Efraim Halevy, the former director of Mossad and former head of the Israeli National Security Council, discussed recent developments in the Middle East and their impact on Israel.
On October 18, The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum of the Middle East Program hosted a meeting “Iran, Palestine, and the Arab Spring: The View from Israel” with Efraim Halevy. Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event. Wilson Center Director, President, and CEO, Jane Harman gave opening remarks.
Halevy began by noting that individual events that cannot be foreseen can dramatically change the course of policy in the Middle East. He gave an example of the missile shot from Gaza last week that hit an Israeli kindergarten during the night, resulting in no fatalities. Halevy contended that had this missile killed many schoolchildren, it would have been a “regional changer” in the entire region. Halevy then remarked on the effects of the Arab Spring on the political stability of countries throughout the Middle East. He noted that as a result of these revolutions, there are now internal power struggles between factions fighting for credibility and the ability to govern their countries. According to Halevy, of greatest concern is the instability and resulting power vacuum leaving many Arab leaders with “little control over large tracts of land.” He described the current atmosphere in the Middle East as close to “despondency,” with general pessimism about the outcomes in Syria and Egypt.
Halevy then shared his observation that religion has risen in prominence in the Middle East, while secularism appears to be on the decline. The implication of the upsurge in religion has been the deepening of political divides between Shia and Sunni factions in the region. Evaluating the religious factor will be one of the major challenges facing the international community in the future, he said.
Looking at the Middle East in an international context, Halevy discussed what he considers to be the return of Russia as a major force in Middle East affairs. After suffering a decline in influence after the fall of the Soviet Union and continued setbacks in the fall of the Russian-backed Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gadhafi government in Libya, Halevy foresaw the “beginning of a Russian comeback in the Middle East,” starting with Russia’s backing of Assad in Syria and its recent large arms deal with Iraq.
Halevy concluded by sharing his thoughts on Iran’s nuclear program. His view of the current situation is that Iran continues to make progress towards nuclear weapons capability, but that the sanctions are significantly damaging Iran’s economy and causing substantial strain on businesses and financial institutions. Halevy was confident that the major world powers, including Russia and China, are unified in the desire to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As for how to proceed in the Iran crisis, Halevy refrained from giving specifics, but did state that Iran in the past has shown a willingness to back down from confrontation when it has been in their national interest to do so.
Halevy provided some general guidelines on how he thought the world should negotiate with the Middle East, including Iran. First, peoples of the Middle East strive to preserve their way of life and do not wish to conform to Western models of government, noting that democracy “does not work in that part of the world in that way” and that “we have not succeeded in finding the ways and means to engage in an intercultural dialogue” with the region. It is not a question of how to bring democracy to the region but liaising with a different system. Second, there exists a basic problem of dignity in the Middle East, with the people feeling that there is a general lack thereof. Halevy recommended that in dealing with Iran, for example, the West need not compromise its principals, but by making small adjustments to policy, such as becoming more culturally sensitive, a solution is more likely to be reached. Halevy suggested that this “attitude adjustment” would create an atmosphere more conducive to agreement.
By Daniel Boger, Middle East Program
- Former Director, Mossad and former Head, Israeli National Security Council