Jonathan Speyer’s advice on how to understand the Middle East

Michael Totten interviewed Jonathan Spyer, a journalist who served in the Israeli army.  Toward the end of the interview, Totten asked what Spyer would tell American policymakers about the Middle East.  I’ll pass it on without necessarily endorsing it, since I’m still searching for the best perspectives on the region.  Here is his response:

I’d tell the current bunch in power that they need to ditch this sophomoric idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to the region’s malaise.They need to get that out of their heads. That’s not what I’d want to talk about. That’s not even an adult conversation. Once we can clear that up, we can talk about something serious.

A perfect storm is brewing in the Middle East. We’re experiencing the convergence of two historical phenomena. The first is the rise of Iran, which we’ve already talked about. We have an ambitious ideological elite committed to radical Islam and the expansion of power. Second, in country after country in the Middle East, various forms of radical Islam are becoming the most popular and vivid forms of political expression. We have Hamas among the Palestinians, Hezbollah among the Shia of Lebanon, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.

We have an ideological wave from below with a powerful and potentially nuclear-armed sponsor on top. That’s the picture I’d want to place in the minds of the people in Washington. It’s the key regional dynamic through which most smaller processes have to be understood.

So if you like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and want to talk about that, now we can tackle it in a rational grown-up way. The Palestinian national movement has split—most likely permanently—into two camps. And the most powerful of the two is that which results from this convergence of a popular Islamist wave on the one hand and a hegemonic state sponsor on the other. These two phenomena have completely transformed Palestinian politics. They have completely transformed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they have completely transformed our options.

We could also talk about Lebanon. Or just about anything else. And again, we have to look at it through the prism I just described. That’s what I’d say to them if I had five minutes.


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