Thursday, 17 August 2017

Israel-Palestine - a deal in the making?

        From early on in his bid for the presidency Donald Trump was intrigued by the possibility of brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

        On the campaign trail back in February 2016 he declared “I will give it one hell of a shot. I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.” Later, as he earmarked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead the peace-making effort, he said: “I would love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. That would be such a great achievement.”

        There is little doubt that to get viable peace talks off the ground the skills of an expert deal-maker are required. Fortunately an acknowledged expert in the field is available. If there is one thing about Donald Trump that his greatest friends and most impassioned enemies are agreed on, it is that deal-making has been the key to his business success, which has been considerable.

        During his presidential campaign Trump outlined his deal-making philosophy: “Each side must give up something [of] …value in exchange for something that it requires. That's what a deal is.” After one meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, he declared “I think there’s a very, very good chance” of achieving a deal.

        Shortly after receiving his brief, Kushner set to work. He spent months studying the background to the long-running dispute, and subsequently held one-on-one meetings with all the main players. Then a briefing session for interns that Kushner hosted in Washington – a session specifically intended to be private – was surreptitiously recorded and leaked to the press. What Kushner revealed, in what he believed was an off-the-record discussion, was the disillusionment familiar to anybody who has ever engaged on a formidable enterprise – the moment when the magnitude of what you have undertaken suddenly strikes you.

        A great deal was made in the press about a particular remark of Kushner’s, embedded in a 20-minute exposition: “We're thinking about what the right end state is. And we’re trying to work with the parties very quietly to see if there's a solution. And there may be no solution.”

        “Kushner: There May Be No Solution to Mid-East Peace” headed report after report of the leaked discussion. But in effect Kushner was not only stating the obvious, but actually reiterating his father-in-law’s own take on the situation. “A lot of people say an agreement can’t be made,” said Trump, back on the presidential trail, “which is OK – sometimes agreements can’t be made.”

        One thing is certain – Kushner may be experiencing a dark night of the soul, but he has not given up. Where he may be misleading himself is in rejecting the lessons of history. Underlying some of his remarks is a world-weary frustration that is almost palpable. How many apparently endless discussions are exposed in: “You know everyone finds an issue, that ‘You have to understand what they did then’ and ‘You have to understand that they did this.’” One can sense the interminable interchanges he must have endured with one or other of the parties, blinded by their own claims and grievances. He has clearly lost patience with the tit-for-tat recriminations.

        “How does that help us get peace?” he asks.

        He may be right on that matter. It can’t. But he is wrong in the conclusion he drew, that afternoon in Washington.

        “We don’t want a history lesson,” he said. “We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on how do you come up with a conclusion to the situation.”

        But history is at the very heart of the problem he faces. If there is ever to be a deal, it could not possibly be achieved without an in-depth understanding of the history of the Holy Land, because both the Jewish people’s claim to the land, and the refutation of that claim in the Palestinian narrative, is rooted in the past.

        An inescapable aspect of historical events is that they have no real beginning. Depending on the starting point selected, the rights and wrongs of each party’s position in a political dispute can look very different. In respect of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the Jewish narrative probably begins some 5000 years ago; the Palestinian in the late-nineteenth century, perhaps, with the start of the proactive return to the Holy Land of Jewish settlers. Between 1881 and 1897 – that is, before the formal foundation of the Zionist movement – some twenty new settlements were created by the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion).

        If a deal acceptable to both sides is ever to be achieved, attempts to reconcile wildly varying interpretations of historical events would have to be put aside – a delicate task in itself. And now it is announced that before the end of August Kushner, accompanied by Jason Greenblatt and Dina Powell, US deputy national security adviser, will be touring the Middle East for discussions with states throughout the region. With Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates on the itinerary, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories. it seems that the “regional umbrella” concept of nurturing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is being pursued.

        This new impetus has Palestinian support. Head of the PLO mission to the US, Husam Zomlot, following a meeting with Greenblatt on 17 August, “reaffirmed the full readiness of the Palestinian leadership to support President Trump’s efforts to reach a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israel issue.”

        The first signs of a deal in the making?

Friday, 11 August 2017

A new bid for Kurdish independence

        Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago, a proud and independent nation lived and thrived in its own land in the heart of the Middle East. Down through the ages, although subject to many foreign invasions, this ethnically distinct people refused to be integrated with their various conquerors, but retained their individual culture. At the start of the First World War, their country was a small part of the Ottoman empire. In shaping the future Middle East after the war the Allied powers, and in particular the United Kingdom, promised to act as guarantors of this people’s freedom. That promise was subsequently broken.

        No, this is not the story of the Jewish people. It is the broad outline of the long, convoluted and unresolved history of the Kurds.

        The Kurds – more than 30 million strong – are the largest stateless nation in the world. Historically they inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan. No such location is depicted on current maps, for the old Kurdistan now falls within the sovereign space of four separate states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Most Kurds – some 25 million – live within Turkey’s borders, but the 2 million Kurds in Syria are the country’s largest minority, while within Iraq the 5 million Kurds have developed a near autonomous state. Nearly 7 million Kurds are trapped inside Iran’s extremist Shi’ite regime.

        It was shortly after the end of the First World War that, orchestrated by Britain and France, the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire were set out in the Treaty of Sèvres. In abolishing the Ottoman Empire, the treaty stipulated a referendum to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

        That referendum never took place, and the Sèvres treaty itself was rendered null and void in 1922 by the establishment of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. What followed was a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, including the large portion of the Kurdistan homeland that lay within it, to the new republic. With a stroke of the colonial pen over 20 million Kurds were declared Turkish.

        Kurdish nationalism in Turkey developed largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized the country under Ataturk. After years of struggle, Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. Comprising about 20 percent of Turkey's 77 million population, fractious Kurds were a constant political problem for Turkey.

        In Syria the civil war, starting in 2011, brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. In the face of Islamic State’s (IS) military advance, Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them. In October 2011, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC). The KNC is now initiating elections intended to consolidate an autonomous Kurdish region within whatever Syrian state eventually emerges.

        Years of rebellion by the Kurds of Iraq ended in 1970 with a peace deal with the government, granting them a degree of self-rule and recognition of their language. When Mustafa Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new rival force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The journey towards a unified Kurdish movement in Iraq was long and bitter, but finally, in 1998, a joint leadership deal was signed. Eventually the PUK and the KDP set up a unified regional government, and Masoud Barzani became a member of Iraq’s Governing Council.

        When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Peshmerga troops of the Kurds – who retained bitter memories of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja – joined in the fight to overthrow him. After he was driven from office the Iraqi people, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution which recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as an integral element in Iraq’s administration. Barzani was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

        In June 2014 IS began its conquest of much of western and northern Iraq. The Iraqi military largely disintegrated. It was Kurdish Peshmerga forces that stepped in, taking control of Kirkuk and other northern areas long claimed by the KRG but until then outside its control. The Peshmerga subsequently proved to be the most effective of the anti-IS fighting forces, backed as they were by the US-led coalition which adhered to its “no boots on the ground” policy.

        In June 2017, with Mosul in the final stages of being recaptured from IS, Kurdish president Barzani announced that an independence referendum would take place on 25 September 2017 encompassing not only the area within the administration of the KRG, but also three adjacent regions, largely occupied by Kurds but claimed by the central government.

        In announcing the referendum, the leadership made it clear that a “Yes” vote would not automatically trigger a declaration of independence. It would, however, greatly strengthen the Kurds’ bargaining position in future talks 
with the central government on self-determination. 

        Turkey's initial reaction to the referendum announcement was critical. So indeed was that of the US and the UK – the main burden of their opposition being that the referendum was “untimely”. The US understood “the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan”, but believed that they should concentrate on repairing the ravages of war and on collaborating with, rather than confronting, the central government. Baghdad had already rejected the referendum call. “No party can, on its own, decide the fate of Iraq, in isolation from the other parties,” said Saad al-Haddithi, Iraqi government spokesman.

        Shortly after Barzani announced the referendum, Saudi Arabia came out in support. Other Sunni states in the Saudi-led coalition are likely to follow, since Turkey is siding with Qatar in their current conflict. Then on 25 July 2017 Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the US’s position, announced support for the referendum.

        The Kurds are a brave and battle-hardened people yearning for national independence and the right of self-determination. Long the powerless pawns of others' interests, in taking this next step towards achieving autonomy the Kurds merit support. When the time comes for them to declare an independent Kurdistan, perhaps combining the areas in Iraq and Syria under their control, they deserve the recognition of the free world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 6 August 2017:

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 August 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 August 2017:

               [Next posting:  Friday 18 August at 2.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 4 August 2017

China looks towards the Middle East

        China is on the up and up.  That is a truth universally recognized.  Since initiating market reforms in 1978, China has shifted from a centrally-planned to a market-based economy, and has experienced rapid economic and social development. Growth has averaged nearly 10 percent a year – the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history – and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty. That rate of growth could scarcely be sustained indefinitely and may now be falling off a little, but the second quarter of 2017 still saw the Chinese economy advance by 6.9 percent.   For comparison, US growth rate in 2016 was 1.6 percent, and the UK and Germany both grew by 1.8 percent.
        This exponential economic growth raised within China’s elite the understandable desire to use it as a springboard for advancing China’s global political status.  Thus was born in 2013 China’s“Belt and Road Initiative”.  Introduced and promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the “belt” refers to reinvigorating the old Silk Road economic belt, while the “road” relates to constructing a 21st century Maritime Silk Road.  The aim of the initiative was to  promote the economic prosperity of the countries along the Belt and Road, enhance regional economic cooperation, strengthen exchanges and mutual learning between different civilizations, and promote world peace and development.

        By 2017 it had involved China underwriting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old Silk Road linking it with Europe. The ambition is immense. China is spending roughly $150 billion a year in the 68 countries that have signed up to the scheme. According to the Economist, Xi Jinping is seeking to dominate Eurasia and create an economic and trading area to rival the transatlantic one, dominated by the US.

        In May 2017 Xi Jinping welcomed 28 heads of state and government to Beijing to celebrate the initiative.  There were not many Western leaders among the guests.  The EU’s reservations about China came to a head last year when EU lawmakers voted against China’s application for “market economy status”, which would have reduced possible penalties in anti-dumping cases. Steel was the sticking point: China’s huge production capacity has flooded world markets and threatened jobs, growth, and competitiveness.

        As for the political implications of China’s initiative, the West has largely ignored them. While its attention has been focused elsewhere, President Xi has been pursuing his aim of achieving a global leadership role for China.  Locked into his economic-based political agenda is a desire to make a mark in Middle East politics in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma in particular.

        Back in May 2013, when the “Belt and Road” initiative was being finalised, both Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Beijing.  Following hard on each other’s heels, Netanyahu stressed the large and growing commercial partnership between China and Israel, while Abbas encouraged China’s ambition to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, urging the Chinese leadership "to use its relationship with Israel to remove the obstacles that obstruct the Palestinian economy". 

As a result China proposed a four-point plan as the agenda for a dialogue, which it would host, between Abbas and Netanyahu.  It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 lines, respect for Israel’s right to exist and security concerns, halting settlement activities and violence against civilians, and international guarantees to advance the peace process.  No such dialogue took place.

With the PA president back in Beijing in July 2017 for a state visit at Xi Jinping’s invitation, China’s four-point plan was back in play.  Abbas praised China’s desire to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and said he supported holding trilateral Chinese-Israeli- Palestinian meetings to move the peace process forward. The trilateral dialogue mechanism had been raised by President Xi Jinping in a closed-door meeting with Abbas. It is aimed at helping “coordinate and push forward key projects to assist Palestine”, according to a statement on the website of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. 

It does not have the feel of an initiative likely to take off.  “We don’t even know if this will be an official dialogue or an unofficial one,” said Pan Guang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “But so far, I doubt if Israel would want any official involvement.”

The proposal of a three-way dialogue comes as Beijing steps up engagement, both diplomatic and economic, in the Middle East, a region Beijing views as critical in its trade and investment “Belt and Road” initiative.  During his visit to the Middle East in January 2017, President Xi pledged $55 billion in investment and loans for the region.  At the same time China remains in a cosy economic relationship with Israel, with a record $16.5 billion of Chinese investment in Israel last year.

There seems little escape from the perception that China is using its unprecedented and growing wealth to buy a leading role in the drama playing on the international stage.  As in all international dealings, mixed motives can often be detected, though realpolitik is usually at the heart of affairs. Wang Lian, an international relations professor at Peking University, assumes China’s benevolent intentions.

“From China’s perspective,” he said, “economic measures could be more effective in connecting different parties in the Middle East, for example in the case of Syria where, as Islamic State falls, China’s involvement in the reconstruction could be more acceptable for both the government and the opposition.”   Which may be true enough, if the other parties involved were inclined to step – or be pushed – aside to allow China space.

What is true for Syria in true for the Middle East generally.  As for mediating an Israeli-Palestinian accord, China has to join the back of a line including the US, of course, but also Russia, France, the Arab League, and the EU. 

Which is not to say that Chinese influence, backed by Chinese investment, and resting on ancient Chinese diplomatic skills, may not in the final analysis result in China being the mediator of choice.

         Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 July 2017:

        Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 4 August 2017:           501605

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 August 2017:

[Next posting:  Friday 11 August 2017 at 4.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 28 July 2017

Nepotism or inherited genes – a Middle East conundrum

                                                               The Assads - father and son

        In the West the practice of giving positions of power to relatives, whether or not they are qualified, smells unethical, even corrupt. US public opinion is far from happy about the Trump family’s involvement in matters of state. However the practice – designated Wasta in Arabic – is deeply embedded in Arab culture and, according to some observers, can be positive and useful. It is certainly rife, right across the Middle East, including Israel where it is known as proteksia. Unfortunately, it is often connected with corruption in one form or another.

        The late President of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, exemplified Wasta in action. As a dictator, ruling Syria with an iron fist, he simply decreed that his son, Bashar, would succeed him. The gawky young ophthalmologist was subject to no selection process. He simply became president in 2000, on the death of his father. By 2012, according to the business intelligence firm Alaco, he had amassed a fortune of up to $1.5 billion for his family and close associates, spread across Russia, Hong Kong and a range of offshore tax havens.

        The one-time president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was on the same path when he was overthrown in 2011. His plans to transfer power to his son Gamal, a western-trained banker, were well advanced, and his family fortune was estimated at some $70 billion. After 30 years as president, Mubarak had had access to investment deals that generated hundreds of millions in profits. Both Gamal, and Mubarak’s other son, Alaa, were also billionaires.

        As for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, one-time ruler of Libya, his son, Saif, was being groomed as his successor when the regime was crushed. At his death, Gaddafi’s personal fortune has been estimated at $200 billion, making him the richest man on earth. Libya had the largest supply of oil in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, and Gaddafi pocketed the proceeds, spreading his money around the globe through family members, Swiss bank accounts, real estate and investments.

        Arab royal regimes are autocracies, and Arab royalty has not bound itself to rules of succession. The succession appears to be at the whim of the ruling monarch – nepotism, or Wasta in practice. For example, the late King Hussein of Jordan changed his mind several times about his successor before settling on his eldest son, Abdullah. The current Saudi Arabian monarch, Salman, reached the throne only after plots to oust him from the succession were foiled, while he himself has removed two Crown Princes from the line of succession to appoint his favourite son, Mohammad bin Salman, as recently as 21 June 2017 to succeed him.

        The same absolutist approach governs the distribution of the vast wealth that accrues to these oil-rich states. The Sultan of Brunei is said to be worth $20 billion, the Saudi Arabian royal family around $18 billion, the Emir of Dubai $15 billion – and so it goes.

        The two sons of Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, Tareq and Yasser, own an economic empire in the territories worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Operating under the patronage of the president, the Falcon consortium embraces a large tobacco interest, an electricity and mechanical contracting company with branches in the West Bank, Jordan, and the UAE, an international media company, a general investment concern, an insurance company with 11 branches across the territories, and an organization devoted to new projects and development. 

        Perhaps all these fathers believed that something of the gene magic that had raised them to power must be present in their offspring. Sometimes it is. Kirk Douglas doubtless gave his son Michael a leg-up in his early days; Judy Garland might have pulled a string or two to give her daughter, Liza Minelli, a break. How much does Jane Fonda owe her father Henry? Chemi Peres, Simon Peres’s son, heads Pitango, Israel’s largest venture capital company. Who knows if he received his father’s help along the way, but he founded its predecessor technology fund back in 1992, and Pitango in 1996, long before Shimon Peres became Israel’s 9th president. And he started his business career with a BSc in Industrial Engineering and a Master’s degree in Business Administration.

        So there is another side to the nepotism coin. Starting professional life as the offspring of a famous parent cannot be easy, especially for those with genuine talent, whether or not parental influence has smoothed the path. People like these deserve our sympathy; on the other hand, those without merit who are raised to positions of power or influence sometimes dig their own graves.

        In 2013 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s then-prime minister, found himself involved in widespread allegations of corruption involving shoe-boxes stuffed with cash, three cabinet ministers and their sons, and his own son, Bilal, as well. Erdogan smothered those charges, but in 2016 Bilal again found himself under investigation, this time in Italy on allegations of money laundering. Meanwhile the German newspaper Bild began querying how Erdogan’s children had amassed their vast wealth. The article cited data published by Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, which disclosed that everyone in Erdogan’s family, including his younger daughter, appeared to be into business, dealing in a wide range of areas such as cosmetics, instant foods, the shipping industry, and jewellery. The editor and staff of Cumhuriyet were arrested in October 2016. Seventeen staff reporters, editors, columnists and cartoonists went on trial on 24 July 2017 accused of supporting terrorism.

        Nepotism is an ugly word, but it is sometimes not easy to separate it from a pretty universal desire to give one’s children a helping hand. When we witness the offspring of the famous in positions of power or prestige, fairness demands that we try to determine whether their success is due to natural talent or to excessive parental influence. The trouble is that nepotism can run alongside corruption. That is indeed an unsavoury phenomenon, and the Middle East may be more prone to it than anywhere else in the world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 22 July 2017:

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 July 2017:

                      [Next posting:  Friday 4 August at 2.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 21 July 2017

Secret goings-on in the Mediterranean

               Flag of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)

        Hands up if you know anything about IEMed, the Barcelona Process or UfM. And full marks if you can identify that IEMed stands for the European Institute of the Mediterranean, the Barcelona Process is shorthand for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Euromed), and UfM betokens the Union for the Mediterranean.

        In fact the three bodies represent stages in a long, convoluted road leading towards well-intentioned development programmes for the Mediterranean region, largely supported by the European Union. Although few people know anything about what they are doing and what they hope to achieve, all three organizations are beavering away on worthy activities. More worryingly, they are acting within a political environment which certainly affects their relevance and effectiveness, but which they are unable to control. 

        IEMed, founded in 1989 in Spain, is essentially a think tank-plus, aimed at encouraging understanding and cooperation between Mediterranean countries. It actively seeks to promote peace, stability and shared prosperity by boosting economic activity, and it supports academic studies on Mediterranean-related matters.

        The Barcelona Process or Euromed started in 1995 with a conference organized by the European Union to strengthen its relations with the countries in the Mashriq and Maghreb regions. It aimed to reinforce political and security dialogue; to construct an economic and financial partnership with the EU including a free-trade area by 2010; and to encourage understanding between cultures and societies.

        Today Euromed comprises all the member states of the EU, as well as ten southern Mediterranean states including Israel and the Palestinian Authority (or, as it has designated itself, “the State of Palestine”). Syria, once a member, has been suspended.

        By its tenth anniversary in 2005, the Process had failed to come anywhere near advancing its three-point programme, and its final declaration failed to be endorsed by the partnership as a whole. The disagreement turned on what was to be understood by “terrorism”. The PA, Syria and Algeria wanted to exclude what they called “resistance movements against foreign occupation”– “foreign occupation” being code for Israel’s existence anywhere in Mandate Palestine.

        At the 2005 summit even the founding fathers of the Barcelona Process expressed disappointment about the EMed Partnership and its failure to deliver results.

        In the lacklustre performance of the Barcelona Process France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, perceived a political opportunity. He conceived the grandiose concept of a “Mediterranean Union”, paralleling the European Union. This project was part of his ticket during the French presidential election campaign in 2007.

        Once elected, Sarkozy invited all heads of state and government of the Mediterranean region to a meeting in Paris, to lay the foundations of the new Union. Unfortunately his concept had failed to inspire the EU. Some European leaders felt that it would not be sensible to duplicate institutions already in existence under the Barcelona Process. The European Commission thought that a better idea would be to use the existing Barcelona structure to build a more effective organization.

        Sarkozy modified his proposal, and it was soon agreed that the project should include all EU member states and be built upon the existing Barcelona process. The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is dedicated to supporting, but not funding, socioeconomic developments in the region which meet one or more of three interrelated priorities – human development, integration and stability – and is currently overseeing some 50 such projects spread right across the Mediterranean area. One such, supported by both Israel and the Palestinians, is the Desalination Facility project for the Gaza Strip, endorsed by the 43 member states of the UfM. The large-scale desalination facility is aimed at addressing the water crisis in the Gaza Strip, where 95% of the water is not drinkable due to the over-pumping of the Coastal Aquifer, the only available water source in the strip.

        No one could reasonably object to the encouragement of projects designed to bring improvements to the lives and living standards of the peoples of the Mediterranean, although one could reasonably have asked why it took three separate bodies to do so. Now a fourth looms on the horizon. A new EU-based Partnership on Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA) has been set up to develop more sustainable management of water and agro-food systems. PRIMA, which will be a ten-year initiative running from 2018 to 2028, currently consists of 19 participating countries including Israel but not the Palestinian Authority, and more participants, from both EU and non-EU countries, are expected to follow.

        What seems clear is that the main factor leading to the failure of the Barcelona Partnership – political instability – is as potent in 2017 as in 2005, and bears down on the UfM as it will on the new PRIMA initiative. With civil conflicts raging in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Iran: with Islamic jihad active across the region; with terrorism still rife in Egypt, Turkey, Israel and elsewhere; with the Gulf states in open conflict with Qatar; with the Israel-Palestine issue as unresolved as ever, an organization titled “The Union for the Mediterranean” seems less practical politics than the expression of a far distant, possibly unattainable, vision.

        Amalgamation of the three existing bodies into one effective organization, rationalization of its operations, and - since p
ublic awareness of the existing bodies and their activities is minimal to the point of secrecy - better promotion of its purposes and achievements would seem a sensible way forward, for there is every reason for the good work to continue. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 July 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 July 2017:
                [Next posting:  Friday 28 July 2017, at 4.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Trump's Mid-East venture

        Ambiguities and vacillations surround many aspects of the Trump administration’s policies or lack of them, both domestic and foreign, but one element seems clear. President Donald Trump appears determined to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, within the context of a wider US-led anti-Islamist, anti-Iran, cooperative effort involving “moderate” Middle East states including Israel.

rom early on in his bid for the presidency Trump, highly skilled in the arts of wheeling and dealing, was intrigued by the possibility of brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians 

        On the campaign trail back in February 2016 Trump declared, in his inimitable style: “That’s probably the toughest deal in the world right now to make. It’s possible it’s not makeable because, don’t forget, it has to last. A lot of people say an agreement can’t be made, which is OK – sometimes agreements can’t be made. I will give it one hell of a shot. I would say if you can do that deal, you can do any deal.”

        A week or two later there were rumours of a UN Security Council resolution in the making, aimed at setting out the terms for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Vehement in his opposition to this initiative, Trump took the opportunity to set out his own deal-making philosophy.

        “Let me be clear: An agreement imposed by the United Nations would be a total and complete disaster... that's not how you make a deal. Deals are made when parties come together…and they negotiate. Each side must give up something [of] …value in exchange for something that it requires. That's what a deal is.”

        Later in the campaign, as Trump earmarked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead the peace-making effort, he said: “I would love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. That would be such a great achievement.”

        In the preliminary stages of his peace-making enterprise, the US administration was reported to have held discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about a “regional umbrella” to shield possible Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Another important step towards getting a Middle East peace summit off the ground was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Riyadh on 23 April 2017, to bury the hatchet with Saudi King Salman. Among other burning issues, this visit was reported to have covered Trump’s aim to achieve an Arab-led Palestinian peace deal with Israel. Al-Sisi’s visit was to have significant consequences only a few months later, when Egypt allied itself with the Gulf states in demanding that Qatar renounce its support for Islamist extremists.

        In mid-May 2017 Trump was himself in the Middle East, hosting a meeting in Riyadh with some 50 Arab leaders, and successfully regaining their confidence in the leadership role of the US, badly shaken during the Obama administration.

        Trump’s insistent advice to them was to drive terrorism from their midst. Whether or not this was a precipitating factor, only two weeks later a conglomerate of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt turned on Qatar. Breaking off diplomatic relations, and promising worse, they demanded that Qatar cease supporting Islamist extremism and its adherents, including Hamas, the Palestinian faction unyielding in its determination never to negotiate with or recognize Israel.

        While the diplomatic stand-off dragged on, Trump pressed ahead. On 21 June 2017 his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, accompanied by US Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, arrived in the region to lay the groundwork for Trump’s “ultimate deal” – Israeli-Palestinian peace. Two days later Fox News reported that President Trump was considering calling a Camp David-style summit to renew his call to long-established US allies in the Arab world to confront the “crisis of Islamic extremism.”

        “The president now wants to bring all the key players to Washington,” a senior White House official told Fox News. “They need to disavow groups like the [Muslim] Brotherhood for the stability of the Middle East at large. It’s not just about Qatari elements funding the Brotherhood but disavowing support for extremism in general.”

        The pace began to quicken. On 10 July Israel and the PA signed a first-ever electricity deal under which the Israel Electric Company will supply electricity to the newly-constructed Palestinian substation outside Jenin, which has long suffered from power shortages. Three similar substations are planned for Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron by the end of 2018.

        The next day Trump drafted the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, into the Kushner-Greenblatt task force for peace, and their first joint meeting with the Palestinian negotiating team, which included the PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was held that day in Jerusalem.

        On 13 July Greenblatt announced that Israel and the Palestinians had reached an agreement for Israel to sell 33 million cubic meters of water to the PA each year to relieve the water situation in the territories. Water will start reaching the PA by the end of the year, long before the completion of the 5-year Red Sea–Dead Sea Canal project, of which this deal is part.

        At the press conference which followed the water deal announcement, Greenblatt said that both the electricity and the water agreements were examples of “cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians that will lead to economic improvement in the lives of the Palestinians.”

        It must have struck the journalists present that these developments could be the outward signs of some much broader initiative in the making, but Greenblatt refused to be drawn into discussing the wider implications, if any. The most he would say was that President Trump has “made clear that working toward a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is a top priority for him.”

        He might have added: “Watch this space."

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 July 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 July 2017:

                          [Next posting: Friday 21 July 2017 at 2.30 pm GMT]

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A start-up Middle East – the Peres vision

                                                                    Shimon and Chemi Peres

        For most of his long political career Shimon Peres, who eventual became Israel’s 9th president, cherished the vision of a peaceful Israel prospering within a peaceful Middle East. Back in 1996, determined to do something positive to help realize his dream, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Non-profitmaking, non-political, non-governmental, the Peres Center has for the past 21 years sought to be a source of inspiration about peace, both within and outside Israel. It has devoted itself to initiating. developing and implementing innovative and cutting-edge joint ventures with Israel’s neighbors working across a variety of fields including medicine, business, the environment, peace education and high-tech innovation.

        Just a year ago, in July 2016, only two months before his death, Shimon Peres laid the foundation for an impressive extension to his Center, involving a major expansion of its activities. In the presence of President Reuven Rivlin, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, and leading figures from Israel’s high-tech industry, Peres launched the Israeli Innovation Center project.

        Its purpose was to be twofold: first, to showcase Israel’s innovative achievements in high-tech, both current and in development; and secondly to demonstrate that innovation, science and technology have neither limits nor barriers, that they foster dialogue between individuals and between nations. The hope was that the new Innovation Center would become an educational hub, drawing guests from around the world both to learn about Israel's high-tech activities past, present and in the making, and to absorb the Center’s core values of innovation, optimism and the pursuit of peace, and be inspired and empowered to influence their communities and the world.

        "All my life,” said Peres at the launch, “I have worked to ensure that Israel's future is based on science and technology as well as on an unwavering moral commitment. They called me a dreamer. But who would have believed that the entire world would one day use Israeli navigation software in their daily lives? Who would have believed that millions of people would utilize an Israeli-developed stent implanted in damaged heart arteries allowing sick patients to breathe? Who would have predicted that we could give paralyzed individuals the ability to walk through robotic legs that were created in Israel? Our innovative spirit has been recognized the world over, and of course, my heart swells with pride when I see how many nations turn to the tiny State of Israel to learn from our bold innovations, to learn how to turn the impossible into the possible."

        “Peres has always been a dreamer, an optimist,” said Netanyahu. “He has been at the forefront of Israeli innovation, always in the pursuit of peace. The Israeli Innovation Center is yet another milestone along Peres's lifelong journey. Israel has much to share with its neighbors in the region. And this Innovation Center will be the first step on the long path to building a start-up region, an innovation region, a region of peace.”

        Netanyahu’s prediction is being carried forward today by Shimon Peres’s son, Chemi (short for Nechemiah), who now chairs the Peres Center’s board of management. Although he is also CEO of Pitango, Israel's largest venture capital fund, his life now seems bound up in his father’s legacy. He travels the world promoting the Peres vision, which he interprets as finding ways to bring Israel-scale economic and political success to a fractured Arab world, “expanding the ‘start-up nation’ into the ‘start-up region.'”

        He sees potential in the Arab world for an explosion of innovation, and with it of prosperity,. The key is a technology economy.

        “A country that adopts this,” he says, “can rise from poverty and ignorance, change its capabilities, change the [economic] climate. Once you’re a country that has these abilities, you find other countries to trade with.”

        On the face of it, he says, it seems crazy to advocate investing in the Middle East, given its current chaos. “But China 25 years ago was seen the same way. Look at Saudi Arabia, where the young prince Mohammad bin Salman has a 2030 plan that talks about turning Saudi Arabia into an innovation country.” As for Israel, “it’s coming close to $40,000 GDP per capita. What changed Israel is two things: the need to innovate to survive, and the interest of global companies. 350 foreign companies employ half the Israeli high-tech industry.”

        Chemi Peres meets many technology companies and investors looking for new opportunities in Israel. He urges them to take advantage of what Israel can offer them, but also to look further afield and consider investing in the broader Middle East. He tries to encourage global companies to establish research centers in the Arab world and work with universities to create a high-tech economy and an Arabic internet. Shimon Peres’s Innovation Center wants to encourage the Arab world to exploit that potential.

        "It’s in everyone’s interest,” said Chemi Peres. “A region that grows economically is safer, creates less terror. And it’s already happening. Chinese companies …American companies... I say to the Arab world, take this forward, and it will take you forward.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12  July 2017:

                 [Next posting:  Sunday 16 July at 11.30 am GMT]

Friday, 7 July 2017

Qatar and the Hamas dimension

          When news of the latest inter-Arab feud broke on 5 June 2017, it was not the first time that Qatar’s neighbours in the Gulf had lost patience with that stand-alone kingdom. Back in January 2014 underlying tensions, brewing for years, suddenly surfaced, and Gulf states tried to induce Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups, not to interfere in the affairs of other Gulf states, and to cooperate on regional issues.

          When Qatar flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with their recalcitrant neighbour and in March 2014 withdrew their ambassadors. Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year, and the pressure proved too great. In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Qataris signed the Riyadh Agreement whose terms, though never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks before.

          Whatever the Riyadh Agreement exactly specifies, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly took away a very different view of what had been agreed than the Qataris. They expected Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. They believed that Qatar had agreed to remove, or at least reduce, the appearance of Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media, and especially to eliminate or soften the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to expel, or at least silence, the provocative Islamist figures that dominated its media platforms, including Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Palestinian Arab nationalist firebrand Azmi Bisha.

          With the document signed, on 17 April 2014 Gulf officials declared the end of what they described as a mere misunderstanding among “brothers of the same family”. 

          However the Gulf nations, and indeed Egypt, were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations and simply continued its support of Islamist extremists intent on undermining the stability of the region. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt, backed by Jordan, Yemen and at least 8 other Arab states, took drastic action. The main charge levelled at Qatar in the June 2017 débacle was that it had failed to fulfil the undertakings it entered into in 2014. 

          "We want to see Qatar implement the promises it made a few years back with regard to its support of extremist groups, to its hostile media and interference in affairs of other countries," Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, told reporters in Paris, adding that by maintaining its support of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar was undermining the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Egypt. “Qatar has to stop these policies so that it can contribute to stability in the Middle East."  

          Hamas said it was "shocked" by Saudi Arabia's demand that Qatar cease supporting the group. Qatar, unlike the US, the EU and a clutch of other nations, refuses to designate Hamas a terrorist organization, but refers to it as a “legitimate resistance movement.”

          When, on the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hamas refused to support Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his Shi’ite allies, Iran and Hezbollah, its officials left their Damascus headquarters and Qatar provided a new base. Khaled Mashal, Hamas leader as he then was, made his home there, as did other Hamas officials. So when in May 2017 Hamas unveiled its new policy document to the world – the document that reiterates its aim of destroying Israel, while also being prepared to envisage a sovereign Palestine temporarily established within pre-Six Day War boundaries – the venue it chose was not Gaza City, but the ballroom of the Sheraton hotel in Doha, Qatar’s capital.

          Over the past few years Qatar’s ruling Al Thani regime has become a major funding source for Hamas’s fiefdom in the Gaza Strip. It has provided millions of dollars in aid and bankrolled everything from electricity to public-sector salaries. In January 2016 Qatar handed over some 1,060 housing units to Gazan families who had lost their homes during recent wars. These homes marked the completion of the first of three phases of a multi-million dollar redevelopment effort which Qatar pledged to fund in 2012. In addition to infrastructure facilities, roads and green spaces, it includes two schools, a health centre, a commercial centre, a mosque and a six-floor hospital. Just before the crisis, Doha had agreed to send yet another $100 million to Gaza.

          Whatever its rationale, Israel seems to raise no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. Back in June 2015, despite the fact that Qatar does not recognize Israel, and the two countries have no diplomatic relations, Mohammad al-Emadi, a Qatari official, travelled between Israel and Gaza to discuss reconstruction projects in the Strip.

          "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's military intelligence, described Israel's apparent acquiescence to Qatar channelling its aid to Gaza through Hamas. Odd it certainly is. For while Israel is doubtless content on humanitarian grounds to see the funding of infrastructure improvements in Gaza, it is also intent on reducing the power and influence of Hamas. The former consideration clearly outweighs the latter.

          The main Gazan newspaper, Filisteen, continually asserts that the PA is in cahoots with Israel to weaken the Hamas regime. On 20 June, citing the cutting of Gaza’s electricity supplies and the ending of payments to ex-prisoners, it claimed that PA President Mahmoud Abbas had called for the Arab coalition currently operating in Yemen against the Houthis to send some of its units to “liberate” the Gaza Strip from its terrorist rulers. “Simply outrageous,” thundered Mamduh al-Ajrami, former PA minister of prisoner affairs, in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi.

          What Hamas most fears is that Abbas is allying the PA with what it calls the “Riyadh summit bloc”, and the subsequent attack on Qatar. Qatar’s support for Hamas features so high on the list of policies the Arab states find unacceptable, that the outcome of the Qatar crisis has become of existential importance to Hamas.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line:  7 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review: 8 July 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 July 2017:

            [Next posting:  Friday 14 July 2017 at 4.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 30 June 2017

Moves on the Arab-Israeli chessboard


        Broad goals such as “America First” and “Make America Great Again” set the tone of President Donald Trump’s administration, but viable domestic policy objectives are hard to discern. The Muslim travel ban, the Mexican wall and the healthcare reforms were challenged from the first, and as yet are not being fully implemented. Whether withdrawing from the Paris climate change treaty yields the US positive results only time will tell.

        On the foreign policy front, however, Trump does seem to have one firm objective – to confront Islamist extremism in the Middle East, and not wholly for its own sake, but as one vital element in a determined effort to broker an Arab-Israeli understanding leading to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

        A sequence of events over April, May and June 2017 point to the initiation of a clear-cut policy on this issue. Its implementation might be dated from 7 April 2017. That was the day the US launched a missile attack on Syria. Trump had ordered the US military to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the al-Shayran air base from where Syrian government warplanes had taken off to drop chemical weapons on rebel forces in Idlib province, regardless of the collateral damage to the civilian population. The nerve gas had killed at least 86 people, including 33 children.

        President Trump’s decision was so obvious a reversal of the line taken in similar circumstances by his predecessor, ex-President Obama, that it sent diplomatic shock waves around the world. A rapid, and far from unfavourable, reassessment of Donald Trump permeated the media, and the prestige of the US soared. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah were forced into a quick rethink on future tactics, but most important of all, a clear message went out to the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East, long disenchanted with ex-President Obama, that a new kid had arrived on the block.

        That message was rammed home when Trump, on his first foreign foray as president, landed in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on 20 May for a meeting with some 50 leaders of the Arab world. On the subject of Iran and Islamist extremism, he did not mince his words. His direct denunciation of Iran was welcomed by his Saudi hosts and his audience, all of whom believed that Obama, for his own reasons, had empowered their regional enemy throughout his presidency.

        “For decades,” said Trump, “Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”

        He was equally blunt about Islamist extremism. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. And drive them out of this Earth.”

        Did he already know of the action to be taken only 16 days later by an influential band of the leaders he was addressing? Suddenly, on 5 June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut all ties with Qatar, accusing the country of undermining the security of its neighbours by supporting the region’s arch-enemy, Iran, and financing terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. They halted all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar, ejected its diplomats and ordered Qatari citizens to leave within 14 days. The decisiveness and the unexpectedness bear all the hallmarks of Saudi’s then deputy crown prince, since elevated as heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

        The next day Jordan joined the move, announcing that it was downgrading its diplomatic relations with Qatar and revoking the license of the Doha-based television channel, Al Jazeera.

        Whether or not Trump had prior knowledge of the Arab states’ intentions, he was very quick to claim the credit for initiating it. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he wrote.

        Some Pentagon officials were said to have been taken aback by Trump’s tweet, particularly given the American military’s close ties to Qatar. Al Udeid Air Base, outside the Qatari capital, Doha, is home to more than 11,000 American and coalition service members. Qatar also houses the forward headquarters of the US Central Command and an American intelligence hub in the Middle East. All the same officials and commentators agreed that there was little immediate threat to the American military facilities in Qatar, not least because Qatar views America’s military presence as an insurance policy against the potential aggression of its neighbours.

        Striking while the iron was hot, Trump soon despatched his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, to lay the groundwork for what he has called the “ultimate deal” – Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kushner arrived in the region on 21 June, accompanied by US Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, and immediately held preliminary meetings with both Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and PA president, Mahmoud Abbas.

        Meanwhile the administration seemed anxious to dampen expectations of a speedy outcome. The White House spokesman emphasized that “forging a historic peace agreement will take time,” and that Kushner and Greenblatt will likely make “many visits” to the region. So Trump, who has received a commitment from both sides to pursue peace, is playing it long, seeking only to improve the atmosphere in the first instance. There is no talk yet of a summit conference, although the US is believed to be sounding out Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states about their willingness to be involved in due course.

        With the US now re-established as the major power broker in the Middle East, the dynamic young Mohammed bin Salman promoted as heir to the Saudi throne, and President Donald Trump fully committed to pursuing his anti-Islamist, pro-Arab-Israeli peace agenda, a glimmer of hope is surely justified. The question is: can supreme deal-maker Trump really deliver?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 7 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 June 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 July 2017:

             [Next posting: Friday 7 July 2017 at 5.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Qatar crisis - a US follow-through?

        On 23 June 2017 Fox News reported that President Trump was considering calling a Camp David-style summit to address growing tensions among long-established US allies in the Arab world and renew his call for those nations to confront the “crisis of Islamic extremism.” 

        It was on 5 June that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and five other Muslim countries severed diplomatic and commercial relations with Qatar, accusing it of funding groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State, and working with Iran to destabilize the region. The proposed gathering would be modeled on the 1978 Camp David summit that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

        “It’s a Camp David moment,” a senior White House official told Fox News. “We’ve seen nothing like this in 40 years, and now the president wants to follow through. The president now wants to bring all the key players to Washington. They need to disavow groups like the Brotherhood for the stability of the Middle East at large. It’s not just about Qatari elements funding the Brotherhood but disavowing support for extremism in general.” 

        A Middle East expert close to the White House told Fox News that the meeting being discussed would be a move to restore American alliances weakened during the Obama years. The White House plans were being formulated partly in response to calls in the Middle East for re-invigorated American leadership.

Friday, 23 June 2017

After Abbas

        A firm grip on the reins of power does not equate with riding high in public popularity – at least not in Palestinian politics. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), emerged from Fatah’s carefully stage-managed 63rd Congress, held in November 2016, overwhelmingly confirmed in post and greatly strengthened within his party. But just a few months later a poll of public opinion among Palestinians revealed that 77 percent of Palestinians believed that the PA was corrupt , and 65 percent wanted Abbas to resign.

        Abbas’s triumph at the 63rd Congress had been complete. Having out-manoeuvered his rivals and blocked opponents supporting challengers to his position, he was unanimously re-elected leader by the 1,400 delegates.

        Just a month before the Congress, Abbas’s age (then 81) and his state of health, always an issue simmering in the background, suddenly came to the boil. In 2005 and again in 2008 he had undergone cardiac catheterization, a procedure in which a thin plastic tube is inserted into an artery or vein, and then advanced into the heart chambers to diagnose and clear any blockages. On 6 October 2016 Abbas was suddenly admitted to Esteshari hospital in Ramallah for a third cardiac catheterization.

        Speculation immediately flared as to whether Fatah might soon name a deputy to serve as successor or interim president if Abbas were to become incapacitated or die – and if so, who?

        The first name to surface was Mohammed Dahlan, the charismatic Palestinian politician regarded by Abbas as his greatest enemy. Dahlan, 53, a protégé of Yasser Arafat and former security chief in Gaza, lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after Abbas expelled him from Fatah in 2011 accused of corruption and defamation. With backing from friends and supporters, Dahlan has been plotting his comeback ever since.

        The Middle East Eye website asserts that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE had liaised in a plan to shunt Dahlan in as next PA president, and that Hamas was prepared to put aside its long history of hostility to Dahlan (when head of security in Gaza in 1995-2000, he’d had hundreds of Hamas members arrested for undertaking armed operations against Israel). It was also reported that the UAE had held talks with Israel about the plan to install Dahlan.

        Influential backing he may have, but Dahlan does not command much support among Palestinians. The latest opinion poll reveals that only 7 percent would opt for Dahlan in a new presidential election with other candidates to choose from.

        The outstandingly popular alternative to Abbas among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti. If Abbas were out of the picture, and there were a two-horse race, Barghouti would gain 59 percent of the popular vote. As a credible candidate, however, Barghouti faces a few problems. For a start, he is currently serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail for orchestrating, as head of the Tanzim terrorist faction, shooting attacks in which five civilians, one of them a Greek monk, were killed.

        Rumours persist that he would conduct a presidential campaign from his prison cell, but it is far from certain that this would be feasible in the absence of Israel’s agreement, although since his imprisonment he has managed to be elected to Fatah’s central committee and re-elected to the PA parliament. There is no sign that Israel intends to release him, or would do so if he announced his intention to stand in a presidential election campaign. Palestinian reaction to the idea of voting for a lame duck president, confined indefinitely to a prison cell, is uncertain.

        Barghouti’s nearest rival is Hamas’s new leader Ismail Haniyeh, who comes a poor second to him in the Palestinian popularity stakes, but who might be more credible as a presidential candidate since he is at least a free man. Haniyeh, as a leading figure in Hamas, has been a fierce political opponent of Abbas ever since 2007 and the fratricidal coup that led to Hamas grabbing the Gaza strip from Fatah. This in itself has raised his profile among Palestinians disillusioned with Fatah in general and Abbas in particular.

        At least five other leading Palestinian figures are credible candidates to succeed Abbas, although none figures very prominently in the recent Palestinian opinion poll. The best known is perhaps Saeb Erekat, the chief PA peace negotiator for some twenty years. During that time he has become well versed in resigning in high dudgeon whenever events seem to move towards compromise and a possible accord. On his own admission he has resigned from the post of chief negotiator no less than nine times – and reversed his decision on each occasion. He is now secretary general of the PLO, thanks to the uncovering of a certain piece of treachery. When Abbas heard that Abed Rabbo, Erekat’s predecessor in office, had been plotting with Fayyad and Dahlan to oust him, the president promptly fired him. Four days later Abbas appointed Erekat in his place.

       Salam Fayyad is another hopeful. An economist by training, he served as Abbas’s prime minister from 2007 to 2013, and won considerable praise from the international community for cleaning up the PA's finances, tackling corrupt practices rife in the organization, and concentrating on developing transparent institutions of government. His economic policies were perhaps a little too transparent for Abbas, however, and in 2013 he was replaced.

        Other names in the frame include Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat; Mohammed Ghoneim, a founder of the PLO and a powerful figure in Fatah, but himself 80; and Jibril Rajoub, a bitter rival of Dahlan, which will probably keep them both out of the top post.

        And so it goes within Palestinian political circles – a perpetual battle for power. Appointments, treacherous plots against the leader, inter-contender rivalry, appointments, resignations, dismissals. Meanwhile Abbas sails serenely on, still president in the twelfth year of his four-year term, refusing to institute new presidential or parliamentary elections, and signally failing to favour, let alone appoint, a potential successor.

        French King Louis XV is said to have coined the phrase: Après moi, le déluge (After me, the Flood). Abbas may be contemplating something similar.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 June 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 June 2017:

                  [Next posting: Friday 30 June at 2.30 pm GMT]