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Rutgers Scholar Outlines a U.S. Role in Israeli-Hamas Conflict
Recent hostilities reflect a changed Middle East landscape, Eric Davis says
As headlines become increasingly somber, the world struggles to understand the context of the Israeli-Hamas conflict within the landscape of a changed Middle East. For Americans in particular, a recurring question as a cease fire went into effect on Wednesday was what role the United States should play in ongoing diplomatic efforts. Rutgers Today spoke with Eric Davis, a professor of political science in the university’s School of Arts and Sciences and former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Davis, who has conducted research throughout the Middle East, including in Israel and Palestine, is the author of Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq and the forthcoming Taking Democracy Seriously in Iraq. His blog, The New Middle East, reflects his decades-long experiences in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Rutgers Today: How do the escalating hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians fit
into the overall reality of a changed – and changing – Middle East?
Eric Davis: Israel and the United States find themselves increasingly isolated in the Middle East. This is especially true since the onset of the Arab Spring in December 2010. In the past, the United States could count on unwavering support for its foreign policy from secular autocrats, such as Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zein al-Dine Bin Ali, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Salih. Prior to 2002 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won national elections, the military, which controlled Turkish politics, likewise supported U.S. policy in the region. Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia are now governed by democratically elected Islamist political parties which are less inclined to rubber stamp U.S. policy. While the Libyan government is grateful for American help in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime, it is also less inclined to follow U.S. dictates, as is the new Yemeni government. Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya can be expected to pressure the United States and Israel to find a solution to the Palestinian problem. For these countries, the desired outcome is a two-state solution which creates a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. Such a solution, however, would entail creating a Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River and potentially leave the problem of Gaza unresolved. Run by the more radical Hamas movement, Gaza might not be willing to become part of a Palestinian state which recognizes and lives in peace with Israel.
Rutgers Today: The challenges facing President Obama in this region seem overwhelming. What should his next step be as he prepares for his second term?
Eric Davis: President Obama’s 'light footprint' foreign policy reflects the United States’ decline as a global power, both in absolute and relative terms. Obama will find there is a high price to pay if his administration places too much effort on developing an expanded military and economic presence in Southeast and East Asia to counter China’s growing influence. Neglecting the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, has severe costs as is obvious from the current crisis between Hamas and Israel. The Obama administration needs to be more pro-active in its foreign policy in two ways. First, with reelection no longer a problem, Obama needs to pressure Israel and the Palestine National Authority (PNA) to begin serious negotiations leading to a two-state solution. This is a propitious moment, given PNA president Mahmoud Abbas’ recent declaration that he accepts Israel within the borders that resulted from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and does not seek to reclaim land Palestinians lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Second, given budgetary problems and our military’s inability to fight wars on multiple fronts, the Obama administration should develop an international coalition to help bring greater stability to the Middle East. This coalition is needed both to pressure the parties in ongoing conflicts, such as Hamas and Israel and the Asad regime and the opposition in Syria, to take peace seriously as well as to provide reconstruction aid to address the economic problems that feed much of the radicalism in the Middle East.
Rutgers Today: What role do you see for European Union, Turkey and Egypt in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Eric Davis: The European Union has greater credibility in the Middle East than the United States because it is viewed as pursuing a more balanced policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and because it has given large amounts of aid to social reconstruction projects and civil society building in the region. Turkey and Egypt are run by Islamist governments which are trusted by Hamas. Together, the E.U., Egypt and Turkey possess the necessary influence to persuade Hamas to stop the rocket assaults against Israel and to rein in those radical groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which launch rockets into Israel, often without the permission of the Hamas government.
Rutgers Today: How do you see Facebook, Twitter and other platforms influencing public opinion and perhaps even helping to determine the outcome of the conflict?
Eric Davis: Social media’s role is important, if somewhat exaggerated, in the current conflict. Its most significant impact has been on youth. As we saw in the Arab Spring, it has allowed youths – who constitute 70 percent of the population under 30 in most Muslim majority countries of the Middle East – to organize effectively against authoritarian regimes. However, there has always been strong support for democracy and cultural pluralism among educated youth and the professional middle classes well before the appearance of the Internet and social media. For Palestinian and Israeli youth, the Internet has had both a positive and negative effect. It has enabled democratically and peace-oriented youth on both sides of the crisis to benefit from information gleaned from democratic movements outside the region, which has helped them better formulate their ideas, goals and political strategies. However, among more ideologically rigid and radical young people, such as radical Palestinian Islamists and radical Israeli settlers on the West Bank, the Internet and social media have assisted them in mobilizing support to prevent a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
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