Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Crimean coup

Lithuania, its chequered past during the Nazi and subsequent Soviet domination of the Baltic, and its difficulty in coming to terms with the involvement of its citizens in the Holocaust, is the background to an absorbing new book by veteran broadcaster, Sara Manobla.  In “Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians Confront the Past”, Manobla provides personal testimony about how at least one Lithuanian town made a positive effort to reconcile itself to its own history.

On the face of it Lithuania, lying to the north of Poland and Belarus, would seem to have little in common with the Ukraine.  Yet a map of the country in Manobla’s book offers an intriguing sidelight on the current crisis down in the Black Sea.  Stuck out to the south-west of Lithuania, and including a healthy slab of Baltic coastline, is a chunk of Mother Russia Kaliningrad some 800 kilometers from Moscow, and separated from the motherland not only by the whole of Lithuania but by Latvia to the north and Belarus to the south as well.  The accepted term for this extraordinary phenomenon is “exclave”. 

From the first world war until 1945 Kalinigrad (or Königsberg, as it once was) was an exclave of Germany.  In the final stages of the second world war it was occupied by the Soviet Union, and was subsequently annexed to the USSR under the Potsdam Agreement.  Most of its indigenous German population were killed or fled to West Germany; the rest were expelled, Russian settlers were moved in and the population became a Russian majority.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, the region was absorbed into the Russian Federation.

As a constituent part of the Russian Federation, Kaliningrad is designated an “oblast” – one of 47. Other constituent entities include republics and cities. All are equal subjects of the Russian Federation, with their own executive, legislative and judicial arrangements, and with equal representation in the Upper House  of the Federal Assembly.

Kaliningrad is peculiarly isolated, politically speaking, since Lithuania and Latvia, which separate it from Russia proper, are both members of the EU and of NATO, and all military and civilian land links between the region and the rest of Russia have to pass through them.  This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperately anxious to avoid in the case of Ukraine in general, and Crimea in particular.  Just as Baltiisk, just outside Kaliningrad, is the only Russian Baltic port that is ice-free all year round, and is thus vital in maintaining the Baltic Fleet, so Sebastapol in the Crimea is the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, its largest and strongest naval entity.

Russia’s Crimea coup occurred on March 18, 2014.  Following a referendum regarded with suspicion by world opinion, Russia declared Crimea to be an independent Republic, an entity recognized only by Russia.  This declaration was followed by the signing of a treaty incorporating Crimea and Sevastopol as new constituent members of the Russian Federation Crimea with the status of a republic, Sevastopol as a federal city.  The treaty will come into effect on January 1, 2015. 

Is Putin likely to extend his annexation to Ukraine generally?  Unlikely, but what is virtually certain is that any accommodation acceptable to Russia would have to include a provision that keeps Ukraine permanently out of both the EU and NATO.  As that is precisely the issue that led to the ousting of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych – who continues stoutly to maintain that he is the lawful ruler of the country an early settlement of the dispute between Russia and the current Ukranian government seems unlikely.

There are further unanswered questions to which only time will provide the answers.   For example, are the economic sanctions threatened by the US, the EU and the global community likely to discomfort Russia to any great extent?  If history is anything to go by, sanctions applied to a sovereign nation let alone a world power are easily circumvented and are probably destined to be spectacularly ineffective.

Will Russia choose to respond to sanctions applied against it with sanctions of its own?  There are a variety of fields in which Putin could act the tough guy against the West, if he chose – the most obvious being energy.  This possibility has already, according to Bloomberg, occurred to the EU’s 28 chiefs.  They plan to ask the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to outline within three months ways to diversify energy sources away from Russia, which is the main supplier of gas and oil to Europe.

Most potent question of all – will there be armed conflict?  Between Kiev-controlled Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea, possibly.  The atmosphere, especially in the border regions, is tinder-box dry, and any spark could start a conflagration.  But with the precedent of the First World War ever-present in this centenary year of its outbreak, we might fervently hope that any minor or localised skirmish does not escalate into something more uncontrollable.

A final issue.  The implications will not be lost in the Middle East of a Russia, following blatant aggression in Crimea, emerging powerful and triumphant, as against the futile and weak-kneed response of the US and its partners. Yet again Russia has snatched a diplomatic triumph from under the noses of the US and the West.  As the champion of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, Russia managed to divert the threat of a US strike following Assad’s use of chemical weapons; as the ally of Iran, Russia was instrumental in manipulating the US and the West into talking with Iran about its  nuclear program, thus diverting the threat of a military strike – by Israel or any other power on its nuclear facilities.  As a result Egypt and even the US’s ally, Saudi Arabia, have been making overtures to Russia, which is rapidly reassuming its old Cold War status as a world super-power.

            As far as the Middle East is concerned, one thing emerges clearly from the current turmoil.  The Israel-Palestine dispute is pretty much irrelevant as far as the world’s ills are concerned. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, whether eventually successful or not, to provide a “framework agreement” under which the two sides can agree to go on talking, will have a negligible effect on global geopolitics.  Far bigger battles, quite unrelated to Israel-Palestine, are under way on the world’s political stage.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 March 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 March 2014:

Monday, 17 March 2014

Cameron, the UK and Israel

To the Jews I became as a Jew that I might gain Jews…
To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak:
I have become all things to all men
          - St Paul, 1 Corinthians
Politicians certainly aren’t saints, but they do have this in common.

            On February 7, 2014 David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, delivered a rousing speech on the subject of the forthcoming referendum in which the Scots are to be offered the option of renouncing their union with the rest of the United Kingdom and becoming an independent nation.  He did not presume to advise the Scots on how to vote, but addressed himself to the rest of the UK – the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish – urging them to use their influence with their Scottish relatives and friends in favour of preserving the Union.

            In proof of the inextricable bonds that have developed over the centuries between the Scots and the rest of the UK, Cameron pointed to his own surname and origins.  Cameron is an undoubted Scottish name.

            “Such is the fusion of our bloodlines,” he declared, “that my surname goes back to the West Highlands and, by the way, I am as proud of my Scottish heritage as I am of my English heritage. The name Cameron might mean ‘crooked nose’ but the clan motto is “Let us unite” – and that’s exactly what we in these islands have done.”

            On March 12, 2014, David Cameron was in Israel. Addressing the Knesset, he augmented his English-Scottish origins.

            "My Jewish ancestry,” he informed the assembled MKs, and through them the rest of the Jewish people, in both Israel and the diaspora, “is relatively limited, but I do feel just some sense of connection – from the lexicon of my great-great-grandfather, Emile Levita, a Jewish man who came from Germany to Britain 150 years ago, to the story of my forefather Elijah Levita, who wrote what is thought to have been the first ever Yiddish novel."

            Cameron’s Jewish heritage was first revealed in 2009, when one of Britain’s leading rabbinical authorities, Yaakov Wise, of Manchester University’s Centre for Jewish Studies, traced his family tree back to the 16th-century Jewish scholar Elijah Levita.

Levita, who was responsible for the first dictionary of the Targums, or Aramaic commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, wrote his novel, “The Bove-Bukh”, in about 1507. It  was published in 1541, the first non-religious book to be printed in Yiddish.  A highly popular chivalric romance, it went through at least 40 editions over the next five centuries.  The Bove-Bukh became known in the late-18th century as the Bove-mayse or "Bovo's tale" – and this title was in turn corrupted, and passed into the Yiddish language as bubbe meise (literally "grandmother's tale").

Britain’s prime minister was bold enough not only to declare his one-sixteeenth connection to the Jewish people, but to pledge himself to oppose the boycott of Israel, because the main purpose of his visit was to enhance UK-Israeli trade.  His plane to Israel was full of the men and women whose businesses are contributing to what has recently turned into a bilateral trade bonanza. That is the reality of the British-Israeli relationship – which is why attempts to destroy it via the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are doomed to irrelevance. As Cameron himself said, back in December 2012:  “We are going to keep on working with Israel, doing business with Israel, trading with Israel.”

In that address, Cameron was fulsome in his admiration for Israeli achievements.

Israel has got more start-up businesses per head than any other country. How do they do it?  It’s about the aspiration and drive of its people. These are people who have innovated around every problem that life has thrown at them. So we want to work much more closely with Israel – on innovation, on technology.”

The success of that policy is clearly apparent in the just-released trade statistics for 2013.  Total UK-Israeli bilateral trade rose over those twelve months by 5.7 per cent, or $300 million, to stand at very nearly $5.5 billion in all. 

Trading activity is weighted heavily in favour of IsraelIsrael imported some $2 billion-worth of goods from the UK, but exported some $3.5 billion-worth.  The UK is, except for the US, Israel’s largest export market.

UK demand for Israeli medicines helped take bilateral trade to its record high, as British patients benefited from Israeli pharmaceutical advances, including drugs for Parkinson’s disease, such as Azilect, developed by Technion scientists, and generic versions of drugs produced by Teva.  Other Israeli goods popular with Britons included fruit and vegetables, coffee, tea and spices.

“Given Israel’s status as the ‘start-up nation’, consistently developing new technologies across sectors,” said Hugo Bieber, chief executive of UK Israel Business, a leading organization promoting trade relations between the two countries, “we expect to see trade between the UK and Israel continue to increase.”

Economic development is a key plank in the movement  towards some sort of Israel-Palestine détente – development, that is, in the moribund Palestinian economy.  Early on in his current push towards a peace agreement, US Secretary of State John Kerry wholeheartedly endorsed “Breaking the Impasse”, a new business-led initiative aimed at fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace and prosperity.  The project was launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Jordan in May 2013, by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian businessmen. 

Kerry, convinced that fostering economic growth will profoundly improve the chance of the political peace process, clearly sees in “Breaking the Impasse” a valuable instrument for furthering his policy. He has, accordingly, invested the initiative with both US cash and dynamic leadership. He has got Quartet representative, one-time UK prime minister Tony Blair, to head an ambitious plan to develop a healthy, sustainable, private-sector-led Palestinian economy.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Cameron met Blair in East Jerusalem, as the UK prime minister prepared for talks with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas. The pair discussed Blair's Palestinian economic initiative, and afterwards Blair gave his backing to Cameron's drive to boost economic links.

“If we don't build the Palestinian economy up at the same time as  pursuing the political negotiation,” said Blair, “then a state for the Palestinians seems a dream and not a reality."

In the joint press conference held by Cameron and Abbas after their meeting on March 13, Cameron promised a package of UK support for Palestinian businesses and farming communities, which the World Bank estimates will boost the Palestinian economy by some $700 million. 

Cameron stopped short of claiming Canaanite, Arab, or Palestinian lineage – unlike PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. “I am the proud son of the Canaanites,” Erekat recently maintained, “who were there 5,500 years before Joshua bin Nun burned down the town of Jericho.”  His family tree, posted on Facebook, shows his clan, part of the Huwaitat tribe, descends from Arabia, not Canaan.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 March 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 March 2014:

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Al Jazeera and the Qatar squabble

Al Jazeera, the TV news station broadcasting round the clock in Arabic and English, is owned by the government of Qatar. From the moment the station went on the air, back in 1996, its officials and spokespersons have maintained that it has complete editorial independence.  And indeed, the professionalism of its news coverage, and the comparatively wide range of political opinion it permits during its discussion programmes, make it an unprecedented phenomenon in the Arab world, and account for its undoubted success.  Any TV station that has managed, in its 18 years of life, to have ruffled the feathers of countries as diverse as China and Egypt, and raised the ire of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, must have something going for it.

Yet Al Jazeera’s assertion of editorial independence has been challenged more than once.  The leak of diplomatic cables by Wikileaks in 2010 included a number of internal US Department of State communications claiming that the Qatar government intervenes from time to time to manipulate Al Jazeera coverage. 

In July 2009, the US embassy said the channel "has proved itself a useful tool for the station's political masters".  In another dispatch, the US ambassador, Joseph LeBaron, wrote: "Al-Jazeera's ability to influence public opinion throughout the region is a substantial source of leverage for Qatar, one which it is unlikely to relinquish. Al Jazeera remains one of Qatar's most valuable political and diplomatic tools."

These assessments seemed justified in September 2012, when Al Jazeera's director of news stepped in to ensure that a speech made by Qatar's emir to the UN led its English channel's coverage of the debate on Intervening in the Syrian civil conflict.  As Dan Sabbagh of The Guardian reported at the time: “Journalists had produced a package of the UN debate, topped with excerpts of President Obama's speech, when a last-minute instruction came from Salah Negm, the Qatar-based news director, who ordered the video to be re-edited to lead with the comments from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.”

Despite protests from staff, the two-minute video was re-edited and Obama's speech was relegated to the end of the package.  The episode was described by some staff as the most heavy-handed editorial intervention at Al Jazeera, which continued to maintain that it operates independent of its Qatari ownership.

Suspicions about the extent to which Al Jazeera is, in the final resort, subject to instruction from the government or directly from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar’s youthful new ruler, might be less troubling to the world in general, and Qatar’s neighbouring Gulf states in particular, if Qatar were not something of a maverick state in the region. 

When the Sheik succeeded his father, who abdicated in June 2013, he declared that he would continue to pursue Qatar’s assertive, independent-minded foreign policy. Most of the Gulf states have long opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, and regarded with suspicion, and even fear, its aim of subverting existing governments and substituting its version of Sharia law.  Qatar is the exception, and has long been a pro-active supporter of the Brotherhood, to the intense annoyance of other Gulf states.

On March 6, 2014 the long-simmering row exploded into the open. In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain declared that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Qatar, citing that country’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a major threat to their internal security and political stability. Moreover. they accused Al Jazeera of following the Qatari government line on the Muslim Brotherhood, and claimed that the TV station has a record of actively supporting pro-Brotherhood individuals and movements during the Arab Spring.

The same accusation has been levelled by Egypt’s interim government, not only against Al Jazeera journalists, but those from other media.  On December 29, 2013, Egyptian security forces arrested four Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo – correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and cameraman Mohamed Fawzy. They, together with four others, were held in custody.  Another 12, who were charged in their absence, managed to leave the country before being arrested.

The interim government of Egypt, led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and has jailed hundreds of its leading figures.  It has also clamped down on the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas,  the de facto rulers in Gaza, and destroyed or closed the tunnels through which they were importing goods and weapons from Egypt. On March 8, Saudi Arabia, following Egypt’s lead, and in justification of their action against Qatar and their condemnation of Al Jazeera. formally denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

According to the Qatari Arabic daily, Al Sharq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are pressuring their citizens to resign from positions in Qatari media following the breakdown in their relations with Qatar.  And indeed, on March 8 two UAE journalists, Fares Awad and Ali Al Kaabi, resigned from Al Jazeera. 

As for the four Al Jazeera journalists arrested in Egypt, their trial is currently under way. They are charged with supporting the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore deposed president Mohamed Morsi, and accused inter alia of broadcasting inaccurate reports. Prosecutors say the defendants falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war,” a possible reference to the broadcaster’s coverage of a government crackdown in which more than 1,400 people, mostly Morsi supporters, were killed in street clashes.

Al-Jazeera has denied the charges in respect of the nine defendants on its staff. 

The case has given rise to a worldwide outcry about press freedom.  Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it “deplores the government’s continuing violations of the fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed and protected in the new constitution.”  And Human Rights Watch asserts that the authorities “have demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent.”

The principle of press freedom must be cherished. However it is perhaps unsurprising, even if deplorable, that the Egyptian interim government, still struggling to assert itself against its overthrown opponents, is clamping down on those whom it believes are supporting its enemies.  A problem for Al Jazeera is that, despite what it claims for itself in terms of editorial independence, there are some grounds for believing that the pro-Muslim Brotherhood political views of the Qatari government may have influenced the broadcaster.

One positive aspect of a complex situation is that the trial is taking place within Egypt's judicial structurewhich is notably independent of government although, regrettably, trial by jury is not part of the system.  Nevertheless, we can hope for a fair trial and a true verdict. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 March 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 March 2014:

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Ukraine and the Middle East connection

                         "Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defence or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United   Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”
                                     – Vladimir Putin, Russian President, September 2013, 
arguing against a US military strike on President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria.

        What’s sauce for the American goose is surely sauce for the Russian gander.  But search for consistency in politicians, and you search in vain.  Self-interest is what governs international affairs.

President Obama swore not once, but several times, that if President Bashar Assad of Syria used chemical weapons against his own people, swift retribution would follow.  But Syria is Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East, and Assad and his regime its close allies.  Had America used its military might to punish Assad, the power balance in Syria’s civil conflict might have been tilted irrevocably and Assad forced from the scene.  So Putin mounted a clever, and highly effective, diplomatic campaign, persuading Assad to dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile in exchange for the US desisting from its threatened military intervention.

Obama succumbed.  Assad was spared the humiliation of facing the consequences of his appallingly inhumane, not to say illegal, actions.

Now the pernicious results of that retreat from military action in Syria by the US and the West generally are, according to some observers, being made manifest in the Crimea.

The argument was succinctly put on March 1 by US Senator Bob Corker,  when he unequivocally linked Putin’s invasion into Crimea to Obama’s pull-back from conducting an airstrike in Syria

“Ever since the administration threw themselves into the arms of Russia in Syria,” said Coker, “to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think [Putin] saw weakness. These are the consequences.”

The same argument has created something of a furore in the UK

On February 28, UK government ministers Sajid Javid and Nick Boles linked Britain’s "appeasement" of Russia over Syria to its aggression in Ukraine.  They attacked Labour Opposition leader, Ed Miliband, for torpedoing the government's hopes of joining a US-led attack on Assad in August 2013, when it was clear beyond a peradventure that the Syrian president had indeed used chemical weapons to gas opposition forces and any civilians, including heartbreaking numbers of small children, who happened to get in the way.

Miliband, together with some backbench Conservatives who voted against a government motion on missile strikes, have been taking credit for stopping western military action in Syria,  But, said Boles, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, "was right to urge parliament to stand up to Putin and punish Assad's use of chemical weapons. Look where Miliband's weakness has led us." Javid said there was a "direct link between Miliband's cynical vote against the Syria motion and Russia's actions in Ukraine".

Miliband dismissed their comments as party political point-scoring. And just as he opposed military intervention in Syria, he opposes western military intervention in Ukraine.  Applying maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on Putin is what he favours.  He went so far as to suggest that the UK might boycott the forthcoming G8 summit in Sochi, Russia.

            Putin, in his televised press conference on March 4, laughed to scorn the likely effect of diplomatic or economic sanctions applied against Russia, but was far from gung-ho in what he said about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine in general, and the Crimea in particular.  His approach may reflect the backstairs negotiations which, according to informed sources, are already in place between the US and Russia.

Putin is seeking a demilitarized Crimea that would not threaten Russia from its western doorstep.  He is also demanding that a new Ukrainian government not the present one, which he regards as illegitimate stays clear of NATO, and that no NATO military or anti-missile hardware is positioned in Ukraine.  He wants local military bodies to be set up to protect the Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian regions of the country. Until Putin get what he wants, Russian forces will remain where they are in Crimea and if deemed necessary, advance into other parts of Ukraine.

   Putin’s confident stance on the world stage has been immeasurably strengthened by recent events in the Middle East, especially the apparent disinclination of the Obama administration to sustain the US’s dominant position, acquired since the collapse of the USSR.  He has scored not only in the Syrian chemical weapons debacle and the Iranian nuclear decommissioning talks, but also in the fact that Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Egypt all feeling let down by Washington’s weak-kneed attitude in the region – have turned to Moscow in search of closer diplomatic and military ties.

The key to Putin’s political position on the Crimea is the port city of Sevastapol. Sevastopol, under the terms of the 1997 Black Sea Fleet agreement, is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. A strong military presence in Sevastapol is a political necessity for Russia which explains Putin’s insistence that Ukraine does not tie itself to NATO.  But the terms of the agreement are many and complex, and in its current incursion into the Crimea, Russia is violating many of its provisions.

The Russian president has made restoring his country’s international prestige the overarching goal of his foreign policy, and he has embraced military force as the means to do so. According to one observer of the Russian scene Putin is intent on regaining the military and economic equivalence of the old USSR vis-à-vis the USA.  His hope is to establish a Eurasian sphere of influence – and this explains Putin’s recent proactive strategy in the Middle East. Now the Ukraine conflict is reshaping Russia’s relations with the United States and indeed the European Union,  the repercussions will be widely felt, especially perhaps in the Middle East.

For example, the crisis in Ukraine will certainly impact on the issue of natural gas supplies to the EU. Nearly 25% of the European Union’s natural gas comes from Russia, and 80% of that gas passes through the Ukraine. Attempts to secure gas for the EU from other sources – including from the Israeli and Cypriot deep-sea fields via pipelines over Turkish territory – must now seem all the more urgent to European governments.

Moreover, if the conflict in Ukraine is not resolved swiftly, it may directly shift the dynamics in the Syrian civil war. Both sides in the conflict are dependent on foreign support, and the United States and Russia are major contributors. The outcome of the crisis in Ukraine could determine the outcome of the crisis in Syria.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 March 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 March 2014: