Sunday, 19 February 2017

Trump's Middle East policy takes shape

                                                                           
                                                                                                                     
        Never mind the traditional first hundred days. Within US President Trump’s first twenty days in office the broad outlines of his policy for the Middle East had emerged. It clearly has two over-riding objectives – to defeat Islamic State (IS) and to cut Iran down to size. In the Trump world view, both IS and Iran represent clear and present dangers to the stability, values and way of life of the civilized world in general, and the US in particular.

        Both on the campaign trail, and once he was in office, Trump has reiterated his intention to eliminate “radical Islamic terrorism”.  Back in 2015, at the height of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee migration into Europe, the London Daily Express reported an IS operative claiming that more than 4,000 covert IS gunmen had been smuggled into western nations – hidden amongst innocent travellers, refugees and migrants. The report continued: “The operative said the undercover infiltration was the beginning of a larger plot to carry out revenge attacks in the West in retaliation for the US-led coalition airstrikes.”


        Objectionable as Trump's proposed travel ban may be, as well as inept in its execution, the disruption and mayhem caused by IS in Syria and across large areas of Iraq, as well as its pernicious activities in Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, must be presumed to be the rationale for his controversial and disputed travel restrictions on the citizens of those countries as well as of Iran.
         
        As regards Sudan, IS militants have been active ever since they infiltrated the country in 2015. A senior IS figure, accused of helping to plan the terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in which 21 people were killed, was extradited to Tunisia in December 2016.

        Libya, war-torn since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, was soon penetrated by IS jihadists intent on toppling the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Khalifa Haftar, the government’s military commander, is currently seeking Russian support in an effort to overcome them.

        In Somalia the extremist terrorist group al-Shabab was once strongly aligned with al-Qaeda. In 2015 a large segment defected, pledged their allegiance to IS, and turned on their erstwhile comrades. Al-Shabab is intent on disrupting the country, overthrowing the administration and establishing Sharia law – one group favouring the al-Qaeda version; the other pledged to IS and the pretensions of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the caliph of all Muslims worldwide.. With al-Shabab controlling large areas of the country, it was only by decamping to a heavily-guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu, that legislators felt safe enough to elect their new president, Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo, on 8 February 2017.

        Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2015 between two factions claiming to constitute the Yemeni government, quickly morphed into a hydra-headed monster. Not only did the Shi’ite Houthi forces clash with the Sunni forces loyal to the legal government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, but IS militants moved in to oppose the Islamist terror group calling itself AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), already active in the conflict. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the Iranian-backed Houthi seizing control of the country, then joined the fray in support of Hadi, and Iran responded by intensifying its support for the Houthi rebels.

        “The support that the Houthis enjoy from their northern neighbour Iran,” wrote Sir Graeme Lamb, former head of UK Special Forces, in September 2016, “is very real, be it political, propaganda, psychological, hands-on training, specialist advisors, weaponry, sanctuary or financial support. Without it, the rebel cause would probably slump.”

        As for Iran, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the regime in general and the nuclear deal struck under the leadership of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in particular. On the campaign trail Trump variously pledged to "dismantle the disastrous deal" and to "force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal." 
After taking office he described it as “the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated.” In a lengthy TV interview, he described Iran as “the number one terrorist state”, maintaining that the nuclear deal had weakened America and emboldened Iran’s leaders.

        When Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels began planting mines in the strategic waterway at the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, Trump personally warned the Islamic Republic that it was “playing with fire.” As a counter measure he not only despatched the destroyer USS Cole to the area, but announced a fresh round of anti-Iran sanctions, targeting 13 individuals and 12 organizations.

        The tit-for-tat continues. Iran’s test-firing of ballistic missiles on 1 February provoked US national security adviser Michael Flynn to announce that he was putting Iran “on notice”. The result? A deliberate snub by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a second round of missile firings on 8 February. Trump believes his predecessor, ex-President Obama, obsessed by his desire to conclude the nuclear deal, gave away far too much both diplomatically and in hard cash (“we gave them $1.7 billion in cash, which is unheard of, and we put the money up and we have really nothing to show for it”). In due course Trump may seek to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal, though the obstacles to doing so are formidable given that five other world powers were signatories in addition to the US – the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany.

        Set against Trump’s twin objectives of defeating IS and reducing the power and potential nuclear capability of Iran, other aspects of US-Middle East policy take second place. Washington’s reaction to Israel’s renewed settlement building program was restrained, and Trump’s declared intention of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to have been put on the back burner. 
He and Benjamin Netanyahu hit it off on a personal level during the Israeli prime minister’s visit on 15 February, but references to a possible resumption of peace negotiations were indeterminate.

        To achieve his major 
objectives in the Middle East Trump will need the cooperation, overt or covert, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The price to the US will be to endorse an even stronger Russian presence, both physically and diplomatically, in the region. Believing Russia to be less threatening than radical Islamism, it is a price Trump may well be prepared to pay.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Trumps-Middle-East-policy-takes-shape-481929

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 February 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/18022017-trumps-middle-east-policy-takes-shape-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 20 February 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/02/20/trumps-middle-east-policy-takes-shape-op-ed/

           [Next posting:  26 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation


        The Islamist world is fierce, bloody and fratricidal. Many of the extremist groupings are in bitter conflict with one another, not always along the traditional Sunni-Shia divide. Sometimes intra-Islamist conflicts are essentially political in nature. One long-running political feud is the continuing struggle between Hamas and Fatah.

        The Hamas-Fatah conflict does not concern itself with religious doctrine, nor even with basic political objectives. Both organisations are Sunni Muslim; both are pledged to restore to Islamic rule the whole of Mandate Palestine, including the area currently occupied by the state of Israel. Their fundamental disagreement is over the strategy for achieving their common purpose, and their struggle is a struggle for power within the Palestinian body politic.

        Hamas sprang from the loins of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had gained a strong foothold in the Gaza strip following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Hamas organization came into existence in 1987, soon after the start of the first intifada masterminded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under its Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat. From its earliest days Hamas saw itself as a rival to Fatah. Hamas opposed the PLO entering peace talks with Israel, utterly rejected the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and was appalled by the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel. On 5 September 1993, shortly after the Oslo terms were announced, Hamas issued its Leaflet 102 condemning both the agreement and the PLO leadership:

        “We will therefore insist on ruining this agreement, and continue the resistance struggle and our jihad against the occupation power… The leadership of Arafat carries the responsibility for destroying Palestinian society and for sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

        Hamas was unimpressed by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War – as only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This strategy was, in fact, spelled out by Arafat in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996: "We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem," he said, adding that the PLO plans "to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.”

        Hamas would have no truck with the two-state solution because it would consolidate Israel’s position on what they regard as Palestinian soil. Equally they have rejected all the efforts by PA president Mahmoud Abbas to gain international recognition for a state of Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Any recognition of the pre-Six Day War boundaries would work two ways – it might delineate a sovereign Palestine, but it would also legitimize Israel’s place within what had been Mandate Palestine.

        This fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective lies at the heart of the perpetual Hamas-Fatah conflict. There are others. Both are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian population, and Hamas makes no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognise him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells aimed at launching attacks on Israel from the West Bank. In this connection it vehemently opposes the security coordination between the PA and Israel in the West Bank – Israel’s guarantee of continued PA control – which Abbas once described as “sacred”.

        Which brings us to the long-sought chimera of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. “Chimera” is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “a grotesque product of the imagination”, which seems an apt description. Wikipedia lists no less than 12 attempts since 2005 to reconcile the two warring factions, all ultimately unsuccessful.

       Perhaps the most hopeful was the “government of national unity” formed by agreement between Fatah and Hamas in 2014, a diplomatic coup that brought the peace negotiations then in progress between Israel and the PA to a shuddering halt. Abbas announced the “historic reconciliation” a month before the talks were due to end, and appeared to imply that the inclusion of Hamas in a government of national unity would make no difference to the aim of achieving a sovereign state based on the two-state solution.

        “There is no incompatibility,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “between reconciliation and the talks…The government reports to me and follows my policies. I recognize Israel and so will the government. I renounce violence and terrorism, and I recognize international legitimacy, and so will the government.”

        Hamas would have had to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements. It seemed inconceivable that it would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region.

        The arrangement lasted just twelve months. Nationwide Palestinian elections, promised as part of the deal, never took place.

        The merry-go-round continues to revolve. Following recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials in Switzerland, Beirut and Moscow, a further attempt at reconciliation is planned to take place soon in the Gulf state of Qatar. The chances of success seem remoter than ever. A few weeks ago Israel’s Security Agency announced it had arrested a large network of Hamas operatives in Ramallah that had been working to undermine and overthrow the PA administration. In a tit-for-tat exercise, a Hamas-administered court in the Gaza Strip on 25 January 2017 sentenced eight Fatah members to various prison terms for “undermining revolutionary unity.”

        Meanwhile the recent announcement by the PA that long-delayed municipal elections would take place on 13 May 2017 was immediately denounced by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum as “unacceptable.” It “strengthens division, serves Fatah politics, comes at the expense of the Palestinian people and the unity of its institutions, and confirms that the government is working in favour of Fatah.”


        Not the most auspicious of omens for an imminent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 12 February 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Hamas-Fatah-reconciliation-481250
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 February 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Hamas-Fatah-reconciliation-481246

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 February 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/02/14/hamas-fatah-reconciliation/


         [Next posting: 19 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The state of Lebanon

                                                                           

        Uniquely among the 50 Muslim-majority nations of the world, Lebanon has a Christian president. The inauguration of Michel Aoun on 1 November 2016 ended a 29-month power vacuum and a political stalemate that had frozen the country's constitutional processes.

        “Not before time” would be a natural reaction, considering the length of the presidential inter-regnum. The truth, however, is that the absence of a largely figurehead president over that period, while politically inconvenient and somewhat of an embarrassment, made little difference to Lebanon as it ambled along under the guidance of prime minister Tammam Salam.

        Along the way, Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia plummeted as Hezbollah, an integral part of Lebanon’s body politic, plunged into the Syrian conflict together with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in support of President Bashar Assad. Aoun took early steps to repair fences by visiting Saudi Arabia in January 2017. He could do little domestically to mitigate the result of an influx of more than a million refugees fleeing the horrors of the civil war that raged in Syria. Lebanon’s population of less than 4 million in 2000 had, by the end of 2016, swollen to more than 6 million, most of the addition being Sunni Muslim refugees.

        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. In fact, Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.

        Modern Lebanon was established in 1944 on the basis of an agreed "National Pact", with the top three positions in the state allocated so that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim.

        Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society. In practical terms, it has proved a constant irritant, and efforts to alter or abolish it have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades.

        The Taif agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989 incorporated a deal with the Christian community designed to buy their acceptance of their defeat in the conflict. Based on the fiction that Christians made up half the population of Lebanon, Taif reserved half the seats in parliament for them. Everyone knew that the parliamentary allocation was unfair. A recent analysis of voter registration lists by The Economist revealed that only 37% of Lebanese voters are Christian; Shias are 29 percent; Sunnis, 28 percent. Yet the Christians get 64 of parliament’s 128 seats, whereas the Sunnis and Shias get only 27 each, the rest going to the Druze and Alawites. Meanwhile, not only the Syrian refugees, but also the half-million Palestinians, most of them Sunnis, who have arrived in Lebanon since 1948, have never been granted citizenship and are debarred from voting.

        This mismatch between demography and political power partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.

        Hezbollah, an extremist Shia Islamist group, emerged in the early 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement aimed at resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

        It can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but Hezbollah achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border. In the election that followed Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process and been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the March 14 Alliance, an organization dedicated to overthrowing this “state within a state”. Now, although the nwq prime minister, Saeed Hariri, is a long-time opponent of Hezbollah, it has secured two ministerial posts.

        Liberating Lebanon from the influence of Hezbollah and Syria was the aim of Saeed’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. When then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible, he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. Now in its twelfth year it is being conducted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, is comparable to some thriving commercial enterprise.

        The STL court, consisting of 11 judges, sits in The Hague. So far no less than 236 witness have provided testimony, 113 of them in person. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, and a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

        Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Hezbollah and the Syrian régime have sought to disrupt the UN investigation. As a result the five identified defendants have not been apprehended, and the trial of Ayyash et al. is being held in absentia. When it began on 16 January 2014, after years of pre-trial hearings, the prosecution carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria. Latterly it has become clear that the prosecution believes President Bashar Assad wanted Rafik Hariri killed, and used Hezbollah and his own security apparatus to achieve his objective. Hearings are scheduled to continue well into 2017, and possibly beyond, but Assad and Hezbollah face an increasingly probable verdict of having planned and executed the murder of Rafik Hariri. 


        On 17 January Michel Aoun visited the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for a briefing by the two leading judges. Judge Ivana Hrdličková is reported as telling Lebanon’s new president: “I am determined to promote the values of efficiency, transparency and accountability”. She said nothing about when the interminable judicial process might reach a conclusion. But when it does, will Lebanon be prepared for the political consequences?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 February 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-state-of-Lebanon-480550

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 February 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/06022017-the-state-of-lebanon-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 February 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/02/05/the-state-of-lebanon/

            [Next posting: Saturday 11 February 2017 at 7.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 29 January 2017

France's damp squib

                                                                           

        November the 5th – for anyone unfamiliar with British customs – is the day each year when children across the UK gather around a bonfire, burn an effigy of a 17th century villain called Guy Fawkes, and let off fireworks. Guy Fawkes’s villainy consisted in packing the basement of the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder, hoping to blow up the whole place when King James I was present, thus despatching the monarch and the entire aristocracy to kingdom come. Details of the plot leaked, and it turned – as any firework does if not kept completely dry – into a damp squib.

        “Damp squib” is an epithet that could be applied to the much-trumpeted 70-nation assembly in Paris on January 15, 2017, brought together to discuss the apparently insoluble Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. “An exercise in futility” is how the London Daily Telegraph termed it;“a lame duck enterprise.” Others described it as “much ado about nothing”.

        French presidents have aspired to be power brokers in the Middle East ever since France assumed its colonial role there, after the First World War. France was, of course, one of the two principals ­– the other was Britain – responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during the war.

        As a result, for the last hundred years France has involved itself in the politics of the region. As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, while France has consistently defended Israel’s right to exist in security, it has also long advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. Belying the well-known logicality of French thought, the possible incompatibility between these two positions has never been acknowledged. It was certainly not referred to by former French president, François Mitterand, when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1982.

        France sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, a perception which has led it into a blind alley on more than one occasion. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the initiator of a damp squib par excellence in 2007-8, when he devised and pushed through the European Union a concept grandiosely entitled the “Union for the Mediterranean”. In July 2008 he induced more than 40 heads of state, including Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to attend a summit in Paris. Nothing of any significance emerged from the meeting, and the Union for the Mediterranean has long since been sucked into the quicksands of history to disappear without trace.

        A year later, in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Barack Obama was eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Sarkozy believed he saw an opportunity to get in on the act and offered to host another international conference, in order, as he said, to facilitate the peace process. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Obama, however, intent on pursuing his own initiative, rejected the overture.

        Nothing daunted, in January 2010 as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. He declared that the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian discussions was a French priority, and that a Paris-located international conference would be a positive way to advance the peace process. Once again France’s attempt to elbow its way into the negotiations was quietly pushed aside.

        This prescription of a Paris-based international conference seems to have become an idée fixe in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when President François Hollande took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and (one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire”) an international peace conference to take place in Paris.

        Laurent Fabius, France’s then foreign minister, played the same tune, with minor variations, when he visited the Middle East in June 2015 to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process. Hollande followed this up with a meeting in Paris on June 3, 2016. Attended by 28 governments or organizations, it was intended to signal a sort of remobilization of the international community in support of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Then finally, on January 15, 2017, France achieved its long-held ambition of hosting an international peace conference, and in Paris too.

        It garnered a splendid turnout, including the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, even though he was within two weeks of relinquishing his post. The occasion was, however, rather like a performance of Hamlet without either the prince or his father’s ghost because, in accordance with a rather convoluted political plan, France had invited neither of the two principals to the occasion. The intention was to impose global pressure on Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the PA president Mahmoud Abbas, to re-enter negotiations on the basis of the recent UN resolution 2334 and the vitally important earlier resolution 242. Ignored or unrecognized was the glaring incompatibility between the two. While 242 envisages the creation of new “secure and recognized boundaries” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, 2334 hands the whole territory over to the Palestinians.

        The main positive point emerging from the conference was that “interested participants” resolved to meet again before the end of 2017 to support both sides in advancing the two-state solution. It is not clear how many of the 70 attendees qualify as “interested participants”, but it is certain that neither the US nor the UK will be at that get-together, if it ever takes place. The US under President Trump will have no interest in further Israel-bashing, while the UK virtually snubbed the Paris event by sending not the Foreign Secretary, nor even a minister, but the head of the Middle East desk at the Foreign Office, and then not endorsing the final communiqué.

        Paris produced nothing new or positive on January 15, and is unlikely to do so the next time round. Israeli settlements may seem to many the ultimate obstacle to an accord, but far more of an obstacle is the stubborn refusal of Palestinian extremists to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, linked to their continuous propaganda promoting hatred of Israel, Israelis and Jews, and lauding and rewarding terrorists and terrorist activity against them. If that issue were ever addressed, some long-awaited fireworks might well result.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 January 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Frances-damp-squib-479843

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 February 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01022017-frances-damp-squib-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 January 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/01/28/frances-damp-squib/


               [Next posting:  Saturday 4 February 2017 at 7.30 pm GMT]

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Jerusalem

This letter appeared in the London Daily Telegraph on 24 January 2016:


                                                                         


SIR – The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2334, passed by 14 votes to nil on December 23 with the US abstaining, refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”.

In so doing, it runs counter to Resolution 242, adopted by the Security Council immediately after the Six Day War in June 1967, which did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel had captured but required the creation of new “secure and recognised” boundaries.

The corollary to East Jerusalem being recognised as occupied Palestinian territory, however, is that West Jerusalem is part of sovereign Israel. Accordingly, what logical objection could there be to any nation locating its embassy there, as Donald Trump plans for America?

Neville Teller


              [Next posting:  Sunday, 29 January 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Sunday, 22 January 2017

UN Resolution 2334 and the Jerusalem anomaly

                                                                 

        In the course of its vehement condemnation of Israeli settlements, UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed on December 23, 2016, refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” To some, the phrase may appear not only innocuous, but self-evident. In fact it is saddled with a load of historical assumption, and requires a little cool picking apart.

        In the first instance, the wording of 2334 makes it clear that the idea of the City of Jerusalem as a so-called corpus separatum, namely international territory – a concept inherent in the original UN partition plan for post-Mandate Palestine – has been abandoned by the Security Council. But contradictions abound in international thinking about the Israel-Palestinian situation. Incongruously the UN as a whole, like the European Union, still clings to the concept of an internationalized Jerusalem while at the same time asserting its support for the incompatible objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." It must be one or the other; it cannot be both – and the Security Council at least appears consistent.

        The idea of an internationalized Jerusalem was set out in General Assembly resolution 181 (II), passed on November 29, 1947: "The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations." It was restated after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in resolution 303(IV) of 1949, and again reiterated in a 1979 report prepared under the guidance of the UN’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. It has never been countermanded, though as a practical proposition it is surely obsolete. There has never been any agreement, treaty, or international understanding which applies the corpus separatum concept to Jerusalem.

        The idea was part and parcel of the UN’s original partition plan for Mandate Palestine. At the moment the British government surrendered its mandate, the territory then known as “Palestine” – except for the area designated for the Jewish state, which had come into existence on the previous day – ceased to belong to any sovereign nation. In the subsequent Arab-Israel war Jordanian forces seized East Jerusalem, while Israel gained control of West Jerusalem. In 1949, the Israeli government declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the new state.

        It was during the 1967 Six Day War that Israel captured East Jerusalem from the Jordanian army. The Security Council’s purpose in asserting that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory is to reaffirm, as it has done on a variety of occasions in the past, that it regards as invalid Israel’s Jerusalem Law of July 1980 declaring the whole city to be the unified capital of Israel.

        As for possible changes to the pre-Six Day War lines regarding Jerusalem, these are many and various. Several have been discussed down to fine detail during past intensive negotiations. They include redrawing the boundaries of the city and its environs to carve out a new Arab municipality of Al-Quds (the so-called “Clinton Parameters”), leaving the city unified but under joint Israeli-Arab administration (the “open city” concept of the 1999-2001 final status negotiations), and the “divided city”, or separation barrier, proposed in the joint Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative of 2003.

        The Old City of Jerusalem presents its own problems, and various models are similarly afloat, including so-called “territorial sovereignty” (ie divided Israeli-Arab control), a “special regime” (a united Old City under special management), and hybrid versions of these.

        The main problem with resolution 2334 is that it seeks to modify Security Council Resolution 242, the accepted and agreed basis for the Arab-Israel peace process. Adopted by the Security Council in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War in June 1967, resolution 242 became the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israel dispute. 242 accepted that the armistice line boundaries after the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which remained in place up to the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, were merely where the two armies happened to be placed when hostilities ceased in 1948, and were far from satisfactory as defensible international borders. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations." Accordingly resolution 242 required the creation of new “secure and recognized" boundaries, and did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War.

        Resolution 2334 runs counter to 242 by explicitly establishing the 1967 pre-war boundaries as the borders of a Palestinian state, only subject to any possible future agreement. Those boundaries refer back to a city of Jerusalem divided between Israeli and Jordanian occupation. The dividing line ran south past the Mandelbaum Gate and skirted the Old City wall, thus incorporating the Old City within East Jerusalem.

        Right up until 1967 Jordanian snipers were positioned along the City Line, frequently shooting at citizens and other targets on the Israeli side of the city. Jordan’s commitment in the 1949 Armistice Agreement to allow free access of Jews to the holy sites, such as the Western Wall and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, was not honored. Synagogues, cemeteries and the area adjacent to the Western Wall were desecrated. Israel understandably has no desire to recreate the conditions that gave rise to this situation – which explains why much of the Israeli media objects to the idea of pre-determining the borders of a putative Palestinian state to include an East Jerusalem occupied for 19 years by the Jordanian army.

        A further interesting point. To declare, as resolution 2334 does, that East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory carries with it an obvious corollary – namely that West Jerusalem is an integral part of sovereign Israel. The Security Council therefore, by implication, removes any objection to states locating their embassies within that part of the city. In the light of resolution 2334, the furore raised in certain circles by US President Donald Trump’s declared intention to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem seems otiose.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 January 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/UN-Resolution-2334-and-the-Jerusalem-anomaly-479164

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 January 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23012017-un-resolution-2334-and-the-jerusalem-anomaly-oped/

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Unpicking UN resolution 2334


        Resolution 2334, approved 14-nil by the UN Security Council on December 23, 2016 with only the United States abstaining, has generated a tsunami of media comment. A major subject of debate has turned on the fact that, for the first time in his eight years in office, President Obama decided not to veto a demonstrably anti-Israel resolution.

        From much of the media verbiage it might be assumed that this US abstention on a vote on the Israeli-Palestinian issue was unique. Unique for the Obama administration it certainly was, but over the years the US has abstained on – rather than vetoed – no less than 21 Security Council votes relating to Israel. US abstentions have occurred under Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton.

        So that in itself was nothing new. The truly unique aspect of resolution 2334 is that it seeks to modify Security Council Resolution 242, the accepted and agreed basis for the Arab-Israel peace process. Adopted by the Security Council in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War in June 1967, resolution 242 became the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israel dispute. It was accepted not only by the world community in general, but specifically by Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and even the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

        Emphasizing the need to establish “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East”, it maintained that Israeli armed forces should withdraw “from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and that there should be an “acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area, and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

        The term “every state in the area” encompassed Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It could not refer to Palestine, because there was no such state at the time. The “Palestine” that the world had recognized until 1948 had been superseded by the UN General Assembly’s vote to partition it into a Jewish state and an Arab state. During the war that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948, Transjordan, as it then was, seized the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and Egypt gained control of the Gaza strip. These areas, now referred to in resolution 2334 as “Palestinian territories”, were governed by Jordan and Egypt respectively for 19 years ­– from 1948 until 1967 – without any attempt by either Arab state to establish a sovereign Palestine. Then, as now, recognizing a sovereign Palestine in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza meant recognizing a sovereign Israel outside those areas – something the Arab world was not prepared to do at the time.

        Resolution 2334 runs counter to 242 because it explicitly establishes the 1967 pre-war boundaries as the baseline contours for a Palestinian state, declaring that the council "will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiation."

        What are the “4 June 1967 lines”? They delineate where the Israeli and the Arab armies happened to be positioned in 1948 at the moment the fighting stopped. "I know the 1967 border very well,” said Lord Caradon, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, who submitted Resolution 242 to the Security Council. “It is not a satisfactory border, it is where the troops had to stop...It is not a permanent border." Caradon’s US counterpart, Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, confirmed that the armistice lines did not constitute an acceptable border. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations." 

        
        Which is why – as Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out – Resolution 242 required the creation of new “secure and recognized" boundaries and “did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 Armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process."

        President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders."

        Resolution 2334 by-passes this vital building block for a future final status agreement, and embeds the status quo ­– long assumed to be negotiable – into permanence. It urges countries and organizations to distinguish "between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967" – an appeal that will doubtless be used by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists to bolster their campaigns, aimed at cutting Israel’s political, economic, commercial, academic, artistic and sporting ties with the rest of the world, and eventually dismantling the state.

        In voting through Resolution 2334 the Security Council, like the EU in seeking to differentiate between Israeli produce and that emanating from the territories, is – perhaps from the best of motives – setting back the process that it nominally seeks to promote. Pre-determining the borders of a future sovereign Palestine is scarcely consistent with maintaining that they must be the subject of direct negotiations between the parties, a mantra repeated endlessly by world leaders. If they are already determined, why undertake face-to-face negotiations? In short, rather than advancing the peace process, resolution 2334 significantly retards it.

        Obama’s decision to allow resolution 2334 to pass does not sit easily with one of his keynote speeches on the Israel-Palestine issue. Back in May 2011 he was firmly backing the principles established in 242. “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

        He went on: “Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.”

        UN Security Council resolution 2334 has little to offer on these matters beyond aspirations. In addition to calling on Israel to end all settlement activity, it asks for “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror.” Do such acts include Hamas launching rockets indiscriminatingly out of Gaza? What steps, taken by whom, does it envisage?

        In urging both parties to create the conditions “necessary for promoting peace,” it calls on them to “launch credible negotiations on all final status issues in the Middle East peace process”, blind to the anomaly that the resolution itself creates and its deleterious effect on that exhortation.

        Despite the applause that greeted the vote, December 23 was not the Security Council’s most creditable day.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 January 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Unpicking-UN-Resolution-2334-478490

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 January 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/16012017-unpicking-un-resolution-2334-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 January 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/01/17/unpicking-un-resolution-2334/




                     [Next posting:  Sunday 22 January 2017 at 9.30 am GMT]

Sunday, 8 January 2017

UN Resolution 2334 – misgivings and second thoughts

                                                                       
                                                                         
        The UN Security Council is made up of 15 states – five permanent members with the power of veto (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK), and a shifting list of ten other states, elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly. In December 2016, Egypt was reaching the end of its first year on the Council.

        On the evening of Wednesday, December 21, Egypt circulated a draft resolution – reportedly drawn up with the assistance of the UK – which asserted that the settlements in what it described as “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 including east Jerusalem” had no legal validity. It called upon Israel to "immediately and completely" cease all further construction, and upon all states to distinguish in their relevant dealings between “the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”

        The next day, Thursday, members expected to vote on it. To their astonishment, just a few hours before the Egyptian delegation, led by Amr Abdellatif Aboulatta, Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, were due to present their resolution to the Council, they withdrew it.

        “A complete embarrassment to our diplomatic establishment,” was how Emad al-Din Hussein, editor-in-chief of the independent Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouq described the debacle, apparently a classic case of crossed wires. Egypt’s diplomatic team in New York, relying too heavily on the nation’s traditional pro-Palestinian anti-Israel stance, had forged ahead, failing to factor in two recent game-changing developments: the close collaboration that has developed between Egypt and Israel, as their forces jointly battle against the terrorist infrastructure in northern Sinai, and the total rejection by US President-elect Donald Trump of the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East.

        One US commentator asserts that Cairo and Jerusalem are perhaps “closer than at any time in their history.” Egypt relies on Israeli security support at home, as well as diplomatic support internationally, including in Washington. Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry visited Jerusalem in June 2016, the first such visit in nearly a decade. His meeting with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, indicated a growing willingness on Egypt’s part to make public its strong relationship with Israel.

        As for President-elect Trump, his victory at the polls was met with delight in Cairo. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi saw it as bringing a welcome end to the Obama administration's persistent badgering following his overthrow of the previous Muslim Brotherhood regime, and also the prospect of strong future support for his government's battle against the Brotherhood and its jihadist followers, both hell-bent on toppling his administration.

        Reacting to determined efforts by Israel to persuade Washington to block the resolution, Trump let loose on Twitter and Facebook. "The resolution being considered at the United Nations Security Council regarding Israel should be vetoed. As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations."

        Trump followed this up with a telephone call to Egypt’s president. Sisi's spokesman, Alaa Yousef, said the two leaders agreed to allow Trump's incoming administration a chance to tackle the issue.

        As a result, the Egyptian delegation at the UN were instructed by their president to withdraw their resolution. They had no alternative but to comply. The decision was met with incomprehension by the other members of the Security Council, four of whom ­– Malaysia, Senegal, Venezuela, and New Zealand – instantly agreed to put forward a resolution couched in exactly the same terms as the withdrawn Egyptian version. It was put to the vote on Friday, December 23, and of the 15 members of the Security Council, 14 voted in favour. The United States, in a move unprecedented by the Obama administration  in previous Security Council polls concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, did not use its veto, but abstained.

        Sisi is not the only figure on the world stage to have had misgivings about the resolution. On Tuesday, December 27, Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Alexander Dubrovin, revealed in a radio interview that his country had tried to delay the vote but had been opposed by the other Security Council members. Whether or not Russia had been trying to align its policy with that of President-elect Trump, he said that Russia had wanted the discussion to continue, and was unhappy that the resolution focused only on the settlement issue in the complex Israeli-Palestinian situation.

        Immediately after the vote Russia issued a statement criticizing the way the resolution was brought to the Security Council, only a day after Egypt had pulled its own proposal on the matter.

        “Our experience shows convincingly that a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is only possible through direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis without any preconditions,” said the Russian statement. “It is with this aim in view that Russia has been working and will continue working as a member of the Middle East Quartet... We would also like to reaffirm our readiness to host a meeting of the leaders of Israel and Palestine in Moscow.”

        And then, on December 29, out of the blue, Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, announced that had Australia been a member of the Security Council, it would have voted against the settlement resolution criticizing Israel’s presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. “In voting at the UN,” said Bishop,” the Coalition government has consistently not supported one-sided resolutions targeting Israel.”

        The Australian government’s position is that the status of territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war should be decided only by direct bilateral negotiations. This is consistent with the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which deemed those lands subject to “permanent status” negotiations.

        In an interview with the Times of Israel in January 2014, Bishop said that West Bank settlements should not be referred to as illegal under international law. “I don’t think it’s helpful to prejudge the settlement issue if you’re trying to get a negotiated solution.” 
Other members of the Australian government support this position. Attorney General George Brandis stated in June 2014 that Australia would no longer use “occupied” to describe eastern Jerusalem (which includes the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall). Shortly afterwards, Australian ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, said that Australia would not in future use “occupied” to describe the West Bank.

        On January 5, the US House of Representatives in a motion supported by some 30 Democrat members, voted 342-80 to veto any similar UN resolution in the future. The Senate is expected to follow the House in a parallel vote shortly.

        It is not, perhaps, surprising that an attempt to lay down the law on one of the thorniest issues in the complex Palestinian-Israeli dispute should give rise to misgivings and second thoughts in some quarters. Unfortunately Resolution 2334 does nothing to resolve them.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 3 January 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/UN-Resolution-2334-misgivings-and-second-thoughts-477263

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 January 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/12012017-un-resolution-2334-misgivings-and-second-thoughts-oped/



                    [Next posting: Sunday 15 January 2017 at 12.05 pm GMT]

                    

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Flaws at the heart of Kerry's blueprint


        On December 28, 2016, in the dying days of the Obama presidency, Secretary of State John Kerry summoned the media to the Dean Acheson Auditorium in the State Department building in Washington, where he promised to “deliver remarks on Middle East peace”. In a speech lasting more than an hour, Kerry provided a detailed apologia for the Obama administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including an impassioned rationale for the US’s abstention on the Security Council vote on December 23 demanding an end to further Israeli settlement construction in territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

        Kerry proceeded to outline a blueprint for advancing towards a two-state solution. It took the form of six principles which, he believed, were generally acknowledged to be essential in any final status agreement that met the needs of both sides. In fact Kerry’s six principles closely mirror what is known of the near-agreements achieved in the negotiations of 2000 and 2008 under the two Israeli prime ministers named Ehud – Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert respectively.

        Kerry’s speech was a model of balance, logic and reason. Unfortunately two major flaws lie at the heart of his thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they render both his analysis and his solution defective.

        The first is the mantra, oft-repeated by Israeli leaders, and adopted by Kerry, that the only path to an accord lies in face-to-face discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). “A final status agreement ,” asserted Kerry, “can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.”

        It is time that particular sacred cow was slaughtered. Face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA have been tried to destruction. A plethora of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, mark doomed efforts to resolve the conflict by face-to-face discussion. The truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.

        The reason is not difficult to deduce. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

        Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed before the Six-Day War? The reason was spelled out by Yasser Arafat, in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996. It is a tactic, the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. The PLO, said Arafat, plans "to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.” This unchanged objective underlies everything that Abbas says in the Arabic media, but which he never mentions in his statements to the world.

        Supporting the two-state solution is designed to swing world opinion to the Palestinian cause – and it has succeeded very well. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader would ever sign up to it, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has a legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. To sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine” would probably be more than his life was worth.

        So to persist in asserting that face-to-face negotiations are the only way forward is perverse. They must, and always do, end in failure.

         The second fatal flaw in Kerry’s perception of the situation is his continued assertion that there is only one possible objective if peace and stability in the region are to be achieved – the two-state solution. It is vital, he asserted, “that we not lose hope in the two-state solution, no matter how difficult it may seem – because there really is no viable alternative.”

        Kerry’s two-state solution involves establishing a sovereign Palestine on most of the West Bank subject to agreed land swaps, on Gaza and somehow within a shared Jerusalem. He says there is no viable alternative, but quite simply this is not so. Imaginative thinking could yield a sovereign Palestine within a number of alternative contexts. It could also result in by-passing ineffective face-to-face negotiations, and provide the Palestinian leadership with the cover necessary to allow them to sign off on a final status agreement while shielding them from retribution meted out by extremists within their own ranks.

        In September 2014 a report, quickly denied by both parties, suggested that Egypt’s President Sisi had offered PA President Abbas a 1,600 square kilometer area in the Sinai, immediately adjacent to the Gaza strip, to create a “greater Gaza state” some 5 times larger than at present. In exchange the PA would abandon claims to a sovereign Palestine within the pre-1967 lines, although the Palestinian cities in the West Bank would remain under PA rule. Adapting this concept, one could envisage a sovereign Palestinian state based on land swaps between Egypt, Israel and Palestinian areas in the West Bank that would provide a contiguous sovereign Palestine, significantly expand Gaza, allow Israel to retain major settlements in the West Bank, and provide Egypt with a land link to Jordan.

        A second possible answer? At the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League the PA might be invited to a peace conference which takes as a starting point the Arab Peace Initiative, now 15 years old, but which adapts it to take account of today’s realities. The conference would be dedicated to establishing a sovereign state of Palestine, but only within the context of a new three-state Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

        Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defense forces of the confederation. 


        The old nostrums have outgrown their usefulness. Present needs call for lateral thinking.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 January 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Flaws-at-the-heart-of-Kerrys-blueprint-477515?#_=_

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 January 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/04012017-flaws-at-heart-of-kerrys-blueprint-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 11 January 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/01/11/flaws-at-the-heart-of-kerrys-blueprint/

                    [Next posting: Sunday 8 January 2017 at 9.30 am GMT]

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Egyptian-Israeli relations - signs of a thaw?

                                               

        Over the years neither the Egyptian public, nor its various leaders, have exhibited much enthusiasm for a genuine friendship with Israel – this despite the peace treaty, signed way back in March 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Yet, through thick and thin, the treaty has held. 


        Among its main features, drawn up following Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, was normalization of relations.  So ambassadors were exchanged, Egypt repealed its boycott laws, trade began to develop, regular airline flights were inaugurated, Egypt began supplying Israel with crude oil and, as part of the agreement, the US began a program of economic and military aid which over the years has subsidized Egypt’s armed forces by billions of dollars.

           Egypt paid a price for the benefits it won through the treaty. The Arab world condemned it root and branch, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for ten years, and it led to Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

        The revolution in Egypt in 2011, which resulted in the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president, led influential voices within Egypt to call for the treaty with Israel to be revoked. The new government decided to abide by its international treaties, but the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during 2012-2013 was a golden age for Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. In preparation for its next conflict with Israel, missiles and massive quantities of ammunition moved through the tunnels dug between Egypt and Gaza, together with the materials needed to manufacture armaments.

        Egypt’s second revolution a year later, which replaced Mohammed Morsi with Fattah al-Sisi as president, turned the situation on its head. Sisi declared total war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension its offshoot Hamas in Gaza. He designated both groups terrorist organizations, and was ruthless in rooting out their leaders and supporters. He shut down the crossing at Rafah through which armaments once flowed into Gaza, and destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border, Hamas’s secret conduit for supplies it could not obtain through Israel.

        The Brotherhood responded to its overthrow by mounting a full-scale terrorist campaign, in conjunction with Hamas, both within Egypt proper and in the Sinai peninsula, where terrorist groups roamed at will, committing atrocity after atrocity. These jihadi groups represented as great a threat to Israel as to Egypt, and the two countries began to cooperate more closely than ever before on military, security and intelligence issues.

        It was in July-August 2014, during Operation Protective Edge – Israel’s response to Hamas’s rocket attacks – that realization began to dawn in Egypt’s media and élite that Egypt and Israel were fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy. Public figures began voicing support for Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.

        "Thank you Netanyahu,” wrote Azza Sami of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas!" Addressing Gazan Palestinians, Egyptian actor Amr Mustafa told them not to expect any help from Egypt. "You must get rid of Hamas,” he said, “and then we will help you." On a TV program Egyptian presenter Amany al-Khayat launched a scathing attack on Hamas. "Hamas is prepared to make all the residents of the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price,” she said. “We must not forget that Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist movement." Egyptian ex-general Hamdi Bakhit actually expressed the hope that Israel would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.

        On May 28, 2015, prominent Egyptian historian Maged Farag, appearing on the Mehwar TV channel, openly called for his country to normalize relations with Israel and to ditch support for the Palestinian cause which, he said, has caused “nothing but harm” for Egypt. Referring to the rampant anti-semitism among the Egyptian population, he urged his fellow countrymen to leave “the old ideology and cultural heritage on which we were raised”, and to embrace Israel out of the national interest. The next day he made the headlines.


        This softening of attitude towards Israel at opinion-forming level proved no flash in the pan.

        For decades Egyptian TV soap operas, produced annually to entertain millions of Muslims breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, were platforms for vitriolic anti-semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. For example the 2002 show Knight Without a Horse, based on the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, almost caused Israel to withdraw its ambassador from Cairo. The 2012 series Naji Atallah’s Team portrayed Israel as deeply racist in its tale of an Egyptian group attempting to rob a bank.

        In Ramadan 2015, by contrast, a TV drama about the Jews of Egypt struck a significantly different note. The plot of Haret al-Yahood, or The Jewish Quarter, revolved around an historic love story between Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a young Jewish woman. The Muslim Brotherhood was portrayed as a greater threat to Egypt’s unity and security than the Jews, and the series was a roaring success.

        In his last TV interview before his death in 2015, Ali Salem, the Egyptian writer, playwright and satirist, asserted – as he had done many times before – "Israel is not an enemy state, and poses no threat to Egypt's national security. I hope Egypt's political leadership will not be ashamed of the peace the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat established with Israel."

        If there has been a discernible shift in attitude towards Israel, at least among the intelligentsia, one figure in Egypt who deserves special credit is film-maker Amir Ramses. His recent two-part documentary The Jews of Egypt and End of a Journey explores the rise and demise of Egypt’s Jewish communities between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries. Ramses filmed the series during the Mubarak and Morsi eras, and was in constant conflict with the official censors. Yet last year, under the Sisi administration, Ramses’ films were screened in Egypt to critical acclaim.  


        Does all this presage the start of a genuine thaw in Egyptian-Israeli relations? Incidents at the 2016 Olympic games, when some Egyptian athletes refused – at least publicly – to acknowledge, or relate to, their Israeli counterparts, suggest that there is a long way to go in changing long-ingrained public antagonism. But perhaps green shoots are just beginning to show.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 December 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Egyptian-Israeli-relations-signs-of-a-thaw-476671

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 December 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/27122016-egyptian-israeli-relations-signs-of-a-thaw-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 27 December 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/12/27/egyptian-israeli-relations-signs-of-a-thaw/

                   [Next posting: Tuesday 3 January 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]