Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Hezbollah and the EU

On 18 July 2012 forty-two Israeli tourists, having landed at Burgas airport in Bulgaria on a flight from Tel-Aviv, boarded a bus to their hotel. A suicide bomber among the passengers detonated an explosive device that also killed the bus driver and five Israelis, and injured a further thirty-two. On 5 February 2013, after an exhaustive investigation, the Bulgarian interior minister said that it was a reasonable assumption that two suspects, who lived in Lebanon, were members of the militant wing of Hezbollah. Forensic evidence and intelligence sources also pointed to Hezbollah's involvement in the blast.

On 18 February 2013 Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolai Mladenov, was in Brussels briefing his EU counterparts on the seven-month investigation and its conclusions. In a news conference Mladenov said: “We believe the attack that happened in Burgas last year was organised by people connected to the military wing of Hezbollah…We in Europe need to take collective measures to make sure that such attacks will never happen again on EU soil... We must send a strong message to the rest of the world, that activities like this are unacceptable, no matter where they are planned or executed.”

The EU seems reluctant to respond. Far from sending a strong message to the world, the EU’s foreign policy chief − British peeress Baroness Ashton − has resorted to dithering and equivocation. Meanwhile Hezbollah – indicted by a UN tribunal for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the repository of vast stocks of weaponry supplied by Iran, the active supporter of Bashar Assad’s régime in Syria, designated a “terrorist organisation” by Canada, the UK, the US and even Turkey − as far as the EU is concerned remains persona grata.

The fact is that Hezbollah has a 30-year history of terrorist activity in Lebanon, the Middle East and around the globe, directed against the United States and the West, against pro-Western Arab states, Hezbollah's enemies in Lebanon − and, of course, Israel and the Jewish people generally, usually at the behest of Iran, which uses Hezbollah as its main proxy.

For example. there was the attempted attack on the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan in 2008, carried out by two Hezbollah operatives who underwent training in Iran. The plan was exposed when Azeri security forces stopped a car carrying the two Hezbollah operatives and found guns, explosives and pictures of the Israeli embassy. The two were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Then there was the unsuccessful attempt in 2011 to assassinate the Israeli consul in Istanbul which injured eight Turkish citizens. According to Sky News Iran’s Quds Force Unit 400 was behind the attack.

And now a man is on trial in Cyprus suspected of helping plan a terrorist attack against Israeli tourists on the island. On Wednesday 20 February he admitted in court to being an active member of Hezbollah since 2007, trained to use weapons and having acted as a courier for the organisation in Turkey, France and the Netherlands. In court Hossam Taleb Yaacoub gave details of meetings with his Hezbollah handler, and said that he had staked out locations in Cyprus known to be popular with Israeli tourists. He had also noted the number plates of tour buses carrying Israelis.

Whether this new turn of the screw will be sufficient to induce the EU finally to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation is open to speculation. The suspicion is that what is holding the EU back is the fact that Hezbollah has managed to insinuate itself into the heart of the Lebanese body politic.

Lebanon's history is, perhaps, more convoluted than many another state's – and this is not the place to rehearse it in detail. Sufficient to note that, liberated by Free French and British troops in 1941, Lebanon was declared an independent sovereign nation, and France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.

The "National Pact" established the basis of modern Lebanon. Political power in Lebanon is allocated on what is known as a "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. 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 Shi'a Muslim.

This partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah, an extremist Islamist group, originated within the majority Shiite block of Lebanon society. It emerged with a separate identity in the early part of the 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Perhaps its most notorious terrorist actions were those of 23 October 1983 when the United States Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up in a suicide bombing. Just six months previously, on 18 April, the US embassy in Beirut had been subject to a suicide car bombing which killed 63 people.

Born in blood, fire and explosion, Hezbollah can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but the group achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000. In the election that followed Hezbollah formed an electoral alliance with the Amal party and took all 23 seats in South Lebanon, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats.

Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process. Following the elections in April 2009 Hariri constructed a 30-minister cabinet made up of five ministers nominated by President Suleiman, 15 from Hariri's coalition, and 10 from the opposition including two members of Hezbollah. It is this semi-respectable position achieved by Hezbollah − doubtless augmented by the emphasis placed by the organisation on social and welfare activities among the population − which is deterring the EU from acknowledging that at its heart Hezbollah is a ruthless, merciless, terrorist organisation dedicated to achieving its Islamist aims without regard to moral considerations of any sort.

Perhaps eventually the penny will drop.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 26 February 2013:

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Barack and Bibi, older and wiser

Benjamin Netanyahu has been remarkably unfortunate. On the three occasions that events have propelled him to the premiership in Israel, he has had a Democratic president in the White House to deal with - and let's be honest about it, Bibi is a born Republican.

Back in the 1990s Netanyahu's relationship with Bill Clinton was a disaster. The two men never got on. After meeting him for the first time, Clinton is reported as remarking: "He thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires." One of Clinton's aides categorised Netanyahu's performance in the White House as "nearly insufferable". And later, in 2000, Netanyahu was vehemently opposed to Clinton's Camp David peace initiative during which the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat, appeared to come close to an agreement that would have given a sovereign Palestinian state by far the greater part of the West Bank, and also east Jerusalem as a capital.

Following Barack Obama’s spectacular appearance in the White House as America’s first black president, Netanyahu again found himself prime minister of Israel. But he was heading a fragile coalition, held together through the support of right wing religious parties unyielding in their support for the settler movement and the indivisibility of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, under pressure from Obama, Bibi succeeded in persuading his Cabinet to agree to his formally supporting the two-state solution and, in November 2009, to vote in favour of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank.

If anyone had hoped that Netanyahu had learned a little more by way of diplomatic niceties in the intervening decade-and-a-half, however, there was little sign of it. When he and Barack Obama met in person in March 2010, there was certainly no meeting of minds. Hours of discussion between the two failed to result in an agreed media statement, and Netanyahu postponed his return to Israel by an extra day in the hope of achieving some form of common position. He and the President spoke long and earnestly; Israeli officials had discussions with their opposite numbers, but a common position on building in east Jerusalem could not be hammered out.

Now history seems to have offered the two men a second chance. President Obama is back in the White House just starting his second term, while Netanyahu is in the process of hammering out a new coalition government following the recent general election. Nothing is certain in politics, but it seems a pretty fair bet that he will indeed soon be heading a new Israeli government. Obama’s visit has been mooted as taking place on March 20; Bibi has until March 16 to construct his coalition and present it to the Knesset for a vote of confidence.

Assuming the meeting takes place, both men will indeed be older. Will they be wiser?

Take Netanyahu. The recent general election will have shown him that Israel’s heart is not in extreme right-wing policies, either domestically or in the foreign arena. The surprise element in the result – the emergence of the moderate Yesh Atid party with the second largest number of seats in the new Knesset − is a clear signal that the Israeli public would not dissent from re-opening peace negotiations with the PA. The “painful concessions” that might have to be made in any overall agreement – not possible in Netanyahu’s previous coalition with its heavy dependence on right wing and religious parties − now again emerge as possible shots in Israel’s armoury. Curiously, Netanyahu will come to his discussion with Obama, at least about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, strengthened, not weakened, by the loss of Likud-Beytanu seats.

And President Obama, what has he learned over the past four years? Well, his initial “let’s try it” approach at wooing the Muslim world – worth a try, perhaps, coming from the first US President with a Black Power background − proved a disastrous failure. Iran could not be deflected from its determination to develop nuclear weaponry, Syria dissolved into civil war well before a US ambassador could present himself at the court of President Assad, and poor Mahmoud Abbas was hedged into a corner by the Obama administration’s early and repeated demands on Israel to stop all settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Once that demand had been made by the US President, there was no wriggle-room left for the PA President. He could scarcely ask for less. As a result, the “peace process” has been frozen solid for more than two years.

One other lesson perhaps learned since the glory days following Obama’s first election, is that the great central issue worrying the leaders of the Arab world – those, that is, not more directly concerned with the spill-over of the Arab Spring into their territories − is not the Israel-Palestine dispute. It is, as the mass of Wikileaks documents released into the public domain in 2010 revealed, their deep-seated fear of a nuclear-armed Iran. Many Arab leaders – especially, perhaps, in the Gulf states − view Iran’s bid for leadership of the Muslim world, to say nothing of its covert operations to achieve that aim, with alarm.

Older and wiser as they both now are, is there a chance that more mature and considered counsels will prevail when, and if, Barack and Bibi do meet next month? We need a meeting of hearts and of minds. Co-ordination both of intention and execution could achieve positive results in the two main areas they have to discuss: when and how to call a genuine halt to Iran’s aggressive nuclear capabilities, and when and how to start a genuine process leading to a final settlement of the festering Israel-Palestine dispute.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Have the Oslo Accords had their day?

If anyone believed that support for Palestinian national aspirations was ipso facto incompatible with maintaining close and friendly relations with Israel, they need only look to Cyprus.

On Friday 8 February Cyprus upgraded the status of its Palestinian Authority (PA) diplomatic representation to that of Embassy, and the head of the Palestinian diplomatic mission to Cyprus, Walid Al-Hassan, became a fully-fledged Ambassador. “All official correspondence will now be done in the name of the State of Palestine," he informed the world’s media. “Cyprus is the first European state to upgrade Palestinian status since the UN vote."

Until PA President Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in upgrading the Palestinians’ UN status to “non-member observer state” in November 2012, the broader Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was, by general agreement, governed by the Oslo Accords. In accordance with those undertakings, signed in 1993 and 1995, both Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that a final status settlement would be negotiated between them. It is, therefore, a fair assumption that Abbas’s UN initiative amounted to turning his back on the Accords − and equally that the UN General Assembly, in its wisdom, had done likewise.

Yet both the General Assembly’s vote, and Cyprus’s subsequent upgrading of the PA’s diplomatic status are, in legal terms, merely cosmetic − they do nothing to change the status of the PA in international law. Nor does Cyprus’s initiative represent any sudden shift in policy, for it has always supported Palestinian sovereign aspirations. It was as far back as 1988 that Cyprus formally recognised Palestine as a state within the 1967 boundaries, while in May 2011 it upgraded what was then simply “the general delegation of Palestine” in Cyprus to the status of “diplomatic mission.”

However this decision is not perceived by the Cypriot government as altering its excellent relations with Israel which, like Greece’s, have been flourishing in recent years in parallel with the increasing deterioration of Israel’s relations with Turkey. In announcing the PA’s diplomatic upgrade, Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis expressed "full support" not only for Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty but also for those of Israel for security through a comprehensive negotiated peace based on a two-state solution.

Israeli-Cyprus relations, excellent for a number of years and founded on a thriving tourist industry, have been boosted by the recent discovery of huge oil and natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as what is now the world's longest subsea electric power cable. The alliance has been further strengthened by collaboration on military, cultural and political matters.

All of which goes to show that support for Palestinian national aspirations is not necessarily incompatible with maintaining close and friendly relations with Israel. What it does betray is the basic anomaly at the heart of the current state of the Oslo Accords. In all logic they are a dead letter, yet they also provide the basis on which the current fragile status quo on the West Bank is maintained.

Under the Accords Israel agreed to withdraw in part from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in favor of autonomous Palestinian rule, which was to last for a five-year interim period. Permanent status negotiations, based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, would commence no later than May 1996.

Israel indeed withdrew, but the final status negotiations never took place. A basic requirement of the agreement was breached; accordingly the Oslo Accords no longer governed the relationship between Israel and the PA. What had been established, however, was the first phase of providing the Palestinians with self-government pending a permanent agreement. Under the Accords the West Bank and the Gaza strip were regarded as one territory, and in 1994 Israel began a phased withdrawal from Gaza and a handover of its administration to the PA. The West Bank was divided into three zones:
  • Area A –under the Palestinian Authority's full control and including all Palestinian cities and surrounding areas with no civilian Israeli presence.
  • Area B –under the Palestinian Authority's civil control and Israel's security control and including areas of dense Palestinian population with no civilian Israeli presence.
  • Area C –under full Israeli control, except over Palestinian civilians. This area includes all West Bank settlements and their immediate vicinity as well as strategic areas dubbed "security zones."
The Gaza strip was wrenched from the PA’s grasp in 2008 by Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group opposed to all attempts at reaching a peace agreement with Israel, while also aiming to oust their rivals, Fatah, from the West Bank and perhaps, eventually, from the PA altogether.

As for the West Bank, the Oslo Accords arrangement remains, by mutual agreement, the basis on which the region is currently administered. It is. moreover. the generally accepted road map along which the parties will have to travel to reach a final agreement. The Accords were, after all, signed not only by Israel and the PA as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, but were also witnessed by representatives of the USA, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Norway and the EU. Despite the inconsistencies at the heart of the current situation, despite the PA’s new status at the UN, they remain the only generally acknowledged road map.

So half-dead the Oslo Accords might well be, but they must surely provide the starting point for any new attempt to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. As the catch-phrase has it: “there’s life in the old dog yet”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 14 February 2013:

Thursday, 7 February 2013

After Assad

The 13-year rule of Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, is drawing to a close, although the exact nature of its demise remains, at present, uncertain. It has been a long-drawn-out process. When he took power in 2000, Bashar inherited a formidable grip on power, initiated by his father Hafez. With members of the Alawite sect placed in key positions in the ruthless secret police and the military, both organisations were tightly integrated into the ruling élite. The process of dislodging it is taking mammoth efforts which, in turn, have resulted in truly terrible humanitarian consequences.

What is now a fully-fledged civil war in Syria began in March 2011 as one manifestation of the Arab Spring, then flaring across the Arab world. In April the Syrian Army, deployed to quell the uprising, began firing on demonstrators. Opposition forces, composed originally of defected soldiers and civilian volunteers, became increasingly armed and organized, but soon opportunistic jihadist bodies, supported from outside sources, were exploiting the chaotic situation on both sides.

Assad was supported by pro-Shi’ite jihadists. When he falls, pro-Sunni extremists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), will probably gain the upper hand as the Islamists continue their own power struggles for a while. As a result, Israel may find itself facing MB régimes in two of its major Arab neighbors – Egypt and Syria.

On a more positive note, the departure of Assad will certainly represent a major blow to Iran’s strategic position in the Middle East. Syria is an integral element in Iran’s anti-Israel alliance, and the conduit through which it supplies Hezbollah with military and financial support. Which perhaps explains the current effort of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to repair fences with Egypt. After 34 years of non-contact, initiated because of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, Iran courted Egypt’s MB President Mohamed Morsi with a three-day visit early in February.

The occasion was not without incident. The New York Times reported that during a visit to Al-Azhar mosque and university, Egypt’s seat of Sunni scholarship, Ahmadinejad was publicly upbraided by his hosts, who accused Shi’ites of interfering in Arab countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, and of discriminating against Sunnis in Iran. Later, a protester, identified as a Syrian angered at Iran’s alliance with Syria’s president Assad, tried to hit Ahmadinejad with a shoe. Finally four people were arrested for attacking the Iranian leader’s motorcade. Deep-seated divisions are not so easily healed.

In fact, nothing could really replace the loss to Iran of so vital a strategic ally as Syria. If the Iranian nuclear story does finally, after Assad’s departure, culminate in a strike by Israel or the US, Syria would be unable to contribute to Iran’s response, while Hezbollah would be denied a critical corridor of support and resupply during and after the confrontation.

Throughout the civil war, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have actively supported the Assad régime, but the West as a whole has resisted the temptation to become directly involved. It has relied instead mainly on strong words.

For example, at the end of January, amid reports of the wholesale killing of civilians by the Syrian army, US President Obama released a video statement to the Syrian people: "In the face of this barbarism, the United States has joined with nations around the world in calling for an end to the Assad regime, and a transition that leads to a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syria.”

Only Israel among the Western democracies, perceiving some of the possible dangers flowing from the fall of Assad, has taken effective action. The eventual fate of Assad’s huge arsenal of missiles, sophisticated ground-to-air and ground-to-sea rockets, and chemical weapons, is of as great a concern to the democratic world as to Israel. Not only might Assad seek to ensure that they are removed to some jihadist safe haven before the apocalypse, but In the chaos of a post-Assad Syria they could as easily fall into the hands of jihadists in Syria itself, or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In either eventuality the West would be at risk, though Israel would probably be the terrorists’ prime target.

Israel’s presumed airstrike within Syria on the night of 29-30 January was aimed at countering such threats. Some media reported that Israeli fighter jets struck a Syrian convoy suspected of carrying SA-17 missile parts, a Russian-made, medium-range delivery system, and other equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon; others that an Israeli strike targeted a research facility near Damascus – probably Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS), a state organization suspected of developing biological and chemical weapons and transferring them to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The fall of Assad is likely to plunge the region into a new era of instability. A fragmented, decentralized, and dysfunctional Syria is the likely outcome, with Tehran remaining active in parts of the country. If so, the existing jihadist challenge to Israel along the Sinai border may well be matched by a new jihadist challenge from within Syria, perhaps both coordinated. This possibility may explain why Israel recently began erecting a sophisticated security fence in the Golan, similar to the one just completed in Sinai.

A huge destabilized area in the centre of the Middle East is in no one’s interests – it is likely to become a tempting hunting ground for vested jihadist entities whose main interests are their own bitter power struggles. Coordinated planning involving the US, the EU and Israel, with the aim of averting the worst possible scenarios in post-Assad Syria, is becoming an urgent necessity.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 7 February 2013:

Monday, 4 February 2013

Israel's network of friends

As Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, stood before the UN General Assembly last November and asked them to upgrade Palestine to a “non-member observer state”, 41 nations withstood the intense pressure of world opinion in favour of the bid, and abstained. The world’s media concentrated on the fact that 138 members voted for the upgrade, but the 41 abstentions represent something of diplomatic triumph for Israel.

No one disputes that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had an acute mind and the capacity to think strategically, attributes abundantly apparent in the foreign policy strategy most closely connected to his name: the Alliance of the Periphery, or the Periphery Doctrine. This concept, born out of the circumstances of the 1950s, called for Israel to develop close strategic alliances with non-Arab Muslim states in order to counteract the united opposition of Arab states to Israel’s very existence.

As conceived by Ben Gurion, the policy was directed primarily towards Turkey and pre-revolutionary Iran. In 1950 Turkey and Iran became the first and, for a long time, the only Muslim states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and for many years Israel enjoyed long, close and fruitful relationships, involving extensive military and industrial cooperation, with both. These mutually beneficial arrangements served as a counter-weight to the pressure of enmity generated by the largely hostile Arab nations surrounding the fledgling Israel.

Israel's basic strategic need in this respect has not changed in the past sixty years. Geographically, Israel is still a tiny island of Western democratic values set in a sea of enemies, many bent on obliterating it by whatever means. Driven by these circumstances, successive Israeli governments have developed an expanded version of the Periphery Doctrine, which has worked reasonably well.

With an eye on non-Arab countries with significant Muslim populations, Israel has gone a long way towards achieving normal relations with nations like Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. Then, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Israel managed to gain 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.”

But times change. The accession of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkish prime minister in 2003 brought with it a sharp deterioration in relations with Israel. Rooted as he is in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan immediately began courting favour with the Muslim world, and support for the extremist terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah began to dominate Turkey’s approach to foreign affairs. Naturally enough, Israel’s reaction was to extend the periphery doctrine concept, namely to seek − and, indeed, achieve − a closer relationship with Turkey’s long-standing opponent, Greece.

In pursuit of this wider interpretation of the doctrine Israel, building on the growth of its high-tech economy, has succeeded in the past decade in improving relations with a variety of countries including Korea, Singapore, and most notably, China and India.

How does the periphery doctrine look at present?

Israel was quick off the mark when the new, mainly Arab Muslim, republic of South Sudan proclaimed its independence in July 2011. Israel immediately recognised the new state and offered economic help. Before the end of the month Israel and South Sudan had sealed full diplomatic relations.

Perhaps the delicate refurbishing of relations with Indonesia best exemplifies how the alliance of the periphery has been nurtured and developed. During the past year, after five years of sensitive deliberations, Indonesia agreed a sort of informal upgrade in its relations with Israel. It agreed to open a consulate in Ramallah, headed by a diplomat with the rank of ambassador, who will also unofficially serve as his country’s ambassador for contacts with Israel. The move represents a de facto upgrading of relations between Israel and the world’s most populous Muslim country. Formally Indonesia presents the move as a demonstration of its support for Palestinian independence. In fact, while the ambassador-ranked diplomat will be accredited to the Palestinian Authority, a significant portion of his work will be in dealings with Israel, and the office will fulfill substantial diplomatic duties as well as consular responsibilities. Meanwhile Israel and Indonesia quietly maintain trade, security and other relations, including tourism.

As for continental Africa, Israel has run extensive foreign aid and educational programs, sending in experts in agriculture, water management and health care. As a result it has built up some excellent working relationships – Angola, Cameroon and Eritrea, for example − though Ethiopia is perhaps its best partner. Fractured relations with Ghana were restored in 2009 following a state visit by the then Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, and diplomatic relations were resumed in September 2011.

But South Africa – an obvious target for the Periphery Doctrine − represents one of its major failures. A tide of delegitimisation seems about to overwhelm Israel in South Africa, and so far Israel has been unable to stem it. The ruling African National Congress party (ANC) has just adopted a policy of supporting anti-Israel boycotts, divestments and sanctions. This situation demands immediate attention from the new Israeli government before the leading state on the African continent sets itself up as Israel’s leading non-Arab opponent.

Nor will South Africa’s opposition to Israel necessarily be confined to its own government. South Africa is a leading member of the African Union (AU), whose summit conference has just ended, and its ANC representatives are in a position to cast a baleful influence on AU policies. It is of some comfort to Israel, perhaps, that at the summit the three-year chairmanship of the AU passed not to South Africa, as was at one time expected, but to Ethiopia, with whom − thanks to the Periphery Doctrine − Israel enjoys good relations.

Ben Gurion was far from infallible, but in his Periphery Doctrine – as in his advice to young Israelis of his day (“Go south, young man”) − time has surely proved that his instincts were sound.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 April 2013: