Monday, 21 April 2014

A Moscow-Cairo-Jerusalem axis?

Being played out on the world stage, in this early part of 2014, is what might superficially be taken as a repeat of the communism versus capitalism Cold War of the 20th century.  It is nothing of the kind. There is no clash of political philosophies here.  The drama now being enacted, with Russia’s President Putin in the lead role, is the far older tale of lust for power.  The story, as it unfolds, has added poignancy because this generation of world leaders has forgotten two vital lessons: How to oppose the ruthless pursuit of dominance, and the fact that in international politics might is so often right in other words, strength is respected and weakness despised.

It is now clear that Putin is determined to re-establish Russia as a major force in world politics.  It took some time for the realisation to sink in, and there has accordingly been little attempt to obstruct him. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, US President Obama and his administration have consistently reacted with “jaw jaw rather than war war” – forgetting that this was far from Churchill’s attitude in the 1930s to Adolf Hitler’s insatiable appetite for power and territory.  While Obama havered and wavered, the relative balance of influence began to tilt against the United States and the West, while the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, started to reassess where its best interests lay.

Take the Syrian civil conflict.  From the start Russia and the United States stood on opposing sides.  Russia had a close working relationship with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, for under a 1971 agreement a permanent naval facility, Russia’s only Mediterranean fuelling, repair and replenishment base, was sited in Syria’s second largest port city, Tartus.  Accordingly, when a political movement dedicated to establishing a democratic alternative to the corrupt Assad regime surfaced in Syria, Russia backed Assad.

The US and the West, on the other hand, attempted to give some backbone to the loose, disparate and ineffective opposition.  During the early stages of the civil conflict there was a window of opportunity when effective military support for the domestic opposition might have resulted in Assad’s overthrow.  No such support was forthcoming, and the window soon closed.  Instead, the conflict attracted wild-eyed extremists of all sorts with agendas of their own, far removed from any attempt to replace Assad with a democratic alternative. 

Determined to cling to power by whatever means, in 2013 Assad resorted to using chemical weapons against the opposition and any civilians who chanced to get in the way. Obama had repeatedly threatened an immediate and salutary response to their use, but in a diplomatic coup Putin brokered an agreement with Assad to dispose of his chemical arsenal.  Obama gave way. No punishment was meted out to the guilty Assad, and in the event the disposal of Assad’s chemical weaponry is far from achieved, for recently further chemical attacks notably the use of chlorine gas have been reported in Syria.     

A short time afterwards Putin duplicated this diplomatic triumph by successfully spiking any threat of an attack by the US or Israel on the nuclear facilities of his ally, Iran.  By brokering negotiations nominally aimed at preventing Iran achieving nuclear weapon capability – another opportunity for avoiding military action seized on avidly by the US, the EU and the West – Russia again stood tall on the world stage.  And again, there is every reason to believe that Iran’s capacity to build atomic bombs has been little affected by the negotiations. 

   The pattern had been set – bold, self-interested and successful political action by Russia matched by abject and week-kneed political reaction by the West.

   Putin crowned his series of political achievements by violating Ukrainian sovereignty and engineering the annexation of Crimea.  Huffing and puffing by the West, the imposition of sanctions and the threat of more, had little effect on Russia. which proceeded to take the same course of action in the Russia-supporting eastern provinces of Ukraine.  A fragile agreement aimed at both sides exercising restraint, even if it holds, will not alter the fact that any plans the West might have had for binding Ukraine into the EU and NATO have been successfully scuppered.  By the ruthless exercise of power politics, Russia has swallowed Crimea whole, and successfully asserted its influence over the future of Ukraine.

   This resurgence of Russian power has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East.

   Early in April a 19-member Russian military delegation arrived in Cairo, the third visit in less than two months. The move followed a report that the White House was imposing a partial aid and weapons freeze on Egypt, as punishment for the military coup led by al-Sisi, and the crackdown on former president Mohamed Morsi and his supporters.  According to senior Egyptian sources, Field Marshal al-Sisi has concluded an arms deal with Russia that includes advanced aircraft, monitoring equipment and other sophisticated weapons to be used fighting Islamist terrorism in Sinai.

Now, the fight against Islamist terrorism in Sinai has turned into a closely coordinated effort by Egyptian and Israeli forces, who are currently cooperating in unprecedented ways, bypassing treaty restrictions on the battlefield deployment of Egyptian military forces and arms. Informed Israelis also speak of unprecedented Israeli-Egyptian intelligence cooperation in the area, "beyond anything dreamed of during Mubarak's rule."  So Israel is supporting al-Sisi, while the US is still reluctant to do so, on the grounds that democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi was overthrown by something akin to a military coup engineered by al-Sisi.

This comparatively minor divergence of interests between Israel and the US was exacerbated by Israel’s "neutrality" over Russia's invasion of Crimea. Senior US officials were shocked at Israel’s lack of support on the Ukraine crisis, and especially at Israel's abstention from the UN General Assembly vote deploring the Russian invasion and expressing support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Ever since, intense efforts have been deployed to try to mend fences.  At a series of meetings Israel has explained to the United States that taking a public stance against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine could cause real damage to its security interests.  “We are close to the chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli officials are reported to have told their US opposite numbers, “and to the Iranian nuclear program, over which Russia has a decisive influence, and so a clash with Moscow could hurt our security.” 

If Israel has indeed adjusted its relationship towards Moscow and Cairo, the change may be significant, but it is not substantive. The community of interests between the US and Israel is too great to be seriously threatened by these minor upsets.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 April 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 April 2014:

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who succeeds Mahmoud Abbas?

Lurking in the backwoods of Palestinian politics is a man whom 79-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes as his deadly rival.  Thirty years younger than Abbas, he has been a thorn in the President’s flesh from the moment of his election, continually criticizing him for weak leadership and corruption, a charge he extends to Abbas’s two sons.  In response, Abbas has had him and his followers expelled from the Fatah party and exiled from the West Bank, and has hurled a barrage of  accusations against him, including that of colluding with Israeli agents to poison the revered ex-Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

This 52-year-old hate figure – hated and feared not only by Abbas, but by all within the Fatah movement with aspirations to succeed the ageing President – is Mohammed Yusuf Dahlan.

Born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza strip in 1961, Dahlan became politically active as a teenager, and in 1981 helped to establish the Gaza branch of the Fatah Youth Movement, “Fatah Hawks”.  His CV contains the necessary passport to political acceptance in Palestinian circles – time spent in an Israeli jail for terrorist activities.  Between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested no less than 11 times.  In 2007, consistent with his pro-Fatah – and therefore anti-Hamas – stance, Dahlan assisted in an abortive US plan to overthrow the Hamas administration that had seized power in Gaza in a bloody confrontation with Fatah.

To fund this operation, reports have it that he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – but though he never delivered, he refused to refund the money. That is one US count against him. Another is that he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the interim Egyptian government under Field Marshal (soon to be President) al-Sisi, and is supporting their offensive against the Middle East policies of US President Obama.

This Palestinian renegade acquired his formidable political status by way of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of al-Sisi’s most generous bankers, and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Dahlan has established himself in Cairo, within al-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question –which explains the extraordinary diatribe spouted by Abbas, a few weeks ago, to a closed meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. During an hour-long harangue he accused Dahlan, along with Khaled Islam, a former economic adviser to Arafat, and ex-PA minister Hassan Asfour, of acting as spies for Israel.  He had knowledge, he claimed, of ties between Dahlan and Israeli leaders.

He followed this up by asserting that Dahlan and his followers were involved in the assassination of Salah Shahadeh, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2002.  Then he topped the list of accusations by again hinting, as he had done some years ago, that Dahlan and his associates – “the three spies” Abbas dubbed them – were involved in the death of Yasser Arafat.

Dahlan, declared Abbas, would never be allowed back in Fatah, nor, he suggested, was there room in the party for those still loyal to him.

In response, Dahlan asserted on his Facebook page that Abbas’s speech was “full of lies and deception” which he proposed one day to disclose. Meanwhile senior Hamas figures like Taher al-Nunu, and Salah el-Bardawil, demanded a full and transparent enquiry into the assassination of Salah Shahadeh. On his Facebook page, al-Nunu wrote: “if there is truth to the matter, why has [Abbas] kept his silence and appointed Dahlan to high-level positions? How do we know that Abbas did not know about it?” 

In short, it is clear that the relationship between Abbas and Dahlan has reached an all-time low, while Dahlan himself seems to be riding high. Fueled by millions in Gulf aid dollars, raised in part by himself from business people and charities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, he seems to be orchestrating a comeback that could position him as a possible successor to Abbas.

Like all potential candidates for high office, Dahlan modestly denies that he is seeking it. In a recent newspaper interview,Dahlan said he was “not looking for any post” after Abbas retires, but during an interview on Egyptian TV on March 16, he declared: “The Palestinian people can no longer bear a catastrophe like Mahmoud Abbas.”

That Abbas may retire following the virtual failure of the current peace process is certainly on the cards.  Putting aside his age and other political considerations, his personal status as President is questionable.  He was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, but 2009 came and went, his presidency was extended by diktat, the Hamas-Fatah feud has precluded any elections, and here we are in 2014 with Abbas still clinging to office.

Besides Dahlan who is in the running?  There is the man whom Hamas declare is the legitimate acting Palestinian President according to the constitution - Abdel Aziz Duwaik, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006.

Duwaik, once a professor of urban geography, has never been accused of involvement in terrorism and has told journalists that he views Hamas's call for the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Palestine, including Israel, to be "nothing but a dream, and unrealistic." He might be a preferred presidential successor from Israel’s point of view, but is unlikely to command popular support.

The Palestinian politician with the broadest appeal, according to the polls, is 54-year-old Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader currently convicted of  murdering four people during terrorist operations in 2001 and 2002, and serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail.  The polls, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, show that Barghouti would easily come out on top of a three-way race involving also Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas.  An ardent supporter of the two-state solution and Palestinian resistance, he is considered top contender for the presidential post, and perhaps the only figure who can reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The PA is demanding Barghouti’s freedom as part of a deal to save the peace talks from collapse. If he is released, as part of some last ditch rescue attempt, he becomes a formidable alternative to Dahlan. If Israel keeps him in prison, then Dahlan is well placed to sweep Mahmoud Abbas aside and become the next Palestinian president.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 April 2014:

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Israel-Palestine peace talks: the endgame

Who defined the art of successful politics as “keeping abreast of changing circumstances, and turning each change to your advantage”?  They might have had John Kerry, US Secretary of State, in mind. No astuter politician is currently operating in the global arena. But even the wiliest operator can be overwhelmed by events and, with the end of April looming, an air of desperation has pervaded what might be called “the peace camp”.

            Kerry’s brief from newly re-elected President Barack Obama, just starting his second term in January 2013, was to give high priority to achieving a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.  Obama had had a first shot at this, back in 2010, and had indeed succeeded in bringing the two principals Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.  Optimism had been high, all the building blocks necessary to construct a full accord had been identified, and all the parties present pledged to have an agreement in place within a year. 

In the event, the initiative was dead within a month, sunk on the insistence by Abbas that Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank be extended a demand that was impossible for Netanyahu to grant, given the fragile nature of the coalition that sustained his government.
        Nothing daunted, Obama on being re-elected charged his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to get the Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face again.  His motives in twice biting into this Middle Eastern hot potato, as part of a wider and woefully misguided global strategy, would merit a book in itself – and columnist Jonathan Rosenblum has made a insightful first step in this direction.  But Kerry accepted the brief, and succeeded.  So it was that, on 29 July 2013, under his benign eye, peace negotiators Tzipi Livni for Israel, and Saeb Erekat for the PA, shook hands in Washington to launch "sustained, continuous and substantive" talks aimed at reaching agreement on the long-sought final status between Israel and Palestine talks with the declared objective of establishing a sovereign Palestine side by side with Israel.
        Optimism was, if anything, even higher than in 2010, for this time all declared that no more than nine months was necessary as the gestation period to achieve a deal.  Talks started formally on 29 July 2013, and the agreement would be born by 29 April 2014.

That the discussions would be long, complex and difficult could have been  foreseen.  Many groups and individuals on both sides some with crucial political clout had no interest in achieving a two-state solution to the long-running dispute, and opposed the initiative from the start. Even those who supported it would scarcely have believed, at the start of the process, that the stark irreconcilabilities of the two parties would scupper the original timetable.

But finally it became abundantly apparent that no final status agreement was conceivable within the widely announced nine-month period. Acknowledging the impasse. the optimistic Kerry turned the altered circumstances to his advantage by adroitly shifting the goalposts. In a master stroke the objective of the nine-month negotiations was altered.  No longer were the parties striving to achieve a peace deal within that constricted timeframe.  Now Kerry announced that that this first nine-month phase would be used to produce a “framework agreement”, endorsed by both parties, which would encapsulate the principles including areas of non-agreement that would form the basis of on-going discussions.

With every likelihood that such a document would merely be a re-statement of the obvious, it was not a very inspiring prospect. But if the end-result was something signed by both sides, and if both sides had agreed to continue talking, Kerry would have snatched a brand from the burning.

It was not to be.  As March 2014 ended, yet more political ducking and diving was called for. According to the agreement originally brokered by Kerry the agreement that underwrote the peace negotiations Israel undertook to release around 100 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, the last batch on March 29, 2014.  However, by the due date no negotiations had taken place between the two sides since November 2013, and in the interim the PA president had flatly refused to consider acknowledging Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and had sought and obtained the endorsement of the Arab League to the same refusal.  He had also indicated that he had little interest in continuing peace talks beyond the April 29 deadline.  It seemed that Abbas proposed to accept the final batch of released prisoners, and forthwith end the negotiations. So Israel balked at that final commitment. 

The reaction of Abbas was to renege on his undertaking not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 deadline.  In a heavily publicized event, he formally applied to join 15 international agencies, a move aimed at gaining the benefits of statehood outside the negotiation process.

The result?  Kerry cancelled a planned return to the region during which he had expected to complete an agreement aimed at extending negotiations into 2015. In that emerging deal, rumour was that the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel some 30 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

So turmoil marks the final days of Kerry’s original nine-month timetable.  The endgame is chaos, confusion and disarray as Kerry’s right-hand man – Middle East envoy Martin Indyk shuttles back and forth between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams in an ever-more desperate effort to snatch some sort of victory from the jaws of defeat.  Telephone lines between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah must be red-hot, as Kerry attempts to persuade or cajole Netanyahu and Abbas to give way on some modest elements of their demands, so as to allow a compromise of sorts to emerge.  The US President and his Secretary of State have invested so much time, effort and prestige in this Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that total failure would be a major humiliation – one that they may indeed be gearing themselves to face.

Stark reality seems to dawning even on the persistent, canny John Kerry. “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend,” he is reported to have said, “if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps to move forward.  We’re not going to sit there indefinitely. So it’s reality check time.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 April 2014:

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Egypt's new president: Nasser or Sadat?

The Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs (morale, please note, not moral, which it probably isn’t), has been doing a great job since the overthrow of the last administration. 

The Department is responsible for managing the public image of the Army. Ever since the coup, led by then-General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, it has been assiduously encouraging a cult of personality around him.  His recent promotion to Field Marshal provided it with a field day.  Its media campaigns have resulted in his face appearing frequently on Egyptian state television and in state-run newspapers, on posters and billboards, and even on memorabilia ranging from chocolates to underpants. 

The skilful propaganda projection of him as an upbeat officer who is at the same time a devout Muslim, harbouring traditional respect for women and Christians, goes some way to explaining the high regard in which he is held.  His popularity rating is also due, in no small measure, to the popularity of the military, which continues to be the most trusted institution in the country. Around 90 per cent of Egyptians support it. 

Until Wednesday, March 26, 2014 al-Sisi was Egypt’s deputy prime minister, the minister of defense and the commander-in-chief of Egypt’s armed forces.  On that day he resigned all three offices, and announced that he would be standing for election as Egypt’s new president in a ballot whose date has yet to be set. After three years of upheaval Egypt yearns for a strong leader. Even though al-Sisi remains something of an enigma within the country, his public idolization is so great that he is virtually certain to emerge, some time during the summer, as Egypt’s new president.

What sort of president will he make?  He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.   Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat.

Although very different in temperament and outlook, the two late presidents had one thing at least in common both took Egypt into direct combat with Israel.  In this, at least, it is highly unlikely that al-Sisi will emulate his predecessors.  Nor are we likely to see him follow Sadat in popping into Jerusalem to address Israel’s parliamentarians his predecessor’s untimely end would no doubt inhibit any such  whim.  But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home.  In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters. 

As for al-Sisi’s economic policy, it is shrouded in ambiguity. Negotiations with the IMF have been suspended, since the conditions they would impose for a loan would be political suicide.  He continues to rely on huge subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while he attempts to persuade capitalists in exile to return to Egypt with their money.

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing" Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility.  The concept of Pan-Arabism, for example, is dead. There are, however, one or two areas in which he might make a Nasser-like mark – rekindling nationalist pride is one. Turning towards Russia for support is another. Al-Sisi’s trip to Moscow in mid-February 2014 to complete an arms deal, in reaction to the US’s lack of enthusiasm for the coup he engineered against Mohammed Morsi, evoked memories of Nasser's rejection of the West in favour of the Soviets.

Al-Sisi would seem to be emulating Nasser in one further respect. He is already identifying his forthcoming presidential era as one of grand projects, just as Nasser had done with the Aswan Dam. Al-Sisi’s project is the proposed development of the Suez Canal area, being heavily promoted as the key to Egypt's future.

Anwar Sadat followed Nasser into power, shoehorned into the presidency by Nasser's supporters, who regarded Sadat as a transitional figure that they believed could be manipulated easily. He was to prove them wrong.  Sadat  did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations.  He succeeded in instituting a "corrective revolution" which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists.  In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them "considerable cultural and ideological autonomy" (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master's degree.  In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was "not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template".  He argued that "democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith". However, he did not talk about implementing Islamic law.

So President al-Sisi is likely to rule Egypt as an up-to-date version of the strong, near-authoritarian, leader, firmly grounded in his military background, but paying something more than lip-service to democracy although a democracy strongly flavoured with more moderate aspects of Islam.  With Egypt’s national interests in mind, he is likely to adopt a pragmatic approach to cooperation with Russia President Putin is anxious to counter US influence in the Middle East and with Israel, where collaboration in overcoming extremist terrorism in Gaza and Sinai is in both countries’ best interests.

And the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, brokered by Egypt’s President Sadat and Israel’s prime minister, Menachim Begin, will – short of some totally unforeseen catastrophe be in safe hands.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 April 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2014:

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Crimean coup

Lithuania, its chequered past during the Nazi and subsequent Soviet domination of the Baltic, and its difficulty in coming to terms with the involvement of its citizens in the Holocaust, is the background to an absorbing new book by veteran broadcaster, Sara Manobla.  In “Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians Confront the Past”, Manobla provides personal testimony about how at least one Lithuanian town made a positive effort to reconcile itself to its own history.

On the face of it Lithuania, lying to the north of Poland and Belarus, would seem to have little in common with the Ukraine.  Yet a map of the country in Manobla’s book offers an intriguing sidelight on the current crisis down in the Black Sea.  Stuck out to the south-west of Lithuania, and including a healthy slab of Baltic coastline, is a chunk of Mother Russia Kaliningrad some 800 kilometers from Moscow, and separated from the motherland not only by the whole of Lithuania but by Latvia to the north and Belarus to the south as well.  The accepted term for this extraordinary phenomenon is “exclave”. 

From the first world war until 1945 Kalinigrad (or Königsberg, as it once was) was an exclave of Germany.  In the final stages of the second world war it was occupied by the Soviet Union, and was subsequently annexed to the USSR under the Potsdam Agreement.  Most of its indigenous German population were killed or fled to West Germany; the rest were expelled, Russian settlers were moved in and the population became a Russian majority.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, the region was absorbed into the Russian Federation.

As a constituent part of the Russian Federation, Kaliningrad is designated an “oblast” – one of 47. Other constituent entities include republics and cities. All are equal subjects of the Russian Federation, with their own executive, legislative and judicial arrangements, and with equal representation in the Upper House  of the Federal Assembly.

Kaliningrad is peculiarly isolated, politically speaking, since Lithuania and Latvia, which separate it from Russia proper, are both members of the EU and of NATO, and all military and civilian land links between the region and the rest of Russia have to pass through them.  This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperately anxious to avoid in the case of Ukraine in general, and Crimea in particular.  Just as Baltiisk, just outside Kaliningrad, is the only Russian Baltic port that is ice-free all year round, and is thus vital in maintaining the Baltic Fleet, so Sebastapol in the Crimea is the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, its largest and strongest naval entity.

Russia’s Crimea coup occurred on March 18, 2014.  Following a referendum regarded with suspicion by world opinion, Russia declared Crimea to be an independent Republic, an entity recognized only by Russia.  This declaration was followed by the signing of a treaty incorporating Crimea and Sevastopol as new constituent members of the Russian Federation Crimea with the status of a republic, Sevastopol as a federal city.  The treaty will come into effect on January 1, 2015. 

Is Putin likely to extend his annexation to Ukraine generally?  Unlikely, but what is virtually certain is that any accommodation acceptable to Russia would have to include a provision that keeps Ukraine permanently out of both the EU and NATO.  As that is precisely the issue that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych – who continues stoutly to maintain that he is the lawful ruler of the country an early settlement of the dispute between Russia and the current Ukranian government seems unlikely.

There are further unanswered questions to which only time will provide the answers.   For example, are the economic sanctions threatened by the US, the EU and the global community likely to discomfort Russia to any great extent?  If history is anything to go by, sanctions applied to a sovereign nation let alone a world power are easily circumvented and are probably destined to be spectacularly ineffective.

Will Russia choose to respond to sanctions applied against it with sanctions of its own?  There are a variety of fields in which Putin could act the tough guy against the West, if he chose – the most obvious being energy.  This possibility has already, according to Bloomberg, occurred to the EU’s 28 chiefs.  They plan to ask the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to outline within three months ways to diversify energy sources away from Russia, which is the main supplier of gas and oil to Europe.

Most potent question of all – will there be armed conflict?  Between Kiev-controlled Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea, possibly.  The atmosphere, especially in the border regions, is tinder-box dry, and any spark could start a conflagration.  But with the precedent of the First World War ever-present in this centenary year of its outbreak, we might fervently hope that any minor or localised skirmish does not escalate into something more uncontrollable.

A final issue.  The implications will not be lost in the Middle East of a Russia, following blatant aggression in Crimea, emerging powerful and triumphant, as against the futile and weak-kneed response of the US and its partners. Yet again Russia has snatched a diplomatic triumph from under the noses of the US and the West.  As the champion of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, Russia managed to divert the threat of a US strike following Assad’s use of chemical weapons; as the ally of Iran, Russia was instrumental in manipulating the US and the West into talking with Iran about its  nuclear program, thus diverting the threat of a military strike – by Israel or any other power on its nuclear facilities.  As a result Egypt and even the US’s ally, Saudi Arabia, have been making overtures to Russia, which is rapidly reassuming its old Cold War status as a world super-power.

            As far as the Middle East is concerned, one thing emerges clearly from the current turmoil.  The Israel-Palestine dispute is pretty much irrelevant as far as the world’s ills are concerned. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, whether eventually successful or not, to provide a “framework agreement” under which the two sides can agree to go on talking, will have a negligible effect on global geopolitics.  Far bigger battles, quite unrelated to Israel-Palestine, are under way on the world’s political stage.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 March 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 March 2014:

Monday, 17 March 2014

Cameron, the UK and Israel

To the Jews I became as a Jew that I might gain Jews…
To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak:
I have become all things to all men
          - St Paul, 1 Corinthians
Politicians certainly aren’t saints, but they do have this in common.

            On February 7, 2014 David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, delivered a rousing speech on the subject of the forthcoming referendum in which the Scots are to be offered the option of renouncing their union with the rest of the United Kingdom and becoming an independent nation.  He did not presume to advise the Scots on how to vote, but addressed himself to the rest of the UK – the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish – urging them to use their influence with their Scottish relatives and friends in favour of preserving the Union.

            In proof of the inextricable bonds that have developed over the centuries between the Scots and the rest of the UK, Cameron pointed to his own surname and origins.  Cameron is an undoubted Scottish name.

            “Such is the fusion of our bloodlines,” he declared, “that my surname goes back to the West Highlands and, by the way, I am as proud of my Scottish heritage as I am of my English heritage. The name Cameron might mean ‘crooked nose’ but the clan motto is “Let us unite” – and that’s exactly what we in these islands have done.”

            On March 12, 2014, David Cameron was in Israel. Addressing the Knesset, he augmented his English-Scottish origins.

            "My Jewish ancestry,” he informed the assembled MKs, and through them the rest of the Jewish people, in both Israel and the diaspora, “is relatively limited, but I do feel just some sense of connection – from the lexicon of my great-great-grandfather, Emile Levita, a Jewish man who came from Germany to Britain 150 years ago, to the story of my forefather Elijah Levita, who wrote what is thought to have been the first ever Yiddish novel."

            Cameron’s Jewish heritage was first revealed in 2009, when one of Britain’s leading rabbinical authorities, Yaakov Wise, of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, traced his family tree back to the 16th-century Jewish scholar Elijah Levita.

Levita, who was responsible for the first dictionary of the Targums, or Aramaic commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, wrote his novel, “The Bove-Bukh”, in about 1507. It  was published in 1541, the first non-religious book to be printed in Yiddish.  A highly popular chivalric romance, it went through at least 40 editions over the next five centuries.  The Bove-Bukh became known in the late-18th century as the Bove-mayse or "Bovo's tale" – and this title was in turn corrupted, and passed into the Yiddish language as bubbe meise (literally "grandmother's tale").

Britain’s prime minister was bold enough not only to declare his one-sixteeenth connection to the Jewish people, but to pledge himself to oppose the boycott of Israel, because the main purpose of his visit was to enhance UK-Israeli trade.  His plane to Israel was full of the men and women whose businesses are contributing to what has recently turned into a bilateral trade bonanza. That is the reality of the British-Israeli relationship – which is why attempts to destroy it via the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are doomed to irrelevance. As Cameron himself said, back in December 2012:  “We are going to keep on working with Israel, doing business with Israel, trading with Israel.”

In that address, Cameron was fulsome in his admiration for Israeli achievements.

Israel has got more start-up businesses per head than any other country. How do they do it?  It’s about the aspiration and drive of its people. These are people who have innovated around every problem that life has thrown at them. So we want to work much more closely with Israel – on innovation, on technology.”

The success of that policy is clearly apparent in the just-released trade statistics for 2013.  Total UK-Israeli bilateral trade rose over those twelve months by 5.7 per cent, or $300 million, to stand at very nearly $5.5 billion in all. 

Trading activity is weighted heavily in favour of IsraelIsrael imported some $2 billion-worth of goods from the UK, but exported some $3.5 billion-worth.  The UK is, except for the US, Israel’s largest export market.

UK demand for Israeli medicines helped take bilateral trade to its record high, as British patients benefited from Israeli pharmaceutical advances, including drugs for Parkinson’s disease, such as Azilect, developed by Technion scientists, and generic versions of drugs produced by Teva.  Other Israeli goods popular with Britons included fruit and vegetables, coffee, tea and spices.

“Given Israel’s status as the ‘start-up nation’, consistently developing new technologies across sectors,” said Hugo Bieber, chief executive of UK Israel Business, a leading organization promoting trade relations between the two countries, “we expect to see trade between the UK and Israel continue to increase.”

Economic development is a key plank in the movement  towards some sort of Israel-Palestine détente – development, that is, in the moribund Palestinian economy.  Early on in his current push towards a peace agreement, US Secretary of State John Kerry wholeheartedly endorsed “Breaking the Impasse”, a new business-led initiative aimed at fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace and prosperity.  The project was launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan in May 2013, by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. 

Kerry, convinced that fostering economic growth will profoundly improve the chance of the political peace process, clearly sees in “Breaking the Impasse” a valuable instrument for furthering his policy. He has, accordingly, invested the initiative with both US cash and dynamic leadership. He has got Quartet representative, one-time UK prime minister Tony Blair, to head an ambitious plan to develop a healthy, sustainable, private-sector-led Palestinian economy.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Cameron met Blair in East Jerusalem, as the UK prime minister prepared for talks with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas. The pair discussed Blair's Palestinian economic initiative, and afterwards Blair gave his backing to Cameron's drive to boost economic links.

“If we don't build the Palestinian economy up at the same time as  pursuing the political negotiation,” said Blair, “then a state for the Palestinians seems a dream and not a reality."

In the joint press conference held by Cameron and Abbas after their meeting on March 13, Cameron promised a package of UK support for Palestinian businesses and farming communities, which the World Bank estimates will boost the Palestinian economy by some $700 million. 

Cameron stopped short of claiming Canaanite, Arab, or Palestinian lineage – unlike PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. “I am the proud son of the Canaanites,” Erekat recently maintained, “who were there 5,500 years before Joshua bin Nun burned down the town of Jericho.”  His family tree, posted on Facebook, shows his clan, part of the Huwaitat tribe, descends from Arabia, not Canaan.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 March 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 March 2014: