Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The making of a united Kurdistan


The yellow area combines latest gains by Kurdish troops in Syria with the territory administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.         

          Slowly, and much to the distaste of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the possibility of a united autonomous Kurdistan stretching across the northern reaches of Syria and Iraq is emerging.

          The capture of the township of Manbij from Islamic State (IS) on 12 August 2016 produces along Turkey’s southern border an uninterrupted swathe of territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias. This area joins seamlessly with Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, the Kurdish populated area granted autonomy in Iraq’s 2005 constitution.

          Just as the artificial boundaries and borders imposed on the Middle East by the victorious allies after the First World War are laughed to scorn by Islamic State (IS) in declaring its caliphate, so any united autonomous Kurdistan – if such an entity were ever to come into existence – would have to sit fairly and squarely across what now constitute the internationally recognized borders of Turkey, Syria. Iraq and Iran.

          Iraq’s Kurdistan contains about 5 million of the world’s approximately 30 million ethnic Kurds; the liberated region in Syria about 2 million. Most of the rest reside in the areas immediately adjacent to Kurdistan’s northern and eastern borders, in Turkey and Iran respectively - both of which are deeply opposed to any suggestion of granting Kurds independence, or even autonomy on the Iraqi model.

          It was in August 1920, shortly after the end of the First World War, that the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire were incorporated into the Treaty of Sèvres. That Treaty, made between the victorious Allied powers and representatives of the government of Ottoman Turkey, abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. Moreover, it required a referendum to be conducted to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

          Sèvres was very quickly rendered null and void by the establishment in 1922 of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The result was a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave control of the entire Anatolian Peninsula, including the Kurdistan homeland in Turkey, to the new republic.

          Kurdish nationalism emerged largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Ataturk. The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. Years of rebellion in Iraq ended with a peace deal between the government and the Kurdish rebels in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.

          When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and Kurdish Peshmerga troops helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.

          The journey towards a unified Kurdish movement in Iraq, bedevilled by internal politicking, was long and bitter. In 1994 a power-sharing arrangement between the KDP and the PUK fell apart, leading to two separate administrations in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and a no-holds-barred civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal. Eventually the PUK and the KDP set up a unified regional government, and Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

          When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish Peshmerga troops joined in the fight to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After he was driven from office the Iraqi people, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution which recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral element in Iraq’s administration. Barzani was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

          In Syria the civil war, which began in earnest in 2011 in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad and his administration, brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. In early fighting Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. As early as October 2011, sponsored by President Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) to press for eventual Kurdish autonomy. As in Iraq, political differences within the Kurdish community have resulted in a breakaway party, the PYD, challenging the national council.

          The KNC is wholeheartedly in favour of establishing a Kurdish Regional Government in Syria, to mirror that in Iraq. The PYD favours establishing a multi-ethnic administration in the areas of northern Syria captured from government forces. An uneasy truce between the two groups, brokered by Barzani in 2012, seems to be holding, despite a succession of incidents between them.

          Is some sort of amalgamation of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish areas a practical proposition?

          “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26, 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it."

          If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, and worse if it were to amalgamate with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. This would be anathema to Erdogan, who has consistently opposed his domestic Kurdish separatist movement - which explains why, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July 2015, he began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush.

          Nevertheless Erdogan may have to bow to the politically inevitable, even if it causes him continuing domestic headaches with his substantial Turkish-Kurdish population. Everything turns on what sort of Syrian entity emerges from the current conflict.

          It seems highly unlikely that Syrian President Bashar Assad, even with combined Russian and Iranian support, will ever regain the whole of his former state. Even the eventual elimination of IS in Syria, if that were ever to be achieved with the help of the US-led coalition, would scarcely be to Assad’s advantage, since the coalition is pretty well unanimous in wishing to see him deposed. The anti-IS coalition, moreover, is highly indebted to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have proved themselves outstandingly effective fighters on the ground.

          When the conflict is eventually resolved, and the spoils of victory come to be disbursed, gratitude and common decency seem to demand that Syria’s Kurds are at last awarded their autonomy. In that eventuality, a unified Kurdistan would be one step nearer to fulfilment.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 August 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 August 2016

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Qatar phenomenon

          It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one, geographically, politically, economically, influentially. That Qatar aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond may seem obvious enough, but in pursuit of this objective Qatar’s tactics sometimes puzzle, sometimes infuriate, its neighbours. But then, as the world’s wealthiest nation by a long chalk, Qatar can afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others think.

          Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists — from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters — while also offering itself as a key US ally, is rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wants to protect itself and to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody.

          “We don’t do enemies,” said Qatar’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah. “We talk to everyone.”

          And talk they certainly do, through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeerah world-wide media network – a network whose independence has been questioned, but is certainly curtailed by a requirement to avoid adverse criticism of Qatar’s Emir.

          So when the Emir announces – as he did on July 29, 2016 – that he intends to pay one month’s wages for thousands of public sector employees in Gaza to help “alleviate the suffering of brethren in the Strip,” world opinion is left wondering whether his stated motive is his sole one, or whether other considerations lie behind the gesture. He will be spending $31.6 million from his nation’s purse to cover the salaries of some 50,000 Hamas-hired civil servants, many of whom have not seen regular pay packages since 2013.

        But why have they not? One might legitimately ask what happens to the literally billions of official development assistance dollars poured into Hamas’s coffers every year.

          Qatar is politically close to Hamas. In January 2016 Qatar handed over some 1,060 housing units to Gazan families who had lost their homes during recent wars. These homes marked the completion of the first of three phases of a multi-million dollar redevelopment effort Qatar pledged to fund in 2012. In addition to infrastructure facilities, roads and green spaces, it includes two schools, a health centre, a commercial center, a mosque and a six-floor hospital.

        “There’s much more than money involved with Qatar’s offer,” said Patrick Clawson, director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It draws in many of the region’s disputes and rivalries under one roof.”

          Take the oft-proposed joint Palestinian municipal elections, now scheduled for October 2016 with Hamas finally agreeing to participate. Qatar’s substantial investment into Gaza at this time will undoubtedly boost Hamas’s popularity with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. It will also add to the concerns of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas about the likely result of the vote.

          And yet Israel has apparently raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. Back in June 2015 Mohammad al-Emadi, a Qatari official, travelled between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects in Gaza despite the fact that Qatar does not recognize Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

          "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's military intelligence, described Israel's agreement to Qatar channelling its aid through Hamas.

          Perhaps Israel believes that permitting aid from Qatar could help undercut Iran’s influence in Gaza. For Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, have come to realize how much their strategic interests overlap with those of Israel when it comes to the security of the region. The increasing power and influence of Iran dismays them all. Iran has been a main source of funding to Hamas for decades.

          Qatar is currently considered anti-Israel root and branch. It was not always so. In fact Qatar was the first Gulf sheikhdom to have had official relations with Israel – the two countries opened trade links in 1996 – and, as a matter of interest, when Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup it declared that, although it does not recognize Israel, it would not object to Israel competing in the tournament if it qualifies.

          But now the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) component has entered the picture. On August 4, a meeting in Tunis hosted by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a body funded by Qatar, was devoted to reviewing how BDS’s attempts to organize a global boycott against Israel could be made even more effective. This, it might be supposed, would be entirely to the delight of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, for after all the BDS movement was founded by a Palestinian – Omar Baghouti – and he still leads it.

          But no. On June 10, 2016 the following statement was sprung on a startled world:

          “The Palestinian BDS National Committee, which includes the widest spectrum of Palestinians worldwide, will not participate in this conference – and does not recommend any participation.”

          In other words, they advocated boycotting the boycott meeting.

          Even more surprising, perhaps, is the first of the reasons given, namely that the Arab Centre and the conference, are sponsored by the Qatari government. “which always stood against BDS, and has normal relations with Israel.”

          No justification was offered for either breath-taking pronouncement. A schism seems to have opened up within BDS.

          As regards the charge often levelled against Qatar of supporting terrorist organisations, there is ample evidence that those strongholds of Wahhabist Islam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, did sustain, both financially and logistically, the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in its early days, as well as its extremist precursors. In August 2015 US Vice-President Joe Biden spelled out what motivated Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

          “They were so determined to take down Assad …they poured … thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world."

          But when IS vowed to topple both the Qatari and the Saudi regimes, the penny dropped and both states allied themselves to the US-led coalition aimed at defeating IS.

          The Emir of Qatar has insisted that his country does not fund terrorism, adding the troubling caveat that Qatar and the West might disagree over what precisely constitutes a terrorist movement. On current evidence he would include IS, but exclude Hamas – a fine distinction most of the world would not acknowledge. But then, Qatar is a stand-alone state.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 August 2016

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 August 2016:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The controversial Mohammed Dahlan

          For years rumours of plots and counterplots have eddied around the controversial figure of Mohammed Dahlan, the charismatic Palestinian politician whom PA President Mahmoud Abbas regards as his greatest enemy, and who might very well eventually succeed him.

          If anything the situation has grown worse in the past few weeks. For example, Dahlan’s name is being associated with the recent attempted coup in Turkey against the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – an assumption, incidentally, that runs counter to the theory that the coup was actually orchestrated by Erdogan himself, as a devious method to justify purging his political opponents and acquiring the autocratic powers he seeks for the presidency.

          The evidence that links Dahlan to this plot is circumstantial, but back in January 2016 the Turkish paper Gercek Hayat actually reported that Dahlan was supervising a multinational plan to conduct a coup against Erdogan, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed by Russia and Iran.

          And then, on the Turkish side, media reports on July 27 indicated that Turkey is looking into the role, if any, played by Dahlan in the coup attempt. A leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ahmet Varol, claimed that Dahlan had close links with followers of Erdogan's arch-foe, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, accused by the Turkish authorities of master-minding the coup. The AKP leader admitted there was no hard evidence of Dahlan’s involvement, but asserted that the investigation was on-going and “we will not hesitate to punish and hold accountable those who were involved in harming our country".

          Whether or not Dahlan’s fingers were in this particular pie, there is no doubt that his international influence extends far and wide. Dahlan has lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for many years, and is an adviser to Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He has been described as a "friend" of both the Montenegrin and Serbian prime ministers, Milo Djukanovic and Aleksandar Vucic. In 2010 Dahlan and his wife obtained Montenegrin citizenship, Djukanovic describing him in parliament as a friend responsible for building bridges with Abu Dhabi’s royal family resulting in significant investment in the country. Then, in 2013, Dahlan obtained Serbian citizenship, having reportedly promised Serbia millions of dollars in investments from the UAE.

          A view widely held in Palestinian political circles is that Dahlan’s involvement in foreign affairs is part of a strategy designed to strengthen his status as the obvious successor to PA President Abbas. According to Ahmed Youssef, political adviser to former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, “Dahlan may have better chances at accessing high Palestinian positions than others. This is considering Israel’s [relative] satisfaction with him and his special ties with the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Syrian opposition. The international relations that a Palestinian official has may allow him to climb to rungs of the leadership ladder.”

          The editor of Jordan’s Al-Mustaqabal, Shaker al-Jawhari, believes Dahlan has the support of a wide range of regional actors. “His influence has even reached Lebanon and Europe, thanks to the funds he is distributing to his supporters there. This makes him a strong and real competitor to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].”

          The Middle East Eye website gives credence to the rumour of yet another plot centered on Dahlan. It asserts that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have been liaising in a plan for Dahlan to be next head of the Palestinian Authority, and maintains that Hamas is prepared to put aside its long history of hostility to Dahlan (when he was head of security in Gaza in 1995-2000, he had hundreds of Hamas members arrested for undertaking armed operations against Israel). The planned post-Mahmoud Abbas era would leave Dahlan, his arch-rival, in control of the Palestinian presidency, the PLO and the PA. It was reported that the UAE had held talks with Israel about the strategy to install Dahlan, and that the three principals would inform Saudi Arabia once they reached an agreement on its final shape.

          On June 24 Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, held a press conference in his hotel in Doha. "There is a regional plot,” he announced, “to parachute someone from the outside to rule Gaza and Ramallah.” The journalists present understood that he was referring to Mohammed Dahlan. Ever since Avigdor Liberman was appointed Israel's new defense minister on May 30, rumours had been spreading about the plan – or is it conspiracy? – to have Dahlan anointed as Palestine's next leader.

          According to Palestinian and Israeli sources, in January 2015, Liberman, who was then serving as the foreign minister, secretly met with Dahlan in Paris to discuss "Palestinian Authority affairs." The mere suggestion of a Liberman-Dahlan accord — whether true or not — is enough to stigmatize Dahlan and provide his rivals with much ammunition, which they have not hesitated to use.

          In Gaza Dahlan's relations with Hamas have improved remarkably, thanks to the close ties he has fostered with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The leaders of the Gaza-based movement had hoped that Dahlan would help them mend fences with Sisi. They also welcomed the infusion of money from the Dahlan Foundation in the Gaza Strip aimed at promoting projects and helping the needy. Hamas leaders in Gaza cannot afford to reject generous financial aid, even if Dahlan is the sponsor. It is obvious that these national projects bolster and cement his chances of achieving the leadership of the Palestinian political machine.

          Dahlan’s toughest obstacle is the Fatah establishment. In June 2011 Dahlan was expelled from Fatah’s ruling body following allegations of financial corruption and murder – Abbas accused him of murdering the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Dahlan was tried by the PA in absentia on corruption charges.

          But Dahlan now has support from a new Fatah leadership commission, which appears to be diverging radically from established Fatah antagonism to him. On July 25 senior Fatah leaders in Gaza were reported to have accused the new commission of taking decisions in favour of Dahlan that reinforces his grip on the movement against Mahmoud Abbas. In a letter sent to Abbas, they dubbed this a kind of insurgency, and warned of the “full collapse” of the organisational frame of Fatah that started when the current leadership commission took office. The Fatah leaders who wrote the letter accused the commission of connection with outside powers and serving external agendas.

          Do Dahlan’s strengths overcome his weaknesses in this bid to succeed Abbas – if indeed it is, as rumour has it, a serious bid backed by formidable outside interests? The forthcoming regional elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza may provide a valuable indication of Dahlan's political future.

Published in the Jerussalem Post on-line, 9 August 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 August 2016:

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The con-tricks at the core of BDS

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement proclaims as its basic purpose exerting pressure on Israel to agree to the two-state solution. The facts and the evidence point in a different direction. Were the true purposes, connections and tactics of BDS made universally transparent, it is morally certain that many protagonists would not offer the movement the enthusiastic and committed support that they do.

        The term “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” first made its appearance in a declaration issued in July 2005 under the auspices of a body calling itself Palestinian Civil Society. Representing an impressively large amalgam of Palestinian parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations, it condemned Israel in a succession of emotive trigger-terms (colonialist, ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination, occupation and oppression), drew a direct parallel between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and apartheid South Africa, and called for a similar world-wide response from all “people of conscience.”

        Neither that original BDS document, nor the movement that developed from it, have time for the nuances of a highly complex situation. The declaration defines the outcome of the 1967 Six Day War as “Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank”– a description implying that Israel acquired the West Bank in the course of an aggressive war. There is no indication that Israel overran the West Bank, and a great deal more territory (none of which, incidentally, was formally or informally designated “Palestinian” at the time) only by defeating the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian armies that had banded together to annihilate it.

        The BDS document’s view of the founding of Israel is equally dubious. It asserts that “the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners”. This implication of malevolent intent, and indeed action, by Israel omits any reference to the fact that Israel’s boundaries were actually set in the 1949 armistice agreement, following the unsuccessful attack by Arab armies on the nascent state. 

        Based on foundations as shaky as these, what precisely does the BDS movement claim that it wants to achieve? 

        According to a recent interview with the BDS founder, Omar Barghouti, BDS has three objectives:
                                    · ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories since 1967 including dismantling all settlements (“colonies” in BDS-speak); 
                                  · ending what BDS terms “Israel’s system of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens”; and 
                                   · respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes – “refugees” as defined by UNWRA, the United Nations organization dealing specifically with the Palestinian issue. 

          The UNWRA definition of “refugee” uniquely includes not only the original 850,000 Palestinian Arabs displaced during the Arab-Israel war of 1948, but all their descendants generation after generation. The number of so-called Palestinian “refugees” has consequently mushroomed to some 5 million people – all of them, apparently, entitled to return to their original family dwellings. How 5 million people could be accommodated in the living space once occupied by 850,000 is left unexplained, and for a very good reason. For the call, clearly, is to swamp Israel with eponymous “refugees” to the point where the Jewish state ceases to exist as such.

          It is not only through the refugee issue that BDS seeks Israel’s elimination. It seeks the same objective by way of the action implicit in its name: boycott, divestment and sanctions.

          Boycott means breaking off relationships with Israel in a variety of fields – trade, economic, academic, cultural and sporting; Divestment is the withdrawal of investments by banks and pension funds, or from companies operating in Israel; Sanctions are punitive actions taken by governments and international organizations, including trade penalties or bans, arms embargoes, and cutting off diplomatic relations.

          If the BDS movement ever succeeded in gaining widespread acceptance of its programme, Israel could cease to function as a viable sovereign state. That is indeed the ultimate aim not only of BDS, but of the Palestinian bodies supporting it. Hamas, the rejectionist rulers of Gaza, and Fatah, the controlling body of the Palestinian Authority, share the ultimate objective of an Israel-free Middle East. 

          So the apparently balanced, reasonable and liberal demands of BDS mask the movement’s real objective. While the elimination of the state of Israel may indeed be to the liking of certain sections of the global community, it is not the desire of most. Nor is it what a goodly number of the balanced, reasonable and liberal individuals in the worlds of academe, the arts, politics, the media, commerce and elsewhere believe they are supporting.

          Over and above this, BDS has recently latched itself to a social theory that has been achieving an inordinate amount of attention among the politically correct – intersectionality. 

          The theory of Intersectionality was originally developed within the radical feminist movement. It was postulated that gender discrimination against women can be directly shaped by someone’s race or ethnicity, and that the two are influenced by each another. This basic concept of one form of oppression influencing another appealed to sociologists, and soon mushroomed to encompass the idea that discrimination within a society against all disenfranchised groups or minorities, such as racism, ageism, sexism and homophobia, are interlinked. 

          Now BDS advocates have taken intersectionality to a whole new level by successfully injecting the anti-Israel cause into these intersecting forms of oppression. As a result, groups that consider themselves oppressed are increasingly perceiving Israel as part of the dominant and oppressive global power structure, and Palestinians as fellow victims. 

          For example, at Columbia University, “Students for Justice in Palestine” recently allied themselves with “No Red Tape”, a student group fighting sexual violence. Is opposing sexual violence in the USA actually related to the Israeli-Palestinian issue? The current, politically correct rationale comes from a Red Tape member: “Sexual violence is a deeper political issue, and it cannot be divorced or separated from other oppressed identities.”

          Nor can American policing methods, apparently. The website Mondoweiss recently declared that “since Mike Brown was shot by police in Ferguson … solidarity between the “Black Lives Matter” and Palestine movements has become an increasingly central tenet of both struggles.” “Black Lives Matter” activists routinely carry signs “Justice From Ferguson to Palestine,” seeking to link claims of American racism and police violence with claims of Israeli brutality against Palestinians.

          BDS is successfully convincing some activists that one cannot fight for women's rights, academic freedom or against racism without acknowledging that Israel is purposefully intent on oppressing Palestinians. In short, intersectionality offers BDS a fashionable and acceptable way of wielding the ultimate anti-Semitic weapon – linking every perceived evil in the world to the Jews, or in this case the Jewish state. This is classic and blatant anti-Semitism, and Western liberal opinion in general would surely not endorse it.

          It is high time that the con-tricks at the heart of the BDS movement were exposed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 August 2016:

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Can Lebanon ever rid itself of Hezbollah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 July 2016:

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Netanyahu's alliance of the African periphery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Nothing could be plainer.

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

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 July 2016:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Al-Sisi seizes the lead in the peace process


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 July 2016:

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

France’s Middle East peace initiative and the Hamas conundrum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 June 2016:

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Iran's winning ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 June 2016:

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Britain's EU referendum - the Israel dimension

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

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

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

          What of the Israel dimension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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