Middle Eastern Conflicts: Emotional and Rational
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On February 8, 2024, the Valdai Club hosted the presentation of a new report: “Gaza. Yemen. Epicentres of pain. Feelings, myths and memory in the Middle East” on the eve of the 13th Middle East Conference.

Discussion moderator Andrey Sushentsov noted that despite some positive trends emerging in 2023, the escalation of tension in the region continues to increase. Against this background, he proposed to discuss the emotional aspect of conflicts in the Middle East - the role of feelings, myths, and memory in them.

“It would be unfair to say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly splashed onto the surface of world politics: it never left it,” noted Vitaly Naumkin, an academician at the Russian Academy of Sciences, scientific director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences who was one of the authors of the Valdai Club report. “Without resolving this conflict, nothing good will happen in the Middle East,” he emphasised. He named the unprecedented explosion of violence and the Palestinian indignation, as well as the emergence of Yemen as a new player in the conflict. Speaking about the report, Naumkin indicated that it covers not only rational approaches to the conflict, but also symbolic and emotional ones, affecting its basis of identity. In particular, he considers important the issue of the historical memory of the inhabitants of Gaza as one of the powerful centres of civilisation in the Arab identity. “These things do not pass away, they remain in people’s historical memory,” the expert concluded.

Normalisation between Israel and the Arab countries cannot on its own solve the Palestinian issue, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped, said Mustafa Barghouti, Secretary General and Co-Founder of the Palestinian National Initiative. Barghouti added that Netanyahu has built his career on destroying opportunities for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, including the Oslo accords. As a result, Israel has become greatly radicalised, both at the level of political parties and in terms of popular sentiment, and it is now strongly opposed to compromises. In turn, Hamas, according to Barghouti, has also changed, moving towards nationalism, although remaining an Islamic movement. He also pointed out the serious gap between the position of the Arab population and their governments regarding what is currently happening in the Gaza Strip, which entails potentially serious consequences for these countries.

Barghouti considers the lack of democratic mechanisms that make it possible to correct the regime’s policies an important and chronic problem in the Arab world when non-state actors and the “deep state” are included in the game. Speaking about the world order as a whole, he noted that the shift towards multipolarity should be more reflected in the Middle East, and for this Russia and China need to play a more active role in the region.

Sergey Serebrov, senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, briefly outlined the situation in Yemen. In his opinion, Yemen can be seen both as a separate epicentre of the conflict (a civil war has been going on there since 2015) and as part of a larger picture. Events in the Palestinian-Israeli zone have taken the Yemeni conflict in a new direction. What is happening could become “a ticking bomb for the entire region,” Serebrov emphasised. He noted that the Houthis have not blocked shipping as such, but only Israeli cargo. A real threat to shipping was created by the activities of the American-British coalition, apparently aimed at establishing and consolidating dominance in the Red Sea. The strikes in Yemen are disrupting the de-escalation process, while 80 percent of the country's population is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.