The President of Haifa University, Amos Shapira, and Admiral Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service talked to Board and International Circle members of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council Monday night about their respective views of the future of Israel and the Middle East. Although both men had very different starting points and trajectories in their careers, they both ended up focusing on the same thing - how to hand down a better and safer life to future generations.
President Shapira, who had had a very successful career in business as CEO of El Al Airlines and of Cellcom, Israel's biggest cellphone company, switched fields last year to become head of Haifa University. "Why? To ensure my grandkids have a long and good life in our country." Israel, he said, rises and falls on the quality of its education - because it has nothing else to fall back on. "God only promised us milk and honey - there is no oil in Israel." Israel, he said, has the highest number of Nobel Prizes per capita in the world - and that "is based on investments in education going back 40 years." Haifa University is the most diverse of all universities in the country, where 22% of the students are Arabs. "We reflect the multiculturalism of Israel, and that makes for a better Israel."
Admiral Ayalon said everything changed in the Middle East three years ago when "what started out as a very promising Arab Spring became a very dark Arab winter." There has been a tectonic change that is creating a new Middle East, but it will be a long and messy process, and it will take us years to understand what we saw when we saw it. One thing we know - "Huntington was totally wrong - it is not a clash between civilizations, but a clash within a civilization - Muslims fighting Muslims, Sunnis against Shiites, pragmatists against fanatics."
Egypt, he said, is disappearing as a regional player as it has to focus on its domestic issues. The US ability to influence events is declining. Even national leaders no longer represent their people, as power devolves to people in the street. "We couldn't sign a peace treaty with Egypt today, the people in the street wouldn't allow it."
But in this very unstable and dangerous environment, Ayalon said there were some opportunities - for example Turkey. Historically three powers have competed for dominance in the Middle East - Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Egypt is now preoccupied with its own problems, and Iran is a dangerous mix of Islamic fanaticism and Shiite chauvinism - coupled with a nuclear program. "Turkey, however is a democracy - not like western democracy, but a democracy." Ayalon sees Turkey as the cornerstone in a potential coalition involving the US and Israel and drawing in European and some Arab states to stop the political radicalization and the growing threat of Shiite adventurism and nuclear proliferation from Iran. The paradox, he said, was that progress needed to be made on the Israeli-Palestinian issue first to get the other Arab countries on board. And the way to do that is to give Palestinians something to lose - freedom to move around, jobs and economic opportunities, education for their kids.
Ayalon said he hopes negotiations with Iran will succeed, but that the military option must be kept on the table - "because negotiations could fail." And he said that the key in Iran was to play for time and wait for internal political change - because ultimately the well-educated youth will want to engage with the outside world, not confront the world as the regime does now.
At the end of his presentation Ayalon arrived where Shapira started - the question of how to guarantee a good and safe life to future generations. "I could not promise my children there will be no war - this is not the US or Europe, this is a difficult region. But I could promise them that Israel will be strong enough to fight anyone who might attack us." And he can hope that a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians could give the Palestinian people enough benefits that they would value and would not want to give up - making the investment in peace more compelling.