Kemp, Ross discuss problems and solutions in Gaza, Iraq

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Dennis Ross and Geoffrey Kemp discuss the current Israel, Gaza conflict and the role other countries can play in trying to negotiate peace talks at the morning lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater.

Political scientist Geoffrey Kemp has hosted annual lecture updates on the Middle East at Chautauqua for the last 20 years. Kemp, who serves as director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest, returned to the Amphitheater stage at 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday to hold a conversation with Dennis Ross, counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The conversation was part of Week Eight’s theme, “Chautauqua’s Global Public Square.”

The two focused on the conflict in Gaza and the growing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In opening the conversation, Kemp pointed out that the Israeli public is more united in support of military action against Palestine than ever before, a factor that Ross attributed to the continued rocketfire from Hamas nine years after Israel withdrew troops and settlements from Gaza.

“Imagine if you’re here and every city was subject to rocketfire from outside your territory,” Ross said. “That would create a certain, I think, sense of unity.”

Another factor in Israeli solidarity against Palestine, Ross said, are the underground tunnels constructed by Hamas. “Designed to penetrate Israel,” Ross said, it was these tunnels through which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas militants in 2006.

The tunnels open up in kibbutzim, villages and other civilian-populated areas — not military bases, Ross said. This placement adds to a sense of threat to Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated objective was to destroy the tunnels, Ross added, not to take over Gaza or destroy Hamas, a framework that also served to inspire “wall-to-wall” support among Israelis.

According to Kemp, Israeli intelligence has been too focused on the threats above ground to have protected itself from the tunnels.

“Israeli intelligence clearly did a bad job in finding out about the depth, the extent and the effectiveness of these tunnels, and that is going to invariably lead to a review at home,” he said. “One gets the sense that what Israel lacks now is human intelligence in Gaza.”

Kemp pointed out that Israel has more implicit support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia than ever before. Both nations are key Arab allies of the United States that have always approached Israel’s wars with a “hands-off” attitude. It is important to note, Kemp said, that these two countries have their own reasons for wanting to see Hamas obliterated.

Another factor that Kemp highlighted was the “extraordinary anger” expressed toward the Israeli government in Western democracies, particularly in France, Britain, Holland and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Calling the outcry “unprecedented and troubling” in the context of long-term relations between Israel and Europe, Kemp said that “things have changed very considerably.”

Ross explained this reaction as Europe’s sense of shame in its colonial past, which now leads many countries to perceive Israel as a colonizer because of its settlement movement. For this reason, Ross suggested that Israel should make its approach to settlements consistent with Netanyahu’s stated support for a two-state solution. Israel should commit to stop building in Palestinian territories, a practice that Ross said only increases Israel’s difficulty in withdrawing.

Additionally, Ross said, the Israeli public sees Hamas as not simply an adversary, but one guided by an ideology with no place for Jews. The Hamas charter blames Jews for “every ill that befell the world in the 20th century,” he said, which builds the perception that Hamas is only out to kill, with no interest in a two-state solution.

Ross stressed the importance of sending construction materials to Gaza in order to rebuild what has been destroyed, but also of monitoring the materials to ensure that they are used to rebuild, and not being diverted by Hamas for military use.

He suggested that opening crossing points “in an unlimited way” would only be wise with safeguards in place: the presence of the Palestinian Authority — not Hamas — as well as Europeans, Moroccans, Jordanians and Emiratis.

Ross also said that the U.S. should organize a Marshall Plan for serious investment and development in Gaza that is contingent on Hamas disarming. If Hamas does not disarm, Ross said, other parties will not want to invest in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, too, must build credibility to show that they are succeeding in the West Bank, Ross said.

Additionally, the focus should be placed on conflict management, not conflict resolution, Ross said, citing the resistance to concessions by the Israelis and Palestinian anger toward Israel.

Shifting his attention to the conflict in Iraq, Kemp questioned how much diplomatic energy the U.S. can afford to devote to it, highlighting all of the other conflict in the region as he condemned Iraq’s government as “dysfunctional.”

“This is a truly serious moment for a president who, presumably, takes a few briefings at the ninth hole before he completes the 18 holes in Martha’s Vineyard,” Kemp said to a mixed audience reaction of boos and cheers.

Ross agreed, citing that presidential administrations get tired in their second term. The U.S. faces an “unbelievable” set of demands, he said, citing the collapse of Mosul, Iraq, as an example of a “strategic surprise.”

“Every case of strategic surprise historically has always been a function of your assumptions,” Ross said. “It’s never a function of lacking the information.”

While the Iraqi army outnumbered ISIS by 10 to 1 and out-armed them by an even greater magnitude, Ross attributed the failure to “rot from within.” Viewing the regime in Baghdad as oppressive, 80 percent of Iraqi forces simply left. The U.S. cannot afford to not act, Ross said. When the U.S. does nothing in the Middle East, he added, the “worst possible forces” fill the vacuum.

In closing, Ross suggested that the U.S. “deconflict” with Iran, which he said shares interests with the U.S., without appearing to coordinate with the nation — a perception he said could pose the threat of a hegemonic power if Arab regimes collapse. Additionally, Ross said, the U.S. should combat the perception that it is “at war” with Sunnis, who comprise 85 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Because the U.S. has responded to the ISIS threat to relatively small numbers of Christians and Yazidis, yet “did nothing” when 100,000 Sunnis were killed in Syria, the U.S. must guard itself against an anti-Sunni perception in the Middle East where, Ross said, “conspiracy is like oxygen.”


Q: So moving to Iraq for a second, this questioner asks you both to comment on the possibility of the removal of Iraq’s prime minister and, in his absence, is there the formulation of a political process that might improve things?

Geoffrey Kemp: Well I think he’s not going to go willingly. He has been tenacious about one thing, and that’s his power. Everything he has done has been designed to build his power — every promise he made about power sharing he violated. In 2010, it’s interesting that he says it was a violation of the constitution to have [Haider] al-Abadi be appointed as the prime minister because his party, even though al-Abadi’s party was his party, got the largest number of votes. In 2010, Iraqiya got the largest number of votes — not his party. But then he didn’t seem to have a problem with being asked to form a government when his party didn’t get the largest number of votes. So promises he made at that time were to share power. There was supposed to be a Sunni defense minister. He wasn’t supposed to have the interior ministry. There was supposed to be a supreme national security council where [Ayad] Allawi, who was the head of Iraqiya, was supposed to head that and share power in national security. None of these things materialized. He then kept the defense ministry, kept the interior ministry, removed everyone in the military who wasn’t a complete loyalist to him. So everything has been geared for him to cement his power. The good news is that the military says it won’t intervene, the Shiite militias backed by the Iranians said they won’t intervene, and even members of his own party are putting pressure on him. He will still, I think, do his best to try to sabotage the process to stay in power. I think the lineup is weighted enough against him that it’s going to be difficult for him to succeed, in no small part because the real kingmaker in terms of any government formation is Iran. It’s not us. We’re active right now, but the Iranians will affect all of the different Shiite groups more than we will. It’s important to keep that in mind, which I think is the fact that [Ali al-]Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah, who has more credibility in Iraq that anybody else, and the Iranians both want him out, tells me whatever his efforts to sabotage, ultimately they won’t succeed.

Q: There are a lot of questions about the resurgence of anti-Semitism — in Europe in particular — and asking about causes, your comment earlier and the colonial-like behavior and the reaction of that. But these questions seem to be going back to an earlier time in Europe and is this simply the re-emergence of a factor in Europe that exists? Anyway, and then in addition, what is the effect of media attention on the Israeli-Gaza crisis in Europe?

GK: Let me begin with that because, as I said, I was in Europe in 1967 when there was overwhelming support for Israel. I think there are a number of reasons. First, there’s a much larger Muslim community now in Europe than there was in 1967, and I’m not just talking about people from the Middle East. I’m talking about a very large Turkish and South Asian population, all of whom who automatically side with the Palestinians. Secondly, there is, I think, a sort of latent anger in what I call mainstream European elites toward Mr. Netanyahu and particularly Likud governments, or right-wing governments in Israel, who always seem to rub Europeans the wrong way. Shimon Peres is a great hero in Europe still today. Bibi Netanyahu is not. This, I think, triggers old, historic images that go back centuries. But I think the third thing, and the reason you see these huge demonstrations in the streets, is the unbelievable effect of the social media and television coverage. The television coverage is intensive and it’s focused exactly on the latest bit of carnage you can film in Gaza — with the absolute support of Hamas, who take the cameras everywhere. As Dennis said, you get the impression looking at these terrible pictures from Gaza that this entire huge city is like Dresden in 1945. It’s not. If the camera were to go up and pan over the entire Gaza district, you would find 90 percent of the buildings have not been touched. So it’s television, it’s an angry Muslim population, it’s youth of today — both in Europe and, I would add, in many campuses in the United States — do not have the strong sympathy for Israel that they had when Israel was the underdog and memories of World War II were much more vivid than they are today.

Dennis Ross: I just have one point to add to what Jeff was saying because I agree exactly with his analysis. In Europe, Israel has been portrayed as the victimizer and the Palestinians are the victims, and that has changed. What Hamas has sought to do was to play on that. Hamas’ strategy depended upon having a large number of Palestinian casualties. It isn’t just that they embed where they launched their rockets from — and by the way, their commanders operate out of hospitals. Everything is designed to create targets that will produce Palestinian casualties, and that plays to the very sentiment that Jeff described.

Q: This remarkable presence of ISIS or ISIL in Iraq, there are different angles at this question. So one basic one is where do they get their funding? You answered that partly, so there’s that. The other is, how were they perceived by moderate Sunnis, and if they’re repugnant to moderate Sunnis, where is their expression of that? And finally, this whole ISIS phenomenon seems to be largely ignored by multi-national organizations — the United Nations being one. Can you talk about whether the United Nations has any teeth at all regarding the experience with ISIS or ISIL?

DR: Let me. I mean, the three important areas of questions. First of all, I want to explain something about the financing, because I think this is not really well understood. ISIS, ISIL — they call themselves the Islamic State now — they had a lot of money before; not because they were getting it from the gulf states, which is the normal way in the past a lot of the Islamists got money. They got money through extortion, through kidnappings. Before they took over Mosul — and this is why Mosul should not have been such a strategic surprise — there were lots of stories about how they ran huge extortion rackets against every business in Mosul. Literally, every one of them was subject to a kind of mafia-style shakedown from ISIL. So you paid, basically, an insurance so your business wasn’t going to be blown up or you wouldn’t be killed. The Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces were nowhere to be seen in terms of protecting people there, maybe because they were part of some of the corruption. So ISIL had a lot of money from before, number one. Number two, the base they had in Syria: They took over the oil and oil refinery. They were selling to Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad initially had no interest in attacking them because he wanted to portray all of the opposition against them as being terrorists. Well at the same time, he was buying his oil within Syria, which used to be controlled by the state, from them. So they had begun to operate like they were a state in being anyway. Initially, their money was coming from what I described. Now, they actually have oil that they’re selling. To make matters dramatically worse, when they took over Mosul and they took over the central bank of Mosul, they got about $150 million in gold and about $350 million in currency. So they don’t just have about a billion dollars worth of American equipment, they also have a huge windfall of money. They are unlike any terrorist organization we have seen before, and they are acting now like they are a state. This brings us back to the question that Jeff was posing about the level of energy we have to deal with anything else but that given the nature of the threat.

GK: And this is your tax money at work. That’s what Dennis is saying.

DR: As for Sunni moderates: Again, you have to understand that, at least initially, Sunni moderates looked at Bashar al-Assad killing Sunnis and so who’s fighting him. And they looked at [Nouri al-]Maliki oppressing Sunnis and who’s fighting him. So there initial reaction was ‘Yeah we don’t like ISIL, but who’s fighting those who are oppressing and brutalizing Sunnis?’ So there hasn’t been this groundswell among moderate Sunnis against them. Even if you talk to them they say, ‘We know better.’ We’re beginning now to see some signs, and again, when ISIL rules, this is the seventh century. They know how to use modern techniques, but they are imposing their version of Sharia law and, inevitably, it will produce a backlash — just as it did. What produced the surge, the awakening councils in Iraq, was the backlash that was created by al-Qaida in Iraq — that’s what ISIL grew out of that. That’s who they were. The surge, Petraeus, took advantage of what was the Sunni reaction. We had a 100,000 Sunnis who were fighting them and defeated them in Iraq along with us. They were supposed to be integrated into the Iraqi security forces, they were supposed to be paid by the Iraqi government and neither happened after Maliki took over. That’s contributed to it a lot. As for the UN, when you say the UN, who is the UN? The UN is its member states, the UN isn’t this kind of organization that has its own wherewithal, it depends upon the member states. Here again you get back to the question of US leadership, because things don’t happen unless we help to make them happen.

Q: So can there be any settlement with Iraq without splitting Iraq into three separate sections as a way of dealing with the tribal realities that you’re talking about?

GK: Let me start off. In theory, yes. The reason that the United States has not been arming the Peshmerga in Kurdistan up to now is because we promised the Iraqi government we would not do so. We had, until very recently, a real vested interest in the constitution that we imposed on Iraq. In some sort of way, it sort of works in a tortuous, democratic, confused, muddling way. If for some reason you can get a new prime minister who can woo some of these Sunni tribes back into the fold and can reach a deal with the Kurds to hold off from independence — which they all want to declare; 90 percent of the Kurds want independence — yes it’s possible to save Iraq. But I’m not betting my Honda Accord on it, let me put it that way.

Q: That’s a very nice car. Okay so this question, let me try to put two of these together because I think they flow interestingly. So this person says how infrequently the topic of oil has come up in this conversation. Though, Dennis, you just did refer to some of that. But you think about that prior to 9/11 and then just think in the last 20 years how that subject has changed as we look at the Middle East, how our perspective about that has changed. What is your sense of the lens through which we look at this? Has our perspective about oil changed our political calculations in any significant way? Then finally, where is China in all of this, and is there interest in part of the world purely that of resource or do they have some other political calculation?

DR: Well let me start. Let me start with China. The short answer to the China question is yes, their interest is resources. The long answer to the China question is yes, their interest is resources. They have, for a long time, piggybacked on us. We have preserved their ability to gain access. They are, by the way, they have a very large presence in Iraq. It’s mostly related to trying to develop oil fields in Iraq. So they may over time. They’re developing much more of a power projection capability. It still is much more geared towards being able to deny us the ability to act in the regions close to them. Over time, they could decide that, when it comes to preserving the security of the sea lines of communication to their sources of resources, like in the Middle East — where they have relied upon us — they might decide that they can do more of this themselves, but for the near time that’s not the issue. Their preoccupation in the Middle East is oil. They need energy to maintain their growth rates and so that’s their preoccupation. As for the other part, what was the other?

GK: Well, the other point is this broader issue of oil. I would just say on that, that there has been another revolution going on while all of these conflicts in the Middle East — particularly the war in Iraq — have dragged on and on and on. Namely, the infrastructure of the United States has changed dramatically because we now have horizontal fracking capabilities, and if you look at the production of American oil and natural gas over the past three or four years, it’s dramatic. We have turned things around. Therefore, there’s not the preoccupation there used to be over one oil field in Iraq going down, is that going to affect the price of oil. The price of oil is remaining pretty steady. The price of gas is falling. Every other country in the world is now looking at this technology to exploit their own resources. There are enormous amounts of shale oil and gas all around the world; it’s just that it’s expensive, it’s controversial, but it’s there. Therefore, this idea that there is a finite supply of fossil fuels has been put off for another 50 years, and that I think does relieve some of the pressure on the United States. It’s most apparent in the case of Ukraine where the Russian capacity to interfere with Europe’s supply of gas is very real and very, very troubling — particularly with winter coming up. It doesn’t affect us at all. Therefore, we can be bolder in imposing sanctions in Russia over Ukraine and that’s why the Europeans are so hesitant. But I think we have reached a point now where even the Europeans realize they have to make some sacrifices too. Raising the oil question is terribly important, Tom, because in the past, it always dominated Middle East discussions. It does less so now.

DR: Can I just add one point to that: It is true over time Middle Eastern oil will become less important if, in fact, the technologies on fracking are exploited elsewhere and it proves to be environmentally sound. For the foreseeable future, however, even though we may not be dependent on it, it’s true. The only reason, given all of the disruptions in the Middle East, I mean Libya, Iraq and in Africa, Nigeria, there’s a lot of disruptions and yet the price is not going up because our production has gone up so much. But bear in mind one thing, you still get about 20 percent of the world’s energy from the Middle East. If there was a complete breakdown, you still have one pool of energy worldwide. So if you have one pool of energy worldwide and you lose 20 percent, we’ll pay the same price everybody else will, because the price gets bid up. So just because we may not be so dependent, the reality is our allies are still dependent, the world economy is still dependent and we’re affected by the world economy.

—Transcribed by Emma Foehringer Merchant