Categorized | Middle East, Sharkansky_Ira, USA

The Middle East, new or old, is at the world’s center

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — Ethnocentrics elsewhere may protest, but the Middle East has long been the center of civilization.

It may be fairer to claim that it is a center of civilization, with a nod to that other place that claims priority farther east.

Cultures claiming to be primarily derived from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Greece or Rome began in this region.

Medieval maps that centered on Jerusalem retain some relevance, even beyond those of us living a mile or two from the center of the center.

Currently we are all wrestling with the dynamics swirling around the fuzzy notion of a New Middle East.

It’s fluid in the extreme, hard to define, more stormy than peaceful, and hard to predict where it’s going.

A decent starting point for analysis is in one of those peripheral places that claims to be at the center of things, i.e., Washington, D.C.

One stimulus that might have started things was the speech Barack Obama delivered in Cairo in June, 2009.

Or a prior trigger  may have been his predecessor’s attack on Iraq.

9-11 might be a better place to start, noting that it came from another node in the Middle East.

Or even earlier when the Iranian revolutionaries seized the US embassy and upset Jimmy Carter.

Or when Carter and then Regan responded to the USSR in Afghanistan by recruiting Muslim fighters, some of whom segued into Islamic extremists.

Before proceeding further, it is best to go back to our Judaic roots, or the later developing Ashkenazi version, to a proverb said to be born in Yiddish, i.e., Man plans and God laughs.

In other words, one screwup after another.

In the mood of screwups, we can find several explicit themes in Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, given the optimistic title, “A New Beginning.”

  • Linkages of the United States, and especially that of Obama, to Islam
  • A need to confront extremism
  • A commitment both to Israel’s security and Palestinian aspirations
  • Aspirations for a world in which no nation holds nuclear weapons, while having the capacity to access peaceful nuclear power
  • A commitment to democracy
  • A commitment to religious freedom
  • A commitment to women’s rights
  • A commitment to economic development and opportunity

The speech was well crafted and filled with nuance, and directed more at general points than specifics. Applause was loud and long, but at least some of it was one-handed. The President had taken on a challenge in raising demands for democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights in a region noted for opposition to them all.

One can argue the connection between the speech and what became known as Arab Spring.

The incident widely viewed as beginning a wave of unrest, initially applauded as the onset of revolt against authoritarianism and other aspirations associated with Obama’s speech, began six months later in Tunisia, when a street vendor killed himself in a public burning due to harassment by municipal officials.

Protests against the Mubarak regime began a year later; greater carnage began in Libya in August, 2011; the Syria civil war was well underway by February, 2012; Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi became President of Egypt in June, 2012; in November of that year protests began that led to Morsi’s ouster and replacement by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Currently we are in a situation where chaos, bloodshed, and barbarism have replaced optimism, democracy, and freedom as the most prominent themes.

What’s in it for the Jews?

That’s a question that has been bothering the people who may have began what we know as civilization–perhaps with the help of the Greeks and Romans–all those years ago.

The ethnocentrics among us may be thinking that Bibi’s upcoming speech in Washington will be in the same league as Barack’s speech in Cairo.

Even if not, the looming threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is the elephant in our living room. Among Bibi’s tasks, continuing what he has been arguing for years, is that the same elephant is in the living rooms of you all.

Beyond that, we are seeing positive signs of Muslim governments recognizing their problems. Islam has, for them, become a greater threat than Zionism.

Some developments are explicit.

  • Jordan and Egypt are negotiating deals to buy gas from Israel, despite popular protests.
  • Israel’s discovery and development of an off-shore gas field is one element feeding into a New Middle East
  • Jordan and Egypt are involved in military operations against Islamic extremists, along with forces from Iraq, several Gulf States, maybe Saudi Arabia, and whatever we can say about the Assad regime of Syria.
  • Egypt has defined Hamas as a terrorist organization, and has acted against Gaza as well as rebels in the Sinai.
  • Associated with Egypt’s military activity is Israel’s agreement to bending previous agreements in order to allow the entry of military units and weaponry to the Sinai.

Some development have been quiet.

News about the death of a man associated with a military contractor in Saudi Arabia provides insight into what we’ve known for some years about security cooperation with governments that do not formally recognize Israel. The man worked for a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, a corporation that grew out of the Israel Ministry of Defense, with headquarters in Israel and branches in several countries that allow the appearance of not being Israeli for those concerned about labels.

Elbit and its subsidiaries operate “in the areas of aerospace, land and naval systems, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, unmanned aircraft systems, advanced electro-optics, electro-optic space systems, EW suites, signal intelligence systems, data links and communications systems and radios.

The Company also focuses on the upgrading of existing military platforms, developing new technologies for defense, homeland security and commercial aviation applications and providing a range of support services, including training and simulation systems.”

The man associated with Elbit may have been murdered. Because of his association with Israel? That’s a possibility suggesting that the move to a New Middle East is not all that smooth.

A lot less weighty than activities of Elbit and other Israeli corporations are what has come to my mailbox via the Internet that does not recognize national boundaries.

  • A note from a professor at Alfaisal University in Riyadh, including bits of Hebrew, describing a lecture at the King Saud University by Visiting Professor Mark Cohen, who spoke about his research into documents from the Geniza of Cairo, and what they indicate about Islamic and Judaic history. This might be viewed against the record of Henry Kissinger, who may have been the first Jew knowingly allowed into Saudi Arabia.
  • A note from Pakistan, written by a young man who discovered information about Judaism and Israel during his studies in Netherlands, and has sought to bring a new message to his community.

Iran looms, along with American Democrats prepared to defend their President from Bibi’s speech, but things are not all bad.

*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  Your comment may be posted in the space provided below or sent to [email protected]

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