The Middle East's real problem is poverty, not politics, says Israel's president.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
A living founding father, Israel’s president has served as both warrior and peacemaker since his country’s infancy, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in concluding the Oslo Accords. Now he’s grappling with how to respond to the challenge posed by an angry, impoverished Arab world and the growing threat of Iran.
In the short run, [the Arab revolutions] may be complicated. In the long run, it’s a great hope and opportunity. It’s really a young generation that wants to join in the new age because they cannot make a living — neither can they exist — in the old age. The young people have the future, and the old people are still trying to maintain the past. But the past is dead.
The real problem in the Middle East is not politics; the real problem is poverty. Take the Muslim Brothers: They don’t have a plan for how to escape poverty. More than 40 percent in Egypt are under the poverty line. Thirty percent are unemployed — it’s very serious. And there are 82 million people, and they are not blessed with natural resources.
Today, the real threat is concentrated in one country: It’s Iran. And the problem with the Iranian government is not only that they’re trying to build a bomb, but that they became the center of international terror. They don’t respect human rights. Now they are financing Hamas, preventing the Palestinians from getting together, sending them arms and bombs and missiles, and encouraging them to shoot and kill.
I wouldn’t call it toppling the regime. I would say liberating Iran from its own malicious group of people. And I think it can be done, not necessarily by entering into an immediate military act. I think if there are sanctions, it will be effective; it will produce change.
The start wasn’t good, but [the U.S.-Israeli relationship [under President Obama] improved with time and experience, and today it’s in much better shape. There is a difference between American-Israeli relations and other relations. It is not just a relationship between governments; it’s a relationship between peoples. We have the same inspiration: namely, the Bible.
I don’t think there’s any religion we can consider an enemy. There is no religion that calls for killing and hating and fighting. Muslims can be as peaceful [as we are], and even today I’m not sure all of them are necessarily very extreme or very violent. It has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with the ones who use the name of religion for their own ambitions. I don’t know any lord in heaven who declared that the best solution is to kill everybody who is against me.
In a way, we were successful in building peace. The Palestinians built a structure. They introduced law. They run an economy. They built a force — the 15,000 troops who trained in Jordan. And today, they can really keep law and order, and the economy is beginning to flourish.
Israel is a small piece of land. We are not even 1 percent of the Arab space, you know. We don’t have water. We don’t have oil. Our greatness, if one may say greatness, stems from the fact we had nothing to start with. So we turned to human talent because there weren’t natural resources. The Arabs can do it too.