Clear-sightedness on the Middle East

Clear-sightedness on the Middle East

Israeli intelligence expert to speak at the IAC in Tenafly

The more people know, the more clearly they can see.

The more they are presented not with polemics but with analysis, the more they can understand the world around them.

These points are simple and straightforward, but often hard to practice. That’s particularly true when the subject under discussion is the Middle East.

On Saturday night, the newly formed New Jersey chapter of the Israeli-American Council will present Avi Melamed, a longtime Israeli intelligence official who is now a fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C.

Avi Melamed says that U.S. Middle East policy misses the mark.

Mr. Melamed aims for a clear-sighted approach.

“I will be trying to give a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the region today,” he said. “I try to provide people with what I call a GPS so they can navigate their way. It’s a 3D picture of what’s going on, in a way that even people who have a powerful knowledge of what’s going on – and even people who have very little knowledge – will walk about thinking that they now have a way to make some sense of it.”

That sounds nice – but some examples, please.

“Okay. I would try to explore the phenomenon of ISIS, which must be viewed in the context of a few different areas,” Mr. Melamed said. “It must be seen in the context of the growing Sunni-Shi’ite struggle in the Middle East. It is the outcome of some disease in Arab societies, and one of the interesting things to look at is the current conversation that goes on within our society regarding the phenomenon of ISIS.

“I was just watching some American television on Sunday morning, and I saw someone who wrote a book about ISIS. Everyone is trying to monetize ISIS, to ride the wave of panic.

“I would argue that there is a need for a much more balanced, proportional outlook. That is not at all to undermine the challenge it presents, but to understand more accurately the proportions of the phenomenon.”

Some of our distorted understanding of world phenomena have to do with the media, he said. “The media in the West has a tendency to create lots of drama.”

As an example of that tendency, he pointed to Malaysia Air Flight 370, which vanished without a trace last March. (“Not the more recent one,” the Air Asia jet that crashed last week, he added.) “You may recall that the media was talking about it for at least three weeks, 24/7. That was a lot of hot air and no substance.”

Both in his talk and in his new book, which is due out in the fall, “one of my major premises is that the events in the Middle East put a mirror in front of Western media, about how it looks at and understands them,” he said. “There are some challenging misinterpretations of the Middle East in the West that lead to counterproductive policies.

“One good example is the recent military round between Israel and Hamas this summer. As you might recall, Secretary of State Kerry was trying to initiate a ceasefire deal, and the brokers were Qatar and Turkey. There are many people in the Middle East, the Arab world, who are not very pleased with the U.S. policy, and are convinced that the United States is currently deliberately changing its policy and betting on the Iranian horse, not the Arab/Sunni one. So there was an interesting episode.

“Just because someone doesn’t like a specific policy, that does not mean that policy is inaccurate, but in this episode, the policy was inaccurate.

“Someone in the current U.S. administration should have said, ‘Mr. Kerry. Mr. Secretary of State. You should know that Egypt physically holds the key to the passages” – to the tunnels between Gaza and Israel – “and Egypt has a very bad relationship with Turkey and Qatar, which sponsors and harbors Hamas. So the inevitable conclusion would be that if you really want to cut a deal, you should talk to Egypt.’

“But unfortunately for Secretary of State Kerry, as perceived by the Saudis, and Israel, and Egypt, he was perceived as providing a Nobel prize to Hamas, Qatar, and Turkey.

“Needless to say, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and Israel were astonished and disturbed and annoyed, and the outcome was that Mr. Kerry’s initiatives didn’t have a chance. It backfired, because it presented the United States as totally clueless.

“More seriously, it was argued that because of that placebo initiative, the outcome was that the round continued rather than coming to an end. It lingered because Hamas, Qatar, and Turkey thought, ‘Okay, now we have the American administration on our side. We can continue.’

“This is an example of a very unfortunate move by the Americans.”

We Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the Middle East. No matter how well read or otherwise well informed we might be, we are at a disadvantage because “99 percent of Westerners do not speak Arabic,” and it is only through exposure to original source material that true understanding can be found, Mr. Melamed said. But most of our news “is mediated through Westerners who do not themselves speak Arabic, and therefore their ability to evaluate accurately is undermined.”

He understands the problem. “I do not speak Chinese, and so my ability to understand what is going on in China is quite limited,” he said.

Mr. Melamed does speak Arabic, though. He learned the literary language at Hebrew University, and spoken Arabic through his many years operating in Arabic-speaking countries.

“I spent many years of my life operating in this region, and the overwhelming majority of the analysis I provide to people is based on sources from the Arab world,” he said. “As an ex-intelligence person and as someone trying for accuracy, I never rely on only one source.”

When he talks about the United States and its Middle Eastern policy, “I do not necessarily refer only to the current administration,” he said. “I am also talking about the previous ones. There is a major conceptual flaw in the way the West looks at the Middle East, mainly in the last generation, and I think that this must be reevaluated. This is the reason why I think that in the second decade of the 21st century, some recent premises and assumptions must be reevaluated.

He has not given up hope, though. “We are not running out of time. We have to understand the reasons for this challenging situation, and we have to apply answers.

“I am always hopeful,” he added. “I am optimistic by nature.”

Uri Zilberman of Fair Lawn is co-chair of the New Jersey IAC. The group is inaugurating its IAC Talks series with Mr. Melamed, he said, and then continuing with a series of lectures on similar topics, because “the situation in the Middle East is so complicated – it is like a 10,000-piece puzzle. Following the Middle East can be very hard. The Arab spring compared to the Islamic winter – why is the Islamic world going in that direction, becoming more radical instead of more modern?

“Today, there is a growing realization that not all the problems in the Middle East have to do with Israel, or at the most, Israel has just a little bit to do with it.

“The reality of the world is that radical Islam is fighting moderate Islam. Sunni is fighting Shi’ite, and Shi’ite is fighting Sunni. That has nothing to do with Israel. And what is really terrifying is that radical Islam seems to be gaining momentum, and actually winning. But on the other hand, the rest of the world is starting to realize that Israel does not have the blame for that.

“For me, education, getting a better understanding of the situation, of where it is coming from, of why it is growing so fast, of why they are beheading people instead of studying the glories of Islam and working toward more Nobel prizes.

“I don’t think it can happen in one lecture, but through education, people can get a better understanding of the situation. It is a 10,000-piece puzzle, but when you start putting the pieces together, after a certain amount of time you start getting the picture. There will always be a lot of pieces, but getting the sense of the picture is important.”

The lecture will be in English, and therefore aimed not only at Israelis but also at a more general audience, “because I believe it is important to have the Israeli and Jewish American population get together,” Mr. Zilberman said.

“There is much more that connects us than that separates us. I don’t see enough bonding between Israelis and American Jews. I know I am generalizing, but I want to see more of it.

“A lecture on a topic that might interest both groups, bring them to the same place – if we give it in English, it will allow us to bridge the two groups.”

Who: Avi Melamed, former Israeli intelligence official, fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at the Eisenhower Institute

What: Will talk about “Navigating the Middle East in the 21st Century”

Where: At the Clinton Inn, 145 Dean Drive, Tenafly

When: On Saturday, January 10, at 8:30 p.m.

Why: For the first of the IAC Talks series presented by the Israeli-American Council

How much: Tickets are $10 online at; $20 at the door. Teens should email IAC director Shai Nemesh at in advance for free tickets.

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