Annual Gandel Symposium Puts the Spotlight on Iran and Egypt

Distinguished panel of experts confronts toppling dictatorships of the Middle East

Prof. Shimon Shamir and Meir Dagan
Prof. Shimon Shamir and Meir Dagan

The annual Gandel Symposium, supported by Australian John Gandel, is always a highlight of Tel Aviv University's Board of Governors Meeting — and this year's did not disappoint.

Led by Prof. Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, this year's conference featured a critical analysis of the major issues emerging from the "Arab spring." Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, and Prof. Shimon Shamir, former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, joined Rabi in an enlightening discussion focused on two major Middle Eastern powers — Iran and Egypt — and the impact of the tumultuous past year on Israel and the world at large.

A changing reality for Israel

Prof. Uzi Rabi
Prof. Uzi Rabi

After a series of upheavals that toppled states, new rebel-run regimes, rising Islamism, and widespread fighting over hegemony of the region, we still don't know where the Middle East will end up, Prof. Rabi said frankly. But one thing is certain — there is no going back. And Israel is facing an unprecedented situation where Egypt, Turkey, and Iran could all be defined as anti-Western and anti-Israeli; in the past, at least one of the three was considered friendly to the West at any given time.

"In the midst of this tense and transitional period, we are centering our discussion on Iran and Egypt. The shaping of both of these countries is important to us," Rabi said, referencing the upcoming second presidential elections in Egypt and the next round of nuclear talks with Iran and other world powers.

Struggling for power

Meir Dagan
Meir Dagan

According to Dagan and Prof. Shamir, Iran and Egypt are being shaped by power struggles. Iran, long dominant in the region due to its oil wealth, wants to be seen as a leader of the Shia Muslim world. But in a year of financial crisis, poor management, dysfunction within government factions, and a series of sanctions placed on the country by the global community, Iran is struggling with the limitations to its power.

"Iran is under siege from other Arab countries and the U.S., including a conflict with Azerbaijan and Pakistan," said Dagan, noting that many of the state's problems stem from its nuclear project having been revealed to the world. Now, Iran is faced with a tough decision — continue the project or pay the price of acquiring such a weapon. Ultimately, the choice that is made could lead to a decline in Iranian influence or to the current regime's inability to maintain control the country.

Prof. Shimon Shamir
Prof. Shimon Shamir

Engaged in an internal as well as external power struggle, Egypt is similarly encountering a period of upheaval. Though wide-scale protest from the young citizens of Egypt brought about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year, it also failed to provide an alternative, said Prof. Shamir, leading to a battle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood — an Islamic group that prioritizes Sharia Law and Jihad — and the country’s military leaders.

A once mighty power in the Arab world, "unleashed tribal, regional, religious and ethnic conflicts" are threatening to tear the country apart. Income that once came from tourism and investment is disappearing, and "people are realising that there is less money to distribute," Shamir said, explaining the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming presidential elections.

A tougher Middle East

Calling for a more creative strategy from the Israeli government, Prof. Rabi said Israel was now facing a tougher Middle East than it has in recent years. From fears that the Western powers are being too soft on a hostile Iran to the rising anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt that could put the two countries' long-standing peace agreement into question, Israel is now on uncertain ground.

Though respecting the effort to maintain calm, Dagan spoke against hiding the realities of the Iranian situation; he encouraged an open dialogue about war and peace as significant for upholding Israel’s democracy. "Such a debate will not hurt the country," he counseled.

Prof. Shamir also warned about future conflict between Israel and Egypt.  He hinted that although the peace might hold, especially in light of lucrative Egyptian-U.S. trade agreements that depend on Egypt's relationship with Israel, it could be a very different peace than was originally negotiated.  "All parties are clear regarding their intention to maintain peace with Israel, but they want to re-negotiate the military terms," he said. "They claim Israelis are violating the peace treaty, and are preparing the ground for a new treaty."

 

 

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