Two Israeli Middle East experts, Professor Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Sarah Feuer of the Institute for National Security Studies, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy examine the “Arab neighborhood” in which Israel exists, placing their views in the context of the decade after the “Arab Spring” failed to meet the hopes of most Middle Eastern populations and Western observers. Susser explains four main reasons tradition dominates over modernity in the region: no separation of state and religion; societies composed of groups, often religious sects, rather than individuals; the difficulties of sectarian groups to remain confined by artificially fixed borders; and the distrust by lower classes of top-down reforms linked to Western outsiders. He also cites critical deficits in three areas that are holding back Arab states: political freedom; the absence of First World educational systems; and, most important, gender equality. Susser made similar remarks in 2018 on theConsequences for Middle Eastern States Since the Arab Spring, also extracted from the findings of half a dozenArab Human Development Reports written by Arab researchers since 2002. Feuer finds four “camps” vying for influence in the region: an Iranian-led group; the parties associated with the Muslim Brotherhood; the jihadists; and the pragmatic, Western-leaning Sunni states, many of which have found ways to work with Israel and some of which have entered the Abraham Accords. Within Arab states, Feuer says, protest movements are responding to economic problems much more than political oppression. The result, both experts conclude, is instability that could produce uprisings and crackdowns at any time. 

June 16, 2021, Atlanta, Georgia

Center for Israel Education,

Our Speakers

Ken Stein: The title of the presentations today will focus on Israel’s neighbors between the unique and the universal. And we’re really very privileged to have with us in this presentation discussion Dr. Sarah Feuer and Professor Asher Susser. Both of them are coming to us from Tel Aviv.

Dr. Sarah Feuer is the Rosenbloom Family Fellow at the Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics. She’s coming to us today, working at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. She earned her Ph.D. in politics from Brandeis University and in Middle Eastern studies and an M.A. degree at Tel Aviv University, a B.A. in American history and French literature from the University of Pennsylvania.

She’s written extensively on North Africa, having lived for periods of time in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Israel. I won’t go into great detail about the things that she’s written, but suffice it to say we’re just really pleased that Sarah is here to join us.

Professor Asher Susser is emeritus professor and a senior research fellow from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. He’s considered one of Israel’s most learned scholars on the topic of Israel’s neighbors. For 40 years he’s made major contributions in the field of modern Middle Eastern history, published scholarly articles, essays, collected volumes. Asher is a superb teacher — and I would want to emphasize this particularly — with impeccable standards for academic excellence and intellectual integrity. There are very few people in Israel who I could say that to without any reservation whatsoever, and Asher is certainly one of them.

He got his Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University. He’s a former director of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, and he spent academic semesters and years at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis, senior fellow on Arab politics at the University of Arizona, and he’s lectured widely in Europe, Canada and elsewhere in the world. Also very well published and an enormously productive scholar.

Asher has been a personal friend for 40 years. I cherish the friendship as I cherish the meritorious manner in which he has treated our profession. It’s exemplary, which any young scholar should be following as we move into the second quarter of the 21st century.

Our Focus

The objective of the presentation today is to look into the nature and viability of the states that surround Israel, look at inter-Arab politics, see where the legacy of the 19th and 20th century colonial past still has an impact, if any, on the Arab world, understand how Israel may have coped or is coping with its neighbors.

Sarah and Asher’s focus is, of course, Arab state structures, viability, how they operate. Very different from 70 years ago, when many of Israel’s neighbors were just emerging from the colonial period.

My good friend Asher Susser.

How the Middle East Is Exceptional

Asher Susser: I will speak about how I think we should understand the Middle East between different analytical paradigms. Is the Middle East like everywhere else? Should we look at the Middle East through the prism of universal laws of human behavior that social sciences would like to promote? Or is the Middle East exceptional, very different from everywhere else?

The Middle East is indeed exceptional, but where I differ from others is that I think that all places are exceptional.

I don’t think that the Middle East is exceptional to the rest of the world, which plays according to the rules of universal human behavior. All places, all societies, all cultures are exceptional in their particular way, and so is the Middle East.

What I would like us to try and understand is in our recognizing the other, we speak a lot about the other, the rights of the other, and we have an empathetic view towards the other as we only should. But what I think many people miss when they speak about the other is to recognize the otherness of the other. The other really is other.

And so what is other about the Middle East? What is different about the Middle East?

There are a number of critical differences that I would refer to in the Middle East in comparison to many of the Western societies that we know. We’re talking about societies in the Middle East that for centuries have been composed of groups rather than individuals. People belong to families, extended families, tribes, religious sects, which for the most part are critically more important than individuals or individual rights.

Another difference, an important difference: Culture matters. People take their culture and their religion awfully seriously. This is not to say that “Arabs are,” that “Muslims are.” This is not about stereotypical, essentialist explanations that people belong to a certain culture and forever remain the same, but simply to argue that culture does matter.

And in the Middle East, I would say, it is the importance of religion. I say this about the Muslim countries, and anybody who can look at Israel today would see that in Israel, too, there are many characteristics of present-day Israeli society that are very similar to what we see in other parts of the region.

One of the greatest scholars of the Middle East, perhaps the greatest of them all in modern times, was Bernard Lewis, who said the following, “Understanding anything at all about what is happening in the Muslim world at the present time and what has happened in the past, there are two essential points which need to be grasped. One is the universality of religion as a factor in the lives of the Muslim peoples, and the other is its centrality.”

I don’t think anyone could have said it better.

Four Factors Sustaining Tradition

Tradition has shown an amazing resilience in the countries of the Middle East for four main reasons:

• There has never really been a separation of religion and state in Middle Eastern countries and societies.
• The societies, as I said before, are societies of groups, which often means religious sects.
• Over the years, with the impact of European influence, these sectarian identities have obtained a territorial quality. That is, people have sought to organize their sects in territorial frameworks. These have been cause for enormous bloodshed. For example, the annihilation of the Armenians by the Turks and other sectarian struggles, like between Muslims and Christians in Cyprus, for example, or in former Yugoslavia.

The fourth point is that reform in the Middle East has forever been from top down. It has always been Westernizing, modernizing reformers who have imposed new rules and new laws and new reforms that the public did not always identify with. And therefore there has not been a great success in secularizing and Westernizing Middle Eastern societies.

And essentially these societies have been governed since the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798, two centuries and more of competition between this intrusion of Western-style modernity and tradition. The key development that we will discuss today in this competition between modernity and tradition is the rise and fall of Arab nationalism.

Why Arab Nationalism Failed

Arab nationalism is a modern, secular, European idea. The idea that people’s collective identity is defined by the language they speak is a European idea. In the Middle East, this was never the tradition. People defined themselves by the religion to which they belonged, not the language they spoke. The idea that people who speak German belong to the German people and have a country called Germany is a classic, modern, European idea.

The adoption, therefore, of Arab nationalism was a novelty. And the idea that drove Arab nationalists was that Arab unity would provide the power, the prestige and the prosperity of the Arabs, who would become a great power like other great powers.

This Arab unity would bridge over, paper over, cover up the sectarian differences that existed between different speakers of the Arabic language. It didn’t matter if you were a Muslim or a Christian, a Sunni Muslim or a Shi’ite, or some other religious minority. All those who spoke the Arabic language belong to the Arab nation and should unify under the leadership of the greatest of Arab countries, Egypt.

But this idea of Arab nationalism and Arab unity turned out to be a political failure. Perhaps the most humiliating of all these political failures was the defeat to Israel in 1967. And the political failure of Arab nationalism led to the emergence, or the re-emergence, of political Islam on the ruins of this secularizing platform of Arab nationalism.

If we speak about the reassertion of political Islam, it necessarily means the reassertion of sectarianism. If it is political Islam, which Islam? Sunni? Shia? If it is political Islam, what about the non-Muslims, the Christians and other minorities? What is to become of them?

This sectarian tension was further exacerbated by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, a revolution in the name of Shi’ite Islam, reinforcing the sectarian tensions, not just between Persian speakers and Arabs, but between Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims, which the Iranians are.

This was followed very quickly by the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, a war between the Sunni Arab world and Shi’ite Iran. Then came the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, designed to democratize Iraq and then democratize the rest of the Arab world to drain the swamps of terrorism that had emerged in the American consciousness because of 9/11.

False Western Parallels

The ruling party in Iraq was the Arab nationalist, Sunni-led Ba’ath Party. In fact, the Ba’ath Party was the instrument of Sunni control of Iraq, which had actually a Shi’ite majority. The Americans spoke about the de-Ba’athification of Iraq, just as they spoke about the de-Nazification of Germany after the Second World War. But that was the big mistake.

Iraq is not Germany, and Germany was never Iraq. And the de-Ba’athification didn’t mean, like the de-Nazification in Germany, the creation of a democratic state, which had a long and favorable history in Germany. But rather the de-Ba’athification of Iraq meant the degeneration of Iraq into a civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, hardly a model for democracy.

The whole idea that governed the invasion of Iraq was all misconstrued by making these comparisons between the European, the universal and the Middle Eastern that never really carried much weight. The Arab Spring, very similar. Again, a terminology that misinforms more than it informs.

Using the term Arab Spring framed the events that we saw in the various Arab countries a decade ago as if they were this great emergence of new democratic movements, overthrowing authoritarian governments, like the Spring of Nations in 1848 in Europe or the Prague Spring in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. But this was wrong all over again. This was not about the spring of democrats. This was about the crisis of the Arabs, the hopelessness of the younger generation, that generation of people who saw before them no future, no decent education, no option for employment in economies that were on the verge of collapse.

Arab Generations in Waiting

This generation that were called the Waithood Generation; that is, that group of people who had matured from childhood to boyhood and then to waithood, that age of 18 to 30 where they just wait: wait for a decent education, wait for a decent job. None of which are about to arrive.

And this sense of hopelessness is what provoked the revolutionary fervor in the Arab countries.

But the forces at play were not the democrats. The forces at play were the Islamists on the one hand and the army on the other, none of whom are democrats.

And there is, as Sarah I’m sure would agree, the Tunisian exception. Where there the Islamists did show a greater measure of devotion to democratic norms, a constitution that endorsed the freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience and gender equality — those things that have not occurred in other Muslim countries. So Tunisia is an exception, but one that is having a troubling experience as well with formalizing its democratic constitutional form.

Other countries are being torn apart by this revived sectarianism, like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, or the tribalism that tears countries like Yemen and Libya apart. And this resilience of tradition and of traditional social norms has its social-economic impact.

Three Problems Across Arabs States

The Arab countries suffer from three major deficits. The one is the deficit in political freedom. The second is the deficit in First World education systems. And the third is perhaps the most damaging of all, the deficit in gender equality. What do these three deficits mean?

Because of the lack of political freedom and the lack of First World education systems, Arab economies lag far behind Western economies in creative innovation. They’re economies, therefore, that are having great difficulty in fitting in with the globalizing trends of the present.

The third deficit, the lack of gender equality, is, as I say, perhaps the most damaging of all. If women have less education than men, if women are more marginalized in society, if women don’t tend to participate in the workforce for reasons of tradition, you have a situation where Arab countries, Arab societies, have rapidly growing populations because less educated women tend to have larger families. That’s not Middle Eastern. That’s universal.

Countries with rapid population growth and with poorly performing economies, this is a recipe for disaster. This is not a prediction. This is not about what is about to happen. This is what is happening now. This is what was a decade ago at the basis of the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring.

Therefore, we have before us, for all the reasons mentioned above, a region in deep, deep crisis with no clear way out from this circuitous struggle of modernity and tradition. 

Ken Stein: That’s a wonderful view of the Middle East from 70,000 feet or looking from Pluto inward, however you want to put it. And I think you’ve given us a pretty good umbrella to move forward. Sarah, please continue, either amplifying what Asher has said or delving into any particular area that you want that deals with the evolution of the Arab neighborhood in which Israel finds itself. 

Frameworks for Understanding the Middle East

Sarah Feuer: So what I think I might do is offer another sort of analytical framework to try and answer the question that I think Asher also was offering you a response to, which is, essentially, how can we make sense of the Middle East today? What is it that is driving developments that we see? What is behind this crisis that Asher outlined so eloquently?

I think what you heard up to now is an explanation that’s rooted in a lot of the historical conditions and developments in the region. And I’m not going to quibble with any of it because I think it’s very compelling. It’s true. What I will try to do is pick up the story from roughly 10 years ago, this moment that was at the time sort of euphemistically and perhaps more aspirationally referred to as an Arab Spring. And I think in retrospect Asher’s insight that this was a sort of misguided understanding of it, I think now most people acknowledge that.

What I’d like to try to do is argue that if we want to understand the developments especially of the last decade and really how the Middle East today looks, what explains, for example, this development last year that Israel and a number of Arab states suddenly, it seemed, signed a number of normalization agreements?

What helps us to explain the fact that we saw several years ago the rise and, for the time being anyway, fall of a jihadist organization that seemed to take over territory and proclaim itself as an Islamic state?

So, essentially, what is explaining the kind of key traits of the region today?

And I’d like to argue that we can understand the landscape in the Arab world, but not just the Arab world. I’ll look a little bit more broadly at the Middle East to include countries like Turkey and Iran, of course not Arab.

Four Camps in Confrontation

If we want to understand the landscape today, then one framework for doing so is to see developments as essentially a struggle between a number of camps or groups of actors in the region.

In fact, it’s a struggle that’s taking place on two levels. One is between various actors that are essentially vying for influence. They each have a vision of how they would like to see the Middle East turn out. And the second level of this struggle is actually what’s happening within the individual states.

I will just clarify that when I refer to the regional system or the Middle Eastern system, I’m not suggesting that there is a single, unifying logic or even trait to this massive expanse of territory and countries and populations. It’s a system in the sense of a set of very complicated relationships, dynamics. They’re changing. They’re fluid. So not to be misunderstood as ignoring the diversity between the countries themselves.

But there is an argument here that if we want to understand, for example, why a young man who set himself on fire in Tunisia 10 years ago, why that event ended up having really a regional impact in the end, then we do need to pay attention to this level of analysis that rests above the individual states but below what we would usually refer to as the international level of great powers and so on.

So I mentioned this idea of a struggle. I think that in the last decade, what we’ve seen is the emergence and the kind of intensifying rivalry between a number of camps.

The first is essentially a group of actors led by and inspired by Iran. So in addition to the Islamic Republic, in this category I would put Hezbollah in Lebanon to our north. Today Bashar al-Assad, who remains in power not over all of Syria, not anywhere close, but Assad in Syria. I would also include in this camp the Houthis, a militant group in Yemen. And we would probably put in this camp as well one of the Palestinian terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, although it’s a Sunni group. All of the actors in this camp, I mean in addition to following and being supported and in many cases funded and conceived of by Iran, they’re Shi’ite. This sort of gets us back to the sectarian conflicts that Asher highlighted. So that’s one camp.

There is another group of actors that I would say are the movements, the political parties in some cases, the states in some instances, that are sympathetic to or derivative of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the group of political Islam that Asher referred to. So these are actors like Turkey today, the regime of Erdogan, who himself came from a party that was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. But we also see it in the regime in Qatar in the Gulf, which is sympathetic to the Brotherhood, has supported Brotherhood movements across the region in the last decade.

And you see it in a number of groups that do not have full control of the states; for example, Hamas, closer to home here in Israel and the Gaza Strip. And a number of parties that are still sort of dotting the landscape, the political party in Tunisia, although it has embodied a pretty mild form of political Islam, it does have its roots in the Brotherhood. Same goes for the dominant party in the legislature in Morocco. So they have sort of survived the last decade. Jordan also has a variant of this. So that’s the kind of Muslim Brotherhood camp.

With maybe the exception of the Iran-led camp, which actually does operate in many ways like a really more coherent organization, in most cases when I refer to these as camps, we’re not talking about people getting together and sitting around a boardroom and deciding on their collective action.

But there is an ontological basis for this. That is to say, we do see actual linkages between the actors within these camps. And, in all cases, the actors share a basic outlook when it comes to fundamental issues like sectarianism, like relations with the West and the role that the West should be playing in the Middle East, like political Islam, and so on.

So there is a basis for designating these groups as such, but it is also an analytical tool. These groups are not often referring to themselves as the Iran-led axis. That’s our analytical tool to try and understand.

So we talked about the Iran-led camp. I mentioned the sort of remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood camp in a way. There is a third group, which is maybe best understood as two heads of the same beast. And that is the jihadist groups still roaming around, remnants of the Islamic State, of course Al-Qaida, the older organization.

Israel and Arab State Pragmatism

And the final group I would highlight is the states in the region, the Arab states really, that have essentially remained more pragmatic. They are broadly friendly to the West. They are Sunni. These are countries like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates. You’ll notice in that group a number of the states that signed normalization agreements with Israel last year.

This group was very, very suspicious of the public movements that went out into the street and protested. They are very wary if not outright hostile to the idea that publics could mobilize and that that mobilization could translate into real political change. I think they’re very concerned about that. They’re very scared. They don’t want to see that.

And so that has led them to, for example, push back against the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups that have tried to appeal to certain bases of support among the populations, including among some of them that took to the street.

But the development I want to highlight here about this group is that in recent years what we’ve seen is that Israel has really, I think, established itself as an ally of this bloc. The animating features of this bloc are, first of all, a desire to push back against political Islam and a desire to push back against that Iran-led camp. So in these ways Israel finds common cause with these actors.

Decade After the Arab Spring

The second level is what’s happening really within the individual states. And here I don’t have too much to add to what Asher already described. What we’re talking about are really core, fundamental, long-standing, mostly economic but not only economic problems in these countries.

And these are in many ways what motivated the uprisings in 2011. It wasn’t really about people going out into the street and demanding democracy, although there were elements of the protest movements that were very focused on political reform. But I think the motivating factor had more to do with things like the fact people couldn’t find jobs. The unemployment, especially among the younger generation, had just gotten out of control.

So the grievances I think that were motivating 2011 had more to do with basic economic and to some extent social factors. But nonetheless we did see that there were some people who called for some form of political liberalization.

Those problems that animated the original uprisings in 2011, in most cases they’ve only gotten worse in the last decade. Of course the pandemic didn’t help. And I think the very dire situation within the states continues to animate this struggle between the publics and the leadership.

In some countries, of course, the leadership survived 2011, and in those cases I think they are all the more sort of preoccupied with their own survival. They see now that publics can actually mobilize and take to the streets.

There were protests in the Arab world before 2011. This was not a new phenomenon. But it was really the first time, and Asher can correct me, but I’m fairly certain it was the first time that mass protests on that scale directly led to the departure of a number of political leaders. And so there was a shift in the consciousness, I think, both of the publics and the leadership since then.

So you have some countries where the leadership has survived. You have other countries where there was a change, as in Egypt. We briefly saw the Muslim Brotherhood sort of ascended, took advantage of certain conditions, better organization. But very quickly that experiment was aborted in a sense.

And so today the question that I think a lot of observers of the region are wondering is are we going to see another explosion of some kind. The conditions that continue to characterize the region, to the extent they’re only getting worse, it’s reasonable to assume that we may be headed for some other kind of major tumult in the Middle East.

We could imagine, I suppose, another sort of surge of mass public mobilization. We’ve already started to see that in a sense, even coming out of COVID, but you could also see it in other forms. Maybe we will see people try to just vote with their feet, so to speak, and try to leave the region. We’ve seen that in the past.

But whatever form it takes — and here I think I would agree if I understood Asher correctly — I think the region is in many ways not going in a positive direction. There are a few bright spots, but I think for Israel, and not only for Israel, it’s a real challenge to sort of figure out how to deal with the neighborhood such as it is.

Views of the Middle East Here and There

Ken Stein: There’s a real distinction here between those of us who sit in Atlanta or Chicago or London or Paris or Buenos Aires and look at the Middle East through the glasses of our domestic environment rather than seeing it through the reality of what is the Middle East. How would you suggest that consumers of information access the best or the most accurate and the most timely analyses that they perhaps are not getting or receiving today? How would you stay up with this Middle East that is fragmenting and splintering and maybe even imploding? What should they be reading? 

Asher Susser: In the best of all worlds, one should know the languages of the region and read the region in the languages that people in the region speak and write in. But I know that that’s not really a realistic request. But I think that people should focus on what comes out of the region, even in languages that they can speak. And these days precisely because of the new media and precisely because of the Internet, it offers a gold mine of information coming from people in the region writing in languages that other people also know.

There’s a lot in English, but one should do one’s level best to read what people in the region write about themselves, not what other people are writing about them. And I would say the same about looking at the world of think tanks in the United States. The world of think tanks in the United States, to their credit, employ a lot of people from the region who write about the region.

And I think that that is another gold mine of information, where these very good think tanks in the U.S. are employing very, very high-quality people who come from the Middle East. And I think that the main thing is to try and reduce the number of foreign filters through which you are looking at the region. I think people would have understood the Arab Spring, for example, very differently if they would have done that. 

Sarah Feuer: I think we would find it a little weird if we relied on what somebody living in, let’s say, Bulgaria who doesn’t speak English has to say about the various developments in the United States today. So this is really no different. You want to be looking for scholars or analysts who know the language, who have maybe spent time in the region. 

In many cases there is a problem, I think, particularly in the Arab world, because of the lack of political freedom that Asher referred to. It’s not always easy to write what you want to write. And for the people living in these countries, it’s often actually quite difficult. So that presents, I think, also a number of challenges, in some cases people who have come from the region but no longer live there. And so the dilemma is that of course they’re able to write whatever they want, but they’re also not in the region anymore. So you have to kind of weigh to what extent what they’re saying is reflective of what’s actually happening on the ground.

Sources and Prejudices

Ken Stein: You have to understand that when people are writing from a particular country, and they may be writing editorials as compared to newspaper reporting, they may have their own prejudices. So you may have someone who’s writing in Al-Ahram online who has a particular prejudice about Israel or a particular prejudice about Iran. But after you’ve begun to read them, you begin to understand that their assessments are pretty accurate. Or the same thing can be said about someone who writes in Al Arabiya in English.

Those are two sources that are easily usable, but I would be very skeptical about using Al-Ahram online and reading a columnist who writes from Washington, D.C., and has his articles published in Al-Ahram online. It’s much better to have someone who is in the region, as Asher suggests and as Sarah suggests.

Asher Susser: There are some specific, I would say, sources and institutes in Washington that do very good work on the Middle East with people who are from the region and who come and go from the region all the time, not people who are, let’s say, permanently situated. For example, Carnegie and the Washington Institute. There are very good services that do translations of Arabic material, like Middle East Mirror. One can subscribe to these or follow them. Talking about prejudices that people may have editorially, etc., the same is true of The New York Times. So I wouldn’t pick on anyone else in particular. We all have that problem. And it goes for everyone everywhere.

Ken Stein: It might even go for Haaretz, correct?

Asher Susser: Maybe, maybe. That’s a long shot, you know. Just maybe. 

A word about social media. And here, too, there could be a language problem because a lot of people who write in social media in Arab countries do it in Arabic, of course. I think there is a tendency to overrate the actual power of the social media in these countries. People confuse between virtual power and real power. And at the end of the day, it’s not the social media, but the people with the guns.

Look at Egypt as the perfect example. The way people understood the Arab Spring came very much from Egyptian social media, but that didn’t really represent the balance of power in Egypt. And the balance of power in Egypt ended up with Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi creating a new military regime, which is suppressing social media and suppressing the Muslim brethren.

The social media are not only an avenue for popular expression. They are also an avenue for authoritarian suppression. The social media is followed by the intelligence organizations in all these countries. And they know who’s doing what. It is not only an asset for the opposition. It’s an asset for the regime that wishes to suppress the opposition. So it cuts both ways. 

Sarah Feuer: Most of these countries have English language newspapers in addition to what’s coming out in Arabic. So Jordan has them. In North Africa, it’s often French, but even in North Africa, you find there are English language news outlets. And in part I think that also reflects at least recently something perhaps interesting: that they’re wanting to reach a wider audience. And today, because everything is online anyway — look, the gold standard is always still going to be reading what people are saying in their own language. That’s true. But Asharq Al-Awsat, which is a kind of regional newspaper, they put out an English version. Even I would say things like Al Jazeera have their English versions. It can be useful to consult, I think, with those sort of more traditional news outlets.

And the only other thing I would say is that I am deeply skeptical of social media as a tool for understanding much beyond what is being allowed to be said on social media. It’s the region, OK? Maybe back in 2011 it was a bit more of a useful tool because in many cases the regimes hadn’t really figured out how to kind of monitor and in some cases even control what was going on, but I’m just very skeptical that today social media is much of a tool that helps us to understand. I guess in some respects you can get a little bit of a sliver of a segment of the discourse among mostly young people in the region.

But a good example was in these normalization agreements last year. So if you wanted to get a sense of how publics in the region were thinking about this, you know the idea that these Arab countries had decided to sign peace agreements with Israel, there was a lot of social media. At one point there was just a slew of Arab Twitter accounts that were more Zionist than me, saying these things that gave you an impression that, wow, the Arab world suddenly loves us. Now we know that that’s not quite the case. It might’ve been reflecting a segment, an emerging segment, of Arab youth, but the same goes in the opposite direction.

You know, for many, many years, this idea that Israel had no chance of forming peace treaties with Arab countries until there was a Palestinian state, some of that was based on a view of the Arab publics that I think might have been a bit flawed in retrospect. 

Ken Stein: We at the Center for Israel Education have since 2013 put out what we call Contemporary Readings. You can subscribe to it monthly. It’s about 25 to 35 articles that are produced by all the think tanks and all the newspapers that both Asher and Sarah have mentioned. They’re not meant for polemical consumption. And you can find Contemporary Readings going back to 2013 on the website.

If you’re interested in a particular topic, just go to the website and press control-F and press Iran, and you’ll get every article that we thought was important about Iran. The other thing is I have a Twitter account; 99.9% of what I tweet out every day or every other day are one or two articles that are really, really good or a webinar that was really good.

Sarah and Asher, I think you have added enormously to people’s context and perspective of what the Middle East is and the neighborhood in which Israel exists.