Moderator

Prof. Shai Feldman
Judith and Sidney Swartz Director, Crown Center

Panelists

Prof. Nader Habibi
Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East

Dr. Naghmeh Sohrabi
Assistant Director for Research, Crown Center

Prof. Asher Susser
Senior Fellow on the Myra and Robert Kraft Chair for Arab Politics

What's Up in the Middle East

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On August 27, 2009, faculty members affiliated with the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis assessed current conditions in the Middle East as grim overall but relatively positive from an economic standpoint. Ultimately, the review offered perhaps a faint ray of hope for easing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Naghmeh Sohrabi, the center’s assistant director for research, told an audience in Rapaporte Treasure Hall that there is a widespread public misperception that the current upheaval in Iran began after that country’s disputed June 12 presidential election. She said the power struggles are much older and deeply rooted in the history of the Islamic republic that was declared in Iran in 1979.

“We are not watching the beginning or the middle of the rise of the radical right” personified by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she said. “Perhaps we are watching the end."

Sohrabi said a three-party alliance – Ahmadinejad’s political supporters, the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia accused of much of the post-election bloodshed – is breaking down Iran’s republican institutions by attempting to shut down opposition political parties and its show-trials featuring apparently coerced confessions.

Asher Susser, Senior Fellow on the Myra and Robert Kraft Chair for Arab Politics, said prospects for either an interim or a long-term peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians are extremely dim.

The failed Oslo Process, Susser said, introduced political institutions and definitions which could have formed the basis for a peace agreement because they defined Palestine as the West Bank and Gaza, while the empowerment of Hamas during and following 2006 elections shifted emphasis back to an insistence on the right of Palestinians to return to anywhere in historic Palestine where they claim roots.

“Israel can make peace with a Palestine that is the West Bank and Gaza,” said Susser, former longtime director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It cannot make peace with a Palestine that is all of [historic] Palestine.”

The only immediate hope Susser saw was for what he called “coordinated unilateralism,” in which “each side does its own thing” – the Israelis redeploying and shifting borders and settlements as they find advisable; the Palestinians building the institutions of a state. In this process “there is no agreement. No one signs away great historical claims,” Susser said. “That's not great, that’s not all we hope for, but it is better than sitting on our hands and waiting for Obama."

Indeed, the question in the event’s title, “What’s Up in the Middle East?” might well have been answered “nothing’s up -- it’s all down,” but for the relatively positive evaluation of regional economic conditions provided by Nader Habibi, the Henry J. Leir Professor of the Economics of the Middle East.

Habibi reviewed the gyrations of oil prices before and during current international economic troubles to explain why the region has been less impacted than other areas by the downturn. He said that the ability of Middle Eastern governments to separate economic matters from political and military conflicts also played a role.

Oil-producing nations suffered a shock from the crash in oil prices, he said, but the vast reserves accumulated when prices were extremely high before the crash cushioned them from the blow. Now, he said, recovering oil prices are allowing producers to resume development projects that were suspended when the crash occurred. Non-producers were harder hit by the decline in development in the producing countries and the general decline in volume of world trade.

Habibi said the Israeli economy has done well during the economic turmoil, for which he gave much credit to Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. At a crucial moment, Fischer ordered Israeli banks to accumulate safe investments, Habibi said, and the Israeli central bank did a good job of testing private banks there for soundness – something that was not done in the United States and many other developed countries.

Introducing the program, Shai Feldman, the Judith and Sidney Swartz director of the Crown Center, paid tribute to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and recalled a visit by Kennedy to Feldman’s home in the mid-1960s, when Kennedy was in Israel to look into community health coverage, in which Feldman’s father was involved.

“I asked him what does it take to succeed in public life,” Feldman said, “and I still remember what he told me: ‘Perseverance.’” It is a quality Feldman said he would recommend to all who are concerned with the Middle East.

-- Charles A. Radin