Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Can Lebanon ever rid itself of Hezbollah?

          In about 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Hezbollah descended like an incubus­ on Lebanon’s body politic, fastening itself onto a sleeping victim. Subsequently, while it has been taking its pleasure from its unhappy prey, all attempts to shake it off have failed.

          Hezbollah is a creature of the Iranian Islamic revolution. It drew its inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei. Its aims were to resist Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 killing 63 people, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

          It managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s governance because of the very particular nature of the country’s constitution.

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

          Modern Lebanon, founded in 1944, was established on the basis of an agreed "National Pact". Political power is allocated on a religious or "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.

          Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society and prevent one group from lording it over the others. But in practice, having a weak central government and sharing power has proved a constant irritant. Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades. Moreover a small country, divided in beliefs and weak by design, was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbour, Syria.

          During Lebanon’s civil war, which began in 1975 sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias, the Syrian army invaded. The end of the war in 1990 did not end Syria’s military occupation. It was only the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that forced it to withdraw. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but President Bashar al-Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place, partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel.

          Hezbollah duly fulfilled this function for Assad, and for Iran, standing at his back. In the words of award-winning American journalist Michael J Totten, Hezbollah “started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008, Hezbollah and its local allies are virtually in charge of the government.”

          Hezbollah had already achieved a certain acceptability within Lebanon. In the elections which followed Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border, Hezbollah took all 23 South Lebanon seats, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has consistently participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government, and has slowly achieved dominant power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the “March 14 Alliance”.

         Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah. March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Assad, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies Hezbollah, who were widely believed to have carried out the deed. The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s younger son.

          The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces, a demand that leading opinion-formers in Lebanon continue to make. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions.

          Many Lebanese, even those of Shi'ite persuasion, resent the fact that Hezbollah is, at the behest of Iran, fighting Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters (Hezbollah has reportedly been paying the families of its fighters killed in Syria to keep quiet about their relatives' deaths). Many, aware that Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shi’ites are killing each other in Syria. fear that it may be only a matter of time before they stop bothering to cross the border and start killing each other at home.

          Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese journalist and women’s rights activist, nominated as one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women for three years in a row by Arabian Business Magazine. Writing in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar journal on June 21, 2016, she declared:

       “What Lebanon is witnessing today is a hijacking of our national ideas and values. We have allowed Hezbollah to exploit our political system and our people…we cannot let factions within us take over the country. We cannot fight the wars of others. We have had enough of being Assad’s soldiers.”

          The big hope for Lebanon is for Assad to be ousted from the Syrian presidency. If Syria becomes a parliamentary democracy, or if it disintegrates, it will cease to be a permanent threat to Lebanon, while Hezbollah’s puppet-master, Islamist Iran, will have lost a key element from the extremist Shia empire it is attempting to construct. The departure of Assad might provide Lebanon’s élites with the will to break through the inertia that has allowed national politics to stagnate over the past few years (no president, no parliamentary elections), absorb the “state within a state” that is Hezbollah, and muster the energy to put their political house in order.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line. 19 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2016:

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Netanyahu's alliance of the African periphery

          Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had an acute mind and the capacity to think strategically, a capacity demonstrated time and again during his two periods in office. The foreign policy strategy most closely connected with Ben Gurion has become known as the Alliance of the Periphery, or the Periphery Doctrine. This concept called for Israel to develop close strategic alliances with non-Arab Muslim states in order to counteract the then united opposition of Arab states to Israel’s very existence. 

          As long as Arab-Israeli relations remained frozen solid, the Periphery Doctrine retained its appeal. Pursuing it, successive Israeli governments have gone a long way towards achieving normal relations with nations like Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Israel gained the friendship of newly-independent Muslim republics of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, went so far in 2006 as to say: “It is not a crime to have relations with Israel,” a sentiment shared by the President of the newly independent South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit.

          Now Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to be applying a renewed version of the Periphery Doctrine inside continental Africa, by-passing the apparently hopeless case of South Africa. As long as the Israel-Palestine issue remains unresolved, South Africa is more or less a lost cause as far as relations with Israel are concerned. Official and public opinion inside the republic, mindful of South Africa’s long and painful progress to independence, is pretty fully persuaded that the Palestinian narrative closely replicates their own. Israel is cast, in the public consciousness, as brutal Afrikaner colonial overlords; the Palestinians as the downtrodden subject people reduced to second-class citizens in their own country. Prominent South Africans, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, see a direct parallel between the apartheid regime imposed on his country by white supremacists and the situation of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

          I was once guest interviewee on a South African radio program, and was closely questioned about this widely-held perception. Very little of what I described about present-day Israel – Arab participation in the democratic process, Arab members of parliament, Arab holders of prominent positions in public life, the total lack of discrimination in Israel’s hospitals as regards both staff and patients, the disputed status of the West Bank and the fact that Palestinians govern themselves in Areas A and B, how the barrier or wall has reduced terrorist attacks on ordinary citizens – very little of all this impressed my courteous host. The whole interview was conducted on the basis of opinions such as Archbishop Tutu’s that had sunk deep into the public consciousness.

          "In South Africa,” said the Nobel Peace award-winning archbishop in 2014, “we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime. The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel's decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them."

          Also perhaps lodged in the national psyche was the memory of the close ties that Israel had maintained for many years with the pre-independence South African government; less well remembered, perhaps, is the forthright stand that Israel took against apartheid, and the fact that finally Israel imposed sanctions on South Africa in September 1987.

          The last Israeli leader to visit Africa was prime minister Yitzhal Shamir, who made a four-nation tour in 1987. On July 4, 2016 Netanyahu landed in Uganda on a five-day, four-country trip inside the continent, also visiting Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. He was accompanied by approximately 80 businesspeople from over 50 Israeli companies to help forge new commercial ties with African companies and countries.

          In Uganda an official ceremony was held at Entebbe to mark 40 years since the daring raid by Israeli commandos to release hostages held captive by then President Idi Amin. Netanyahu then participated in an Israel-Kenya economic forum along with businessmen from both countries, dealing mainly with questions of agriculture, water resources, communications and homeland security. Later the leaders of seven East African states (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania) sat round a table with Netanyahu to discuss how to enhance cooperation with Israel in cyber defense, energy, agriculture, trade, diplomatic, and related matters. To sweeten the discussion, Netanyahu was able to put on the table a financial assistance package of 50 million shekels ($13 million), approved by the Israeli government the previous week.

          Two immediate positive results flowed from the multilateral conference. The first was the announcement by the prime minister of Tanzania, Kassim Majaliwa, endorsed in writing by President John Magufuli, that Tanzania intends to open an embassy in Israel for the first time. Bilateral ties between Israel and Tanzania were severed following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were re-established in 1995, but Israel still conducts its relations with Tanzania via Nairobi in Kenya.

          The second, and perhaps more important, relates to Israel’s observer status in the African Union. It was in 2002 that Libya and other North African Arab countries ousted Israel, and in recent years South Africa has blocked attempts to get Israel reinstated. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya will work to restore Israel’s observer status in the African Union because “Israel is a critical partner in the battle against terrorism, the most serious challenge facing the world today,” said Kenyatta, adding that it was critical for Africa to re-evaluate its relationship with Israel in order to better enable Africa to deal with its challenges.

          Netanyahu’s remarks at a press conference after the meeting hinted at the broader strategy that lies under this first formal foray by Israel into Africa for decades. The Periphery that Netanyahu has in his sights extends well beyond the East African nations included in this first round. In his words: "I believe in Africa. I believe in your future and I believe in our partnership for this future… We think that Israel now is the best partner that the countries of Africa could have, and it’s something that is dear to our hearts. I believe that this meeting will be seen as a turning point in Israel's ability to reach a broad number of African countries, which is our goal." 

          Nothing could be plainer.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 July 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 July 2016:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Al-Sisi seizes the lead in the peace process


          President Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt is a man of vision. In addition to his ambitions for his own country, there is mounting evidence that he aims to build a positive legacy for himself in the wider Middle East. He seems to have set his sights on promoting not only a new peace-making initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, but a further effort to bridge the apparently irreconcilable differences between the two wings of the Palestinian body politic, Hamas and Fatah.

          It was in a determined counter-attack on the terror-based Islamism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates that Sisi came to power in the middle of 2014. One year of Muslim Brotherhood rule – democratically based though it was – proved more than enough for most Egyptians, who could see the increasingly hardline policies of the ruling party strangling the liberties built into their constitution. So after the coup that deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi, al-Sisi faced the electorate which, albeit without a great deal of enthusiasm, voted him into office.

          It soon became obvious that Sisi’s determined opposition to Islamist extremism at home was no passing phase, but a deeply held conviction, allied to an aspiration to see “genuine Islam” at peace with itself and the rest of the world.

          Only six months into his presidency, Sisi delivered a most astonishing speech for an Arab leader. On January 1, 2015, he visited Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, where he addressed a gathering of Egypt’s religious élite. In his remarks he ventured into an area shunned by most political figures in the West, fearful of being tarred with that most unacceptable of brushes for the politically correct – Islamophobia.

          Religious clerics, he asserted, were venerating a set of ideas that were causing the entire Islamic nation to be a source of anxiety to the rest of the world.

          “That thinking (I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”)…that we have held sacred over the years…is antagonizing the entire world. Is it possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible! We are in need of a religious revolution…because the Islamic nation is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

          In short Sisi was declaring ideological war on jihadism in all its forms – on al-Qaeda, on Islamic State, on Iranian Islamism, on the Muslim Brotherhood, and on all the affiliates and sub-groups of those organizations.

          His initiative did not fall on deaf ears. On April 2, 2015, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, spoke to Muslims worldwide.

          “There is no true religion that does not regard the sanctity of human life as one of its highest values, and Islam is no exception. Indeed, Allah made this unequivocal in the Qur’an. He emphasized the gravity of the universal prohibition against murder, stating that when a person takes even one life, ‘it is as if he has killed all mankind’.”

          Referring to the videos showing decapitations in Sinai and Libya, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, and other horrific acts by jihadists, he said: “These thugs are invoking religious texts to justify their inhumane crimes.” This, he asserted,”is a flagrant misreading of both the letter and spirit of the Islamic tradition... These terrorists are not Muslim activists, but criminals who have been fed a mistaken interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed.

          “We are in an ideological battle… against the terrorist cancer. In this battle, Egypt is defending not only itself, but also humanity against the encroaching danger of extremism.”

          It is against that background that Sisi’s recent initiatives need to be assessed. In his speech to the UN on September 28. 2015, he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, because it would “effectively eliminate one of the most …dangerous pretexts used to justify extremism and terrorism.”

          Sisi’s remarks were no flash in the pan. In hindsight it seems clear that a well-conceived strategic plan was already being rolled out. The plan contemplated even closer cooperation with Israel than was already functioning in the Sinai peninsula, where Egypt and Israel were together combatting a hodge-podge of jihadist groups intent on disrupting Egypt’s administration.

          In March 2016 Sisi nominated former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, often referred to in Arab media as “Israel’s friend,” to head the Arab League. On May 17, in a speech in the southern city of Assiut, Sisi promised Israel warmer ties if it accepts efforts to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. He also said that Egypt was willing to mediate a reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions to pave the way toward a lasting peace accord with the Israelis.

          Then, on June 3, 2016, hours after the conclusion of the French-led peace conference in Paris, Sisi reiterated his support for a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that he believed achieving a peace deal would have a major positive effect on the region.

          “The Palestinian issue has been neglected in recent years… if we solve it, we will all live in a better situation.”

          Official Palestinian and Israeli responses welcoming Sisi’s original statement in May were quick in coming. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appreciated Egyptian efforts to establish a Palestinian state; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was encouraged by the leadership Sisi was displaying. Even Hamas issued a press statement , welcoming the Egyptian statement on Palestinian reconciliation, though ignoring Sisi’s comments on peace with Israel.

          Some Israeli journalists suggested prior coordination between Sisi and the Israeli government over Egypt’s peace initiative, asserting that Israeli and Palestinian officials had been pushing Sisi ahead of the Paris international conference to take the lead as mediator in restarting the peace process. Some pointed to the fact that Israel's response came only 20 minutes after Sisi finished speaking. Also significant, some believe, is that Netanyahu’s pointed rejection of the French international peace conferences had been matched by his positive reaction to Sisi’s initiative.

          Sisi, meanwhile, feels the hand of history heavy on his shoulder. As he said in February, 2016: “If by our combined efforts and real desire, we can all achieve a solution to this problem and find hope for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis, history will write a new page that will be no less and might even be more of an achievement than the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel forty years ago.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 July 2016

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 July 2016:

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

France’s Middle East peace initiative and the Hamas conundrum


          The exact location in Paris where France’s Middle East peace conference took place on June 3 was not announced in advance to the world’s media. The precaution was fully justified on security grounds. For just prior to the meeting of some thirty foreign ministers from around the globe, Hamas had issued a statement condemning the French initiative. Hamas, be it remembered, rules nearly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza strip, and is supported by unknown numbers of Palestinians – perhaps a majority – in the occupied territories.

          "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa to the website Al-Monitor, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause. The international community cannot offer any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the approval of Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006."

          Moussa’s last point is rather sparing with relevant facts. The legislative elections of 2006 indeed gave Hamas a substantial lead over its Fatah rivals, and after much bargaining the two parties agreed to form a national unity government. But sharing power was the last thing Hamas wanted. In a bloody fratricidal coup, it fought, defeated and expelled its Fatah rivals in the Gaza strip. In fact Hamas rules Gaza by might, not by right.

          Moussa had more to say regarding the French initiative. Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948, the return of the Palestinian refugees who have been displaced from their home and lands since 1948, and the liberation of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance, he added, until the "restoration of Palestinian rights."

          Hamas is quite explicit as regards its objectives. It intends to continue its armed struggle until it has defeated Israel and rendered Mandate Palestine judenrein. Global opinion, West and East, consistently ignores, or underplays, this factor in the equation. Almost without exception the world supports the two-state concept as the answer to the perennial Israel-Palestine dispute. This was the ideal set out by France’s President François Hollande, as he launched the ministerial peace conference: “two states living side by side in peace.” How peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel – that is the question not asked, and therefore left unanswered.

          Any yet, in acknowledging the difficulty of the task before the international community, Hollande perhaps nodded in the direction of the Hamas conundrum. Referring to the fact that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority had been invited to this first of France’s two projected peace conferences, he said: "We cannot substitute for the (absent) parties. Our initiative aims at giving them guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision.”

          Could “international supervision” guarantee that a new, sovereign Palestine in the West Bank would not very quickly be infiltrated by Islamic State, as well as taken over by Hamas, either through force of arms or by democratic election? What then of Israel’s security, with Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s road and rail infrastructure under direct threat of rocket and missile attack?

          French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault gave a press conference after the summit. He said that the participating ministers had decided to set up teams by the end of June charged with working on "economic and security incentives for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal.” The security incentives he mentions would need to be very explicit and substantial if they are to be meaningful.

          The joint communiqué issued after the conference emphasised that the status quo is not sustainable, and stressed the importance of both sides demonstrating, “with policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution in order to rebuild trust and create the conditions for fully ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and resolving all permanent status issues through direct negotiations … also recalling relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and highlighting the importance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

          The Arab Peace Initiative, let it be said, has been comprehensively rejected by Hamas. Its basis is an undertaking to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel in return for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on a two-state basis. Although incorporated into US Middle East policy by President Obama early in his administration, Israel has been equivocal about it until quite recently. On May 30 Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, surprised many by saying: "The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002 but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples."

          More than two weeks passed. Then on June 15 a spokesman for the Arab League rejected Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate. “This is completely unacceptable,” said Secretary-General of the Arab League, Dr Nabil Elaraby, “because the Arab Peace Initiative has a certain philosophy and a certain order.” This delayed response should perhaps be considered as a first move in a longer diplomatic game, especially so in light of the specific mention, not once but twice, of the Arab Peace Initiative in the joint communiqué following the Paris conference.

          What was not mentioned, but ought perhaps to be seriously considered, is the concept of establishing a sovereign Palestine within the framework of a new legal entity – a confederation, either comprising only Israel and Palestine, or even a three-party confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In a confederation sovereign states link themselves together to co-ordinate common action on critical issues. A new, weak Palestinian state would be instantly vulnerable to IS and Hamas – but not only Palestine, for both are already knocking on Israel’s and Jordan’s doors. A three-partner confederation might be conceived specifically to achieve close military and economic cooperation, thus providing not only high-tech security for all three, but also the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each partner.

          If something along these lines emerges after France’s second conference, planned for the end of 2016, the whole enterprise will have been worthwhile.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 June 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 June 2016:

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Iran's winning ways

          The Iranians, heirs to the ancient civilization of Persia which stretches back into the mists of time, have inherited both its ruthless and its subtle and devious ways of achieving its purposes. Persia was once the superpower of the ancient world, and Iran’s current repressive Islamist rulers seek again the hegemony the nation once enjoyed. Undeterred by apparent reversals of fortune, they are relentless in their pursuit of their objectives – jihad against western values in general, and the US and Israel in particular; jihad against Sunni states and peoples whom they regard as apostates against the true faith of Islam, namely the Shia tradition of which they claim to be the standard-bearers; and jihad against any of their own citizens who challenge or flout the repressive Islamist way of life they have established in their country.

          In their single-minded determination to achieve their aims, the current Iranian regime continuously initiates, facilitates or supports, regardless of the death and destruction caused, a succession of terrorist activities. This ruthless and amoral single-mindedness brings results, at least in the short term. Time and again Iran seems to triumph in the face of adversity, and bounce back from reversals of fortune.

          Just consider its position in world politics in mid-2016. Uniquely, Iran has succeeded in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Not only is Iran courted and deferred to by the United States and much of the West who are dedicated to removing Syria’s President Bashar Assad from power, but it is an active battlefield ally of Russia fighting to support Assad’s bid to regain power. Moreover, it is benefitting from a highly advantageous trade deal with Russia which guarantees it delivery of the long-range S-300 missile system – the most advanced in the world.

          As far as the US in concerned, Iran’s current “favoured nation” status, unreciprocated though it is, is the result of nifty Iranian footwork in the diplomatic area.

          The evidence is now pretty overwhelming that President Barack Obama came to the presidency in 2009 with a pre-determined strategic plan for the Middle East, based on ideas contained in the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a congressional commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.

          At the time the major jihadist enemy of the West was al-Qaeda. The report advanced the clever-clever notion that if the US made allies of Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – the heartland of Shia Islam – America could step back, and those states could be relied on to combat the Sunni-led threat to the world, al-Qaeda. The Study Group’s conclusions lined up very well with Obama’s declared intention of reducing America’s direct involvement in the Middle East.

          Obama began his presidency with a great weight of guilt on his shoulders. He renounced the concept of America as the world’s champion of democracy and freedom, prepared to fight if necessary to maintain its values. Early on he asserted that any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail; that “problems must be dealt with through partnership”. His new doctrine emphasized diplomacy to promote its aims, and downplayed military might; it aimed at adopting a more humble attitude in state-to-state relations, and playing a more restrained role on the international stage.

          It is certain that none of this escaped Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. He undoubtedly perceived the golden opportunity this new approach provided for Iran to advance its own interests.

          The good times started in June 2013, with the election as President of the candidate blessed by Khamenei – the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani. Also blessed, without a doubt, was the deliberate change of tactics from the confrontational stance of ex-President Ahmadinejad, during previous attempts by the UN to induce Iran to control its nuclear program. Henceforth all was to be charm and sweet reason – and indeed, immediately after his election, Rouhani immediately agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

          World leaders swallowed the bait. A succession of negotiations followed, but with Iran convinced that the Obama administration had discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal – a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons in the fullness of time. That was precisely the eventual outcome, while in return for simply talking, Iran was rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions. 

          The authors of the Iraq Study Group report were either ignorant of some of the realities that rendered their conclusions basically flawed, or deliberately chose to ignore them. They set aside the fundamental philosophy underlying the Iranian Islamic Republic – to oppose, and eventually destroy, Western political and cultural values, and to achieve political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          For the past eight years the Obama administration has ignored Iran’s clearly signalled political priorities, and has failed to respond adequately to its continued terrorist activities and its support for terrorism. Instead, it has engineered a deal which has enormously enhanced Iran’s clout and alienated, or at least disillusioned, its erstwhile allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom have good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. Washington may well have initiated a nuclear arms race in the region, for it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia, for instance, would stand idly by while Iran turned itself into a nuclear power.

          Has Obama’s placatory approach resulted 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 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.” 

          For the moment Iran seems to hold a winning hand, but the recent concatenation of circumstances which have favoured it are unlikely to last indefinitely. It faces formidable political and religious foes in the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia, as well as jihadist opponents such as Islamic State (IS). Much of the Western world seems to have woken to the dangers posed to its way of life by IS, but seems unaware that Iran is as implacable an enemy. One can only hope that realization does not dawn too late.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 June 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 June 2016:

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Britain's EU referendum - the Israel dimension

          On June 23 Britain mounts only the third nationwide referendum in its history. UK citizens, at home and abroad, will be asked whether they favour the nation remaining in the European Union or leaving it. 

          Can Israel’s interests be affected at all in such an apparently domestic British issue? The Remain campaigners lay heavy stress on the trading advantages that accrue to the UK from membership of the EU, and the financial disadvantages to the economy as a whole, and to individual households, from leaving. Those advocating “Brexit” (the portmanteau term now in common use to describe Britain’s exit from the EU) are concentrating their arguments on the need to regain control of Britain’s borders and thus manage the current influx of migrants from Europe, uncontrollable under EU rules. Also in their sights is the goal of taking back sovereignty from the unelected European Commission which initiates all EU legislation, thus restoring to the UK Parliament democratic accountability for the governance of the nation.

          In the early weeks of the referendum campaign, polls of public opinion showed a small but consistent majority in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. There was, however, also a consistently large body of “don’t knows” – some 20 percent of the electorate – and as the period of “purdah” started (a period of three weeks prior to the election, in which the government is debarred from policy announcements affecting the issue), a sudden reversal in the polls put the Brexiteers in the lead. The best of the campaigning, including a series of TV events, has still to take place, and the effect on the electorate is anyone’s guess.

          What of the Israel dimension?

          The EU’s relations with Israel reached a particularly parlous state on November 12, 2015. The issue? The labelling of goods “from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”. The European Commission announcement stated that the EU does not consider the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So it advised that all products originating from those areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

          “For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.

          The EU seemed blissfully unaware of the anomaly it was promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.

          What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949 – the date of the armistice in the first Arab-Israel war – together with Gaza, where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organization by the EU.

          This declaration by the EU provided a huge boost to the burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, dedicated to the delegitimization and eventual destruction of the state of Israel. Though the EU seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the implications, the UK government recognized them. On 17 February 2016 the UK formally announced moves designed to make procurement boycotts by public authorities illegal. The proposed legislation will apply across the board to central and local government, NGOs and the National Health Service.

          “Any public body found to be in breach of the regulations,” ran the official statement. ”could be subject to severe penalties.”

          The British government’s plan came under heavy fire from some left-wingers and pro-Palestinian activists. A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of restricting local democracy and freedom of expression.

          Israel’s supporters characterized the move as “welcome,” with MP Eric Pickles, the head of Conservative Friends of Israel, declaring “the attempt by the irresponsible left to demonize Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”

          The gap between the EU and the UK on the anti-Israel activities of the BDS movement and its adherents was emphasized in April 2016, when the UK government ceased funding the charity War on Want. Founded in 1951, War on Want's initial mandate was to tackle global poverty and inequality. But following a disastrous period in the 1980s, when the charity was forced into insolvency under the management of anti-Israel campaigner George Galloway, it was hijacked by anti-Israel activists to emerge as a leading backer of the anti-Israel BDS movement. It also became a major sponsor of so-called "Israel Apartheid Week", the annual anti-Israel hate-fest.

          Reacting to the UK decision to cease funding War on Want, NGO Monitor president, Professor Gerald Steinberg, said: “Other institutional donors, in particular the European Union, should follow suit and immediately end their funding for this anti-human rights organization." According to NGO Monitor, between 2012 and 2015 the British government gave War on Want £500,000 (over $700,000), while the EU gave another £211,000 (over $300,000). There have so far been no signs that the EU intends to follow Steinberg’s advice.

          It seems clear that the UK Conservative government under David Cameron is not at one with the EU on anti-semitism or the BDS movement. But the issue is a comparatively minor one when set against the weighty pros and cons of Britain’s membership of the EU. So David Cameron, a true friend of Israel, is the leading advocate of the Remain campaign for reasons far removed from Israel’s interests. Also among the leading figures on the Remain side, however, is Jeremy Corbyn, the hard left leader of Britain’s Labour party which is currently grappling, though not very effectively, with apparently deeply-rooted anti-semitism in its ranks.

          The two leading advocates of Brexit are doughty supporters of Israel – Michael Gove, the Justice Minister, and Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London and strong contender for next leader of the Conservative party. A UK freed from the shackles of the EU could, depending on the political colour of its government, prove a stronger ally for Israel than one constrained by the generally hostile attitude of majority EU opinion.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2016:

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016

In my new book, due to be published on 28 August 2016, I attempt to expose the whys and wherefores of the Middle East’s growing chaos

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ attempts to unravel the confusing and intricate modern news of conflict from the Middle East, and provide an accessible overview of the discord that is dominating the media agenda. From the West’s failure to triumph over Islamic State to Iran’s sudden increase in status –  I explain the myriad of forces that have turned the Middle East into a bloodbath.

Through all of its sadness and brutality, the Middle East has become something of a fashionable topic for news media around the world. While millions know that the region has problems, few lay westerners understand why. They know Islamic State means death, but fail to appreciate the long-term objectives of the organization. They see Syrian refugees flooding into Europe, but are hazy as to who is fighting whom in their homeland, and why. I try to explain all this, and much besides.


The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016 provides an up-to-date overview of the problems currently affecting the Middle East, and sets them in context. By not only providing an account of the bewilderingly complicated events of the past two years, but also explaining their background, I try to give readers the tools to understand issues of concern to the whole world. Written in easily understood terms, the book is ideal for readers interested in comprehending the complex problems emanating from the Middle East.

The grim reality in today's Middle East began attracting the world's attention from the beginning of 2014. The growth in size and influence of the bloodthirsty and inhumane Islamic State, and the hordes of terrified refugees fleeing from the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but two examples, forced themselves on the public’s attention. From this time, major themes dominated the politics of the region, such as the rise in the power and influence of Iran, the failure to defeat Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, the continuing devastation of Syria and the surprising incursion of Russia into the Middle East. These, as well as assessments of particular areas of conflict or special interest such as Turkey and the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and South Sudan, form the framework of this book.


Foreword                                                                                          ix     
1. Islamic State and Islamism                                                             1
2. Iran and the nuclear deal                                                               47
3. Syria’s civil conflict                                                                         85
4. Israel and Palestine                                                                      107
5. Turkey and the Kurds                                                                   182
6. Egypt’s struggle for stability                                                          201
7. Russia flexes its muscles                                                              215
8. No end of trouble                                                                          228
                               • Saudi Arabia’s new broom                               232
                               • The sorry state of Yemen                                 243
                               • Libya and the anti-Islamist struggle                 250
                               • Lebanon in limbo                                             260
                               • Why Tunisia?                                                   271
                               • Hope for South Sudan                                     275
                               • The non-Arab Middle East                               280
                               • Arab-Israel peace – a new approach               287

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ will be published on 28 August, 2016 as a paperback at £11.99 ($17.50) and as an ebook.

Pre-publication, copies of the paperback are available at only £10 ($14.75) from the Troubador website:

Subsequently both paperback and ebook are available also at Amazon: http://amzn.to/1VMu4OL./ and all other retail on-line booksellers

About the Author:I have been commenting on the Middle East scene for over thirty years. I am Middle East correspondent for the Eurasia Review and my articles also appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post, in on-line publications, and in this blog, “A Mid-East Journal”. My books include “One Man’s Israel” (2008), “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and “The Search for Détente” (2014). A past chairman of the Society of Authors’ Broadcasting Committee and the Contributors’ Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association, I am a veteran radio and audio dramatist and abridger. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006 I was awarded the MBE for services to broadcasting and drama.
Visit my official website: http://www.nevilleteller.co.uk/

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The jihadist civil war


         The bloodthirsty jihadist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) sprang from the loins of al-Qaeda, once the supreme bane of the western world, which achieved its apogee with the destruction of the twin towers in New York. Over the past decade the fortunes of the two Islamist bodies have diverged, with IS apparently going from strength to strength and al-Qaeda apparently diminishing in influence. Now the wheel of fortune has turned, and as a result parent and offspring are at each other’s throats.

          The assault on the United States that shook the civilized world to its foundations occurred on the 11th of September 2001. An investigation by the FBI quickly determined that those responsible were directly connected to al-Qaeda. By the start of December 2001, US special operations forces had tracked the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and some one thousand of his followers, to their six square mile hideout deep in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan. For two weeks nearly a million pounds of American bombs rained down on them. Although about two hundred terrorists were killed and fifty captured, the US operation could scarcely be deemed a success, for most the jihadists, together with their leader, evaded capture, fled into Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt and disappeared.

           It took nearly ten years before a special commando force of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known as SEALs, finally located bin Laden’s new headquarters inside Pakistan, tracked him down and killed him. During that decade al-Qaeda groups mounted a succession of bombings and terrorist attacks across the globe.

          Only a few weeks after bin Laden’s death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had helped found Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, became the new leader of al-Qaeda. In the 22 "most wanted terrorists" list announced by the US government in 2001, Zawahiri was number two - behind only bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri vowed to continue al-Qaeda’s jihad against "crusader America and its servant Israel, and whoever supports them". At that time, in 2011, al-Qaeda was the supreme representation of Islamist jihad of the Sunni persuasion. What al-Zawahiri did not realize was that he was nurturing a viper in his bosom – the nascent Islamic State.

          IS grew out of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. An off-shoot of al-Qaeda, dedicated to opposing any attempt by Western powers to impose law, order and a democratic framework on that unhappy country, was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the early days, it called itself simply the “Islamic State of Iraq.” When al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted strike by the US Air Force in June 2006, into his shoes stepped Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

          Baghdadi had a wider vision for the militant organization he led – and his own future. In 2013 he announced that he intended to merge his “Islamic State of Iraq” with the main al-Qaeda force in Syria under Jabhat Al-Nusra, which was fighting the Assad regime alongside other rebel groups. He proclaimed that his organization would henceforth be called ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, meaning Syria and the Levant).

          The overweening ambition that lay behind that title sent shivers down the spines of the al-Qaeda leadership. At that moment the two organizations parted company. Ayman al-Zawahiri denounced Baghdadi and dissociated al-Qaeda from ISIS and its activities.

          But the new organization was on the up-and-up. In the space of a year, Baghdadi became the most powerful jihadi leader in the world. Ignoring the border between Iraq and northern Syria, ISIS swept across to capture territory extending from Aleppo in north-western Syria, to Diyala province in north-eastern Iraq. In June 2014 Baghdadi’s forces captured Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq, and were threatening Baghdad. Crucifixions, beheadings and amputations marked its ruthless progress.

          June 2014 was when Baghdadi felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording ISIS announced that it was henceforth to be known as "Islamic State", and that its head, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.''

          Al-Qaeda and its associated jihadist groups simply refused to bow the knee to Baghdadi. In September 2015 al-Zawahiri accused Baghdadi of “sedition”, insisting that he was not the leader of all Muslims, not “caliph” of the Islamic State, and was not the supremo of militant jihad.

          In November 2015, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani warned Sunni Muslims that unless they pledged allegiance to the organization, they faced death. The response was a 26-minute-long video statement from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in which they declared unequivocally that the Islamic caliphate promoted by IS was illegitimate.

          Now the two contenders as the world’s leading Sunni jihadist organisation stood face-to-face in the ring.

          Al-Qaeda seems to have regained its momentum. The withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, was the signal for al-Qaeda terrorist cells to leave their Pakistan hideaway and move back into southern Afghanistan. According to Afghan security officials, al-Qaeda chiefs are hoping to use their new Afghan base to plot a fresh wave of terror attacks against the West and its allies.

          If IS had hoped to displace al-Qaeda as the jihadi vanguard, their plans have badly misfired. IS has found itself at war with its former patrons throughout the Muslim world. Nor is it necessarily winning the battle, suggests Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a widely respected counter-terrorism expert. "The Islamic State has encountered one serious obstacle after another as it has tried to expand its presence beyond Syria and Iraq," writes Gartenstein-Ross, “and several of its nascent affiliates have met decisive defeat”, and he proceeds to enumerate a series of setbacks suffered recently by IS.

          Al-Qaeda and Islamic State seek goals which are nominally the same – “liberating” all Muslim lands, imposing their version of sharia law on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and creating a global caliphate. But each seeks supremacy. In the words of Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute, giving testimony to a Congressional subcommittee: “The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement: they are competing for its soul.”

          The longer the fratricidal battle, the safer the world.

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

Published in the MPC Journal, 31 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 June 2016:

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

What is France up to in the Middle East?

          The name of the game is power politics. France was a major presence in the Middle East following the First World War, but has been on the retreat ever since, as decolonization has taken hold. Now France has seized an opportunity to reassert itself and take centre stage, probably seeing itself in competition with Russia to fill the power void left in the Middle East by President Obama and his misplaced policy of disengagement.

          France’s chosen subject? The interminable Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Its proposed course of action? A multi-nation conference, excluding the principals, to be held in Paris, tasked with setting the parameters for a second peace conference to which Israel and the Palestinians would be invited. There, one presumes, the end game would be to present both sides with the conclusions agreed at conference number one, and pressure them into acceptance.

          The problem with this scenario is that originally France announced that if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, France would formally recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. As Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netahyanu, was quick to point out, this intention immediately removes any incentive from the Palestinian side to negotiate at all. On the contrary, it provides them with an in-built excuse for ensuring the negotiations fail. Reports indicate that France has wisely pulled back somewhat from its early position on this. Has it pulled back far enough?

          This latest initiative of France has a history behind it. As one of the victors of the First World War France, together with Britain, gained the League of Nations’ backing to the secret Sykes-Picot deal, reached in 1916, which envisaged carving the vast Ottoman empire into French and British spheres of influence. France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region. So it is not surprising that it has seen itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord.

          Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was intent on relaunching peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

          In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. Resumption of the peace process was dubbed a French “priority”, and a Paris-located international conference was perceived as a positive path towards achieving it.

          This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and (one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire”) an international peace conference to take place in Paris.

          France’s then foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, played the same tune, with minor variations, on a visit to the Middle East in June 2015. His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the European Union, Arab nations and UN Security Council members. The formula he presented to the UN Security Council was vetoed by the US.

          Undeterred by this setback, France has bounced back with a new proposal centring on not one, but two, Paris-based conferences. The intention clearly is to position France fairly and squarely as a prime mover and shaker in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and perhaps in achieving an even wider formal détente between the Arab world as a whole and Israel.

          Acceptances for conference number one already include not only the Middle East Quartet (representing the UN, the US, the EU and Russia), but also US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Arab League, and at least Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

          The date for this first conference has been set for June 3.  Originally scheduled for May 30, French President François Hollande declared in a radio broadcast on May 17 that because US Secretary of State John Kerry could not make that date, the conference would be postponed until he could.  The presence of the US Secretary of State was too great a prize to forgo.

          Shorn of the tempting titbit of recognition of a sovereign Palestine should the second conference fail to produce an agreement, France’s initiative makes a lot of sense. History proves beyond a peradventure that face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution always fail – and must fail. No Palestinian leader could ever sign up to it. Not Yasser Arafat, nor Mahmoud Abbas, nor anyone who might succeed Abbas, dare sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. To concede that Israel has an acknowledged and legitimate place within Mandate Palestine would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause, and would probably be more than his life was worth. 

          No, face-to-face talks have been tried to destruction. As far as reaching a negotiated peace is concerned, the Palestinian Authority acting as a sole principal is a busted flush. So France is right in seeking a much wider consensus – Arab-wide through the Arab League, and world-wide through the UN and related groups – on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine, starting from the presumption, notably absent in the Palestinian narrative, that Israel is here to stay. Should the first conference agree parameters for subsequent final status negotiations, the Palestinians would be provided with the cover necessary to acquiesce in deed, as well as in word, to a two-state solution which provides Israel with a copper-bottomed guarantee of its security.

          The success of France’s initiative stands or falls on how seriously conference number one takes on board Israel’s security needs in any two-state solution – or in any extension of that concept that might be put before conference number two, such as an Israel-Palestine confederation, or even a three-way Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation. Each possibility would deliver a sovereign Palestine, but the last could also ensure high-tech, state-of-the-art security for all three nations against Islamist extremist groups such as Hamas or Islamic State – both already knocking on Israel’s and Jordan’s doors – that would surely pounce on a new, weak, sovereign Palestine.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 May 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2016:

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Lethargy in Lebanon

          There are two major and long-standing areas of controversy in Lebanon – one political, the other judicial – and a casual observer might be forgiven for believing that things were on the move in both. It would be a flawed perception.

          On the political front Lebanon, although log-jammed nationally, is in the midst of municipal elections. The voting is taking place in four phases, governorate by governorate, around the country. The first poll was held on May 8 in the capital, Beirut.

          These, the only elections to be held in Lebanon since 2010, are providing Lebanese citizens with their first chance to react to the vast influx of refugees into the country as a result of the Syrian civil war, and the paralyzing crisis in garbage collection and disposal lasting some nine months, and only partially resolved in March.

          The first phase of the elections indicates that neither factor has weighed very heavily with the public. If the Beiruti electorate has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated apathy. Voter turnout was only some 20 percent and, despite the emergence of a go-getting party of young activists promising reform all round – Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) – all 24 seats on the council were won by an alliance of “traditional” politicians, led by former prime minister Saad Hariri. The result was pretty conclusive: Hariri’s list 60 percent of the vote, Beirut Madinati 40 percent.

          The stalemate on the national political scene – a result of Lebanon’s immensely complex power-sharing administration – also shows little signs of resolution. Lebanon’s politicians, hamstrung by conflicting interests, have repeatedly postponed the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for June 2013, and the country has been without a president since May 2014. Amid this political impasse, municipal elections were the only available means of generating political accountability. What happened in Beirut in the first phase does not inspire much confidence that the log-jam will be broken very soon.

          Some did pin their hopes on the new Beirut Madinati party. The deterioration in basic services ­– uncollected rubbish, worsening electricity cuts, unreliable public transport – had reached such a state that a group of activists formed Madinati and published a 10-point policy programme that focused on practical family needs, such as transport, water, rubbish, natural heritage, housing, public and green spaces and community services.

          But Rome was not built in a day. Lebanese voters have a tradition of blindly supporting their sectarian leaders, and it will clearly take more than one election to shift this to voting for candidates who reflect their policy concerns.

          Sloth also marks the interminable judicial process to determine who was guilty of the assassination of Lebanon’s one-time Prime Minister, and to bring the culprits to justice.

          Just before noon on St Valentine’s day 2005 – February 14 – a motorcade swept along the Beirut seafront. In one of cars sat Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri – father of Saad, winner of the Beirut municipal elections. As the line of vehicles reached the Hotel Saint Georges, a security camera captured a white Mitsubishi truck alongside the convoy. Seconds later a massive explosion shook the city. In the midst of the carnage Rafik Hariri, along with 22 other people, lay dead. Some 200 were injured. The blast left a crater on the street at least 10-metres wide and two metres deep.

          Ten days later then-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible for the attack. In doing so he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. Now in its tenth year, it is currently under the aegis of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the STL), a body voted into existence by the UN Security Council in 2007, formally established in 2009, and now, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, comparable to some large commercial enterprise.

          Operating on a budget of over $150 million, half of which is provided by the Lebanese government, the STL court consisting of 11 judges sits in The Hague. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office. Located within the STL building is a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

          Annan’s fact-finding mission recommended an independent international enquiry. Six months later a second UN report concluded that the white truck seen on the security camera outside the Hotel Saint Georges had carried some 1,000 kilograms of explosive. Basing its findings on key witnesses and a variety of evidence, including patterns of telephone calls between specific prepaid phone cards that connected prominent Lebanese and Syrian officials to events surrounding the crime, it concluded that these officials had been planning the assassination from as far back as mid-2004.

          So the finger was pointing at Syria and its Hezbollah supporters inside Lebanon. But Lebanese public opinion pre-empted this conclusion. Syria had been enforcing Big Brother control over Lebanese affairs for decades. Rafik Hariri had been actively seeking to loosen Syria’s oppressive grip, and had become a thorn in the side of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Following Hariri’s assassination a massive protest was organized in Martyrs’ Square in the heart of downtown Beirut, denouncing the atrocity and demanding that Syrian troops be expelled from the country. This so-called Cedar Revolution led to a diplomatic coalition, with the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia at its helm. On April 26, 2005, after some three months of civil agitation, the last Syrian troops left Lebanon.

          It took another four years of fact-finding by the United Nations International Investigation Commission (UNIIC) before sufficient additional and convincing evidence had been collected to enable the STL to be set up. Even so, largely because of blocking tactics employed by Hezbollah officials inside Lebanon, the five identified defendants have not been apprehended and the trial is being held in their absence. They are named as: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hussein Hassab Oneissi, Sassad Hassan Sabra, and Hassan Habib Merhi.

          The trial of Ayyash et al. began on 16 January 2014, nine years after the Hariri assassination, but it was diverted for over a year by a number of side judicial issues. It was only on 9 May 2016 that the court resumed hearings. When or if they will end is lost in the mists of the future. So, too, apparently, is a date for the long-delayed parliamentary elections, to say nothing of a time when the country will again be blessed with a president.

          Clearly nothing moves very fast in Lebanon. Inertia seems preferable to the conflict engendered by action.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 May 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 May 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 May 2016: