionist ideology for example plays a very important role is that, when I think about, in the earlier years of the state, and even now, that again the Zionist ideology, the Palestinian ideology always have one thing in common, and that is the suppression of data, or suppression of the awareness of data that doesn’t fit the ideology.

ABM: Oh yes.

DR: And so in that sense, we are left again with this issue that— I mean the classical story when more contemporary historians began to look at documentation and found data which challenged the ideological perceptions of Zionism. Zionism reacted to that. It was very hard for them to accept that; in fact, some would have preferred the archives to remain closed. What is my point over here? Again we’re coming back to this issue that ideology feeds many things. It feeds the stuckness or the intransigence of the conflict, because ideology on the Zionist side has to do with survival on the one hand. But I have to add that Zionism also includes a kind of a revanchist approach, because the land that they didn’t get from the settlements in 1948 is still regarded as theirs, they want it back. It’s true that you could argue whether it’s revanchist in the sense the land was taken away and they want it back, certainly the Hamas ideology and to a certain extent the extremist Palestinian ideologies are clearly revanchist, and they want the land back. So certainly it is not only that there is distance between the two, but conflict. Ideology I think feeds conflict much more than religion, although religion plays no small role in this as well.

ABM: There’s no question, if you go back to the Zionist ideology from the very beginning, the whole motive behind the creation of the state of Israel, and that is, after years, centuries of persecution, expulsion, death, and all of that, the instinct for survival. That is, the time has come for us to have a state of our own in order to prevent these types of things from ever happening back to the Jews. But the problem with that, because it happened now in modern Israel, notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess and ability to deal with enemies in a very effective way, and has less reason to be concerned about survival itself per se. However, they fashion policies as such to support their concern over survival. I think this is one of the reasons you see this. What the government is doing today is taking action in the name of national security. You see the word national security invoked every single time the Israelis take this action or that action.

So this will bring us to the other point that I wanted to raise with you, which is the mutual dehumanization or victimization. And that’s all connected to the previous point. In many ways, to justify what you are doing, you have to deny the right, the existence, or for that matter to de-legitimize the other side in order to make your point, in order to solidify your position, and I think that both sides have been engaged in that systematically going from 1948 to even before that.

DR: Well you see I think this brings us right into the middle of an issue of perception, and that is the zero-sum perception. I’m stressing the word perception because I think it is wrong to see it in any other terms. The perception that if one side wins the other loses, is the recipe for ongoing conflict, and I notice, for example this is very overt in the Israeli public political discourse. I have clearly heard Netanyahu say that there are no two points of view. There is only one, and that is the Zionist narrative. That is the only correct narrative, there is no other. In other words, the zero-sum perception also is one which the political elites need on both sides because that maintains the past.

Now the thing is, this also, the zero-sum perception has its roots also in the double narrative, but I have to add an extra issue which we talked about previously in the different podcast, is the question of what has been referred to by a scholar as group narcissism. And that is the in-group versus the out-group. The point is that the in-group psychology in the political setting has amongst other things the devaluation and the delegitimization of the other side to the point whereby they are no longer seen as human, and can be killed or massacred.

ABM: Exactly. Exactly.

DR: And both sides hold to this.

ABM: Both sides hold to this, and in many ways they are executing that approach day in and day out. That is what, from the Israeli perspective, justified the annexation of more territory. They controlled the Palestinians in ways that can be at times very ruthless. It is all justified, and the Palestinians too see it that way—terrorizing the Jews, terrorizing the Israelis, is very legitimate because that is the only way they can actually balance what they are experiencing themselves. You see? And so this mutual delegitimization serves their ideological position, and it serves their also religious precepts as well.

DR: I have to add that, it’s not just that it serves the purpose of polarization. It also provides a legitimization for lethal action. I think it’s become part of the public narrative that many people have felt, that we see killing taking place every day in the IPC, Israel-Palestine conflict, killing is taking place every day, one way or another. And I see that as a direct consequence of this particular structure that we are talking about now, this pattern that we’re talking about. So it’s very, very malignant. It’s highly malignant.

ABM: And what the politicians are doing on both sides is making things worse. Because this is exactly— As a matter of fact, I think there is a deliberate pursuance of this particular aspect to the conflict, to keep it the way it is. I think this is where comes the idea from the Netanyahu government, where it actually believes that it can manage the conflict almost indefinitely.

DR: That’s right, yes.

ABM: That’s where it came from. That is, it continues to victimize the Palestinians, continues to portray them as illegitimate. They are people, but they are not a nation as Netanyahu’s father kept saying, and therefore they cannot have a state because they are just people who happen to be living there. They don’t constitute a nation. And that is what’s been constantly been said and repeated time and again. And obviously there’s a significant number of Israelis who bought into this argument.

DR: Yes indeed. I’m reminded in this context of the earlier slogans of Zionism at the time of the establishment of the state. And the classical one which fits right here in this discourse is ‘a people without a land, for a land without people.’

ABM: Yeah.

DR: Which I think fits this issue of delegitimization, dehumanization, and essentially we see this even in political terms where both sides are saying all the time, make the other side disappear.

ABM: Yeah, and there’s wishful thinking. That over time, something is going to give. And both sides, I really think as long as they continue to believe that they can in fact improve their position over time. Even though on the surface the Palestinians may seem like they are losing, they don’t see it that way. They feel that their consistency, their tenacity, their resistance, violent and otherwise will eventually prevail. Whereas the Israelis are doing everything possible in order to create new facts on the ground, to gain over time, they want to keep gaining over time. And both sides, as long as they feel they can continue to gain, they are not going to be willing to make the kind of compromise necessary in order to reach an agreement.

DR: Well I have to add, you see, that it’s been pointed out by many clever souls, many clever scholars, that power is aphrodisiac. And keeping power supersedes sometimes the interests of the state. I mean, here what we are saying is, we all see all the time that the public political discourse in Israel and in Palestinian society contains these themes that we’ve been discussing all the time. Because there are these things that constitute the theory upon which the political elites build political power.

ABM: Right, right.

DR: So if we want to talk about stuckness and intransigence of the IPC, I think all of these factors come together around that. I’m afraid it’s a somewhat cynical point of view, but I think it is correct.

ABM: That’s right. Now, I just want to add the other element that we talked about before, and that is national identity. I think for both Israelis and the Palestinians, their national identity is still in its infancy. And one of the reasons, at least one if not more than that, the continuing resistance to change the status quo is because there is the fight about defining what is my nationality, who am I. That is, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have been able to establish that identity, and understand it like say, there is an American national identity, there is a French national identity, but what is the Israeli national identity, by definition? And it’s still being formed. The same thing is with the Palestinians, still being formed. And the reason why they resist change is because they have not reached a point where they have formed a clear identity, who they are, what they are, what they want. And as long as that identity is still in its infancy, you’re going to see greater resistance. Do you agree with that?

DR: Not only do I agree with that, but I want to just add a bit of psychology substance to it.

ABM: Yeah.

DR: And that is this. I think it’s a truism, as a sort of guiding point you could say, that the less mature the political identity, the greater it is vulnerable or perceived to be vulnerable—
ABM: Perceived to be vulnerable, yeah.

DR: –and requires defenses against things that may interfere with the growth of their identity. French identity, Dutch identity, American identity, British identity, are taken for granted, in much the same way that, if the clock says 10 o’clock in the morning, it’s morning, no one questions it. It’s a given. But certainly I think it’s a very, very important point that identities are in fact vulnerable in the Middle East. Israel-Palestine, the Palestinian identity, although the Palestinians—I know that there’s discussion about this, but the consolidation of a more clear political identity of the Palestinians is relatively recent in political terms, in Israel as well. The political identity of the Jews does not go back two, four, five, or six thousand years, because there was a different identity. It was the identity of a people, the identity of a religion. But as a political– Now the point being, I’m just giving substance to what you’re saying.

ABM: You are right.

DR: I would even take a metaphor and say that political identity in Israel, and the Palestinian political identity are in a manner of speaking still in their adolescence. Adolescents are extremely resistant to having someone impose an identity on them.

ABM: And that doesn’t go back like you said centuries, it goes back really only less than a hundred years.

DR: Absolutely.

ABM: And that’s a hundred years in the scheme of things that are not a long enough time to establish that kind of identity that is going to, that they can settle on it and understand it and eventually become mutually recognized by one another. We are not there yet.

DR: I would like to also add a second component to this discourse, and that is, what constitutes a healthy identity? I think that I would probably best leave it to political scientists and philosophers to answer that kind of question. But I do think that a political identity is less than healthy if it is constantly dealing with death, destruction, and blood. And constantly dealing with aggression, and constantly dealing with conflict. This cannot be a healthy identity, and the real question is, what would constitute a healthy identity here? Well, I have no idea. But I do think that the building blocks of such a healthy identity will come about with a reduction of the conflict.

ABM: Exactly. But what happened here as long as both sides have certain claims. You see, their national identity now hangs on what is going to be the ultimate solution, so to speak. That is, as long as Israel still has certain claims, and the Palestinians have certain claims, there’s a direct link between those continuing claims that has not been satisfied, and reaching to where they realize. That is, they equate national identity with a state that is real, not challenged, and exists. And as long as, even among the Israelis, there is a state, but it’s still in flux. And the Palestinians have no state, so that national identity cannot be formed unless it is also defined by a geographic area. You know what I’m saying.

DR: There’s no clear border.

ABM: There’s no clear borders, and therefore you cannot identify as a nation as such, even though Israel doesn’t have also clear borders as yet. And until they get to a point where there’s an agreement, then you can say that they’re coming closer and closer to defining what is their national identity. Because I think that direct link to the land itself.

DR: Well you see I also want to at least keep into focus one step ahead, and that is not only what is the identity, but to what extent can each side feel that their identity is healthy. That they have trust in it. That they have faith in that identity. That they feel positive about that identity. They are proud to fly the flag. Not because of militancy or survival or humiliation, but for other reasons. And I think that it’s not there yet. In my view, it’s not there yet.

ABM: No, it’s not there. Let’s, finally you and I, I think agree that in the final analysis, all of these issues, these impediments, psychological, history, religion, ideology, the sense of delegitimization, etc. That is, if we believe that sooner or later some kind of solution needs to be found, we spoke about the need for a process of reconciliation. The question that I’m thinking now, given the most recent development both in the region and elsewhere, is the process of reconciliation still viable? Does it have to be preceded by some other development first, or who is going to bring about this kind of process of reconciliation, that is people-to-people? If the governments are not willing to reconcile, then the reconciliation will have to start from the bottom up – that is, between the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. And yes, there are elements, both among the Israeli society as well as the Palestinians, who are thinking in those terms . But I don’t know if they’ve gone far enough. And this is what you and I have been trying to promote all along. That is, we need that kind of process. And we need to create it so that Israelis and the Palestinians begin to look at one another from different lenses that not all Israelis are killers and soldiers ready to shoot, and not all Palestinians are terrorists ready to kill. And for that you’re going to need also the government to support that kind of process of reconciliation. And why I see now greater difficulties is because the governments themselves, neither Israel and the Palestinian Authority, certainly not Hamas, are willing to invest in this process.

DR: I have to quote something that you wrote some time ago. I forget exactly the article, but you stated that as long as Netanyahu and Abu Mazen hold the leaderships of their respective peoples, there will be no progress in this.

ABM: I absolutely believe that.

DR: And I think that it fits with the content of these discourse that we have, because both of them are needing—although we have to add with regard to the Palestinians also the question of Hamas, which is that much more malignant to any hope of reconciliation. But both sides have political elites that they are leading, for all the reasons we’ve discussed.

ABM: Yeah. And willing.

DR: Are not going to do it.

ABM: Yeah, they are either unwilling or unable to make the kind of concessions necessary, and before making these concessions they have to prepare the public. Hence we go back to the process of reconciliation. They are not willing to take these kinds of steps in order to lead both people to begin to want to see one another. So as long as Netanyahu, I repeat that, and Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas are in power, I don’t think we’re going to see this kind of process any time soon.

DR: Certainly not reconciliation.

ABM: Yeah, no. We’re going to have to see a change a government. And two governments that begin to look at the entire conflict from a different perspective, and ask the simple question that I have saying ad nauseam, coexistence is inevitable. They have to coexist, they can kill each other for another hundred years, or they can make peace with one another, but they are stuck with one another. And this is the choice that they will have to make.

DR: Well you see, I think that we have to go back to this question. I think that hope, if any, lies in segments of both societies that are far too silent. And that is the rational, secular, modern segments of society, and the religious moderates of those societies, who are there, they are too silent. I think on the Israeli side certainly they are silent for two reasons. One is that in terms of social class, those that are more educated and have better income are enjoying the fruits of a buoyant economy which is very stabilizing both in the good and the bad sense, and those that are not, at the lower echelons of the social class spectrum, are much more easily swayed by existential anxiety as mobilized by the political elites, and keep them in power. On the Palestinian side, I’m less sure, although I do believe that a hardscrable life and a middle class that is too small, actually, is also in a sense stable. People are too busy getting bread to worry about the big picture. So there’s a silence, that’s the point.

ABM: Yeah, I agree with you, but my feeling is that this type silence or complacency is not enduring. It cannot endure forever. Something will have to give in.

DR: So here’s the question – what will wake them up?

ABM: Go back – and I’m sorry to end this discussion – go back to what I’ve said before, something will have to shake both sides. And unfortunately, the only thing that’s going to shake them, given that there is lack of leadership—visionary, courageous leadership—what’s going to happen is probably a major, massive, violent confrontation, conflagration, that is going to shake up the status quo, and the people will be awakened to search for a better solution.

DR: Maybe I’ll say with a smile, maybe if they listen to this podcast, it may do something for them.

ABM: Thank you so much, David.

DR: It’s been a great pleasure, I very much enjoyed it. Thank you Alon.

On the Issues Episode 16: David Rabinowitz (Part 1)

My guest today is David Rabinowitz, Director of the Mental Health Clinic at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel. He has worked as a psychiatrist in charge of psychiatric outpatient services in both South Africa and Israel, and has invested in the development and teaching of professional skills and approaches in community mental health care.

My discussion with him today focuses on the psychological dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the Issues Episode 15: David Schenker

My guest this week is David Schenker, Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant. In that capacity, he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2005.

Prior to joining the government, Mr. Schenker was a research fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on Arab governance issues and a project coordinator a Bethesda-based contractor of large, centrally-funded USAID projects in Egypt and Jordan. In addition, he authored two Institute books: Dancing with Saddam: The Strategic Tango of Jordanian-Iraqi Relations (copublished with Lexington Books, 2003) and Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council (2001). More recently, he published a chapter on U.S.-Lebanese relations in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave, 2009), and Egypt’s Enduring Challenges (2011), a monograph focusing on post-Mubarak Egypt. His writings on Arab affairs have also appeared in a number of prominent scholarly journals and newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Jerusalem Post.


I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of ‘On the Issues’. My guest today is David Schenker, Director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute. Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant—where he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

Alon Ben-Meir: I met with Fred [Hof] of course, just now we talked a lot about Syria, and perhaps we can talk about more regionally—Israeli-Palestinian—

David Schenker: Sure.

ABM: I want to start with the question of Jerusalem. Of course as I see it, to make such a move could be disastrous. On the one hand, in terms of what would be the reaction of the Palestinians, but even more so the Arab World. Saudi Arabia and Jordan in particular, they’ll be outraged to say the least. I had the idea, and I sort of bounced it, that if he still wants to make the move, how can we use that as a means by which to achieve even almost a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian conflict? If he were to say, we have land there—the United States purchased land in West Jerusalem on which the plan was to build an American embassy there, but of course from one administration to another, everything has been delayed and delayed—we are going to start building the embassy. And if there is progress in the peace process between the two sides, we will reserve space to allow the Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem.
Suppose this would have been the approach. My feeling was that if he were to take this approach—and I passed it on to very top people, and they were really excited about the prospect in terms of, he’s basically conditioning the move on the fact, that is, we are building the embassy so the Palestinians can see movement in that direction. It is no longer just talk, but is also providing the opening. If there is progress and you move toward a peace agreement, well we will look into it, that the Palestinian capital will be still there while maintaining the unity of Jerusalem. Nothing will change. Basically what is Israeli is Israeli, including East Jerusalem. What is the Palestinians’ is the Palestinians’. The city will remain united, a single city, but it’ll have one municipality here, one municipality there, and they will find a way of course to work it out administratively and in terms of security and all of that.
From my perspective, when I used to go in the 80s and the 90s before this mess of increased terrorism, I wrote many pieces that Jerusalem represents in my view the microcosm of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. You couldn’t tell then who was an Israeli and who was a Palestinian. The people were moving from Israel to the West Bank, and back and forth. And Jerusalem was the center of peace. People actually coexisted very peacefully and to me, this is how the Israeli-Palestinian coexistence should be, is going to look like. There’s a political border, but there’s no physical border per-se. A Palestinian citizen is going to vote and be elected in Palestine, and Israelis are— But there will be intermingling work here. That’s how I saw it, that is the piece I wrote. But I didn’t publish it yet because I wanted to channel it to the right people. What’s your take on it?

DS: Well, there’s a couple of issues. I think Trump is convinced that this is something that should be done. People in Washington ask well, what can they get from Israel for this. Because traditionally if you get a big gift from the United States, something like this, there would be a request on the backside from Israel, but there hasn’t been anything. Now I don’t necessarily think that you have to. I mean, what you’re proposing in a way is changing the status quo, right. There’s no change in the status quo by moving the U.S. embassy to West Jerusalem. Right? Even Arafat recognized that West Jerusalem was going to be part of Israel, right. This was never—

ABM: This is true, but more symbolically, moving the embassy anywhere in Jerusalem for them represents recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

DS: Well, there’s an issue of perception. Of course the U.S. consul general, which is the highest representation, is in East Jerusalem, right? So let’s put that aside for a second. I think that if you wanted to ask the Israelis for something, you could potentially. I don’t think you’re going to get from this government in Israel a commitment that East Jerusalem will be the capital, that we’re going to deal with issues of sovereignty or division of Jerusalem. Now, most Israelis as you know would be willing to divide Israel. More Israelis anyway would be willing to divide Jerusalem and have two capitals there, than be willing to cede the Golan back to the Syrians.

ABM: I mean in every negotiation in the past, when the discussion on Jerusalem was on the table, there was an agreement in principle that Jerusalem was going to be basically a capital of two states.

DS: I think what you’d need for the Israelis to make some sort of enormous move in that regard would be some sign of good faith from the Palestinian side. Remember, we’ve been frozen now essentially since day one of the Obama administration, when the administration basically forced Netanyahu to have what was the deepest settlement freeze in the history of Israel, of a modern Likud politics. He did it, and Mahmoud Abbas said ‘hey, why the hell am I going to give Israel anything right now, I got this great settlement freeze,’ and they wasted a year. And you couldn’t twist the Israelis’ arms anymore after that point. This was a failure obviously of the Obama administration.
Now, maybe the Palestinians will be so discouraged from the Trump administration that they’ll be more willing to make their own concessions, which, maybe you can get from the Israelis another settlement freeze, maybe within the current boundaries of the settlements. No new—you can get something if the White House engages, but they’re not going to ask for anything unless you get something very serious from the Palestinians. And I think this embassy move is something that the Israelis are I think happy about – the government is happy about. But for most people, it’s probably not that big a deal.

ABM: Yeah, but it also seems at this point, I think, that the Trump administration is sort of moving back from moving the embassy.

DS: There’s going to be a process.

ABM: There’s going to be a long process, so they’re talking about the process. My feeling was that if they were to incorporate this into that kind of thinking, into that kind of process, they’re going to send a clear message to the Palestinians, hey we’re thinking about you, we believe still in a two-state solution. We can move in that direction, but you need to make yourself stop incitement, stop this, stop that. Do the kind of thing, begin infrastructure, build your real infrastructure, in order for us to make that kind of— I mean that’s where I’m coming from.

DS: The big deal for me is that you really have to work with the Jordanians on this, right. You have this Jordanian special relationship with Jerusalem that goes back to Mecca and Medina. Then you had the annexation in 1950 of the West Bank and the declared sovereignty over Jerusalem by the Jordanians. They stepped back from that in 1994, the peace agreement includes that. They still derive some of their legitimacy from their guardianship role in Jerusalem. I think you have to have the U.S. government, regardless of what happens, continue to reiterate that the Jordanian role in Jerusalem is a priority, that there’s no change in status quo of the holy spots.

ABM: There’s no doubt.

DS: But the Palestinians can be a real spoiler here, and I’m not talking about the 60 percent or more of Jordan that is of Palestinian origin. I’m talking about the Palestinian Authority deliberately trying to shake the neighbors through incitement because of this embassy move. That’s very dangerous and something that I think should be punished, frankly. The Palestinians could play a real spoiler role here, and the United States can talk to the Palestinians and make their own commitments to what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to advocate for on behalf of the Palestinians. But if the P.A. chooses to go along with Iran, to say that this is the destruction of al-Aqsa Mosque, I mean you can imagine what they’re going to say when this happens. Then I think there has to be a pretty big penalty that’s imposed from the United States for shaking the stability of the neighbors.

ABM: Yes, this is true, but let’s leave Jerusalem for a moment. You know the whole discussion we’re trying to establish, I’ve been trying and thinking about it, talking and writing so much about it. My feeling was—and I’ve actually been very much involved with the French organizing this conference and suggested a proposal in terms—my feeling is that, I want to just hear your take on this. That is, we first need to establish whether the Palestinians in fact want a two-state solution. So there’s that in the Israeli mind, whether this is in fact what Mahmoud Abbas would like to see as the endgame. It will be a Palestinian state more or less in the West Bank with some major, certainly land swaps, etc. My position is that even if both sides agree to the principle, I don’t believe Netanyahu would like to see a Palestinian state under his watch either. But even if there is that kind of decision, that kind of commitment to a two-state solution on the part of both sides, they cannot possibly sit today and negotiate that because of the very deep distrust between the two sides, because of a very deep sense of insecurity both sides have. Both sides, not just the Israelis. The Israelis will have that because of historic experiences. But the Palestinians feel just as insecure, if not more so, than the Israelis. And then of course you have these two constituencies, both the extremists in Israel, settlers and their supporters. And then you have Hamas on the part of the Palestinians, who still envision that they are going to have all of Palestine, Israel and Palestine together.
So you have these three elements at play, and no one can actually deny that this is justified. So to be able to begin any kind of serious process, to negotiate seriously and reach some kind of an agreement, you’re going to need first a process of reconciliation. That’s up and coming. What I’ve been saying all along is that if you don’t have that kind of process of reconciliation, whereby you can mitigate questions of distrust, or at least a process of mitigating distrust, and begin to mitigate concerns over national security, stopping incitement on the part of the Palestinians, and taking measures to convince Israelis that there’s not going to be another Hamasistan in the West Bank, so to speak. And then disabuse—

DS: I mean, can you convince the Israelis there’s not going to be a Hamasistan in the West Bank?

ABM: No, what I’m saying is not the argument.

DS: That there is no Israeli occupation of the West Bank; you probably already have a Hamasistan there.

ABM: This, but I’m saying it’s only through a process. That is, you cannot discuss trust and say ‘from now on I’m going to trust you,’ that’s not going to happen. You cannot distrust security and say, ‘from now on, our security is guaranteed, your security is—‘ That’s not going to happen. That’s what I’m saying, you need a process of reconciliation for a period of time before they actually can sit down and negotiate. Now if they’re not prepared to go through that kind of process, to me it’s a clear indication that neither side is in fact willing to see the end game, which is a two-state solution. That is, if you’re not prepared to prepare the ground for what eventually needs to happen, should happen, which is two states—that’s the goal, that’s the objective. That’s what Netanyahu says. That’s what Mahmoud Abbas says. But they are taking zero action. In fact, they’re doing everything the opposite, to widen the gap rather than narrow the gap. What I’ve been saying to the French in preparation for that, I said if you do if you want to be helpful, introduce the concept of reconciliation first for two years, three years, and make sure that two sides will actually be prepared to go through that kind of process.

DS: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to get a process of reconciliation going when you have stuff like what happened in the U.N. Security Council. People come and declare the settlements, whatever they’re going to declare them, and laid the ground for more lawfare I think that while it may not be people knifing one another, I think the Israelis view this as a full-on attack by Palestinians.

ABM: Yes, but Israel invited that kind of resolution; Israel is inviting the European resistance to this whole thing. You cannot say that Israel is an innocent party here. Netanyahu is working very, very hard. I mean, his ambitions are probably just realizing what Shamir at the time was advocating. Let’s put one million Israelis – they’re coming very close to this number in the West Bank – create irreversible facts on the ground. And that’s the end, there will be de facto no Palestinian state anymore. My feeling is that if the Trump administration begins to think in those terms, rather than thinking ‘let’s get the parties to sit down and negotiate,’ whether Kushner’s involved or [unclear] involved, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.

DS: You know, I think actually Bush had this right, which was essentially saying OK, you have settlement blocks. The Palestinians have centrally agreed to territorial swaps and you can build as many buildings and high as you want to build them, and just why does he want to build them with it as long as they remain within these current existing boundaries, right? If you want to build another room on your house, this is not building a settlement. If you want to build another floor on your apartment building going up, this is not building settlements. I think President Bush worked out this deal with Elliott Abrams, with Ariel Sharon, and they all accepted it. And that actually makes a great deal of sense. I don’t know why parties persist in saying that this is somehow a bad solution to the problem. If you’ve already agreed on territorial swaps, then what would be the problem with that and declaring these more settlements? And now these are cities in any event. We’re talking about these big blocks, tens of thousands of people.

ABM: Of course, these are cities.

DS: We can talk if you want about the hilltops and about the Israeli government in the Knesset now changing the laws in Israel about settlements and things like that. Then I think they present more problems in the international community—

ABM: Well of course.

DS: But of course the international community was never interested, no matter what Israel does it’s not going to really be quite enough, right? I mean, the fact that the UN Human Rights Commission has triple the condemnations [of Israel] last year than it had of Syria or Russia or the Assad regime, I mean it’s ludicrous.

ABM: Yeah, but what would you do? You are watching from the outside. OK. There was an agreement on land swaps in every negotiation that took place since 2000 at Camp David, there’s no doubt about it. And Israel today is claiming we are building in existing settlements, we’re not building new ones. We have merely, to accommodate natural growth in the settlement. And so the Palestinians should not be complaining, they’re not changing the geography.

DS: Right.

ABM: The problem with the Palestinians, as Israelis all along also insisted, it’s got to be one agreement. That is, you cannot unilaterally continue to expand or build in these settlements unless it is part and parcel of a general agreement. What is it going to be the precise land swap? What’s going to take place? How contiguous is it going to be? The quality of the land—there was no real agreement on these issues. And when I talked to the Palestinians, they said we agreed to the land swaps. We understand that Israelis need to expand this for natural growth. But that’s got to be part and parcel of any agreement that we are going to have.
The problem is, and I think they raise it, and tell me what you think please. They are saying during the negotiation under the U.S. auspices with Kerry twice, Israel insisted on starting the negotiations on national security. And the Palestinians are saying, ‘well, we’re going to negotiate, let’s start with the contours of what the Palestinian state is going to look like.’ So once we establish the land swap, then even if the agreement is not totally completed, once there are the contours of the state, you can continue to build in these, once they have that kind of understanding. But Netanyahu refused to start with establishing what a Palestinian state is going to look like. There were many other issues, how the negotiation went bad. The rules of engagement were a mess as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anything has changed. But I’d like you to tell me what you think, we cannot think in terms of the Netanyahu government or the right-of-center, and Israel is going to remain forever. I mean it’s going to change, something is going to change.

DS: What, to right-of-center? Lapid or someone like that?

ABM: Possibly center, if not right. Well, right now they are right-of-center, but let’s say center, perhaps slightly left-of-center.

DS: How?

ABM: Well this is the problem. I mean—

DS: I mean, that’s like saying that Congress is going to change to Democrat in two years. Right? I mean—

ABM: Well it’s possible.

DS: Well it’s possible. But if you look at the seats that are up, it looks like it’s going the other way in the Senate, et cetera. You know—

ABM: I mean, we can’t rule the possibility that the Israeli opposition comes to their senses, that one morning, Herzog and Lapid and others say look, enough is enough. We better organize ourselves. In five years, it’s going to be way too late. And let us have a united one single agenda. This is going to be our agenda, let’s campaign on this agenda, tell the Israelis the truth about the eventuality. If no peace is established with the Palestinians, where will Israel will be five, ten, fifteen years down the line?
So I’m not saying that Israel is wrong or right. What I’m saying is in terms of looking at it. If you believe in a two-state solution, you’ve got to think in those terms today, what are the steps you need to take in order to get you in that direction. When you ask Israeli officials, Bennett and others, where do you think Israel will be in five or ten years, they don’t have an answer. They really don’t know. They have an illusion, we’re going to take over the entire West Bank, but what are you going to do with the Palestinians? Are they going to disappear? What would you tell Netanyahu today about his plan? What his plan does—I’m serious, if he were to ask you.

DS: Everybody comes up, everyone’s got their, what they call here their alternative facts, but the numbers are in dispute. But if you listen to what President Obama says, or Secretary of State Kerry, that it’s not going to be able to be a democratic and Jewish state, I think there are many in Israel who would disagree with that. Based on the numbers that I’ve seen, I don’t think I’d want to be absorbing the West Bank into Israel. I think it poses a grave demographic threat. But if you want to maintain the Jewish character of the state, right? You’re already got 20 percent non-Jewish in Israel proper, within the Green Line. But maybe they’re planning on getting another million Russians. I don’t know.

ABM: No, but I’m serious, what’s your real— If you were to sit in with Netanyahu, sure you were to advise him. I’m not being facetious about it, seriously.

DS: Israelis vote based on whether they believe that they have a peace partner, right. This is why they voted for Rabin. They voted for people on the left, they voted for people on the right, but that generally has changed over time based on whether they think that Arafat was a peace partner, whether he was not a peace partner. And I don’t think any Israelis really think that Mahmoud Abbas is going to be the guy that makes that concession on the right of return. For example the quote-unquote—

ABM: No, I agree with you. I don’t think either Abbas or Netanyahu will be the leaders who will achieve an agreement.

DS: So if you’re going to take the old line, the old saw from the Clinton administration, you have to take risks for peace. And I think that many Israelis probably say, and I don’t do a great deal of work on Israel. I mean, I follow it, but I spent a lot more time in Lebanon than I do in Israel. But my sense is that many Israelis say, well they took a great risk for peace and it didn’t work out, and most of them say it was not our fault that we wanted— We signed Oslo, we gave them territory A, we wanted to give them territory B, and we just didn’t have a partner. Right? We gave them territory. They tried to [unclear], they tried to bring in weapons. They launched an intifada. And that’s sad.

ABM: Well that is an argument that is—

DS: Well, but I think a lot of, perhaps the majority of Israelis buy that.

ABM: They buy that, albeit it is not the truth in terms of how Israelis left Gaza, under what condition, with no agreement, overnight, without any security arrangement, without any economic arrangement. I mean, what do you expect? Hamas won the election. They feel they are entitled. It’s been stolen away from them. I mean, that’s how it is, that’s how the Israelis— But the Israelis swallow the narrative of a government, successive. Look what’s happening in Gaza, should we create another one in the West Bank? And we’re saying, well if you want to make a deal with the West Bank, you’re not going to withdraw overnight. It’ll take 10 years. You have to establish such a solid, strong relationship between the two sides to develop such a very strong, vested interest by both parties that peace is the only practical alternative.

DS: Kind of a three-state solution, right? Israel and the West Bank. And then you know Gaza, the land of Gaza. Yeah, poor Gazans really. I mean—

ABM: The Israelis resigned themselves to the fact that Gaza will be a state, and they will not object to that. They have no interest in Gaza, other than to keep it peaceful. And if Hamas want to have a state, let him have a state as long as they stop building tunnels and stop provoking Israel. That’s what I hear.

DS: Well, yeah, as long as a leopard changes its stripes. It’s not a leopard anymore. This is not Hamas at that point. Right?

ABM: I want to take advantage of your time a little bit because your field in Lebanon. And, what is your take, I mean Lebanon is basically two states to a great extent.

DS: They used to call it a house of many mansions.

ABM: Yeah, house of many mansions is more so. I don’t anticipate Hezbollah any time soon to regroup. We don’t know what’s going to be in Syria. And they have not gotten so deep into Syria. But at one point, where do you see this going in Lebanon? From the future of Lebanon as an entity and the future of Hezbollah, let us say they are—I want to start with the proposition, let us say they are going to come back at one point. Where that’s going to go?

DS: Listen, Hezbollah has experienced great losses in Syria. Fifteen hundred or more soldiers, militiamen being killed, but they’ve also developed new capabilities, right. The ability to move and fire, logistics, mobility, things that they didn’t have before. I mean, they were basically an ambush force in Lebanon. Now they are an expeditionary force, and they have absorbed the casualties. Many people at home in Lebanon are not happy about that. They’re going to be deployed in Syria for some time.

ABM: Exactly, yeah.

DS: But when these guys come home, the question is, what are they going to do. Well, some of them will be dispatched, deployed elsewhere by Iran. Right. These guys have been through Yemen, they’ve been through Iraq. We’ll see where they put them next right. They are now part of Iran’s Expeditionary Force that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militias of Iraq, what they call the Afghani Fatimids, these Afghanistan Shiites who are fighting all over the region. But if they go back to Lebanon, I think these guys are unemployed, right? And not employable necessarily. They create a bit of a problem potentially for Hezbollah at home. These guys are warriors, battle hardened Hezbollahhis that were getting battle pay and status on the battlefield, and can’t read or write back at home, don’t necessarily have any prospects, employment opportunities, integration into society, and Hezbollah may not be in a position to pay for these folks, depending on what type of largesse Iran continues to provide after the operations start to wind down in Syria. Nonetheless, they are somewhat constrained.
If you remember back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel went to war for 34 days, Hezbollah essentially was free to operate from Lebanon, from the south. And their constituents who live in the south fled by and large to the north. They went to Beirut, they went to Dahieh, they went elsewhere in Lebanon and were taken in by the Sunnis and the Christians. And they went to Syria, where they were taken in by the Syrians. But the problem is, after helping to kill the better part of 500,000 mostly Sunni Muslims in Syria, Hezbollah is not going to be welcome in many places in Lebanon, and they can’t go to Syria. And I’m talking about the Shia. So Hezbollah can’t necessarily turn their attentions immediately to Israel. They can try and have this sort of base of operations from the Syrian Golan, but I don’t think Israel is going to buy that. I think Israel will retaliate against Hezbollah, not only in the Golan but also—

ABM: Anywhere.

DS: —in Lebanon, for their operations, yeah, both. Syria certainly. But I think it’s something that is more serious. Israel will have no compunction to go after Hezbollah in Lebanon. So Nasrallah is not an idiot, and he has constituents, and he cares about what the Shia in Lebanon think about Hezbollah. So this is a problem. On the other hand, you have the politics of Lebanon. You now have a new president who is nominally aligned with Hezbollah, but is not as we know entirely reliable, right? [Michel] Aoun is a proven megalomaniac. We don’t know what he’ll do. I mean even Michel Suleiman, the former Lebanese president who was the head of the General Staff, head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Hezbollah approved him and he was great for five years, or Hezbollah thought he was doing just a fine job for four or five years, and then he started to say bad things about the resistance and all of a sudden Suleiman was no good. And I think with Aoun, this guy’s a wild card, uncontrollable. We’ll see where he goes. Hezbollah’s position in the government is assured, but this is basically a hamstrung government. They can’t even decide on the new electoral law to go back to elections.

ABM: That’s right, yes.

DS: They want to do all this offshore drilling, like Israel has all of this natural gas. There’s supposedly a couple billions of dollars worth of gas and oil offshore and Lebanon, 5000 feet under the Mediterranean. But who’s going to bid on that, right? The oil prices are low. The gas prices are low right now, and it’s volatile. Hezbollah keeps on threatening, it has a history of threatening Israeli gas facilities. They can’t put up the bid on these sites on the border because Lebanon refuses to delineate its border. This may be more trouble than anybody wants. Then you add on top of that the Americans and everybody else is telling the Lebanese, ‘hey, if you want to export this, Israel’s building a pipeline to Turkey, share the pipeline with them.’ The Lebanese say ‘no, we’re at war with Israel.’ And so therefore they’re going to send the stuff back to shore. They’re going to have to build an LNG facility. They’re going to put this stuff on a boat and they’re going to price themselves out of the market and nobody’s going to bid on these gas fields. So as they say, it’s a shame for Lebanon, and poor Lebanon, right? They are so remarkable in so many ways, so entrepreneurial, such a vibrant society, and yet they have these sort of intractable problems are their own worst enemies.

ABM: Yeah. I mean also demographically, the Muslims are much larger, at least 60 percent now of Lebanon, 55 percent?

DS: More. I mean, listen, Lebanon’s last census was in 1943. So we don’t really know. But some people know, they have voter rolls, some people have to go back to their villages and vote in Lebanon and they vote based on their sect. And it’s widely believed that the Shia are something like 38 percent, the Sunni are like 35 percent now. Christians and tiny population of Druze, and different kinds of Christians. But the Christians are still a sizable percentage of the population, but they’re not believed to be any longer the majority. And Taif gives them 50 percent of the parliament and the Office of the President. The Premier is a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament. The same arrangement, except now the president’s office is weak.

ABM: Yeah, much weaker.

DS: Very weak. And he’s a symbol of the nation but he has no power, just for appointments and things like that, and appointments for ambassadors. So the Christians, they can vote from abroad, but they still play an enormous role in the state. And they’re trying to have a new electoral law which some of the Shiites want, Hezbollah wants to change it so that it’s proportionality, right? They’re going to sort of reopen the can of worms on this Taif accord. But—

ABM: But it will be dominantly Muslim.

DS: Well, it’s dominantly Muslim in a way right now, because even though 60 of those seats in parliament out of the 120 are Christian, the vast majority of them are elected by Sunnis. 30 of them, 30 of those seats are elected by Sunnis, or Shiites.

ABM: But the question is, will they accept it? I mean, whether Hezbollah and the Sunnis would accept that kind of political arrangement, for how much longer will they go along with it? How do you see it?

DS: Well, listen I think that some people are pushing to reopen Taif, change the electoral law. I mean, the electoral law I think is genuinely bad, it’s the remnants of the Syrians, that intentionally sought to weaken the Christians in Lebanon. They can make some minor changes. I’m not sure they’re going to get consensus on this. Not the least reason why is because people like Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader of Lebanon, if they went to strict proportionality he would lose seats in parliament, etc., and lose his own sort of political key, swing vote in the parliament. So I’m not sure he’d be willing to accept that either. But I think there’s a general trepidation about reopening this, right? You’ve not had surprisingly, right, even though Hezbollah has helped kill all these Sunni Muslims next door, Lebanon’s been pretty quiet too.

ABM: Very surprising.

DS: Two years ago, you had nineteen attacks, suicide bombs, car bombs, things like that. But you haven’t really had anything over the past year and a half.

ABM: To what do you attribute that?

DS: Well, a couple of things. One is that you’ve had the Sunni Minister of Interior, Nouhad Machnouk, has been in close cooperation with Hezbollah. You have the United States that is providing not only intelligence but $100 to $150 million a year to the Lebanese armed forces and intelligence sharing with the Lebanese armed forces, and they’re sharing it with Hezbollah in turn. Right. They have an effective security apparatus at home, and everybody’s cooperating to fight Sunni extremism. Now in the long run, I think the Sunnis in Lebanon are going to get bent out of shape about this arrangement. You have the poorest people in Lebanon is also one of these sort of old things that oh, that the Shia are the downtrodden. This is back in the days of Musa Sadr. Not anymore. The Shia are doing quite fine thank you. Go up north in Lebanon, to Sunni areas north of Tripoli. Fifty percent of the homes don’t have indoor plumbing.
I was up there on the border in Wadi Khaled on the Syrian border, saw all these Syrian refugees, and these refugees are destitute, right. They get $125 a month if they’re lucky for a family of 10, from the United Nations, almost nothing. And then you go visit a Lebanese family up there and they’re saying, ‘hey, how come these refugees are getting so much and I’m getting nothing.’ These guys don’t have running water. Nobody in the family is employed. It’s awful. So it’s really the Sunnis that are in the worse shape. Sooner or later I think they’re going to get annoyed about getting pushed around by the Shia, by Hezbollah. But we’ve only seen small pockets of that. And everybody has agreed that the big enemy are the Takfiris, right? They bought the Hezbollah line. Personally, Sunni extremists are a problem, but so are Shiite extremists. And I think Lebanon’s a state that can’t do anything about that. Part of the problem there is that for the past eight years, the Obama administration didn’t have a Lebanon policy. Right, they had no goals, no focus, no attention, the sole element of U.S. policy in Lebanon was, well let’s say two. One is we’re going to give the LAF, the Lebanese Armed Forces, $100, $150 million a year, buy them some weapons, give them some money for the Internal Security Forces’ domestic counterterrorism mission. And the other thing is that we’re going to do some financial sanctions against Hezbollah. Other than that there was no Lebanon policy, and I think it was a real wasted period of time, because in 2009 the Lebanese went to the ballot boxes and they voted in the pro-West parliament. The good guys beat Hezbollah, and we didn’t do anything.

ABM: I don’t think the Trump administration’s going to do any different. Do you think they’re going to change any policy towards Lebanon? Do they have the time at this juncture to even think about Lebanon for that matter?

DS: Well, let’s see. You know, if you listen to what people like [Secretary of Defense] Mattis has been saying, that we’re going to have to push back against Iran in the region about its regional destabilization, about its sort of predatory foreign policy, part of that will be to not only militarily take some actions in places like the Gulf, when the Iranian fast boats harass U.S. destroyers and things like that, but there’s other steps political steps, other types of ways we can push back against Iran. One of those places that traditionally the Bush administration certainly competed with the Iranians was in Lebanon. And I think it was productive to do so. We didn’t win, but we participated in the battle of ideas, and I think that there will be some in the Trump administration that want to do this. I mean, you just got Joel Rayburn appointed director of the NSC. He’s interested in Lebanon—I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s a smart guy, a former Colonel who’s done a lot of work on Lebanon, among other issues. So maybe they’ll engage on this. I hope so.

ABM: Yeah well we’ll see. We’ll see what is going to happen. Thank you so much.

DS: Oh my pleasure.

ABM: Thank you so much.

On the Issues Episode 14 (Part 2): Daniel Bar-Tal

My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.

Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.

Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.

The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.

Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.

Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.

He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here:

On the Issues Episode 14 (Part 1): Daniel Bar-Tal

My latest guest is Dr. Daniel Bar-Tal, Professor Emeritus at the School of Education, Tel Aviv University.

Dr. Bar-Tal received his graduate training in social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and completed his doctoral thesis in 1974. He previously served as a Director of the Walter Lebach Research Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education, Tel Aviv University and as President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and was Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Israel Journal. He has won numerous awards, including the Alexander George Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, Nevitt Sanford Award of the International Society of Political Psychology, and Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He was awarded the Golestan Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2000-2001, and in 2013 received honorary membership in the Polish Society of Social Psychology.

Since the early eighties his interest has shifted to political psychology and the study of the socio-psychological foundations of intractable conflicts and peace building, including reconciliation. In the latter area, he studied the evolvement of the socio-psychological infrastructure in times of intractable conflict that consists of shared societal beliefs of ethos of conflict, collective memory, and emotional collective orientations. He also studied socio-psychological barriers to peacemaking and ways to overcome them, and acquisition of the conflict repertoire by children and adolescents.

Within this scope of studies he developed with his collaborators theoretical frameworks for concepts like siege mentality, intractable conflict, delegitimization, collective victimhood, socio-psychological infrastructure, culture of conflict, effects of lasting occupation, barriers to peace making, construction and struggle over conflict supporting narratives, acquisition of intergroup psychological repertoire, early development of the ethos of conflict, transitional context, collective identity, and peace education, among many others.

The work in these areas has resulted in books, Group Beliefs (1990), Shared Beliefs in a Society (2000), Stereotypes and Prejudice in Conflict: Representations of Arabs in Israeli Jewish Society (2005), Living with the conflict (2007), and Intractable conflicts: Socio-psychological foundations and dynamics (2013). He co-edited a wide variety of volumes, and in addition has published over two hundred articles and chapters in major journals, books and encyclopedias.

Of special importance in his professional life is founding and leading a “learning community” of 10-15 graduate (mostly doctoral) students, who come from different disciplines and universities, to carry their studies about conflict and their resolution. The learning community serves as a framework for learning, reflecting, debating, and developing; carrying conceptual and empirical studies; socialization for academic career and societal involvement; and for social support.

Through the years he has lectured widely on his work, and worked as Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt University, Brandeis University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of Muenster, University of Maryland College Park, Polish Academy of Science, University of Palermo, and Australian National University.

He retired in 2015 and decided to devote his second career to political activism. He founded a peace movement Save Israel-Stop the Occupation with the goal to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and establish the Palestinian state. SISO’s website can be found here:

On the Issues Episode 13: Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai

My guest today is Ajmal Khan Zazai, tribal leader and Paramount Chief of Paktia Province in Afghanistan. As a tribal leader, he works to bring an end to insurgency and corruption in Afghanistan, and support a process to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.

Born Aug 25th, 1968 in Kabul, Afghanistan, Khan attended primary school in Kabul until emigrating to Pakistan in 1980 due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While studying at Sidiq-i-Akbar High School in Peshawar, Khan continually crossed the border between 1984 and 1986 into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. From 1986 till 1989, he worked for the NGO Afghan Health and Social Assistants (based in Peshawar) as Assistant Director for Public Relations.

In an ambush in 1989, he survived an attempt on his life by extremist elements and was forced to immigrate to Canada. From 1990 till 1993, he studied microcomputer management at the Herzing Institute Toronto, and returned to Paktia province in 1995. From 1996 till 1998, he worked with his father Raiss Afzal Khan Zazai, who was the head of the United Tribes front, in organizing Afghan tribes to revolt against the Taliban regime in Paktia. The attempt was unsuccessful, and some prominent tribal leaders were killed by the Taliban, including his father in 2000.

In 2004, the Zazi tribes appointed Khan as the chief of the Zazi tribes.

He continued with the vision of his late father by uniting the Afghan tribes into the United Afghan Tribes Jirga and continued to unite the tribes within Paktia and across Afghanistan. In 2008, he was elected as the paramount chief of all the tribes in Paktia province. From 2008 till 2012, he channeled over $20 million US into community development projects through the Central Asia Development Group by building retaining walls, water canals, dams, girls’ schools, and bridges and roads in Paktia. These efforts provided employment for over 46,000 people.

In 2009, Khan received a fellowship degree in the Silk Road studies program at SAIS (sponsored by the Rumsfeld Foundation) in Washington, DC. In 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree for services provided in the implementation of democracy and the rule of law in London, and was given a honorary degree as well for numerous lectures given in the United Kingdom.

His vision is to unite the Afghan Tribes in order to bring an end to insurgency, corruption, and warlordism in Afghanistan, and support a process which could bring peace, stability, and prosperity to all Afghans.

On the Issues Episode 12: Carne Ross

My guest for this episode is Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, which he founded in 2004.

During a fifteen year diplomatic career for the United Kingdom, he served as political officer in the British embassies in Bonn, Oslo, and Kabul, and was Head of the Middle East Section and Deputy Head of Political Section at the UK Mission to the United Nations.

In this episode, we discuss a number of topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, and Independent Diplomat’s work with Somaliland, the Marshall Islands, and the Syrian opposition. For more information about Mr. Ross and Independent Diplomat’s work, please visit their website:

On the Issues Episode 11: Andrew Tabler

My guest for this episode is Andrew J. Tabler, the Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, where he focuses on Syria and US policy in the Levant.

Mr. Tabler achieved unparalleled long-term access to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. During fourteen years of residence in the Middle East, Mr. Tabler served as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Syria Today, Syria’s first private-sector English-language magazine; as a consultant on U.S.-Syria relations for the International Crisis Group (2008); and as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (2005-2007), writing on Syrian, Lebanese, and Middle Eastern affairs. Following his graduate work in Cairo, Egypt, Mr. Tabler held editorships with the Middle East Times and Cairo Times, where he focused on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, before becoming senior editor and director of editorial for the Oxford Business Group (OBG). In 2001, Mr. Tabler personally oversaw with OBG the first comprehensive English-language report on Syria in more than thirty years. Mr. Tabler has lived, worked and studied extensively in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.

Mr. Tabler has interviewed Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, the late Israeli president Shimon Peres, the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, slain Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and former Lebanese prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Saad Hariri. His articles and opinion pieces on Middle East affairs and U.S. foreign policy have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. He has also appeared in interviews with CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and the BBC.

Mr. Tabler is author of “Syria’s Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It” (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013) and the 2011 book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria (Lawrence Hill Books).

On the Issues Episode 10: Ambassador Patrick Theros

My guest for this episode is Ambassador Patrick Theros. In March 2000, Ambassador Theros assumed the office of President of the US-Qatar Business Council after a 36-year career in the United States Foreign Service. Ambassador Theros joined the Foreign Service in 1963 and, prior to his appointment as Ambassador to the State of Qatar, served in a variety of positions including Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman; and Charge d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic and Commercial Counselor in Damascus.

During these periods he earned four Superior Honor Awards. In 1990 he was accorded the personal rank of Minister Counselor. In 1992 he received both the President’s Meritorious Service Award for career officials and the Secretary of Defense Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem honored Ambassador Theros with the honor of Knight Commander Order of the Holy Sepulcher. In 1999 His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifah Al-Thani awarded Ambassador Theros Qatar’s Order of Merit.

Immediately before his appointment to Qatar in 1995, Ambassador Theros served as Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, responsible for the coordination of all U.S. Government counterterrorism activities outside the United States. He speaks Spanish, Arabic and Greek fluently.

In addition to his duties as President of the US-Qatar Business Council, Ambassador Theros has the following affiliations:
Member of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council (elected 2010)
Council of Foreign Relations, Member
Representative to USA of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem,
Arab American Bankers Association of America, Member
Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, Member
American Academy of Diplomacy, Member

Ambassador Theros was born in 1941 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended public schools in Michigan, Ohio and the District of Columbia. He graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1963 and has done advanced studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua, the Armed Forces Staff College at Norfolk, Virginia, and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

On the Issues Episode 9: Frederic C. Hof

My latest guest for ‘On the Issues’ is Frederic C. Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a specialist on Syria. Prior to becoming director, he was a resident senior fellow with the Center.

On March 28, 2012 President Obama conferred on Hof the rank of ambassador in connection with his new duties as special adviser for transition in Syria. Hof was previously the special coordinator for regional affairs in the US Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. He joined the State Department in 2009 after serving as the president and CEO of AALC, limited company, an international business consulting and project finance firm formerly known as Armitage Associates LC.

Hof’s professional life has focused largely on the Middle East. In 2001 he directed the Jerusalem field operations of the Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee headed by former US Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and was the lead drafter of the Committee’s 2001 report. In 1983, as a US Army officer, he helped draft the “Long Commission” report, which investigated the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine headquarters at Beirut International Airport. Both reports drew considerable international praise for fairness and integrity.

A 1969 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, Hof began his professional career as an Army officer. He is a Vietnam veteran and served as a US Army Middle East Foreign Area Officer, studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute in Tunisia and receiving a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. He served as US Army attaché in Beirut, Lebanon and later in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as director for Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian Affairs.

Hof has written extensively on Arab-Israeli issues. He is the author of Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier, 1916-1984 (Westview Press, 1985); Line of Battle, Border of Peace? The Line of June 4, 1967 (Middle East Insight, 1999); and Beyond the Boundary: Lebanon, Israel and the Challenge of Change (Middle East Insight, 2000). He has also written many articles on Jordan Valley water issues. His writing on the Israel-Syria, Israel-Lebanon, and (by virtue of his work on the “Mitchell Committee”) Israel-Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process has contributed positively to the body of literature promoting Arab-Israeli peace.

His awards include the Purple Heart, the Department of State Superior Honor Award, the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and the Defense Superior Service Medal. He resides in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Brenda.




Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to another episode of On the Issues. My guest today is Fred Hof, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East, who specializes in Syria. In March 2012, President Obama conferred on him the rank of Ambassador in connection with his new duties as Special Advisor for transition in Syria. He was previously special coordinator for Regional Affairs in the United States Department of State’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Middle East. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.

You’ve been so much involved, directly with the Syrian situation, the civil war in Syria, and most recently, as of course you know, there’s negotiations going on sponsored by Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Where do you think this is going to go, even if they consolidate the ceasefire they’ve been talking about?

Fred Hof: I think Alon, the best thing that can come out of this conference would be the consolidation of some kind of reduction of violence, cessation of hostilities, even a formal ceasefire. This would mitigate the ongoing humanitarian outrage that is happening in northwestern Syria. This is obviously of great importance to Turkey, which is already hosting 2.7 million refugees or something like that. I think it’s important to the Russians because what the Russians I think want to do at this stage is consolidate the diplomatic results of their very successful military intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

You know, when they first came in, President Barack Obama gave them some Dutch uncle advice about, don’t get yourself trapped in a quagmire.

ABM: Exactly.

FH: OK? And I think Putin knows his client Assad well enough to know that if he tries to help Assad reconquer all of Syria meter by meter, this is going to take years, it’s going to take billions and billions and billions of rubles, and I think what Putin would probably prefer at this point is a diplomatic settlement that more or less recognizes that Assad will be around for awhile.

ABM: But yeah, perhaps for a transitional period of at least two to three years. I mean, it’s possible. My concern is not – the issue really that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Let’s say there is a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. But then you have scores of other extremist groups who are operating throughout Syria. And when we talk about some kind of political solution, what sort of a solution is Bashar Assad going to accept when in fact the Sunnis are still a majority in Syria? The Alawites are still a minority in Syria, the Christians already decided they don’t want to have anything to do with the central government, and they’re trying to consolidate their enclave along the line of what the Iraqi Kurds have done. So where is this going to? Even if you consolidate the ceasefire, they cannot control the other groups that are fighting one another, and against the government, not to speak of ISIS. I’m assuming that ISIS sooner or later will be defeated.

FH: Yes. I think that’s a good assumption.

ABM: Yeah, I think that’s what’s going to happen. But then what are you going to do with these other groups that have a vested interest to continue to aggravate the situation in Syria, because they have their own stakes as well.

FH: Yeah, yeah.

ABM: And no one controls them.

FH: Yeah. This is going to be a very long and complicated process, Alon, even if everything goes well.

ABM: Yeah, of course.

FH: Even if there’s a modicum of good faith on the part of various parties, it’s still going to take a long time. And I think the only way to go about this sanely is to take it step-by-step. The main challenge the Russians face right now in trying to consolidate a ceasefire is that their client, Bashar al-Assad, is not particularly interested in that course of action. So far he has been riding the Russians and Iranians to one victory after another. He would like to stretch this out indefinitely until he, Bashar al-Assad, is in charge of all of Syria, along the lines of the way he was in charge in March 2011, before things fell apart.

ABM: But don’t you think this is an illusion on his part? I mean, does he really believe that he can actually achieve that?

FH: It’s possible that he does believe it, Alon. To understand Bashar al-Assad, I think the beginning of wisdom is to understand that he resides at the center of the universe. That everything revolves around him. That Russia and Iran need him even more than he needs them.

ABM: Well this is true, he believes that, and for good reason. Iran wants to maintain its influence, and to some extent presence in Syria almost under any circumstances; they will not relinquish that. Nor will the Russians. So Russia has had a naval base going back 40 years, Iran wants to maintain that crescent between the Gulf and the Mediterranean, for them Syria is a lynchpin.

FH: That’s right, and I think where they potentially differ – they don’t differ right now because each side for its own reasons wants to keep Bashar al-Assad in power.

ABM: To serve their interest.

FH: To serve their interest. From the Iranian point of view, keeping Bashar in power indefinitely is obviously very, very, very, very important. Because what does Bashar do for them? He provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with a secure hinterland, with a real backup. Bashar al-Assad does anything Iran wants him to do with respect to Hezbollah. The Iranians are smart enough, they know Syria well enough to know that there is no constituency for this kind of subordinate relationship beyond Bashar and the family. So their interest in Bashar al-Assad is permanent. The question I ask myself is, is the Russian interest permanent? And I’m not so sure. On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad does provide a service to Vladimir Putin, he enables Putin to turn to his domestic audience and say, ‘look, I have defeated American regime change in Syria, we are back as a great power, so please my friends, pay no attention to that failing economy. Pay no attention to the corruption of your government, we’re back as a great power.’ And with Assad being the face, the personification of the state that has been saved, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin does not want Bashar al-Assad to go anywhere in the next 20 minutes. But beyond that, if you’re going to have an expanded naval base, if you’re going to have an air base in Syria, what do you do about a platform that is so weak, that will never recover, that will never attract significant funding for reconstruction as long as Bashar al-Assad and his entourage exercise executive power? The Russians know this guy, and they know the family. They know how corrupt it is. They know how incompetent it is. So if the Russians are going to keep Bashar al-Assad in power indefinitely, they have to weigh the fact that Syria will continue down the path of a totally failed state. And is a failed state really the place where you want to have military bases?

ABM: Yeah, but this is the point. They cannot possibly, in my view, count on Bashar Assad to stay there so-called indefinitely. How can he possibly be there indefinitely? That is, if the ceasefire is to be followed by serious political negotiations to reach some kind of an agreement, there’s no question at least – please correct me if you think I’m wrong on this – the rebels are not going to agree that Bashar al-Assad remains in power indefinitely. They’ll have to agree on some kind of a political solution. He may be there for a transitional period, for four years, or go to elections maybe once or twice, but he’s going to have to go at one point or another. Do you think the rebels will ever accept a solution that’s going to keep him permanently?

FH: No, they will not accept such a solution, but look at it from the point of view of Bashar al-Assad, ok? Why should I, Bashar al-Assad, care one way or the other, what the rebels will accept or not accept? I have won a military victory that has sustained me in power, that has rolled back a very serious challenge to my tenure as president of the Syrian Arab Republic. If I can keep the Russians and the Iranians engaged against the rebels, I have a chance of having it all. Right now, I’m in the driver’s seat, why should I give up anything to these people?

ABM: Well, this is exactly the point. That is, are the Russians and the Iranians prepared to continue to invest this much time, energy, money, resources, military, everything, indefinitely? They want to have some kind of a solution that can consolidate their position in Syria, and somewhere along the line get out of this mess.

FH: I think it’s clear Alon that the Russians want to move in that direction, and the Russians recognize at least in an academic sense that there has to be some kind of power-sharing so that there can be a respectable-enough government in Syria to attract the international financial institutions, the major countries of the west, Japan and others, to put money into the country for reconstruction. I think the Russians get that. You know, they may embark on a strategy of trying to move Assad into more of a ceremonial position, so that actually skilled people, technicians, can run a central Syrian government. I have no doubt that Assad will push back against that. He will oppose it. If you have a mafia-style organization, mafias are really not into power-sharing, much less giving up power. This would be an unnatural act for Bashar al-Assad and his entourage to do this, so who becomes a key character here? This would be Iran, ok. And Iran, from my perspective, really does want Assad. For them, Assad is the genuine article, he is the only Syrian who can really be relied upon to deliver with respect to Hezbollah. And for Iran, Hezbollah is everything. Hezbollah is its long arm of penetration into the Arab world. Lebanon is kept under domination and you’ve got a permanent threat to Israel.

ABM: This is true, they want him to stay for as long as possible, that means they’ll have to continue to support him for as long as they want him to be in power.

ABM: Now when we talk about some kind of sharing, creating some kind of government where there’s representative of — who this government’s going to represent. So let’s say you have an agreement between the rebels and the government. What happened to the other major minority groups, like the Christians, like the Kurds, and others, and so who is going to represent whom? In what kind of representation, power-sharing, you can actually envision, where these people – I mean if you talk about power-sharing, the Christians say, well we want to be part of that. The Kurds, even though they are trying to consolidate their own enclave, they may still not want to be left out completely; after all they need some kind of resources to maintain their strength and presence. So who is going to share that kind of power, under what kind of an arrangement, specifically if we’re talking about some kind of proportionate representation of the population. What other group, other than the rebels? And do the rebels in fact represent the Sunni community, all of it? That’s the problem I see.

FH: Yeah, the armed Syrian rebels are predominantly and indeed overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. The broader Syrian opposition, the unarmed Syrian opposition, has representatives of all of the sectarian groups, plus Kurds, in it. I mean, there are Alawites, there are Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds involved.

ABM: And Druze.

FH: One way to go about this would be consistent with what the permanent 5 members of the Security Council agreed in Geneva in June 2012. And that is that at Geneva, under the auspices of the United Nations, the Syrian government, and a delegation representing the opposition, would create on the basis of mutual consent, a transitional governing body, ok? In effect a national unity government, that would run Syria for an agreed period of time. That would work on restoring stability, getting the United Nations humanitarian aid in everywhere, begin reconstruction, write a constitution, et cetera, et cetera. Again, mutual veto as to who’s on it. One way to accommodate the Russians, perhaps, would be to exclude the Syrian presidency from this arrangement.

ABM: Only if it is ceremonial.

FH: Yes, and it would be basically ceremonial in nature. Full executive power in accordance with the 2012 Geneva final communique would be exercised by this transitional governing body, which would probably consist of current members of the Syrian government to include some people in the security services who are not necessarily suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity, some of the more prominent opposition leaders. This could be done, and the merit of doing it this way is it’s fully in accordance with what the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China agreed in 2012. It’s not going to be pretty, it’s not going to be a pristine process.

ABM: It’s impossible, I mean, in my view, it’s extremely difficult to get to this point, because let us say you have a representative government. Again, I want to go to the point, is it going to be proportionate. Will the Sunnis have a single vote, or two, equal to everybody else? How do you get a representative government, transitional government that is going to satisfy the groups, one of which is a complete majority in all of Syria, and the others are small minorities? What sort of representative government can you put together?

FH: I think Alon, as a general matter – and look, there’s a wide variety of opinion within Syria. But as a general matter, Syrians remain very nationalistic, notwithstanding the efforts of Bashar al-Assad to turn this into a sectarian battle. Most Syrians still resist having sectarian identification at the top of the way they identify themselves politically. They are Syrians first. I think that the manner in which a transitional governing body performs will mean a lot more to Syrians than the sectarian identity or the relative shares. To sum it up, I do not think there is much sentiment in Syria in favor of a Lebanese-type solution.

ABM: No, I agree with you, but just [unclear] of course, you know, after all, the Syrians have been living under the Assad regime now going for 45, 46, 47 years.

Since Hafez al-Assad. And then there were demonstrations took place 6 years ago and were met with force, so notwithstanding  – and I agree with you, there is that nationalistic tendency. And so do the Iraqis to great extent, have the same kind of tendency, some kind of – they’re nationalist. But here again, you have outside powers who are going to do whatever it takes to secure their position in Syria, for the very reason you mentioned – Iran because of Hezbollah and [unclear] and Assad because he wants to have a presence in the Middle East, and Syria is a wonderful place to be, and he’s been there for some time. So these powers are going to have to be also satisfied in what sort of transitional government you’re going to have so that it will continue to serve their interest as well. So here where there is going to be a conflict in my view between the national tendency, that is get together, work together, restore Syria as a single unit, where in fact these other powers are going to be pulling and pushing to make sure they all count, and they continue their–

FH: I suspect Alon that the central problem with respect to outside powers really does boil down to Iran. Because of all the outside powers we’re referring to, and leave aside Russian military bases, just put that to the side—Iran is the only party that really wants to have a large, permanent presence in Syria. Iran is already in the business of trying to build a Hezbollah-like structure in Syria. Just in case some time in the future the Assad family can’t hang on. They’d like to see a Syrian version of Hezbollah that is essentially a state within a state, or perhaps the only real state inside Syria. I mean, Turkey, for example, really wants to see peace and quiet in Syria. It would like to see the restoration of economic ties which had grown very, very rapidly in the years preceding the civil war. The problem the Turks have, quite aside from Syrian Kurds, is the Turks look at the Assad regime, and they just don’t see the kind of leadership that can breathe any life into Syria. From the point of view of the Turks, if the Assads are still in the picture, with actual executive power, Syria will continue to die, Syria will continue to hemorrhage human beings, and Turkey’s problems will just multiply in the years ahead. The Turks are facing the fact right now that the Russians and the Iranians have purchased Assad a military victory. The Turks are facing the fact that the United States is AWOL. They’re trying to make the best of a bad situation. But reports that Turkey is going to leave NATO and become Russia’s ally, or that Turkey is going to reconcile itself to Bashar al-Assad, I think these reports are highly exaggerated and false.

ABM: I think so, I agree with you in that regard. But you know, for Turkey, obviously they need stability. I don’t think they care who is going to rule Syria as long as there’s some kind of political stability.

FH: But political stability will require a strong measure of national reconciliation, and political stability will require reconstruction – basic infrastructure, housing stock, lines of communication, and Turkey’s conclusion is you can’t get there with Bashar al-Assad in power. Nobody in his right mind is going to invest in Syrian reconstruction as long as you’ve got this clique sitting there with its hands open, prepared to take a percentage of whatever comes into the country.

ABM: Yeah, Fred, my understanding, talking to some Turks in this area, they are supporting the cease-fire, they want to consolidate it. They want to see if they can alleviate the problem with the refugees. But they also know exactly what you said, that Turkey does not have any confidence that this is going to lead to any kind of serious reconciliation anytime in the foreseeable future. So that’s how they see it. But they want to alleviate some of the pressure.

FH: In effect, the Turks want to put a tourniquet on a gushing wound right now.

The full recovery of the patient, that’s something for the future.

ABM: Exactly, that’s what they’re saying. So that’s what Erdogan is aiming for, and he absolutely doesn’t want to see if he could help it, that Assad staying – even a transitional period of time, they don’t want to see that happening. But I’m not sure they can control that.

FH: No they can’t.

ABM: That is, they cannot control that. Because if they want a cessation of hostilities, at least between the major combatants, that is the rebels and the government, then they’re going to have to agree that Assad is going to have to be, at a minimum, a figurehead at this point.

FH: I think so, and look, I think the Russians understand this as well. The Russians understand intellectually what the problem is here. And they’ve had a lot of experience with Assad over the years. They know what they’re dealing with. The real question is whether a) they want to slide Assad into a more ceremonial role so that Syria can get on the road to recovery, and b) if that’s what they want, do they really have the leverage to make it happen? Because Assad will resist this. As I mentioned earlier, Assad is not into power-sharing, it’s not exactly second nature for him, and he’ll fall back on the Iranians, who are not interested at all in Bashar al-Assad playing the role of Syria’s Queen Elizabeth.

ABM: That’s exactly – I mean, his survival depends, really, to a great extent, on continuing support of Russia at this point, and Iran.

FH: I would say mainly Iran. Mainly Iran.

ABM: Ok, mainly Iran. So, what is going to serve Iran’s long-term interest here? You know? Keeping Assad for as long as they can. And perhaps in the interim, they can create some kind of a basis along the line of what you’re talking about, create some kind of Hezbollah group to be in Syria: should Assad eventually depart in one form or another, they have already consolidated their presence by other means.

FH: This I think is their strategy.

ABM: This to me seems to be their strategy, trying to do that. They need two, three, four, five years, maybe six years, to be able to establish that kind of presence, and then the hell with Assad.

FH: Well the Iranians have said that at a minimum, Bashar al-Assad should serve out his current term, which takes us out into I think it’s June 2021.

That hypothetically would give them enough time to build a structure in Syria that if necessary, I mean, who knows, by 2021, who knows what the relationship between Iran and Israel might be, ok? We can’t completely eliminate the possibility of a détente of some kind, in which case, Hezbollah as a military force becomes not relevant to Iran, and the whole equation changes then.

Keeping Bashar al-Assad in actual power until 2021 may not be so important to the Russians. In fact, the Russians may see several downsides to that, but it is of paramount importance to the Iranians. The Iranians need time a) to build a parallel structure in Syria that can keep them in the driver’s seat, and b) to see what is the world going to look like in 2021? Are we still going to be more or less on the edge of armed conflict with Israel? Are we still going to need Hezbollah to be pointing whatever it is, 100,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state, will this still be necessary? We know it’s going to be necessary for the foreseeable future, in 2021 instead, who knows?

ABM: I just want to touch on Turkey versus the Kurds in Syria. Notwithstanding everything we’ve been just talking about, Turkey has unique, different interests as to what’s going to be with the Syrian Kurds. And right now, basically they’re fighting them, for all intents and purposes. Under what circumstances could that attitude of Turkey change toward the Kurds, under any kind of scenario in terms of finding power-sharing, some kind of a permanent ceasefire, long-term ceasefire, or even forming some transitional government? Where do you see Turkey going with the Kurds, which they consider a staunch enemy as far as I know.

FH: I think there are a couple of aspects to the Turkish attitude here. First, the official Turkish belief, and I think it’s the belief of the Turkish population in general, is, yes, there are plenty of Kurds in Syria, but there’s no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan. And in a technical demographic sense, this is true. You know, unlike northern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish, the strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border on the Syrian side is far from 100% Kurdish. There are a lot of Kurds, but there is no Kurdistan. Second, from the Turkish point of view, the dominant Kurdish political force in Syria, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.

ABM: PKK, that’s how they see it.

FH: Which has been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and this is one of the great ironies. The United States is using the Syrian affiliate of the PKK to fight the ground war against ISIS in eastern Syria. So naturally, the Turks are not amused by this.

They find it quite offensive, and they’d like to see the United States get out of that business, which is understandable. But you know, in my discussions with Turks, what I say is, this is fine, what you’re saying is perfectly logical. But understand one thing – in order to defeat ISIS in Syria, an organization that is carrying out atrocities in Turkey, we need a ground force. You can’t win a military victory from 30,000 feet against a bunch of guys in jeeps and on foot. It can’t happen. So if it’s not going to be the YPG, who’s it going to be? Let’s have a discussion on who it’s going to be. This is how I perceive it.

ABM: And you’re right, and I suppose their intense hatred for the Kurds is really blinding them from seeing the reality, don’t you think?

FH: Well, to use a current expression, there could be an alternate reality here. I mean, the United States does have the option, and in fact, Alon, I think this is taking place. The United States has the option of doing a top-to-bottom strategic review of how we are pursuing the war against ISIS in eastern Syria, ok? The way we’re pursuing it, right now, has made it kind of a slow-motion war which has enabled ISIS in Raqqa to plan and execute major atrocities in Turkey and Western Europe, alright? You’ve got a predominantly Kurdish force that certainly is not interested in going block-by-block in booby trapped Raqqa to save the place. T

Their interest is in an autonomous zone along the border, so the thought is, alright, we’ve recruited a bunch of Arabs to serve with the Kurds, what we call this Syrian Democratic Force, we’ll feed them into Raqqa to save the city, as if there’s no requirement for professional soldiers or marines who are trained in urban combat. I mean, you can’t take a collection of militiamen and feed them in like that. Not only will it be bad results for them, it’ll be bad results for civilians who are caught in the place.

ABM: Exactly.  I fully agree with you. Now that President Trump is talking about, joining forces with Russia, basically to focus on ISIS, to defeat ISIS sooner than later. I mean, that’s what I understand the thinking is.

FH: Well, what he said as a candidate is number 1, ISIS is his first priority. I mean, he’s even telling NATO that ISIS is our first priority. But in Syria, ISIS is the first priority, and he’s held out the possibility, he said perhaps we should support Russia and Assad in their battle against ISIS. I suspect that President Trump understands two things by now: number 1, Russia and Assad have not been fighting ISIS.

ABM: Absolutely, yeah.

FH: Except for the occasional episode of Palmyra falling and being recaptured.

ABM: When ISIS is in the way, they fight them.

FH: Yeah. I think the president of the United States understands that now, and even more importantly, I think he understands that if you get into bed with Assad and the Russians, there’s another party in that bed with you, which is Iran. And at the end of the day, an American-Russian-Assad alliance puts Iran in charge of Syria, and I don’t think this is something the Trump administration wants.

ABM: So when he’s saying we need to eliminate ISIS, so far, from the air, yes, we have made significant progress but not been–

FH: Yeah, there has been progress.

ABM: But we’re not going to defeat ISIS, exactly what you said, from the air alone. Doesn’t that mean that we need to send ground troops?

FH: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if that is one of the options.

ABM: But would you advise him?

FH: I would. And if I were asked, I would advise him to go in that direction, and try not to make it a 100% unilateral American initiative. Try to make this a coalition of the willing on the ground. Look, if we’re going to separate ourselves from the YPG in this battle, this is a major political victory for Turkey. This is being very forthcoming with the Turks, giving them something they really want. Ok, how about something in return? How about a couple of divisions to help secure eastern Syria once ISIS is defeated? You know, we discovered in 2003 when we went into Iraq, that post-combat stabilization really is important, it was a lesson relearned in Libya in 2011. Are we going to relearn the lesson the hard way again in 2017 in eastern Syria? We need to be prepared for the day after. Because defeating ISIS militarily is one thing, it’s absolutely essential, I have no reservations about that at all.

ABM: No, there’s no question. And we cannot do that peacefully.

FH: But filling in the vacuum that these people filled in the first place with some effective local governance, with security, with the United Nations bringing in humanitarian assistance as rapidly as possible, this all has to be part of the overall plan. And if we’re going to use American troops in there, I want to see Turks, I want to see Jordanians, it’s possible that the French, who I think were really ready to go after the Paris attack.

AMB: The French will be ready to go.

FH: Get the French in there, the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Bahrainis.

ABM: But what about Russian ground troops?

FH: I don’t think so. I don’t think the Russians are inclined to do that. And my preference would be to keep them out. Keep them out and by all means, keep the Assad regime out of eastern Syria. It’s the performance of the Assad regime that made Syria safe for ISIS and al-Qaeda in the first place. You can use Syrian civil servants who still live in eastern Syria, people who know how to turn on the electricity and pick up the garbage and teach in school, great. Great. One of the basic principles of civil affairs is use the infrastructure that’s available to you. But letting the Assad family and the entourage back into areas liberated from ISIS, this would be catastrophic and self-defeating.

ABM: Just one last thing in terms of the coalition you’re talking about. Yes, I think the United States should not be doing this single-handedly, and it can’t. At this point, even we cannot do that. That’s because there are already other forces involved. The Russians are involved, the Iranians are involved.

FH: But not in eastern Syria. In eastern Syria right now, it is simply the predominantly Kurdish force on the ground. There are Syrian army units in Deir es-Zor and in Hasakah, I think. And they are basically just sitting there. These are predominantly Sunni units that Assad put out in the middle of eastern Syria because he couldn’t trust them to fight effectively in the West.

ABM: I’m just trying to think in terms, what sort of coordination, partnership quote unquote between Russia and the United States, given that what President Trump have already said, together we can defeat ISIS, so, we’re going to have to find a formula, I’m not sure what kind of formula—

FH: Well I think probably there’s a division of labor. The United States takes the lead in killing ISIS in eastern Syria, the Russians take the lead in stabilizing the cease-fire, protecting civilians in the west, and the United States and Russia together will regenerate the Geneva peace talks.

ABM: Well, we’ll end up on the most positive note.

FH: Not easy to do with Syria.

ABM: But thank you so much.

FH: Thank you so much, Alon, it’s always a pleasure.

On the Issues Episode 8: Steve Schlesinger

My guest for this episode is Steve Schlesinger, a Fellow at The Century Foundation and former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997–2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal.

In the early 1970s, he edited and published the New Democrat magazine, and after that spent four years as a staff writer at Time magazine. For twelve years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid-1990s, he worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities. He has also taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

He is the author of three books: Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations (Basics Books, 2003), for which he won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award; Bitter Fruit: The Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala, with Stephen Kinzer (Doubleday, 1982), cited as one of the New York Times’ “notable books” for 1982; and The New Reformers: Forces for Change in American Politics (Houghton Mifflin, 1975). He is the coeditor of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Journals: 1952–2000 (Penguin Press, 2007) and The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (Random House, 2013).

A specialist on the foreign policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, he is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New York Observer. He has appeared on CNN, Fox TV, NPR, NBC, Book TV, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, Christopher Matthews “Hardball” and Chuck Todd’s “Daily Rundown”, and other media outlets as well as in seven different documentaries on the UN and two on the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.

On the Issues Episode 7: Tim Williams

On this episode of On the Issues, I speak with Dr. Tim Williams, a consultant who has an extensive career history that extends from community and clinical psychology to working on military coordination in humanitarian response during conflict, development of governance and economic development in a fragile economy in a post-conflict context.

His PhD research and subsequent academic work is on the topic of how professionals make ethically loaded decisions at the nexus of personal, business and professional demands and values. In addition he has researched ethical decision-making in Antarctic scientific field parties, analysed the cultural interpretation of landscape in a military occupation, and written on psychological intervention in a chronic armed conflict and natural disaster. He is experienced in both quantitative and qualitative analytic techniques and has applied these across a range of fields including humanitarian access, supply chain and trade development, ethics and development of good governance.

For six years (2010-2016) Tim worked in the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem where his work focused on bridging between the political and diplomatic sphere and practical projects and interventions with government officials from several governments and many agencies, diplomats, private sector business, civil society groups and the international development community. This role involved advising and working with the Quartet Representative (Mr Tony Blair) to use his political weight and diplomacy to further Palestinian economic development. In particular Tim worked on specific areas where financial corruption was evident in trade facilitation, utilities (water and energy) development and management, and in improving access for Palestinian rule of law officials.

Tim built on his training and experience in psychology and his extensive participation in working with many cultures and in many government structures to bring his advanced skills of interpersonal and group relations, group process and facilitation, critical rigor in data gathering, analysis and presentation of conclusions, and skills in consultation and negotiation.

Tim has worked most recently in the Middle East (Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt) but also has experience in the Asia-Pacific region (Thailand, New Zealand).

On the Issues Episode 6: General Anthony Zinni

My guest for this episode is General Anthony Zinni, retired four-star Marine Corps General and former commander-in-chief of the US Central Command. He also served as the US Special Envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and in missions to Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

General Zinni retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, after a distinguished 39-year career that took him to over 70 countries in many command assignments. In his final tour of duty, from 1997 to 2000, he was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command. In his military career General Zinni earned 23 personal awards and 37 unit, service, and campaign awards.

General Zinni joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965, after completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Villanova University. He earned graduate degrees in international relations from Salve Regina University and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University. General Zinni has been awarded honorary doctorates from Villanova University; the College of William and Mary and the Maine Maritime Academy.

He has held academic positions that include the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. He has worked with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.

He was Chairman of the Board of BAE Systems Inc., and a member of the board of Dyncorp International before being appointed an executive vice president. He also served as president of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc. General Zinni is the author of two best-selling books on his military career and foreign affairs: Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace. His most recent book, Leading the Charge, was published in 2009.