Sunday, 24 April 2016

Could a confederate solution break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

          The European Union is strongly in favour of the two-state solution to the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “A negotiated two-state solution,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in October 2015, “is the only way to bring the lasting peace and security that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve.”

          The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is not so sure. “Peace in the Middle East is possible,” said Schulz in the same month, “only if the …conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved, and both peoples live together in two states or a confederation.”

        A confederation? Where did Schulz get this idea as a possible alternative to the near-total commitment of world opinion to the two-state solution? Possibly from none other than the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On August 7, 2015, President Rivlin in a newspaper interview suggested that an Israeli-Palestinian confederation would be the best means of settling the perennial Middle East conflict.

          Or possibly Schulz had read the article by Israeli elder statesman, Yossi Beilin, published in the New York Times in May 2015: “Confederation Is the Key to Mideast Peace.”

          “This idea isn’t new,” wrote Beilin. “For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993…In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation – cohabitation, not divorce.”

          What is a confederation? It is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states, as opposed to a federation, in which the stress is on the supremacy of the central government.

          The vision of achieving peace in what was British Mandate Palestine through the mechanism of a confederation has its passionate supporters. Some, like the US-based Israel-Palestine Confederation, think solely in terms of a two nation association; others, like the Israel-Palestine-Jordan Confederation, broaden the concept to include Jordan which, after all, was originally within the British Mandate.

          The classic two-state solution developed in the period when Britain, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations in 1923, administered that chunk of the old Ottoman empire known as Palestine. The mandate tasked the British government to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, but Britain signally failed to reconcile Arab political leaders to this commitment. Civil unrest led Britain to set up a Royal Commission under Lord Robert Peel, and in 1937 the commission recommended partitioning the country between Jews and Arabs – a two-state solution.

          The proposals were not implemented, but partition surfaced again ten years later when UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), proposed dividing the territory then designated Palestine (much reduced from its original 1920s extent) into an Arab and a Jewish state.

          Fast forward to 2016, and the Middle East has developed a range of new imperatives that render the classic two-state solution almost otiose.

          Prowling round the Palestinian Authority (PA) stockade is Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rules over nearly two million Palestinians, and has been harrying PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel – and now, within easy range, would lie Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport, and Israel’s main north-south road network.

          This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or via democratic elections (for a Hamas victory at the polls is a probable outcome). Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

          Just as haunting an outlook for an independent Palestine is provided by the mushrooming influence of Islamic State (IS) which, despite recent territorial reverses in Syria, has spread its tentacles into Libya and Yemen, and seeks to embrace within its self-declared caliphate first the Middle East as a whole, and then the world. It would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defense, like a cat on a mouse.

          IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. On 5 April 2016, IS was reported to have overrun several Jordanian border crossings south of the Yarmouk river. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement. A three-state confederation could be a most effective means of coordinating the defense capabilities of all three to ensure the security of the region.

          An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible. 

          If a solution is ever to be found, it will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political, and the encroachments of IS. The League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. 

          Indeed. it is only at the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League that the PA might participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity (JIP?), dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 April 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 Aprll 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 April 2016:

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Positive action in Yemen yields positive results

          If any one area is a microcosm of the chaos in the Middle East, it is Yemen. Here, as across the region, Islam has been at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family, and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution, played itself out. Nowhere was the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere was it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.

          Who is fighting whom in Yemen? There are four main principals: the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); and IS (Islamic State). To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs. Joining the fray one year ago was Saudi Arabia, which intervened both militarily and diplomatically to beat back the Houthis.

          The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:

                                             "God is Great,
                                               Death to America,
Death to Israel, 
                                               Curse on the Jews,
                                               Victory to Islam".

          The Houthis have long been supported by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards which has kept them supplied with weapons and other military hardware. As a result they overran large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. In addition the Houthis were in alliance with the Yemeni security forces that remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, seemed intent on manoeuvring a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis. With Saleh’s help, the Houthis eventually controlled most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.

          A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012. Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally – and very reluctantly – left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him. Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.

          With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there to Saudi Arabia. He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.

          A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.

          Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS). Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.

          Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, the Houthis at first continued their advance into government territory, and as a result, the United States increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.

          Now, thanks to the unremitting efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a ceasefire has been agreed in Yemen to take effect on April 10, a year or so after the Saudi-led military intervention. Arab countries, convinced that the Saudi’s positive action in Yemen has borne fruit, have welcomed the UN mediator’s success in achieving a ceasefire, and his proposals for following it through.

          Ould Cheikh’s plan is based on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative of 2011 which led to ex-President Saleh’s resignation, and to giving the Houthis the chance to participate in the government. Ould Cheikh’s plan, which is supported by the United States and Russia, among others, involves a new round of peace talks between the rival sides to take place in Kuwait beginning on April 18,

          “Yemen for long has been a battleground for non-state actors,” asserted a recent editorial in Khaleej Times, a Dubai-based newspaper covering the United Arab Emirates, “especially Al Qaeda. And now Daesh is also in it. The talks should primarily focus on converting the ceasefire into permanent peace, and rebuilding the country.” The paper believes that a real détente is in the offing between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthi, who have reportedly been swapping prisoners ahead of their scheduled formal talks. “The warring parties must give peace a chance,” it pronounces, hoping that extra-territorial forces will take a back seat and allow the people of Yemen themselves to overcome the crisis.

          “We in the Arabian Gulf,” writes Saad bin Teflah Al Ajmi in The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English daily, “must realize that Yemen had become our problem, and that we must not leave it prey to civil wars, conflicts, poverty and Iran. A Gulf “Marshall Plan” is much needed for Yemen – for the sake of the people of Yemen and, equally important, for the well-being and security of the Gulf countries.”  

          Wise words. It is pretty clear that the tight long-term solution for Yemen is political reform, followed by a sizeable financial investment funded by the Gulf states. If the peace talks scheduled for April 18 yield this result, Yemen’s long agony could soon become just an unpleasant episode in the history of one of the oldest centres of civilization in the Middle East – a peaceful, fertile country described by the ancient Greek geographer, Ptolemy, as “Happy Arabia”.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 17 April 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 April 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 April 2016:

Sunday, 10 April 2016

How to defeat Islamic State - the Blair recipe

          Tony Blair is a man of wisdom and experience, a global player with many positive achievements to his credit, but in UK politics he is a spent force. The charismatic leader who transformed the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party and led it to three successive election victories, is now the object of scorn by those in charge of the party. They have utterly rejected his middle-of-the-road approach, with its appeal to a wide swathe of moderate electors, in favour of a sharp turn to the left under their new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

          Nowadays many who supported Blair while he was prime minister view with suspicion his subsequent foray into high-level political consultancy, and resent or envy the multi-million fortune he has accrued in doing so. Clients he has signed up to his advisory practice include the Kuwaiti, Mongolian, Kazakh and Peruvian governments and the Abu Dhabi investment fund, Mubadala. In November 2010 he signed a contract with PetroSaudi, a Saudi oil company, and he is also an adviser to J P Morgan, the investment bank, and to Zurich International, the Swiss-based global insurance company.

          The future is not all golden, however, for looming over it is the shadow of the 2003 war in Iraq to which, in alliance with US President George W Bush, he committed the UK. All those who opposed his decision to join the US in the invasion of Iraq, and many who did not, are awaiting with keen anticipation the comprehensive report being prepared by Sir John Chilcot into Britain's involvement in the conflict. Many expect, and more than a few hope, that Tony Blair himself, and the government he led, will be roundly condemned for mistakes, failures and perhaps even worse, and possibly face future legal action.

          The Chilcot inquiry, set up in 2009, has been in progress for some seven years. From about 2011, when Tony Blair appeared before the committee, there has been consistent pressure from the British public, and particularly from those who lost relatives in the conflict, for Chilcot to complete his report and publish. But Chilcot has not only been meticulous in his investigation, but also scrupulous in seeking comments, clarifications and corrections from every person named in the report before finalizing it. Back in October 2015 Chilcot announced that the long-delayed document will go for national security vetting in April 2016, before being released to the public in June or July.

          However turbulent Tony Blair’s future may be, no one can deny that since resigning as UK prime minister in June 2007, he has acquired a unique knowledge and understanding of the Middle East. For on the very day that he stepped down, he was appointed special envoy to the International Quartet on the Middle East (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia), and he acted in that capacity for the next eight years. It would be fair to say that despite his best efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and he certainly strove hard, especially in the early days – events beyond his control frustrated his good intentions. Cataclysmic changes within the Middle East, sparked in part by the Arab Spring, in part by the US-led invasion of Iraq, rendered all his efforts fruitless.

          Nevertheless, when he chooses to pronounce on the chaos that now engulfs the Middle East, he speaks with a degree of knowledge and expertise that few, if any, can match. On March 27, 2016, in an article in the UK’s prestigious Sunday Times, Blair addressed the urgent question of how the civilized world can overcome the malign organization that threatens its very existence - Islamic State (IS).

          His basic premise is quite clear: we have been dragging our heels. “IS has to be eliminated with greater speed and vigour,” he writes, warning that if we do not get our act together pretty quickly, the West will face “increasingly frequent acts of terrorism”, and may eventually be the subject of a terrorist act “of such size and horror” that it will 
force a change in attitude. “But by then,” he predicts, “the battle will be much harder to win without measures that contradict our basic value system.”

          His recommendation? That the US and its allies bite the bullet, put aside the “no boots on the ground” strategy, and send ground troops to Syria and Iraq and anywhere else that is necessary, with the objective of crushing IS and the extremist ideology that fuels it. He calls also for the West to equip Arab ground forces to support the anti-IS coalition.

          “We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory,” writes Blair. “This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the west. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight, and ours are the most capable.”

          Beyond Syria and Iraq, Blair has Libya in his sights, where IS has established a formidable stronghold. Britain is known to be considering contributing 1,000 non-combat troops to a 5,000-strong international force to train the Libyan army, as it seeks to overcome IS, but many commentators – Blair among them – consider both the projected 5,000-strong force, and Britain’s proposed contribution, woefully inadequate.

          “To have allowed IS to become the largest militia in Libya, right on Europe’s doorstep is extraordinary,” he wrote. “It has to be crushed.”

          Blair is equally forthright when he turns to the problem of Islamism. He sees the military battle against IS as part of a wider strategy aimed at confronting what he calls this “perversion” of the Islamic faith. Islamism, he maintains, “is not interested in coexistence. It does not seek dialogue but dominance. It cannot therefore be contained. It has to be defeated.” For this to happen, he believes, the “paralysing grip of the present political discourse” on both right and left must be countered – on the right, bigotry against all Muslims; on the left, politically correct aversion to using the term “Islamism” and the belief that “we have caused all of this through western policy”.

          Blair believes Islamism could be defeated by marshalling an alliance within Islam. “The majority of Muslims hate the way their faith has been hijacked,” he writes. It would not be surprising to learn one day that Tony Blair, in the light of the common threats of Islamic State and Iran, has been instrumental in brokering the current rapprochement between moderate Arab states and Israel. 

          In short, Tony Blair has surveyed the extreme danger that Islamic State poses to the world, and in clear-headed and candid fashion has offered his recipe for overcoming it. He is a man whose opinion merits attention.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line: 13 April 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 April 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 April 2016:

Monday, 4 April 2016

Islamism against the world

          To say that Islamism is at war with the world is to state the obvious. There are two main contenders for leadership of this jihadist battle, and they come from either side of the ancient Sunni-Shia fault line that runs through Islam – the Islamic Republic of Iran and Islamic State (IS).

          About Shi’ite Iran, the self-declared enemy of the West in general, and the US and Israel in particular, little can be done in the short term. In July 2015 President Obama led world powers into concluding a flawed nuclear deal with Iran’s leaders which has provided them with the means of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability within fifteen years, and with the lifting of the most irksome of the sanctions that have been imposed on them. Iran – the scourge of the Middle East, and with an horrific record of terrorist outrages over the past 35 years – is riding high, its sights set on achieving both political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          Opposition to its ambitions is led by Saudi Arabia, which is combatting Iran and its allies in Yemen, while the Arab League has just designated Iran’s puppet body, Hezbollah, a terrorist organization.

          The other contender as jihadist supremo is Islamic State, which represents an extreme version of Sunni Islam and which seeks to establish a sharia-based world-wide caliphate. In its world view, as Dr Amichai Magen recently explained, the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with three designated enemies: the West, ‘the Jews’, and Shia Muslims together with apostate Arab regimes. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law and democracy.

          IS and its followers also clearly revel in carrying the war into the heart of the enemy, by instigating acts of indiscriminate terror in Western cities and against Western tourists around the world. Adhering to a religious philosophy which glorifies death, its adherents flock to commit suicide in acts designed to destroy as many innocent lives as possible.

          Individuals induced to undertake suicide terror attacks may glory in their own “martyrdom” and gain satisfaction from causing death, misery and mayhem, but it is difficult from the receiving end of these terrorist activities to perceive what strategic advantage accrues to the jihadist cause from them. They seem unlikely to advance the establishment of a world-wide caliphate. They may generate fear in Western populations, but are more likely to stiffen their governments’ determination to boost their counter-terrorist operations and bear down heavily on those who plan and perpetrate terror.

          What is the thinking, then, behind the continuous succession of terrorist outrages committed inside Western countries? It only seems to make some sort of sense if it is based on the assumption that democratic societies are basically unstable, and that under sufficient pressure they will implode – an assumption replete with wishful thinking, and on a par with Hitler’s belief in 1940 that a sustained blitz on London would result in a collapse of morale.

          It was on June 29, 2014 that the leader of what was then known as ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, felt emboldened enough to take a giant step towards achieving a degree of power and status for himself and his organization beyond the wildest dreams of most jihadi leaders. In an audio recording the group announced that it was henceforth to be known as "Islamic State", and that its head, al-Baghdadi, was now "the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere". Moreover, declared the group's spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph's authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas.''

          An official document, released in English and several other languages, urged Muslims to "gather around your caliph, so that you may return as you once were for ages, kings of the earth and knights of war."

          What is a caliphate? Effectively an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The original caliphate under the aegis of the Ottoman empire was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, but Muslim extremists continued to dream of recreating the Islamic state that, over the course of Islam's 1,400-year history, had ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond. So the announcement of June 29, 2014 is couched in terms of ending a century-long calamity ­– namely the break-up of the Islamic Middle East into artificial sovereign states following the first World War – and as marking the return of dignity and honor to the Islamic ummah.

          The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe. Since becoming leader of ISIS, Baghdadi had been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. In his announcement, the new IS spokesman, Adnani, reiterated Baghdadi's claim.

          Other Muslim groups, bodies and leaders, both moderate and extreme, reacted violently against this unprecedented exercise in arrogance and self-aggrandisement, but as IS went from strength to strength, Baghdadi’s “delusions” – which are comparable to those of Napoleon or Adolf Hitler – seemed to know no bounds. On July 2, 2014 the new, self-anointed caliph and supreme leader of Islam, declared that Muslims should flock to the new caliphate. “Syria is not for Syrians,” he proclaimed “and Iraq is not for Iraqis. The land is for the Muslims, all Muslims.” Follow his advice, he said, and “you will conquer Rome and own the world."

          Not the happiest of prospects either for Rome or for the world. The civilized world has taken a long time to realize that it simply has to face down this self-declared enemy of all it stands for. The recent carnage in Belgium, and the emerging picture of security failures by Western powers, is reinforcing the realization that a determined effort must be made to confront, fight, conquer and crush this malign organization, with its grandiose ambitions and brutal and inhumane methods of achieving them. 

          Syria and Iraq are the obvious starting points. “No boots on the ground” has proved an inadequate, ineffective and frankly outdated policy in combatting Islamic State. To eliminate the scourge of IS from the world, the West and its allies must deploy the vast military power at their disposal, and in a sustained, united and determined effort, overwhelm Islamic State once and for all.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 April 2016: