Tuesday, 30 July 2013

What is Israel asking of the Arab world?

The answer is: Not much more than the Arab world is prepared to give.

Thanks to the unremitting efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry, the first tentative steps towards a resumption of the Israel-Palestine peace process took place on Monday, July 29 2013, when Israeli and Palestinian representatives sat down together in Washington to talk about talks. That matters have reached this stage is due, without any doubt, to Kerry’s dogged persistence, to his refusal to be discouraged by the dauntingly difficult task of bridging the gap between Israeli and Palestinian aspirations, and to his unquestionable diplomatic skills.

The ultimate objective to which both parties are signed up is the so-called “two-state solution” – an outcome, underwritten by the UN, the EU, and the Quartet, which is anathema alike to Islamist fundamentalists like Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, and to right-wing politicians and media commentators in Israel.

For the former, the concept of a sovereign Palestine living alongside a sovereign Israel is totally unacceptable. They regard the whole area “from the river to the sea” (ie from the Jordan to the Mediterranean) as Arab territory to which Israel has no right. Their aim is to eradicate Israel from the Middle East altogether and, as is the case in several Muslim states, to ensure that no Jews remain in the area. “Judenrein”, with its chilling Nazi connotations, is entirely apt to describe their purpose. Indeed, the connection between earlier Islamist leaders and the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and their common stance on the “Final Solution”, is well documented. All that can be expected from Islamist fundamentalists, their eyes set on restoring the Caliphate and eventually subjecting the whole world to Sharia law, is constant opposition to Israel’s presence, manifested by periodical resort to “armed struggle” waged indiscriminately on civilians in, and sometimes outside, Israel.

For their part, the Israeli right-wing regard as legally flawed the contention of the UN, the EU and the Quartet that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal. They contend that the international agreements under which the whole of Mandate Palestine was designated as the area in which Jewish settlement was to be encouraged have never been abrogated, but were indeed reinforced by the UN Charter. There is therefore no legal foundation for banning Jewish families from choosing to live in the ancient heartland of Judea and Samaria. Additionally, they maintain, the fourth Geneva Convention, the basis for declaring that West Bank settlements are illegal, has been misinterpreted, since no mass transfer of civilian populations into the area has occurred. Moreover, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would impose an unacceptable security risk on Israel, which would be reduced to a width of only about 15 kilometres at its narrowest, and which could provide a future militant Palestinian administration with a base from which to attack Tel Aviv, other major population centres and Ben Gurion airport with ease.

Despite the extremist arguments on both sides, the representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have signed up to the two-state solution as the ultimate objective of the current bid for an agreement. For the PA, a successful outcome would result in the establishment of an internationally welcomed sovereign state of Palestine within legally defined borders. To be realistic, however, for many, if not most, on the Palestinian side, this would represent only a stepping-stone towards the ultimate dream of an Israel-free Middle East – an aspiration lodged deep in the founding charter of Fatah, the leading party within the PA.

In effect, it is this unrealistic illusion that Israel is asking the Arab world in general, and the PA in particular, to abandon. Israel is saying: “We are here to stay. Acknowledge the fact. The Jews have returned to their ancient homeland. Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. But it is a democratic state with freedom of religion and equal rights for all its citizens, Jewish or not, enshrined in its Declaration of Independence.” Asking the Arab world to accept this is not asking the impossible, but the task is akin to bringing a vast oil tanker, proceeding steadily on its way, to a shuddering halt, and hauling it round to go forward in a new direction. It can be done, but it would take a determined effort.

There is no doubt that an intense Judeophobia is lodged deep within Islam (not reciprocated, incidentally, within Judaism in respect of Islam). It is akin to the endemic anti-Semitism that has characterised much of Christianity for most of its two thousand year existence. Strenuous efforts in the past few decades by the Catholic church, initiated by Pope John Paul II, have done much to effect a change of attitude in that branch of Christianity. Much remains to be done, both within Catholicism and within the wider Christian world, but a start has been made.

Within the Muslim world there is little evidence of a change of attitude. Rabid anti-Jewish propaganda emanates from many of the politicians and the media outlets in Muslim countries, and children are imbued with anti-Jewish sentiment in the schoolroom. Any sort of Jewish connection to the Holy Land in general or Jerusalem in particular is denied – though a simple glance into the Old Testament should be enough to counter such illusory assertions. And yet, it is an undeniable historical fact that in many places, and for many centuries, Muslim and Jew lived peaceably side by side. What has happened can again come to pass – the precedent is there.

What Israel asks of the Arab world is a radical change of attitude. It is strange, but true, that just such a change of attitude is actually on offer, originally only from the representatives of the 22 Arab states that surround Israel, but subsequently widened to include all 57 Muslim nations worldwide. The Arab Peace Initiative, announced by the Arab League in 2002 and readopted several times since, offers Israel an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict, a peace agreement and the establishment of “normal relations”, ie mutual diplomatic representation, and open trade and cultural relations. Despite the original requirements written into the Initiative, already modified at the instigation of John Kerry. In practical terms and in current circumstances the quid pro quo for this highly desirable state of affairs is simply for a mutually acceptable peace agreement to be signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Over to you John Kerry, Martin Indyk – newly appointed US Middle East special envoy – and the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators assembled in Washington.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 July 2013:

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Is Assad winning by default?

Ask your man-in-the-street in the West what he knows about Islam, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Many people are aware that the religion has two main branches – Sunni and Shi’ite − but as for the differences between them, or where each is mainly practised, most people haven’t a clue.

Classic explanations of Islam’s great divide usually include a statement like: “The so-called division of Muslims between Shia and Sunni is akin to the differences between Catholics and Protestants” – the implication being that a state of tolerant acceptance has been reached between two major branches of the religion. However true that may once have been, it demands significant qualification in current circumstances. The Sunni-Shi’ite division is now far from “so-called”, and the present situation within Islam can best be compared to the intensive and bloody intra-Christian religious conflicts that ravaged Europe on and off for three centuries. In Islam now, as in Christendom then, doctrinal differences have been transmuted into political altercation, which in turn have inevitably become a no-holds tussle for power and domination.

Across the Middle East tensions between Sunni and Shia are being increasingly inflamed in what has been dubbed a “new regional Cold War”, to use the evocative phrase of Toby Dodge, a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics. In this overarching struggle, as columnist David Blair has pointed out, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the key antagonists: the former, staunch upholders of the Shi’ite tradition of Islam; the latter guarding the Sunni Arab heartland and its holiest places. Both use the language of sectarian loyalty to rally supporters and demonise foes.

The great fault line that runs through Islam is the key to what is happening in Syria, where the Sunni-Shi'ite partition has been polarized, and the so-called “Cold War" has hotted up.

The régime of Syrian president Bashar Assad represents the Alawite tradition of Shi’ite Islam. Assad's fall would cost Iran an invaluable foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Shia-Islamist terrorist organization lodged in the body politic of Lebanon, would lose its main protector, and also the route through which it receives vital Iranian weapon supplies. So, on Tehran’s instructions, Hezbollah has been flinging more and more troops into the battle. Some 150,000 Hezbollah fighters – created, funded and armed by Iran – are now estimated to be in the thick of the Syrian civil war. Assad’s recent successes are due in no small measure to their presence. They may even have helped him turn the tide.

On the Sunni side of the battlefield are ranged the forces of the official opposition who draw support from the 70 per cent of Syrians who are Sunni. They are being armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Jordan providing vital supply lines. But joining in the battle are also a vast number of Sunni jihadists, Islamists and extremists, including Al-Qaeda, all of them seeking long-term advantage out of the current chaos, none concerned one jot about the cause of those seeking to rid themselves of the despotic Assad régime.

This explains why the West, although anxious to see Assad’s downfall, and with it Iran’s excessive influence in the region, hesitates to offer more than token support for the rebels. Weapons supplied indiscriminately to the anti-Assad forces, they fear, would almost certainly find their way into the hands of Al-Qaeda and its associates, with unforeseeable consequences both in the Middle East, and further afield. So while the US, the EU and the UN hesitate – “willing to wound,” as 18th century poet Alexander Pope so aptly puts it, “but afraid to strike” – Assad has been strengthened, perhaps to the point where he could survive, and thus enhance Iran’s dominance in the region and Hezbollah’s stranglehold on Lebanon’s body politic.

The great divide in Islam goes back to the very origins of the religion. When the prophet Muhammad died in 632, he left an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula of about one hundred thousand followers. He also bequeathed a dispute over who should succeed him and lead the fledgling religion and nation. His followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.

The group now known as Sunnis went for the latter option, and chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph. Shi’ites, on the other hand, favoured Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and he and his successors are called Imams. The two branches of the religion have developed along their chosen paths ever since.

The imbalance in the numbers of followers of the two segments is another aspect of Islam that is little known. Something approaching 90% of the world's one billion Muslims are Sunni; only some 10%–20% are Shia. Although a minority in many Muslim countries, they constitute a majority only in the states known as the “Shia Crescent” – Iran and Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, where a Shia-majority population lives resentfully under a Sunni monarchy sustained by Saudi Arabian troops.

Syria’s revolution is a Sunni-led rebellion against the Shia-associated government, but it has become a magnet for global jihadists pursuing their own intra-Islam conflict: Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on Assad’s side; Al Qaeda, militants from Iraq and Turkey, and Sunni extremists from as far afield as Europe for the opposition. Fundamentalism in one branch of Islam has inevitably fostered fundamentalism in the other, as sects in each camp seek to outdo one another in their religious zeal. The Syrian conflict has become a paradigm of the division between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam.

It is surely not beyond the wit of man to evolve a way to strengthen the genuine anti-Assad opposition forces, while ensuring that any weaponry supplied is kept beyond the reach of terrorist elements on the rebel side. The Syrian Opposition Coalition, and the Supreme Joint Military Command (SMC), are two interconnected but independent bodies that are designed to impose a top-down national strategy and governing structure for the political and military arms of the Syrian opposition. Instead, the two bodies have displayed a limited ability to manage or control the myriad of opposition groups and civilian councils in Syria. They need to get a grip on the situation. Improved structure within the opposition forces and the imposition of a strict code of discipline would be a good start.

All the same. continued procrastination by the West will simply mean that one day Assad could well emerge, bloodied but unbowed, from the conflict, Syria would have become an Iranian satellite, and Hezbollah, whose military wing has just been declared a terrorist organisation by the EU, would be immensely strengthened within Lebanon and beyond.

Is that, in Shakespeare’s immortal words, “a consummation devoutly to be wished”?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 July 2013:

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Israel and Palestine - keeping it secret

How annoyed they are, those left out of the loop, those not privy to the intensive negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry with a favoured few from the Israeli and Palestinian camps, which have led to the announced resumption of peace talks – negotiations necessarily, and most wisely, kept entirely secret.

The annoyance is widespread. Prominent Palestinian Authority (PA) figures like Nabil Amr immediately declared their “frustration” at the fact that President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to recommence peace discussions with Israel without letting the world know the ins and outs of what he has conceded – or, indeed, what might have been conceded to him – to reach this accord. It is too soon for groups within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to start accusing Abbas of “betraying the Palestinian cause” – though doubtless the accusation will be levelled in due course – but several, ignorant of the agreement reached for restarting talks, have already criticised the PA for doing so.

Hassan Khraisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, knowing nothing but suspecting the worst, accused Abbas of abandoning his previous preconditions for resuming talks – recognition of the pre-1967 lines and a full freeze on settlement construction – in return for “bribes,” including the release of a number of prisoners, economic benefits and work permits for Palestinians. In the opinion of Mohamed Dahlan, a leading Fatah operative and political foe of Abbas, the PA president has committed “political suicide” by agreeing to return to the talks with Israel. “Political suicide” is only a step or two away from “assassination”, and Abbas, no doubt well aware of this, has taken care to cover his back as much as possible by obtaining the agreement of the Arab League to the renewed peace talks.

Inevitably wilder extremists within the divided Palestinian camp, like Hamas and the Salafi jihadists, have condemned the resumption of the peace process root and branch. Yusef Rizka, political adviser to the Hamas prime minister, said reinstituting negotiations under US and Israeli terms was tantamount to “treason” – assuming, with absolutely no grounds for doing so, that Abbas had given everything and gained nothing.

Another Hamas official, Salah Bardaweel, declared that the resumption of the negotiations unconditionally and under Kerry’s terms – although he had no grounds on which to base either assertion – was designed to “liquidate the Palestinian cause in return for secondary privileges for Palestinian Authority leaders.”

Meanwhile, clearly determined to maintain the veil of secrecy over the give and take that has led to the resumption of talks, Abbas’s office issued a statement on July 20 authorising only two officials to speak on behalf of the PA and PLO: Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Abbas’s spokesman, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the PLO. Neither has revealed any details of the agreement, but Rabbo has emphasised that much has still to be clarified before Abbas takes his seat at the table.

The annoyance at being kept in the dark is not confined to the Palestinian side. In Israel officials have been instructed to refrain from commenting on the Palestinian claims, or on any details regarding the resumption of talks, and this is not to the liking of some prominent figures. The fact that the negotiations and their outcome is “shrouded in fog” is frustrating for the media, too, but the Americans are clearly keen on keeping a tight lid on this early bargaining.

There will be problems enough if substantive talks do eventually get under way, for their objective will be the “two-state solution”, and vital elements within the Israeli coalition, like Bayit Yehudi, parts of Likud, and Yisrael Beytenu, are currently opposed to a peace agreement on these lines.

They may be somewhat placated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assurance, given on Sunday 21 July at a cabinet meeting held at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, that before any agreement hammered out between Israel and the PA is signed and sealed. it would be the subject of a national referendum.

The details of the formula which Kerry brokered in order to bring the two sides together remain intentionally unspecified. As Kerry said: “the best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private… Any speculation or reports you may read in the media are conjecture, because the people who know the facts are not talking about them."

Wise words, for any attempt to conduct delicate negotiations in the full glare of public scrutiny is doomed from the start. Privacy is the essential pre-requisite for the ticklish business of step-by-step compromise leading to an outcome that both sides can live with and, more to the point, sell to their respective constituencies.

It is at this latter hurdle that Abbas may stumble. Unlike the situation in Israel, where every nuance of a possible peace deal is discussed ad nauseam, Abbas has not done enough to prepare his party, his government or his people for a scenario in which he negotiates a deal with Israel which yields somewhat less than the full package of Palestinian demands. Yet that is the nature of negotiation – give a little, take a little, but end up with the bulk of what you are seeking. The Palestinians have trembled on the brink of just such a situation at least twice before – Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000, to say nothing of the near Olmert-Abbas accord in 2008. On each occasion the Palestinians have wavered – and retreated, in the face of a vociferous and uncompromising rejectionism from within their own ranks.

So it is a precarious tightrope on which Abbas has now taken a tentative step. Secrecy is essential if negotiations are to be successfully conducted, but when leading figures, the media and the public are kept out of the picture, they cannot be expected to develop a stake in the process and the outcome. If Abbas hopes to carry the majority of his people with him, he will have to enthuse them at some point about the enterprise on which he has embarked.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 July 2013:

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Saudi Arabia moves centre stage

Suddenly the world’s spotlight has turned onto a player in the Middle East political drama who, until quite recently, has been assigned only a modest role. Out of the blue, commentators have taken to describing Saudi Arabia as “the region's most powerful influence-peddler” and “a mid-east powerhouse”. The Arab kingdom that straddles most of the Arabian peninsular and, despite its enormous oil-fuelled wealth, has never seemed a contender in the power struggles of the Middle East, has suddenly become critically influential.

In a telephone call on Saturday July 13, US President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah shared concerns about the effect on the region of Syria's civil war. They agreed to continue supporting the rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad régime. Obama and Abdullah also found themselves in broad agreement about the situation in Egypt. Immediately after Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was removed from power, Abdullah had sent the military a message of congratulation. Obama told the king he hoped for an inclusive, democratic process to be set in train in Egypt, to allow a return to civilian government.

This meeting of US and Saudi Arabian minds, particularly on the subject of Egypt, is not perhaps very surprising in view of the reports circulating in a variety of media about collusion by both parties in the military coup.

As for US involvement. political commentator Dean Andromidas, writing in the Executive Intelligence Review of July 12, 2013, claims that the Egyptian Army kept its American counterparts fully informed about its plans to remove Morsi by no later than July 1. In discussions between Egyptian and US military leaders, the report goes, the US insisted that the Egyptian Army must not allow itself to be tarred with the brush of “military coup”. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must not resume power itself, but needed to create a civilian interim government and move immediately to the drafting of a new constitution and popular elections. Which is precisely what occurred.

DEBKAfile is a Jerusalem-based military intelligence website covering the Middle East. “We start where the media stop”, it proudly announces. Last week it declared: “The Egyptian military high command was not working alone when its operations headquarters put together the July 3 takeover of power from the Muslim Brotherhood: it was coordinated closely down to the last detail with the palaces of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) rulers and the operations rooms of their intelligence services.”

As he ordered the military into action, DEBKA asserts, coup leader General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had two Saudi-Gulf commitments in his pocket. First, should the Obama administration cut off the annual US aid allocation of $1.3 billion, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would make up the military budget’s shortfall. And secondly. the Saudis, UAE and other Gulf nations would immediately start pumping out substantial funds to keep the Egyptian economy running. The Egyptian masses would be shown that, in a properly managed economy, they need not go hungry, as many did under Muslim Brotherhood rule.

On Tuesday July 9, Abdullah opened his wallet and offered El-Sisi $5 billion in aid. Saudi Arabia's neighbour and ally, the UAE, added $3 billion more, while Kuwait offered $4 billion.

Saudi Arabia’s new-found influence now extends also into the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by way of the Arab League’s “peace plan”, the 2002 initiative of then Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, of Saudi Arabia.

On March 20, 2002, a few days ahead of a summit of the Arab League, Abdullah electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel. Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The quid pro quo for Israel’s acceptance of the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations. The plan was adopted and has subsequently been ratified several times by the Arab League.

Shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Arab League’s peace plan into its Middle East policy – an intention subsequently upheld by Obama’s new Secretary of State, John Kerry.

On the last day of April 2013, Kerry and US Vice-President Joe Biden hosted an Arab League delegation, which included senior officials from Saudi Arabia, to discuss the principles of the Arab peace plan. One of Israel’s basic objections had always been the idea of establishing the border of a sovereign Palestine along the cease-fire line of the Israeli and Jordanian armies in 1949 – which is what the 1967 boundary was. John Kerry managed to persuade the Arab League delegation to soften its stance on this issue. After their meeting, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani announced that the delegation had accepted an interpretation of the Arab peace proposal which included the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Emphasising Saudi Arabia’s growing self-confidence, and highly revealing of its strategic thinking, on July 10 a new and strange story surfaced. Images analysed by security experts at IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review have revealed a hitherto undisclosed surface-to-surface missile base deep in the Saudi desert at al-Watah, around 125 miles south-west of the capital, Riyadh. Analysts who examined the photos spotted two launch pads, one with markings pointing north-east towards Tehran – and one north-west towards Tel Aviv. They are designed, according to Jane’s, for Saudi Arabia's arsenal of lorry-launched DF 3 missiles, which have a range of 1,500-2,500 miles and can carry a two-ton payload.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have a common enemy in Iran, which has long seen Saudi Arabia as a rival power in the Gulf, and has sought to undermine it. Experts fear that if, as seems increasingly likely, Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia would seek to follow suit, for both the Middle East and the world would have become even more unpredictable than at present. Saudi Arabia does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but it has long maintained discreet back-channel communications in its efforts to promote stability in the region.

All the same, Saudi Arabia is clearly preparing itself for all eventualities.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 July 2013:

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Egypt's military adventure

As ever, Shakespeare puts it perfectly:
                                       What's in a name? That which we call a rose
                                        By any other name would smell as sweet.

What has happened in Egypt is, frankly, a coup d’état. The army has overthrown the elected government and arrested the president and the leaders of what was the governing party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the US administration has so far studiously avoided designating recent events as a military coup, and the UK has been equally bashful.

This “American paralysis” as Peter Oborne, chief political correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph puts it, results from an obscure piece of US legislation, the Foreign Assistance Act, which stipulates that US aid shall not be awarded “to any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup or decree”.

If Mohammed Morsi was not the “duly elected head of government”, and if he was not “deposed by a military coup or decree”, then words have ceased to have their meaning, and black is white. However, since Washington has no desire – regardless of which entity has its hands on the levers of power – to sever its military support for Egypt, and with it Egypt’s continued maintenance of its peace treaty with Israel, it is important that the words “military coup” are not uttered in Washington, or it seems in London, intent as it is on not causing embarrassment to its US ally.

The US Foreign Assistance Act does not specify that subsequent actions by the instigators of a military coup can mitigate the effect of the legislation. If such a loophole existed it could be argued that, on engineering the overthrow of the administration, army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi did not assume power himself – as his predecessor, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, had done back in the 1950s – but quickly installed the president of the supreme constitutional court, Adli Mansour, as interim head of state, assisted by an interim council and a technocratic government.

A day later Mansour named 76-year-old economist and former finance minister Hazem el Beblawi as transitional prime minister, and former United Nations nuclear agency chief, Mohamed El Baradei, as deputy to the president. The interim administration announced that it would set to work to devise a new constitution leading to parliamentary and presidential elections.

Do these semi-democratic moves – semi-democratic because all are taken under the aegis, and with the approval, of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – justify Washington’s hesitation to designate the events as a military coup? The US would be happier, perhaps, to dub them “Egypt’s military adventure”. After all, an adventure trail can lead you to all manner of unexpected places – and a truly democratic outcome is perhaps one possibility.

Not if the Muslim Brotherhood has its way, however. Riding high as it was only a month ago, its president. Mohammed Morsi, was systematically using his mandate to seize authoritarian powers, including legislative and executive powers that were beyond judicial oversight, and was well on his way to entrenching the profoundly undemocratic rule of the Muslim Brotherhood on Egypt. The patience of a goodly proportion of the secular-minded Egyptian public finally snapped. On July 4, Tahrir, an independent Egyptian daily, ran an English-language headline at the top of its front page, addressing US President Obama directly: "It's a Revolution ... Not a Coup, Mr Obama!"

Further justification, perhaps, for Washington’s reluctance to call a spade a spade – a stance certainly not shared by the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. They have no difficulty with the word.

"We will continue our peaceful resistance to the bloody military coup against constitutional legitimacy," they announced, vowing to defy the military's removal of President Morsi, and to continue to resist until he is reinstated. They insist they will never work with the interim rulers.

The explanation of what has occurred might lie deeper than is generally assumed, for there have been rumours of collusion by the US in the overthrow of the Morsi administration. If true, this might explain Washington’s subsequent espousal of Egypt’s interim administration and its clear intention to continue its military and financial support.

A Reuters report on July 3, citing unnamed Egyptian military sources, stated: "Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsi was governing Egypt reached the tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria."

According to Washington sources, the Egyptian Army kept its American counterparts fully informed about the plans to remove Morsi by no later than July 1, the day that the top Egyptian commanders made their decision to move. After an estimated 8-10 million Egyptians turned out in mass peaceful rallies on June 30, demanding Morsi's removal, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces determined that it was its "civic duty" to deliver on the popular demands.

It is also alleged that the subsequent semi-democratic moves by army chief el-Sissi followed discussions between Egyptian military leaders and their American counterparts, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, JCS Chairman Dempsey, and Central Command head General Lloyd Austin. During these deliberations the US made it clear that the Army could not take power directly, but needed to create a civilian interim government and move to the drafting of a new constitution and popular elections immediately.

Nor do the rumours stop there. The well-informed Israeli website DEBKA noted: “The Egyptian military high command was not working alone when its operations headquarters put together the July 3 takeover of power from the Muslim Brotherhood: it was coordinated closely down to the last detail with the palaces of the Saudi and UAE rulers, and the operations rooms of their intelligence services.”

Egypt’s latest military adventure has only just got under way. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood president and administration seems to have won the support of the US, the UK and a number of Arab regimes fearful of Islamist extremists. Egypt is likely to move forward from this point, rather than back as the Muslim Brotherhood would wish, for de facto administrations usually triumph over de jure ones. In politics, as we have surely learned over the past century, “might makes right”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 July 2013:

Monday, 8 July 2013

Egypt and Hamas part company

Just two days after the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, the new interim government in Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip indefinitely, and Nilesat – an Egyptian company that controls a number of Egyptian communications satellites – removed Hamas TV, Al-Quds, from the air.

Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza Strip, is an off-shoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the politico-religious organisation to which Morsi belonged. When Morsi was first returned to power a year ago, the leaders of Hamas clearly believed that they had gained an invaluable ally in their self-imposed “armed struggle” against Israel. For example, it is not generally known that in July 2012, just after Morsi came to power, Hamas was seriously considering a unilateral declaration of independence for the Gaza Strip, hoping for support from the MB Egyptian government. Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat reported that the possibility of establishing a self-supporting Islamist Palestinian state of Gaza was seriously discussed between Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Egypt’s then-President Mohammed Morsi.

On this occasion Hamas was to be disappointed in its bid for fraternal support. Becoming complicit with Hamas was not in Egypt’s best interests – not even for a MB president. Egypt was relying on a new $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and a $6.4 billion support package from the EU, to say nothing of a hefty package of loans and grants from the USA. So the half-baked secession plan came to nothing.

All the same MB’s accession to power in Egypt much emboldened Hamas, not only within the Gaza Strip, but in Sinai as well, an important territorial buffer between Egypt and Israel since their 1979 peace treaty.

During the summer of 2012 a number of armed attacks were launched from Sinai on Israel, and in each case support from Hamas in Gaza was suspected. In one incident two gunmen, later killed in an exchange of fire, infiltrated Israel and killed an Israeli civilian working on the construction of a border fence. Media reports indicated that the gunmen had received helped from within Gaza. When Israel responded with two air strikes into Gaza and four other militants were killed, Hamas launched medium-range rockets, mortar shells and long-range Grad-model Katyushas rockets at southern Israel.

One result of Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution was to encourage armed Palestinian groups and global jihadists to penetrate the large, sparsely populated desert peninsula of Sinai, usually from the Gaza strip and supported by Hamas, and to mix with Bedouins disgruntled with the central Egyptian regime. What followed were attacks on the pipeline transporting natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, the kidnapping of foreign tourists, and assaults against police stations. The Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, also came under attack.

One major incident, occurring early in August, reflected the growing boldness of Hamas and the Islamist extremists whom Hamas supported. After killing about 15 Egyptian security personnel at a base in the border town of Rafah, the jihadists used a pickup truck filled with explosives to breach the Egypt-Israel border, then drove an armored vehicle more than a mile into Israel before being struck by a missile fired from an Israeli military plane. Up to eight heavily armed militants were killed. A statement from the Egyptian military said 35 militants were involved and "elements from the Gaza Strip" aided the attack by firing rockets, suggesting co-ordination between Hamas and Sinai militants.

This access of bravado led Hamas to institute an unrestrained expansion of indiscriminate rocket attacks on southern Israel, until the situation became intolerable and Israel mounted its short, sharp retaliatory response – Operation Pillar of Defense. If the Hamas leadership believed that by provoking armed conflict with Israel, the MB government of Egypt would spring to their aid and involve the Middle East in another major conflict aimed at eliminating Israel, they were sadly disappointed. They did however, reap a quite unforeseen advantage from their common MB heritage with the new Egyptian government.

For it was Morsi, in conjunction with the US, who engineered the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012, opening the way for Hamas’s shaky, yet triumphalist, claim of victory. For a brief time, thanks to Egypt’s brokerage, Hamas bestrode the world stage, the standard bearers of the anti-Israel “armed struggle”.

With the overthrow of Morsi and the MB government in Egypt, Hamas is again experiencing the disapproval of its ill-considered militant activities that marked the previous Mubarak regime. The Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah is closed, the tunnels used for smuggling goods and weaponry out of Egypt are being blocked, and the Hamas leadership is once more out in the cold, facing opposition within Gaza from Salafists who are even more extremist than it is itself.

Hamas must be pinning its hopes on the activities of MB supporters within Egypt. On July 7 Egyptian Salafi jihad issued what it described as a "clarion call for Islamic revolution". "Anyone who knows an advocate or a sheikh or a revolutionary,” said the statement, “should call him to urge him to mobilise."

Since the generals ousted Morsi there has already been an upsurge in militant violence, particularly in Sinai, long a hotbed of Hamas-supported jihadist activity. Intelligence reports have warned of a build-up of weapons, some stolen from Gaddafi arms stores in Libya, some headed for Gaza but held up by the block on smugglers' tunnels.

On the night of July 5, a group of Islamists seized the North Sinai governor's palace in the Mediterranean town of El Arish, raising the black Islamist flag. Earlier, jihadists attacked military checkpoints, a police station and El Arish airport. Five police and a soldier were killed. On July 6, gunmen killed a Coptic Christian priest in El Arish, a sign of the sectarian tensions bubbling under the surface. Brotherhood leaders and clerics had attacked Christians for joining anti-Morsi protests, and the decision by Pope Tawadros, leader of the Coptic church, to back Morsi's removal inflamed feelings further, even though he was joined by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.

In short, the one-time dream by the Hamas leadership of a Egypt-Gaza Muslim Brotherhood axis has faded. Armed struggle – and this time not at all confined to Israel – is once again the order of the day.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 July 2013:

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Muslim world and Israel – is peace possible?

To adapt W S Gilbert’s well-known lyric:

                             “They themselves have said it,
                              And it’s greatly to their credit…”

“They” are the 22 members of the Arab League (21 since last November, when Syria was suspended), but speaking now – according to their own website – for all 57 Muslim majority states, including Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia.

What have they said? It is contained in what is known as the “Arab Peace Initiative”, issued initially by the Arab League in 2002, subsequently readopted several times, and only a few months ago, as a gesture to US Secretary of State John Kerry, somewhat softened in interpretation.

On March 20, 2002, a few days ahead of a summit of the Arab League to be held in Beirut, then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war and a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). The quid pro quo for Israel’s acceptance of the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on March 28, 2002.

Shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Arab League’s initiative into its Middle East policy. During Obama’s first term the peace effort got as far as several face-to-face meetings between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but petered out when Israel’s moratorium on construction in the West Bank came to an end.

Obama’s second term started with a clear intention by the new administration to give high priority to a renewed effort at brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. This time the lead was to be taken not by a special envoy, but by the newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry. He soon proved himself dedicated, tireless and unremitting in his effort to narrow the differences between the two sides to the point at which they would agree to meet. On April 29, 2013, he hosted an Arab League delegation in Washington, during which Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani for the first time signalled that a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land” would be an acceptable interpretation of the Arab peace initiative’s requirements.

When first issued, the initiative was perceived by the Israeli government as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and they made no official response to the proposals. Within Israel, however, reactions divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. What is not generally known, however, or has been forgotten, is that during Ehud Olmert’s premiership a semi-official Arab League delegation actually came to Jerusalem and discussed the Arab peace initiative with the prime minister and then foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, and his Jordanian counterpart, Abdul Ilah Khatib, came to Israel on July 25, 2007. At a joint press conference in Jerusalem, Khatib said the offer he and his colleague had come to present was an “opportunity of historic magnitude — it will provide Israel with the security and recognition and acceptance in this region to which Israel has long aspired.” Gheit added that he planned to present a report to the Arab Ministerial Council within days and “then we shall probably suggest some ideas to strengthen and ensure the continuation of this process.”

They “were never heard of again,” said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official.

Opinion within Israel remains as divided as ever on the Arab peace plan. Only last week cabinet minister Yaakov Peri, his Yesh Atid party’s lead on peace talks and former head of Shin Bet, warmly endorsed it. "The initiative signals the path ahead," he said.

International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, is less enthusiastic. “No peace initiative can replace bilateral negotiations between us and the Palestinians,” he said in June. “We need to worry about genuine peace with genuine security — these items are not included in the Arab Peace Initiative…and it would not be right to discuss them with the entire Arab world.”

But this view is based on an “either-or” perception of peace negotiations – either the Arab peace initiative, or face-to-face negotiations between the PA and Israel. It would be more realistic to regard the prize offered by the Arab initiative – a peace agreement between Israel and the whole Muslim world, and the normalization of relations – as a bonus that would, in whole or in part, follow the conclusion of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. For the terms of an Israel-Palestine accord ending the interminable dispute would doubtless also fulfil the requirements of the initiative.

This interpretation of the situation may explain the persistent rumour that surfaced during an earlier Middle East visit by John Kerry. An authoritative speculation, which described itself as an “exclusive”, affirmed that Kerry had obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks. The first track would have Israel facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) across the table; the second would, for the first time ever, see Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions.

Last month, speaking during a debate in the Knesset on the Arab peace initiative, Netanyahu said: "We are listening to every initiative - the Arab initiative has been mentioned - and we are prepared to discuss initiatives that are proposals and not edicts."

Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable – for public opinion is notoriously fickle – but one carried out in Israel in May indicated that 73.5 percent of Hebrew-speaking Israelis had never heard of the Arab initiative. When the plan was explained to them, though, 55 percent of respondents said they would support the initiative to some degree. When they were asked how they would respond if the prime minister backed the initiative, the number of supporters jumped to 69 percent.

In short, if the Arab peace initiative were in some way associated with, or incorporated into, meaningful bilateral peace negotiations, Israel’s prime minister would have more than two-thirds of the nation behind him – possible compensation for the loss of half his cabinet, and a prize no less tempting, perhaps, than that held out by the initiative itself.

But whether the Muslim world as a whole, which can rarely live at peace with itself and is at present in a state of turmoil, would be willing or able to live up to its declared intention – that is a quite different story.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 July 2013:

Monday, 1 July 2013

The optimistic Mr Kerry

“I would not have returned here five times – I would not be here now – if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible.” The words of US Secretary of State John Kerry on 27 June 2013, prior to joining Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for a long working dinner at Jerusalem’s David Citadel hotel.

By “this”, Kerry must surely mean a peace agreement ending the interminable Palestinian-Israeli dispute – though he would undoubtedly count it a feather in his cap simply to engineer the presence of the two men at the same negotiating table. That in itself would be a noteworthy first step in his current peace-making endeavours – a step his predecessor in office, Hillary Clinton, achieved, though with no positive outcome, back in September 2010.

Has John Kerry a trick or two up his sleeve to ensure that history does not repeat itself – that talks launched with high hopes, expressed by all parties, do not again peter out in a welter of recriminations?

During an earlier Middle East visit by John Kerry, an authoritative speculation, which described itself as an “exclusive”, affirmed that Kerry had obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks. The first track would have Israel facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) across the table; the second would, for the first time ever, see Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions.

If true, this – or an arrangement along these lines – would mirror the device adopted by Hillary Clinton back in 2010 designed to give political cover to Mahmoud Abbas, since sitting down at the same table as Israel’s prime minister would be sticking his neck out as regards his own Palestinian constituency. To back his gamble, Clinton persuaded both Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan’s King Abdullah, to attend the launch of the negotiations. In the event Abbas, who also had the backing of the Arab League for his presence, was well supported.

By bringing the Arab League directly into the negotiating process, Kerry would similarly be providing the PA president with strong political backing to justify his involvement in direct face-to-face peace talks. Nor is Abbas alone in requiring political support. If Kerry succeeds in bringing the parties together, Netanyahu too needs to be assured that sufficient of his coalition government, and of the Israeli public, are behind him. For both men must surely have in mind the dangers of moving too far or too fast in this peace process minefield. Hovering over any peace discussions must, on the one hand, be the fate of Anwar Sadat (assassinated in 1981 by an Islamist extremist), and on the other of Yitzhak Rabin (assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist).

Which is enough to explain the extreme caution being exercised by both parties to John Kerry’s unremitting efforts to bring them together. In his latest visit to the region he has been unsparing of time and effort in repeatedly meeting Abbas and Netanyahu, as he tries to hammer out a formula, acceptable to both sides, that can lead to the launch of meaningful face-to-face peace discussions.

Media speculation is rife as to what inducements Kerry may have up his sleeve – he has been extremely guarded in his public pronouncements. One persistent rumor, which first surfaced back in the spring, is that an Israel-Palestinian-US-Jordan summit might precede direct talks between Israel and the PA. A press report in Jordan on June 29 reiterated this, and was subsequently qualified, though scarcely denied, by a Jordanian official, who said that such a meeting was not “imminent”.

As John Kerry leaves the Middle East again, after four days of shuttling between the sides, he would assert that his glass is half-full, not half-empty. He affirms that he has “considerably” narrowed the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians, and he believes the start of final-status negotiations could be “within reach”. He declares himself impressed with the “serious commitment” by both sides to resume talks.

Announcing that he would be leaving a team of experts in the region to continue efforts, and that he plans on returning soon, Mr Kerry – ever the optimist – maintains:

“I know progress when I see it, and we are making progress.”

Published in the Jeusalem Post on-line, 1 July 2013: