On Tuesday, over 80 Northwestern students packed into the Tannenbaum Chabad House to hear Israeli diplomat Danny Ayalon discuss ongoing crises in the Middle East.
Ayalon served as Israeli Ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006, as Deputy Foreign Minister and as a member of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, from 2009 to 2013. Wildcats for Israel and Chabad co-sponsored the talk.
“Last Wednesday, we heard he was going to be in the area,” said Joel Rabinowitz, Weinberg senior and Chabad president. “He wanted to talk to Northwestern students, and we were glad to have him speak.”
Ayalon’s talk covered topics such as the Syrian conflict, simmering Sunni-Shi’a tensions and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
In his speech, Ayalon affirmed the strong ties between Israel and the United States. “Israel is the most trusted ally of the United States in the Middle East,” he said.
Nevertheless, Ayalon said, there is a significant difference in viewpoints between Americans and Israelis.
“The vantage point in Jerusalem is much different than Washington D.C. or Chicago,” Ayalon said. “We are on the frontlines, keeping terrorism away from Europe and the U.S. As much as we want to seek peace, we have to understand that there is a difference in values between Israel and other countries. You cannot reason with Al Qaeda or Hezbollah.”
Weinberg sophomore Jonathan Kamel, president of Wildcats for Israel, was impressed with Ayalon’s thoughtful approach. “I thought he did a very good job outlining the problems in the Middle East and their causes. It was nice to have a broad and engaging dialogue.”
Ayalon began by affirming the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, but also stressed Israel’s ability to survive independently.
“We work together for stability in the region. It is a relationship forged on compatibility and shared values in democracy, and the rule of law,” he said.
According to Ayalon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served as a distraction from larger issues in the Middle East.
“The problems in the Middle East run deeper than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Ayalon said. “It wasn’t because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the Iran-Iraq war occurred, or that Egypt fought Yemen, or that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.”
That main conflict, in Ayalon’s view, is the Shiite-Sunni divide, which has led to civil unrest in Iraq and serves as an undercurrent to many revolutionary movements.
“Now, the problems are more visible and understandable than they used to be. When Saddam Hussein was in power, everything was swept under the rug,” Ayalon said. “Now, social unrest has brought these issues out in authentic revolutions in Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon.”
The Syrian conflict, which has already cost the lives of over 100,000 people, is a particularly divisive case.
“In Syria, there is no easy answer. The international community should not intervene,” Ayalon said. “If anyone could make a difference, it’s the Arab League. They should send troops, but they haven’t.”
Since the Aug. 21 gassing of over 1,000 Syrian civilians, the issue of a nuclear Iran has taken a back seat in the news to the Syrian conflict. However, the Iranian nuclear program is an issue with even more far-reaching regional implications.
“Iran is a problem, but it is a problem for the international community,” Ayalon said. “If Iran has a nuclear weapon, then everyone – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt – would seek nuclear weapons. Since Iran sponsors terrorism worldwide, nuclear impunity would be disastrous for them to have.”
Many have seen the election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran’s Islamic Republic as a move toward moderation and reconciliation with the west, particularly after Rouhani’s Sept. 24 speech to the United Nations. Some politicians have advocated loosening the UN sanctions on Iran as an incentive for negotiation.
Ayalon, however, is still convinced of the importance of those sanctions on Iran’s political leadership.
“I believe Rouhani’s recent charm offensive is because of social and political unrest, so we should not stop [the sanctions],” he said. “We have to make sure that Israel is secure for regional peace.”
Iran’s economy is currently in a severe recession. However, Ayalon noted that the economic pressures felt by Iranians are not limited to one country, as other countries like Egypt are also feeling the effects of economic downturn. “In Egypt, there is widespread corruption, and only a few university students can get jobs.”
Ayalon noted that many of the conflicts in the region reflect underlying frictions between Sunni and Shi’a communities.
“When dictatorial regimes fail, it is Sunni against Shiite. The map that exists today is artificial.”
Part of the problem is that France and Great Britain divided the Middle East into a system of mandates, or spheres of influence, without any regard to tribal or religious affiliations.
“Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are artificial creations with many different groups,” Ayalon said. “The only natural country is Egypt. All the rest are different tribes.”
According to Ayalon, ethnic and religious tensions within the “Northern system” of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon could cause them to split into different states, while the monarchical regimes of the “Gulf system” in the Arabian peninsula could allow states like Saudi Arabia to remain intact.
“Nobody has a crystal ball, but if we look in 10 years, we might have 20 to 30 different countries,” Ayalon said. “The genie has been unleashed from the bottle.”