Saturday, 18 March 2017

Assad in the ascendant?

          Back in the glory days of the so-called “Arab Spring”, when Middle Eastern dictators were falling like ninepins, it seemed that the overthrow of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya and Saleh of Yemen would inevitably be followed by the downfall of President Bashar Assad of Syria.

          But, it now seems, providence had reserved a different fate for Assad. A determination to cling to power, however ruthless or inhumane the methods, allied to a favorable concatenation of political circumstances, has enabled Assad to emerge from a long, multi-faceted combat battered, depleted territorially and logistically, but still in power.

          In the amoral world of international relations, power commands respect. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that green shoots of acceptance are beginning to sprout, even among states that were once totally opposed to Assad.

          From the beginning Assad found himself with powerful allies to help counter his formidable opponents. Syria has long been a vital component of Iran’s so-called “Shia crescent”(so dubbed by Jordan’s King Abdullah) – that area of Shia and Shia-allied states and peoples that form the foundation of Iran’s policy for achieving religious, and thus political, hegemony in the Middle East. The crescent embraces Lebanon and so, in supporting Assad against the Syrian democratic forces that were attempting to overthrow him, Iran was able to augment its own Revolutionary Guards with Hezbollah fighters.

          Dictators take risks, often winning a trick by relying on the spinelessness of their opponents. Assad knew full well that US President Obama had threatened immediate counter measures if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, sensing indecision in his opponent, in August 2013 Assad authorised the use of the potent nerve agent, sarin, in an attack on the town of Ghouta, quite regardless of collateral civilian casualties. Sarin is officially designated a weapon of mass destruction.

          In the event Obama turned somersaults to avoid the decisive response he had promised. When Russia’s President Putin claimed to have extracted an undertaking from Assad to destroy all the chemical weapons he had originally claimed not to possess, Obama seized on the chance of avoiding any form of punitive action. The result was enormously to strengthen Putin’s position in the Middle East, while the deal was not worth the paper it was written on – if indeed it was ever written down. The subsequent record abounds with convincing evidence of the continued use by Assad of chemical weaponry of various kinds, including VX, sulfur mustard and chlorine.

          Meanwhile Assad had assured himself of a powerful new ally in his effort to cling to power in Syria. For his part Putin had two main objectives in view when he sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015 – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both, as he launched massive air and missile attacks mainly against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          As a result, by the end of 2016 Assad had retaken the city of Aleppo after a particularly brutal conflict, and in addition currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria including the tiny enclave of Deir Az Zor in the south-east, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the north-western coastal region.

          Nothing succeeds like success, and some of the states in the Middle East are reported to be making tentative moves towards a rapprochement with Assad.

          Jordan’s position towards the Syrian civil war has never been entirely clear. While supporting moderate rebel groups from the FSA, the Jordanians have not openly called for Assad to step down, and recent reports seem to indicate that Jordan is moving closer to him and his supporters. It was at Russia’s invitation that Jordan attended the latest round of talks between the Syrian regime and rebels in Astana. It was also present during the Geneva talks on 23 February 2017. In addition Jordan’s King Abdullah recently met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a staunch supporter of Assad, to discuss the Syrian crisis.

          Jordan is hosting the Arab League annual meeting scheduled for 29 March. Syria was suspended from the League in 2011 over Assad’s failure to end the bloodshed caused by brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy protests, and the League imposed economic and political sanctions on him. So, as was the case in previous summits, Assad was not invited to the forthcoming meeting.

          And yet recently reports have begun to emerge of a concerted attempt by Russia, Egypt and Jordan to get Assad readmitted to the League. This move was apparently spearheaded on 25 February by Egypt’s parliamentary Committee for Arab affairs, which issued a statement describing Syria’s continued suspension as 'totally unacceptable’.

          A response from the Syrian side was not long in coming. Botros Morjana, head of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee at Syria’s People’s Assembly, expressed the committee’s appreciation of the call for the return of Syria to the Arab League.

          There is as yet no indication that Assad will indeed be attending the forthcoming meeting. Rumours however abound: there's been a flurry of official and diplomatic activity; military officers and intelligence agents from Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria are flying back and forth between Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus and the Russian command in Syria, all engaged in detailed planning for the event; Assad will arrive in Amman armed with a Russian safe-conduct guarantee, aboard a Russian military aircraft which would fly him there and back from Russia’s Syrian air base at Hmeimim. And so forth.

          If Putin could indeed persuade Saudi King Salman to accept Assad’s return to the Arab summit, the Russian president’s reputation in the Arab world would soar. An historic handshake and greetings between Assad and Salman would signify the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian rebels, and the Assad regime. But for Assad, whom few expected to emerge alive from the nearly seven years of warfare, it would mark collective Arab recognition of his personal triumph against all the odds. It may not happen this time – but it’s on the cards.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 March 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 March 2017:
           [Next posting: Saturday 26 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Commonwealth spreads its wings

        The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know little about.  The Commonwealth games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest across the globe, but as for the background or purposes of the organization there is little general knowledge or concern. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics. 

        The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 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, but that is no longer a pre-requisite. 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.

“Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting equality in terms of race and gender,world peace. democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, free trade and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world. What it has so far failed to demonstrate is the drive, or even the willingness, to provide positive leadership on the world stage in favour of the core values it professes. Change may be in the offing.

        On 23 February 2017 the UK’s Daily Telegraph carried an exclusive, and rather startling, news report. The Royal Commonwealth Society, it announced, was planning to open a branch in the United States, with a view to eventually bringing America into the fold as an "associate member". The project was said to build on President Donald Trump's fondness for Britain and the royal family, and to be backed by the Queen. Michael Lake, the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, said that the plans had been hastened by the "opportunity of a new president” and would further Britain's ties with America.

        In December, reported the Daily Telegraph, Lake wrote a letter addressed to Donald Trump, which was handed over to the president by Nigel Farage, the former head of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), who continues to have close ties with the US administration. Lake wrote that opening a Commonwealth branch in America would help the UK and the US "find imaginative ways" in which they could work together. The response from the White House was described as "very positive".

        To put this initiative in perspective, the Royal Commonwealth Society is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself. Founded as far back as 1868 as The Colonial Society, it has morphed through a variety of titles, emerging in 1958 under its current designation. 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 American initiative is part of an effort by Michael Lake to raise the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth in general, and its role within UK foreign policy in particular. 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. Lake believes that the Commonwealth, a flexible arrangement held together by common values and culture, operates less formally than governments.

        A new branch of the RCS has already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, acting as a Baltic-Scandinavian hub, to help facilitate business ties with Commonwealth countries. Last year the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the alliance of 52 member states. As regards the Middle East there seems no good reason why the RCS should not turn its attention to Jordan or Israel – or indeed a sovereign Palestine, if such a state ever emerges – as a base for expansion of Commonwealth influence, and the creation of new “associate members”. All three, after all, would have strong historic connections with Britain in its colonial days. Israel, indeed, already has a flourishing “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), founded as far back as 1953.

        Two factors have provided the Royal Commonwealth Society with a window of opportunity through which to expand its operations. One, of course, was the emergence on the political stage of Donald Trump. The other was 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.

        This aspect of Brexit is currently under close scrutiny in the UK parliament by one of the Select Committees of the House of Commons – the International Trade Committee. It is conducting a detailed inquiry into post-Brexit UK trade options, recently taking evidence about “the potential impact of alternative trading arrangements after the UK leaves the EU and also the future of trade with the Commonwealth.”

        One of the sub-committees is examining the opportunities for developing UK trading relationships with the Commonwealth once a Brexit deal has been concluded, including the scope for increasing UK exports, the future of trade with developing Commonwealth countries, and the potential for trade agreements and exports with major economies such as India, Canada and Australia.

        The trading arrangements of individual Commonwealth members with the UK have long been governed through EU policies. Brexit potentially means substantial new trade and investment opportunities for the Commonwealth, as well as augmented trade and investment flows between members. “Associate membership” will certainly count for something in this brave new world, and not beyond the bounds of possibility is the concept of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine, allied within a new three-state confederation, each an associate member of the Commonwealth.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 March 2017, as
"The Commonwealth - a place for Israel?":

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 March 2017:

          [Next posting - Saturday 18 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Iran emboldened

        Emboldened by the misconceived policies of ex-US President Obama, Iran has become positively confrontational under President Donald Trump. Iran and the US always backed different sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen, but now they stand ideologically opposed on most issues involving the region.

        Early in February Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but the new US ambassador to the United Nations called the test "unacceptable". Washington put the Islamic Republic “on notice” and imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country.

        No sooner were the new sanctions announced than Tehran, defiant, held a full-scale military exercise. Three types of missiles, radar systems and cyber warfare technology were tested. The aim of the exercise, according to the website of Iran’s élite Revolutionary Guards, was to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions.”

        Then, although not widely reported at the time, on the evening of Sunday 5 February 2017 a surface-to-surface missile was fired by Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthis into Saudi Arabia itself. It struck a military base at al-Mazahimiyah, about 40 kilometres west of Riyadh. The missile was a variant of a Russian Scud known as the “Borkan”. Although the attack was never confirmed or denied by the Saudi authorities or the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, confirmation came from several Saudi citizens via postings on Twitter. Some reports suggested that subsequently a state of emergency had been declared in the city.

        Yemen’s “alternative” Houthi government, backed as it is by Iran, was quick to announce its victory. Yemen’s SABA news agency quoted a Houthi spokesman describing the attack as a “successful test-firing of a precision long-distance ballistic missile… the capital of [expletive] Saudi Arabia is now in the range of our missiles and, God willing, what is coming will be greater.”

        This is not the first such attack – on 31 January a Borkan-1 missile reportedly killed 80 coalition soldiers on a Saudi-UAE military base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. But it is the first Iranian-inspired military strike into Saudi Arabia’s heartland and, if the usually reliable Debkafile website is to be believed, it is the first test of a newly-enhanced Iranian Scud – a dress rehearsal for a real military onslaught currently in the planning stage.

        Early in February Debkafile reported that Iranian engineers were working round the clock on a project dubbed “Riyadh First.” The objective was to add 100 kilometres to the range of Iran’s Scud surface missiles, to enable them to explode in the centre of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The report claimed that the project, sited at the Al Ghadi base in Big Ganesh, 48 kilometers west of Tehran, was ordered by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Revolutionary Guard air force commander, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the missile testing site, was reported to have ordered all other work halted in order to concentrate on the fast-track “Riyadh First” Scud development project.

       This project, it was claimed, was what lay behind the threat made by Hajizadeh on 11 February: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”

       All the indications are that Iran, boosted by its nuclear deal struck with the US and other world powers, by a massive financial donation from the US, the lifting of sanctions and the eagerness of the western world to forge commercial links, has been emboldened to pursue its ambition of achieving political and religious hegemony in the Middle East. Just as Iran’s leaders have used Hezbollah as a proxy fighting force in Syria, so, it appears, they are preparing to use the Houthis as their instrument in launching direct military action against Saudi Arabia.

        Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the director of Saudi Arabia's general intelligence agency, Khalid Bin Ali al-Humaidan, paid unannounced and unreported visits to both Ramallah and Jerusalem on 21 and 22 February.

        One matter of concern to the Saudi leadership must be the reports that Iran is fostering closer ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas fell out with Shia Iran, once one of the group's main backers, after Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Syrian rebels. Ties were renewed in February 2016, when Hamas, after a visit to Iran, announced a "new page of cooperation". At the end of January 2017 senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared, during a trip to Algeria, that "efforts and contacts are under way to boost relations with Iran.”

        As for the PA, reports are abroad of a secret meeting in Brussels on 15 February between Palestinian and Iranian officials as part of a new diplomatic initiative. Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee, was said to be in charge of the Palestinian side.

       During his visit to Jerusalem, al-Humaidan may have explored security issues related to the idea of a US-Israeli-Arab regional conference endorsed by Trump and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met in Washington on February 15. The Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed in 2002 by Saudi’s then Crown Prince Abdullah, and subsequently confirmed more than once by the Arab League, is the best basis for any Arab-backed effort at resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Given the active security, intelligence and military cooperation that has developed between Israel and a number of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, active Arab involvement in a new peace initiative is not impossible.

        Saudi Arabia, in line with both the US and Israel, is desperately anxious to discourage any further boost to Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East, and actively seeks to downgrade it. Iran, of course, is not part of the Arab world – a further cause of resentment at its ambitions for regional hegemony, both political and religious. In cocking a snook at the Trump administration, the West generally and much of Sunni Islam, Iran is at last in danger of over-reaching itself.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 March 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2017:

                 [Next posting: 11 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Squaring the two-state circle

        The year 2017 will witness a double anniversary in the convoluted history of the Middle East, one of 50 years, the other a centenary. June 6 is the date in 1967 which marked the outbreak of the Six Day War; “November 2nd, 1917” is the date that appears below the words “Foreign Office” on the single sheet of paper that contains the Balfour Declaration. Both continue to influence every aspect of Arab-Israeli relations and the interminable Israel-Palestine dispute.

        How is that situation ever to be resolved?

        Hard-liners on each side see a solution only in the utter defeat of the other. Hard-line Israeli opinion favours annexing the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper; the Palestinian hard-line objective is to eliminate Israel altogether, converting the whole of what was once Mandate Palestine into a new sovereign state of Palestine.

        The consensus of world opinion rejects both extremes, overwhelmingly supporting what has become known as the two-state solution. Indeed a joint Palestinian-Israeli poll revealed on 16 February 2017 that a majority of Israelis and just under half of Palestinians are also in favour.

        The idea of partition traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by Great Britain supporting the concept of establishing a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine. Subsequently Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

        The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”

        What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time. In particular, the combined Arab attack which followed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 ended with armistice agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan. These agreements recognized that where the three armies were positioned at the moment the fighting ceased would be Israel’s temporary boundaries, but not its permanent state borders. These were to be established in final status negotiations.

        In the event the boundaries lasted for twenty years. When combined Arab forces massed against Israel in 1967 for a three-pronged attack, the resultant Six-Day War saw Israeli forces overrunning vast tracts of land. In subsequent peace treaties the Sinai was returned to Egypt, and Jordan was granted oversight of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, but Israel remained the occupying power in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Attempts over the years to reach a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians proved fruitless. The Gaza strip was handed back to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005, and shortly afterwards was seized by the extreme jihadist group, Hamas.

        "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa in June 2016, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause.” Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance until the restoration of Palestinian rights."

        The world supports the two-state concept, but the question rarely asked is 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.

        Other problems obstruct the two-state route. PA president Mahmoud Abbas leads a Fatah party whose constitution states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit and the homeland of the Palestinian people.

        Why then, one might ask, has Abbas spent the past twelve years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because pressing for recognition of a Palestine within the pre-Six-Day War boundaries is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

        Nevertheless, given that the PA provides lip-service to the two-state solution, a Palestinian state on pre-Six Day War boundaries will not do. Hamas would seize power, just as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them very much indeed is the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

        Just as threatening would be Islamic State which would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defense, like a cat on a mouse.

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

        How is the circle to be squared?

        At the instigation of the Arab League, the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference with the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine, but only within the context of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the confederation. 

     A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security and future growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where an answer might lie.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2017:

         [Next posting: 5 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Trump's Middle East policy takes shape

        Never mind the traditional first hundred days. Within US President Trump’s first twenty days in office the broad outlines of his policy for the Middle East had emerged. It clearly has two over-riding objectives – to defeat Islamic State (IS) and to cut Iran down to size. In the Trump world view, both IS and Iran represent clear and present dangers to the stability, values and way of life of the civilized world in general, and the US in particular.

        Both on the campaign trail, and once he was in office, Trump has reiterated his intention to eliminate “radical Islamic terrorism”.  Back in 2015, at the height of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee migration into Europe, the London Daily Express reported an IS operative claiming that more than 4,000 covert IS gunmen had been smuggled into western nations – hidden amongst innocent travellers, refugees and migrants. The report continued: “The operative said the undercover infiltration was the beginning of a larger plot to carry out revenge attacks in the West in retaliation for the US-led coalition airstrikes.”

        Objectionable as Trump's proposed travel ban may be, as well as inept in its execution, the disruption and mayhem caused by IS in Syria and across large areas of Iraq, as well as its pernicious activities in Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, must be presumed to be the rationale for his controversial and disputed travel restrictions on the citizens of those countries as well as of Iran.
        As regards Sudan, IS militants have been active ever since they infiltrated the country in 2015. A senior IS figure, accused of helping to plan the terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in which 21 people were killed, was extradited to Tunisia in December 2016.

        Libya, war-torn since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, was soon penetrated by IS jihadists intent on toppling the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Khalifa Haftar, the government’s military commander, is currently seeking Russian support in an effort to overcome them.

        In Somalia the extremist terrorist group al-Shabab was once strongly aligned with al-Qaeda. In 2015 a large segment defected, pledged their allegiance to IS, and turned on their erstwhile comrades. Al-Shabab is intent on disrupting the country, overthrowing the administration and establishing Sharia law – one group favouring the al-Qaeda version; the other pledged to IS and the pretensions of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the caliph of all Muslims worldwide.. With al-Shabab controlling large areas of the country, it was only by decamping to a heavily-guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu, that legislators felt safe enough to elect their new president, Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo, on 8 February 2017.

        Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2015 between two factions claiming to constitute the Yemeni government, quickly morphed into a hydra-headed monster. Not only did the Shi’ite Houthi forces clash with the Sunni forces loyal to the legal government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, but IS militants moved in to oppose the Islamist terror group calling itself AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), already active in the conflict. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the Iranian-backed Houthi seizing control of the country, then joined the fray in support of Hadi, and Iran responded by intensifying its support for the Houthi rebels.

        “The support that the Houthis enjoy from their northern neighbour Iran,” wrote Sir Graeme Lamb, former head of UK Special Forces, in September 2016, “is very real, be it political, propaganda, psychological, hands-on training, specialist advisors, weaponry, sanctuary or financial support. Without it, the rebel cause would probably slump.”

        As for Iran, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the regime in general and the nuclear deal struck under the leadership of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in particular. On the campaign trail Trump variously pledged to "dismantle the disastrous deal" and to "force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal." 
After taking office he described it as “the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated.” In a lengthy TV interview, he described Iran as “the number one terrorist state”, maintaining that the nuclear deal had weakened America and emboldened Iran’s leaders.

        When Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels began planting mines in the strategic waterway at the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, Trump personally warned the Islamic Republic that it was “playing with fire.” As a counter measure he not only despatched the destroyer USS Cole to the area, but announced a fresh round of anti-Iran sanctions, targeting 13 individuals and 12 organizations.

        The tit-for-tat continues. Iran’s test-firing of ballistic missiles on 1 February provoked US national security adviser Michael Flynn to announce that he was putting Iran “on notice”. The result? A deliberate snub by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a second round of missile firings on 8 February. Trump believes his predecessor, ex-President Obama, obsessed by his desire to conclude the nuclear deal, gave away far too much both diplomatically and in hard cash (“we gave them $1.7 billion in cash, which is unheard of, and we put the money up and we have really nothing to show for it”). In due course Trump may seek to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal, though the obstacles to doing so are formidable given that five other world powers were signatories in addition to the US – the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany.

        Set against Trump’s twin objectives of defeating IS and reducing the power and potential nuclear capability of Iran, other aspects of US-Middle East policy take second place. Washington’s reaction to Israel’s renewed settlement building program was restrained, and Trump’s declared intention of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to have been put on the back burner. 
He and Benjamin Netanyahu hit it off on a personal level during the Israeli prime minister’s visit on 15 February, but references to a possible resumption of peace negotiations were indeterminate.

        To achieve his major 
objectives in the Middle East Trump will need the cooperation, overt or covert, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The price to the US will be to endorse an even stronger Russian presence, both physically and diplomatically, in the region. Believing Russia to be less threatening than radical Islamism, it is a price Trump may well be prepared to pay.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 20 February 2017:

           [Next posting:  26 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation

        The Islamist world is fierce, bloody and fratricidal. Many of the extremist groupings are in bitter conflict with one another, not always along the traditional Sunni-Shia divide. Sometimes intra-Islamist conflicts are essentially political in nature. One long-running political feud is the continuing struggle between Hamas and Fatah.

        The Hamas-Fatah conflict does not concern itself with religious doctrine, nor even with basic political objectives. Both organisations are Sunni Muslim; both are pledged to restore to Islamic rule the whole of Mandate Palestine, including the area currently occupied by the state of Israel. Their fundamental disagreement is over the strategy for achieving their common purpose, and their struggle is a struggle for power within the Palestinian body politic.

        Hamas sprang from the loins of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had gained a strong foothold in the Gaza strip following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Hamas organization came into existence in 1987, soon after the start of the first intifada masterminded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under its Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat. From its earliest days Hamas saw itself as a rival to Fatah. Hamas opposed the PLO entering peace talks with Israel, utterly rejected the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and was appalled by the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel. On 5 September 1993, shortly after the Oslo terms were announced, Hamas issued its Leaflet 102 condemning both the agreement and the PLO leadership:

        “We will therefore insist on ruining this agreement, and continue the resistance struggle and our jihad against the occupation power… The leadership of Arafat carries the responsibility for destroying Palestinian society and for sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

        Hamas was unimpressed by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War – as only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This strategy was, in fact, spelled out by Arafat in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996: "We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem," he said, adding that the PLO plans "to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.”

        Hamas would have no truck with the two-state solution because it would consolidate Israel’s position on what they regard as Palestinian soil. Equally they have rejected all the efforts by PA president Mahmoud Abbas to gain international recognition for a state of Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Any recognition of the pre-Six Day War boundaries would work two ways – it might delineate a sovereign Palestine, but it would also legitimize Israel’s place within what had been Mandate Palestine.

        This fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective lies at the heart of the perpetual Hamas-Fatah conflict. There are others. Both are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian population, and Hamas makes no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognise him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells aimed at launching attacks on Israel from the West Bank. In this connection it vehemently opposes the security coordination between the PA and Israel in the West Bank – Israel’s guarantee of continued PA control – which Abbas once described as “sacred”.

        Which brings us to the long-sought chimera of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. “Chimera” is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “a grotesque product of the imagination”, which seems an apt description. Wikipedia lists no less than 12 attempts since 2005 to reconcile the two warring factions, all ultimately unsuccessful.

       Perhaps the most hopeful was the “government of national unity” formed by agreement between Fatah and Hamas in 2014, a diplomatic coup that brought the peace negotiations then in progress between Israel and the PA to a shuddering halt. Abbas announced the “historic reconciliation” a month before the talks were due to end, and appeared to imply that the inclusion of Hamas in a government of national unity would make no difference to the aim of achieving a sovereign state based on the two-state solution.

        “There is no incompatibility,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “between reconciliation and the talks…The government reports to me and follows my policies. I recognize Israel and so will the government. I renounce violence and terrorism, and I recognize international legitimacy, and so will the government.”

        Hamas would have had to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements. It seemed inconceivable that it would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region.

        The arrangement lasted just twelve months. Nationwide Palestinian elections, promised as part of the deal, never took place.

        The merry-go-round continues to revolve. Following recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials in Switzerland, Beirut and Moscow, a further attempt at reconciliation is planned to take place soon in the Gulf state of Qatar. The chances of success seem remoter than ever. A few weeks ago Israel’s Security Agency announced it had arrested a large network of Hamas operatives in Ramallah that had been working to undermine and overthrow the PA administration. In a tit-for-tat exercise, a Hamas-administered court in the Gaza Strip on 25 January 2017 sentenced eight Fatah members to various prison terms for “undermining revolutionary unity.”

        Meanwhile the recent announcement by the PA that long-delayed municipal elections would take place on 13 May 2017 was immediately denounced by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum as “unacceptable.” It “strengthens division, serves Fatah politics, comes at the expense of the Palestinian people and the unity of its institutions, and confirms that the government is working in favour of Fatah.”

        Not the most auspicious of omens for an imminent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 12 February 2017:
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 February 2017:

         [Next posting: 19 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The state of Lebanon


        Uniquely among the 50 Muslim-majority nations of the world, Lebanon has a Christian president. The inauguration of Michel Aoun on 1 November 2016 ended a 29-month power vacuum and a political stalemate that had frozen the country's constitutional processes.

        “Not before time” would be a natural reaction, considering the length of the presidential inter-regnum. The truth, however, is that the absence of a largely figurehead president over that period, while politically inconvenient and somewhat of an embarrassment, made little difference to Lebanon as it ambled along under the guidance of prime minister Tammam Salam.

        Along the way, Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia plummeted as Hezbollah, an integral part of Lebanon’s body politic, plunged into the Syrian conflict together with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in support of President Bashar Assad. Aoun took early steps to repair fences by visiting Saudi Arabia in January 2017. He could do little domestically to mitigate the result of an influx of more than a million refugees fleeing the horrors of the civil war that raged in Syria. Lebanon’s population of less than 4 million in 2000 had, by the end of 2016, swollen to more than 6 million, most of the addition being Sunni Muslim refugees.

        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. In fact, 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 was established in 1944 on the basis of an agreed "National Pact", with the top three positions in the state allocated so that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim.

        Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society. In practical terms, it has proved a constant irritant, and efforts to alter or abolish it have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades.

        The Taif agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989 incorporated a deal with the Christian community designed to buy their acceptance of their defeat in the conflict. Based on the fiction that Christians made up half the population of Lebanon, Taif reserved half the seats in parliament for them. Everyone knew that the parliamentary allocation was unfair. A recent analysis of voter registration lists by The Economist revealed that only 37% of Lebanese voters are Christian; Shias are 29 percent; Sunnis, 28 percent. Yet the Christians get 64 of parliament’s 128 seats, whereas the Sunnis and Shias get only 27 each, the rest going to the Druze and Alawites. Meanwhile, not only the Syrian refugees, but also the half-million Palestinians, most of them Sunnis, who have arrived in Lebanon since 1948, have never been granted citizenship and are debarred from voting.

        This mismatch between demography and political power partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.

        Hezbollah, an extremist Shia Islamist group, emerged in the early 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement aimed at resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

        It can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but Hezbollah achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border. In the election that followed Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process and been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the March 14 Alliance, an organization dedicated to overthrowing this “state within a state”. Now, although the nwq prime minister, Saeed Hariri, is a long-time opponent of Hezbollah, it has secured two ministerial posts.

        Liberating Lebanon from the influence of Hezbollah and Syria was the aim of Saeed’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. When then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible, 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 twelfth year it is being conducted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, is comparable to some thriving commercial enterprise.

        The STL court, consisting of 11 judges, sits in The Hague. So far no less than 236 witness have provided testimony, 113 of them in person. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, and a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

        Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Hezbollah and the Syrian régime have sought to disrupt the UN investigation. As a result the five identified defendants have not been apprehended, and the trial of Ayyash et al. is being held in absentia. When it began on 16 January 2014, after years of pre-trial hearings, the prosecution carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria. Latterly it has become clear that the prosecution believes President Bashar Assad wanted Rafik Hariri killed, and used Hezbollah and his own security apparatus to achieve his objective. Hearings are scheduled to continue well into 2017, and possibly beyond, but Assad and Hezbollah face an increasingly probable verdict of having planned and executed the murder of Rafik Hariri. 

        On 17 January Michel Aoun visited the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for a briefing by the two leading judges. Judge Ivana Hrdličková is reported as telling Lebanon’s new president: “I am determined to promote the values of efficiency, transparency and accountability”. She said nothing about when the interminable judicial process might reach a conclusion. But when it does, will Lebanon be prepared for the political consequences?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 February 2017:

            [Next posting: Saturday 11 February 2017 at 7.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 29 January 2017

France's damp squib


        November the 5th – for anyone unfamiliar with British customs – is the day each year when children across the UK gather around a bonfire, burn an effigy of a 17th century villain called Guy Fawkes, and let off fireworks. Guy Fawkes’s villainy consisted in packing the basement of the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder, hoping to blow up the whole place when King James I was present, thus despatching the monarch and the entire aristocracy to kingdom come. Details of the plot leaked, and it turned – as any firework does if not kept completely dry – into a damp squib.

        “Damp squib” is an epithet that could be applied to the much-trumpeted 70-nation assembly in Paris on January 15, 2017, brought together to discuss the apparently insoluble Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. “An exercise in futility” is how the London Daily Telegraph termed it;“a lame duck enterprise.” Others described it as “much ado about nothing”.

        French presidents have aspired to be power brokers in the Middle East ever since France assumed its colonial role there, after the First World War. France was, of course, one of the two principals ­– the other was Britain – responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during the war.

        As a result, for the last hundred years France has involved itself in the politics of the region. As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, while France has consistently defended Israel’s right to exist in security, it has also long advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. Belying the well-known logicality of French thought, the possible incompatibility between these two positions has never been acknowledged. It was certainly not referred to by former French president, François Mitterand, when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1982.

        France sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, a perception which has led it into a blind alley on more than one occasion. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the initiator of a damp squib par excellence in 2007-8, when he devised and pushed through the European Union a concept grandiosely entitled the “Union for the Mediterranean”. In July 2008 he induced more than 40 heads of state, including Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to attend a summit in Paris. Nothing of any significance emerged from the meeting, and the Union for the Mediterranean has long since been sucked into the quicksands of history to disappear without trace.

        A year later, in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Barack Obama was eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Sarkozy believed he saw an opportunity to get in on the act and offered to host another international conference, in order, as he said, to facilitate the peace process. He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Obama, however, intent on pursuing his own initiative, rejected the overture.

        Nothing daunted, 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. He declared that the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian discussions was a French priority, and that a Paris-located international conference would be a positive way to advance the peace process. Once again France’s attempt to elbow its way into the negotiations was quietly pushed aside.

        This prescription of a Paris-based international conference seems to have become an idée fixe in French thinking. It reappeared in December 2014, when President François Hollande 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.

        Laurent Fabius, France’s then foreign minister, played the same tune, with minor variations, when he visited the Middle East in June 2015 to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process. Hollande followed this up with a meeting in Paris on June 3, 2016. Attended by 28 governments or organizations, it was intended to signal a sort of remobilization of the international community in support of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Then finally, on January 15, 2017, France achieved its long-held ambition of hosting an international peace conference, and in Paris too.

        It garnered a splendid turnout, including the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, even though he was within two weeks of relinquishing his post. The occasion was, however, rather like a performance of Hamlet without either the prince or his father’s ghost because, in accordance with a rather convoluted political plan, France had invited neither of the two principals to the occasion. The intention was to impose global pressure on Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the PA president Mahmoud Abbas, to re-enter negotiations on the basis of the recent UN resolution 2334 and the vitally important earlier resolution 242. Ignored or unrecognized was the glaring incompatibility between the two. While 242 envisages the creation of new “secure and recognized boundaries” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, 2334 hands the whole territory over to the Palestinians.

        The main positive point emerging from the conference was that “interested participants” resolved to meet again before the end of 2017 to support both sides in advancing the two-state solution. It is not clear how many of the 70 attendees qualify as “interested participants”, but it is certain that neither the US nor the UK will be at that get-together, if it ever takes place. The US under President Trump will have no interest in further Israel-bashing, while the UK virtually snubbed the Paris event by sending not the Foreign Secretary, nor even a minister, but the head of the Middle East desk at the Foreign Office, and then not endorsing the final communiqué.

        Paris produced nothing new or positive on January 15, and is unlikely to do so the next time round. Israeli settlements may seem to many the ultimate obstacle to an accord, but far more of an obstacle is the stubborn refusal of Palestinian extremists to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, linked to their continuous propaganda promoting hatred of Israel, Israelis and Jews, and lauding and rewarding terrorists and terrorist activity against them. If that issue were ever addressed, some long-awaited fireworks might well result.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 January 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 January 2017:

               [Next posting:  Saturday 4 February 2017 at 7.30 pm GMT]

Tuesday, 24 January 2017


This letter appeared in the London Daily Telegraph on 24 January 2016:


SIR – The UN Security Council’s Resolution 2334, passed by 14 votes to nil on December 23 with the US abstaining, refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”.

In so doing, it runs counter to Resolution 242, adopted by the Security Council immediately after the Six Day War in June 1967, which did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel had captured but required the creation of new “secure and recognised” boundaries.

The corollary to East Jerusalem being recognised as occupied Palestinian territory, however, is that West Jerusalem is part of sovereign Israel. Accordingly, what logical objection could there be to any nation locating its embassy there, as Donald Trump plans for America?

Neville Teller

              [Next posting:  Sunday, 29 January 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Sunday, 22 January 2017

UN Resolution 2334 and the Jerusalem anomaly


        In the course of its vehement condemnation of Israeli settlements, UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed on December 23, 2016, refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” To some, the phrase may appear not only innocuous, but self-evident. In fact it is saddled with a load of historical assumption, and requires a little cool picking apart.

        In the first instance, the wording of 2334 makes it clear that the idea of the City of Jerusalem as a so-called corpus separatum, namely international territory – a concept inherent in the original UN partition plan for post-Mandate Palestine – has been abandoned by the Security Council. But contradictions abound in international thinking about the Israel-Palestinian situation. Incongruously the UN as a whole, like the European Union, still clings to the concept of an internationalized Jerusalem while at the same time asserting its support for the incompatible objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." It must be one or the other; it cannot be both – and the Security Council at least appears consistent.

        The idea of an internationalized Jerusalem was set out in General Assembly resolution 181 (II), passed on November 29, 1947: "The City of Jerusalem shall be established as a corpus separatum under a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations." It was restated after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war in resolution 303(IV) of 1949, and again reiterated in a 1979 report prepared under the guidance of the UN’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. It has never been countermanded, though as a practical proposition it is surely obsolete. There has never been any agreement, treaty, or international understanding which applies the corpus separatum concept to Jerusalem.

        The idea was part and parcel of the UN’s original partition plan for Mandate Palestine. At the moment the British government surrendered its mandate, the territory then known as “Palestine” – except for the area designated for the Jewish state, which had come into existence on the previous day – ceased to belong to any sovereign nation. In the subsequent Arab-Israel war Jordanian forces seized East Jerusalem, while Israel gained control of West Jerusalem. In 1949, the Israeli government declared Jerusalem to be the capital of the new state.

        It was during the 1967 Six Day War that Israel captured East Jerusalem from the Jordanian army. The Security Council’s purpose in asserting that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory is to reaffirm, as it has done on a variety of occasions in the past, that it regards as invalid Israel’s Jerusalem Law of July 1980 declaring the whole city to be the unified capital of Israel.

        As for possible changes to the pre-Six Day War lines regarding Jerusalem, these are many and various. Several have been discussed down to fine detail during past intensive negotiations. They include redrawing the boundaries of the city and its environs to carve out a new Arab municipality of Al-Quds (the so-called “Clinton Parameters”), leaving the city unified but under joint Israeli-Arab administration (the “open city” concept of the 1999-2001 final status negotiations), and the “divided city”, or separation barrier, proposed in the joint Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative of 2003.

        The Old City of Jerusalem presents its own problems, and various models are similarly afloat, including so-called “territorial sovereignty” (ie divided Israeli-Arab control), a “special regime” (a united Old City under special management), and hybrid versions of these.

        The main problem with resolution 2334 is that it seeks to modify Security Council Resolution 242, the accepted and agreed basis for the Arab-Israel peace process. Adopted by the Security Council in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War in June 1967, resolution 242 became the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israel dispute. 242 accepted that the armistice line boundaries after the 1948 Arab-Israel war, which remained in place up to the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, were merely where the two armies happened to be placed when hostilities ceased in 1948, and were far from satisfactory as defensible international borders. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations." Accordingly resolution 242 required the creation of new “secure and recognized" boundaries, and did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War.

        Resolution 2334 runs counter to 242 by explicitly establishing the 1967 pre-war boundaries as the borders of a Palestinian state, only subject to any possible future agreement. Those boundaries refer back to a city of Jerusalem divided between Israeli and Jordanian occupation. The dividing line ran south past the Mandelbaum Gate and skirted the Old City wall, thus incorporating the Old City within East Jerusalem.

        Right up until 1967 Jordanian snipers were positioned along the City Line, frequently shooting at citizens and other targets on the Israeli side of the city. Jordan’s commitment in the 1949 Armistice Agreement to allow free access of Jews to the holy sites, such as the Western Wall and the cemetery on the Mount of Olives, was not honored. Synagogues, cemeteries and the area adjacent to the Western Wall were desecrated. Israel understandably has no desire to recreate the conditions that gave rise to this situation – which explains why much of the Israeli media objects to the idea of pre-determining the borders of a putative Palestinian state to include an East Jerusalem occupied for 19 years by the Jordanian army.

        A further interesting point. To declare, as resolution 2334 does, that East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory carries with it an obvious corollary – namely that West Jerusalem is an integral part of sovereign Israel. The Security Council therefore, by implication, removes any objection to states locating their embassies within that part of the city. In the light of resolution 2334, the furore raised in certain circles by US President Donald Trump’s declared intention to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem seems otiose.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 January 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 January 2017:

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Unpicking UN resolution 2334

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 January 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 January 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 January 2017:

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