Scholars to provide annual Middle East Update

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

It is hard to imagine a time when all eyes were not focused on the Middle East. Twenty years ago, when the Middle East Update first became part of Chautauqua’s programming, America’s foreign policy focus was just beginning to shift from the former Soviet Union toward the Middle East. Now, the updates are a popular highlight of each season — packed with information and featuring several different specialists on a variety of topics. This year’s Middle East Update will take place at 4 p.m. today and Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

“When we began in the 1990s, there was a lot of hope that there would be an Arab-Israeli peace settlement,” said Geoffrey Kemp, who created and still leads the update. “It was during that period, of course, that the famous Oslo Accords were signed, and there was a lot of enthusiasm that his would be a final end to the Arab-Israel conflict — of course, it did not happen. At the same time, there was more and more trouble in the Gulf, with the war in 1991 and then the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.”

Kemp is the director of regional security programs at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C. He served as special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs during the first Reagan administration and as senior director for Near East and East Asian affairs for the National Security Council Staff.

“Every year, there’s been something important going on in this region that’s been worthwhile to present to the Chautauqua audience,” Kemp said. “There’s a huge interest in (the update). You do not get 1,200 people sitting out in the sun at 4 p.m. unless they’re interested.”

Kemp will engage two speakers — one on each day — in conversation for the first half hour of each program and then moderate questions from the audience during the second half hour.

This year’s guest speakers are Claire Spencer, who will speak today, and Shai Feldman, who will speak Wednesday. Spencer is the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House — a British think tank. Feldman is a professor of politics at Brandeis University, and the chair of Brandeis’ Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

The Middle East Update will touch on this week’s theme — Iran — but fan out to look at the larger issues in the Middle East. Given their expertise, Spencer will speak on the recent uprisings across the Arab world that are commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring,” while Feldman will focus on how issues in the greater Middle East could affect Israel.

“This year, the dominant issue is the turmoil in the Arab world, the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ or summer or winter or whatever you’re going to call it, and what we’re going to do,” Kemp said. “Claire Spencer is a really top-notch specialist on the subject. She will lead us through the events that started in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt, to war in Libya, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria and no settlement to what’s happening in Egypt.”

Feldman said he foresees three issues being brought up during the forum on Israel: the “Arab Spring,” Iran’s nuclear program and the Palestinian quest for the U.N. declaration of independent statehood.

“I will try to essentially provide people with a sense of these debates so that when they emerge from the Hall of Philosophy, they will have a sense that the media depiction of Israel usually involves a high degree of generalization,” Feldman said. “Israel, because it’s a lively democracy, debates these issues — the issues that are at the top of the U.S. agenda in the Middle East and beyond. What I’m going to try to do is give people a sense of the debate, and — equally important — communicate that these debates are taking place, that the Israeli approach is multi-dimensional and is something to continue exploring, because almost every one of these issues involve a complex set of pluses and minuses. One has to consider the array of both the risks and opportunities that these developments pose for Israel to understand the nature of the Israeli dynamic.”

The Middle East Update allows Chautauquans to discuss and question specialists about issues unfolding in the region on an annual basis. As turmoil still brews in the Middle East, Chautauquans can look toward the update to keep them informed about concerns and dilemmas facing the Middle East.