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.
Gulan: What is your overall evaluation of the current situation in the Middle East, especially after the destruction of territorial Caliphate of ISIS? do you believe that more instability and volatility is looming large on the horizon for this region?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: In the last decade sweeping changes took place in the Middle East: The weakening of certain states and collapse of others; the rise of non-state actors such as al-Qa`ida and ISIS; the reinforcement of certain ethnic forces, especially the Kurds; the growing Sunni-Shi`I rift; and finally the return of Russia and the US to the region and the struggle for influence on it between them. Since the causes for this tsunami were not dealt seriously on all the socio-political levels, it is quite probable that the instability will continue to be the trade mark of this region.
Gulan: What is your analysis of US Middle East policy? do you see more engagement or more retrenchment by Mr. Trump's Administration in the Region?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: President Trump's declared aim is to withdraw all American forces from the region and to lower the American profile and engagement in the problematic spots. However, realities on the ground might force him to act differently. One such example was his abrupt decision at the end of 2018 to withdraw all the American forces from Rojava and the domestic and regional pressure which forced him to change his mind. His future stance might therefore depend on American complex relations with Turkey, the outcome of the conflict with Iran, the competition with Russia and the position of ISIS.
Gulan: Recently Israel has expanded its attacks on the Iranian affiliated targets, especially in Iraq, so what is you estimation of these dramatic developments?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: Israel has not assumed responsibility for the attacks on the Iranian affiliated targets in Iraq. However, what its leaders keep declaring is that they will not allow Iranian proxies that are active all over the region to build up powers against it and threaten its security. In this regard it should be pointed out that Israel is not acting against the state of Iraq per se but is attempting to contain Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Accordingly, the clash between Israel and Iranian proxies are likely to continue, but on the other hand its covert relations with Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will probably continue to flourish.
Gulan: How do you characterize the current relation between Israel and Turkey, especially you have written a book in this regard?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: The last decade has witnessed ongoing deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey. The main cause is the strategic U turn on the part of President Erdogan and the AKP and the turning of Israel into a target for vitriolic attacks as a means for mobilizing support at home. In the meantime the strategic, political and ideological common denominators that united the two parties lost ground and instead new areas of friction came to the fore such as on gas issues. Nonetheless, one area did survive the crisis, namely economic cooperation which is still ongoing.
Gulan: As an expert on Iraqi affairs, how do you see the situation in this country, do you believe that the main components - Kurds, Shia-Sunni- have opened a new page and are able and willing to the bury the hatchet and looking forward?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: What is noticeable is that at this time there is a certain stabilization of the situation in Iraq after almost two decades of civil wars and clashes between the three main components of Iraqi society. However, this lull should not delude us to believe that these communities have opened a new page in their relations since there are still some basic problems that need to be solved. Such issues are the integration of the Sunnis in the state; the solution of the chronic problem of the disputed territories; the containment of the pro-Iranian Shi`I militias that are competing with the state and its organs; and the hard task of eradicating ISIS which is both the cause and the reason behind Iraq's instability.
Gulan: What are your recommendations for the Kurds at this moment?
Professor DR. Ofra Bengio: It is very easy for an outsider sitting on an armchair to propose recommendations which seem difficult to be realized in real life. However, for what they are worth and theoretically speaking the main areas which need to be tackled are the following: The Kurds should act in unity; strengthen the cohesion of the society; fight corruption; enlarge the Kurdish education system, enhance democracy and most importantly never lose sight of the main Kurdistan goal.