Middle Eastern Peace with Joe Camilleri

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I’d be your host Matt Smith and I’m here today with Professor Joe Camilleri from the Center for Dialogue, again. Hello there, Joe. You’re a glutton for punishment.

Joe Camilleri:

Yes, it looks like it, doesn’t it?

Matt Smith:

This is the second podcast. So we’re here today to discuss what you found out on the recent trip to the Middle East and countries of conflict. And what was the main reason that you went on that trip?

Joe Camilleri:

There were three of us from the Center for Dialogue. And we had, I suppose, two main purposes. One was to be briefed by various parties on conflict or, I should say, conflict in the Middle East because that’s a very important part of our work.

Being the Center for Dialogue, we have a particular interest in conflicts generally about given the strategic importance of the Middle East. We have a very strong continuing interest in conflicts in the Middle East.

So we wanted to be briefed by key stakeholders in, of course, the Israel-Palestine conflict on that but also on a number of other conflicts to do with Iraq, Iran, Lebanon in particular, and some other related issues. That was the first objective.

And the second one was to identify potential partners, institutions that would be interested in collaborating with us in one or more project or initiatives; primarily of a research kind but related dialogue projects or activities. So we have these two major projects or purposes, I should say, and as part of that, we visited a number of Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, of course, Israel. And Palestine was part of that of course.

Matt Smith:

What was the most interesting you found out on your trip?

Joe Camilleri:

The single most important thing possibly to emerge is that there is no single conflict. That there are in fact a great many relationships which underpin the present tension in this part of the world. And that related to this the issues are as much domestic as they are external. We often get the impression from headline news of this country being in conflict with another.

But what often does not come across very clearly is that there are very powerful interests inside each of the countries concerned which are often key factors in either maintaining the conflict or even exacerbating it. And so if you’re thinking of Israel and Palestine, which is possibly the single most difficult conflict in the region, certainly one that’s been going on for well over 60 years now, it is as much to do with the internal situation in Israel, the internal situation in Palestine, and more importantly perhaps the internal situation in a number of Arab countries.

That is not clearly understood by people at large, I don’t think. That’s the first thing. The second is that as we expected, because we are recently knowledgeable about the situation, Iran is a country whose importance is rising, will almost certainly continue to rise in the years ahead. There’s no question of that.

It’s an emerging regional power. And the United States, if you like, under the present administration, has clearly recognized this. That is causing, to put it mildly, discomfort in a number of other parts of the Middle East.

Matt Smith:

I did a podcast interview with Associate Professor Nick Bisley not too long ago and he said in that that the only way for Iraq to prosper in the future would be is if the Iraq that is pro-Iran. Would you say that that sort of thing would be accurate?

Joe Camilleri:

I don’t think it’s a question of being pro or anti. It’s more a question of whether the other major players in the region, which is basically Arab countries and Israel, can learn to live with an Iran that is more influential than it has been in the past.

It is, I think, an acceptance of its rising influence and the willingness to work with it in spite of all the difficulties and disagreements that might occur from time to time. So that’s certainly one of the other issues.

And the third thing you asked me what was the most interesting things to emerge from that trip, the third thing is that this may be a critical moment that we are facing. That unless we see some reasonable progress on several fronts of the next, one can’t be precise, let’s say six to twelve, maximum 18 months, then undoubtedly, things will get much worse, much worse; for the region, for individual countries and for the international community.

So this is if you like a unique moment of opportunity the next six to 18 months. I can’t be terribly hopeful that this unique moment of opportunity will be taken up by all parties concerned, but certainly I think I’ve come away with a very strong impression that unless progress is registered during this short timeframe, then we can expect a lot of trouble ahead on not one but probably several fronts.

Matt Smith:

In a situation like this in an environment where there is high conflict, effective dialogue is something that is really needed. Is that what the case is here? What would the next step, some sort of a conflict resolution be? Do you need effective dialogue or is it a case of what the world needs now is love sweet love?

So that’s an impediment to dialogue. And then there is of course the need to involve in the dialogue in some way or other external parties, which includes Europe, the Unites States. But how to allow space for them without dominating and without appearing to or in practice being biased one way or another. So that’s very difficult.

So there are great complexities. Yes, dialogue undoubtedly is the way forward. How to bring it about, number one, and how to bring it about in ways that are constructive and likely to lead to useful steps forward, that’s going to be the great catch. And for this, you need enormous skill, patience, and goodwill, and sometime all these attributes are in short supply.

Matt Smith:

You said there is a six to 18-month time gap. You’ve put quite a deadline on something that needs to be done. Where specifically do you need to start? What countries do you need to bring to the table first?

Joe Camilleri:

I think we need to see obviously some progress on the Israel-Palestine issue. It is difficult in that case because of the enormous mistrust that exists between the two sides. It’s further complicated by the fact that both in Israel and in Palestine but in different ways. You don’t have a unified position.

So you might have an Israeli government which might have a particular strategic approach in mind but is not necessarily one that everyone in Israel would subscribe to. And you have in the case of Palestine two quite separate, and at the moment, two quite separate movements, Fatah and Hamas; and then not only are they separate. One basically controls the West Bank and the other one controls Gaza. But they are at the moment, or have been for some time, at loggerheads.

So an Israel-Palestine discussion has somehow defined the space needed to bring both of them in. And one of the worst things that would happen is that Israel might be persuaded to have discussion with one and completely ignore the other. And no agreement arising from that will, in the long run, stick. Even short term agreements.

So the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, and Egypt has been trying to mediate so far unsuccessfully, is going to be very important. So you can see that what you need is a massive effort involving great many stakeholders in the dialogue process. Different players, different groups, political groups and the wider society, and it needs people who can think about it in this very holistic way.

And in a sense when we were having very extensive discussions at the highest level, including ministers in various countries, that’s the kind of line that we, as the Center for Dialogue, were pushing quite hard.

Matt Smith:

Recently, you have the former leader of Iran, Khatami, come out to Australia. Was that influenced by the need to generate dialogue in the Middle East?

Joe Camilleri:

Well, I think one of the main reasons for bringing him out is he himself, both while he was president for eight years in Iran and since, has been a great promoter of dialogue particularly at the international level.

So obviously, we were trying to cultivate personalities who are known for their commitment to the dialogue process. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we as the Center for Dialogue agree with every or any of the positions he holds. But certainly, he is someone who, within the Iranian political perspective, is one of the leading personalities who has been pushing hard for dialogue.

And therefore, the point of view that he represents, the attitudes that he represents are undoubtedly much more helpful to the dialogue process than are those expounded by his successor, the man who currently is president of Iran.

And clearly, that came through in many of our discussions. Many of the people we spoke with, political leaders in the Arab world in particular, drew quite a distinction between the kinds of policies and rhetoric and the way of speaking that he favored while he was president and the last three to four years of Ahmadinejad, his successor.

Matt Smith:

His visit wasn’t just to a talk. He actually established dialogue while he was out here?

Joe Camilleri:

Well, he had quite an extensive program. It was only a four or five-day visit but everyday was packed with several engagements. Business people, people from the political world, religious world, intellectuals, community organizations. And of course Iranians. He met with a number of Iranian groups, particularly in Melbourne.

And we saw that as an opportunity for the dialogue to take place between him and these various groups in Australian society. So that in itself was part of the dialogue we were trying to encourage.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that there is a risk at all though that by bringing out somebody with a reputation out like Khatami that it risks maybe given a perception that the Center of Dialogue is condoning things that happened during his presidency.

Joe Camilleri:

I don’t think so. I think we have brought out many other people in the past and will continue to bring out many people in the future, including from different parts of the world and including Israel, and the United States, and many other countries.

And we bring them because they have something to contribute to the discussion of issues of interest to us. The Iranian political system is a very complex one and during Khatami’s presidency, there were many things happening in Iran which would not be to our liking.

But included amongst those things that did happen, which are very deplorable and regrettable, were the fact that many of his own associates were harassed, intimidated, jailed, and the odd one even assassinated. And that merely tells you that the president then and even the president now in the Iranian political system is not fully in charge.

There are many other powerful political players. And indeed some players are even more powerful than the president. So you can’t say that the president is responsible for everything that happens in the country. Clearly, this is not the case.

And we knew this to be so and it’s certainly applied during Khatami in his period of office. He was clearly the president but not fully in charge of all that was happening in the country. And some of the things that were happening in the country were clearly not to his liking and clearly did not have his support, which is not to say that any individual is perfect.

But if you only want to invite individuals who are perfect in all respects, in all their relationships and in all their policies, then you end up inviting nobody at all.

Matt Smith:

On your trip, did you identify any potential collaborative partners when you’re over there?

Joe Camilleri:

We certainly did and probably many more than we’ll be able to pursue, at least, in the short to medium term. We will need to pull all the information we have put together which is very substantial. We have 40 official meeting and perhaps we met with close to 200 people.

We visited dozens of institutions so we have in mind two or three possibilities where we might be able to bring, let’s say, one or two Arab institutions together, perhaps an institution from Israel together, perhaps even an institution from Iran, and to see whether we might be able to put together an interesting workshop or set of workshops or conference or series of conferences with publications arising from those.

With locations probably not in Australia but in some part of the Middle East or in a region very close to the Middle East because, otherwise, the costs would be prohibitive. But there are many such possibilities and many have indicated interest in such projects. That is the normal, if you like, research based conference plus publication approach.

But in addition to that, it may well be possible that we will develop a series of dialogues. At the moment, the Center for Dialogue already has an Australia-Malaysia dialogue about to get under way between ourselves and a university in Malaysia as the two co-sponsors.

We may well be able to pursue an Australia, Saudi Arabia and Australia, Israel dialogue about issues, not about bilateral relations but about major issues to do with conflict in the Middle East and why there are international ramifications of such conflicts. So that’s another possibility we’re interested in exploring. But we will need to think the practical implications, logistic implications and not least the financial or funding implications of all such projects.

Matt Smith:

Professor Joe Camilleri, thank you for your time.

Joe Camilleri:

Thank you.