Diplomacy and the Arab Spring

Two visiting diplomats—a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the United States—were in Middlebury six days apart in April to present their views on the Arab Spring for the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs.

Daniel Kurtzer

Daniel Kurtzer, who was ambassador to Egypt during President Clinton’s second term and ambassador to Israel during the first half of George W. Bush’s presidency, discussed the Arab Spring (or, as he called it, the “Arab Awakening”) from Israel’s perspective. But he also used the podium to voice his support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question, and state his opposition to Israeli settlements in occupied territories.

Now a professor in Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University, Kurtzer is no longer expected to be a reserved, circumspect diplomat, and he certainly didn’t disappoint his standing-room-only audience in the conference room of the Robert A. Jones ’59 House on April 17.

The visitor said Israel is “one of the few nations in the world largely surrounded by countries that deny its existence diplomatically,” and he skillfully placed Israel’s Arab neighbors in three distinct “baskets: democratizers, repressors, and monarchies.”

On how Israel has responded (or not responded) to the Arab Awakening, Kurtzer said, “Most interesting in this respect is in a society where you normally can’t get people to shut up, Israelis have been uncharacteristically quiet because they have understood over the course of the past year that, to the largest extent, they were not the subject matter of Arab discourse.”

Kurtzer examined Israel’s strategic position in response to the Arab Spring using the three “core challenges” that the State of Israel has faced since its founding in 1947: security, economics, and immigration. And while the basic challenges haven’t changed, he said the Middle East landscape has been transformed dramatically: “The secular pan-Arab nationalism of the mid-20th century is now driven by Islamic fundamentalism.”

The major forces in the region aren’t states anymore, Kurtzer explained. “It’s regional players and non-state actors” that threaten Israel’s security, and he listed Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority, among others. He also named Iran and Turkey as two countries beyond Israel’s border that now play a role in the region’s politics.

During his 40-minute lecture, which was initiated by Sarah R. Cohen ’15 of Middlebury’s Hillel chapter, the Princeton professor touched briefly on the second “core challenge”—the development and expansion of Israel’s economy—pointing to the country’s shift from an agricultural economy to a technological one.

On the assimilation of immigrants, the former ambassador said there are now 10-plus million people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan including the non-Jewish residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Demographers project that the population of the region will shift to an Arab majority sometime about the middle of this century, which prompts Kurtzer to advocate for a two-state solution. “The crux of the issue [is] whether the two sides really believe in partition, in sharing this land they both claim exclusive control over.”

Ambassador Petr Gandalovic of the Czech Republic addressed the topic of “The Velvet Revolution and Lessons for the Arab Spring” as the guest of Middlebury’s Rohatyn Center and the Vermont Council on World Affairs on April 23.

Petr Gandalovic

Gandalovic, who ascended to his diplomatic post in 2011, delivered 10 minutes of prepared remarks and took questions from Middlebury students and faculty for the rest of the hour. Comparing the events of 1989 among the Warsaw Pact nations to current actions in North Africa and the Middle East, the ambassador noted these similarities: the geographic scale of events, the unpopularity of existing regimes, the “powerful will of the people” demanding democratic change, and the unlikelihood that unrest will stop once it has started.

Similarities aside, he acknowledged that there are numerous historic, cultural, religious, and economic differences between the region where Communism fell and the Arab countries where totalitarianism is being challenged today. Two major forces that shaped the course of the Velvet Revolution—the emergence of popular leaders and support from western Europe—appear to be less influential in the Arab Spring.

During the Velvet Revolution “intellectual leaders played a very prominent role,” he said. “Thinkers like the late President Václav Havel helped provide a unified vision and became symbols for the people. Havel steered the revolution in a civil direction, much as America’s founders. He envisioned a civil society and his writings have become a source of inspiration for other pro-democracy movements around the world.”

The Arab Spring does not have charismatic leaders like Havel or Lech Wałęsa, the ambassador explained. It is a revolution “driven by social media,” which Gandalovic recognized to be a “powerful platform” for organizing uprisings and for communicating both inside and outside the region, but social media itself will never “offer the vision and sense of direction” like strong leadership.

In 1989, “the countries of central and eastern Europe could rely on support from the rest of Europe, which was keen for them to return to the family of democratic European nations. Existing European and trans-Atlantic structures served as a great incentive for further reforms in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. In the case of the Arab countries now undergoing transition, the situation is different,” the ambassador stated, and the relationship between Arab nations and the EU countries is more “complex.”

Nevertheless, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister just returned from an official visit to Egypt, and Ambassador Gandalovic asserted that his country “stands ready to work with the newly elected representatives who want to respect human rights and take their [Arab] nations in the direction of freedom and democracy.”

Photo of Daniel Kurtzer courtesy Jon Roemer.

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