Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean

By February 21, 2017

On February 21, 2017, for the second consecutive year, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and B’nai B’rith International jointly held an international conference on Strategic Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean. The event, which took place at the Begin-Sadat Center, involved the participation of experts from Greece, Russia, Britain, Turkey, Albania, the US, and Israel.

View videos of the lectures and panels below.

Opening Remarks
Mr. Dan Mariaschin, Executive Vice President and CEO of B’nai B’rith International opened the conference (of which BBI was a co-sponsor) by pointing out the importance of this second annual conference in assessing dramatic challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and their significance at this time of transition in world affairs – with a special emphasis on the need for new and more effective American policy in the region.

The Syrian Tragedy

Prof. Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University gave an account of the “miracles” which saved Assad’s regime and turned him into the “Liberator” of Aleppo: Obama’s decision not to strike, the Russian intervention, and now (perhaps) the ascension of President Trump. He suggested three possible outcomes to the civil war in Syria: a Spanish outcome (total victory for one side), an Afghan one (continued insurgency in the periphery), and a Libyan result (chaos and disintegration).

The Challenge of IS and Islamist Terrorism

Prof. Boaz Ganor of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya sharply criticized the ineffectual counter-IS strategies of President Obama and surveyed options for President Trump. These include “more of the same,” Russian-style carpet bombing, boots on the ground, and the more likely “businesslike” strategy of letting the Russians handle the situation — at a cost to US positioning in the region. He suggested a fifth approach involving greater US firepower and “sandals” – special forces – on the ground.

Implications of the Libyan Crisis
Prof. Yehudit Ronen of Bar-Ilan University gave a detailed and tragic description of Libyan disintegration since the overthrow of Qaddafi, emphasizing the lack of foresight by the intervening powers and the current struggle between the “legitimate” government and the forces of General Hiftar.

Israel’s Regional Objectives

Prof. Efraim Inbar of the BESA Center reviewed the strategic landscape in the Eastern Mediterranean. The US has become absent, he said; Turkey is increasingly becoming a revisionist power; and Iran’s presence is increasing along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is not clear whether the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli alignment can counter the radical Islamist powers, and it remains to be seen whether Egypt is ready to join this alignment.

Greece and NATO

Konstantinos Bikas, the Ambassador of Greece to Israel tried to explain the roots of policy disasters in the region – in Iraq, Syria and Libya – as resulting from a lack of understanding of local societies. He spoke of the importance of supporting the forces of stability – Egypt and Jordan – and the role of Greece and Cyprus, working together in five tripartite frameworks alongside Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Russia and the Mideast

Prof. Elena Suponina of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies described Russia’s role in Syria and Libya, and emphasized the high value that today’s Russia (unlike the USSR) accords to its relationship with Israel. She said that while Russia was capable of saying “no” to America, it does not want to be maneuvered by some Arab players into a “cold war style” adversarial relationship with the US.

Eastern Mediterranean Security

Prof. Shaul Chorev of Haifa University presented the findings of the Haifa U./Hudson Institute working group on Eastern Mediterranean security. He emphasized mutual interests (in energy and stability) that compel regional and international elements to cooperate.

Syrian Refugee Realities

Dr. Jonathan Spyer of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya presented the dramatic regional refugee situation. More than 4.8 million refugees and 6 million IDPs have been created, he said, and suggested that the Syrian Sunnis have lost the war.

A British Perspective
Dr. Karin von Hippel of the Royal United Services Institute in London discussed the impact of the Syrian war and refugee crisis on Europe.

A Turkish Perspective

Ambassador Ünal Çeviköz spoke emphatically about Turkey’s long tradition of taking in refugees, both in the Ottoman era and in modern times (including millions of Turks uprooted in the population exchange with Greece). He described Turkey’s current efforts to care for the massive Syrian population in Turkey, including education. He also suggested that the achievements of Operation Euphrates Shield, in effectively creating a safe zone in Northern Syria, should be a model for the future, arguing that the international community had not done enough to help.

The Mediterranean Humanist Idea

Prof. David Ohana of Ben Gurion University dedicated his presentation to the memory of Jacqueline Cahanoff on the centennial of her birth, and gave a deeply sympathetic survey of her life and of her personal and intellectual role in laying the foundation, more than anyone else, for the present discourse on Israel’s Mediterranean identity.

Cultural and Literary Commonalities
Prof. Nissim Calderon of Ben-Gurion University spoke passionately and pointedly about Jacqueline Cahanoff’s legacy and her concept of a Levantine/ Mediterranean identity, which was not a burden carried because of place or group of origin, but an opportunity for an enriched concept of identity.

People-to-People Diplomacy

Ambassador Aryeh Mekel of the BESA Center gave an insider’s informed (and at times, amused) view of the dramatic turn for the better in Israeli-Greek relations, at the governmental and popular levels, which persisted throughout a period of political turmoil and change as well as of great economic difficulties in Greece.

The View from Tirana

Mr. Ditmir Bushati, Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, described his country’s positive role in the eastern Mediterranean and as a NATO ally, as well as the growing friendship with Israel (and Albania’s historic attitude towards the Jewish people). He put a special emphasis on the common effort to combat terrorism, in practical measures as well as on the ideological level.

The Threat of Radical Islam

Dr. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum offered a comprehensive survey of political developments, largely related to the rise of the Islamist threat, in the eight nations of the Eastern Mediterranean – Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. He also noted the rising involvement of Russia and China in the region. He sharply criticized the gap between President Erdogan’s immense skill in domestic politics and his failure to read right the regional and international challenges; and gave Israel high marks as a master of her own fate.

Israel’s Challenges in the Regional Strategic Environment
Mr. Gideon Sa’ar, former Israeli Minister of Education and Interior and a former member of the Security Cabinet (Likud), laid out a strategy for Israel based on cooperation with key players in the region. But he also said that Israel expects other countries to share the burden of dealing with key problems, such as the need to find new paradigms to replace the increasingly problematic “two-state solution” rubric. He also joined the criticism aimed at President Erdogan, questioning whether Turkey can be counted today as a democratic country.

Closing Remarks
Mr. Gary Saltzman, President of B’nai B’rith International.