The Jerusalem Conference concluded Wednesday night with a packed-house lecture by Bernard Lewis, a world-renowned expert on Islamic history and the relationship between Islam and the West. An author of 30 books, Lewis coined the phrase "clash of civilizations" in his work The Roots of Muslim Rage, written 11 years before 9/11.
(courtesty of the Jerusalem Conference)
Lewis, who was present throughout the two days of the Conference, provided, in his lecture, a general survey of the geo-political situation in and regarding the Middle East. Among the leading external factors, he first named Europe - "instead of asking what role Europe will play in the Middle East, we now have to ask what role the Middle East will play in Europe." Then the United States: "Some complain about American imperialism, but this displays only ignorance... When they complain, they are really complaining that US does not fulfill its imperialist role well enough."
US and Iraq
Obviously we cannot know what the upcoming US elections will bring, Lewis said, but noted there are two possibilities regarding Iraq: Either the US will finish the job it started there, or, based on a false comparison with Vietnam, will leave as quickly as it can, "even though it might mean the betrayal of a few hundred thousand people, but that doesn't bother [those who are calling for a US withdrawal]."
"A third external factor of importance is the UN and the international community, where we have found an incredible level of discrimination against Israel ever since its foundation and even before that. For instance, compare the way the world treated Israel's involvement in Sabra/Shatila and later in Jenin - whereas in 1982, the world basically ignored Syria's massacre in Hama of tens of thousands of people..."
Russia, India, China
Other external factors of some importance, Lewis noted, are "the problematic role of Russia, which cannot be expected to remain a passive observer of the Middle East... and also India and China, which will inevitably become more and more involved - particularly India with its very large Muslim minority - the 2nd largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia."
Iran Doesn't Mind Getting Nuked Back
He then turned to the "regional factors shaping the course of events here. First is Iran. It's not an Arab country, but rather a Muslim country, ruled now by a Muslim theocracy, which calculates its policies not by Iranian national interests, but by what is good for Islam. It is actively pursuing nuclear power; even a non-nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel, and it must be carefully watched."
But with these people in Iran, Mutually Assured Destruction is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement.
"Iran's leadership comprises a group of extreme fanatical Muslims who believe that their messianic times have arrived. This is quite dangerous; though Russia and the US both had nuclear weapons, it was clear that they would never use them because of MAD - mutual assured destruction. Each side knew it would be destroyed if it would attack the other. But with these people in Iran, MAD is not a deterrent factor, but rather an inducement. They feel that they can hasten the final messianic process. This is an extremely dangerous situation of which it is important to be aware."
He also negated the school of though that says that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the root of all strife: "In fact, we see that wherever you have Muslims, you have violence, such as in the Balkans, Russia, central Asia, Kashmir, Timor... Nearly 30 years ago, Bin Laden issued a directive saying Americans should be killed, and he gave three reasons. The two major ones were the American presence in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq at the time - and then he added two and a half lines saying that it was also because of the 'petty little state of the Jews.' This shows how unimportant he felt Israel was as an issue for them. Since then, of course, he has adapted his strategy..."
Nationalism Into Patriotism
"A couple of other developments that should be noted: Some Arab countries have undergone or are undergoing a process of nationalism transforming to patriotism. Nationalism is more applicable to countries in the making, while patriotism is when the citizenry truly feels it already has a country. Turkey, Iran and Egypt already have patriotism, and these tend to be less hostile to Israel... In addition, women are becoming more of a factor in Moslem countries; these could, in the future, become important factors for better communication and understanding in the future."
Israel's Edges Being Eroded?
"Now let us turn to Israel: It is, and is likely to be in the future, surrounded by enemies. Its survival depends on its qualitative edge in military superiority. But this edge is being eroded, as we see when we compare the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the last war in Lebanon. Something must be done about this. Also, regarding Israel's technological edge - I hear many complaints from my Israeli friends about Israel's declining educational standards and the gradual lowering of the school system; teachers must be better paid." [Applause from the audience]
Wherever you have Muslims, you have violence.
"The third aspect in which Israel has an advantage is in its democracy. With all its faults, it is vibrant and active and thriving; the Arabs here have better rights than even majorities do in the Arab countries - and the Arabs in other countries know this. But Israeli democracy, like its other edges, is in danger - and here I would like to put in a word for electoral reform. There is no direct election here, and therefore the representatives are not held accountable to anyone other than their party leaders and directorates. In addition, minor splinter groups are granted more importance than they deserve proportionally, and the entire system encourages corruption."
On the Positive Side
Lewis concluded by noting two positive features of the present situation. "The first is what I call the Sadat gambit. The late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, made peace with Israel not because he suddenly saw the merits of Zionism, but rather because he realized Egypt was becoming a Soviet colony... There are signs that some Arab countries are making similar calculations regarding the growing strength of Islamic extremism and of Iran. Some Arab countries were actually quietly disappointed when Israel did not defeat Hizbullah in 2006. In addition, there is a slow, small-scale, tentative rise of democratic ideas in the region. An increasing number of Arabs in the region even see Israel as an example and a model to be followed in developing their own democracies."