November 30, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Change Takes Off in the Middle East


Earlier this month, I visited Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan as part of a Chicago Council on Global Affairs leadership study mission to the region. We met with top government and business leaders to discuss the security, diplomatic, and economic prospects for the region. While our talks were wide-ranging and addressed an array of pressing issues, I came away from the week-long trip with three overall impressions.

First, Israel is changing rapidly. Its economy is booming, led by a high-tech sector that is the envy of much of the world. Major multinational corporations are setting up critical research and development centers in Israel to benefit from the raft of startups and innovation occurring throughout the land. From automotives to cybersecurity and water-management, Israeli high-tech is leading the way, and the rest of the world is taking notice. Today, a full 10 percent of the workforce is in high-tech and per capita venture capital investment is twice as large as in the United States. In all, Israel’s high-tech sector is the sixth largest in the world.

Israel is changing in other ways too. Demographically, the birth rate among ultra-Orthodox women is more than twice that of secular and non-Orthodox Jews, which has major implications for the future of education, the defense forces, and economic productivity. Politically, the country is steadily moving to the right as the early political dominance of the secular Zionist left gives way to the growing power of more right-leaning Russian emigres, ultra-Orthodox, and Sephardic communities. And while personal and national security are always at the forefront of Israeli debate, Israelis feel more secure on a day-to-day basis than they ever have before.

One key consequence of these changes is that there is less interest in and pressure to resolve the Palestinian Question. The younger generation is more focused on getting on with their lives and less concerned with addressing the Palestinian conflict than their elders. While there continues to be nominal support for a two-state solution, there is less urgency in making progress than there was in the past. More and more Israelis seem to becoming less and less interested in forging a lasting peace agreement. And that suits the current Israeli government just fine. No one we met thought that any new peace initiative coming from the Trump administration stood much of a chance.

Second, meetings with Palestinian officials and civil society (including a group of American Studies students at Al Quds University) reinforced the sense that the prospects for peace in the region are low — and declining. The leadership seemed tired of the longstanding fight, both with Israel to find a negotiated end to the occupation and with their political opponents within the Palestinian community. The younger generation showed little faith in their leaders’ ability to secure a better future for them. Most indicated that they no longer believed in a two-state solution, with opinion divided between those who desired to have their civic rights recognized in a single state (in which Arabs would one day be a majority) and those who continued to reject the right of Israel as a Jewish state to exist in the territory at all.

For many in the West Bank (let alone in Gaza), life is difficult. The occupation and security measures have taken their toll, politically and economically. But there are also those who show little interest in improving the daily lot of Palestinians, fearing that improvement would reduce the pressure on Israel and the world to find a way out of the conflict. The result is a sense of desperation, not least among the younger generation, and as prospects for a lasting resolution become more distant, the possibility of a violent alternative increases. It is hard to see how the status quo can last for much longer.

Finally, a word about Jordan . . . a remarkable country in many ways. Jordan, unlike so many of its neighbors, is stable politically, even as it faces challenges that are at least as large as any in the region. Resource poor (it has neither oil nor much water), this country of 10 million people is home to 1.4 million Syrian refugees. The international community is helping where it can, as we saw in a well-run but heart-wrenching refugee camp on the border. But all of that help is hardly enough to deal with a 15 percent increase in population. (For comparison, that would be like adding 45 million people to the US population; since 2011, the United States has taken in just 18,000 Syrian refugees . . . )

And, yet, Jordan is functioning. While there were concerns about the economic impact of taking in so many refugees, the larger concerns were geopolitical. Unlike in Israel, the absence of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was repeatedly cited as the largest obstacle to stability in the region. Senior Jordanian officials also worried about what was happening to their south, in Saudi Arabia, with many concerned that the rapid changes being pushed by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman posed risks for the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. As an island of stability in a volatile region, Jordan looks to its ties with the United States as a source of security; Washington would do well to support the country as much as it can to preserve this essential stability.

The articles below in This Week’s Reads touch on some of these issues, and on some others that I think you find useful. As always, please shoot me a note with any comments.

Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last

Thomas Friedman/The New York Times

There are three words in the second paragraph of Thomas Friedman’s latest column on Saudi Arabia — which includes an interview with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — that might as well be appended to each paragraph in the piece: “if it succeeds.” Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a massive transformation led by its 32-year-old crown prince, Friedman writes. An anticorruption drive, domestic reforms, and renewed engagement abroad all trace their origin to M.B.S., as he is known in the kingdom. And he’s nowhere near done. The crown prince has an ambitious agenda for his country, one which Friedman seems cautiously optimistic about, even as he is clear-eyed about the obstacles. “It’s been a long, long time . . . since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country,” Friedman writes. The transformation could mark a new and welcome chapter in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the larger region. That is, of course, if it succeeds. (Friedman will be at the Council on Dec. 4; see here for more information.)

How Donald Trump Is Making Things Worse in the Middle East

Carl Bildt/The Washington Post

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy could not be more clear, writes former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt in the Washington Post. The United States has decided to sidle up to Saudi Arabia and Israel, he explains, “to the exclusion of just about everything else.” While the strategy is clear, it is also clearly inadequate, Bildt says. As a result, Washington is increasingly at odds with European capitals on key issues in the Middle East. Take, for example, the issue of Iran. “As the Europeans have argued, the best strategy for influencing Iran’s behavior should be based on uniting the world and dividing Iran,” Bildt says. Yet the Trump administration has pursued the exact opposite, uniting Iran and dividing the world — and all for dismal results, Bildt adds.

Saudi Arabia Has No Idea How to Deal With Iran

Emile Hokayem/The New York Times

Saudi Arabia is on the move. It is taking bold action. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has brought renewed dynamism, ambition, and scope to Riyadh’s policies both foreign and domestic. But as Emile Hokayem writes in the New York Times, if the goal abroad is to push back against Iran’s regional provocations, then Riyadh’s actions could not be more misplaced. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, its blockade of Qatar, and its intersession in Lebanon’s politics, all of which are proxies for Riyadh’s rivalry with Tehran, are the wrong battlefields on which to challenge Iran, Hokayem writes. Saudi Arabia has ventured into areas too peripheral to the main Tehran-Riyadh rivalry to matter all that much. In the end, Riyadh will have little to show for its forays abroad, and at great expense. As Hokayem sums up, "Iran remains one step ahead."

Trump’s Iran Strategy Needs Much Improvement

Kenneth M. Pollack and Bilal Y. Saab/Wall Street Journal

"Syria and Iraq are the places to execute an Iran strategy effectively," write Kenneth Pollack and Bilal Saab in the Wall Street Journal. Yemen and Lebanon are not, they add. Yet so far the Trump administration, following Saudi Arabia’s lead, has prioritized the latter over the former in its pushback against Iran. Nor is the nuclear deal an effective lever with which to move Tehran. “A better approach,” Pollack and Saab write, “would use the leverage gained from pushing back on Iran’s regional expansion to negotiate a follow-on deal extending the JCPOA’s more stringent restrictions beyond the current 10- to 15-year window.” Until the administration sorts out its strategy in the Middle East, they write, thwarting Iran’s regional ambitions will amount to little more than an aspiration.

Flawed Justice for the Butcher of Bosnia

Janine di Giovanni/The New York Times

Last week, nearly a quarter century since the conflict in Yugoslavia took 100,000 lives and displaced millions more, the “Butcher of Bosnia” Ratko Mladic was found guilty of war crimes and genocide. “Justice sometimes comes slow,” writes Janine di Giovanni, who covered the conflict that roiled the Balkans in the mid-1990s. “But 22 years is too long for people to wait.” In all, the judgment handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia makes a weak case that justice has been served, she writes. For example, many of the soldiers who carried out the mass slaughter and rape remain free. And as for Mladic, di Giovanni adds, the long wait for a final judgment only emboldens the Bashar al-Assads and Joseph Konys of the world who continue their own violence with impunity.

The Pendulum of Power Swings Back Towards the State

Zanny Minton Beddoes/The Economist

The Economist's editor-in-chief sees in the present a reflection of the Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, increasingly like now, populism slowly but steadily pushed states to redress the imbalances produced by an economic system that had leapt ahead due to rapid globalization and technological change. Today, the looming backlash against large tech firms, the rise of a Rooseveltian Emmanuel Macron in France, and wariness about China's global ambitions all point to a revival of a politics that seeks to balance increased economic competition with increased protection for the workers who have lost out the most. That is, Zanny Minton Beddoes warns, if it can be managed.

The Varied — and Global — Threats Confronting Democracy

Gerald F. Seib/Wall Street Journal

Gerald Seib’s brilliant diagnosis of the ills threatening democracy gets right to the point. Developments in China, Russia, and, yes, the United States are dangerous to the health of the democratic model. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing’s authoritarianism is increasingly presented abroad as an attractive alternative to democracy. Under Vladimir Putin, Moscow is working to discredit the West and dismantle the democratic impulse at home. And as for Washington, take just one worrying statistic: in less than a quarter century, as urbanization increases, two-thirds of Americans will be represented by just 30 senators in Congress. "That’s the way the system works, of course," Seib writes. “But there will be growing need for enlightened leaders who can show it actually does work for all."

US Trade Problems Begin at Home Not Abroad

Rana Foroohar/Financial Times

Less than 1 percent of US companies sell abroad. The figure is so small it might as well be a rounding error. But as Rana Foroohar explains in the Financial Times, the figure sums up much of what is wrong with the current trade debate in the United States: the problem is at home, not abroad. The way to increase US exports, Foroohar writes, will not be found in NAFTA renegotiations alone. Washington should also work to encourage investment through the tax code, facilitate new supply chains, promote regional export strategies, and connect America’s manufacturing base with the digital and global strategies too many companies currently lack.

Trump's Extraordinary 12-Day Adulation Tour

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

Flattery will get you everywhere, or so the current administration seems to believe, writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. Earlier in November, it took President Trump to Asia, where over a dozen days he peppered foreign leaders — and himself — with praise. Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, and Vladimir Putin each received plaudits from Trump, who also noted his own successes at each stop. Yet there was an undertone of acquiescence in the flattery, Ignatius writes. The delegation from Washington seemed uninterested in any hard policy work that might strengthen US standing in the region. And Beijing seems more than ready to step into the leadership role vacated by Washington. “The Asia trip left me feeling that we’re watching an American retreat, accompanied by a shiny brass band,” Ignatius sums up.

Defending the Liberal World Order

John McCain/The Economist

“This liberal order was not an accident,” writes Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in the Economist. Nor was it a mistake, he adds in this full-throated defense of the US-led international system of the last seven decades. McCain is clear-eyed about the dangers of the present, as he is about the forces that threaten the liberal order. From sectarianism and nationalism to rising authoritarianism, there is much working against the international system. Yet the ultimate decision about the order’s fate rests with the United States, he writes: “America remains the greatest democracy in the world, with the strongest military forces on the planet, and at its core still embodies the universal values that have always made us a beacon of hope for those seeking freedom.”

Exclusive: What Trump Really Told Kislyak After Comey Was Canned

Howard Blum/Vanity Fair

In May, President Trump welcomed to the White House Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador. During the meeting, the president revealed Israel as a source of highly classified intelligence on ISIS. But Israel’s involvement was supposed to be a secret. The Oval Office revelation is seen as a massive and inadvertent blunder by all except those who attribute more nefarious motives to the president for his disclosure to the Russian diplomats. Howard Blum’s account in Vanity Fair of the Israeli mission, the White House meeting, and the consequences from the revelation is excellent and detailed reporting. And to be sure, consequences abound. “Trump betrayed us,” a senior Israeli military official tells Blum. “And if we can’t trust him, then we’re going to have to do what is necessary on our own if our back is up against the wall with Iran,” the official added.


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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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