By Kathy Carlson
From Egypt to Syria to Iran, the Middle East’s landscape is fraught with problems that Israel should address with restraint and an eye on the long term, a Middle East scholar and journalist told about 140 people at the Gordon Jewish Community Center.
Barak Barfi spoke on June 21 as part of the series “Increase Your Israel IQ: From Argument to Advocacy,” funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Nashville’s New Initiatives Fund and organized by the Federation’s Community Relations Committee. His talk was titled “The Arab Spring – One Year Later.”
He covered the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s post-revolution politics, unrest in Sinai, what will happen to stores of chemical weapons in Syria, Iran’s dance with the West on uranium enrichment and nuclear capabilities, the situation in Jordan, and overall, how this unrest affects Israel. Fluent in Arabic, he has spent considerable time on the ground in the Arabic countries of the Middle East.
Barfi, currently a research fellow at the New America Foundation, noted that Egyptian Islamists are hurling hostile words against Israel, accusing it of breaching the Camp David accords by failing to give autonomy to the West Bank and Gaza, for example. But Egypt’s economy is in bad shape, with no tourism or outside investment to speak of and dwindling reserves of the foreign currency it uses to trade with other nations. It has been reluctant to accept a $3 billion-plus loan from the International Monetary Fund and more than $1 billion in military aid from the United States is in jeopardy.
The fragile economic situation reduces the likelihood that Egypt will take hostile action against Israel, Barfi said.
Sinai, however, could pull Israel down a “slippery slope” toward war, he said. Attacks on Israel from Sinai have become more brazen, and in the latest attack, one of the Arab gunmen was a Saudi, he said, signaling the entry of foreign players into hostilities against Israel from Sinai.
“I’m not predicting war but there are problems we have to be aware of,” he said. In his opinion, Israel and Egypt need to restore Sinai as a buffer between the countries and “Israel needs to help shepherd Egypt toward democracy while remaining in the background.” Moreover, he said, Israel should be prepared to anticipate a few losses from Sinai in the next few years so that Egypt can deal with economic problems rather than shift its attention to a fight with Israel in the Sinai.
Relations with Egypt may be problematic, he said, but “Syria is just a nightmare. … The revolution is not over and nobody knows how it’s going to end.”
Topping all that, Syria has large stocks of chemical weapons, he continued, and there’s a fear that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon, will get them. The chemical weapons are well guarded by Assad loyalists, he said. Americans are poised to get the weapons out before terrorists can get hold of them, he said. “This is a national security concern for the United States, to safeguard these chemical weapons.”
Hamas is the silver lining in the discord in Syria, Barfi said. It has cooled its ties with Iran and is aligning with Qatar and Saudi Arabia. A Sunni regime in Syria would isolate Shiite Iran, Barfi said.
He indicated Iran has been cagey in playing the West while continuing to enrich uranium well past the point at which it is used for fuel. The most recent economic sanctions against Iran may prod it to back off on uranium enrichment, he said, adding that the regime in Iran is more susceptible to public opinion than, say, Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Jordan plays a key role in Middle East stability. The nation “is Israel’s best friend” in the area, he said, adding that they agree on 80 percent of the issues they face. “Americans have no better friend in the Middle East,” he said. Jordan wants peace, he said, but must cope with divisions among the population and pressures on its economy as neighboring Syria tries to quash a rebellion. “The U.S. would never allow Jordan to fall,” he said.
Asked to give a five-year forecast for the region, Barfi replied, “You can’t predict anything in the Middle East; nobody knows what’s going to happen. There are going to be big problems in the near term in the Middle East, but the move toward democracy is good for America and good for Israel.” •