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The Middle East in Crisis: A View from Israel

October 9, 2014

A mosque in Tel Aviv via Shutterstock

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. This is another in our series of Ethics in Security bulletins and I'm delighted to welcome today back to the Carnegie Council, Charles Freilich.

Charles is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and he also teaches at Tel Aviv University. He was previously a deputy national security advisor for Israel, a senior analyst in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, a policy advisor to cabinet minister, and a delegate of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. He has also been the executive director of two non-profits, Israel's Zahavi Association, and the Golda Meir Association in the United States.

Quite a compendious background, Chuck, and welcome back to the Carnegie Council.

CHARLES FREILICH: Good to speak to you.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Excellent.

I should add that Chuck is speaking to us from Tel Aviv and so we are interested in a number of things relating to the situation within Israel, but also more broadly.

Chuck, if I could begin, when you were last here, about 18 months ago, you made the observationand I think I'm quoting you directly here"We are viewing potentially the redrawing of the entire Middle East." That would certainly seem to be the case in this troubled situation today, particularly with the seemingly inexorable advance of Islamic State (IS) across Syria and Iraq.

What is the view of this IS situation from Israel?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think that the statement at the time certainly seems to fit with the situation we're in today. I don't know that the advance of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is inexorable, but what they have done already is quite significant and they will still continue expanding for a while. I don't think that the current international effort is at a level which is sufficient to stop them, but I think the problem goes way beyond ISIS.

We're seeing changes in countries throughout the region, whether it's in Yemen, whether it's in Libya, it's far away. The ferment that gave rise to the so-called Arab Spring and that resulted from it is still there throughout the region. I think the Middle East is going to be changing dramatically for many years and maybe decades to come.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the question of the Islamic State however, I certainly take your point that all this has done is to serve to push other crisis situations such as you mentionedLibya, etc.into the inner pages of the newspapers. Clearly, Islamic State is getting our attention.

You're suggesting that perhaps the Western response is insufficient. Obama has been criticized for passivity in his approach to problems in the extended region, but of course we now have air strikes. There has been at least some talk from former military leaders of the possible need for boots on the ground. To what extent do you think that the response (a), is not adequate at the moment and (b) how it might be made more forceful?

CHARLES FREILICH: First of all, I think the response is a few years too late. It's not just ISIS, it's to what's been happening in the region. ISIS is partly a result of the vacuum that's been there in the international response for the last few years since the turmoil in the region began.

I think the United States does not have the stomach for getting into another ground war in the region. I don't think that's in the cards. I do think that air strikes alone are not going to do it. The boots that will be necessary on the ground will have to come mostly from other parties, not from the United States. Turkey is a good candidate. They've got a long border with what's happening and it would be nice to see some of the Arab countries putting some boots of theirs on the ground. I don't see the United States getting involved significantly.

I also don't think that the president's approach, saying zero boots, is an appropriate one. We also saw Chairman Dempsey, himself, saying that he could see circumstances in which some boots at least might be needed.

I think it's going to be more required. Just dealing with ISIS at the moment because that is the immediate threat that's gotten everyone's attentionto deal with this is going to be a years-, possibly decades-long effort that the West has to prepare itself for psychologically and in more concrete terms.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Having said that, ISIS may be something of a test case as to how we grasp these nettles that you describe across the region.

You've mentioned Turkey as an example of potential boots on grounds and obviously with a long border and the attack on the border city of Kobane is very much in the forefront. Yet, Turkey's response seems to be enigmatic at best. The foreign minister today described that any sort of forceful role of Turkey boots on ground is "unrealistic." President Erdoğan has equated essentially the Kurds, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker's Party), with ISIS. This doesn't seem to be propitious for any sort of more forceful Turkish engagement.

CHARLES FREILICH: You're right. I think there is some evolution to the Turkish position and maybe the United States can work with them over time. But I think you're right. I don't think they're going to do a great deal.

I'm also, to be honest, not optimistic about the other Arab countries doing anything significant and effective. What's probably going to happen is we'll see airstrikes and other things which will not have a significant effect. That is the sad truth.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, that leads to one other potential candidatewhich I'm sure you may have some fairly strong opinions onand that's Iran.

There was a piece todayan op-ed in a leading Iranian newspaper asks Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Qods Force, to defend Kobane and asked for precisely this actually, for there to be Iranian boots on the ground in the defense of Kobane and taking the struggle against IS. The op-ed cited reports and I quote, "Soleimani and Iran were involved in liberating the Iraqi town of Amreli and it supplied arms to Kurdish forces in Iraq to fight IS." It added that "the weight of resistance in the region was on Iran's shoulders against IS."

Obviously, the question of whether Iran should, could, would be engaged by the United States and the coalition against IS has been in the forefront of things here. What do you think about that?

CHARLES FREILICH: We're in a situation where there are at the moment some shared objectives between the West and the Iranians, but that's a temporary meeting of interest. Iran is fundamentally part of the problem. It's a great part of the problem. It's not the solution.

I think people should not forget the big picture just because they're looking at the immediate problem. Now, I have noI was going to say I have no problem. I can accept the need for specific, limited cooperation with Iran where it's needed, but keeping in mind the big picture and the big picture is, (a) Iran is a big party to this whole conflict, which is a historic conflict between the Shia and the Sunni and it's actually part of a conflict between the Muslim world, as a whole, and the West; remembering Iran's role there and remembering that the huge issue that awaits us is just around the corner is: Is there a nuclear deal with Iran and what kind of deal? Can you imagine what the Middle East would look like in the current circumstances if there was the one big difference that Iran was already nuclear?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, yes, and that's another thing we did touch on the last time that you were here at the Councilthe question of Iran having been basically been perceived by many in Israel as an existential threat, that there should be no tolerance at all for any sort of nuclear capability. And yet, as I recall, you did suggest that up to 5 percent enrichment by Iran, which is on the table at the moment in Geneva, would be acceptable.

Is this something that you would still adhere to today?

CHARLES FREILICH: I'm a pragmatist. I would really, really, really like to see this deal end up with Iran having no military nuclear capabilities whatsoever, or no capabilities they could possibly use down the road for military purposes.

What's happened in reality is that the international community led by the United Staes haswhich had adopted that position as well, until the interim agreement last Novemberthe United States and the international community came to the conclusion that that is not an achievable deal in reality. The best we can do, the least of the bad options, is a deal which leaves Iran with some sort of limited enrichment capability whether it's 5 percent or 3 percent, whatever, the so-called civil level. That's a deal which I don't think would've been considered good by the United States a year ago, but that's the deal that the administration seems to think is possible.

For lack of better alternatives, I think that's the deal that Israel has to live with because if not, then we have to be willing to go the military route and I don't see that anyone is particularly agog over that option.

What I've seen in the last few weeks is there's been talk of going beyond that kind of compromise. For example, leaving them with more of the centrifuges but just disconnecting the plumbing. Is that face-saving for the Iranians but it really keeps them away the six to twelve month minimal break-out period? I don't know. If that report is true, I find it both ludicrous and very, very worrying. There's a bit of selling out the store with that kind of ideal because then the West can temporarily feel good, "Oh, we got them to reduce capability." But, they're not really six to twelve months away. They can put that back together pretty quickly.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to get back to that in just a momentIran's intentions and track record herebut first of all, again, P5+1 talks in Geneva have been kind of side-tracked by other issues that we've been discussing, but nevertheless, I think the prevailing mood here is one of relative pessimism. I think it is in Iran, too, that the ideal is not as likely to be reached as it seemed a couple of months ago.

Is it not true that key question here really is the question of fuel for the energy reactors that Iran desires to supply its own fuel and the P5+1 group would prefer that Iran imports the fuel? Has there not been a compromise suggested by, I think, Frank von Hippel in Princeton for a sort of delay in sort of forcing this issue?

CHARLES FREILICH: I'm not aware of that proposal. My understanding was that the issue is the overall level of enrichment that the Iranians will be allowed to have.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On Iran's attitude, let me throw out two things that those who would defend Iran's position, certainly more than you would, have offered over here.

The first is that over the past decades, not years, we've heard, "Oh, Iran will have a nuclear weapons capability in a year, 18 months, two years." We've heard that repeatedly, a mantra, over that extended period. It hasn't happened. Now we hear again, it's going to be another year, etc., etc.,. It's like the "boy calling wolf" syndrome.

Secondly, people point to the Iran-Iraq War, where Iran for eight years endured chemical weapons attacks from Saddam's Iraq and did not respond in kind, which would seem to indicate that if ever there's a case for Iran to muster WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capability and use, that would've been the time.

CHARLES FREILICH: As far as the "crying wolf" issue goes, anyone who makes that argument is I think forgetting a couple of factors. First of all, the reason that the 18 months has been repeatedly extended is, well, various parties have helped extend the timeline. There's been all sorts of accidents and explosions and viruses and all sorts of things that have extended the timeline considerably. That's one factor.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Viruses that the West has used to affect Iran's program, yes.

CHARLES FREILICH: The second factor is that the international community finally got its act together a couple of years ago and imposed very, very, very heavy sanctions on Iran. There was also, by the way, the fear of a U.S. attack after 2003 that led to Iranians to temporarily suspend their activities.

So it's not by chance that Iran hasn't achieved the ability yetand I also agree with you that there's more reasons to be pessimistic today that it won't bebut even if a deal is achieved, it's not about Iran abandoning its nuclear ambitions. It's about really temporarily putting them aside until such time as circumstances change and Iran can go back to pursuing those ambitions.

We have to give Iran credit. They have very, very, very good reasons for wanting a nuclear capability. This isn't just some whim that somebody woke up with one morning. Iran has got very good strategic reasons for wanting a nuclear capability. That's why getting them to give it up is so extremely hard, why the various inducements and pressures applied to date haven't succeeded, and why they may not succeed in the final negotiations now.

The fact that they didn't use the chemical weapons at the time during the Iran-Iraq War is interesting. There's no reason to deduce anything from that behavior at the time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to ask you about the situation in Israel because you had some very interesting points to make when you spoke here.

It was, if you remember, fairly shortly after the last round of elections and there were some interesting developments. There had been, if I remember, a loss of four seats by Likud in the Knesset and you said that there might be some potential rise of the Left in Israel. How do you see the political landscape at this point?

CHARLES FREILICH: First of all, I would say that my hopes that the center would be strengthened in a new government have probably not materialized. The events over the summer with the operation in Gaza also put on hold much of the attempts to promote a new socioeconomic agenda.

The defense budget has already gotten a big increase and will, over the next couple of years, be getting a huge increase. That's where all of the focus is and I think the Yesh Atid party, the party headed by Yair Lapid, which was the big surprise new kid on the block, has really lost steam enormously. They got 19 seats in the election. Today, they'd get an order of magnitude of half of that.

There is another new party that will probably come in to the scene next time, but I think the hopes or the expectations for some really successful new force to come into play, that's not going to happen.

From Benjamin Netanyahu's perspective, the good news is that he is now in his third tenure. He already is just now, or soon to be, the longest sitting prime minister in Israel's history. He either has, or will soon surpass Ben-Gurion and there is no one out there who looks like he can challenge him, certainly not for the next few years. So then he will probably by the prime minister again next time.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You also said, and I quote, "Crisis is the steady state in Israel. Israel lives day to day." Obviously, the Gaza operation, the rocket attacks over the summer, have not presumably changed that predisposition to live in a state of crisis?

CHARLES FREILICH: No. The "good news" is that Gaza can re-erupt any time and in the meantime, the Gaza operation ended a month and a half ago. In the meantime, the northern border has heated up because there've been a number of incidents with Hezbollah and maybe a couple with some of the rebel groups on the Syrian side of the border.

So, the Syrian border, the Golan Heights border, which was absolutely quiet for 40 yearsnot a shot was fired for 40 yearsthere were a couple of incidents after the Syrian Civil War broke out, but in the last half year there've been a rising number. There've been a bunch in the last few weeks alone. The concern of Israel is actually that northern front, or the Syrian border, which as I said, was quiet for 40 years, will actually become an active one.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Also, I believe that today is the first session of the new so-called Fatah-Hamas Unity Government. I think I know the answer to this question, but do you see this having any discernible impact one way or the other on the peace process?

CHARLES FREILICH: This is a first step. I would say the safe money is to say that it's not going to go anywhere, that the Palestinians have tried various reunification efforts over the years since the split in 2007. They all failed. The safe money is to say that that's what's going to happen this time as well. It does seem to be something a little bit different now.

Hamas got hit very, very, very hard in the operation over the summer. They are in absolute financial crisis. They need Fatah at the moment. The Palestinian prime minister was actually in Gaza today, the first time anyone like that has been there since the split.

Again, is it going to go anywhere? I think skepticism is warranted, but maybe there's a meeting of needs now. It's not going to lead to full reunification, but it might lead to some progress. Without full reunification, it's really hard to see how we can go forward on the peace process, because the truth is that Abbas does not speak for the Palestinians today. He speaks at best for the West Bank and it's been over eight yearseight and a half, shortly nine yearssince he was elected. His legitimacy in the West Bank is somewhat questionable also. But let's say he could speak for the West Bank in peace talks.

On the other side, I don't see any enthusiasm by the current Israeli government to go forward either. So I don't think we're going to see much progress.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So in other words, again, if I may, I quote you from your last talk here, on the peace process: "Trying and failing at this point is worse than not trying because the peace process has had too many failures." That still applies?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think so. In the meantime, since I said that a year and a half ago, we had a major American attempt to go forward: Secretary Kerry's effort, which failed abysmally; he gets credit for trying although I have no idea why he did. I think it was another case of a failed attempt which further decreases the chances of future success because nobody believes that a successful outcome is likely.

Anyone on the Palestinian side, anyone on the Israeli side who really wants to see progress is disheartened by this. The radicals are strengthened by these kinds of failures so that if we get to see another attemptand we're now entering the last two years of the Obama administration and presidents sometimes have a tendency to try a Middle East peace process within their last two years. I don't see the traction.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Okay, finally, I want to come back to something that you threw out at the beginning. It's also something you took up in an article you wrote just last month in The American Interest called "A Generational Challenge." This deals with us being beyond IS; it's a pan-regional imperative for the West to pay attention to. You refer to Iran's Islamic Revolution, Sadam's rapacious Iraq, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, the slaughter in Syria, Darfur as a sort of historical litany. Basically, you say that there are fundamental Western values that mean that we simply have to address this because it governs not only the circumstances there, but impacts potentially, as you put it, our lives at home.

Let me just throw this out to you. You know, this sort of "city on the hill," wholesome, democratic West versus the barbaric, backward Middle East. Therefore, we have to act because we have to act. But it's not just here, but throughout, across the world, Russia, China, others are pushing back against this notion of a sort of one-size-fits-all liberal democracy.

This is probably a simplistic way of putting this, but what I'm trying to say is, that, coupled with the fact that some of our adventures in the greater Middle East have been hardly resounding successesthe '03 Iraq War being the obvious one that comes to mindwhy do we assume that this is going to work?

CHARLES FREILICH: Well, of course we can look at '03 as a failure. Why not look at '91 as a success?

But, no, I'm not suggesting significant military intervention. In other words, I don't rule out any boots whatsoever, but I'm talking Special Forces, some other limited deployments. I'm not talking about any major use of force. I think we have to understand the question here.

First of all, let's look at what's happening in the Middle East and let's look at what's happening at the West. Is it a really wild, culture-laden statement to say that the Middle East is a really sick place and that the West is a nicer place to live, that we prefer Western democracy to what's happening in the Middle East?

Anyone who has a problem saying that, okay, I have a serious disagreement with them, but that's on one level. That's a moral level.

There's a second level which is a totally practical one. Let's say we want to forget it. We either don't really believe in those values or we don't think they're applicable to everyone and I don't think they're necessarily applicable to everyone. I think most people prefer them to the alternatives, but let's put that aside for a moment.

Let's say we're not going to do anything. It's benign neglect, it's whatever. Well, President Obama tried that for the last three years. He did everything he possible could not to get involved in the region.

Now, I don't have any brilliant ideas of how to deal with the problems. I don't know how you really deal with ISIS. I don't know how you deal with a lot of the other problems. I have some ideas about it. The question is whether we're going to ignore this, or we're just going to make half-hearted efforts and say, "Do your worst." Well, 9/11 happened.

There are a lot of people out there who are thinking of other ways of attacking the West because many of the Islamists look at the West as the ultimate enemy. They want to spread some of their ideology throughout the world. So, do we sit back and do nothing or do we say, "Look, this is a problem that we have to deal with because it affects our national security"? I think the latter is the case.

We have to be prepared that there's no easy solution here, but this is going to be with us for a very long time and unless we realize that that's the case and are willing to make an effort, I think things will just be worse.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me, finally, push you just a little bit further than that, Chuck, because you think about this on a daily basis. You write about it with great insight and articulateness.

If it's not the time for a peace process, recognizing that the peace process isn't going to solve Libya, isn't going to solve ISIS, if boots on the ground may not be the answer, can you think even in a sort of blue-sky way of potential responses that might be more adequate if not ultimately perfect?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think the answer goes way beyond some specific action. We have to choose where the military battles are going to be. We have to choose where we do or do not try and promote political reform, democratization. In some places, democratization is the worst thing that we can do, certainly short-term.

We have to look at the Middle East as a big picture issue, which is going to be with the West now for decades. I would pour a lot of money into the region trying to promote economic development and I know it's hard to do that because there isn't a lot of free money around at the moment. But the West, the international communitythat means mostly the Westhas to get together and see what kind of economic development programs it can put forward, because economics are part of the problem. They're only a part, but it's a part of it.

Where appropriate, we have to try and promote political reform. That doesn't necessarily mean real democratization; in some cases, maybe, and in some cases, it'll just be better government and some forms of liberalization. In some areas where we think we can do something militarily, we should be doing that. We're not going to solve the problem tomorrow.

We're going to take lots of hits. We're going to take losses. In some cases, the president's hesitation to get involved was absolutely appropriate because there was no great option available for what to do, how to solve the specific issue. I'm talking about a change in mindset. This idea that we can turn away from the Middle East, we can pivot to Asia, we cannot make any more stupid wars in the Middle East. I don't think 2003 was stupid.

There are things happening in this region which are very dangerous and we're not going to solve all of them, but we've got to be engaged. Again, I think we have to view this as a generational effort. We're going to be dealing with the Middle East for a long time to come.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me throw in, before we conclude, a plug for a future Ethics in Security bulletin that we'll be doing in the coming weeks and that is with an organization called the Education for Employment Foundation. It's an important reminder that we don't only deal with governments. I think you said this a couple of minutes ago, if I remember rightly, that government action is one thing but the private sector is also critical in terms of investment.

This is an organization that has opened vocational schools across in, I think now, 10 countries in the greater Middle East, from nursing to accounting to civil society training and so on and so forth, basically from Yemen to Tunisia and it's a remarkable enterprise. It deals with situations where there are 50 percent and upwards of majority populations of young people, 50 percent upwards unemployed. This is the kind of thing that I think you may be talking about in terms of a holistic view, long-term view of the situation.

CHARLES FREILICH: Absolutely, it sounds great.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well with that, Chuck Freilich, thank you so much for your time. Your thinking is always both though-provoking and, I want to say, to some extent reassuring. It's always good to have you as a guest.

Thank you very much, Chuck.

CHARLES FREILICH: Thanks very much, David.

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