Gridlock in the Middle East and Opportunities for Civil Society

An interview with Professor Joseph A. Camilleri conducted by Raffaele Marchetti specially for

(Raffaele Marchetti): Dear Prof. Camilleri, the Middle East continues to be a particularly complex political area. The civil war in Syria, the announced US military intervention, the diplomatic counteraction by Russia, the openings from Iran, and of course the continuous tension in the Israel/Palestine issue. Where do we stand today?

(Joseph Camilleri): The Middle East has been at the centre of geopolitics for a long time. And it will continue to be the case for as long as we can see into the future. Yet there are a number of important ways in which matters are coming to a head. Several important factors are well known but they need to be more closely connected.

First, the Middle East has far-reaching strategic significance in both military and energy terms, which helps to explain consistent great power interest in the region – regrettably not always for the better. The Middle East, as we know, has been the target of many great power interventions that have deeply destabilized the region.

Secondly, many Middle East governments have a long history of dependence on their military or on command of energy resources and the influence that comes from domestic and external patronage. It is true that in the last few years we have seen moves towards democratization, usually in response to mounting public pressure. Contrary to the initial euphoria, we now know that his will prove a long, hard road.

The third factor – in many ways this is the gorilla in the room – has to do with Israel’s role in the region, which remains illegitimate in the eyes of many of its neighbours – here I am referring to the failure thus far to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more generally the uneasy and at times hostile relationship between Israel on the one hand and its Arab neighbours and Iran on the other.

The fourth factor has been the destabilising impact of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), both nuclear and chemical. As we look back over the last thirty or more years, we see that the issue has played a key part in several conflicts. Of course, Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal has been a constant irritant, for it has prompted a number of Arab countries and perhaps Iran to pursue or at least explore the nuclear option. The development and use of chemical weapons, most recently in Syria and previously in Iraq, have also been a source of acute tension.

These and other factors have greatly complicated the geopolitics of the Middle East. And, it has to be said that until now neither regional powers nor the great powers have been able to overcome these difficulties and contain, let alone resolve, many of the conflicts to which I have referred.

(RM): So at the intergovernmental level you do not see much opening for change?

(JC): Perhaps in the last few months the responses of certain governments present a glimmer of hope, but it is far too early to be optimistic. Two critical relationships, it seems to me, are in urgent need of attention if we are to see much progress in the Middle East. One is at the global level, that is, the Russian-American relationship. Unless there is a measure of cooperation and agreement between the two, it is difficult to visualize any positive headway being made. Moscow and Washington are the two primary external players, which means that without their cooperation the United Nations itself, and the Security Council in particular, can do little. The other relationship involves the United States and Iran. When Obama came to office he indicated that he might be interested in a dialogue with Iran, but in practice his administration did not follow up in any meaningful way. Presently we are seeing a second window of opportunity emerging. Perhaps this time round diplomatic efforts will bear fruit, though it is still too early to tell. There are also grounds for thinking that the United States and Russia may be prepared to embark on a measure of cooperation and coordination in responding to the Syrian crisis. These are positive signs, but at this stage they offer no more than a glimmer of hope. Left to their own devices, it is difficult to see regional governments, many of which are intent on regime survival, and external governments whose policies are often dictated by powerful vested interests, taking the substantial steps that are needed. In most cases these steps require a substantial shift in mindset. Only sustained pressure by civil society is likely to generate sufficient momentum for such change.

(RM): Ok, so here we come to the role of civil society and nongovernmental actors. Why do you think civil society can play a special role in such political scenario and how?

(JC): First, we need to consider what constitutes civil society. We need to take account of four levels of civil society: local, national, regional, and global. Secondly, we need to think about the different sectors of society that could play a useful role. Of course, which sectors might have the will and the capacity to act will differ from country to country and from one level to the other. But, generalizing, these would seem particularly important sectors in most countries:

•    Educational institutions – unless schools, universities and research centers provide a space where the possibilities of peace-building and dialogue are actively canvassed, it is difficult to see how there could be much progress. This is a critical sector of civil society, especially for the medium to longer term. There is much that is involved here. The teaching and learning of history is obviously critical to the shaping of perceptions and attitudes. The question is: how is history taught in Egyptian schools, Israeli schools, Iranian schools? Here I have in mind the history not only of one’s own country but also the history of one’s neighbours.
•    Media – their importance is obvious since they are major sources of information and analysis – they greatly influence what we know is going in the world, and how we interpret events as they unfold;
•    Religious institutions. Here I have in mind, at least in the first instance, the more progressive elements among the Islamic and Jewish organizations, but also the Christian groups which remain a not insignificant element in the Middle East.

(RM): What do you mean by progressive?

(JC): I mean those elements in each of the religious traditions which are prepared to look critically at how people of faith within their own tradition have acted in the past and are acting right now – are they agents of peace or agents of conflict?  As you know, in the Christian tradition we have such elements – Christian groups and individuals who are prepared to acknowledge that very often Christians have not been particularly constructive in their relations with other faiths – at times positively destructive. In the Catholic Church and at the highest level, both Pope John Paul II and now Pope Francis have eloquently acknowledged past failures on the part of Christians. We need much more of this and at all levels of society.

(RM): You mentioned three categories: education, media, and religious groups. Any other significant category that may play a role?

(JC): The professions. Several professional sectors can make a strategic contribution, notably medicine, law, but also other professional groups working in such areas as urban planning, water usage, architecture, transport, and environment.

(RM): This way, you are not talking about the business community, are you?

(JC): Not per se, not as an integral part of civil society. However, it is the case that business too has a very important role to play, but here we need to understand what we mean by the business or corporate sector. When I refer to the role of the market I have in mind the owners and managers of enterprises, those who have the last say when decisions are made to invest in particular industries, to hire and fire, to engage in trade and financial transactions. Clearly, they have a key role to play but whether or not that role is beneficial to peace and security in the region will in part depend on favourable economic conditions, mutuality of interests, mutually beneficial trade relations, investment opportunities, and the like, whereas civil society can often play a constructive role, even in the absence of favourable economic or financial circumstances.

(RM): You were talking about the role of civil society in the regional context….

(JC): In the Middle East context, civil society can help overcome the paralysis in which many governments find themselves – I am thinking of conflicts or disputes involving Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. Civil society remains very important as a potential catalyst, especially if it is assisted by outside groups genuinely committed to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Civil society internationally can provide space, resources, publicity, and importantly moral encouragement.

I should add that as civil society in the Middle East becomes more engaged, it should expect and receive a good deal of support from multilateral institutions, notably the UN system.

(RM): But, how do you see civil society acting? Do you see it pushing and pressuring the governments to take action or you rather see civil society to act in parallel and independently from their own governments?

(JC): The short answer is that civil society is well placed to do both, though at different times, one line of action may be more appropriate than the other, but quite often civil society would need to work along both tracks, with each track reinforcing the other. Let me illustrate what might be possible. As you know, three years ago the international community through the 2010 NPT Review Conference reached a very important decision: the United States, the UK, Russia, and the UN Secretary General were asked to take the necessary steps to organize an international conference by 2012 with a view to negotiating the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East. This was meant to happen in 2012 but the conference has not yet been convened, although Finland has agreed to host the conference. The reason for the delay has to do with the various difficulties we have been discussing.

However, I was personally involved in an important dialogue initiative convened by the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University, Melbourne in association with the European Public Law Organisation based in Athens. The dialogue was explicitly designed to maintain and strengthen the momentum for the convening of the Helsinki Conference. It brought together primarily representatives of civil society organisations from Israel, Arab countries and Iran, but also a number of acting and retired diplomats from the region as well as a few international experts. This Track two/track three dialogue was an attempt to add societal muscle to the idea of creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The dialogue took place in Athens in November of last year. Over the course of three days a number of ideas emerged which are not only useful, but provide a strategic focus for many of the organisations represented in the dialogue. The multilateral conference envisaged for 2012 in Helsinki, though postponed, will in my view take place sooner or later, possibly sooner rather than later. In this endeavour civil society has an important dual role: to maintain the pressure needed for the conference to be convened and for governments to engage in serious negotiations once it is convened, but also to articulate ideas about the functions and modalities of such a zone, and on the conditions that might assist its establishment.

This is just an illustration but it does focus attention on one of the most important issues likely to affect the future security of the Middle East. The elimination of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons from the region – this includes Israel’s nuclear arsenal – is going to be a major test case of Washington’s and Moscow’s readiness to cooperate and the ability of the likes of Iran, Israel and the other parties to enter into meaningful discussions. What I am saying is that we are seeing among many civil society groups in the Middle East the beginnings of an understanding that without firm and strong advocacy such a development is unlikely to eventuate. Here I am referring to the role of civil society in the Middle East assisted by the efforts of international civil society, not least within the United States, Russia and Europe.

The same logic applies to such other critical issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Iraq, the Iran nuclear dispute, and more generally the dangerous Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. To take the case of Syria, we are now seeing the beginnings of what hopefully will become a substantial reconciliation movement (Mussalaha) in Syria, which brings together people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds. Unless such a societal initiative gathers impetus and captures the society’s imagination, it is difficult to see how any international conference will be able to end the deep hostilities and brutal killing that have devastated what once was a beautiful country.

(RM): This brings me to one issue I was thinking while you were elaborating your thoughts. To what extent this kind of civil society actor you have been talking about is actually representative of the local population? Are these groups, in your opinion, majoritarian or just sort of vanguards?

(JC): I am glad you raised this question. For civil society to be effective, it does not have to be majoritarian, absolutely not. In fact, majoritarian mobilizations are unusual, if by this is meant that the numerical majority of citizens in a given country is actively involved in a given project, campaign, educational initiative, or dialogue process. This said, it is, of course, important for civil society activities to have the moral if not active support of a large cross-section of society.

(RM): So, in relation to this, let’s pick up the case of Israel. Do you really think the Israeli population is by and large in support of giving up the nuclear armaments of their country, i.e. in support of those civil society organizations advocating the idea of a nuclear free Middle East?

(JC): In the case of Israel, a number of opinions polls over the years have indicated that Israelis would be open to the idea of a WMD free zone if it was universally applied in the region. True enough, this is just saying yes to an abstract concept. It is probably the case that if we were to ask Israelis now: “Are you prepared to do away with your nuclear weapons?”, the majority of the Israeli public would not have an appetite for such a step, especially if it was likely to be a unilateral step. However, there are substantial portions of the population, including members of the government and currently serving and retired military and intelligence staff, who understand that a lasting, negotiated agreement with the Palestinians is both desirable and inevitable. What I am saying is that there are elements within Israeli society that are willing to engage in serious dialogue. Many Israeli academic colleagues have said to me: if only we could have more interaction with our colleagues in neighbouring countries. At this point these opportunities are rather limited. Very few individuals cross the borders between Israel and the Arab world, let alone Iran. But the desire to expand interaction and dialogue is evident. Where opportunities arise, they are very keen to take advantage of them. This is where the international community has an important part to play: creating more opportunities for such encounters, facilitating the dialogue that is so desperately needed but which the policies of governments and actions of short-sighted political elements have thus far obstructed.

Professor Joseph Camilleri is Director of Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University, Australia

5 November 2013