Monday, 25 November 2013

Bibi in the Kremlin

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – known familiarly within Israel to friends and political foes alike as “Bibi” – spent Wednesday, November 20 locked in discussion in the Kremlin with Russia’s President Putin.  There’s an amiable, jocular ring to “Bibi”, not at all matched by the most common nickname ascribed to his host, Vladimir Putin the Grey Cardinal.  Of the two, however, it was President Putin who lived up to his sobriquet during the discussions and the joint press conference that followed.

It was generally believed that Netanyahu, having reached an impasse with President Obama on toughening the terms of the impending deal with Iran, flew to Moscow to try to persuade President Putin to insist on a full dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities as an essential element of an interim agreement. 

"For Israel,” said Netanyahu in the joint press conference that followed their discussions, “the greatest threat to us and to the security of the world is Iran's attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Both our countries have a joint objective: We do not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. There is a lot to be learned from the solution achieved in Syria over the chemical weapons, where Russia and others rightly insisted on full dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons."

Neither Netanyahu nor Putin divulged details of their exchanges in the Kremlin. Putin said that they had discussed Iran exhaustively, but provided no indication that Russia had shifted its position in any way, and added only that he was hopeful of a “positive” result from the talks in Geneva a result which has now been achieved.

It is doubtful if Netanyahu’s visit to the Kremlin impacted in any significant way on the outcome of the “interim agreement” reached on November 24.  Conspiracy theories are difficult to evaluate, but on November 17 Israel’s TV Channel 10 asserted that an envoy of President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, had been undertaking secret discussions for several months with Iranian negotiators, and that a draft agreement was presented to negotiators in the first Geneva round as a fait accompli. Valerie Jarrett, who was born in Iran, is a senior adviser to President Obama and Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. The report was categorically denied by the White House, although by November 25 it was splashed all over the world’s media, on the lines of “a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was made possible by months of unprecedented secret meetings between US and Iranian officials.”

One commentator asserts that Israel and Saudi Arabia, like other US regional allies, had been left in the dark about both the secret negotiations and the draft agreement that resulted. However, if an Israel TV station managed to acquire details of a backstairs arrangement between the US and Iran, it is virtually certain that Russian intelligence would have been aware of it. More to the point, reports have been circulating to the effect that it was not a two-way, but a three-way secret deal that had been drawn up, and that Russia itself was “the Third Man”.  Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, has long been on better terms with Tehran than the Western powers it was this relationship that facilitated Russia’s success in persuading Iran’s client, Assad of Syria, to abandon his chemical weapons.

The rumours were to the effect that a draft agreement on Iran’s nuclear program had been worked out between Washington, Moscow and Tehran.  Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Russian Atomic Agency Rosatom, was reported to have been in Iran for most of the summer with a team of Farsi-speaking Russian nuclear scientists, drawing up the text of a nuclear accord modelled on the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.  Drafts, it was asserted, were passed between the US and Russian presidents until they saw eye to eye, and finally it was shaped into a document to be put on the negotiating table at Geneva as agreed proposals. 

All of which indicates that, as far as the Iran situation was concerned, Bibi’s trip to the Kremlin was, as the English expression goes, “a hiding to nothing”.  A few i’s needed dotting, a few t’s crossed, but the deal had more or less been done.

Iran, however, was surely not the only topic of conversation between Netanyahu and his Russian host. There was the future to consider.  They must have dwelt on the burgeoning trade contacts between Russia and Israel, and perhaps agreed how relations between the two countries might develop.  Israeli exports to Russia increased fourfold between 2003 and 2008, and since then have continued to grow exponentially, especially in areas like nanotechnology, energy, and joint military projects, including the production of unmanned drone warplanes.  In the first quarter of 2012 Israeli exports to Russia, bucking a general downward trend, increased by no less than 12 per cent, year on year.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the state-owned Russian Railroads, which had been hoping to participate in the new Tel Aviv-Eilat high-speed rail link, if it ever materialises. Or take Russia’s natural gas monopoly Gazprom.  In February 2013 Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the Tamar and Dalit off-shore fields. Industry sources assume that Russia will wish to expand its activities into the giant Leviathan gas and oil field, and beyond. 

These expanded trade links and enormously valuable deals carry with them a political implication – strengthened ties with Russia, which have in any case been growing closer for some time. After all Netanyahu’s visit to the Kremlin followed not one, but two trips to Israel by Putin, the first Russian leader ever to visit the country.  Putin seems to admire Israel’s toughness in dealing with both its enemies and its friends.  The pre-determined outcome of the Iranian negotiations was beyond Bibi’s power to influence, but his time in the Kremlin almost certainly fostered an even closer relationship with the new growing power in Middle East politics Russia resurgent.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 November 2013:

Published in Eurasia Review, 25 November 2013:

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The battle for Sinai

            One direct result of the overthrow of Egypt’s President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013 has been the swift descent into violence and chaos of the Sinai peninsula. 

            Sinai is the V-shaped land mass that is the easternmost area of Egypt.  Since the military coup in Egypt, it has become a breeding ground for ruthless and brutal terrorism by extremist supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some 60,000 square kilometres roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland it consists largely of desert and has a population of only some 500,000. It is, however, strategically placed in terms of Middle East geopolitics.  Bounded on the north by the Mediterranean and on the south by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, its western border is the Suez canal and its eastern the Gaza strip and then Israel.  It is therefore, a perfect launch pad from which to challenge both Egypt and Israel while also serving as an ideal two-way conduit for Hamas, an alternative to the tunnels that Egypt and Israel have begun destroying.

“The Sinai has become an arena for the stockpiling of weapons bound for Hamas, and a staging ground for their eventual smuggling into Gaza,” said a report by senior US military personnel following a tour in October 2013.  And it is to Gaza city that Muslim Brotherhood leaders are reported to have fled, shortly after the downfall of ex-President Morsi, in order to establish a headquarters from which to plan and execute operations aimed at overthrowing the interim Egyptian government and its leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In a recent report by the leading German journal, Der Spiegel, Sinai was described as “a laboratory of violence, a test zone.” For here, as much as in mainland Egypt, is where the military, having eliminated the former Islamist government and its president, must demonstrate that they can save the country from being plunged into a bloody civil war on a par with Syria’s. 

So far the violence in the “test zone” of Sinai has not been particularly well contained, though al-Sisi is receiving brownie points from the Egyptian public for his determined attempts to do so.  One particularly bloodthirsty incident was the massacre on August 19 of 25 Egyptian policemen by armed extremists close to the Israeli border. In September Egypt’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, narrowly escaped being killed by a car bomb in Cairo, most likely the work of the Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has its headquarters on the Sinai Peninsula. Then, on October 7, a car bomb exploded in front of the police headquarters building in the center of el-Tor, the capital of the South Sinai Governorate, killing four police officers and injuring 48 people. Within a few days six people were killed in an attack on Egyptian intelligence headquarters in Rafah, and a suicide bomber drove his car into a checkpoint outside al-Arish, killing three soldiers and a police officer.

The violence has extended as far as the Suez Canal.  Filmed and posted on-line by the jihadists themselves was their attack on August 31 on the Cosco Asia, a giant container ship heading to Europe from the Far East. It was something of a double disaster for the captain and owners of the Cosco Asia for, as journalist Richard Spenser reported, one of the rocket-propelled grenades ripped open some of the containers, exposing a large load of counterfeit cigarettes, subsequently tracked and seized when they were unloaded in Ireland.

"What if it had been a liquid natural gas tanker?" asked one senior Canal official, saying he kept the clip on his mobile phone as a reminder of what he was up against.

The incident led to a major review of security and a new army offensive against the jihadists. Yet it remains a tit-for-tat situation.  As recently as November 20 eleven Egyptian military personnel were killed, and dozens more wounded, in a car bomb attack near the north Sinai city of el-Arish. Al-Masri al-Youm newspaper said a convoy of buses carrying infantry soldiers was hit by a roadside bomb as it moved through the Kharouba area.

Nevertheless, David Barnett, who tracks the insurgency for the American security think-tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the number of reported jihadi attacks in the Sinai fell from 104 in July to 29 in October. But he warns against complacency. "We could just be seeing an alteration in tactics. There have already been drive-by shootings in the capital and in the Nile Delta. The spread of the Sinai insurgency to the mainland is something we should be taking very seriously.”

Al-Sisi’s strong-arm tactics seem to be endearing him to the Egyptian public.  Distinguished veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk recently described him as becoming the object of “mass worship”. Journalists adore him, says Fisk, people eat sweets made in his image, and Egyptians are passing around hundred dollar bills with his colored portrait superimposed on that of Benjamin Franklin.

The Egyptian public seems to approve of his determination to crush the jihadists’ efforts at restoring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and of his putting former President Morsi on trial for actions during the uprising in June 2013 which led to the army deposing him.  More to the point, perhaps, al-Sisi appears to be living up to his promise of a revised constitution leading to new elections early in 2014.

On November 17 the 50-member constituent assembly, formed in September to draft amendments to Egypt's constitution, posted on its official Twitter page that the final draft of the amended constitution was finished. The assembly is expected to vote on the draft constitution by November 26, and then present it to interim President Adly Mansour. The draft constitution will then be open to public discussion, before being  put to a national referendum within 15 days. 

Meanwhile on November 8 Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, announced that Parliamentary elections will be held in Egypt between February and March 2014, to be followed by a presidential vote in early summer.  Their success in re-establishing democratic rule in Egypt depends crucially on whether the interim government has by then gained the upper hand in its bitter struggle in the Sinai against its political and religious opponents.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 November 2013: 
Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 November 2013: 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Israel: an energy superpower?

Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!
          - Golda Meir, 10 June 1973

            To misquote William Wordsworth: “Golda, thou should’st be living at this hour!” 
            Sitting fairly and squarely within Israel’s territorial waters although spilling out somewhat to the north and east and encompassing about 83,000 square miles, is the so-called “Levant Basin”.  In April 2010 the US Geological Survey estimated that no less than 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of gas were recoverable from this vast and long unsuspected energy reserve.  A year later, in the light of subsequent discoveries, their estimate was upped to 200 trillion cubic feet of gas.
            It was back in the 1950s that Israel first tried drilling for oil – and indeed a small oilfield was discovered at Heletz, south of Ashdod and close to the Gaza strip.  No-one and certainly not Golda Meir realised that Heletz was the extreme southern tip of vast oil and gas reserves stretching far into the Mediterranean.  So for a further fifteen years it was only perfunctory on-shore exploration that continued, with a marked lack of commercial success.
            By the late 1960s, however, the technology for drilling off-shore for gas and oil in extremely difficult ocean conditions was being rapidly developed, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil and off the coast of the United Kingdom. Israel licenced its first offshore exploratory well in 1969. 
The huge financial risks involved in this type of enterprise are illustrated by the simple fact that it took no less than thirty years for the first offshore energy discovery in Israeli waters.  It was not until 1999 that a partnership between the US-based Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group and Avner Oil stumbled upon the Noa and Mari-B gas fields. Situated no more than 60 kilometers from the coast, and lying almost in a straight line from that first on-shore oil well, Heletz, they were small but significant finds running along the western edge of the Levant Basin.
In 2004 Israel’s Electric Company fueled one of its power stations with Israeli natural gas and began the process of making Israel self-sufficient in energy. The process was confirmed in 2009 with the discovery of the Tamar and Dalit fields, 100 kilometers off Israel’s northern coast.  Tamar’s and Dalit’s reserves are estimated at over 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a quantity sufficient to meet Israel’s natural gas needs for over 20 years.
At the time this seemed a sufficient stroke of good fortune. The idea that Israel might become a major exporter of energy was in nobody’s mind.
Not, that is, until late 2010, when the Noble partnership struck a huge natural gas find in the Leviathan well, the largest deepwater gas discovery of the decade.  The gas-bearing strata contains some 17 trillion cubic meters of gas, but beneath it, about 6,500 meters below the Mediterranean sea-bed, there is an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil waiting to be extracted. Noble Energy intend to start drilling the well to the oil strata before the end of 2013.
"The deepest oil well drilled in Israel’s 65-year history may be the most important," said Bloomberg, the authoritative business market source.  "While explorers have found enough natural gas in the past five years to turn Israel into an exporter, a major oil discovery would break new ground.” 
Not only would it guarantee domestic supplies for decades ahead Israel currently spends about $10 billion a year importing 98% of the oil it uses but it would increase tax revenue and boost the country’s balance of payments.  It would, in short, mean big money. 
The political implications of Israel joining the gas and oil exporting nations is less easy to assess.  Oil certainly means power, but power – especially attached to the Jewish nation is a two-edged sword. In a world in which global anti-Semitism is on the increase, as Daniel Goldhagen recently pointed out: “nothing incites anti-Semites more than the specter of Jews being powerful.”
On the other hand energy and money are powerful tools for any nation to possess, and Israel seems poised to acquire both in increasing amounts over the foreseeable future, for new finds are still coming on line. The Karish (“shark) offshore gas field, some 100 kilometers northwest of Haifa, was found in June 2013 with reserves of 12.7 million barrels of condensate on top of its potential 1.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
So the political ball could run in a different direction. Israel’s energy partnerships could have a beneficial political fallout.  The US, Russia and Australia are already major shareholders in one or other of the gas and oil developments, and in February 2013 Russia’s Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the Tamar and Dalit fields. Industry sources assume that Russia will wish to expand its activities into Leviathan and beyond.  These enormously valuable deals inevitably carry with them a political implication – namely that nothing will be allowed to jeopardize the huge profits that flow from the commercial partnership.  Strengthened ties with Russia might be one immediate result of Israel’s new standing in the world of energy.
There may be other, if less significant, political benefits.  For example, Israel might export gas to Egypt, according to Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom.
"Egypt, which is currently experiencing a shortage of gas,” he said. “is showing interest in buying gas from Israel. If it turns out that they do want gas, I see no reason why not to [sell it].”
Then there is Turkey. Industry sources say that Turkey’s Zorlu Energy is in talks with Israeli firms over the potential for a pipeline to carry Israeli natural gas to Turkey. Zorlu Energy holds a 25% stake in Dorad Energy, which is building a 875-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Ashkelon. Other Turkish companies including Turcas Petrol are also interested in a pipeline project. Such a project, which could be worth $3.5 billion, would entail construction of an undersea section to Turkey’s southern coast and a link to central Turkey. The political rift between the two countries is holding up progress, but the imperatives of the energy market might even find a way round that obstacle.
With Israel poised to become a player in the big energy league, the Middle East political kaleidoscope is about to be given a good shaking.  Who can forecast the resulting pattern?

Published in the Jerusalem Post in-line, 14 November 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 November 2013: 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Russia resurgent in the Middle East

        It is a melancholy fact, but true, that for much of the world, and certainly for the Middle East, the old adage “might is right” holds sway.  Power engenders respect.  In the Western world, however, this mindset is at odds with popular feeling, which has come to regard authority and dominance with suspicion.  The popular imagination in the USA, the UK and other Western nations is gripped by shame and contrition for a past littered with episodes that could be labelled aggressive, racist, colonial or imperialist, and Western opinion now shies away from overt displays of muscle by its leaders. 

            This dispiriting phenomenon was vividly illustrated last August, when the results of the horrific chemical attack by Syria’s President Bashar Assad on his own people filled the world’s TV screens.  The use of chemical weapons by the Assad régime was a red line which, if crossed, the US and the UK had agreed would trigger an immediate and forceful reaction.  What happened?  In both countries opinion polls revealed convincing majorities opposed to involvement in the conflict. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, failed to get parliamentary approval to take military action, while President Obama dithered, announced he would seek congressional endorsement for a forceful response which, however, would not involve American boots touching Syrian soil.

            “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Into the breach stepped Russia, seizing a golden opportunity to take advantage of Western hesitancy.  Russia’s national interest had already dictated its support for Assad, a long-time ally, against the opposition that was seeking to depose him.  So Russia was able to act as a sort of honest broker, masterminding an agreement that resulted in Syria consenting to dispose of its chemical weapons stockpile and destroy its manufacturing facilities. In return, the US and its allies would refrain from military action in support of the rebels, and would leave Bashar Assad in power.

              There is reason to believe that Russia is also behind a deal, already drafted, in respect of the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran which, via the Hezbollah fighting force, is supporting Assad in the Syrian conflict.  The deal is constructed on the shaky foundations of Iran’s new soft-soap approach, by which the US and the West have allowed themselves to be seduced, preferring to be fooled rather than adopt more forceful methods of thwarting Iran. The result is that Iran will probably be left with sufficient nuclear capability to make a dash for nuclear weaponry whenever it chooses.

            Who now stands tall on the world stage following this intensive spate of diplomatic activity?  Russia, which has re-assumed the key role in the Middle East once held by the old USSR, when two super-powers straddled the globe.  The implications of this shift in the balance of power are beginning to emerge.

   On November 5 Russia announced that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would visit Moscow on November 20 for talks with President Vladimir Putin. It seems that the Israeli leader has decided to explore the route trodden by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Egypt who, feeling let down by Washington’s weak-kneed attitude towards Syria, Iran and Egypt’s interim government, turned to Moscow in search of closer diplomatic and military ties.

It is not all plain sailing. Mustafa Alani, of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, is reported in the Washington Post as believing that Saudi Arabia is deeply suspicious of Russia’s manoeuvring.  “The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”

That is not the case, says Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-­based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-à-vis American helplessness to settle problems.”

A view strengthened by the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington. His talks were focused on a $4 billion defence deal under which Russia will supply Iraq with a range of armaments, including fighter jets, which are expected to be delivered soon. Iraqi officials say they turned to Moscow only because they were frustrated by the slow pace of US arms deliveries at a time when the conflict in neighbouring Syria has heightened anxieties about Iraq’s stability.

Russia’s growing involvement in the Middle East turns also, and inevitably, on oil and gas.  Aware that if Europe were able to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, supply from the east Mediterranean would be the biggest threat, Moscow spent 2012 wooing Israel so as to buy into a piece of the action. The courtship was successful. On February 26, 2013 Russia’s Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Informed observers of the energy scene believe that the 20-year contract represents only the first step in Russia’s new Middle East energy game. Veteran observer M K Bhadrakumar designated the deal “an important milestone for strengthening Gazprom’s position in the global LNG market.”

Due to come online in 2017, the Tamar and Dalit offshore fields hold around nine trillion cubic feet of gas. A multi-billion dollar floating terminal is to be built near Cyprus to handle the conversion to LNG. It will also handle gas piped from the island’s own Aphrodite field – another seven trillion cubic feet. Apart from the potential of supplying Europe by pipeline, this deal offers Russia, already the global leader in LNG supply, a major role in exporting Mediterranean gas to the highly lucrative and burgeoning Asian market, including China, India and Japan.

But the Kremlin is playing a much bigger game. Gazprom has its sights set on a role in the development of Israel’s gigantic Leviathan gas field with its estimated 25 trillion cubic feet of gas.

At a stroke Russia has achieved a major role in eastern Mediterranean energy development – and by doing so, it has vastly enhanced its clout in the Middle East.  The economic, political and strategic value to Russia of its burgeoning energy partnership with Israel is so great that Moscow is highly unlikely to allow anything to jeopardize it.  How long will it be before the West realizes that the balance of power in the Middle East is shifting and that Russia has positioned itself to gain maximum advantage from its relationship with what has been termed “the Middle East’s coming energy superpower, Israel.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 10 November 2013: 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 November 2013: 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Jerusalem-Riyadh: the hush-hush accord

Two more disparate states than Israel and Saudi Arabia would be difficult to envisage.  Differing in almost every characteristic – political, religious, cultural, demographic – they nevertheless have one thing in common.  Both have enjoyed a close rapport with the United States. 

The special relationship with Israel has been a central plank in US foreign policy virtually since Israel came into being.  As for Saudi Arabia, since the first Gulf War in 1990 it has come to be regarded as “America’s other Middle East ally.”  The one great blip in US-Saudi relations – the discovery that 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers who attacked the US on 9/11 were Saudis – has been overcome.  Saudi Arabia’s determined anti-terrorism policies have strongly rebuilt its ties with the US.  Saudi is America’s largest trade partner in the Middle East, way ahead of Israel at number two.            

       In maintaining these twin alliances America has had to indulge in a delicate balancing act, for Israel and Saudi Arabia have historically had no formal diplomatic relations. More than that, Saudi operates an economic boycott against Israel and, as Daniel Pipes recently pointed out, the US signed, and abides by, a protocol prohibiting Jews being assigned to  the Kingdom.

So common ground between Saudi Arabia and Israel was restricted, until quite recently, to the problem of Iran’s obvious dash towards nuclear weapons capability.  Both Israel and the majority of the Sunni Muslim world, of whose interests Saudi Arabia considers itself the guardian, regarded Iran’s ambitions with alarm.  Shi’ite Iran was actively arming, funding and supporting terrorism and seeking to undermine stable Arab governments, clearly aiming at hegemony over the Arab world in general and the Gulf States in particular.  As regards Israel, Iran’s leaders had more than once declared that they wished to see it destroyed an aspiration that may not particularly worry much of Islam, though it certainly concerned Israel.

Until the Iranian presidential elections in mid-2013, Saudi Arabia seemed reasonably confident in the will of the US to halt Iran in its tracks when it became obvious that the nuclear build-up had over-stepped the acceptable.  The Wikileaks documents released to the world in 2010 showed quite clearly that fear of Iran’s intentions ran deep among Arab leaders, and that many were urging Washington to act before it was too late.  Not only did no action from the US materialize, but it became clear that intense pressure had been applied by Washington on Israel to prevent it from acting either.

The suspicion that the Obama administration was lily-livered on this issue could only have been confirmed by the way the West, including the USA, responded to Iran’s clear tactical U-turn following the election of the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani as president.  Rouhani’s sweet talk about Iran’s willingness to negotiate (perhaps already preceded by a US-Russia-Iran agreement, according to some reports), matched by the UN’s eagerness to accept his assurances at face value, sent shivers of alarm through the corridors of power in both Riyadh and Jerusalem.

Saudi’s growing disillusionment with the US goes back to President Obama’s apparent support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s civil upheaval, his failure to support General Sisi’s interim government, and his cutting off of a substantial tranche of military funding.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which have more than made good the shortfall, perceive Obama to be bolstering extremists seeking to destabilise “moderate” Arab governments.

Obama’s failure to act in the Syrian conflict against the Assad régime, supported as it is by Iran and Iran’s satellite fighting force Hezbollah, was a further cause of disillusion on the part of Saudi Arabia. Their disenchantment with the US was finally confirmed by Obama’s approach to Assad’s horrific chemical attack of August 2013 against both opposition forces and any civilians who happened to get in the way.  All Obama’s threats to take military action in such an eventuality came to nothing.  Through the good offices of Russia, Assad’s chemical stockpile is indeed being destroyed – but Assad himself remains in power, perhaps as a quid pro quo, and the Shi’ite crescent, which includes Iran and Hezbollah, is, if anything, strengthened.

Israel, too, while studiously keeping clear of the civil conflict in Syria, has been only too well aware of the Iranian-Hezbollah connection, and – without acknowledging it – is generally held to have ensured that advanced weaponry shipped to Syria for onward transmission to Hezbollah never reached its destination. 

RT is the first Russian 24-hour English-language TV news channel.  Their website recently reported:  “Israel and Saudi Arabia, who don’t have diplomatic relations, are rumored to be creating an alliance, which may well become the region’s new super power.  Despite their differences,” says RT, “Israel and Saudi Arabia share views on some of the most pressing regional issues, as they both want régime change in Syria, with Saudi Arabia strongly backing the rebels; both see Iran as their main geopolitical rival and want to neutralize the Islamic state; and both stand united in their backing of the military government in Egypt, which has taken a strong stance against the Islamists.

Investigative journalist Robert Parry told RT that although neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel is picking an open fight with big brother, “if the two of them were to collaborate more formally on some of these issues like Syria, Iran or Egypt, that could put the US in a position of not being able to work its will with quite the freedom that it has in the past.

Which may explain the latest flying visit to the Middle East by US Secretary of State, John Kerry.  He made straight for Cairo on November 3, pledged wholesale support for the Egyptian people’s struggle for democracy, neatly side-stepped questions about Washington’s decimation of its military aid to the interim government, and departed immediately for Riyadh to mend fences with Saudi Arabia.

Kerry said that this latest mission is at the direct behest of President Obama.  It seems clear that Washington is becoming concerned at reports that Israel has been holding a series of meetings with prominent figures from a number of Gulf and other Arab states, under the direct supervision of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

On October 1, Netanyahu addressed the 68th session of the UN General Assembly.  One passage in his speech has not been widely reported.  Shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, he said; “have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize that Israel is not their enemy,” and created an opportunity to “build new relationships.”

Building seems to have started.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 November 2013:
Jerusalem-Riyadh: The Hush-Hush Accord
Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 November 2013: