Professor Ofra Bengio is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University and Head of Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center. Additionally, she is a Lecturer at Shalem College, Jerusalem.
Her fields of specialization are: contemporary Middle Eastern history, modern and contemporary politics of Iraq, Turkey and the Kurds. She is also interested in Culture and Literature of Middle Eastern societies.
Prof. Bengio has translated poetry and prose from Arabic and Turkish into Hebrew. She was a visiting fellow at Emory, Beijing and Bogazici Universities as well as the Washington Institute. Bengio has participated in many conferences all over the world and is a frequent commentator in Israeli and international media. In an interview she answered our questions as the following:
Gulan: How do you characterize the situation in the Middle East? And what are the most troublesome trends and worrisome developments undergoing in this region in your perspective?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: The Middle East represents four main centers, each of which is developing in its own specific way. The first and the biggest center is the Arab world which itself is divided into two main groups: the core Arab countries and the countries of the periphery. Regarding the core countries which in the past used to be the leaders of the Arab world and the harbingers of Pan-Arabism are now in the weakest or the most unstable situation. These countries which include Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt are grappling with upheavals due to various socio-economic, demographic and political problems which are worsening with the passage of time. As for the so-called countries in periphery like the Arab Gulf countries or Morocco, they enjoy greater stability and legitimacy than their counterparts in the core countries whose regimes lack basic legitimacy. This explains in a way their daring move, to sign Abraham accord with Israel. The second center is Iran which is working tirelessly to spread its policy of Shi'ization and strengthening its hegemony in the Middle East starting with Iraq and going on to Syria and Lebanon. Its main target being the destruction of Israel. The third center is Turkey which since the AKP's coming to power in 2002 has been changing dramatically its domestic and foreign policies. Like Iran Turkey's main target is becoming the hegemon in the region, part of the revival of Ottomanism. This led it to carry out attacks in the Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq and compete openly or under the surface with Iran and Israel. The last center is Israel which is considered one of the strongest countries in the region economically, militarily and scientifically. To sum up the four centers sometimes compete with each other and at others forge alignments which themselves are very fragile and fluid.
Gulan: Generally, how do you see the attempts for democratization in the Middle East, especially after the Arab Spring, can we say that the prospects for pushing democracy forward are slim in this region?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: There are two major social problems which hinder the development and strengthening of democracy among many countries in the Middle East. The first problem is the education system: As long as the system teaches the students to memorize the material and to stick to what the teacher has asked them to, rather than think critically, freely and develop their own ideas and become initiative, then there is slim chance that democracy will stuck roots. True, we have witnessed the Arab spring which was carried out by the youth and raised hopes for democratization. But since the educational infrastructure was so weak the autocratic regimes could nip these initiatives in the bud. The second major problem in these societies is the marginalization of the role of women politically, economically and socially. Thus, as long as these deficiencies continue to exist in the educational system and the role of women in these societies, the chances for democratization will be slim. As for the regimes which are afraid of such opening, they will do their best to prevent such deep reforms. Hence these societies keep moving in a vicious circle.
Gulan: Sometimes it seems that the intractable and longstanding conflicts and challenges in the Middle East defy any attempt to resolve them, so why the dilemmas of this region are so insurmountable and seemingly unsolvable?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: In my opinion the society in certain Arab countries and even in Turkey and Iran suffer from certain problems which turn their conflicts unsolvable. A major one is that these societies look back to the grandeur of the past rather than forward to the future. Thus, these societies are yearning to the period when they were empires, whether Muslim, Persian or Ottoman. This led them to attempts to revive that past or imitate it which prevent them from making real progress in the realm of politics, science or education or accept the fait accompli and move forward. Mesopotamia /Iraq for example was the center of the Abbassid Empire, but since the Mongol invasion this has stopped to be the case. Still the yearning to that period continues and with it the problems discussed above. Another example is ISIS for which the model is the Islamic State of early Islam which moved it to interpret that period in its own way and carry out all kinds of atrocities for that sake. The other point is not taking responsibility but keep blaming all kind of others like colonialists, the West and Israel for the problems of these societies. Thus, the leaderships do not attempt to change the situation in a positive way but prefer the road of conflicts which they believe will help better mobilize or contain their societies.
Gulan: As you know there are many terrorist and radical groups in the region, that they have caused unprecedented death and destruction, what are the underlying and structural causes for the emergence of these groups and what should be done for countering them?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: The problem is that these terrorist groups find support in their society. They did not come just out of the blue but they are part of the society which grants them legitimacy and support. For example, ISIS could not have succeeded without the support of Sunni groups which were deeply frustrated by the fact that they lost hundreds of years of hegemony in Mesopotamia/Iraq. It is true that these terrorist groups are small minorities, but in many cases the minorities decide what happens in certain places. On the other hand, women in most of these societies, do not take active part in politics and thus are unable to contribute to peaceful processes in the region. There are no magic solutions to these problems but in any case they should start with education, changing the vision to the future and enabling women to become the real half part of society.
Gulan: There is also another intractable and deep-rooted issue in the Middle East which is sectarian rivalry especially between Sunni and Shia, how this problem can be dealt with?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: The Sunni -Shiite divide is as old as Islam itself and it is both ideological and political, hence its intractability. if we follow history we can see that there were ebbs and flows in this conflict but that since the 16th century this struggle for power became very evident, especially in the region of Mesopotamia/Iraq. Thus, at certain times the Shiite Persian empire managed to take control of the area but at most of the time it was the Sunni Ottoman empire which took hold of it. Nowadays we are witnessing the revival of this struggle for power between Turkey and Iran and between their different proxies like the Shiite militias al-Hushud and the Sunnis militias al-Qa`ida and ISIS. The most important way for attempting to solve the problem is separating religion from politics.
Gulan: How do you evaluate the Iranian influences in Middle Eastern countries, do believe that Iran is a part of problem? Can it be turned into a part of solution?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979 we are witnessing ongoing aggressive attempts by this country to spread its influence and hegemonic power in the region. It managed to do so in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq where its impact has been catastrophic. Partly because of its intervention, these countries have become failed states. The worst case is Lebanon which used to be the diamond of the Middle East but is now in shambles. I don’t think there is going to be any change unless this change comes from within the society itself. We have now the example of Afghanistan where USA tried for 20 years to inculcate the democratic institutions, but it failed dismally. Another example is Iraq where the USA followed the same path. Indeed, the very idea that an outside power can establish a democracy for another country or society which is not ripe for such changes looks crazy. That is why the USA has not succeeded in Afghanistan, and in my opinion, it will not succeed in Iraq either. For Americans there were two successful models of democracies- post-war Germany and post-war Japan. However, those societies were receptive for such democratic developments, they had some strong basis for democratization, and were more or less homogenous societies, none of which exist in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Gulan: Undeniably the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most intractable one in the Middle East, and all efforts and initiatives to resolve it have resulted in failure and frustration, so how do you foresee the future of this conflict?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: In my opinion the conflict is likely to continue for long time, mainly because the Palestinians do not accept the existence of Israel nor do they grant legitimacy to Jews to have a state of their own. In this sense, Jews and Kurds suffer from a similar problem: the nations of this region do not accord legitimacy to either to Jews or Kurds to have a state of their own. For example, Israel left Gazza unilaterally in the hope that this society will take its fate in its hands and try to change and become the Singapore of the Middle East. But what had happened is that Hamas took control of Gazza and with its radical Islamist ideology it took its society backward. Earlier, in 1993, Israel reached an agreement with Arafat in Oslo but yet again he did not commit his society to it. Therefore, I think this conflict will continue until the Palestinians accept the existence of Israel as a fait accompli. Until that time Israel's leadership think it has to be strong enough in order not be destroyed by these forces.
Gulan: The normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab countries was a significant development, in your opinion it was primarily driven by what? And do you believe that this normalization of relations will be sustainable and contribute to the reduction of the tensions and troubles in the wider region?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: In the past it was the Palestinian issue which was considered the unifying force for all Arab countries against Israel. This is not the case anymore: the more pragmatic countries, those in the periphery and those whose regime have greater legitimacy than others look forward to decouple themselves from the more radical countries and establish relations with Israel. True some of them have a new unifying force that is their fear of Shiite Iran. However, Morocco for example is not that concerned about Iran but still it decided to make peace with Israel and forego the Palestinian question exactly like the Gulf countries. It seems that those countries which had signed the Abraham Accord were motivated by their will to move forward in the realms of economy, technology and know-how and not remain stuck with the Palestinian question, because they see that this leads nowhere. So, these countries have been able to change their views, thanks to Iran, but not only thanks to it. What I want to emphasize is the changes that the whole society is undergoing in terms of accepting Jews and Israel. This is why despite of the recent crisis in Gazza there were not big changes in the approach of the Gulf countries toward Israel. And this is different from the peace Israel has cut with Egypt and Jordan which has remained cold peace. The peace agreement with these two countries are very important on the strategic level but they remained superficial on the social level, and non -existent on the people- to -people level. By contrast, the Accords with the Gulf countries and Morocco seem very promising on the people to people level and can become a model for other Arab countries to follow. Should this happen, it will contribute greatly to the stability and prosperity of the region.
Gulan: Do you see any prospect for Sustained, Strategic U.S.-Iraq Partnership after Joint Statement on the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue? And how do you see the Kurdish future in this country?
Professor Dr. Ofra Bengio: I don’t think it has much sustainability if there is no solution to the Iranian- Shiite problem. As long as the Islamic regime in Iran continues to exist it will have the upper hand in Iraq and look at it as the corridor to Syria, Lebanon and Israel. In this case there is slim chance that the strategic partnership with the USA will be able to cut roots. That is so because Iran is close while America is far; Iran is committed to its target of spreading its hegemony in Iraq while the US under Biden wants to leave; Iran had strong militias while the America-backed army is comparatively quite weak. The Iraqi army's fragility was most evidenced during the war against ISIS. In addition, Iran seeks to use Iraq as an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and as a springboard for attacking Israel and annihilating it. So even though the USA is much a greater power than Iran, it is the weaker party with regard to the rivalry in Iraq. Regarding the Future of Iraqi Kurdistan, it all depends on the strength of the society. The main problems which it has to address are the issues of democratization, education, corruption, the role of women and most importantly that of unity. As in the past the issue of unity has remained the main thorny problem which doomed the fate of the Kurds as a whole. It should be remembered that whenever the Kurds were united, they achieved great accomplishments such as in the aftermath of the 2003. At that period, they became the king makers, held important positions in the central government and were influential in writing the constitution. However, whenever there were divisions among them, such as for example after the 2017 referendum for independence, we witnessed the collapse of the dream of independence. So, the future depends on the strength of the society and the ability of the KRG to navigate among the domestic and regional storms.