Friday, 21 September 2018

Israel is not without friends

                                                                                Video version
          It was in May 2010 that former Prime Minister of Spain, José Maria Aznar, brought together a high level group in Paris to launch a project aimed specifically at supporting Israel as a legitimate democratic sovereign nation. A fundamental purpose of the initiative was to affirm that Israel is an integral part of the Western world and of crucial importance to its future.

          Who are these people, prepared to take so unfashionable and therefore so courageous a stand? It is a glittering list of men and women in all walks of life, almost none of them Jewish, who have reached positions of eminence in their own fields.

          The current list of members of the Friends of Israel Initiative includes three former Heads of State, four former Heads of Government, and seven former government ministers, as well as a former ambassador, State Governor, head of a national intelligence agency and military commander, together with people still active in the academic, journalist and business fields. A number of original members of the group have subsequently been appointed to official or governmental posts, and have therefore withdrawn for the time being from active involvement. 

       Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada, takes over the Chair of the Friends of Israel from founder José Maris Aznar as from 1 September 2018.
          Founded out of a sense of deep concern about the unprecedented campaign of delegitimization against Israel waged by the enemies of the Jewish state and supported by numerous international institutions, the key aim of the Initiative is to counter the growing efforts of bodies like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and its followers to isolate the State of Israel and eventually overthrow it. The Friends of Israel Initiative is committed to disseminating its members’ vision of Israel as a democratic, open, and advanced nation like any other, and to insist that it should be perceived and treated as such. 

          The Initiative maintains that Israel is a sovereign democracy which like all others is, of course, capable of making mistakes. Nonetheless, it asserts, this should not be used as an excuse to question Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, or its basic rights as an independent state.

          The body’s major project for 2015 was to prepare a full and carefully reasoned report aimed at changing the perception that many have about Israel. Sometimes, as the Prologue to the report explained, ”it is because people don’t know better; sometimes it is the result of extremely biased opinions in the media. We want to introduce some rationality when talking about Israel and because of that, this report highlights the many positive aspects of a dynamic, vibrant, and promising Israel, yet without keeping silent about some controversial issues. In any case, what we want is for the reader to feel and see the positive effect of having Israel, a strong Israel, at our side. Having a secure Israel means more security for us; having a prosperous Israel enriches us all. Thinking the opposite is simply wrong as this report demonstrates with clarity and simplicity.”

          The document, entitled “Israel: A Vital Asset of the West”, was launched at a meeting in the UK’s House of Commons in November 2015.

          The same year the Initiative sponsored a new major enterprise – the High Level Military Group (HLMG). HLMG consists of military leaders and officials from NATO and other democratic countries. Its mandate is to address the implications for western warfare of fighting enemies who disregard the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), but exploit other nations’ adherence to it.

          A few months later the Initiative sponsored a new High Level Home Front Group (HLHFG), made up of top intelligence, counter terrorism and police officials from the US, UK, Spain, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, and Colombia. Its remit was to evaluate the Israeli experience in preventing and stopping indiscriminate attacks in cities, as well as the recruitment of terrorists, so as to assist other nations facing similar threats.

          At the initial launch of the Friends of Israel Initiative in Washington in September 2010, José Maria Aznar explained the motivation behind the new organization. 

          “Israel is under a new kind of attack,” he said. “Not conventional war as in 1948, ‘56, ‘67 or ‘73. Not terrorism as we saw in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But a new kind of attack …to present Israel internationally as an illegitimate state, as a barbarian state, a state that should be isolated and converted into a pariah state… 

          “Let me be clear. We don't want in any case to defend any particular Israeli government or any particular set of policies or any particular party. Israel's institutions are mature enough to defend their choices. We want to stand up for the right of Israel to exist. Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization. Delegitimising Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are…

          “Is it craziness for a group of mostly Europeans and non-Jews, to say: Enough. Stop this nonsense of making Israel responsible for all the problems in the region, if not beyond? Enough of the short sightedness which refuses to see Israel as a corner stone of our Western civilization? Defending Israel today means strengthening the West...”

          These are sentiments that ought to have commanded widespread support within the Western community of nations. They combine reason with the most basic appeal of all – self-preservation. Yet Aznar’s message evoked little response at the time from opinion leaders the world over, and the real achievements of the body he founded remain generally unrecognized.

          An old English saying seems particularly appropriate: "There are none so blind as those who will not see."

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Abbas wants a Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation

                                                                                              Video version
        Commentators viewing the Israel-Palestine scene seem agreed that the spotlight has settled on the word “confederation”. Despite the wraps that have been wound tightly around the Trump peace deal – “the deal of the century” – the media have come to believe that chief among its provisions is a proposal for a West Bank-Jordan “confederation”. 

        On September 2, 2018, a delegation from Israel’s Peace Now organization travelled to Ramallah in the West Bank. Their purpose was to discuss with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prospects for settling the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statements that follow such meetings rarely contain anything of substance. This was an exception.

        The next morning, the Palestinian Information Center, known as Palinfo, published an account of Abbas’s conversation with the Israelis that was replete with surprising, not to say startling, details. The news website reported the exchange in a deadpan factual manner, with no comment.

        “During a meeting with an Israeli delegation that visited Ramallah on Sunday,” ran the report, “Abbas said that senior US administration officials, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, asked him recently about his opinion of a ‘confederation with Jordan’. “I said yes to the offer, but I want a three-way confederation with Jordan and Israel,” Abbas said.”
                                                              Mahmoud Abbas         
        Now when exactly did Abbas speak with the Trump peace plan team, Kushner and Greenblatt? It could only have been some time in 2017 while the plan – “the deal of the century” – was being built brick by painstaking brick. That the plan is virtually complete has been confirmed by Kushner on more than one occasion. Equally clear is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not been briefed on its provisions. Abbas disengaged from all dealings with Washington back in December 2017, when President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention of moving the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has subsequently declared that the US has disqualified itself as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

        Leaks are always possible, despite the tightest security. It is just on the cards that the word “confederation” has somehow slipped through the intensive screen of secrecy that the three-man peace team – Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman – have erected around the plan. After all, back in June 2018, all three met with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in New York to discuss US efforts “to promote peace in the Middle East and to meet humanitarian needs in Gaza.” The outline of the long-awaited plan might well have been disclosed to Guterres, since it took place just before Kushner and Greenblatt embarked on a tour of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Israel. Significantly there were no plans to meet with Abbas. 

        If that one word “confederation” has somehow escaped the security net, it has given rise to a plethora of speculative possibilities, most failing to define what a confederation actually is, or how it differs from a federation. A federation is a political system in which individual states join together under the umbrella of a central authority; a confederation is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states; in a federation the stress is on the supremacy of the central government. 

        So to describe an amalgam of Jordan and the West Bank as a “confederation”, as some commentators have done, would be a misnomer. In any case the Jordanians immediately rejected the idea of uniting with, or taking over, the West Bank . But Abbas’s response - that he believed in a triangular confederation comprising Jordan, Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine – that is a game changer.

         On this he is not wrong. Prowling round the PA stockade is Hamas, ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, and harrying Abbas for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all and is dedicated to destroying it. Given a new sovereign Palestine, it would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel.

        This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, a new sovereign Palestine would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

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

        Any viable solution will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus, within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political. The Arab League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. Under its shield the PA could participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity that could come into existence simultaneously with a new sovereign Palestine.

        A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could make it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defence forces of the confederation. 

        A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – this is not only a configuration offering considerable potential advantages to Israel, but it is also the possible answer to achieving a peaceful and thriving Middle East. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2018:

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Britain’s left-wing, Israel and anti-Semitism

This article appears in the edition of the "Jerusalem Report" dated 17 September 2018
        Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of Britain’s Labour Party back in 2015, it has been torn apart over the issue of anti-Semitism. 

        Corbyn won his landslide victory in the leadership election thanks to the support of an organization called Momentum – a hard-left group set up in opposition to the social democratic principles that had projected Tony Blair and his “New Labour” to electoral success in the 1990s and early 2000s.

        Britain’s Labour Party has always revelled in its own description of itself as “a broad church”. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by a trade union movement based on Marxist principles, Labour also embraced from the start much gentler social democratic concepts inherited from the Christian and philanthropic impulses of the Victorian Liberal Party.

        There was a strong Jewish connection from the start. In late-19th century Britain, the working classes were slowly becoming aware of their power within a capitalist economy. Jewish workers and activists were among the first to force poor working conditions and poverty-level wages into the public consciousness. In the sweat shops of London’s East End, the hub of Britain’s Jewish community at the time, clothing workers slaved for up to 18 hours a day, six days a week. The first effective action took place in 1889, when the Great Dock Strike brought the East End to a standstill. The protest was supported by 8,000 workers, mostly recent Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia, fleeing discrimination and persecution.

        The sweatshop workers were galvanised into action by Rudolph Rocker, the German-Jewish editor of a radical Yiddish newspaper, The Workers’ Friend. The secretary of the Tailors' Strike Committee was a Lithuanian Jewish anarchist called William Wess. Its chairman was Lewis Lyons, son of German Jewish immigrants. They built links with local non-Jewish campaigners in the area through William Morris's Socialist League.

        Solidarity from Irish Catholic dockers, who replenished the strike fund when it was nearly exhausted, resulted in victory for the immigrant Jewish tailors. The employers caved in. A 12-hour working day with meal breaks was conceded. Emboldened by their growing clout, the trades unions mounted a series of strikes for increased wages and better working conditions, and it was the burgeoning trade union movement that gave birth to Britain’s Labour Party in 1906. 

        From its start the Labour Party was widely supported by Jewish members, but it also drew some of its most active leaders from the Jewish community. This was because three years earlier the first branch of Poale Zion (Great Britain) had been formed.

        Poale Zion, which viewed Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, was highly influential in the development of the British Labour movement. An especially noteworthy achievement was the Labour Party's War Aims Memorandum, drafted by Sidney Webb and Arthur Henderson in 1917. This document, which preceded the Balfour Declaration by three months, recognized the "right of return" of Jews to Palestine. In 1920 Poale Zion was affiliated to the British Labour Party as The Jewish Socialist Labour Party.

        In the mid-1920s, Poale Zion’s parent body – the World Union − set up an office in London's East End led by Shlomo Kaplansky and David Ben-Gurion. In the same building Moshe Sharett was at work as a Yiddish-English translator. The subsequent growth and development of the British Labour Party was significantly enhanced by the Jewish contribution. Some of the Jewish Labour MPs in the inter-war years became legends in their own lifetimes. The roll-call resounds even today: Marion Phillips, Manny Shinwell, Sydney Silverman, Lewis Silkin. 

        The 1945 general election, which saw the first post-war Labour government. brought a clutch of new Jewish Labour MPs into the British parliament. Some went on to highly successful political careers – people like Maurice Edelman, Harold Lever, Ian Mikardo and David Weitzman. Later, the Labour party, both in opposition and in government, was adorned by a glittering array of Jewish names: Leo Abse, John Silkin, Joel Barnett. Reginald Freeson , Renée Short, Eric Moonman, Greville Janner and Gerald Kaufman.

        These people, and many other Jews, were integral to the growth and development of the Labour Party in the twentieth century. During much of that time, most of Britain’s Jewish community saw the Labour party as its natural home.

        In 1918 the party had incorporated into its constitution, as Clause 4, the out-and-out socialist objective of securing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In practical terms that meant that a future Labour government would be obligated to nationalize as much of the state’s economic infrastructure as possible, and indeed when Labour came into power after the 1945 general election, it proceeded to enact this programme. It brought into public ownership the coal and steel industries, Britain’s railway system, road transport, the electricity and gas industries, and of course, by establishing the National Health Service, the provision of health care.

        Although at first there was general acceptance by the public of this great socialist experiment, disillusion soon crept in. When inadequate services, soaring prices and strikes began to affect the public, their mood changed. Within the Labour movement the social democratic leadership began to see that electoral success depended on softening, if not abandoning, Clause 4. After losing the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell made a courageous attempt to have Clause 4 amended. The harder left wing fought back, and defeated him. 

        It was a Pyrrhic victory, since it was followed by the brilliant electoral successes of Tony Blair and his “New Labour”. Blair was an unapologetic social democrat, and he conceived of a middle way in British politics. For a time he succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the confidence of the British electorate. 

        Before Blair’s edifice came tumbling down in the débacle of the Iraq war, he managed to have Clause 4 and all references to nationalization radically revised. After Blair’s departure his New Labour limped on briefly, but the Labour party was in disarray. When a leadership election was held, three of the four candidates could reasonably be described as social democrats. The fourth was a wild card, a known and long-standing rebel within the parliamentary Labour party. The most prominent figures in the party urged members not to vote for him. But New Labour was a busted flush, and in the event Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a landslide.

        Corbyn, who had become a member of the UK parliament in 1983, had been a rebel before becoming an MP, and remained a rebel after taking his seat. During the 1970s a Trotskyist hard-left group, called the Militant Tendency, embarked upon a long-term, calculated effort to infiltrate and eventually take over the Labour party. Militant supporters succeeded in gaining powerful positions within the inner governance of the party, and all efforts by social democratic elements to root Militant out failed. In 1982 Corbyn wrote in the journal he helped manage, London Labour Briefing, supporting Militant and opposing its expulsion from the party. For a time he was successful, but eventually Militant defied the Labour establishment once too often, decisive action was taken, and the party was cleansed.

        When in 1984 the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) blew up the hotel housing Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government leadership, killing 4 people and paralyzing the wife of a minister, Norman Tebbit, London Labour Briefing came out in support of the terrorists, joked about the dead and mocked Tebbit. A few weeks later Corbyn invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – both suspected one-time members of the IRA − to visit Parliament. In 1986 he joined a picket outside the Old Bailey to protest at the trial of the man who planted the bomb.

        Jeremy Corbyn is an exponent of a hard-left political agenda peculiar to Britain. It is based on a particular view of the British class system, its colonialist past and capitalism. He opposes the lot. Everywhere Corbyn sees victims of overwheening colonial exploiters or unscrupulous big business, and clearly feels a bond of sympathy with all who claim to be struggling against them, no matter how ruthless their methods. 

        A fashionable new-wave philosophy called “Intersectionality” has captured the left-wing in the UK and Antifa in the USA. Intersectionality holds that there is a link between all manifestations of oppression, however diverse, and therefore between all victims. Female victims of sexual inequality have a bond with black victims of racial inequality and with victims of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inequality, and so on.

        Intersectionality decrees that Palestinians are quintessential victims, and that their villainous oppressors are Israel, which it accuses of every sort of monstrous criminality including genocide. The logic of intersectionality decrees that anyone who opposes racism, homophobia or sexism must necessarily oppose Israel. That diktat is easily extended to all who support Israel, and by a further extension all Israelis, most of whom happen to be Jews. This is how eminent academics have come to refuse to engage professionally with their Israeli counterparts, while stoutly maintaining that they are not anti-Semitic in doing so.

        In pursuit of this philosophy Corbyn has shared platforms with Irish terrorists, extremist Islamist proponents, and representatives of proscribed terrorist bodies like Hamas and Hezbollah. In 1984 he advocated cutting ties with Poale Zion. In 2013 he declared that some Zionists “don’t understand English irony”, despite having lived in the UK “for a very long time, probably all their lives.” In 2014 he was content to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the graves of terrorists who carried out the Munich Olympic massacres. Turning a blind eye to Jewish persecution over the centuries and the rationale for the emergence of Zionism, he appears to view Israel as a colonialist and racist enterprise, and the Palestinians as its victims.

        This explains his failure so far to endorse the examples of anti-Semitism provided by the internationally accepted definition, and why so many Jewish members of the Labour party, inheritors of the huge contribution made to its history by Jews of an earlier generation, feel so hurt. Their feelings are shared by the vast majority of the Labour members of parliament who abhor the shilly-shallying over tackling anti-Semitism in the party, and have voted overwhelmingly in favor of adopting the International definition in full.

        If Corbyn and the party’s National Executive Committee are eventually forced to do so by internal pressure and the weight of public opinion, they are likely to insist that the provisions start to bite from a given date. To allow the definition to apply retrospectively would put Jeremy Corbyn himself, together with an incalculable number of his closest followers, in danger of being charged with anti-Semitism and bringing the party into disrepute.

        Corbyn’s leadership campaign had been masterminded by a Jewish friend, Jon Lansman, who set up the organization called Momentum. It now has a membership of more than 40,000. Momentum is a hard-left organization, busily engaged in seizing the reins of power within the Labour movement. It is the Militant Tendency story all over again. How will it end this time?

Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 17 September 2017:

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Palestinian refugees – callous exploitation facilitated by UNRWA

                                                                                Video version
        Assume that you could identify the origins of your great-grandparents, and you discover that all eight of them emigrated to the United States from liberated Europe at the end of the Second World War. Subsequently, you find, all four of your grandparents were born in America, both your parents were born in America. and you yourself were born and bred there. Would you consider dubbing yourself a displaced person and a refugee?

         This is the fiction that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) seeks to perpetuate in respect of millions of inhabitants of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, people and their descendants who fled from their homes during the Arab-Israel wars of 1948 and 1967. UNRWA deems all of them, even unto the third and fourth generation, to be Palestinian refugees.

        At around the time the State of Israel came into being, something over half the non-Jewish population of what used to be called “Palestine”, some 750,000 people, left their homes – some on advice, some from fear of the forthcoming conflict, some during it. Of the Palestinians who left, one-third went to the West Bank, then under Jordanian control; one-third went to the Gaza Strip, then under Egypt’s control; and the remainder fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

        A highly relevant factor in their subsequent unhappy history is that the UN body established to assist them – UNRWA – began its work in May 1950, seven months ahead of the establishment of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As a result, Palestinian refugees have been designated and treated quite differently from − and much worse than − all other refugees, the world over, ever since.

        The 1949 General Assembly resolution establishing UNRWA called for “the alleviation of the conditions of starvation and distress among the Palestine refugees.” Yet the resolution also stated that “constructive measures should be undertaken at an early date with a view to the termination of international assistance for relief.” In other words, the new refugee agency’s mission was intended to be temporary.

        70 years have passed. The “temporary” UNRWA has been transformed into a bloated international bureaucracy with a staff of 30,000 and an annual budget of around $1.2 billion. As for the number of Palestinians registered by UNRWA as refugees, that has mushroomed from 750,000 in 1950 to 5.6 million today. 

        How could such a situation have been allowed to develop? The transformation occurred according to the diktat of UNRWA itself, which decided to bestow refugee status upon "descendants of Palestine refugees," in perpetuity. The growth in UNWRA’s client base is therefore exponential, justifying an ever-expanding staff and an ever-increasing budget. It has been estimated that by 2050 the number of UNRWA’s “Palestine refugees” will reach just short of 15 million.

        A main function of UNHCR has been to resettle those millions of unfortunate people who have left their homes, willingly or unwillingly, over the years. UNHCR facilitates their voluntary repatriation, or their local integration and resettlement. By contrast a major effect of UNRWA’s humanitarian activities has been not only to maintain millions of people in their refugee status decade after decade, but to expand the numbers as generation has succeeded generation. 

        In pursuing this course, UNRWA has been complicit with the anti-peace policy of many Arab leaders in respect of the Palestinian refugees. To resettle and absorb these people into their new places of residence would have had the effect of normalizing the situation and removing a formidable bargaining chip. UNRWA, by officially washing its hands of any involvement in “final status” considerations, has in effect sustained and supported this policy of using the Palestinian refugees as a pawn in the political effort against Israel. UNRWA, it has been claimed, has done more than any other player over the years to prevent a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.

        Consider the unfortunate Arab refugees who made their way to nearby Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, where today over three million of them and their descendants are living as “registered refugees”, (registered, that is, by UNRWA), about half of them still occupying some 58 refugee camps. 

        As for Lebanon, that unhappy country now in thrall to Hezbollah and its controlling power, Iran, the extent of its Palestinian refugee population is almost impossible to determine. UNRWA’s most recent count was 450,000, while the Lebanese government census in 2017 offered 174,000 as the total. Whichever it is, most Palestinians living in Lebanon do not have Lebanese citizenship, and therefore do not have identity cards and are legally barred from owning property or earning a living from a whole list of desirable occupations. Less than 2 percent of Palestinian refugees have acquired a work permit.

        As regards Syria, just before the civil war broke out in 2011 UNRWA reported total Palestinian refugees there as over 525,000. They had been granted neither citizenship nor the right to vote. Since then, the conflict has led many Palestinians, along with native-born Syrians, to flee the country, and the number of registered refugees has fallen to some 450,000. There is no indication that the Syrian government is minded to change its policy on granting them citizenship.

        Jordan is a different case. Here, even though the state has conferred citizenship on most of its 2 million Palestinians, they are still registered as refugees by UNRWA. It is far from clear how an individual can be a fully naturalized citizen of a country yet still be considered a refugee. But UNRWA’s modus operandi is even more illogical. In Jordan only the million-and-a- half Palestinians who live in the camps are regarded as the legitimate concern of UNRWA. Some Palestinians who are not living in the camps fall under the auspices of UNHCR. So some Palestinians are being actively rehabilitated by UNHCR, while most of them, together with their children and their children’s children, are having their refugee status maintained and reinforced by UNRWA.

        No wonder in January 2018 US President Donald Trump 
called for a “fundamental reexamination” of UNWRA, and has just announced that the US will no longer fund the agency. 

        All in all, the Palestinian refugee story is one of heartless exploitation of Arabs by Arabs – the callous manipulation of powerless victims for political ends, with little regard for their welfare or human rights. This inhumanity must be brought out into the open, the UNRWA farce of “refugee status” in perpetuity must be ended, and steps must be taken to allow people and their families who may have lived in a country for fifty years or more to settle and become full citizens.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2018:

Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Commonwealth - is there a place for Israel?

This article was published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 23 July 2018
          An event that received scant attention in the world’s media was Queen Elizabeth II’s opening of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London on April 16, 2018.  Inadequate global coverage has been the fate of the Commonwealth for many years.

The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know or care little about.  The Commonwealth Games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest in fact, the 21st Games kicked off in Australia on April 4 but as for the background or purposes of the organization itself there is little general knowledge or concern.  And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1952, the Commonwealth consisted of just seven nations.  Today it is a voluntary association of 53 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, which explains why the Queen is head of the organization.  But what unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter. 

These “Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting world peace, democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, equality in terms of race and gender, free trade, and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world.
It was in 1884 that Lord Roseberry, later a British prime minister, first dubbed the British Empire “a Commonwealth of Nations”, but the designation “Commonwealth” remained in the background until 1947, when India achieved independence.  Although the new state became a republic, the Indian government was very keen to remain in the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth, unwilling to lose the jewel in its crown, found no difficulty in changing the rules of the club. Henceforth membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British crown. Members were to be “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress.” 

Since then, fully independent countries from all parts of the globe have flocked to join the Commonwealth.  At first all were required to have some historic connection to the old British Empire – until two nations, with absolutely no such ties, applied to join.  Once again the Commonwealth demonstrated a flexibility remarkable in bureaucracies and, by sleight of hand, further amended the rules to allow first Mozambique, and a few years later Rwanda, to join.  Applications and expressions of interest in joining the Commonwealth continue to arrive from a wide diversity of states.

Back in 2012 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee considered the “Role and Future of the Commonwealth”, and in general welcomed the idea of the organization extending its membership – always provided a stringent selection procedure was maintained.

“We welcome the fact that the Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members,” reads the final paragraph of their report, “and see advantages in greater diversity and an extended global reach for the Commonwealth. However it is crucial that the application process is rigorous, and that any new members are appropriate additions to the Commonwealth 'family', closely adhering at all times to its principles and values.”

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – or a sovereign Palestine, if or when this comes to pass – would, if they applied to join the Commonwealth, certainly meet the original criterion of “historic ties with the British Empire”.  In point of fact, both the Palestinians and Israel have, in the past, toyed with the possibility. 

In February 1997 the UK’s Independent newspaper carried a story under the headline “Palestine looks at membership of the Commonwealth”.  It reported that the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to Britain, Afif Saleh, had suggested that the PLO might seek associate membership of the Commonwealth as a temporary measure, while awaiting the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.  “Once the Palestinians achieve self-determination,” ran the story, “the Commonwealth secretary general, Emeka Anyaoku, sees no obstacle to Palestine becoming the 54th member of the organisation.”

Ten years later, in December 2007, the Jewish Journal reported:
“As a former British colony, Israel is being considered for Commonwealth membership. Commonwealth officials said this week they had set up a special committee to consider membership applications by several Middle Eastern and African nations… Those interested in applying include Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both of which exist on land ruled by a British Mandate from 1918 to 1948. An Israeli official did not deny the report, but said, ‘This issue is not on our agenda right now.’”

The idea of full membership still seems politically unrealistic, but the prospect of forging some sort of link between Israel and the Commonwealth family of nations has recently gained some substance.

The Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself.  Founded as far back as 1868 , it is committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens across the world. The RCS boasts the Queen as its patron, and numbers among its vice presidents the UK Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London.

The RCS, under its chief executive officer, Michael Lake, recently embarked on an ambitious program aimed at raising the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth.  The Commonwealth, he said, “has been very introspective, it needs to be more extrovert."  In pursuit of that objective, “we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-Commonwealth countries."  The idea, he said, was to promote mutually advantageous links with reliable friends around the world on everything from business to defence. 
A new branch of the RCS had already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, when in 2017 the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the organization.  The most recent development was the opening in February 2018, with the blessing of President Donald Trump. of a US branch in Mississippi, with a view to eventually bringing America into the Commonwealth fold as an "associate member" a concept not yet accepted by the Commonwealth, but being promoted by the RCS.  Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, an ally of Trump, is serving as the branch’s chairman of the board of governance.

A major driving force behind the RCS’s expansion program has been Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU).  Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe. Israel has long been regarded by the UK as a prime future trading partner, and a UK-Israel free trade deal is already in negotiation.  In the circumstances Israel would seem an obvious future location for an RCS branch office.

It is not generally known that Israel boasts an “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), a body formed as far back as 1953 with the aim of encouraging, developing and extending social, cultural and economic relations between Israel and the Commonwealth.  The IBCA would seem the appropriate broker to seek a Royal Commonwealth Society connection leading, as in the US, to “associate membership”.

How would this benefit Israel?

Although the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc, trade between members is rising strongly, and is projected to surpass $1 trillion by 2020. Among the drivers of increased intra-Commonwealth trade is the so-called ‘Commonwealth effect’.  Trade between Commonwealth members is on average 20 percent higher, and trade costs 19 percent lower, compared with in-trading between other partners. Enormous potential exists to increase intra-Commonwealth trade even further.

Israel’s trading ties with India could serve as a template. The Indian-Israeli trading relationship has recently been greatly strengthened, while some of the fields in which Israeli expertise is being deployed would be highly relevant to other developing Commonwealth countries.  For example, in 2013 Israel introduced a scheme to help India diversify and raise the yield of its fruit and vegetable crops. By March 2014, 10 Centers of Excellence were operating throughout India, offering free training sessions for farmers in efficient agricultural techniques using Israeli technology and know-how, including vertical farming, drip irrigation and soil solarisation. A year later, no less than 29 such Centers were in operation.  Now 25 more are being set up across the sub-continent.  One outcome among very many is a ‘Made in India’ version of high quality Israeli oranges, which are about to hit the Indian market, grown from disease-free plants nurtured through Israeli scientific techniques.

An RCS branch office in Israel, followed perhaps by associate membership of the Commonwealth, would give Israel access to dozens of developing countries that would benefit immensely from Israeli expertise in cutting-edge agricultural technologies. Politically, given the spread of Commonwealth countries across the globe, strengthened trading bonds could help develop warmer relations and foster greater understanding between Israel and the rest of the world.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, 23 July 2018:

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Peace in Yemen – it all depends on the Houthis

                                    Video version
Yemen has become a vast battlefield, the scene of unending armed conflict.  As a result the civilian population is now in the throes of what is universally described as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”  On the brink of famine, the nation faces mounting rubbish, failing sewerage and wrecked water supplies, all of which have led to the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.  The UN reckons three-quarters of Yemen’s 28 million people need some kind of humanitarian aid.

What has led to this catastrophic state of affairs?  Even more relevant, of course, is what can be done to bring it to an end?

On one level, the situation in Yemen is just one instance of the fault line that runs through Islam – the Sunni-Shia divide.  The main protagonists are, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and its eight-nation Sunni Muslim coalition, and on the other, Shi’ite Iran supporting the Shia Muslim Houthi rebels.  However historical issues and political considerations complicate the situation, sometimes obscuring, sometimes overriding the religious imperatives.

The Houthis, for example, while certainly on the Shia side of the great Islamic gulf, are in fact a minority group within that Islamic Shi’ite minority.  They are Zaydi Shi’ites, or Zaydiyyah, taking their name from Zayd bin Ali, the great grandson of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and they differ significantly in doctrine and beliefs from the Shi’ites who dominate in Iran. 

It was in the ninth century that followers of Zayd established themselves in the mountains of north Yemen. For the next thousand years they fought with varying degrees of success for control of the country. Finally, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, a Zaydi monarchy took power in North Yemen. So there are long-established precedents for the North Yemen Zaydiyyah fighting for control of the country as a whole.  

Conflict between North Yemen and Saudi Arabia is also nothing new. The Zaydi monarchy fought and lost a border war with Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, ceding territory to the Saudi state.

In fact, turmoil is the predominant theme of Yemenite history. The monarchy was replaced by a republic, and the republic by a virtual dictatorship under Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years, surviving a Saudi-backed civil war in 1994.

But Zaydi resistance continued to smoulder up in the north, and from its midst emerged a charismatic leader named Hussein al Houthi.  Soon Zaydis, intent on resisting Saleh and his increasingly corrupt regime, were calling themselves Houthis. In 2004 al-Houthi was killed in one of the Saudi-backed military campaigns launched by Saleh in an attempt to destroy them. 

Saleh himself became a victim of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Mass popular protests and pressure from neighbouring states forced him to step down in 2012 in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. But Saleh had given up the keys of office with a very bad grace, and was quite prepared to ally himself with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, in an attempt to manoeuvre his way back to power.  The Yemeni military had remained largely loyal to Saleh, and it was through him that the Houthis gained control of most of Yemen’s fighting force, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. 

 The subsequent turn of events seems depressingly familiar in the context of Yemen’s long history.  Saudi Arabia, determined to prevent Iran from extending its footprint into the Arabian peninsula, intervened in March 2015 to beat back the Houthis.  Saudi’s charismatic young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, assembled a coalition of Arab states, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, UK, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels.
The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on December 2, 2017, when Saleh – a modern manifestation of the Vicar of Bray − went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthis and was ready to enter into dialogue with the Saudi-led coalition.  This volte-face was to end in tragedy. On December 4, Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters.  Attempting to escape, he was killed.

The Houthis were emboldened. Using Iranian hardware, they started firing ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia itself. Although responsible for initiating the turmoil, it is not the Houthis but the Saudis and their coalition receiving the world’s opprobrium for the subsequent humanitarian devastation. It is not surprising that Prince Mohammed is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement. 

What Yemen needs is a return to a unified structure, democratic elections, and an inclusive government – a process that had actually begun in 2011.  So far the Houthis have been reluctant to share power. But the future of Yemen largely depends on them. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? 

UN Resolution 2216 aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen.  Although trenchant in its criticism of the Houthis, it could nevertheless be the basis for a peace initiative.  Backed by a UN peace-keeping force, with Iran deterred – by new sanctions if necessary – from sustaining the Houthis, a lasting political deal would involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi Arabia to fund the rebuilding of the country. Can the enmities of centuries finally be put to one side?  Negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen  − a long shot, but one eminently worth attempting.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 September 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 September 2918