Sunday, 31 January 2010

January reviewed

The last day of January. Have we advanced at all from where we stood on the first – advanced, that is, towards a settlement of Arab-Israeli differences in general, and the Israel-Palestine dispute in particular?

I think we can claim a few centimetres of progress.

To start with, George Mitchell is back in town, and that can't be bad news. The US special envoy arrived less than a fortnight ago, and immediately set off on a whistle-stop tour of the region. He was hoping, no doubt, to kick-start the long-stalled PA-Israel negotiations into life by direct appeals to Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon, President Asad in Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel, King Abdullah in Jordan and President Mubarak in Egypt.

He didn't succeed – not straight off, that is – but this first phase of his renewed enterprise was not entirely fruitless. Its legacy, we have learned only in the past few days, is a plan to institute a form of proxy negotiation between Israel and the PA. The technique, pioneered by Turkey in 2008 to establish on-going interchanges between Israel and Syria, is known as "proximity talks" (described in "The Kissinger Touch", below). Israel's Netanyahu is reported to have accepted the proposal. Mahmoud Abbas, in London this weekend to meet prime minister Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Milliband, is said still to be considering it. No doubt they will be urging him on – preferably to resume direct talks, or failing that to consent to "proximity talks" as a second-best,

Mitchell's shuttle round the region was part of a Grand Plan which he spelled out during his visit to Syria. His ultimate objective is to secure what he calls: "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East", and he defines "comprehensive" as peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon; it also includes the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. Since this statement comes from his own lips, these must be the ambitious criteria that he wants eventually to be judged by.

What else of a positive nature has happened in January?

A potentially damaging dispute between Turkey and Israel, brought about by the peculiarly childish behaviour of Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, has been averted. More than that, the silly incident seems to have served to strengthen ties between the two countries, once so very close, but recently grown much looser. Visiting Ankara in the middle of the month Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, was told that Turkey was anxious to resume its role as mediator and proximity talks host between Israel and Syria.

Early in January – it may have been wishful thinking on some journalist's part – word leaked out that, during a visit to Cairo, Benjamin Netanyahu had indicated that he was prepared to discuss making the Arab areas of Jerusalem the capital of a future sovereign state of Palestine. The indivisibility of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has been the touchstone of Likud's philosophy, and that of other right-wing Israeli political parties, ever since the capital was reunited after the Six-Day War in 1967. So it was no surprise that a denial was immediately issued – a denial, however, that seemed to lack total conviction, especially in light of Netanyahu's recent recognition of the two-state solution as the preferred way ahead, and his decision to freeze settlement construction on the West Bank for a period of ten months. Step by step he seems to be returning to the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the Oslo Accords.

Then there were three Hamas leaders apparently accepting Israel's right to exist and even, it seemed, prepared to ditch the Hamas charter. Can it be true? The report was well-based.

And the perennial Middle East conference concept blossomed again, albeit briefly, in a renewed bid by France to host such an event in Paris, though the USA is also in the frame as host, and Russia too has formally applied for the role, to say nothing of Egypt's hosting of the on-going "Alexandria Process" meetings. As regards the French proposal, George Mitchell is said to have discussed it in private with foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, earlier this month. No details of their discussion were released.

So perhaps the idea of a Paris-based Middle East conference is a card up George Mitchell's sleeve – to be revealed with a flourish in due course.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Kissinger Touch

The memory of Henry Kissinger's successes in Middle East diplomacy lives on in the region. Now Kissinger's diplomatic technique is re-emerging on the Middle East scene, this time with George Mitchell, the US special envoy, in the driving seat.

It was in the Middle East that Henry Kissinger pioneered what has became known as "shuttle diplomacy" – tireless journeyings between hostile parties unable or unwilling to talk direct, offering a little here, taking a little there, clearing each tiny step with the principals he was representing, and finally emerging with a clear success.

Kissinger was US Secretary of State when he started the process in November 1973, in a determined effort to bring the Yom Kippur war to a conclusion that was acceptable to both Egypt and Israel. His undoubted triumph led him subsequently to continue practising the technique in the Middle East for the remainder of the Nixon, and into the Ford administration; it resulted in the Sinai Interim Agreement, and arrangements between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.

When only nine days ago George Mitchell returned to the Middle East, intent on resuscitating the languishing – if not defunct – peace process, he already had the idea of shuttling between the major players: Israel, the PA, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. And indeed he spent his first week doing just that, intent in the first instance on getting Israel and the PA back to the negotiating table.

These efforts have apparently foundered on the insistence by PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, that as a pre-condition to talks, what he was promised by Barack Obama early in 2009 was indeed achieved – a complete cessation of settlement construction by Israel on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

However Obama has already backed away from this requirement, convinced that the political realities within Israel constrain prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from fully meeting it. Netanyahu has succeeded in putting in place a ten-month freeze on the West Bank, and in declaring his support for the two-state solution. But with Hamas already loud in their condemnation of Abbas for even flirting with the idea of negotiation, the PA president has so far held out for a total freeze on settlement building.

All the same, word is leaking out of two new ideas discussed by Abbas with George Mitchell at their last meeting.

One, reportedly put forward by Abbas, is that the Americans might represent the Palestinians in renewed negotiations until a settlement is reached. A second idea reportedly discussed by Mitchell and Abbas and currently going the rounds, is a US proposal for talks between the Palestinians and Israel at something below top level. Such negotiations might be in the form of "proximity talks", similar to the indirect negotiations that Israel held with Syria, under Turkey's mediation, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Mitchell proposes that he travel between Jerusalem and Ramallah, relaying messages to the two sides on various core issues, including borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. At a certain point, if it was deemed appropriate, direct negotiations between low-level officials would commence. If progress warranted it, at a later stage direct negotiations could be continued between the Israeli and PA leaders.

The proposal is that these proximity talks would be preceded by goodwill gestures from Israel, the main one possibly the release of hundreds of Fatah prisoners to the West Bank.

Word is that Netanyahu has accepted Mitchell's proposal, and that Abbas is still considering it.

Will something come of these ideas? We'll keep watching.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Playing Honest Broker – a tough job

Egypt is rapidly assuming a major role in the ongoing drama of bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.

Peace talks, sponsored by the previous Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, broke down in December 2008. Since then, despite the best endeavours of all the leading players, direct discussions have not been resumed. As I indicate in my last piece ("Mahmoud Abbas Under Pressure"), many factors are contributing to the stalemate – not least, President Obama's over-optimistic expectations when he took office in January 2009. Clearly an honest broker, acceptable to both main parties, is required. It looks as though Egypt is not only willing, but eager, to accept the position.

Egypt has already emerged as a major player on the Palestine/Israel stage, although in a somewhat anomalous role. She has maintained as rigorous a blockade of Gaza as Israel, and is actively blocking off the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle goods across her border at the Rafah crossing. At the same time, Egypt has been taking the lead in negotiating with Hamas for the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

Yesterday Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, travelled to Sharm-el-Sheik to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Their main topics of discussion are expected to be three: how to get talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority back on track, how to conclude negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit, and future security cooperation between Israel and Egypt.

The recent visit of US special envoy, George Mitchell, to Mahmoud Abbas produced little result. Barak and Mubarak, along with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, will certainly be discussing ways to persuade Abbas to return to the negotiating table, and in doing so they may refer to some of the ideas for renewing peace discussions already presented to Abbas by the US administration. One that was publicly announced by Palestinian sources was the launch of preliminary negotiations by low-ranking representatives, in order to map out positions on core issues and the gaps between the parties.

Last September the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee (or the Higher Follow-Up Committee, as it is sometimes called) determined that before peace discussions were resumed, a "guarantee statement" was required from the United States that would include a commitment that the territory of an independent Palestine would be defined by the 1967 borders, that any changes to that would be subject to negotiations, and that East Jerusalem would be recognized as the Palestinian capital. (The Committee, when formally set up in 1982 to represent the interests of Arab Palestinians, declared itself to be "a supreme framework of the Arab public and its aspirations").

Egypt is a participating member of the Committee, and this "guarantee statement" caused a public row between Egypt and Qatar, which announced that the Egyptian delegation that visited Washington ten days ago did not demand any guarantees from the United States.

After initial denials, Egypt issued a statement saying it did indeed demand these guarantees from the United States – but it seems to have failed to obtain American agreement to them. This "guarantee statement" appears to have become something of a bone of contention between Egypt and the United States.

Playing honest broker has its hazards.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Mahmoud Abbas under pressure

The hapless president of the Palestinian Authority suddenly finds himself being got at from all sides. The torrent of abuse from his Hamas rivals within Gaza is unremitting, but he must have become used to that. Now, though, he finds himself at the receiving end of continuous and unambiguous advice from the White House, from the US special envoy George Mitchell, from the Quartet's special envoy Tony Blair, from Egypt, and shortly from David Miliband when Abbas comes to London at the end of this week.

The advice? Sit down again with the Israelis and resume the negotiations broken off in December 2008.

The problem for Abbas is that he finds himself lumbered with a burdensome legacy bequeathed by Barack Obama in his first glory days as US President. In that blissful dawn, Obama saw the world afresh. With unclouded vision, and pledged to change old and outworn American attitudes towards the Muslim world, he determined to hold out the hand, if not of friendship, at least of understanding, to Iran. In the Middle East, he would become a truly impartial player in efforts for a just peace – and to achieve this, he would set out, plainly and clearly, his position on a main bone of contention between Palestinians and Israelis – Israel's continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

So it was that in May 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed the world's media that the President had told Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in face to face exchanges, that "he wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in, that settlement expansion cease."

Ten days later Mahmoud Abbas, in Washington for his first meeting with the new President, heard the pledge from Obama's own lips. So he felt himself on perfectly safe ground in declaring that he would not resume direct negotiations with Israel until they had complied with the President's demands.

The following week, President Obama flew to Cairo to launch his new programme of openness and understanding. In what must still be regarded as an historic address, Obama said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way one chooses to regard the matter, water continues to flow under the bridge. Events overtake aspirations. For example, it quickly became apparent that all the overtures in the world counted for nothing against the reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In Israel the political demand for natural growth in Jewish West Bank towns and Jerusalem neighbourhoods was intense, but Netanyahu – balancing a precarious majority in the Knesset – succeeded in imposing a 10-month freeze on building activity in the West Bank at least. And he formally accepted the concept of the two-state solution.

As for the Palestinian Authority President, he is still stuck with the Obama legacy. So far, with Hamas looking over his shoulder, as Obama recently put it, he is refusing to consider re-entering negotiations until the totality of what the US President originally demanded of Israel is achieved.

But President Obama is now seeing the world rather differently.

"I'll be honest with you," he told interviewer Joe Klein of Time Magazine, in an interview given only last week, "even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland, this is as intractable a problem as you get.

"Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that…

"I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."

And that's the message that Mahmoud Abbas, sooner or later, must surely accept. Half a loaf is better than no bread.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A Middle-East Peace Conference?

Ever since the start of the year, ideas about a possible regional peace conference have been drifting about in the diplomatic atmosphere like motes in the sunlight – visible, but impossible to grasp hold of.

Most recent are reports suggesting that the US may soon propose a conference, to be attended inter alia by Lebanon and Syria, aimed at providing the Palestinians with public backing to renew direct talks with Israel. Such a move would certainly be consistent with the USA's current strategy (see the previous blog "The Mitchell Strategy 2010").

But the Obama administration is far from the only government willing, indeed eager, to act as host to a grand show on the Middle East stage. To start with, there's France.

It was back in August 2009 that President Sarkozy first proposed that a Middle East peace conference be held in Paris at the start of 2010, and actually went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. So it was no surprise when, on the 5th of January, the French Foreign Ministry invited the world's press to Paris to announce that France really meant it. France, the media were told, would like to be "available" to host an international conference on the Middle East peace process focused on re-launching peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel. To resume the peace process between the two foes, they declared, was one of France's priorities.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner then flew off to Cairo to attend a meeting of the Mediterranean Union, where he discussed details of the proposed conference with other participating ministers.

No sooner had he returned to Paris, than US envoy George Mitchell arrived to urge "a combined and concerted effort and partnership" with US allies, including France, towards resuming the peace negotiations that broke down in December 2008. Kouchner and Mitchell, it was reported, also discussed the French proposal to host a Middle East peace conference in due course.  No details were released.

Meanwhile another contender had thrown a hat into the ring – Russia. In an apparent effort to get Russia on board for a Quartet call to immediate negotiations, Israel's President Shimon Peres approached Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to say that Russian involvement was critical for the peace process.

"In light of Russia's status," said Peres, "it can help build the confidence between the two sides."

Reports from Jerusalem later indicated that Medvedev had pledged that Russia would do everything it could to contribute to the process – including hosting a Middle East peace conference.

But all this while a sort of Middle East peace conference – little known, and rarely reported – has been up and running, hosted by Egypt.

The "Alexandria Process" is an initiative which brings together senior Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious leaders in an effort to work together to promote a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to continue inter-faith dialogue. The process began early in the new millennium under the auspices of George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who responded to a request by then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to try to convene a dialogue of religious leaders. The Alexandria Declaration was signed in January 2002 by 14 religious leaders: 6 Rabbis, 4 Sheiks and 4 Bishops or their representatives.

The most recent Alexandria Process conference was a three-day event held in Cairo in the middle of January. It was attended by more than 30 Palestinian Muslim religious leaders – and by two rabbis from Israel. During the event, Osama El-Baz, senior aide to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reiterated the Egyptian government's support for the Alexandria Process. Cairo, El-Baz told participants, is concerned by the ongoing stagnation in the peace process.

"From the moment there is no diplomatic progress," he declared, "the extremists from both sides are liable to erupt."

Wise words.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Mitchell Strategy, 2010

George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, is back in the region. What is the broad strategy underlying this renewed effort at achieving a peaceful settlement?

Clues are provided by what he and others close to him have said - nothing earth-shatteringly new, though it is useful to have it spelled out. Early in January the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Jeff Feltman, said it in seven words: "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East". That this was no mere mechanical reiteration of a cliché is clear from the fact that Mitchell used the self-same phrase during his visit to Syria last Wednesday – and then went on to elaborate what was meant by "comprehensive". Acting on behalf of President Obama, he is seeking peace agreements not only between Israel and the Palestinians (we all know that), but also between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon. A tall order indeed, but even so not quite tall enough for the White House. "And it also includes," added Mitchell, "the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states."

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the USA regards the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as the key to solving the whole puzzle. Get that up and running, is the theory, and the rest will fall into place. The theory is certainly debatable – but let it stand for the moment.

What does US strategy postulate as the essential conditions for achieving that first, major step? It proposes a three-track approach:

1. Negotiation. To get the two parties to the negotiating table is vital, no matter how long it may take, or how convoluted the diplomatic manoeuvres that may be required. Moving towards that essential goal has been difficult. Much of 2009 was lost because of internal political problems on both sides. The Israeli general election in February was followed by a long period of adjustment, and it was not till May that Netanyahu was in a position to start talking to Washington. On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas had to wait till after the stormy Fatah party congress in August, the first held for twenty years. Nevertheless, before the end of 2009 both sides had at least signed up to the concept of a two-state solution.

2. Security. Both Israel and the Palestinians need the assurance of security: Israel in respect of its overall integrity, the Palestinians to ensure that their own police and military forces can effectively control the West Bank.

3. Institutional development. The USA is viewing with favour the efforts of Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, to develop the economy of the West Bank in order to provide a solid foundation for eventual statehood. And not only the USA, for Tony Blair, the Quartet's Middle East Envoy, is actively supportive, and even Benjamin Netanyahu approves the idea of economic development in the West Bank.

In his first week back in the Middle East, George Mitchell has indeed – in conformity with US perceived strategy – visited Lebanon, Syria and Israel.

In Lebanon, which has some 367,000 Palestinian refugees living in 12 camps across the country, Mitchell told Prime Minister Saad Hariri that the country would play a key role in building a comprehensive peace in the region. Moving on to Damascus, Mitchell met with President Bashar Al Asad – their third encounter – and said the same thing with regard to Syria. Mitchell then made his way back to Israel, and this very morning had a two-hour session with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Afterwards, opening the normal Sunday Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said: "I heard a number of ideas on how to jump-start the political process, and expressed my hope that these ideas will enable the renewal of the peace process – if the Palestinians express a similar interest in these ideas – for the sake of all those who seek reconciliation in our region."

Mitchell is reportedly heading for Jordan and then for Egypt in this latest phase of his shuttle-cock diplomatic effort. And we will keep a watchful eye on how things pan out.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Syria and the peace process: another way to skin the cat

Exactly one year ago, on 22 January 2009, in a special ceremony in the White House, newly elected President Obama named George Mitchell his "special envoy to the Middle East". The event, attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely interpreted as a determination on Obama's part to involve himself and his new administration in working for, and in finally achieving, a settlement to the long-running Arab-Israel dispute.

At the ceremony Mitchell said that, along with Obama and Clinton, he believed the objective of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side was possible, and that the conflict, old as it was, could be resolved – a lesson, he said, he learned during his negotiations in Northern Ireland.

"From my experience there," said Mitchell, "I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."

Yesterday Mitchell arrived in Jerusalem for a new round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he did so in an atmosphere rendered either sour or realistic – depending on how one views such things – by virtue of an interview given by President Obama to Time magazine, and published virtually as Mitchell stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion airport. The essence of Obama's message is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians have been willing to make the bold gestures necessary to move the peace process forward, and the President admits that his administration had "overestimated" (his own word) its ability to bring the two sides to the table.

No doubt Mitchell will, with the quiet determination and diplomatic skill which are his trade marks, pursue his goal of trying to persuade both sides to start meaningful talks, but there's more than one way of skinning a cat. For example, a resolution of Israel's dispute with Syria would bring in its train enormous positive consequences for the Palestinian-Israeli issue – and there are clear signs that minds are focusing on Syria.

Syria has long perceived itself as the last Arab confrontation state to share a border with Israel. Recovering the Golan Heights has been the specific aim of Syria's policy ever since the Six Day War, but it is only a part of a broader ambition to play the leading role in the region. Though allied with Iran for some years in its general policy towards Israel, Syria must now be looking askance at Iran's bid for domination of the Muslim world.

Through the good offices of Turkey, Syria and Israel have been speaking indirectly with each other since 2008, and the Syrians have wanted to open a new phase in negotiations with Israel in the same way. Israel has seemed to favour direct talks with the Syrians. Mitchell has announced that he will be going to Syria on his current visit to try to foster meaningful negotiations.

"And we are prepared to do it in any manner which is acceptable to the two sides," he said in an interview in the States on 7 January. "So far they have not found a formula that would enable them to get into it. We believe that an Israel-Syria track could operate in parallel with an Israeli-Palestinian track on discussions."

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Hamas and the Two-State Solution

A contradiction in terms? That would have been the reaction of most unbiased observers – until yesterday. After all Hamas, an acronym of Harakat al Mawqawama al Islamiyya, means "Islamic Resistance Movement."

Founded in 1987, just after the start of the first intifada, Hamas first engineered a series of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in order to sabotage the Oslo Accords and peace process. They've followed the same unyielding line ever since.

The principles of Hamas are set out – at inordinate length and in extraordinarily flowery Islamic prose – in their Charter. Inter alia, it states:

1. "The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up."

2. "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours."

Nothing could be clearer. And those principles have consistently governed the words and actions of Hamas leaders. They underlie their using Gaza – which they seized from Fatah in a rather bloody coup in June 2007 – as a base for the sustained barrage of rocket attacks on Israel that led to Israel's retaliation in Operation Cast Lead a year later.

Hamas leaders have appeared on numerous TV news and discussion programmes – the BBC among them – to reiterate that they would never recognise Israel's right to exist, and that they perceive Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority since January 2005, as a traitor to the Palestinian cause by participating in moves towards peace based on the two-state solution.

And now – what?

Yesterday Aziz Dwaik, Hamas's most senior representative in the West Bank, the elected speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council – and, incidentally, only recently released after nearly three years in an Israeli jail – is reported to have declared that Hamas has accepted Israel's right to exist, and would even be prepared to nullify its charter which, of course, calls for Israel's destruction.

"No one wants to throw anyone into the sea," Dwaik is reported to have said.

Dwaik, who was meeting British millionaire David Martin Abrahams in Hebron, reportedly went further saying that other Hamas leaders – including the Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and Khaled Mashaal, who is based in the Syrian capital, Damascus – support the idea of setting up a sovereign Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders.

David Martin Abrahams is due to brief British foreign secretary, David Miliband, this coming weekend.

[Subsequently Dwaik vehemently repudiated this account, lock, stock and barrel. It seems to have been a classic case of mis-information peddled for political and propaganda purposes.]


Monday, 18 January 2010

Turkey and Abu Dhabi – Straws in the Wind?

Last Saturday saw Turkish Defence Minister, Vecdi Gonul, host a visit by his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, in Ankara.

A few years ago this would scarcely have been worthy of comment, for Turkey and Israel had long forged a close military, trade and cultural relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel back in 1949 (even before the Shah's Iran in 1950), and Israel became a major exporter of arms to the country. Israeli holidaymakers and businessmen flocked to the country, and a major deal saw Turkey exporting vast container-loads of water to Israel as a preliminary to the plan to build a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply Israel with water, electricity, gas and oil.

Then the atmosphere soured. From the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey's old secularist, pro-Western stance began to change, and support for Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran began to dominate Turkey's approach to foreign affairs.

Which explains Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in December 2008, and the extraordinary scene at the Davos conference in January 2009, when he stormed out of a panel discussion after castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres for Israel's actions.

Nor was this the last débacle. Bahadir Ozdener is the scriptwriter of "Valley of the Wolves", a wildly popular television series about the adventures of a Turkish secret agent. A couple of weeks ago he announced that he is working on a film about Palestinian suffering in Gaza that will, as he put it, "depict Israel as it is - with bloody hands, merciless... flouting all human values." A diplomatic storm burst. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned Turkey's ambassador, Oguz Celikkol, to protest.

At the meeting, attended by press and photographers, Ayalon exhibited the most undiplomatic, not to say petulant, childish, and indeed arrogant, behaviour. He pointed out to the assembled media and the busily snapping cameramen, that he had seated the Turkish ambassador on a low couch, while the Israeli party were placed well above him. Moreover, the Turkish flag had been removed from the table.

No sooner had Celikkol left the meeting than a furious Ankara was demanding an apology. A rather mealy-mouthed response by Ayalon was deemed unacceptable, and the Turkish President threatened to remove his ambassador from Israel if a formal expression of regret was not forthcoming. A second letter was despatched, and tempers cooled – to the extent that not only was Israeli Defence Minister Barak received warmly in Ankara, but the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Oguz Celikkol, was actually among the welcoming party. Explain that! But there's more. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Barak during his visit that Turkey wants to resume its role as mediator over Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

The very next day, last Sunday, an equally unexpected event was taking place in the United Arab Emirates. For the very first time – and despite the fact that there are no formal diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel – an Israeli cabinet minister attended an international conference in Abu Dhabi. Uzi Landau, Israel's national infrastructure minister, participated in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) conference, being hosted for the first time in the capital of the UAE.

Straws in the wind?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Tony - or Little by Little

It’s two-and-a half years since Tony Blair took up the role of envoy to the Middle East on behalf of “the Quartet” – the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. On the day he was officially confirmed in post – the 27th of June 2007, the very day he resigned as UK Prime Minister – the White House announced that both Israel and the Palestinians had signed up to the appointment. Other voices – not all of them from the Arab world – expressed varying degrees of scepticism about Tony Blair's credibility as an impartial peacemaker, given the controversy already raging about Britain's key role in the invasion of Iraq.

What has Blair achieved over the past 30 months? According to a piece in today's Daily Telegraph (London), the whole exercise has been little more than a costly "ego trip". It castigates him for failing to keep sufficiently in touch with British ministers, given that his function and support staff are funded to the extent of some £600,000 a year from the British taxpayer.

All the same, and despite this financial support, one can't help wondering whether continuous briefing of British ministers about his activities ought to form a major part of his working life, given that he is representing the United Nations, the EU, the USA and Russia.

From the moment he took up the post Blair has stressed the need to create conditions that would allow the launch of credible negotiations. He seems to be pursuing a twin track towards this objective: on the one hand striving for a more unified position within Palestinian politics, and on the other building a viable future Palestinian state through encouragement of the West Bank economy. And indeed, as I say in my very first blog below ("The End in Sight"), over the past two years the West Bank’s economy has flourished – the World Bank predicts that 2009 will have seen a 5% increase; other sources suggest a growth rate of as much as 7%. Some 6000 new jobs have been created, trade with Israel is up by more than 80% and agricultural exports by over 200%.

But according to an Israeli official, during his time as envoy Blair has been involving himself not only in the larger picture, but also in the detail of individual projects – such as the sewage system in Gaza, tourism in Bethlehem, improving the mobile phone system in the West Bank.

All this, Blair told David Frost in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV last week, has been done in the interests of creating a credible atmosphere in which to launch renewed peace negotiations. And positive action on that front seems well under way. Last Tuesday Tony Blair attended a meeting with the US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, and with Lady Ashton, the newly appointed EU foreign policy chief (or "high representative", as she is officially and ludicrously titled) with the aim of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority.

Two days ago a high-ranking official of the Israeli foreign ministry said: "When in another 100 years they write a book about the history of the Middle East, Blair's name will proudly appear in it."

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Two States? Then it’s Defensible Borders.

Is the pattern of a two-state solution for the Israel-West Bank-Gaza region of the Middle East slowly emerging from the mists of the future?

One pre-requisite for Israel – concerned above all for the safety of its citizens, and indeed of the state itself – has always been defensible borders. The tussle over Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, following its capture in the Six Day War in 1967, has always been partly on the grounds of defence and security.

The same security considerations, Israel maintains and Palestinians dispute, underlie the erection of the fence/wall that now separates Arab- from Israeli-occupied areas. From the Palestinian point of view the fence/wall is mainly a land-grabbing exercise whose imposition has taken no account of the hardship it inflicts on ordinary Arab civilians trying to earn their living on their own land, or by working in Israel. Israel points to a dramatic decrease in terrorist activity following its erection, and most commentators now see it – with agreed modifications following a peace accord – as forming part of the defensible borders of both Israel and a future sovereign Palestine.

Which gives particular significance to the announcement by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this week about the construction of a barrier along part of Israel’s border with Egypt. The idea is to stem the continuous flow of illegal immigrants across the Egyptian border into Israel – up to 200 a week, according to some reports. Egyptian police, in operations aimed at curtailing people trafficking, are said to have shot at least 17 illegal migrants last year trying to cross into Israel.

Netanyahu says he has decided to close Israel’s southern border to “infiltrators and terrorists” (although Israel would remain open to refugees from conflict zones). Egyptian sources are reported to have no objection, provided the barrier is constructed on Israeli soil. The plan is to do so near Eilat on the Red Sea, and on the edge of the Gaza Strip.

But border fences by themselves would be merely toying with the problem. Israel will need to develop a comprehensive organizational approach to defending the border - the capability to intercept intelligence and to capture smugglers and terrorist elements. To achieve this, a specialised authority may have to be set up – and such a body might also be given responsibility for the border with Jordan.

Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, all with effective and defensible barriers along at least the most vulnerable parts of their borders with each other – this appears to be the way things are shaping up.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


The to-ings and fro-ings on the long, slow trek towards an accord, though nominally secret, cannot but help leak out in one way or another. Last week in Cairo Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, let slip that Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to discuss making the Arab areas of Jerusalem the capital of a putative sovereign Palestinian state.

Did he or didn’t he? A statement was immediately issued reasserting that Israel would never cede control of a united Jerusalem. But this is the formal starting position for negotiations on the Israeli side, and the denial was only to be expected. All the same, the ceding of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian sovereign state has long been included in the various peace plans that have come and gone over the years.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Israeli Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV: "We can find a formula under which certain neighbourhoods, heavily-populated Arab neighbourhoods, could become, in a peace agreement, part of the Palestinian capital that, of course, will include also the neighbouring villages around Jerusalem." But then he would. As prime minister in 2000 Barak led Israel's delegation at the Camp David peace talks, which included just such a vision, together with the handing over of most, if not quite all, of the West Bank. These talks, of course, collapsed and were followed by the second intifada.

The Palestinians demand Jerusalem as their future capital; Israel stoutly asserts that a undivided Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of the Jewish state. Can the circle be squared?

A solution acceptable to all parties depends on how you define “Jerusalem”.

The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, which Israel lived with from 1948 to 1967, were radically redrawn after the Six Day War, and have been subject to a number of revisions since. A solution to the conundrum lies in redefining the boundaries one last time – and, in doing so, defining the boundaries of a new municipality, Al-Quds. The redefined Jerusalem municipality would encompass the Jewish suburbs and most of the Jewish neighbourhoods and settlements that lie within the present boundaries. Al Quds would include within its boundaries the mainly Arab suburbs, and – as Ehud Barak envisions – could also encompass some of the adjacent Arab towns on the West Bank.

An agreed redrawing of boundaries would indeed enable Israel to claim Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the new sovereign Palestinian state would acquire its own sister capital, Al-Quds.

A solution along these lines would leave the administration of the Old City, and in particular the vexed issue of the administration of the holy places, to be resolved.

I’ll no doubt return to this matter.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Egypt - anomalous but key

The expulsion of George Galloway, the British MP, from Egypt at the weekend for attempting to break Egypt’s blockade of Gaza opens up an interesting line of thought.

Pro-settlement as against anti-settlement – how do the interests stack up these days?

Anti-settlement: Iran and its satellites – namely Hamas in Gaza, Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Saudi and Yemen, and radical Islamist movements in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and some of the gulf states.

Pro-settlement: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kuwait and other Arab states determined to resist Iran’s bid for dominance in the Middle East and the overthrow of non-Islamic fundamentalist Arab governments (President Hosni Mubarak has spoken of Iran seeking to 'devour the Arab world').

Thus Egypt’s strangely anomalous, but key, role over the past year.

On the one hand, ever since Operation Cast Lead, Egypt has maintained just as stringent a blockade of Gaza as Israel, refusing to allow the import across their Rafah crossing of any goods that could be of strategic importance to Hamas – and, moreover, taking determined steps to block off the network of tunnels which Hamas has been using to by-pass the border proper.

On the other hand, Egypt has been taking a prime part, together with a German mediator, in negotiating with Hamas the intricate technicalities of a possible exchange of Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier, for some 1,000 Palestinian prisoners currently in jail in Israel. Egypt is also playing a key role in urging forward peace negotiations. Last week President Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman, the official in charge of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks. This week Abbas is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Movement there undoubtedly is.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The End in Sight: Moves towards an Israel-Palestine settlement in 2010

My glass of Holy Land brew is half full. An optimist by nature, that’s the way it’s seemed to me for most of the past thirty years. Not one of my political pieces, written since 1980 and reproduced in my book “One Man’s Israel”, is actually negative in sentiment. Misconceived, some of them, no doubt. But I’ve never thought the prospects for a final settlement beyond hope.

Take the recent increase in terrorism by Fatah. I see the trend as reflecting a growing policy divide between the more extreme elements within Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority, represented by its prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

Fayyad has been in post for over two years, and in that time the West Bank’s economy has flourished. The World Bank predicts a 5% increase during 2009. Some 6000 new jobs have been created, trade with Israel is up by more than 80% and agricultural exports by over 200%. It is this obvious growth in economic strength on the West Bank – in stark contrast to the stagnation that persists in Gaza, despite the massive and continuing influx of aid and trade – that underlay Fayyad’s announcement in the summer of the establishment of “de facto Palestinian statehood” by the end of 2011.

Fayyad’s vision leaves him vulnerable to both Hamas and extremist elements within Fatah. It seems to reflect Netanyahu’s own concept of building Palestinian statehood based on economic development, and lays Fayyad open to charges of collaborating with the Zionist enemy. More than that, Fayyad proposes side-stepping one of the major bones of contention in any final peace agreement – the West Bank settlements. Last July he announced that Jews would be allowed to live in any future Palestinian state: “they certainly will not enjoy any less rights than Israeli Arabs enjoy now in the state of Israel.”

Freezing further development of the West Bank settlements has emerged as the great stumbling block to any further progress on peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The temporary freeze ordered by Netanyahu has already led to clashes, some of them violent, between settlers and the army.

There seems to be a general view in the media that most West Bank settlers are driven by ideological or religious conviction that the territory must remain Israel’s in perpetuity. But the true motive of many – perhaps most – is to live and bring up their families on the soil of the biblical Land of Israel, irrespective of where its sovereignty lies. Indeed some are passionately anti-Zionist in their religio-political views. If a final peace agreement incorporated the idea of some Jewish settlers remaining in their homes – just as well over a million Arabs are currently citizens of Israel – violent conflict between the Israeli government and its own citizens would be avoided. A system of dual nationality could be introduced for both groups at the moment the new Palestinian sovereign state came into existence.

I’ll bet something like this lies on the table at the secret negotiations that are continuously on the go, waiting to be revealed in due course.