Sunday, 15 January 2017

Unpicking UN resolution 2334


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

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

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

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

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 The “Palestine” that the world had recognized until 1948 had been superseded by the UN General Assembly’s vote to partition it into a Jewish state and an Arab state.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 January 2016
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Unpicking-UN-Resolution-2334-478490

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 January 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/16012017-unpicking-un-resolution-2334-oped/

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

Sunday, 8 January 2017

UN Resolution 2334 – misgivings and second thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

                    

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Flaws at the heart of Kerry's blueprint


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Egyptian-Israeli relations - signs of a thaw?

                                               

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Obama, Trump and the Middle East

                                                               

        Where the Middle East is concerned - as in so many areas of policy, both domestic and foreign - President Obama and President-elect Trump are poles apart. 

        It is only slowly, but with growing clarity over the eight years of his presidency, that the political assumptions underlying Obama’s Middle East policy, and the strategic objectives shaped by them, have emerged.

        Obama made no secret of the fact that he came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength and its political record, and that he believed much was wrong with his country. His apology tour began on April 3, 2009 in Strasbourg. Throughout the nation’s existence, he said, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”. So, based on this reading of America’s past, some claim that he set about reducing the strength and authority of the US.

        His mention of Iran at that early stage is significant. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar puts it, has been transforming US-Iranian relations.

        Ungar traces this policy back to the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. The great struggle of the time was against al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist terror organization that had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and was then totally disrupting American attempts to reconstruct Iraq. Baker and Hamilton dreamed up the notion of fostering a working relationship between America and the two major Shia powers, Iran and Syria, and then to encourage them to fight al-Qaeda in pursuit of their own objectives, thus incidentally assisting America’s struggle.

        Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what has been behind Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major concessions on the nuclear issue. When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But, some political analysts now believe, it was in fact working to a different and secret agenda based on the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations.

        During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict. In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants.

       “The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”

        By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. In consequence the US had lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.

        Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

        So much for the assumptions and vain hopes of the Iraq Study Group, and for the policy of appeasement. Taking every concession offered in the nuclear deal talks, and subsequently reneging in several vital respects on the final agreement, Iran’s leaders have not budged an inch on their ultimate ambitions, namely to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East, to sweep aside all Western-style democracies, and to impose their own Shi’ite version of Islam on the whole world.

        Two months after his Strasbourg speech, Obama chose Cairo University as the venue from which to address the Muslim world. Once again self-flagellation was the order of the day. Based perhaps on the Muslim influences of his father’s family and his own childhood in Indonesia, he spoke of past "colonialism" and the cold-war use of Muslim nations as "proxies". He recognised past “humiliation”, and spoke of future "dignity" and "justice". In a long passage on Israel-Palestine, Obama spoke of "Palestine", not a "future Palestinian state."

        Although he condemned Muslim antisemitism and Holocaust denial as "baseless … ignorant …hateful", condemned the terrorist methods employed against Israel by Hamas, and urged the Muslim and Arab world to embrace democracy and women's rights, he was, in effect, attempting to put the US-Muslim relationship on a new footing. His tragedy is that for the rest of his presidency he chose the wrong methods and the wrong partners for this bold enterprise. His reluctance to deploy effective military action when it was clearly demanded – as in Syria, when Assad indiscriminately deployed chemical weapons, regardless of the effect on his own civilian population – and his backing of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, both sworn enemies of what might be termed “the stable Sunni world”, undermined America’s standing to an unprecedented degree.

        Into the power vacuum swept Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, eager to enhance his influence on the world stage, to regain the USSR’s clout in the Middle East, and to bolster Russia’s interests in Syria, a long-time ally.

        US President-elect Trump, a great admirer of Putin, has no time for “reducing America’s power” (quite the reverse), or Iran, or the nuclear deal that was a keystone of Obama’s administration. Whether he can “tear it up”, in his own words, is debatable, but he can certainly ensure that the Iranian regime observes the terms of the agreement meticulously – negligence in this area is something the Obama administration has been criticised for.

        Trump admires Putin, and hopes to forge a new understanding between the US and Russia. Putin admires Trump, and is highly unlikely to allow his working alliance with Iran to stand in the way of consolidating Russia’s new powerful position in the Middle East with the backing of the USA. 


        An old Chinese curse is said to run: “May you live in interesting times.” Curse or blessing, interesting times is what the future seems to hold in store. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 December 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Obama-Trump-and-the-Middle-East-475016

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 December 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/12122016-obama-trump-and-the-middle-east-oped/ 

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 December 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/12/13/obama-trump-and-the-middle-east/                                     

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Reconfiguring Arab-Western relations

                                                                             
      


Exactly five hundred years ago, in 1516, the renowned English statesman and social philosopher Sir Thomas More published “Utopia”, a novel in which he pictured an imaginary island where a totally just government had created the perfect society. More, however, was under no illusion that paradise is attainable in this wicked world – which is why the two Greek words from which “Utopia” is constructed translate as “nowhere.”

        In the real world, where imperfect societies abound, it is certainly incumbent on everyone to strive to eliminate injustice and improve life for humanity in general. But it is also necessary to recognize who your friends are – imperfect though they may be – and which are the malign forces that seek global power and domination.

        On December 6, 2016 Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to Bahrain to meet members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gathered in the capital, Manama, for the organization’s 37th summit. The GCC, established in 1981, consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and comprises around 15 percent of the Arab world.

        Individually the member states of the GCC are far from Utopia – some further than others. But collectively, and with certain reservations, they are friends of the West. Assuredly none seeks regional hegemony or world domination. Nonetheless when Theresa May’s visit was announced it aroused a storm of protest both within the UK and beyond.

        Iran’s propaganda medium, PressTV, broadcasting in English around the clock, was quick to publicise the objections of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a UK-based hard-line Khomeneist non-governmental organisation. Earlier in 2016 this group bestowed their ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ award to the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo. At their awards ceremony the IHRC joked about what a shame it was that none of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were around to collect it.

        It is not likely, therefore, that Mrs May took much notice of the letter that arrived at 10 Downing Street, urging her to cancel her projected meeting with GCC Arab monarchies because it “shows a glaring disregard for human rights and also a dangerous message of approval to the leaders of GCC regimes who continue to perpetrate human rights abuses against their own and other citizens.”

        It is no surprise that the IHRC took a swipe also at Saudi Arabia for the military coalition it is leading in Yemen, where it is countering the efforts of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow the legitimate government. The Saudi effort is backed by the US and the UK. Also roundly condemned by the IHRC was Britain’s continued support for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by way of weapons and intelligence.

        The IHRC is playing the long-established game of using the tools of democracy to destabilise democracy itself. Amnesty International (AI) is a non-governmental organization founded in the UK in 1961 whose self-assigned purpose is to draw attention to human rights abuses, and to mobilise public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place. It is therefore to be expected that AI puts under scrutiny the value and independence of two UK-supported human rights institutions set up in Bahrain. The bodies, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, and the special investigations unit within the public prosecution, were established in 2012 following a fierce crackdown by the Bahraini government on protests the previous year.

        Whereas the British Foreign Office believes the two institutions show the government in Manama is willing to respond to western pressure, and the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons in January 2015 that Bahrain was “a country which is travelling in the right direction”, AI’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “It was a welcome move when Bahrain set up these two bodies back in 2012, but it’s utterly disingenuous of the UK government to pretend they’re delivering substantial human rights reform in Bahrain. Instead of acting as overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms, UK ministers ought to be confronting the awkward reality that these UK-backed institutions are seriously flawed and widely seen as a PR tool of the Bahraini government.”

        Amnesty International is fulfilling its self-imposed remit by pressing Bahrain to improve human rights within the kingdom. It can do nothing about an outside pressure group like the IHRC, with its strong Iranian links, jumping on the bandwagon for its own, less savoury, purposes.

        An important aspect of Theresa May’s visit to the Gulf has been to rebuild relations with the Middle East, following the truly disastrous results of the Obama administration’s policies in the region. Obama began his presidency by trying to reassure the Muslim world of America’s respect for Islam and his intention to avoid its past “colonialist” interference. He ended by having empowered the Arab world’s greatest enemy, Iran, through the deal that ensures that Iran will become a nuclear power within 10-15 years. He consistently supported the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. His refusal to engage wholeheartedly against the enemies of stability in the Middle East, such as President Assad of Syria and Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, left a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to fill. As a result confidence in, not to say respect for, the USA has been severely shaken in the Arab world.

        As regards the UK, the Gulf states, always strongly Anglophile, found their sympathies severely strained by the British government’s support for the Iran deal. If in the future Theresa May takes a more hardline approach towards Iran, she would ease this tension – and indeed she is likely to do so, if only to align British foreign policy with that of President-elect Trump.

        With foreign policy hawks such as General Mike Flynn, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, occupying senior posts in the next administration, the Iran deal – or at least the way it is currently being administered – is unlikely to survive. Amending the Iran deal, or at least imposing rigorous compliance with its terms on Iran, would help Washington repair relations with traditional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Israel, alienated by Obama’s pro-Iranian policies. 


        It seems pretty certain that a reconfiguration of relations between the West and the Arab world is in the offing. Utopia it will not be, but it may result in a more harmonious and balanced situation in which friends are supported, and malign forces are opposed not appeased.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 December 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Reconfiguring-Arab-Western-relations-474467

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 December 2016 as
"Reconfiguring Orient-Occident Relations":
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/12/06/reconfiguring-orient-occident-relations/

Friday, 25 November 2016

A Trump-Putin axis?

                                                                                   
        US President-elect Donald Trump admires Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. That much became clear during Trump’s presidential campaign, as did his intention when in office to repair the US’s damaged relations with the Russian Federation. At the moment the US and Russia, although both nominally combatting Islamic State (IS) in the Syrian civil war, are so far from allies that they are very nearly belligerents. 

        In September 2014 the Obama administration brought together a coalition of countries to undertake a twin-objective military effort in Syria: to defeat the rampant IS that had seized large swathes of the country, and to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, establishing democratic governance in his stead. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

        Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces provided by Iran’s puppet, Hezbollah, and in addition, since autumn 2015, by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up. But although IS was nominally in Russia’s sights from the start, estimates are that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have been targeting it. Russia’s powerful air support, to say nothing of the Kalibir NK cruise missiles first fired on Aleppo from the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich on 15 November, has been directed primarily against the FSA.

        So Russia has been battering the FSA while the US-led coalition has been supporting it. In short, Russia and the US are virtually at war with each other in Syria, albeit by proxy. Trump wants to stop that proxy contest turning into a full-scale conflict.

        The long-standing US position has been that to end Syria’s complex and multisided struggle, Assad must be removed from power and democratic elections take place. Trump takes a different stance. Hard-line Sunni Islamist elements are known to be present within the ranks of the FSA, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on November 11, Trump cast doubt on its democratic credentials. “We’re backing rebels against Syria,” he said, “and we have no idea who those people are.” Moreover, while he “did not like [Assad] at all”, he judged that shoring up his regime was the best way to stem the extremism that has flourished in the chaos of the civil war and threatens US domestic security.

        Taking his position to its logical conclusion, he said that since Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, if the US goes on attacking Assad, “we end up fighting Russia.”

        This is an essentially pragmatic line to adopt. It acknowledges that the result of President Obama’s weak-kneed policies in the Middle East was to leave a power vacuum that Putin was quick to fill. Trump admires Putin for his diplomatic and military boldness, and seems prepared to allow Putin to enjoy the fruits of his adventurism.

       Putin’s Syrian adventure was partly an effort to counter the sanctions and diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers that followed his annexation of Crimea and subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine. By bulldozing his way to influence and power in the Middle East, Putin has gained a position in which the West simply has to take account of him. Putting aside any personal admiration for the man’s audacity, Trump is actually bowing to the inevitable.

        Putin’s multi-faceted Syrian initiative kills several birds with one stone. In sustaining Assad in power he is safeguarding Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost among these is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, about to become “a fully-fledged overseas base of the Russian Navy” according to an announcement on 21 November 2016. Putin is also protecting the strategic centre of Russia's military operations in Syria – the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia – to say nothing of billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

        There are also domestic security issues at stake, with which Trump can empathise. Russia is combatting an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and the last thing Putin wants is for young impressionable Muslims, inspired by further Islamist successes in Syria, to join its ranks.

        But there is an apparent circle to be squared. Russia counts Iran as a close ally in its efforts to shore up the Assad regime. Trump is a harsh critic of Iran and the nuclear agreement (“the stupidest deal of all time”), and while on the campaign trail advocated either renegotiating it or “tearing it up”. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, voted against the nuclear deal in the Senate, while Congressman Mike Pompeo, selected by Trump to be CIA director. has investigated the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with Tehran. In short, a US accommodation with Putin under President Trump is unlikely to incorporate a love-in with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – a situation much to the liking of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which regard Iran as their worst enemy, and Obama’s consistent appeasement of its leaders as a disaster.

        A continued stand-off between Trump’s America and Iran is not likely to concern Putin overmuch. While providing Iran with billions of dollars-worth of military hardware, Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention of eliminating Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field. Moreover Putin has met Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, no less than five times in the past year. He seems very nearly as strong a supporter of Israel as Trump claims to be. 


        An agreed US-Russian end to the Syrian conflict, a combined victory over IS, a concerted effort to support a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, renewed confidence in America from the Arab world – given the complex factors at play on the Middle East board-game, a future Trump-Putin understanding might do much more for global security than Obama’s “hands-off” policies ever achieved.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 November 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/A-Trump-Putin-axis-473548

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28112016-a-trump-putin-axis-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/11/29/a-trump-putin-axis/

Friday, 18 November 2016

UK split over the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia

        Britain’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee is at daggers drawn with Britain’s Foreign Office. That is to say, the Members of Parliament who form the influential Select Committee that monitors foreign affairs have taken up cudgels against the government department, headed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, responsible for formulating and implementing UK foreign policy.

        The spat is all over how Britain should relate to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was sparked by a review, commissioned by the government in April 2014 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to examine whether the Muslim Brotherhood put British national security at risk. The report was issued in December 2015.

        In accepting its conclusions, Britain’s then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: "Parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism. Both as an ideology and as a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism. The main findings of the review support the conclusion that membership of, association with, or influence by the Muslim Brotherhood should be considered as a possible indicator of extremism."

        Three months later the Foreign Affairs committee announced its intention to inquire into ‘political Islam’, its characteristics, and “how well the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has understood and engaged with ‘political-Islamist’ groups.” The very terms of its self-formulated remit indicated a clash of opinion, even before the committee had begun its work. After nine months gestation, the committee gave birth to a report which thoroughly castigated the FCO review. It was particularly scathing about the appointment to lead the review of Sir John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, which has proscribed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

        "Notwithstanding his knowledge, experience, and professional integrity, Sir John Jenkins's concurrent service as UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia made his appointment to lead the Muslim Brotherhood Review misguided. It created the impression that a foreign state, which was an interested party, had a private window into the conduct of a UK Government inquiry…This has undermined confidence in the impartiality of the FCO's work on such an important and contentious subject.”

        Some, however, might characterize this particular criticism as the pot calling the kettle black. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is Crispin Blunt – “a Muslim Brotherhood-oriented man,” according to Dalia Youssef, a member of Egypt’s parliament. 


        "Blunt was here in Egypt in 2013,” said Youssef, “and he decided to join the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa El-Adaweya in Cairo. Blunt stayed in Rabaa for four days, eating and drinking and living the Muslim Brotherhood experience without shame and without reviewing their radical speeches delivered throughout the day."

        What lies at the heart of the clash of opinion inside the British establishment about the Muslim Brotherhood? Liberal/left wing sentiment opposes Egypt’s counter-revolution of 2013, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which overthrew the unpopular but democratically elected Brotherhood and its president, Mohamed Morsi. It is prepared to take the Brotherhood at its word that it is a populist movement fully engaged in the democratic process, and overlook or downgrade the deeper religio-political agenda that underlies its operations.

        The Foreign Affairs Committee report contends that “the need to appeal to a broad range of the electorate in order to win elections, and the need to work with other political perspectives in order to govern effectively, will serve to encourage Islamist groups to adopt a more pragmatic ideology, and an increasingly flexible interpretation of their Islamic references.”

        Others may maintain that views like these are a triumph of hope over experience. For the evidence of the Brotherhood’s active involvement in terrorism is overwhelming. It is set out in some detail in the Bill submitted by US Senator Ted Cruz in November 2015, requiring the Secretary of State to report to Congress on designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization.

        The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in 1928, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Its operating philosophy is that the end – the establishment of a world-wide caliphate – justifies the means, and the means can extend from involvement in democracy and social welfare, to militancy, jihad and terrorism, as expediency requires. Its founding belief, as expounded by al-Banna, is that: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

        In the UK, liberal-left wing suspicion of Saudi Arabia extends well beyond the Muslim Brotherhood issue. In September 2016 the four parliamentary committees that make up the Committees on Arms Export Control were due to publish a report into British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. In the event the four could not agree on a proposal, backed by two of them, to condemn Saudi Arabia for civilian casualties caused in Yemen’s civil war, and to cease all exports of British defense equipment to Saudi until the conclusion of a UN investigation. As a result the Foreign Affairs Committee released its own findings, and the Defence Committee opted out altogether.

        The International Development and the Business Committees, however, published a joint report calling for the government to cease exports of all weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the conflict with rebel forces in Yemen until a yet-to-be set up independent international investigation reports on claims that civilian targets such as hospitals and schools were bombed in violation of humanitarian law.

        The report makes no mention of Saudi’s own investigation into failings in their chain of command structure that led to the loss of innocent life. Nor does it refer to war crimes committed by the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers who together have plunged the country into bitter conflict. It fails, also, to mention that the Saudis, putting aside their differences with Turkey and Qatar – both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – established a coalition of Sunni Arab states which, with the backing of the US and Britain, seeks to prevent Shia Iran from seizing control of Yemen.

        Government reaction was swift. Four ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, issued a robust joint statement pledging to continue British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, regardless. Perhaps Brexit (to say nothing of Trump’s triumph) foreshadows a less spineless approach by the British establishment to all-too-pervasive political correctness.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 November 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/UK-split-over-the-Muslim-Brotherhood-and-Saudi-Arabia-473027

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 November 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28112016-uk-split-over-muslim-brotherhood-and-saudi-arabia-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 November 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/11/29/uk-split-over-the-muslim-brotherhood-and-saudi-arabia/

Friday, 28 October 2016

To hell with the truth!

                                                                         

                                          To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything.
                                              – Eugene O’Neill: “The Iceman Cometh”

          Opinions and wishful thinking are not the same as provable facts. It is one thing, for example, to believe fervently that Marxism is a preferable system to capitalism, but to maintain against all the evidence that the world is a flat disc floating in space is surely unsustainable. Yet the Flat Earth Society flourishes, even in 2016. Discounting all the scientific evidence to the contrary, there are people who have convinced themselves that the world is not a globe spinning in space. As the ancient proverb has it: "There are none so blind as those who will not see. The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.”

          And so, for example, there are large numbers of people who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, choosing to ignore the overwhelming weight of historical evidence, the testimony of thousands of witnesses and participants, and the tons of documents, photographs and film footage. They can maintain this even in the face of the evidence of such Nazi officials as SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Hoess, given at his trial in Nuremberg in 1946:

          “I commanded Auschwitz [from 1 May 1940] until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning. …victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens, mostly Jewish, from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944."

          Rational people do not normally turn their backs on indisputable evidence, unless they are moved by some even stronger motive. Holocaust deniers are either apologists for Hitler’s Nazi regime, or have a strong antipathy to Jews, or both. What then of the 24 nations that voted on October 13, 2016 in favor of a resolution of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that denies the incontrovertible Jewish connection to its most holy religious sites, namely the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Jerusalem?

          A world body with UNESCO’s remit might be expected to assert that Jerusalem contains sites variously holy to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Instead, giving one token nod in that direction, it has voted to eradicate all Jewish connections to its holy places, and by extension Christianity’s too. The latest resolution describes the Temple Mount and the Western Wall as purely Islamic holy places, referring to them solely by their Muslim names of Al-Haram Al-Sharif and the Buraq Wall.

          It is an historical, geographical, archaeological and biblical fact that the first Jewish Temple stood on the Mount in about 900 BCE, and that the second Temple – built in 349 BCE and extensively reconstructed by Herod in the first century BCE – was totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as they crushed a revolt of the Jewish population, leaving only the outer wall surrounding the Mount. The Arch of Titus in Rome commemorates the victory, and bas-reliefs show Roman soldiers making off with Jewish religious artefacts from the Temple.

          As for the Christian connection, the Temple features in one of the iconic incidents in Christ’s story: “Jesus went into the Temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers,,,” (Matthew 21:12).

          Islam dates its origins from the death of Mohammed some 600 years after the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque were built several decades after that.

          In addition to the 24 nations that supported the UNESCO motion, political expediency clearly outweighed respect for the truth for a further 26 nations, which chose to abstain rather than vote against an obvious distortion of historical fact. The resolution had been sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan – all Arab nations intent on delegitimizing Israel as far as they could. The 26 simply lacked the moral courage to oppose them.

          Only 6 countries out of the 56 voting were principled enough to put plain truth before political expediency and vote against the resolution. They should be named: the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia.

          Also on the roll of honour arising from this episode stand the names of the retiring UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and UNESCO’s own director-general, Irina Bokova. Ban’s spokesperson said: “The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls have an undeniable link to three religions: Christian, Jewish, Muslim… Anything that is perceived as an undertaking to repudiate that fact … will only feed violence and radicalism.”

          Bokova disavowed the resolution passed by her own organization. It “runs counter to the reasons that justified [Jerusalem’s] inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” she said. “We have a collective responsibility to strengthen cultural and religious coexistence… to bridge the divisions that harm the multi-faith character of the Old City.”


          “Not a peep from the Pope” ran a catchy headline to a recent commentary on the UNESCO vote, noting that initially the Vatican had remained rather alarmingly silent, as if efforts to Islamicize Jerusalem did not also impinge directly on Christian history and religious interests. Finally on October 26 Pope Francis, in the midst of an address about migration, gave utterance to a typically opaque Vatican remark: “The people of Israel…walked through the desert for forty years until they reached the land promised by God” – a statement which, in the context of the UNESCO vote, could be taken as an endorsement of the Jewish God-given connection to the Holy Land.


          It is not only the Pope
who has failed to defend Christianity in the face of this UNESCO assault on historic fact and religious belief. Protestant leaders world-wide have said very little. It is incumbent on them, on the Vatican, and on national leaders the world over to speak out for truth and in support of the Judeo-Christian foundations on which Western civilization is based.

          In short, let it be said loud and clear that Jerusalem is a city containing sites revered by three world religions whose claims on them need to be respected, not deliberately obliterated in the interests of political point-scoring.

          “To hell with the truth!” is all very well as a realpolitik philosophy. But turning one’s back on the truth does not make it go away. As Shakespeare so succinctly puts it: “Truth will out!”


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/To-hell-with-the-truth-471099

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 October 2016 as
"UNESCO and to Hell with the Truth!":
http://www.eurasiareview.com/31102016-unesco-and-to-hell-with-the-truth-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 30 October 2016:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/10/30/to-hell-with-the-truth/

Monday, 24 October 2016

Attenders and non-attenders at the Peres funeral

                                                                     

          A glance at the list of distinguished individuals who flocked to Israel at very short notice to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres on September 30, 2016 reveals several surprises, some in respect of those who came, and some of those who did not.

          The USA contingent, for example was described by one journal as “an insanely long list”. It consisted of no less than 32 people. The presence of the President, ex-President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, was appropriate and to be expected. The party, however, included no less than 19 members of Congress and a slew of Special Assistants, Assistants and Advisers.

          Among the 80 attendees, one noteworthy figure was Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, accompanied by a delegation of senior Palestinian officials. Abbas may have anticipated something of a political backlash from Hamas for his provocative initiative, but he must have been shocked at the vehemence of the attack from more extreme elements within his own party, Fatah.

          In denouncing Abbas, Hamas declared: “We condemn Abbas’s condolences for Shimon Peres, and consider it disregards the blood of the martyrs and the suffering of the Palestinian people.” On the day of the funeral people took to the streets in Gaza to attack Abbas for taking part, while the leadership of Fatah's student wing, the Shabiba movement, also condemned Abbas’s participation.

          That same day Osama Mansour, the director of public relations at the PA military liaison office, posted a Facebook message calling on Abbas not to attend. Next day he was arrested by PA military intelligence. On October 12 the Ramallah military court sentenced Mansour to a year’s imprisonment – though a few hours later Abbas pardoned him, but demanded his resignation.

          On October 4 clashes broke out in Ramallah between Palestinian security members participating in a Fatah march in support of Abbas, and members of a youth march opposed to Abbas's attendance. Khalida Jarrar, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said, “The attack on a peaceful march…is part of an attempt to muzzle and terrorize the people and prevent peaceful protests.” The attack, she maintained, showed that the PA and its security services failed to understand the resentment felt by those who opposed the president’s participation in Peres's funeral.

          Political author and analyst Khalil Shaheen did not mince his words. “Peres is a war criminal, and despite that, Abbas attended his funeral. This is while the PA claims that it wants Israeli war criminals to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. It makes the PA discourse unconvincing for the Palestinian public opinion.”

          In the final analysis Abbas and his delegation were indeed present at the funeral, but they were the sole Palestinian representation. The 13 Joint List members of the Knesset (MKs), the parliamentary representatives of Arabs domiciled in Israel, decided not to attend – a decision that generated just as much fervent opposition within Israel as Abbas’s did in the occupied territories.

          On the day before the funeral Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh announced in a radio interview that the party did not intend to issue an official statement of condolence on the passing of Shimon Peres. “Peres’s memory in the Arab community is different from the narrative of the past few days,” he asserted, adding that Peres’s funeral was part of a “national day of mourning in which I have no place.”

          Odeh’s statements, and the abstention from the funeral by Joint List members, drew criticism from across Israeli society, Arab and Jewish. In a poll of Arab opinion 59% of respondents claimed they were "upset" with the Joint List's position; among a group of 20 Arab mayors who came to the Peres Center for Peace to pay their respects, some said they were "furious with the Joint List's decision"; others claimed their visit "was not a criticism" of the Arab politicians, though it was scarcely an endorsement.

          Professor Riyad Agbariya, a well-known Arab academic, said: "Odeh's behavior is wrecking the bridges with Jewish society" and called on the Arab MKs in the Joint List "to resign from the Knesset or to re-learn what politics means".

         The absence from the funeral of certain other dignitaries from the Arab world aroused little or no comment, but are noteworthy nonetheless. For example. neither Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi nor King Abdullah of Jordan - countries with which Israel is at peace - were present. According to Zvi Mazel, a former Israel ambassador, if either had attended it would have been an open acknowledgement of their growing covert security and intelligence cooperation, and even greater economic exchanges, with Israel. Neither, he asserted, dared do so, because it might also have put at risk the developing momentum in favor of a “regional solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

          The case for this approach was put with conviction by Yair Lapid, leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, in a newspaper article in June 2015. “The only way to achieve the two-state solution,” he wrote, “…is to give up on direct talks.,, We should turn to the Arab League … to create a regional summit under the auspices of the United States, so we can conduct regional dialogue leading to an agreement.

          “The Israelis and the Palestinians cannot just sit together and find a solution…In the internal Palestinian dialogue, compromise is treason. The punishment is death. They can’t admit that publicly because it will contradict years of propaganda intended to present Israel as the sole refuser of peace." Arab states that seek to maintain the status quo like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are “forces that we can and need to work with. Those countries lead the Arab League. The Palestinian Authority, which fears the rise of Hamas, sees itself as part of them. We can and we should speak to the Arab League. The opening point for these discussions should be a regional summit.”

          If a future accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians turns on the absence of Egypt and Jordan from Shimon Peres’s funeral, that would be a price worth paying – a sentiment that Shimon Peres himself would surely have endorsed.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 October 2016:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Attenders-and-non-attenders-at-the-Peres-funeral-470704

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 October 2016:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24102016-attenders-and-non-attenders-at-the-peres-funeral-oped/