Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Iran’s nuclear strategy

        The parties to the world’s nuclear deal with Iran, including Iran itself, have started a new round of discussions – the seventh since April 2021, when newly elected US president Joe Biden initiated meetings aimed at America re-entering an updated agreement. The talks – if you can call a meeting “talks” where the US and Iran do not converse face-to-face but only through intermediaries – reconvened on November 29 in Vienna.

It was in 2015, in an effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, that the permanent members of the UN Security Council together with Germany concluded an agreement with Iran known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).  

No doubt all those involved, including then-US President Barack Obama, had the very best of intentions. They were convinced that with that deal, which incorporated a substantial financial boost to Iran, they had put the regime’s nuclear ambitions on hold for at least 15 years, making the world a safer place. Moreover they believed that they had taken an important step toward normalizing relations with Iran – a rogue state proved to have been behind terrorist actions across the world ever since its foundation in 1979 – and bringing it back within the comity of nations.

Donald Trump, soon to be president of the US, disagreed.  He believed the deal was flawed and in effect gave Iran the green light to acquire a nuclear arsenal in the comparatively near future. In May 2018 he withdrew the US from the deal and, adopting instead a policy of maximum pressure, imposed sanctions on Iran.

Speaking on January 8, 2020 he said: “They chanted "death to America" the day the agreement was signed. Then Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”

Much of the world, including the EU and the other parties to the deal, opposed Trump’s withdrawal.  Biden certainly did.  During his presidential campaign he promised, if elected, to move quickly to rejoin the nuclear deal, provided Iran also came back into compliance. In essence that remains the US position, as it resumes the apparently endless rounds of talks with a regime notably more hardline following the recent Iranian presidential election. The Iranian regime has used the hiatus since June to place new limitations on the UN inspectors of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).  The obvious deduction is that Iran has been proceeding apace with its nuclear program in defiance of the deal.

Iran under its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, has already signaled that it does not wish to resume the talks exactly where they left off.  Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in October: “We don’t want to enter the Vienna negotiations from the deadlock point of the Vienna negotiations”. 

Iran's already announced position – which does not augur well – is that the US must compensate Iran for its withdrawal from the deal, lift all the sanctions imposed since 2015 at once rather than in phases, and provide assurances that no future US administration will back out of the deal.  Given that list of demands, it seems clear that Iran is set on dragging out the negotiating process.

On November 21 Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, traveled to the UK for a 3-day official visit.  In a statement ahead of his trip Herzog wrote: “One issue that demands British-Israeli dialogue is Iran’s race toward nuclear weapons and regional hegemony. Iran does not want dialogue. It is exploiting the world’s willingness to negotiate to buy time. Israel cannot allow the fundamentalists of Tehran to acquire a nuclear bomb. The moderate nations of the Middle East need their allies, including Britain, to engage them in an urgent dialogue on how to stop Iran instead of wasting time on its games.”

For 42 years world leaders have been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to acknowledge what motivates the Iranian regime – namely, the philosophy behind its Islamic revolution of 1979.  Iran’s original Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, affirmed repeatedly that the foundation stone of his convictions, the very purpose of his revolution, was to destroy Western-style democracy and its way of life, and to impose Shia Islam on the whole world.  He identified the United States and Israel, together with the USSR, as prime targets.

“We wish to cause the corrupt roots of Zionism, Capitalism and Communism to wither throughout the world,” said Khomeini.  “We wish, as does God almighty, to destroy the systems which are based on these three foundations, and to promote the Islamic order of the Prophet.”  By this he meant his strict Shia interpretation of Islam, for elsewhere he had declared that the holy city of Mecca, situated in the heart of Sunni Saudi Arabia, was in the hands of “a band of heretics”.

            Ever since 1979 the world could have recognized, if it had had a mind to, that the Iranian regime was engaged in a focused pursuit of these objectives, quite impervious to any other considerations.  Instead wishful thinking has dominated the approach of many of the world’s leaders to Iran, and continues to do so.

“We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” declared Khomeini. “Until the cry 'there is no god but Allah' resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”

Pursuit of this fundamental purpose of the Islamic Revolution has involved the state – acting either directly or through proxy militant bodies like Hezbollah or the Houthis – in a succession of acts of terror directed not only against Western targets, but against non-Shia Muslims as well. For decades Iran has also made determined efforts to develop nuclear power, with the aim, never openly acknowledged, of producing nuclear weapons as a vital means of achieving its objectives.

The Sunni Arab world knows its main enemy is Iran – the Abraham Accords attest to that.  Western leaders want to believe in an accommodation with the regime.  A clear-eyed look at the facts shows that this is simply not possible. This Iranian regime is not, and has no intention of ever becoming, one of the comity of civilized nations.  To do so would be to negate the fundamental purposes underlying the revolution, purposes to which the ayatollahs remain unshakably committed. 

To quote President Herzog: “Iran does not want dialogue. It is exploiting the world’s willingness to negotiate to buy time.”


Published in the Jerusalem Post 2 December 2021, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/irans-nuclear-strategy-opinion-687563

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Tainted money

 This article appears in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 13 December 2021

          Oxford University, one of the world’s most prestigious, has recently become enmeshed in a controversy that calls its moral and ethical standards into question. 

The issue is far from the only such problem facing Oxford in these increasingly sensitive times.  The university has been involved in its fair share of those 21st century concerns confronting academia the world over – demands for constraints on free speech, the decolonization of curriculums, the “no-platforming” of controversial figures, calls to remove statues of historical figures associated however remotely with slavery or colonialism, intolerance of opinions – especially those surrounding gender – not in accord with the current left-wing view of the world.    

   On November 5 the Daily Telegraph reported that Professor Lawrence Goldman, a senior Oxford don, was accusing his university of “vast hypocrisy”. Professor Goldman is emeritus fellow in history and a former Vice-master of Oxford’s St Peter’s College.

“The university has gone off the scale in wokery," he said, "but they go ahead and take money from a fund established by proven and known fascists. Its moral compass is just not working anymore. There has been a total moral failure.”

Goldman was referring to donations of over £12 million offered by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, and accepted by the University, St Peter’s College and Lady Margaret Hall. The £6 million donation to Oxford University will fund an Alexander Mosley Professor of Biophysics, while the £5 million donation to St Peter’s College, which had previously accepted over £1 million from the same source, will be used to build a new block of student accommodation to be called Alexander Mosley House.  Lady Margaret Hall was given £260,000 to fund its foundation year.

To Britain’s Jewish community the name Mosley is instantly and inescapably associated with Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist movement of the 1930s, outrageously revived in the shadow of the Holocaust in the 1950s with the enthusiastic assistance of his son, Max Mosley.  Sir Oswald Mosley it was who, in 1936, marched his neo-Nazi army of Blackshirts into the Jewish area of east London.  It sparked the famous Battle of Cable Street, when a huge crowd composed largely of Jewish and Irish workers barred the way declaring “They shall not pass”.  Nor did they.

The Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust was set up by Max Mosely in the name of his son, an alumnus of St Peter’s College who later gained a PhD, and who died in 2009 of a suspected drugs overdose.  Although details of the Trust’s original funding source are obscure, it is generally accepted that the money came from the fortune left by Oswald Mosley to his son, Max. 

Professor Goldman’s revelations sparked a blaze of comment in the media.  It immediately came to light that Oxford was not the only respected academic institution to have pocketed large donations from the Mosley Trust.  Imperial College, London had received some £2.5 million over the past 5 years, while University College, London (UCL) had accepted £500,000.

On discovering this Lord Young, who chaired UCL’s council for a decade, said he was “appalled” to learn about the donations.

“I do not think this would have happened during my time at UCL,” he said. “When I chaired council…we were, I hope, much more sensitive about the implications of taking this [sort of] money.  If Oswald Mosley had got his way,” he continued, “we would have had the death camps in this country.  Max Mosley supported his father in the Sixties. There is no ambiguity about the name. You can say it's only a name but it's within living memory.”

It was not long before Jewish voices were raised in opposition to Oxford’s decision. In a letter to Oxford’s vice-chancellor and the master of St Peter’s College, a coalition of Jewish charities condemned Oxford’s decision to accept contributions from “a notorious fascist family that has caused immense pain to the Jewish community.” 

Urging the university to drop the Mosley name from a professorship, they said they were at a loss to understand how a Jewish student would feel comfortable being taught by a professor bearing the Mosley family name. The charities signing the letter included the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Holocaust Education Trust and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.  They urged Oxford’s vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, and Professor Judith Buchanan, the master of St Peter’s College, to confirm that neither the professorship nor the block of student flats will “honour” the Mosley family.

Jewish student groups were also quick to condemn the University of Oxford for accepting millions from Max Mosley, son of the notorious fascist and associated with his political activities. In a joint statement the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) and the Oxford Jewish Society said:  “The Mosley family name is synonymous with fascism and antisemitism in Britain.  The university’s decision to dedicate a professorship to this name serves to commemorate and revere the Mosley legacy.”  The groups urged university administrators to reflect on the impact the donations would have.

St Peter’s had planned to call the student block Alexander Mosley House. It now appears the college will consult with students over the name.  The University has so far issued no statement about the planned professorship.

Other public figures had joined in the chorus of condemnation.  Britain’s Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, chanced to be visiting Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp, when the story broke and he was interviewed by the media.  He said that Oxford’s leadership must attempt to repair its relationship with Jewish students by “making sure they consult and explain the decision-making process” to them.  “Let me be very clear,” he added. “Antisemitism is not simply a historic debate.  It is a present danger and a scourge that exists, sadly, on our campuses.”

Lord Grade, a former BBC chairman, said the decision by St Peter’s College to accept money from the Mosley family trust disqualifies it from removing any statues – its students had recently voted in favour of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, seeking the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, one of Oxford’s most generous philanthropists, because of his involvement with colonialism and racism.

 “They attempt to justify taking money from a family of committed racists and fascists,” wrote Grade, “on the grounds of the good works that the money will enable.  If that argument is accepted, there can be no reason to ‘cancel’ visible, historic associations with descendants of those who profited from the slave trade and benefitted the university.”  He added that St Peter’s College was displaying “venal hypocrisy” and deserved all the “ridicule coming their way”.

Lord Mann, the UK government’s antisemitism tsar, said: “If Oxford is trying to rehabilitate the Mosley family name in any way, they can expect a very hostile response. Anything that glorifies the Mosley name is a problem.”

Oxford University and the two colleges have defended accepting the money from the Mosley trust on the grounds that it was cleared by an independent committee which reviewed donations in a “robust” manner, taking “legal, ethical and reputational issues into consideration”. 

The guidelines for accepting donations to the University require the committee to judge potential gifts against a range of criteria, including whether the proposed donation would do serious harm to the reputation of the University, or seriously harm the University’s relationship with other benefactors or stakeholders.  It is not the criteria that the committee have to consider that have aroused criticism; at issue is their judgement in reaching the decisions they did.

Pressure on the university to return the money mounts.   On November 5 Robert Halfon, who chairs the House of Commons education select committee, said: “I find it distressing that Oxford University is so keen to go on about diversity and inclusion, but is prepared to take the shilling from such sources.  It seems that wokeness goes out the window. I suspect students will be asking for the money to be returned.”

Professor Goldman has said the donations would be better going “to the communities who were terrorized and beaten up by Mosley and his thugs twice in the 20th century. If the Mosley family trust want to atone,” he said, “if they want to do good in the world, surely they should be building…old age homes for elderly Jews who were beaten up in Golders Green and north-west London.”

 He said he had spent months attempting to persuade St Peter’s College to refuse the £5 million Mosley donation.  He wrote to its Master, as well as the university’s vice-chancellor, urging them to reconsider.  In June, he wrote to all the fellows on the college’s governing body, imploring them to vote against it. He warned that taking funds from the “most infamous fascist dynasty in the English-speaking world” would be a “disaster” for the college.

            As yet there is no resolution of the issue.  The country waits to see if Oxford University, its esteemed seat of learning, can rediscover its moral compass

Monday, 22 November 2021

Egypt moves centre stage

 

An unexpected piece of news broke just as the 14-day international COP26 conference on climate change drew to a close. The host for COP27 in 2022 is to be Egypt.  Moreover, in the interim, Egypt partnered by the Maldives is to organize workshops to boost international adherence to the commitments made at COP26. 

COP27 is to be held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on the south-eastern edge of the Sinai peninsula.  Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in making his bid to host it, said that Egypt would work to make it "a radical turning point in international climate efforts in coordination with all parties, for the benefit of Africa and the entire world."

The fact that Egypt is about to assume a major role in a key area of international policy is a testament to Sisi’s determination.  The path toward international recognition of Egypt as a leading player on the world stage has not been without its difficulties. To succeed Sisi needed to mend fences with the Biden administration. 

 Then-US President Barack Obama had disapproved of Sisi’s coup against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, and condemned Sisi’s crackdown on opponents of his new regime.  Joe Biden, Obama’s vice-President throughout his two terms, made it clear from the start of his own presidency that he was going to hassle Sisi on his human rights record.

“We will bring our values with us into every relationship that we have across the globe,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in March 2021. “That includes with Egypt.”

Sisi knew that a vital step in his bid for enhanced global recognition was to persuade Washington to resume the regular program of US-Egypt strategic discussions. This series of dialogues was established under the Clinton administration in 1998 and held periodically since then, apart from a gap from 2009-2015 starting with the Obama administration. 

Sisi pulled it off.  On November 8 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken participated in the opening session of the revived US-Egypt dialogue.  Afterwards Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, declared that the talks had boosted relations between the two countries and been a great success. 

In warming US relations with Egypt, Biden is not without his critics.  Human Rights Watch (HRW) has long condemned Sisi’s ruthless suppression of opposition to his government, an opinion widely shared within the Democrat party.  Aware of this, early in September Sisi issued what he termed his “National Strategy for Human Rights 2021-2026”.  Nominally an effort to establish a new strategy for human rights in Egypt, Sisi called it a milestone in the country's history. Reporting on the announcement, though, journalists and civil rights supporters were highly sceptical.  They await action in support of the fine words, and they may yet get it. 

On October 25, making a move in the right direction, Sisi lifted the state of emergency he had imposed on the nation more than four years ago.  Once again HRW, while welcoming the move, declared it far from sufficient to deal with what it terms “the country’s prolonged human rights crisis”. 

The groundwork for Sisi’s re-engagement with Washington had been laid months before.  In September he travelled to Sharm el-Sheikh to meet with Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

Afterwards Bennett said the two leaders had “laid the foundation for deep ties moving forward.” He told reporters that the talks covered diplomacy, security and the economy, including aspirations to expand trade and tourism.  Other sources disclosed that the discussion had also addressed regional issues, including Iran's nuclear program and Sisi’s aspirations for a resumption of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, based on the presumption of a two-state solution.

No doubt Sisi arranged this open show of friendship towards Israel with one eye on Washington, and subsequent events showed that the move was astute.  The warm meeting with Israel’s prime minister was a way of Sisi reminding the US that Egypt is an irreplaceable player in maintaining stability in the Middle East – a point included in the joint statement that followed the US-Egypt strategic dialogue. 

Sisi has proved his value to US interests in a number of ways.  The 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in May was resolved as a result of Egypt acting as honest broker – an outcome not originally foreseen by Washington.  Subsequently Sisi placed himself in a key role in the Gaza situation by facilitating discussions between the main players – Hamas, Israel and Qatar – the outcome of which is still in the balance.  Following the meeting with Sisi, Bennett’s office mentioned Egypt’s role in maintaining stability and calm in Gaza.

The Israeli and Egyptian military have been cooperating for years in northern Sinai against jihadist forces intent on undermining Sisi’s anti-Muslin Brotherhood administration.  On November 8 the Israel Defense Forces announced that the Egyptian army was to step up its activities in the Rafah area in north-eastern Egypt.  The decision had been taken at a meeting of the joint military committee of the Israeli and Egyptian armies. The army statement said the move “was approved by the Israeli political echelon."

The 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel stipulated that agreed security arrangements were to be established, and that, upon the request of either of the parties, the security arrangements could be modified.

More broadly, US disengagement from the Middle East under Biden has spurred Sisi into seeking meaningful relationships with China and Russia.  Sisi has given both world powers lucrative contracts.  China, by way of the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), is building Egypt’s new administrative capital city, some 28 miles east of Cairo, on a vast plot of desert equal to the size of Singapore.  In August Egyptian delegations visited nuclear power plants in Russia in order to finalize a deal connected with the construction by Russian nuclear power producer, Rosatom, of Egypt’s first nuclear reactor at El-Dabaa. 

In both cases, and in other deals with these leading powers, Sisi has taken particular care not to jeopardize Egypt’s deep and, it seems, growing relationship with the US.  His aim is to enhance Egypt’s standing, and his own, in the world.  Given the visit of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and his wife on November 17, he seems to be succeeding.



Published in the Jerusalem Post, 22 November 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/egypt-moves-center-stage-opinion-685708

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/28112021-egypt-moves-center-stage-oped/

Published in Jewish Business News, 26 November 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/11/26/egypt-moves-center-stage/

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 November 2021:
https://mpc-journal.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=12927&action=edit








Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Sudan’s future – the Israel connection

On October 25 Sudan’s military, under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power and placed the country under martial law.  Less than a month later there are strong signs that Burhan may have bitten off more than he can chew and is starting to regret masterminding the coup. 

It was in some ways quite unnecessary. Even before he acted, Burhan was the most powerful man in the country.  He was head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, representing the military arm in the country's civilian-military collaborative administration.  His role, which was perfectly legitimate, was embedded in the power-sharing agreement of August 2019 between the military and the civilian element within Sudan, notably the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a loose coalition of civilian groups.

That agreement had emerged after the overthrow of Sudan’s longtime autocratic leader, Omar al-Bashir, in a popular uprising.  Under its terms the country was to be governed by a coalition of military and civilian powers who pledged themselves to move the country in an orderly fashion toward democracy, and to parliamentary elections in 2023. 

However, popular feeling had grown increasingly impatient with the administration’s failure to deal with the country’s severe economic problems and the obvious lack of progress toward any form of democracy. Relations between military and civilian leaders within the Sovereign Council worsened. On October 22 national frustration erupted in a mass protest in the capital, Khartoum, estimated at a million strong, in support of civilian rule.

Three days later Burhan dissolved the country's civilian cabinet, arrested prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and other leading figures, and declared that the country was under military governance.  Any hopes he may have cherished of quickly consolidating his seizure of power were quickly shattered.  He was faced with instant and near-universal condemnation. The UN, the African Union (AU), the Arab League, the eight-country African development body Igad, and Sudan's Western donors – including the US – all called for the return of Sudan to civilian rule.

Within the country, popular opposition to the military takeover rose to boiling point.  Ever since, pro-democracy protesters have been out in the streets ever since in a series of mass demonstrations demanding a return to civilian rule.

Burhan has begun to pull back.  On November 4 he spoke on the phone with US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken.  “The two parties agreed on the need to maintain the path of the democratic transition,” said Burhan’s office immediately afterward.  Burhan then ordered the release of Hamdok and other government ministers he had deposed in the coup.  Nureldin Satti, Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, said somewhat prematurely in a television interview “the coup is over,” maintaining that the pressure of condemnation from within and outside Sudan was too great for Burhan to resist.

Meanwhile prime minister Hamdok, who had been allowed to meet with UN and international diplomats as part of mediation efforts to return the country to stability, was demanding a reversal of the coup as his condition for any further negotiations.

Sudan is of course one of the four Arab countries that signed up to normalize its relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords, although final ratification is still awaited.  Naturally enough, since Burhan was head of the Sovereign Council, the normalization initiative had been led by the military, with Burhan himself playing a leading role.  The civilian arm of Sudan’s administration is thought to have been less keen on the move.  As a result, Israel finds itself in a unique position.  It has a strong working relationship with the very sector of the administration that carried out the coup – a point that has not escaped the attention of the US.

Shortly after the military took over the country, Washington is reported to have requested Israel’s help in calming the situation.  According to Israeli and US officials, Blinken asked Israel to encourage the Sudanese military to restore the country to stability.  He also said that obviously the normalization process with Sudan could not go ahead until a legitimate administration was re-established.

The US message was in complete accord with Israel’s own best interests. Doubtless anxious not to jeopardize the ratification of its normalization deal with Sudan, Israel has so far issued no official reaction to the coup. It will be keen to re-establish as quickly as possible both the civilian-led government, and the collaborative military-civilian administration, while doing nothing to sour relations with Burhan. 

Accordingly an Israeli delegation is reported to have visited Sudan and met with military leaders involved in the coup, among them Abdel Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, a prominent general and close ally of Burhan.  Dagalo was part of a Sudanese military delegation that visited Israel several weeks earlier.


            
This working relationship has given rise in some media to speculation that Israel was somehow complicit in masterminding Burhan’s coup – a conspiracy theory that does not hold much water.  With normalization signed but not yet sealed, there would be little to Israel’s advantage in helping establish an unstable, illegitimate regime against mass popular opposition.  As Israel has shown over the past year, it is more concerned with helping to stabilize Sudan’s economy, which is relatively underdeveloped compared with other members of the Abraham Accords.

US envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, said in a briefing with reporters on November 2 that Burhan and his supporters in the military had “hijacked and betrayed” the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.

“The world is watching,” said Feltman. “The military can’t choose its civilian partners in the transitional government. They need to work together."

Burhan, it seems, is getting the message.  In a broadcast interview on November 7 he committed himself to a peaceful transition to civilian rule, indicating that he will not hold a government position afterward.  “We are committed to handing over power to a civilian government,” he said. "We will honor our pledge, the pledge we made to the people and the international community, that we are committed to completing the transition [and] holding the elections as scheduled."

         Israel is doubtless striving behind the scenes to ensure this desirable outcome.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 November 2021 and in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Sudan's future is entangled in their connection with Israel":
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/sudans-future-is-entangled-in-their-connection-with-israel-opinion-685175

Published in Eurasia Review, 20 November 2021
https://www.eurasiareview.com/19112021-sudans-future-the-israel-connection-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 20 November 2021:
https://mpc-journal.org/sudans-future-an-israel-connection/

Published in the Jewish Business News, 19 November 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/11/19/sudans-future-the-israel-connection/


Friday, 12 November 2021

Lebanon is falling apart

 

Lebanese with long memories are beginning to fear that the horrors of their 15-year-long civil war that began in 1975 might yet return. 

The country is split by two major issues: the failure of those in power to deal with the catastrophic economic situation, and the investigation into who was responsible for the massive explosion at Port Beirut in August 2020. 

As the economic crisis worsens, there is real anxiety that the country could go into free fall and suffer a complete collapse.  Lebanon‘s currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value in the past two years and continues to depreciate, there are acute shortages of food and basic necessities, and prolonged power outages have become the norm.  Beirut has recently endured periods of 24 hours without electricity.

The failure of power supplies has wider implications than mere inconvenience.  Essential services, like the nation’s hospitals, are in jeopardy.  If the emergency continues the vital tourism industry, already at a low ebb because of COVID, can scarcely continue to function – and if that collapses the whole financial system could go the same way.  The public have no faith that those in power will take effective steps to remedy the situation. As the Washington Post recently pointed out: “With corruption so endemic, citizens flatly do not believe politicians’ promises to reform the system. Cabinet members in the new Lebanese government come from the same political class that has been enriching itself illegally – and would lose if there were serious economic reforms.”

In the city-shaking explosion at Beirut port last year, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were detonated, resulting in the death of more than 200 people. Victims of the explosion are demanding that those responsible are brought to justice, but public opinion is well aware that powerful forces are at work determined to prevent the truth ever emerging.  The forces acting to frustrate the inquiry are members of Hezbollah or people linked to that organization.

On October 14 Hezbollah and its political ally Amal gathered in strength outside the Palace of Justice in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, to demand the removal of Judge Tarek Bitar, who is looking into the how and why of the huge blast at the city’s port. They claim the judge is biased against Hezbollah and its supporters.  Shortly after their demonstration began, gunfire echoed around the streets.  At least six people were killed and 32 others injured in the exchange of fire.

The demonstration was an attempt to repeat a winning tactic. Judge Bitar himself is a replacement for the first member of the judiciary appointed to investigate the massive explosion, Judge Fadi Sawan.  

On December 10, 2020 Sawan formally charged then-caretaker prime minister, Hassan Diab, and three former ministers, with negligence in connection with the blast.  But Diab, who had been supported by the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc in his bid to become the designated prime minister, refused to appear for questioning.  So did two of the other former ministers.  They were supported by caretaker interior minister, Mohammed Fahmi, described by Abu Dhabi-based The National as “staunchly pro-Hezbollah”. Fahmi declared publicly that even if the judiciary issued arrest warrants, he would not ask the security forces to execute them.

  President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and strong supporter of Hezbollah, made no comment at the time, but in February Sawan was removed from the inquiry to be replaced by Bitar, who was considered non-political.  On July 9 Judge Bitar applied to question Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the powerful General Security agency.  Again Fahmi refused the request.  Now the Hezbollah caucus within Lebanon has turned on Bitar.

It seems clear that the government – or at least the Hezbollah-supporting members of it – is deliberately thwarting the investigation.  With two judges pointing the finger at certain ministers and officials, the suspicion must arise that leading national figures were involved in the circumstances leading to the explosion.  Indeed, in a report issued on August 3, Human Rights Watch declared: “The very design of the port’s management structure was developed to share power between political elites. It maximized opacity, and allowed corruption and mismanagement to flourish.”

Attempts to frustrate the official investigation are being met with genuine popular opposition, of which the exchanges of gunfire on October 14 are a clear symptom.

As yet those involved in the shoot-out have not been identified.  Hezbollah and its political ally Amal accused their long-time opponents, the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party, of being behind the attack.  LF leader Samir Geagea condemned the violence, which he blamed on the widespread availability of firearms.  Yet when he was summoned by military intelligence to testify about the clashes, his lawyers claimed that the summons was illegal, and LF supporters blocked roads leading to his home in the northern town of Maarab.  Geagea, who was scheduled to testify on October 27, did not show up. Blatant defiance of authority by national figures suggests a nation weakened to the point of collapse.

            Given its precarious position, and the dominance of Hezbollah within its establishment, no Arab country could seem further from joining the Abraham Accords than Lebanon.  Yet paradoxically no Arab country could be a more appropriate member.  By its very constitution Lebanon is a pluralist state in which Christians share power with Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.  Leadership roles in the state have by law to be shared between them.  With so strong an Abrahamic approach already embedded in the constitution, it might appear logical for Lebanon to normalize relations with the third Abrahamic faith-based nation in the region – its immediate neighbor to the south, Israel.

Nothing could be further from reality. The ruling cliques, dominated by Iran-supported Hezbollah and its allies, are mired in venality, corruption and self-interest.  Arab News warned recently that their unwillingness to put Lebanon's interests ahead of their own could destroy the nation.  Because of Lebanon’s constitution, it wrote, “no party can hope to gain power unless it is willing to share power…Regrettably, none of these warring factions possesses the wisdom and foresight to comprehend that, if they continue their current trajectory, the state they seek to monopolize will be no more than a heap of smoking ash.”

If disaster is to be averted, Lebanon has to find a way to throw off the chains that shackle it to the proxy of a foreign power.  The vital question is, can it rid itself of the oppressive dominance of Hezbollah and achieve a corruption-free, democratic future without descending into a new civil war?

  

Published in the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 November 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/is-lebanon-going-to-fully-collapse-opinion-684406

Published in Eurasia Review, 12 November 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/12112021-lebanon-is-falling-apart-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 November 2021:
https://mpc-journal.org/lebanon-is-falling-apart/

Published in Jewish Business News, 12 November 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/11/12/lebanon-is-falling-apart/

Monday, 8 November 2021

The battle for energy – where does Israel stand?

This article appears in the issue of Jerusalem Report dated November 29, 2021 

          “The times they are a-changing” sang Bob Dylon back in 1964. The truth is, they have never stopped. More than half a century later, humanity’s attention has merely shifted from universal love and flower power to how to halt climate change in an earth heading toward its apocalypse. A sustained global effort to cut carbon emissions substantially, and soon, is today’s top priority. Most scientific opinion holds that excessive carbon emissions – so-called greenhouse gases – are the source of changes in the world’s weather patterns affecting the whole globe.

          From October 31 until November 12 the UK hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland. There was a huge turnout of world leaders, including Israel's prime minister Naftali Bennett, and Israel's delegation was second in size only to that of the US.

          The COP26 agenda is aimed at accelerating cooperative action towards meeting, and if possible improving on, the targets set in the Paris Agreement of 2015. Their central aim is to stop the global temperature from rising to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, but if possible to limit any increase permanently at 1.5 degrees Celsius. No less than 189 countries have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions in a bid to do so. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report, released in August 2021, the rise so far recorded, at 1.2 degrees Celsius, has been responsible for changes in the Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system.

          The 18-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, known for challenging world leaders to take immediate action for climate change, has no high hopes for COP26.

          “This COP will not lead to any big changes,” she said recently. “We're going to have to continue pushing." In another interview she said: “They’ve now had 30 years of blah, blah, blah and where has that led us? We can still turn this around – it is entirely possible. It will take immediate, drastic annual emission reductions. But not if things go on like today. Our leaders’ intentional lack of action is a betrayal toward all present and future generations.”

          Those like Thunberg advocating drastic action before it is too late see the issue as a battle between the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels, which inevitably result in carbon emissions, and the need rapidly to expand the development and use of renewable sources of power – the sun, the wind, the tides.

          Israel, along with a fair number of other countries, is in the equivocal position of having a foot in both camps. The fairly recent discovery of vast reserves of liquid natural gas (LNG) in its territorial waters brings Israel into the select company of the world’s major suppliers of fossil fuels. But Israel is also a pioneer in the high-tech development of renewable energy sources such as solar-thermal and mini-hydraulic systems, in addition to the more usual photovoltaic energy – the direct transformation of solar radiation into electricity. There are other renewable energy sources in development, such as biomass and biogas.

          The drive towards minimizing carbon emissions is indeed vital. Some 40 countries, including the US and the UK, have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Bennett pledged that Israel would match them

          The whole global response to the crisis is regarded by convinced eco-warriors like Thunberg as too little and too late, but politicians in general believe that while working towards their agreed carbon emission reductions, the world has to continue functioning or revert to a pre-industrial dark age. And in this interim period there is no doubt that natural gas, a cleaner form of fossil fuel than oil or coal, will seize a bigger share in the global energy mix.

          The business of keeping Europe supplied with non-renewable energy has developed into a series of fierce political struggles.

          One battle is between Europe’s main provider, Russia’s Gazprom, and its customers. Russia is seeking to exploit its near-monopoly position by using restricted supplies as a lever to gain approval for its yet-to-be-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Another struggle centres on the pipelines competing to reach European markets from the newer Mediterranean sources of LNG. In this tug-of-war Israel and its partners Greece, Cyprus and Italy, with their ambitious EastMed pipeline project, are in competition with the Turko-Russian pipeline project in southern Europe, TurkStream.

          TurkStream is already up and running, while EastMed awaits its final go-ahead from the EU, not expected before 2022. Turkstream has a throughput capacity of 31.5 billion cubic metres (Bcm) per year, and mainly serves the Balkans. When constructed, the EastMed pipeline would carry 20 Bcm of Israeli gas a year, meeting 10% of European demand, with Italy the largest single customer. The EastMed undersea pipeline, running for 1,900 km (1,180 miles) from the Israeli and Cypriot offshore gas fields via Greece to Italy, would replace Nord Stream as the world’s longest.

          The Middle East Institute (MEI) recently pointed out that the EastMed project, although financially backed by the EU, has its sceptics who question both the $7 billion price tag (funded by the EUs Connecting Europe Facility), and the logic of a major gas transport project to Europe at a time when decarbonization is the new priority. According to MEI there are other, lower-cost projects under consideration that could be brought forward to promote regional integration such as developing the pipelines that already link key regional markets like Israel to Egypt, or Egypt and Israel to Jordan.

          The Trump administration approved of the EastMed project, and Washington has reiterated its support. As a matter of principle, the US deplores Europe’s growing dependence on Russian gas, which currently supplies 40% of the continent’s needs. It has done its best to delay the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany, and also imposed sanctions on TurkStream.

          The effort in the EU and the UK to expand renewable sources of energy and gradually replace fossil fuels continues apace, but in the meanwhile both are facing an energy crisis. Over the past few months gas supplies have been restricted and prices have soared. Russia reduced flows to European gas storage earlier this year, blaming increased domestic demand. A more pressing political factor is probably Russia’s keenness to see Germany approve Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline that is 90 percent complete and seeks to cut Russia’s dependence on Ukraine for energy transit to Europe. The EU is divided on the issue, with Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands approving Nord Stream 2, while France and other countries argue that it should be abandoned.

          Russia’s President Putin has tried to point the moral. “Tensions on the European market would have calmed down,” he said recently, “and prices would have fallen, if we were able to boost supplies on this [Nord Stream 2] route.”

          The energy situation in continental Europe and the UK is grim. The shortage of supply means that gas intended for domestic and industrial use is some five times more expensive than a year ago. Consumers in the UK are being shielded from any price increase until after Christmas, but prices will soar in the New Year. Moreover, should the weather prove even marginally colder than usual, increased demand may lead to an acute energy crisis. To compound the problem, the cost of vehicle gas (petrol in UK terms) has reached its highest level at the pumps since 2012.

          Gas is often seen by the energy industry as a medium-term “bridging fuel”, spanning the period between the decline of hydrocarbons and the flourishing of renewables. This transition has had the effect of pushing up demand for gas at a time when Europe’s domestic gas supplies are in decline. Israel’s vast LNG reserves may be coming on line at precisely the most opportune moment – and the EastMed pipeline may not be the only way to supply it.
          A recent article in the Financial Times pointed out that while the gas industry used to operate almost entirely on point-to-point pipelines, the rapid growth of the LNG industry means that seaborne cargoes have now created something akin to a global market, similar to oil. Europe has more LNG import capacity than any other region. The UK for example, alongside pipeline flows from Norway and the EU to offset declines in domestic production, imported almost 20 per cent of its gas in 2019 through LNG shipments.

          It is on the cards that in the near future Israeli LNG could be finding its way to European and UK markets via giant tankers.



Tuesday, 2 November 2021

The climate, Saudi Arabia and Israel

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post today, 2 November  

On October 20, under the dramatic headline “Scoop”, on-line news provider Axios posted an exclusive story – details of a conversation held on September 27 between US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).  The information, it told its titillated readers, had reached it from no less than “three US and Arab sources”.

The nub of the story was that, during their discussion, Sullivan had raised the issue of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, and that MBS had not rejected the idea out of hand.

Their meeting took place in Neom, the futuristic planned city being constructed on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Neom is an integral element in MBS’s Saudi Vision 2030 – his ambitious plan to reposition Saudi Arabia away from its current dependence on oil in good time to celebrate the kingdom’s centenary in September 2032.  Sullivan may well have wondered whether MBS’s aspirations for Saudi’s future included signing up to the Abraham Accords.

This is an issue of some importance for the region.  If or when Saudi Arabia decides on an open normalization with Israel – as opposed to the covert liaison they currently enjoy – it would be regarded as a major breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations, and a step other Muslim nations would feel able to follow. 

Some practical obstacles would need to be surmounted.  The basic Muslim position regarding Israel is still the Arab Peace Plan, proposed to the Arab League in 2002 by MBS’s uncle, then Crown Prince Abdullah.  It was adopted, and has subsequently been endorsed twice, by the League.  Normalizing relations with Israel without reference to the Plan would require justification, which is why Saudi Arabia has so far insisted that movement on the Israel-Palestinian issue would be an essential prerequisite to any normalization deal.

Yet the step, if it were taken, could certainly be defended and explained.

Normalization under the Abraham Accords is concerned with the pragmatic issues of economic, security, trade and social cooperation for the benefit of the citizens of their respective countries.  Signing up to them in no way implies an abandonment of Palestinian aspirations. Indeed all the current signatories have expressed their continuing support for Palestinian sovereignty within something akin to the pre-1967 boundaries.  They see flourishing cooperation between Arab states and Israel as an important precursor to peace negotiations and an eventual Israel-Palestinian deal.

A highly pragmatic consideration may also push Saudi into normalization – the plans announced by MBS ahead of this year’s COP26 Climate Change conference, now being held in Glasgow, Scotland, during the first two weeks of November.   On March 27 he unveiled his Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives – an ambitious effort to lead a full-scale environmental process in the Middle East by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative falls neatly within the compass of his Saudi 2030 Vision, which involves replacing oil-based energy generation with renewable energy sources.

In 2018 Saudi's electricity supply from renewable sources amounted to some 0.05 percent of the whole.  MBS has pledged that by 2030 no less than 50 percent of the kingdom's energy consumption will be from renewable energy, and that it will reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. Those are exceedingly ambitious targets, and the nation will need all the help it can muster to reach them.  Israel, an acknowledged world leader in high tech development across a wide range of energy and environmental issues, would be an invaluable partner in helping Saudi Arabia achieve its goals.  Perhaps it was this consideration that led MBS not to reject the idea of normalization “out of hand”.

Israel’s commitment to tackling the climate change issue is deadly serious.  Life and Environment, the official umbrella organization of the environmental movement in Israel, brings together over 130 environmental organizations.

On October 17 Israeli media reported that the government is preparing a national climate emergency declaration that would oblige all state bodies to coordinate their preparations for combating climate change.  In addition, it was reported, a climate law is being prepared, the draft of which is gaining ministerial support.  Together, the declaration and new bill would require all public agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, establish monitoring and reporting systems, and prepare for climate emergencies. 

These initiatives are in line with declarations made by President Isaac Herzog on taking office.  In his inaugural address in July, he said it was his personal mission to address the climate crisis. He intended to boost public and national awareness and cooperate with all sections of Israeli society in responding to the crisis.

On October 20 Herzog announced the establishment of the Israeli Climate Forum, which will lead deliberations about the climate crisis and Israel’s role in the fight against it. The forum, which will include representatives from across Israeli society, will operate under the auspices of the Office of the President and will convene several times a year. This development, said the President, will underscore Israel’s commitment to stand at the forefront of the global debate about the climate crisis, raise awareness among all parts of Israel’s leadership about its severity, promote collaboration between all sectors in Israeli society, and promote regional and international collaboration to push for a response.

          It is clear that Israel’s coalition government and its President are of one mind and fully committed to tackling this existential problem.  The Israel delegation currently at COP26 in Glasgow is second in size only to that of the US.  Israel’s serious and focused approach may help persuade other less committed countries to take more urgent action.  In the case of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps several other Gulf nations, it may provide the final push to enter into a working relationship with the partner best able to help them reach the targets they have set themselves in tackling the issues affecting the future of Planet Earth itself.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 2 November 2021, and in the Jerusalem Post on-line as "Saudi normalization with Israel could be a major breakthrough" on 1 November 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/saudi-normalization-with-israel-could-be-a-major-breakthrough-opinion-683743

Published in Eurasia Review, 5 November 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/05112021-the-climate-saudi-arabia-and-israel-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 November 2021:

https://mpc-journal.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=12904&action=edit

Published in Jewish Business News, 5 November 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/11/05/the-climate-saudi-arabia-and-israel/


Monday, 25 October 2021

Can Israel stomach a rehabilitated Assad?

This article appears in Eurasia Review of 29 October as "Assad at the Crossroads". 

When Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October 22, Syria and its future featured high on the agenda.  Putin said that Russia had been “making efforts” to restore the country’s statehood and strengthen it.  It is not clear if that was a form of shorthand for consolidating Bashar al-Assad in power as Syria’s president for the next seven years, in line with the dubious election in which Assad recently won a fourth term with 95.1% of the votes.

If Putin is thinking along those lines, his policy would accord with that of some Arab states which are seeking ways to bring Syria back into the so-called ‘Arab fold’.  Despite the West’s abhorrence of the crimes against his own people attributed to Assad, now presiding over 70 percent of what was once sovereign Syria, the realpolitik of the Middle East may yet see him rehabilitated. 

Can Israel sit back and permit this to come about without intervening?  Syria controlled by an Assad reconfirmed in office and readmitted to the Arab league, would represent an enhanced danger to Israel.  The reality would be a strengthened “Shia Crescent” – the Iranian empire sweeping round from Yemen to Bahrain, then to Iran itself, then Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where it holds sway by way of its Hezbollah proxy.  Israel’s efforts to deter the transfer of armaments, and perhaps eventually nuclear weapons, from Iran to Hezbollah by way of Syria, would need to be redoubled.

This Arab policy shift seems to be led by Jordan and it requires a focused diplomatic counter-offensive by Israel.

In September Jordan fully reopened its trade border with Syria, while in the last few weeks Jordan has been the driving force behind a deal to use Syrian facilities to pipe Egyptian natural gas into Lebanon, which is facing an energy crisis. Syria’s defense minister, Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, visited Jordan in September and met with Jordanian military officials.  Shortly afterwards Jordan’s King Abdullah spoke to Assad by phone for the first time since 2011.  

          Syria was suspended from the Arab League back in 2011 because of its failure to end its violent crackdown on protesters demanding Assad’s resignation. In 2018 the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, closed since 2011, and recently the idea of reinstating Syria to the League has been mooted.  Perhaps as a step in that direction, the UAE economy minister, Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, recently announced that the Gulf state and Syria had agreed on plans to enhance economic cooperation.  The value of non-oil trade between the two countries in the first half of 2021 was some $272m.

A few weeks ago the UAE invited Syria to participate in Dubai’s Expo 2020, the first world’s fair to be held in the Middle East. So named because it was originally planned for last year, Expo 2020 was postponed because of the COVID pandemic.  It runs from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022.  Al-Marri met his Syrian counterpart on the sidelines where, it is reported, they looked at ways to expand the UAE-Syrian relationship.

          Political as well as economic considerations loom large in current Arab thinking. The loss of US prestige following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as its moves to reactivate the Iran nuclear talks, has prompted a reassessment of policy priorities.  The ties that Arab states enjoy with Russia, Assad's most powerful backer, become a consideration. If Russia, which has been pressing for Syria’s return to the League, moves towards consolidating Assad in power, some Arab states will go along. 

Unlike the pragmatic Arab world, western opinion remains opposed to Assad, widely regarded as a tyrant whose hands are covered with the blood of his own people.  There is something of a consensus that he must be removed from power before Syria can be brought back into a normal relationship with the rest of the world.  Bennett may have taken this line in Sochi.

In 2011 with the Arab Spring at its height, Syria, like a handful of other regional dictatorships, was plunged into civil conflict.  Popular dissent soon developed into an armed revolt, which finally sought to overthrow the despotic Assad régime and substitute a democratic form of government.  In August 2013 it became clear that Assad had used chemical weapons against his opponents without regard to the horrific civilian casualties that resulted. 

US President Barack Obama – although he had sworn to punish Assad if he deployed chemical weapons – failed to act.  Putin seized the political initiative.  He quickly extracted an undertaking from Assad to surrender the chemical arsenal that he had originally denied possessing.  Obama embraced the pledge, but it was a total sham.  In June 2021 Fernando Arias, the head of the international chemical weapons watchdog, told the UN Security Council that chemical weapons had so far been used in Syria a probable 17 times.

On October 13 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated US opposition to any normalization of relations with Assad.  A US law, known as the Caesar Act, that came into force last year punishes any companies that work with Assad. 

"What we have not done, and what we do not intend to do, is to express any support for efforts to normalize relations or rehabilitate Mr Assad," Blinken told a joint news conference, pointedly refraining from according the Syrian leader the title “President”.  Blinken set out the US requirement with regard to Syria as “irreversible progress toward a political solution”.  This can possibly be interpreted as free and fair elections in which Assad will be debarred from standing, leading to a new constitution for the country.

Whether this will become anything more than a US aspiration, though, is doubtful. The words are strong; the commitment less so.  Syria is scarcely seen in Washington as a vital US interest.  Indeed the Middle East as a whole is not among Biden’s top priorities.  Given the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and shortly from Iraq, the Arab world would not be too surprised if the administration announced it was leaving Syria. 

A decisive lead from the US can prevent Assad’s rehabilitation.  But is Biden, like Obama before him, too concerned with the nuclear deal and Iranian sensitivities?


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 25 October 2021:
https://www.jpost.com/opinion/can-israel-stomach-a-rehabilitated-assad-opinion-682982

Published in Eurasia Review as "Assad at the Crossroads", 29 October 2021:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/29102021-assad-at-the-crossroads-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal as "Assad at the Crossroads", 28 October 2021:

https://mpc-journal.org/assad-at-the-crossroads/

Published in Jewish Business News, 29 October 2021:
https://jewishbusinessnews.com/2021/10/29/can-israel-stomach-a-rehabilitated-assad/