Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Can Lebanon ever rid itself of Hezbollah?

          In about 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Hezbollah descended like an incubus­ on Lebanon’s body politic, fastening itself onto a sleeping victim. Subsequently, while it has been taking its pleasure from its unhappy prey, all attempts to shake it off have failed.

          Hezbollah is a creature of the Iranian Islamic revolution. It drew its inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei. Its aims were to resist Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 killing 63 people, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

          It managed to infiltrate itself into Lebanon’s governance because of the very particular nature of the country’s constitution.

          In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the one and only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power equally between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict

          Modern Lebanon, founded in 1944, was established on the basis of an agreed "National Pact". Political power is allocated on a religious or "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim.

          Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society and prevent one group from lording it over the others. But in practice, having a weak central government and sharing power has proved a constant irritant. Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades. Moreover a small country, divided in beliefs and weak by design, was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbour, Syria.

          During Lebanon’s civil war, which began in 1975 sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias, the Syrian army invaded. The end of the war in 1990 did not end Syria’s military occupation. It was only the Cedar Revolution in 2005 that forced it to withdraw. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but President Bashar al-Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place, partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel.

          Hezbollah duly fulfilled this function for Assad, and for Iran, standing at his back. In the words of award-winning American journalist Michael J Totten, Hezbollah “started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008, Hezbollah and its local allies are virtually in charge of the government.”

          Hezbollah had already achieved a certain acceptability within Lebanon. In the elections which followed Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border, Hezbollah took all 23 South Lebanon seats, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has consistently participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government, and has slowly achieved dominant power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the “March 14 Alliance”.

         Lebanon’s March 14 Alliance is a coalition of politicians opposed to the Syrian régime and to Hezbollah. March 14, 2005 was the launch date of the Cedar Revolution, a protest movement triggered by the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri earlier that year. The demonstrations were directed against Assad, suspected from the first of being behind the murder, and his Iranian-supported allies Hezbollah, who were widely believed to have carried out the deed. The March 14 Alliance is led by Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri’s younger son.

          The echoes of Rafik Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband its militia and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's conventional armed forces, a demand that leading opinion-formers in Lebanon continue to make. With Hezbollah fighting to support Assad, while a large segment of Lebanese opinion is in favour of toppling him, the conflict has inflamed sectarian tensions.

          Many Lebanese, even those of Shi'ite persuasion, resent the fact that Hezbollah is, at the behest of Iran, fighting Muslims in a neighbouring country – activities far from the purpose for which the organization was founded. They resent the mounting death toll of Lebanese fighters (Hezbollah has reportedly been paying the families of its fighters killed in Syria to keep quiet about their relatives' deaths). Many, aware that Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shi’ites are killing each other in Syria. fear that it may be only a matter of time before they stop bothering to cross the border and start killing each other at home.

          Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese journalist and women’s rights activist, nominated as one of the world’s 100 most powerful Arab women for three years in a row by Arabian Business Magazine. Writing in Lebanon’s Al-Nahar journal on June 21, 2016, she declared:

       “What Lebanon is witnessing today is a hijacking of our national ideas and values. We have allowed Hezbollah to exploit our political system and our people…we cannot let factions within us take over the country. We cannot fight the wars of others. We have had enough of being Assad’s soldiers.”

          The big hope for Lebanon is for Assad to be ousted from the Syrian presidency. If Syria becomes a parliamentary democracy, or if it disintegrates, it will cease to be a permanent threat to Lebanon, while Hezbollah’s puppet-master, Islamist Iran, will have lost a key element from the extremist Shia empire it is attempting to construct. The departure of Assad might provide Lebanon’s élites with the will to break through the inertia that has allowed national politics to stagnate over the past few years (no president, no parliamentary elections), absorb the “state within a state” that is Hezbollah, and muster the energy to put their political house in order.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line. 19 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 July 2016:

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Netanyahu's alliance of the African periphery

          Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, had an acute mind and the capacity to think strategically, a capacity demonstrated time and again during his two periods in office. The foreign policy strategy most closely connected with Ben Gurion has become known as the Alliance of the Periphery, or the Periphery Doctrine. This concept called for Israel to develop close strategic alliances with non-Arab Muslim states in order to counteract the then united opposition of Arab states to Israel’s very existence. 

          As long as Arab-Israeli relations remained frozen solid, the Periphery Doctrine retained its appeal. Pursuing it, successive Israeli governments have gone a long way towards achieving normal relations with nations like Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Israel gained the friendship of newly-independent Muslim republics of Central Asia such as Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, went so far in 2006 as to say: “It is not a crime to have relations with Israel,” a sentiment shared by the President of the newly independent South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit.

          Now Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to be applying a renewed version of the Periphery Doctrine inside continental Africa, by-passing the apparently hopeless case of South Africa. As long as the Israel-Palestine issue remains unresolved, South Africa is more or less a lost cause as far as relations with Israel are concerned. Official and public opinion inside the republic, mindful of South Africa’s long and painful progress to independence, is pretty fully persuaded that the Palestinian narrative closely replicates their own. Israel is cast, in the public consciousness, as brutal Afrikaner colonial overlords; the Palestinians as the downtrodden subject people reduced to second-class citizens in their own country. Prominent South Africans, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, see a direct parallel between the apartheid regime imposed on his country by white supremacists and the situation of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.

          I was once guest interviewee on a South African radio programme, and was closely questioned about this widely-held perception. Very little of what I described about present-day Israel – Arab participation in the democratic process, Arab members of parliament, Arab holders of prominent positions in public life, the total lack of discrimination in Israel’s hospitals as regards both staff and patients, the disputed status of the West Bank and the fact that Palestinians govern themselves in Areas A and B, how the barrier or wall has reduced terrorist attacks on ordinary citizens – very little of all this impressed my courteous host. The whole interview was conducted on the basis of opinions such as Archbishop Tutu’s that had sunk deep into the public consciousness.

          "In South Africa,” said the Nobel Peace award-winning archbishop in 2014, “we could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime. The same issues of inequality and injustice today motivate the divestment movement trying to end Israel's decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the unfair and prejudicial treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government ruling over them."

          Also perhaps lodged in the national psyche was the memory of the close ties that Israel had maintained for many years with the pre-independence South African government; less well remembered, perhaps, is the forthright stand that Israel took against apartheid, and the fact that finally Israel imposed sanctions on South Africa in September 1987.

          The last Israeli leader to visit Africa was prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who made a four-nation tour in 1987. On July 4, 2016 Netanyahu landed in Uganda on a five-day, four-country trip inside the continent, also visiting Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. He was accompanied by approximately 80 businesspeople from over 50 Israeli companies to help forge new commercial ties with African companies and countries.

          In Uganda an official ceremony was held at Entebbe to mark 40 years since the daring raid by Israeli commandos to release hostages held captive by then President Idi Amin. Netanyahu then participated in an Israel-Kenya economic forum along with businessmen from both countries, dealing mainly with questions of agriculture, water resources, communications and homeland security. Later the leaders of seven East African states (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania) sat round a table with Netanyahu to discuss how to enhance cooperation with Israel in cyber defense, energy, agriculture, trade, diplomatic, and related matters. To sweeten the discussion, Netanyahu was able to put on the table a financial assistance package of 50 million shekels ($13 million), approved by the Israeli government the previous week.

          Two immediate positive results flowed from the multilateral conference. The first was the announcement by the prime minister of Tanzania, Kassim Majaliwa, endorsed in writing by President John Magufuli, that Tanzania intends to open an embassy in Israel for the first time. Bilateral ties between Israel and Tanzania were severed following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were re-established in 1995, but Israel still conducts its relations with Tanzania via Nairobi in Kenya.

          The second, and perhaps more important, relates to Israel’s observer status in the African Union. It was in 2002 that Libya and other North African Arab countries ousted Israel, and in recent years South Africa has blocked attempts to get Israel reinstated. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya will work to restore Israel’s observer status in the African Union because “Israel is a critical partner in the battle against terrorism, the most serious challenge facing the world today,” said Kenyatta, adding that it was critical for Africa to re-evaluate its relationship with Israel in order to better enable Africa to deal with its challenges.

          Netanyahu’s remarks at a press conference after the meeting hinted at the broader strategy that lies under this first formal foray by Israel into Africa for decades. The Periphery that Netanyahu has in his sights extends well beyond the East African nations included in this first round. In his words: "I believe in Africa. I believe in your future and I believe in our partnership for this future… We think that Israel now is the best partner that the countries of Africa could have, and it’s something that is dear to our hearts. I believe that this meeting will be seen as a turning point in Israel's ability to reach a broad number of African countries, which is our goal." 

          Nothing could be plainer.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 July 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 July 2016:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Al-Sisi seizes the lead in the peace process


          President Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt is a man of vision. In addition to his ambitions for his own country, there is mounting evidence that he aims to build a positive legacy for himself in the wider Middle East. He seems to have set his sights on promoting not only a new peace-making initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, but a further effort to bridge the apparently irreconcilable differences between the two wings of the Palestinian body politic, Hamas and Fatah.

          It was in a determined counter-attack on the terror-based Islamism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates that Sisi came to power in the middle of 2014. One year of Muslim Brotherhood rule – democratically based though it was – proved more than enough for most Egyptians, who could see the increasingly hardline policies of the ruling party strangling the liberties built into their constitution. So after the coup that deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi, al-Sisi faced the electorate which, albeit without a great deal of enthusiasm, voted him into office.

          It soon became obvious that Sisi’s determined opposition to Islamist extremism at home was no passing phase, but a deeply held conviction, allied to an aspiration to see “genuine Islam” at peace with itself and the rest of the world.

          Only six months into his presidency, Sisi delivered a most astonishing speech for an Arab leader. On January 1, 2015, he visited Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, where he addressed a gathering of Egypt’s religious élite. In his remarks he ventured into an area shunned by most political figures in the West, fearful of being tarred with that most unacceptable of brushes for the politically correct – Islamophobia.

          Religious clerics, he asserted, were venerating a set of ideas that were causing the entire Islamic nation to be a source of anxiety to the rest of the world.

          “That thinking (I am not saying “religion” but “thinking”)…that we have held sacred over the years…is antagonizing the entire world. Is it possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible! We are in need of a religious revolution…because the Islamic nation is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

          In short Sisi was declaring ideological war on jihadism in all its forms – on al-Qaeda, on Islamic State, on Iranian Islamism, on the Muslim Brotherhood, and on all the affiliates and sub-groups of those organizations.

          His initiative did not fall on deaf ears. On April 2, 2015, Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, spoke to Muslims worldwide.

          “There is no true religion that does not regard the sanctity of human life as one of its highest values, and Islam is no exception. Indeed, Allah made this unequivocal in the Qur’an. He emphasized the gravity of the universal prohibition against murder, stating that when a person takes even one life, ‘it is as if he has killed all mankind’.”

          Referring to the videos showing decapitations in Sinai and Libya, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, and other horrific acts by jihadists, he said: “These thugs are invoking religious texts to justify their inhumane crimes.” This, he asserted,”is a flagrant misreading of both the letter and spirit of the Islamic tradition... These terrorists are not Muslim activists, but criminals who have been fed a mistaken interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunnah, the teachings and practices of the Prophet Mohammed.

          “We are in an ideological battle… against the terrorist cancer. In this battle, Egypt is defending not only itself, but also humanity against the encroaching danger of extremism.”

          It is against that background that Sisi’s recent initiatives need to be assessed. In his speech to the UN on September 28. 2015, he supported the establishment of a Palestinian state, because it would “effectively eliminate one of the most …dangerous pretexts used to justify extremism and terrorism.”

          Sisi’s remarks were no flash in the pan. In hindsight it seems clear that a well-conceived strategic plan was already being rolled out. The plan contemplated even closer cooperation with Israel than was already functioning in the Sinai peninsula, where Egypt and Israel were together combatting a hodge-podge of jihadist groups intent on disrupting Egypt’s administration.

          In March 2016 Sisi nominated former Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, often referred to in Arab media as “Israel’s friend,” to head the Arab League. On May 17, in a speech in the southern city of Assiut, Sisi promised Israel warmer ties if it accepts efforts to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. He also said that Egypt was willing to mediate a reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions to pave the way toward a lasting peace accord with the Israelis.

          Then, on June 3, 2016, hours after the conclusion of the French-led peace conference in Paris, Sisi reiterated his support for a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that he believed achieving a peace deal would have a major positive effect on the region.

          “The Palestinian issue has been neglected in recent years… if we solve it, we will all live in a better situation.”

          Official Palestinian and Israeli responses welcoming Sisi’s original statement in May were quick in coming. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appreciated Egyptian efforts to establish a Palestinian state; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was encouraged by the leadership Sisi was displaying. Even Hamas issued a press statement , welcoming the Egyptian statement on Palestinian reconciliation, though ignoring Sisi’s comments on peace with Israel.

          Some Israeli journalists suggested prior coordination between Sisi and the Israeli government over Egypt’s peace initiative, asserting that Israeli and Palestinian officials had been pushing Sisi ahead of the Paris international conference to take the lead as mediator in restarting the peace process. Some pointed to the fact that Israel's response came only 20 minutes after Sisi finished speaking. Also significant, some believe, is that Netanyahu’s pointed rejection of the French international peace conferences had been matched by his positive reaction to Sisi’s initiative.

          Sisi, meanwhile, feels the hand of history heavy on his shoulder. As he said in February, 2016: “If by our combined efforts and real desire, we can all achieve a solution to this problem and find hope for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis, history will write a new page that will be no less and might even be more of an achievement than the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel forty years ago.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 July 2016

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 July 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 July 2016: