On Monday evening, I attended the first Plenary Session of the Association for Israel Studies 2011 conference. Titled “What Does the U.S. Want in the Middle East and What Should It Want?”, the session featured five gentlemen who spoke for about fifteen minutes each, followed by a question and answer opportunity. Each talk focused on different aspects of United States-Israel relations and what the future may hold for such collaborations.
The first to speak was the panel moderator, Joel Migdal. Migdal is the Robert L. Philip Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington and the former president of the Association for Israel Studies. He set the pace for the panel by outlining Obama’s current policies in the Middle East: to talk about/withdraw troops from Iraq (which is not the true focus), to recenter on Iran, and to push towards Israel/Palestinian peace. He feels that the U.S. needs to reconsider what it should aim for/what it should be doing in the region.
The next panelist was Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Telhami spoke about the impact of the “Arab awakening” on Israel-Palestine relations. Globally, he said, there is a transformation of politics as nations are redefining their interests in the region, which has resulted in a shift in Israeli-Arab thinking and attitudes of Americans towards both groups. Regionally, as Egypt is entering a new era, their relationship with Israel will change. He also added, “Iran only wins as the enemy of my enemy.”
Third, we heard from Robert Malley, the former special assistant to President Bill Clinton and currently program director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C. Malley asked, “Is the U.S. still in the position to pursue/achieve its interests?”, and answered his own question with “to some extent, yes”. He described different regions of conflict, the weakening of U.S. power (or the perception thereof), and the polarization between moderates and militants. Malley stressed the need to adapt to a world that is much more chaotic than it has been in the past, and while the Arab Spring can be good for the U.S. “it will be a long and sustained headache”.
Malley was followed by David Makovsky, a Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process. Makovsky began by urging participants not to jump to worst case scenarios. He outlined three policy options that the United States has: to resume talks with a purpose, to confront the U.N. in September, and to try to shape a deal with Europe. “The U.S. needs to have leverage with the parties”, he said, and must deal with both security and territory.
The final speaker was the S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor of Middle East Policy Studies, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel: Daniel Kurtzer. Unlike Malley, Kurtzer thinks that “it’s time to start worrying”. He believes that the U.S. probably does not have “the smarts to see a policy through”. He explained four factors that suggest “no”: the absence of a strategy that makes sense in terms of follow-up, the fact that there is more talk than action, the lack of determination/persistence, and the fact that the U.S. is overly optimistic. However, Kurtzer noted, this does not mean that the relationship has to come to and end.
The question and answer period that followed was passionate and insightful. The fact that every seat was filled in this session (which was open to the Brandeis community) illustrated the fact the the topic of U.S.-Israeli relations is important to many higher education professionals. Hopefully this discussion will lead to further research and collaboration among university scholars.
For more information about this conference, please check out: