Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Breaking the Israeli-Palestinian log-jam


         Discussing the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a recent leader in the Jerusalem Post put Israel’s dilemma in a nutshell. “The real problem is that Israel lacks a clear and decisive policy of what it wants…Israel is living in a reality of indecision.”

          Within the broad spectrum of Israeli public opinion there is no shortage of clear and decisive policies for resolving the Israel-Palestine stalemate, but the four administrations led over the years by Benjamin Netanyahu have plumped for none of them. The result, as the leader writer pointed out, is the anomaly of the government officially supporting the two-state solution while continuing to build homes in the West Bank on the very land that would be earmarked for inclusion within a sovereign Palestine.

          Recent Likud-led governments have confined themselves to managing the issue on an ad hoc basis, but in doing so they have adhered to fairly rigid guidelines. One mantra repeated endlessly has been that a resolution can be reached only through face-to-face negotiations between the principal parties – Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

          It is time that particular sacred cow was slaughtered. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA, leads a Fatah party whose constitution 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.

          Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because, unlike Israel, the PA does have a clear and decisive policy. 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 – is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This objective was spelled out by Arafat.

          "We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem," said Arafat, in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996, adding that the PLO 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.

          World opinion in general has elevated the two-state solution to the status of the Holy Grail, and Abbas, in nominally supporting it, has succeeded in swinging world opinion to the Palestinian cause. But from the Palestinian perspective the insurmountable obstacle lodged within the two-state solution is that one of the states must be Israel – and Israel’s very existence within Mandate Palestine is anathema.

          The time has come to acknowledge that face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA have been tried to destruction, and that to persist in asserting that this is the only way forward is perverse. Some alternative approach is called for.

          Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Such a rapprochement has, in effect, been achieved, forced into existence by the growing assertiveness of Iran, following its nuclear deal, and the mayhem created by the rampant Islamic State. In today’s pragmatic Middle East, Israel collaborates on a broad range of security issues not only with Egypt and Jordan, but with Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, inter alia.

          Take Netanyahu at his word. An Arab-Israel peace conference, at which the Arab interest was represented by the Arab League, might be charged with settling the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the perhaps unpalatable, but nonetheless undeniable, presumption that Israel is here to stay.

          Simply to create a Palestinian sovereign state more or less on the pre-Six Day War boundaries would simply not do. Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide. 

          Just as threatening to an independent Palestine would be Islamic State (IS) which seeks to embrace the whole region within its self-declared caliphate. IS would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defence, like a cat on a mouse. IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement.

          An even more fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result of its own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel. The consequent backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.

          A possible answer? At the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference dedicated to the establishment of a sovereign state of Palestine, but 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 defence forces of the confederation. A confederation – one for all; all for one.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 October 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 October 2016:

Friday, 7 October 2016

The War Criminals of Syria

        “It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”

        This is the charge laid by the British ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, in a vituperative meeting of the Security Council on 25 September 2016. In comments unrestrained by the normal diplomatic niceties, Britain, France and the US openly condemned Russia as “an international pariah”.

        The war crimes accusations centred on the widespread use of bunker-busting and incendiary bombs on the 275,000 civilians living in the rebel-held east of the city, weapons that Moscow’s accusers say were dropped by Russian aircraft.

       “Bunker-busting bombs, more suited to destroying military installations, are now destroying homes, decimating bomb shelters, crippling, maiming, killing dozens, if not hundreds,” said Rycroft.

        François Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, specifically declared that the use of bunker-busters and incendiaries on urban residential areas was a war crime.

        “Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia,” he said. “This week will go down in history as the one in which diplomacy failed and barbarism triumphed”.

        Delattre’s comparison with the battle of Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict was both apt and significant. When the stricken capital of Sarajevo was under siege by Bosnian Serb militias for no less than 1,425 days – from 2 April 1992 until 29 February 1996 - former US president Bill Clinton made little effort to intervene. NATO mounted a few rather ineffective air-strikes which did little to deter the Serb military, who continued to target the civilian population with shells and sniper fire, killing in all some 14,000 people.

        Delattre no doubt wished to remind both Russian President Valdimir Putin and Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad that, as a result, on 24 March 2016 Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić stood trial in the International Criminal Tribunal, was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. His trial and sentence had been preceded by that of General Dragomir Milosevic in 2007 (29 years), and General Momcilo Pensic in 2011 (27 years).

        “Though the mills of justice grind slowly,” Delattre might have been saying, “they grind exceeding small.”

        The first of the war trials arising from the siege of Sarajevo, mounted in 2003, saw the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, General Stanislav Galic, sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecutor in his opening statement read out charges that have an uncanny contemporary relevance in the bombardment of Aleppo. Not since World War One, he said, “had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death.”

        Putin has doubtless calculated that the prospect, however justifiable, of his ever standing trial charged with war crimes is remote in the extreme; he doubtless assesses that the likelihood of Assad eventually facing justice is perhaps a tad more possible. But he has almost certainly convinced himself that if their joint effort to regain the whole of Aleppo succeeds, neither will ever be brought to account, regardless of the brutal and inhumane means they have used to do so. In the Machiavellian world view which prevails in global affairs, might is almost always right – a doctrine which Putin exemplifies, with the anschluss of Ukraine under his belt, eastern Crimea increasingly under his control, and a towering Russian presence in the Middle East achieved in the power vacuum created by President Obama’s abdication of the US’s previous dominance of the region.

        Just as in the 1930s, while Mussolini and Hitler blatantly contravened international agreements, expanded their military might and invaded or occupied smaller nations, world powers have so far averted their gaze from Putin’s amoral march towards a status for the Russian Republics akin to that of the old Soviet Union. The ruckus at the recent Security Council meeting may be the first sign that the world will not stand idly by on this occasion. Russia and its client state – the rump of the Syria that was – have ridden roughshod over the conventions of acceptable military action, especially where civilians and children are concerned – and this time they may not get away with it.

        Retribution may not come by way of charges of war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal, at least not in the first instance. In his UN intervention Matthew Rycroft hinted that Western powers must consider coercive measures to force Russia to back away.

        “We must now do more than demand or urge. We must now decide what we can do to enforce an end to bombardment,” he said. The West could consider economic sanctions or a diplomatic move against Russia to try to force it to change course.

        The Russians are mightily irked by sanctions already taken in respect of their Ukrainian adventure. Putin characterized them as “the USA's unfriendly acts toward Russia,” and "a threat to strategic stability,” as he signed a decree on October 3 suspending his country’s participation in a treaty with the US designed to eliminate nuclear weapons.

        Putin’s decree stipulates that Moscow will resume its participation in the accord only if the US lifts all anti-Russian sanctions, compensates Russia for the sanctions-related losses and reduces the US military presence in Eastern Europe to pre-2000 levels (NATO opened command points in six eastern European nations in 2015 to enable swift deployment of troops and arms if necessary).

        Moreover personal sanctions and travel bans against Russian officials clearly discomfort the regime, for Putin’s decree specifically wants the US to remove them. They hurt some of Putin’s oldest and closest allies whose family members live or study in Western Europe or the United States.

        In a statement posted on his ministry website, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Attempts to talk to Russia from the position of power ­­­- to use the language of sanctions and ultimatums, and at the same time, to continue a selective partnership with our country only in the areas that are beneficial to the US - are not going to work.”

        If sanctions are, for the moment, the only effective counter measure to Russia’s naked aggression and its support for Syria’s brutal military assault on its opponents, regardless of the effect on the civilian population, then let the West clamp down hard with renewed and crippling sanctions – and soon. Something must stop the Behemoth in its tracks.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 16 October 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 October 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 October 2016:

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

CANZUK and Israel

          It did not take long for “Brexit”, a portmanteau term invented in 2012, to become common usage the world over. Now a new expression is bidding for its place in the sun – “CANZUK” – and its emergence on the political scene is not unconnected with Brexit itself.

          CANZUK, grammatically speaking, is an acronym – a word made up of initial letters, rather like NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). It is formed from the initial letters of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom – and it has emerged following a bout of vigorous activity by a body founded in Canada in 2014 called the Commonwealth Freedom of Movement Organisation (CFMO).

          CFMO was formed to expand the existing historical connections between the citizens of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, by creating a sort of travel-free alliance between them. The big CFMO idea is to use mutual travel agreements and visa-free initiatives as a way of encouraging the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments to strengthen and expand economic, political, trade, investment, military and diplomatic relationships.

          The unexpected result of the UK’s EU referendum, and the certainty that the UK will eventually leave the European Union, has thrust the CFMO initiative into prominence, As a result it has gained a more substantive identity in the shape of an off-shoot – CANZUK. In fact, as the UK builds its post-Brexit place in the world, CANZUK provides it with one of several credible paths to follow.

          Eminent British historian, Professor Andrew Roberts, believes that the CANZUK countries should form "a new federation based upon free trade, free movement of peoples, mutual defence, and a limited but effective confederal political structure.” He points out that were CANZUK to become a union, “it would immediately become one of the global great powers alongside America, the EU and China. It would be easily the largest country on the planet, have a combined population of 129 million, the third biggest economy and the third biggest defence budget.”

          In favour of the argument, he points out that the CANZUK countries already have a common head of state in the British monarch, a majority language, legal systems based on Magna Cara and the common law, Westminster parliamentary tradition, and a long history of working together. All they lack is geographical proximity, which is becoming less and less important in the modern world.

          “CANZUK,” concludes Roberts, “is an idea whose time has, thanks to Brexit, finally come again.”

          Momentum towards creating such an entity is mounting. Within a few months of posting a petition on its website, CFMO attracted tens of thousands of signatures, and support continues to grow by the day. The petition, in line with CFMO’s limited objectives, is a modest request to the parliaments of the CANZUK countries to introduce legislation promoting the free movement of citizens between the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, each of the governments concerned is sympathetic to the general concept of strengthening existing ties. CANZUK is far from pie in the sky.

         Suppose such a third major political force were indeed to emerge on the world stage, what might its attitude be towards Israel? Judging by Israel’s current relationship with the countries involved, the connection would surely be considerably warmer than the wary and arms-length – though admittedly strong – association that has developed between Israel and the EU. It would be boosted by thriving Jewish communities in three of the four CANZUK nations – New Zealand being the exception. The Jewish community in New Zealand, which itself has a total population of less than 5 million,amounts to about seven thousand souls. It so happens that one of the seven thousand is the current Prime Minister, John Key.

          Israel’s relationship with Canada is particularly strong. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper often reiterated that “Israel has no greater friend than Canada.” It was during his visit to Israel in January 2014, that the Canada-Israel Strategic Partnership was signed, reaffirming the close and special friendship that underpins the Canada-Israel relationship. The Partnership lays out a strategic direction for stronger future relations between the two countries, paving the way for even greater collaboration in such areas as defence, energy, development, innovation and education.

          Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has changed some of the rhetoric, but not the reality, of the close relationship. On Israel’s Independence Day in May 2016 he said:

          “Canada and Israel unite in their people-to-people ties, shared values, respect for democracy, and growing trade relationship. I look forward to continuing to strengthen our strong friendship. Although today is a joyous day, let us also reflect on the threat that Israel and its people continue to face throughout the world in the form of terrorist attacks, acts of anti-Semitism, and religious intolerance. Canada stands with Israel and will continue to promote peace and stability in the region.”

          With Australia Israel has enjoyed close ties from the founding of the state, and in fact Australia has the distinction of being the first country to vote in favour of the 1947 UN partition resolution. Totally consistent, Australia has been, and remains, a long-standing supporter of a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue, as indeed is New Zealand and the UK.

          Meanwhile Australia is deepening bilateral cooperation with Israel. Since replacing Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2015, Malcolm Turnbull has continued Abbott's efforts to achieve even closer relations with Israel - choosing Tel Aviv as the site of one of just five designated global Australian "Landing Pads" for innovation entrepreneurship. Support for closer Australia-Israel ties is shared by the ALP Opposition.

          Israel’s relations with the UK were particularly close during David Cameron’s premiership, and there is every expectation that the strong commercial and industrial bonds he forged will be strengthened under the post-Brexit government of Theresa May as it seeks to boost its trade agreements world-wide.

          As a formal union or federation, the four CANZUK countries could be a new, strong entity on the world scene, very favourably disposed towards Israel. Professor Roberts goes so far as to believe that its emergence could bring about the fulfilment of Winston Churchill’s great dream of a Western alliance based on three separate blocs. “The first and second blocs – the USA and a United State of Europe – are already in place,” says Roberts. “Now it is time for the last – CANZUK – to retake her place as the third pillar of western civilization.”

          All in all, Israel would seem to be in a position to benefit substantially from its realization. Bring it on!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line. 26 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 September 2016:

Can Syria avoid disintegration?

           On September 10, 2016, after mammoth negotiating sessions held in Geneva, the USA and Russia announced that agreement had been reached on a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war, to take effect at sundown on Monday the 12th. 

          The agreement specified that should the cease-fire, timed to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, hold for seven days, the US and Russia would collaborate operationally in airstrikes against jihadist militants in Syria, while the Syrian air force would cease flying over rebel-held areas.

          The sun did eventually sink below the horizon on Monday the 12th. After less than an hour residents in war-torn Aleppo reported that a government helicopter had dropped explosive cylinders on a rebel-held district, while a rebel faction in the southern province of Dara’a announced that it had killed four government soldiers. Violations on both sides have continued.

          Whether or not the US and Russia turn a blind eye to these and further possible infringements, the fragile nature of the agreement is obvious. The US and Russia are united only in their opposition to Islamic State (IS) and to the groups of jihadist militants including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front). Where President Bashar al-Assad and his future is concerned, the US and Russia are on opposite sides of the fence: Russia supports him; the US backs the rebels who want him deposed.

          In fact Syria is currently divided into four main zones: one controlled by the Assad régime, one by Islamic State (ISIS), a third by the Kurdish PYD party, and a fourth by various jihadist groups. Bashar al-Assad, however, remains defiant. Just before the start of the cease-fire, in a symbolic propaganda gesture, he visited the Damascus suburb of Daraya, wrested from rebel control in August. “The Syrian state is determined to recover every area from the terrorists,” he announced (“terrorists” is the term he employs to describe all those opposed to his régime, regardless).

          Backed by both Russia and Iran, and indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophe he inflicts on the civilian population in his existential battle against his opponents, Assad has certainly chalked up some significant gains for the régime. But the US, as well as the 10 countries it leads in its anti-IS coalition in Syria, are determined that Assad can have no part in a reconstituted Syria. This is an issue swept under the carpet in the current cease-fire agreement, but will eventually have to be resolved.

          For the present, the priority is to defeat IS and the other jihadist militant groups that are ravaging large areas of what was sovereign Syria. Virtually the entire civilized world has recognized that IS must be overcome, defeated and removed. This is why no less than 62 countries agreed in September 2014 on a many-sided strategy against IS, including cutting of its sources of finance.

          Assuming the cease-fire holds sufficiently to allow the next phase of the agreement to be implemented, US and Russian forces will shortly begin collaborating in determined anti-IS operations. If successful, they will alleviate the humanitarian crisis for large swathes of the population, significantly weaken IS, and chalk up a loss of prestige and power for the malign organization world-wide.

          They will also, of course, have removed some of Assad’s fiercest opponents from the Syrian scene, thus further strengthening his position. Moreover Putin will have secured Russia’s naval base in Tartus, its military base at Latakia, and its new air base at Khmeimim converted, by way of a formal agreement between the Syrian government and Russia in August, into a permanent Russian air base. In other words, providing Assad remains in power and Syrian sovereignty is restored, Russia will emerge with an immeasurably strengthened military presence in the Middle East – a strong contributory factor, no doubt, in ensuring Russia’s involvement in the cease-fire agreement.

          For the rest of the multi-nation anti-IS coalition, the political and administrative structure of a future Syria, even if currently on the back burner, remains of prime concern.

          A policy document published on September 6, 2016 by the European Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) argues strongly in favor of recognizing the realities of present-day Syria. One such reality, the paper asserts, is that although the country is fragmenting into competing centres of power, most Syrians remain attached to the idea of national unity. Despite the chaos, economic links and interdependency persist between the various parts of the country. Its proposal for Syria’s future is some form of political decentralization, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration.

          In what remains of Assad’s regime, state institutions continue to function and maintain law and order. But the rest of what was Syria has had to adapt to the almost complete withdrawal of the state, and local communities have created alternative systems to impose law and order, supply water and electricity, provide social services, educate children, and manage the economy. Opposition areas now have Sharia courts, while Kurdish areas have attempted to impose a cooperative system to run the economy.

          These variegated systems of governance, says the ECFA paper, “are becoming increasingly entrenched.” Accordingly Syria’s National Coalition (NC), which includes most non-armed opposition groups, is also proposing delegating central powers to the regions – in other words, administrative decentralisation. Some groups within the coalition suggest that this could include granting special political rights to the Kurds – some form of Kurdish autonomy, perhaps, although not independence. The NC, however, relies on Turkey’s goodwill, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is totally opposed to the creation of a separatist Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border, fearing the effect this might have on the aspirations of his domestic Kurdish population. His rejection of Kurdish separatism, however, does not extend to the idea of administrative decentralisation in a reconstituted Syria.

          Oddly enough, in May 2016 Russia prepared a draft text for a new Syrian constitution that acknowledged the need for decentralisation. According to a report published by Al-Araby, (or the New Arab), a fast-growing news and current affairs website, the text called for removing the word “Arab” from the official name of the country, allowing the use of Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, and establishing a regional council with legislative powers that would represent the interests of the local administrations. 

          Within days, according to Al-Akhbar, a pro-Assad Lebanese journal. the regime rejected almost all the Russian suggestions, but the fact that political decentralization has entered Russian thinking does, despite Assad’s rooted objections, point the way to a possible future.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 September 2016:

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Could Israel join NATO?

        The answer is “no,” if NATO’s official website is to be taken at its word. Setting out its position on future membership, it declares “NATO’s door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

        “European country”. It would take a stretch of the imagination to designate Israel a European country. Nor could Turkey be called in evidence as a precedent. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1951, and the organization’s policy on expanding its membership relates to the future, not the past. Although Turkey can at best be described as a transcontinental state, since it lies partly in Europe, but mainly on the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia – the Middle East, as the area is generally known – its acceptance into the alliance is past history.

        The decision back in the early 1950s to allow Turkey (and indeed Greece) to join NATO stemmed largely from Cold War strategies directed against the Soviet Union. Both states were viewed by the West as bulwarks against Moscow and the spread of communism in Europe. Accepting non-North Atlantic nations into NATO lay at the heart of the US’s Truman Doctrine -- extending military and economic aid to states vulnerable to the threat of Soviet expansion.

        Could current geopolitical considerations lead to a flexible reinterpretation of NATO’s policy on new members?

        On May 4, 2016 the North Atlantic Council agreed to allow five non-NATO members to open diplomatic missions to its headquarters in Brussels. One of the states so favoured is Israel. The concession provides the ambassadors and attachés of the approved states – Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Israel – upgraded access to exercises, events and alliance-related procurement programmes. Invitations were first issued back in 2011, but in Israel’s case had been blocked for the past five years by Turkey, whose agreement was required under NATO’s rules of unanimous consent.

        Zaki Shalom, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the NATO initiative was more symbolic than strategically substantive. “It’s not as if Israel is becoming a NATO member …What’s really important is that it demonstrates the warming of relations with Turkey.”

        Since its founding in 1949, NATO has added new members on seven occasions and now comprises 28 nations. The organization has also broadened its operations to encompass both a “Partnership for Peace” programme with states of the former USSR, and a number of “Dialogue Programs”. Among these is the Mediterranean Dialogue, set up in 1994 and intended to link Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in security discussions.

        Of course, this group of countries lacks any culture of cooperation in security matters, so the programme as such is pretty much a dead letter – except that out of it, Israel alone has forged extremely close links with NATO. For example in October 2006, after prolonged negotiations lasting some 18 months, Israel and NATO concluded an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP). Israel was the first country outside of Europe – and the first among NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue countries – to reach such an agreement.

        The NATO-Israel ICP, renewed and modestly expanded in December 2008, is a wide-ranging framework intended to extend the scope of cooperation across a wide range of fields including response to terrorism, intelligence sharing, armament cooperation and management, nuclear, biological, and chemical defence, military doctrine and exercises, civilian emergency plans, and disaster preparedness.

        NATO-Israeli relations had warmed to such an extent that in March 2013 NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, to NATO headquarters to discuss how to deepen the relationship. The main purpose was to enhance military cooperation, focusing on counter-terrorism. The agreement they reached extended the NATO-Israeli association beyond the “Mediterranean Dialogue”. The joint statement issued after the meeting referred to a NATO-Israel partnership, suggesting Israel’s participation in active theatre warfare alongside NATO as a de facto member of the North Atlantic Alliance.

        “The two agreed during their discussions,” ran the statement, “that Israel and NATO are partners in the fight against terror.” In other words, Israel would be directly involved is US-NATO military operations in the Middle East.

        Israel was already a partner in NATO’s naval control system in the Mediterranean. By supporting NATO forces in patrolling the Mediterranean. Israel has contributed on a regular basis to Operation Active Endeavor, which was established after 9/11 and designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

        So rather like the UK’s desired position post-Brexit in its relations with the EU, Israel appears to be an active participant in NATO’s activities while not being a member of the organization. Would it in fact be in Israel’s interests to be admitted to full membership, assuming NATO relaxed its current requirements on new members?

       Opinion within Israel is, inevitably, divided. In practical terms NATO’s “all for one, one for all” doctrine – the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which regards an attack against one ally as an attack against all – probably militates against Israel’s acceptance into the alliance. How many of NATO’s 28 members would willingly sign up to fighting for Israel if it were attacked by any of its many potential enemies?

        In any case Israel’s defence and security policies have always been based on self-reliance and freedom of manoeuvre, an approach likely to be constrained within a formal relationship with NATO. Israel’s unwritten alliance with the United States provides an alternative backup, should the need arise. 

        As it currently stands, the NATO-Israel relationship allows both parties to benefit from a uniquely close association, with neither being embarrassed by the requirements of Article 5. On balance, that seems a win-win situation.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 September 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2016:

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

What if Islamic State becomes stateless?

          The grandiose dreams of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of Islamic State (IS) who envisioned a jihadist caliphate encompassing the entire globe under his leadership, appear to be crumbling. In parallel with Adolf Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” which in fact lasted barely twelve, IS’s initial period of amazing success and swift territorial gain has been followed by a slow but steady attrition of those early victories. It is estimated that since its heyday in mid-2014, IS has lost about half its territory in Iraq and some 20 percent in Syria. On 4 September 2016, IS was chased from the last of its holdings on the Syrian-Turkish border, depriving it of a key transit point for recruits and supplies.

          Its leaders, moreover, are being eliminated, one by one. The latest, and perhaps most significant, loss was that of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on  30  August 2016. Adnani, the leading IS strategist, was the mastermind behind many of its spectacular terror attacks against Western interests. In September 2014 he called on Muslims in the West to kill Europeans wherever and however they could, warning foreign governments: “We will strike you in your homeland, especially the spiteful and filthy French.” And he urged them to do it in any manner they could: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”

          Adnani was the most recent in the catalogue of leading IS figures tracked down and killed by the US-led coalition. Last year saw the elimination of Baghdadi’s right-hand man, Haji al-Mutazz, aka Ned Price; Abu Sayyaf; logistics expert Tariq al-Harzi; Junaid Husssein; extortion expert Abu Maryam; chief accountant Abu Salah; Abu Nabil; and chief chemical weapons expert, Sleiman Daoud al-Afari – nor is this an exhaustive list.

          In 2016 those removed include Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS’s chief financier, and Omar al-Shishani, generally considered IS’s minister of war. “The stench of decay hangs over IS” in the words of Middle East commentator David Blair. In March 2016, in a stark illustration of a movement in the process of disintegration, Abu Ali al-Tunisi, commander of IS military operations in northern Raqqa, was killed at the hands of fellow IS militants.

          “Al-Tunisi was attacked by a group of IS militants who used to fight under his command in the northern countryside of Raqqa,” reported local media activist Ammar al-Hassan. The militants apparently opened fire at their commander’s car on 6 March 2016, killing him and two of his escorts.

          This assassination occurred amid escalating rifts within IS. Local disaffection among members has centered on a decrease in salaries resulting from the group’s loss of key resources, and on the promotion of a number of foreign jihadis to senior positions.

          The caliphate that al-Baghdadi professed to be recreating harked back to the idea of an Islamic republic owing allegiance to one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The caliphate concept was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state that, at various times during the course of Islam's 1,400-year history, ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and large parts of Europe.

          As regards IS’s intention to do just that, in December 2015 the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed the contents of a leaked internal IS manual showing how the terrorist group had been setting about building a state in Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic programme for self-sufficiency.

          The 24-page document, entitled “Principles in the administration of the Islamic State”, set out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully-fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the other vital parts of the economy. It built up a picture of a group, according to the Guardian that, “although sworn to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short, it is building a state.”

          Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for Georgia State University, believes that IS had “an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”

          IS’s subsequent loss of territory puts paid to these extravagant plans, much to the relief of substantial sections of the population which had languished under IS rule. When Manbij was recaptured by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 13 August 2016, mass jubilation engulfed the city. Women were seen ripping off their burqas and burning them; men were pictured cutting off their beards. Those subjected to IS governance will not forget the dread of living under an extremist version of sharia, the horrendous mass slaughter of “non-believers”, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, and the glorification of inhumane beheadings, amputations and crucifixions.

          Having suffered a steady loss of territory and continuous depletion of its leading figures, IS is down, but not out. It will doubtless put up an energetic rearguard action against the battalions arrayed against it – the UN-led coalition, the Russian-Iranian alliance, the legions of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and the Syrian Democratic Forces which encompass the doughty Kurdish peshmerga troops, the fighters who have proved the most effective against IS on the ground. But it will have lost status and prestige, especially among the vulnerable and impressionable Muslim youth worldwide, whom it has targeted in its recruiting drives. Loss of territory carries with it the stigma of loss of power.

          Putting a brave face on IS’s succession of disasters, in May 2016 Adnani declared: “Do you think, America, that defeat is by the loss of towns or territory? No, true defeat is losing the will and desire to fight.”

          He may have had a point, but there is all the difference in the world from the position IS had acquired in its heyday, and a stateless group simply concerned with promulgating terrorism across the globe – a sort of latter day al-Qaeda following the assassination of its leader Osama bin Laden, a movement rendered not toothless, but far less of a universal menace. That is very possibly the fate awaiting Islamic State.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 September 2016

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 September 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 September 2016:

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The lure of power in Yemen

Ali Abdullah Saleh, ex-President of Yemen

                   In Yemen – as in much of the Middle East – Islam is at war with itself. As Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic Revolution play out their deadly rivalry, the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam defines the conflict, as on so many of the region’s battlefields.

          But in Yemen the picture is particularly complicated. Here it is far from a clear case of two opposing forces slogging it out between themselves. No less than six main combatants are engaged in the conflict, and the separate motives of each create a tangle of competing ambitions and a criss-crossing of the Sunni-Shia boundaries.

          To list the six antagonists: first, the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; then the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; next, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular); followed by IS (Islamic State); then, Saudi Arabia; and finally – most surprising of all, perhaps –Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office in 2012 as a casualty of the so-called Arab Spring, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs.

          Adding even more complication to a desperately complex situation is the astonishing alliance between Saleh, backed by the Yemeni security forces that have remained loyal to him, and the Houthis, whose chronic grievances led to their uprising and the splitting of the nation. This Saleh-Houthi liaison is certainly a mariage de convenance, for it was against the Saleh régime that the Houthis, consistently complaining of discrimination, fought no less than six wars between 2004 and the uprisings in 2011 that led to Saleh’s loss of power. Yet here we have a working alliance between them which, as far as Saleh is concerned, could reasonably be interpreted as a renewed bid for supreme power.

          Saleh’s sights are clearly set on ousting his one-time deputy, President Hadi, and the government he has led from February 2012. During the Arab Spring President Saleh faced widespread armed protests. Finally, unable to restore stability, he was induced with great reluctance to leave office and transfer the powers of the presidency to his deputy, Hadi. The new president took over a country in a state of chaos. When in September 2014 the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, and installed an interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there, on March 26, 2015 to Saudi Arabia.

          He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran's continued support for the Houthi rebels and fearful of a Shia takeover on their southern border, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthis and restoring President Hadi to office.

          What of the other combatants?

          AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular), led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

          The recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State is just as Sunni-adherent and fundamentalist as AQAP, but it seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. Intent on extending the reach of its parent organization into the Arabian peninsula, it therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, the Sunni AQAP, and Sunni President Hadi,

          And the Houthis, to whose struggle for control of the country Saleh has now allied himself, what of them? They are a fundamentalist Shia group which takes its name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:

                                           "God is Great,
                                             Death to America,
                                             Death to Israel,
                                             Curse on the Jews,
                                             Victory to Islam".

          The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This has enabled them to overrun large areas of the country, including the capital, Sana’a, which remains in their hands despite nearly two years of military effort by the Saudi-backed coalition to oust them.

          The ferocity of the Saudi-led campaign, which has seen more than 9,000 people killed and 2.8 million driven from their homes, has alienated large sections of the population. It has incidentally provided Saleh with a political advantage which he is busily exploiting.

          On August 21, 2016, during an interview on the state-run Russia24 TV channel, Saleh announced that “the new government” was ready to allow Russia access to all of Yemen’s military bases. His “new government”, the result of a formal liaison between the Houthis' Revolutionary Committee and Saleh's General People’s Congress party, was a reference to a joint 10-member Supreme Political Council, launched on August 6.

          “We are ready to provide all facilities to the Russian Federation,” he said. “We extend our hand to Russia to cooperate in the field of combating terrorism.”

          This was a bold play at power politics. He was cocking a snook at the US-supported Saudi coalition, and providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with the opportunity of strengthening Russia’s dominant position in the Middle East following its active involvement in the Syrian civil war.

          Saleh has also gone on TV to rile against the Saudi-led military effort. In doing so he has caught the public mood. Recent indiscriminate, or poorly targeted, bombing operations have struck hospitals, schools and markets. As a result the US military is distancing itself from the war, and the French charity Médecins Sans Frontières has withdrawn from six hospitals after one was bombed resulting in the death of 19 people.

          Thoroughly disillusioned with the Saudi-led coalition, in mid-August the public joined in mass demonstrations in support of the new Houthi-Saleh governing council
Meanwhile the latest US-led peace initiative envisages a national unity government including Houthi representation. Saleh may yet pull off his bid for a return to power.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 31 August 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 August 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 September 2016:

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The making of a united Kurdistan


The yellow area combines latest gains by Kurdish troops in Syria with the territory administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.         

          Slowly, and much to the distaste of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the possibility of a united autonomous Kurdistan stretching across the northern reaches of Syria and Iraq is emerging.

          The capture of the township of Manbij from Islamic State (IS) on 12 August 2016 produces along Turkey’s southern border an uninterrupted swathe of territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias. This area joins seamlessly with Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, the Kurdish populated area granted autonomy in Iraq’s 2005 constitution.

          Just as the artificial boundaries and borders imposed on the Middle East by the victorious allies after the First World War are laughed to scorn by Islamic State (IS) in declaring its caliphate, so any united autonomous Kurdistan – if such an entity were ever to come into existence – would have to sit fairly and squarely across what now constitute the internationally recognized borders of Turkey, Syria. Iraq and Iran.

          Iraq’s Kurdistan contains about 5 million of the world’s approximately 30 million ethnic Kurds; the liberated region in Syria about 2 million. Most of the rest reside in the areas immediately adjacent to Kurdistan’s northern and eastern borders, in Turkey and Iran respectively - both of which are deeply opposed to any suggestion of granting Kurds independence, or even autonomy on the Iraqi model.

          It was in August 1920, shortly after the end of the First World War, that the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire were incorporated into the Treaty of Sèvres. That Treaty, made between the victorious Allied powers and representatives of the government of Ottoman Turkey, abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. Moreover, it required a referendum to be conducted to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

          Sèvres was very quickly rendered null and void by the establishment in 1922 of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The result was a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave control of the entire Anatolian Peninsula, including the Kurdistan homeland in Turkey, to the new republic.

          Kurdish nationalism emerged largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Ataturk. The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. Years of rebellion in Iraq ended with a peace deal between the government and the Kurdish rebels in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.

          When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and Kurdish Peshmerga troops helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.

          The journey towards a unified Kurdish movement in Iraq, bedevilled by internal politicking, was long and bitter. In 1994 a power-sharing arrangement between the KDP and the PUK fell apart, leading to two separate administrations in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and a no-holds-barred civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal. Eventually the PUK and the KDP set up a unified regional government, and Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

          When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish Peshmerga troops joined in the fight to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After he was driven from office the Iraqi people, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution which recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral element in Iraq’s administration. Barzani was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

          In Syria the civil war, which began in earnest in 2011 in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad and his administration, brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. In early fighting Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. As early as October 2011, sponsored by President Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) to press for eventual Kurdish autonomy. As in Iraq, political differences within the Kurdish community have resulted in a breakaway party, the PYD, challenging the national council.

          The KNC is wholeheartedly in favour of establishing a Kurdish Regional Government in Syria, to mirror that in Iraq. The PYD favours establishing a multi-ethnic administration in the areas of northern Syria captured from government forces. An uneasy truce between the two groups, brokered by Barzani in 2012, seems to be holding, despite a succession of incidents between them.

          Is some sort of amalgamation of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish areas a practical proposition?

          “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26, 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

          If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, and worse if it were to amalgamate with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. This would be anathema to Erdogan, who has consistently opposed his domestic Kurdish separatist movement - which explains why, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July 2015, he began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush.

          Nevertheless Erdogan may have to bow to the politically inevitable, even if it causes him continuing domestic headaches with his substantial Turkish-Kurdish population. Everything turns on what sort of Syrian entity emerges from the current conflict.

          It seems highly unlikely that Syrian President Bashar Assad, even with combined Russian and Iranian support, will ever regain the whole of his former state. Even the eventual elimination of IS in Syria, if that were ever to be achieved with the help of the US-led coalition, would scarcely be to Assad’s advantage, since the coalition is pretty well unanimous in wishing to see him deposed. The anti-IS coalition, moreover, is highly indebted to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have proved themselves outstandingly effective fighters on the ground.

          When the conflict is eventually resolved, and the spoils of victory come to be disbursed, gratitude and common decency seem to demand that Syria’s Kurds are at last awarded their autonomy. In that eventuality, a unified Kurdistan would be one step nearer to fulfilment.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 August 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 August 2016

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 August 2016:

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Qatar phenomenon

          It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one, geographically, politically, economically, influentially. That Qatar aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond may seem obvious enough, but in pursuit of this objective Qatar’s tactics sometimes puzzle, sometimes infuriate, its neighbours. But then, as the world’s wealthiest nation by a long chalk, Qatar can afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others think.

          Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists — from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters — while also offering itself as a key US ally, is rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wants to protect itself and to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody.

          “We don’t do enemies,” said Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah. “We talk to everyone.”

          And talk they certainly do, through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeerah world-wide media network – a network whose independence has been questioned, but is certainly curtailed by a requirement to avoid adverse criticism of Qatar’s Emir.

          So when the Emir announces – as he did on July 29, 2016 – that he intends to pay one month’s wages for thousands of public sector employees in Gaza to help “alleviate the suffering of brethren in the Strip,” world opinion is left wondering whether his stated motive is his sole one, or whether other considerations lie behind the gesture. He will be spending $31.6 million from his nation’s purse to cover the salaries of some 50,000 Hamas-hired civil servants, many of whom have not seen regular pay packages since 2013.

        But why have they not? One might legitimately ask what happens to the literally billions of official development assistance dollars poured into Hamas’s coffers every year.

          Qatar is politically close to Hamas. In January 2016 Qatar handed over some 1,060 housing units to Gazan families who had lost their homes during recent wars. These homes marked the completion of the first of three phases of a multi-million dollar redevelopment effort Qatar pledged to fund in 2012. In addition to infrastructure facilities, roads and green spaces, it includes two schools, a health centre, a commercial center, a mosque and a six-floor hospital.

        “There’s much more than money involved with Qatar’s offer,” said Patrick Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It draws in many of the region’s disputes and rivalries under one roof.”

          Take the oft-proposed joint Palestinian municipal elections, now scheduled for October 2016 with Hamas finally agreeing to participate. Qatar’s substantial investment into Gaza at this time will undoubtedly boost Hamas’s popularity with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. It will also add to the concerns of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas about the likely result of the vote.

          And yet Israel has apparently raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. Back in June 2015 Mohammad al-Emadi, a Qatari official, travelled between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects in Gaza despite the fact that Qatar does not recognize Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

          "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's military intelligence, described Israel's agreement to Qatar channelling its aid through Hamas.

          Perhaps Israel believes that permitting aid from Qatar could help undercut Iran’s influence in Gaza. For Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have come to realize how much their strategic interests overlap with those of Israel when it comes to the security of the region. The increasing power and influence of Iran dismays them all. Iran has been a main source of funding to Hamas for decades.

          Qatar is currently considered anti-Israel root and branch. It was not always so. In fact Qatar was the first Gulf sheikhdom to have had official relations with Israel – the two countries opened trade links in 1996 – and, as a matter of interest, when Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup it declared that, although it does not recognize Israel, it would not object to Israel competing in the tournament if it qualifies.

          But now the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) component has entered the picture. On August 4, a meeting in Tunis hosted by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a body funded by Qatar, was devoted to reviewing how BDS’s attempts to organize a global boycott against Israel could be made even more effective. This, it might be supposed, would be entirely to the delight of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, for after all the BDS movement was founded by a Palestinian – Omar Baghouti – and he still leads it.

          But no. On June 10, 2016 the following statement was sprung on a startled world:

          “The Palestinian BDS National Committee, which includes the widest spectrum of Palestinians worldwide, will not participate in this conference – and does not recommend any participation.”

          In other words, they advocated boycotting the boycott meeting.

          Even more surprising, perhaps, is the first of the reasons given, namely that the Arab Centre and the conference, are sponsored by the Qatari government. “which always stood against BDS, and has normal relations with Israel.”

          No justification was offered for either breath-taking pronouncement. A schism seems to have opened up within BDS.

          As regards the charge often levelled against Qatar of supporting terrorist organisations, there is ample evidence that those strongholds of Wahhabist Islam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, did sustain, both financially and logistically, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in its early days, as well as its extremist precursors. In August 2015 US Vice-President Joe Biden spelled out what motivated Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

          “They were so determined to take down Assad …they poured … thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world."

          But when IS vowed to topple both the Qatari and the Saudi regimes, the penny dropped and both states allied themselves to the US-led coalition aimed at defeating IS.

          The Emir of Qatar has insisted that his country does not fund terrorism, adding the troubling caveat that Qatar and the West might disagree over what precisely constitutes a terrorist movement. On current evidence he would include IS, but exclude Hamas – a fine distinction most of the world would not acknowledge. But then, Qatar is a stand-alone state.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 August 2016

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 August 2016:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The controversial Mohammed Dahlan

          For years rumours of plots and counterplots have eddied around the controversial figure of Mohammed Dahlan, the charismatic Palestinian politician whom PA President Mahmoud Abbas regards as his greatest enemy, and who might very well eventually succeed him.

          If anything the situation has grown worse in the past few weeks. For example, Dahlan’s name is being associated with the recent attempted coup in Turkey against the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – an assumption, incidentally, that runs counter to the theory that the coup was actually orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a devious method to justify purging his political opponents and acquiring the autocratic powers he seeks for the presidency.

          The evidence that links Dahlan to this plot is circumstantial, but back in January 2016 the Turkish paper Gercek Hayat actually reported that Dahlan was supervising a multinational plan to conduct a coup against Erdogan, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed by Russia and Iran.

          And then, on the Turkish side, media reports on July 27 indicated that Turkey is looking into the role, if any, played by Dahlan in the coup attempt. A leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ahmet Varol, claimed that Dahlan had close links with followers of Erdogan's arch-foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused by the Turkish authorities of master-minding the coup. The AKP leader admitted there was no hard evidence of Dahlan’s involvement, but asserted that the investigation was on-going and “we will not hesitate to punish and hold accountable those who were involved in harming our country".

          Whether or not Dahlan’s fingers were in this particular pie, there is no doubt that his international influence extends far and wide. Dahlan has lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for many years, and is an adviser to Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He has been described as a "friend" of both the Montenegrin and Serbian prime ministers, Milo Djukanovic and Aleksandar Vucic. In 2010 Dahlan and his wife obtained Montenegrin citizenship, Djukanovic describing him in parliament as a friend responsible for building bridges with Abu Dhabi’s royal family resulting in significant investment in the country. Then, in 2013, Dahlan obtained Serbian citizenship, having reportedly promised Serbia millions of dollars in investments from the UAE.

          A view widely held in Palestinian political circles is that Dahlan’s involvement in foreign affairs is part of a strategy designed to strengthen his status as the obvious successor to PA President Abbas. According to Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, “Dahlan may have better chances at accessing high Palestinian positions than others. This is considering Israel’s [relative] satisfaction with him and his special ties with the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Syrian opposition. The international relations that a Palestinian official has may allow him to climb to rungs of the leadership ladder.”

          The editor of Jordan’s Al-Mustaqabal, Shaker al-Jawhari, believes Dahlan has the support of a wide range of regional actors. “His influence has even reached Lebanon and Europe, thanks to the funds he is distributing to his supporters there. This makes him a strong and real competitor to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].”

          The Middle East Eye website gives credence to the rumour of yet another plot centered on Dahlan. It asserts that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have been liaising in a plan for Dahlan to be next head of the Palestinian Authority, and maintains that Hamas is prepared to put aside its long history of hostility to Dahlan (when he was head of security in Gaza in 1995-2000, he had hundreds of Hamas members arrested for undertaking armed operations against Israel). The planned post-Mahmoud Abbas era would leave Dahlan, his arch-rival, in control of the Palestinian presidency, the PLO and the PA. It was reported that the UAE had held talks with Israel about the strategy to install Dahlan, and that the three principals would inform Saudi Arabia once they reached an agreement on its final shape.

          On June 24 Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, held a press conference in his hotel in Doha. "There is a regional plot,” he announced, “to parachute someone from the outside to rule Gaza and Ramallah.” The journalists present understood that he was referring to Mohammed Dahlan. Ever since Avigdor Liberman was appointed Israel's new defense minister on May 30, rumours had been spreading about the plan – or is it conspiracy? – to have Dahlan anointed as Palestine's next leader.

          According to Palestinian and Israeli sources, in January 2015, Liberman, who was then serving as the foreign minister, secretly met with Dahlan in Paris to discuss "Palestinian Authority affairs." The mere suggestion of a Liberman-Dahlan accord — whether true or not — is enough to stigmatize Dahlan and provide his rivals with much ammunition, which they have not hesitated to use.

          In Gaza Dahlan's relations with Hamas have improved remarkably, thanks to the close ties he has fostered with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The leaders of the Gaza-based movement had hoped that Dahlan would help them mend fences with Sisi. They also welcomed the infusion of money from the Dahlan Foundation in the Gaza Strip aimed at promoting projects and helping the needy. Hamas leaders in Gaza cannot afford to reject generous financial aid, even if Dahlan is the sponsor. It is obvious that these national projects bolster and cement his chances of achieving the leadership of the Palestinian political machine.

          Dahlan’s toughest obstacle is the Fatah establishment. In June 2011 Dahlan was expelled from Fatah’s ruling body following allegations of financial corruption and murder – Abbas accused him of murdering the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Dahlan was tried by the PA in absentia on corruption charges.

          But Dahlan now has support from a new Fatah leadership commission, which appears to be diverging radically from established Fatah antagonism to him. On July 25 senior Fatah leaders in Gaza were reported to have accused the new commission of taking decisions in favour of Dahlan that reinforces his grip on the movement against Mahmoud Abbas. In a letter sent to Abbas, they dubbed this a kind of insurgency, and warned of the “full collapse” of the organisational frame of Fatah that started when the current leadership commission took office. The Fatah leaders who wrote the letter accused the commission of connection with outside powers and serving external agendas.

          Do Dahlan’s strengths overcome his weaknesses in this bid to succeed Abbas – if indeed it is, as rumour has it, a serious bid backed by formidable outside interests? The forthcoming regional elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza may provide a valuable indication of Dahlan's political future.

Published in the Jerussalem Post on-line, 9 August 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 August 2016: