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:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/After-Abbas-497742

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 June 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24062017-after-abbas-oped/

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


Friday, 16 June 2017

Could Putin out-trump Trump on Jerusalem?

                                                                   

        At the heart of the constitution of the United States lies the principle of the separation of powers. Conceived as a way to prevent the abuse of power generally, it has been used mainly to stop excessive power accumulating in the hands of the President. Ex-President Obama is on the record as finding the system “frustrating". As for Donald Trump, from the moment he assumed office he has been challenged by the legislature and the judiciary. He spent his first 100 days seeing some of his main electoral promises being foiled – from repealing the nation’s health care law to temporarily banning people from some Muslim nations to finding resources for a US-Mexican wall.

         But the separation of powers principle can also work in the opposite direction. For 22 years successive presidents have been frustrating the declared will of the US Congress.

        It was way back in 1995 that Congress passed legislation requiring the US embassy in Israel to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem no later than 31 May 1999. Although adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate by overwhelming majorities, the Jerusalem Embassy Act has never been implemented. Every President since then – Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama – has used the powers contained in Section 7 of the Act to sign a 6-month waiver “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

        Throughout his presidential election campaign, Trump pledged repeatedly to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His first chance to allow the Act to come into effect was 1 June 2017, when the last waiver signed by ex-President Obama ran out. When 1 June came around, lo and behold Trump fell into line with all his predecessors in office and signed a further 6-month waiver.

        There were very good reasons for Trump’s decision. Between taking office and 1 June he had embarked on an ambitious plan to broker a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He had hosted meetings with both Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas. He had undertaken his first foreign tour, which had included a meeting with over 50 leaders of the Arab world in Saudi Arabia, followed by visits to Israel and to the PA-controlled city of Bethlehem. He had extracted promising indications of support for a renewed peace effort from all parties. To have implemented his promise on the US embassy would certainly have disrupted the delicate state of his peace deal initiative.

        At present not a single foreign embassy is located in Jerusalem. This is because in international eyes the exact status of Jerusalem remains undetermined. Back in 1947 the original two-state UN plan envisaged Jerusalem as “a corpus separatum under a special international regime” to be administered by the United Nations. The UN as a whole, like the European Union (EU), still clings to this concept. But incongruously, both the UN and the EU also assert their support for the objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." Now, Jerusalem is either an international entity or part of it is Palestinian. It cannot be both.

        The UN Security Council in its latest pronouncement on the subject at least appears consistent. Urging countries and organizations to distinguish "between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967", its Resolution 2334, passed on 23 December 2016, makes no mention of an internationalized Jerusalem, but refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

        Resolution 2334 was passed by 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council, with only the US abstaining. Of the 15, only one nation has recognized the logical implications of what they voted for – namely that if East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, then West Jerusalem must be an integral part of sovereign Israel.

        On 6 April 2017 Russia issued a quite astonishing statement. While reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a future Palestinian state, Moscow declared: "At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."

        This declaration, ground-breaking in itself, carries a corollary. Countries normally site their embassies in the capital city of the country with which they have established diplomatic relations.

        It is almost certain that, deep within the Kremlin, the political pros and cons of Russia moving its embassy to West Jerusalem are being carefully calculated. Russia is currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in Syria, supporting President Bashar al-Assad in his battle to retain power. Iran, its satrap Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria are all ferocious enemies of Israel and would certainly be opposed to any move that enhanced Israel’s status. On the other hand, Russia owes them little, and their battlefield collaboration did not inhibit Moscow’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

        As regards the Palestinians, Russian President Vladimir Putin has fostered good relations with PA President Abbas. They last met in May 2017, when Putin reaffirmed his support for settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and Abbas indicated that Moscow ought to be involved in any peace process. That was music to Putin’s ears, for he has consistently advanced Moscow’s claims to be a major player in any future peace negotiations.

        But these warm words are as nothing compared with Russo-Israeli relations, which are flourishing. There is Gazprom’s multi-million 20-year contract, signed in 2016, to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the vast Tamar field. Moreover Putin is courting Israel to grant Gazprom a share in the even vaster Leviathan field. Collaboration is also being developed in a whole variety of other areas including free trade, nuclear and other hi-technology, space cooperation and agriculture. Moving the Russian embassy to West Jerusalem could do nothing but enhance this burgeoning relationship.

        Much more to the point, perhaps, from Putin’s perspective, is the positive effect on Russia’s global status of pre-empting Trump. Putin is intent on re-establishing Russia as a major global force to be reckoned with. He was quick to seize the opportunity in the Middle East when Obama’s vacillation and reluctance to take effective action in Syria left a power vacuum. To be the first nation to establish its embassy in what Putin himself has declared to be the capital of Israel would snatch the ball from Trump’s grasp, and establish Russia firmly as a major player in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

        Having weighed the odds, will Putin act?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 16 June 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Could-Putin-out-trump-Trump-on-Jerusalem-497060

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 June 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/17062017-could-putin-out-trump-trump-on-jerusalem-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 June 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/06/25/could-putin-out-trump-trump-on-jerusalem/

            [Next posting: Friday 23 June 2017 at 3.30 pm GMT}

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The UK balance of power

           The 10 newly elected DUP MPs, with DUP leader Arlene Foster

        The world now knows that Britain's general election resulted in what is known as a “hung parliament”. While prime minister Theresa May’s Conservatives won most seats, they did not gain enough to command a majority in the House of Commons. To win essential parliamentary votes, such as the legislative programme or the budget, they will need additional support . The only grouping in the new parliament politically close to the Conservatives is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing Northern Ireland party that won 10 seats in the election – 10 vital seats for, added to the Conservatives’ total, they provide that essential majority over all other parties.

        What is the DUP? The party was founded in 1971 by the Reverend Ian Paisley, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was intended to focus loyalist opposition to the IRA and its offshoots, then intent on fighting the British army and police, and undertaking terrorist attacks within the UK. Did the birth of the DUP in the midst of bombs and bloodshed generate a sort of fellow feeling towards Israel? Probably, and there were other factors at play, but it is certainly true that the DUP has consistently demonstrated strong sympathy and steady support for Israel.

        When Paisley launched the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel in March 2009, he certainly drew a parallel between Israel’s and Northern Ireland’s struggles against terrorism. He also prayed for peace in Jerusalem, demonstrating another strand in the genetic makeup of the DUP – a Bible-believing Protestant background. Many members and supporters of the DUP sincerely accept the Biblical basis of the Jewish people’s connection to the land.

        The DUP’s support for Israel has been all the stronger, perhaps, because it is matched by fierce support for the Palestinians by their political enemies, Irish Republicans. Sein Fein, the political wing of the republican movement, has long associated itself with the Palestinian cause. Co-operation and trading, including training and arms procurement, between the PLO and the IRA dates back to the 1970s. The connection continues. When a Sinn Fein delegation travelled to Turkey last November, a meeting with Hamas officials featured on their agenda. The visit was roundly condemned by DUP spokespeople in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

        In October 2014 the UK parliament in its wisdom decided to vote on recognizing the (non-existent) state of Palestine “alongside the state of Israel”. The motion was passed by 274 votes to 12 – in other words only 286 MPs voted out of a total of 650 members. But the 12 stalwart No voters included all 8 DUP members of parliament at the time.


        Recent Conservative administrations have been supportive of Israel. David Cameron, the previous prime minister, counted himself a friend. Theresa May sprang to Israel’s defence after ex-Secretary of State John Kerry launched his verbal attack on Israel in the dying days of the Obama administration. It is reasonable to assume that this aspect of Conservative thinking will be sustained at the highest decision-making level in the new UK administration by the ever-supportive voice of the DUP.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 13 June 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/The-UK-balance-of-power-weighted-toward-Israel-496652

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 June 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/15062017-the-uk-balance-of-power-oped/

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hezbollah's next war with Israel


        Hezbollah planted itself in the soil of Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the state was being torn apart by civil conflict. Drawing their inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, Hezbollah’s three founders declared that its purpose was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Heavily supported by Iran, it proceeded over the following years to give effect to its raison d’être by initiating a series of horrendous terrorist operations against the objects of its hatred.

        The most notable were the bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon, the bombing of the US and French military barracks in Beirut, abductions and murders of Western and Sunni Arab figures in Lebanon, and the hijacking of a TWA flight en route from Athens to Rome. These terrorist attacks, because they were deniable by the Iranian regime, were an integral element of a larger Iranian terrorist campaign waged to undermine the influence of Western countries and Israel in the Middle East, and keep France from assisting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

        On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah launched a sophisticated attack on Israel. The target was the armoured Humvees (four-wheel drive military trucks) that regularly patrolled the Israeli side of the border. To act as a diversion, rockets were fired from inside Lebanon at northern Israeli border towns, while Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border into Israel and disabled two of the armoured trucks with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The ambush left eight Israeli soldiers dead, while two Israeli soldiers were abducted and taken to Lebanon. In exchange for their release, Hezbollah demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Israel refused and responded with airstrikes and artillery fire, following this up with a ground invasion of southern Lebanon and an air and naval blockade. Hezbollah then launched more rockets into northern Israel and engaged the IDF in guerrilla warfare.

        At that time Hezbollah’s missiles were unguided rockets fired indiscriminately across the border. Much has happened since 2006. Hezbollah has now acquired a huge stockpile of missiles and guided rockets largely funded by Iran, manufactured in Iran and Syria, and smuggled into Lebanon. Today Israeli intelligence estimates that Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of some 150,000 tactical ballistic missiles including Scuds, Fateh-110 Iranian missiles, and M-600s, a Syrian modified version of the Fateh-110. Many have a range enabling them to cover the whole of Israel. Moreover Hezbollah is in possession of some very effective air defence systems, including the SA-17 Buk anti-aircraft missile battery of Russian origin.

        Why has Iran been expending enormous sums of money to boost the arsenal of its Lebanese satellite, Hezbollah? One guess will suffice – Iran and Hezbollah are preparing for their next war with Israel, “which is right around the corner or closer”, according to Hezbollah sources reported recently on the website Ya Sour.

        Hezbollah has more up its sleeve than its greatly enhanced arsenal. Among the “surprises” to come are the fronts on which it will attempt to fight. The report claimed that Hezbollah has transferred high quality and specialized weaponry to the Golan Heights, which will act as a second front to south Lebanon. A third “surprise” is that it intends to fire long-range projectiles at Israel from deep within Syria, namely the Qalamoun and Anti-Lebanon Mountain ranges, areas firmly under the Shi’ite group’s control on both the Syrian and Lebanese sides of the border.

        The Long War Journal, an on-line publication issued by the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, believes that Hezbollah has indeed amassed a missile arsenal around the city of Baalbek, close to its Beqaa Valley stronghold, and nearly completed a tunnel in the Zabadani valley, linking the stronghold to Qalamoun. The purpose is to conceal the transfer of weapons from aerial surveillance. Qalamoun has been the focus of recent Israeli airstrikes.

        The Hezbollah sources told Ya Sour that the group was shifting its missile operations to the Qalamoun area because it would be easier to camouflage the rockets and protect their storehouses and launchers from attack by Israeli planes. They added that the huge Qalamoun region, partly on the Lebanese and partly on the Syrian sides of the border, was ideal for launching long-range ballistic missiles at Israel.

        In a video clip released on 16 February 2017, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah gave a list of strategic targets in Israel, declaring that he would attack them in the next round of fighting. These included an ammonia plant in Haifa (slated to be closed shortly), nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems weapons development facilities.

        Rattled by Israel’s repeated attacks on the arms convoys trying to reach Lebanon from Syria, the Iranians, according to a recent report, have established rocket-manufacturing facilities sited either inside Lebanon, or – one expert analyst believes – in the Hezbollah-controlled Quseyr area in Syria. The report, published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida, cites an aide to the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as its source. He asserts that the IRGC built the missile-making facilities more than 50 meters underground, and fortified them against air strikes before handing control over to Hezbollah three months ago. The missile factories can reportedly produce surface-to-surface missiles with a range of more than 500 kilometres, capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, as well as Israeli ships and offshore gas rigs in the Mediterranean.

        There can be no doubt that Israel is monitoring these developments closely, is aware of the build-up, and is well-prepared to counter any future onslaught. For example, Israel's state-of-the-art anti-missile system, known as David's Sling, passed its final tests in January 2017 and would be available to de­fend sensitive sites in Israel, and indeed offshore, against Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles and rockets. Moreover the army is tightening intelligence coverage of Hezbollah activities while undertaking extensive engineering works along the border to impede penetration by attacking forces.

        In any event, Hezbollah is still heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war which, while enhancing its fighting skills, has much weakened it by way of casualties – a minimum of 1048 Hezbollah fighters, according to a recent survey. It is unlikely Hezbollah would be in a position to engage in a new full-time military conflict any time soon.

        So while the Iranian-Hezbollah cabal may be as determined as ever in its aim of destroying Israel, the next Hezbollah-Israeli war is probably not just around the corner.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 June 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Hezbollahs-next-war-with-Israel-496380

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 June 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/09062017-hezbollahs-next-war-with-israel-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/06/16/hezbollahs-next-war-with-israel/

                [Next posting: Friday 16 June 2017 at 2.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Has Trump set the peace ball rolling?


        US President Donald Trump left Israel on Tuesday afternoon, 23 May 2017, after a visit lasting just 28 hours. In the words of the leader in the Jerusalem Post the next morning, “his major contribution to the peace process so far has been his successful resuscitation of non-cynical discourse on the prospects of peace. But the truly hard work has barely begun.”

        Widely noticed, and extensively remarked upon, was the fact that throughout his tour of the Holy Land, which included a meeting with PA President Abbas in Bethlehem, the words “Palestinian state,” “two-state solution,” “settlements,” or “embassy” never passed Trump’s lips. What he did say, more than once, was that he firmly believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was possible.

        During his meeting with Arab leaders in Riyadh, Trump had been impressed by their apparent willingness to engage with Israel, but they made it clear that normalizing relations between the moderate Sunni states and Israel was dependent on a successful outcome to Israel-Palestinian peace talks. All the same there were indications that a warming of relations could occur earlier, if positive steps were taken by Israel, leading towards a settlement. Media reports in early May 2017, just prior to Trump’s visit, revealed that an unreleased discussion paper had been shared among several Gulf countries which proposed the lifting of some trade restrictions, opening direct telecommunications links, and allowing Israeli aircraft to overfly their countries. Other incentives could include issuing visas to Israeli sports teams and trade delegations for events in Arab states, and opening the region for Israeli trade and business.

         Accordingly – at odds with recent statements by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – Trump adhered to the traditional view that a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian dispute was the key to unlocking an unprecedented empowerment of the region. Reflecting the position expressed to him by the Arab leaders, Trump indicated that a peace settlement would bring in its train widespread economic cooperation across the Middle East, including Israel, ushering in an era of industrial, technological and commercial development never previously experienced.

        In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014 Netanyahu had tentatively proposed an alternative scenario, apparently the exact opposite, that he subsequently repeated on more than one occasion. He said:

        “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world…Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

        In fact the two points of view are not chalk and cheese. If the Sunni Arab world had not already realized that they shared vital – indeed existential – interests with Israel, Trump would have found little sympathy among his Arab hosts with the idea of future close cooperation with Israel.

        Netanyahu’s vehement opposition to the nuclear deal concluded between the western world and Iran in 2016 had been music to the ears of many Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, which had long suffered from Iranian-inspired efforts to destabilise and overthrow their regimes. Iran’s ambitions to dominate the Sunni states of the region and impose its own brand of Shi’ite Islam on them had made that non-Arab, albeit Muslim, state a feared enemy.

        Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not recognize Israel, yet remarks by Israeli minister Israel Katz on 27 February 2017 seemed to let the cat out of the bag. "Yes, there is cooperation between Israel and these countries,” said Katz, “which cannot be discussed in detail. This cooperation is going to be significantly upgraded, because the US is going to lead it. The first goal is to block Iran and push it out of the area."

        Israeli-Arab cooperation across the region is a fact of life. The Israeli and Egyptian military have long been collaborating closely in the Sinai peninsula, fighting jihadist terrorists. Israeli-Jordanian relations blossomed in the autumn of 2016 when the two sides signed a 15-year gas purchase agreement valued at $10 billion, under which Jordan will buy 45 billion cubic meters of gas from Israel. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his strong Muslim Brotherhood roots, supports Hamas and rarely misses an opportunity to lambast Israel, yet June 2016 saw a formal end to the six-year rift between the two countries following the Mavi Marmara affair, and the restoration of diplomatic relations. In the first quarter of 2017 Turkish exports to Israel increased by 20 percent and Israeli exports to Turkey rose by 45 percent. As for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Israeli technology firms are engaged in secret, extensive business dealings with them. Media reports claim that “trade and collaboration in technology and intelligence are flourishing between Israel and a host of Arab states, even if the people and companies involved rarely talk about it publicly.”

        So Trump has a solid foundation on which to build his Israel-Palestinian peace initiative, should he choose to do so. His next step, if earlier reports are to be credited, is likely to be some form of US-led, but Arab-dominated, conference aimed at setting the parameters of future face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Provided with a “regional umbrella”, and encouraged by Trump’s obvious desire and support for a successful outcome, PA President Abbas might at last feel sufficiently protected to engage in meaningful discussions with Israel.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 June 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Has-Trump-set-the-peace-ball-rolling-494693

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 June 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/03062017-has-trump-set-the-peace-ball-rolling-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 June 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/06/08/has-trump-set-the-peace-ball-rolling/

                [Next posting Saturday, 10 June 2017 at 8.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Rouhani's bitter-sweet triumph


        The 20th of May 2017 was a red letter day for Middle East politics. Not only was Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, re-elected by a substantial majority to a second term of office, but it was the day that US President Trump, on the opening leg of his first foreign tour, landed in Saudi Arabia to a right royal reception and, within hours, was signing a multi-billion dollar deal with his hosts.

        Shortly afterwards the President made a keynote speech to some 50 leaders of the Arab world. In its closing passages he turned to Iran, but you could scour the transcript for any word of congratulation to the re-elected Rouhani. Instead Trump was unremitting in his condemnation of the Iranian regime.

        “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen,” he said, “Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. For decades, Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror...Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism...”

        To what extent has Rouhani been complicit in the regime’s involvement over the years in acts of terror, and its support for terrorist organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas? There is no escaping the conclusion that – moderate though Rouhani can be dubbed in comparison with hardline elements within the Iranian body politic – as Iran’s president for the past four years, and as a leading servant of the state for decades earlier, he bears a heavy share of the guilt.

        An early supporter of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, he was a leading light in the Iranian revolution of 1979 and subsequently held a string of important government posts, controlling aspects of the nation’s defence forces, and acting as security adviser to the president, and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

        And yet Rouhani was never as extreme as the hardline caucus – the guardians of the revolution – that was a permanent feature of the Khomeini administration and has remained so. When in 2005 the presidency was won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose extreme views Rouhani was never afraid to criticize, he resigned as secretary of the security council. Following Ahmadinejad's second term, Rouhani ran for president against several hardline candidates, promising moderation and more engagement with the outside world. He won with more than 50 percent of the vote.

        Yet it must be remembered that in Iran the title Supreme Leader means what it says. The regime is strictly controlled, and it would have been impossible for Rouhani to have stood in the presidential election without the explicit support of Ayatollah Khamenei, who must have adjudged him sufficiently mainstream in terms of Iran’s revolutionary orthodoxy. As for his political agenda, Rouhani made no secret of his desire to reopen negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue, linked to the lifting of the sanctions that had crippled the Iranian economy. Khamenei must have felt that a move away from Ahmadinejad’s confrontational tactics might yield some economic and political benefits.

        An easing of sanctions certainly followed the signing of the nuclear agreement, and by adhering strictly to the terms of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the basis of the nuclear deal – Rouhani ensured that sanctions were progressively lifted. Even Trump signed a sanctions waiver on 17 May. Although by the time of the election economic benefits had not filtered down to the general population, and unemployment remained very high, there was a general feeling that Rouhani had improved the country’s international standing. His liberalisation policy was popular among the upper-middle classes and the intelligentsia.

        The feeling did not extend to the conservative element within Iran’s polity. They had opposed the nuclear deal on two grounds: it would inhibit Iran’s bid for regional hegemony by restricting its development of nuclear power, and opening up Iran to greater interchange with the rest of the world would pose a threat to the integrity of the Iranian Islamic revolution. Indeed, immediately after the signing of the JCPOA, the Supreme Leader made it clear that Iran’s hatred of western democracy was unaffected. “Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

        Scores of potential candidates in Iran’s presidential election were rejected, one by one, by Iran’s Guardian Council, doubtless with the approval of the Supreme Leader. The choice finally offered to Iran’s electorate narrowed to just two – Rouhani and a genuine hardline conservative, Ebrahim Raisi, one of the so-called “principlist” or osulgarayan group of fanatic supporters of the Supreme Leader. Not surprisingly the general perception was that Khameini favoured Raisi – although he was careful never to endorse Raisi publicly.

        Rouhani’s victory, while undoubtedly a personal triumph, must be leaving him decidedly uneasy on a number of grounds. He knows that any efforts he makes to liberalise conditions domestically, or to increase the country’s standing internationally, will be opposed by the enormously powerful hardline elements embedded within the administration. He will be aware that the Supreme Leader, while prepared to allow him another term of office in which to expand foreign investment and ease the domestic economic situation, will permit no policy initiatives that impact on the basic aims of the Iranian revolution – the political domination of the region, the global expansion of Shia Islam, and the eventual overthrow of western democracy.

        Rouhani accordingly must be mulling rather nervously over Donald Trump’s remarks to the assembled Sunni Arab leaders in Riyadh, amounting as they do to a call to arms against Iran. “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism...”

        Rouhani hopes that some at least of the other five states which signed the nuclear deal, Russia in particular, will oppose Trump’s push towards Iran’s international isolation. He also hopes, as he declared during the election campaign, to improve relations with at least some of the Sunni Arab states. If he fails in either hope, his triumph will be bitter-sweet indeed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 May 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Rouhanis-bitter-sweet-triumph-494067

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 May 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/30052017-rouhanis-bitter-sweet-triumph-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 June 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/06/02/rouhanis-bitter-sweet-triumph/

                  [Next posting:  Saturday, 3 June 2017 at 8.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 20 May 2017

UK peers urge pro-Iran, pro-Palestinian policies


        A year ago, in May 2016, Britain’s House of Lords decided to establish a new International Relations Committee. On 2 May 2017, after six months deliberation, the committee issued its second report: “The Middle East: Time for New Realism”. It is, quite frankly, an astonishing document, imbued with unconcealed hostility towards US President Donald Trump, with the anti-Brexit rhetoric of much of the British establishment, and with downright naïve recommendations, reflecting the consensus of the politically correct, concerning Saudi Arabia, the Iran nuclear deal, and Palestinian sovereignty.

        Roughly reflecting the composition of the House of Lords itself, the 12-member International Relations Committee contains only four Conservatives. The rest are left-wing, liberal or unaffiliated peers. An amalgam of their prejudices informs every aspect of this new report.

        Anti-Trumpism prevails. "The mercurial and unpredictable nature of policy-making by President Trump,” it asserts uncompromisingly, “has made it challenging for the UK government to influence US foreign policy so far, a challenge that is not likely to ease." Based on this assertion, the committee chairman, Lord Howell of Guildford, said:

        "We have a new and uncertain American policy in the region…We can no longer assume America will set the tone for the West’s relationship with the Middle East, and the UK must give serious thought to how our own approach will need to change.”

        The serious thought undertaken by the International Relations Committee boils down, inter alia, to:
        – discounting any pro-Brexit optimism that UK citizens may harbour about negotiating a UK-Gulf trade deal: “the UK's departure from the European Union does not necessarily offer the UK any added advantage”;
        – urging the UK government to “work with Iran, despite US policy, to ensure the stability of the Iran nuclear deal”; and
        – placing the onus of finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute unequivocally on Israel. Accordingly, their logic runs, “the Government should now give serious consideration to recognising Palestine as a state, as the best way to show its determined attachment to achieving the two-state solution.”

        Illogicality permeates the Committee’s stance on Iran. It turns a Nelsonian blind eye to the clear evidence provided to it by a Middle East expert, who spelled out Iran’s unconcealed religious and political ambition to undermine Sunni Arab states and dominate the region. It takes no account of Iran’s record as the world’s leading sponsor of terror, its long history of initiating, promoting and supporting terrorism across the globe aimed at the Western democratic world, and in particular the US and Israel. Nor does it project any likely scenario involving a nuclear-armed Iran in some fifteen years’ time, when nuclear weaponry would become available not only to Iran, but via Iran to the jihadist-minded terrorist organizations it supports.

        On the contrary, the committee’s concern is that Iran might feel frustrated if it is barred from Western markets. It worries that the nuclear deal could be imperilled by “a hostile US administration”, and that US sanctions “remain a serious impediment to attracting new finance and investment into Iran.” As regards what might be done to contain a rampant Iran, the committee throws its hands in the air, but can’t avoid a dig at the US at the same time. “The international community is limited in its capacity to respond to Iranian provocation in the region, but the approach by the US has a dangerous escalatory logic.”

        So, wishing for the moon, the Committee suggests that the “external parties” to the Iran nuclear agreement should “find a way” to form a united and proportionate international position on Iranian actions. When one considers that these “external parties” include not only the US but also Russia and China, the committee’s recommendation becomes so much wishful thinking – a replica of the UN Security Council hamstrung by the veto.

        Reinforcing its policy of weak appeasement, the Committee concludes that the external parties “will also have to recognise that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognised as having a role as a regional power.”

        Regarding the Israel-Palestine issue, the witnesses selected to be heard by the committee were, without exception, out of sympathy with Israel. The committee heard no evidence of any sort critical of past or present Palestinian policies. It did not probe the Palestinian failure during the numerous peace initiatives of the past decades to come to an accord with Israel. It heard nothing of the possible effect of leaving a new sovereign Palestine on the West Bank unprotected against Hamas, nor of the associated security concerns of Israel in that event. In fact the Committee entirely ignores the presence of Hamas in the Gaza strip, ruling some 2 million Palestinians.

        The Committee seems focused on the idea that Israel, in the words of one of its witnesses, “holds all the cards” and that “more political robustness” is needed by the UK. So, roundly condemning past and present settlement construction as “illegal and an impediment to peace”, the Committee asserts that “the balance of power in the delivery of peace lies with Israel. If Israel continues to reduce the possibilities of a two-state solution, the UK should be ready to support UNSC resolutions condemning those actions in no uncertain terms.”

        Moreover the Committee urges the UK government to associate itself with the French-led initiative aimed at obtaining international recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state if no face-to-face talks can be organized. This initiative surely carries within it the seeds of its own failure. If Palestinian leaders know in advance that they will gain international recognition provided there are no negotiations, why on earth should they agree to negotiate? Even given the partial and skewed evidence the committee received, it is difficult to perceive how it can believe that recognizing the Palestinian Authority as a state could advance an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. All the major issues that have frustrated past attempts will remain unresolved – the refugee problem, the status of Jerusalem in general and the holy places in particular, Israel’s security, the future of Gaza, the eternal Hamas-Fatah feud.

        This report is shallow, biased and inadequate. Take it back, my Lords, and try again!

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 20 May 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/UK-peers-urge-pro-Iran-pro-Palestinian-policies-492262

Oublished in the MPC Journal, 22 May 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/05/22/uk-peers-urge-pro-iran-pro-palestinian-policies/

         [Next posting Saturday, 27 May 2017 at 10.30 pm GMT]



Saturday, 13 May 2017

Can deal-maker Trump facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace?


        US President Donald Trump has one attribute that his greatest friends and most impassioned enemies are agreed on – he is a great deal-maker. Deal-making has been the key to his business success, which has been considerable. And way back in the 1980s he co-authored “The Art of the Deal” which reached number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, and stayed there for 13 weeks.

        So when Trump declares, after meeting Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, that he believes he can foster an Israel-Palestinian peace deal, perhaps the world should take notice. On 3 May 2017 Trump remarked: “I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians; let’s prove them wrong…I think there’s a very, very good chance.”

        Such an undertaking would certainly represent a challenge for this master in deal-making, but nothing in his business career suggests that Trump is one to duck a challenge. In fact the Trump-Abbas meeting was an object lesson in how a successful deal-broker might manage the preliminary stages of a particularly complicated and delicate operation. Take two small, yet highly significant, indicators.

        How often do you see the president of the United States position himself in front of any flag other than the Stars and Stripes? But examine the photographs of Trump and Abbas at the media conference that followed their one-on-one discussions. The leader standing in front of the American flag is Abbas; Trump is placed in front of the flag of the putative state of Palestine. Trump agreed to this symbolic gesture, it is reported, at the specific request of the PA.

        On the other hand, scrutinize every word said publicly by Trump during Abbas’s visit, and you will fail to find one mention of a Palestinian state or any reference to the two-state solution. Prominent member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, Hanan Ashwari, remarked afterwards: "He made sure he never mentioned Palestine — you noticed that, yes?"

        So, on the one hand he accorded Abbas every honour feasible, real and symbolic; on the other he bowed to the susceptibilities of the Israeli government, leaving open the possible process of setting up a viable new peace negotiation and also any desired outcome.

        As far as the deal-making process is concerned, the rumour is that, soon after his forthcoming trip to the Middle East scheduled for mid-May, Trump will seek to convene a regional summit. The Los Angeles Times reports that Trump “hopes to enlist some Sunni Muslim Arab allies in crafting a deal. Several, especially among the Persian Gulf states, have quietly signaled a willingness to cooperate with the administration — and, by extension, with Israel — in exchange for tougher actions against their common enemy, Shiite Muslim Iran.”

        Tzipi Livni, once Israel’s foreign minister, and chief Israeli negotiator in the last attempt at peace talks, recently wrote that while it usually takes two to tango, “in our case, we may need a few more dancers.”

        “The United States,” she wrote, “will undoubtedly be a central player for such an agreement, but we should not underestimate the role of the pragmatic, moderate Arab states.”

        In point of fact, the Arab world’s involvement would be a vital necessity if three cardinal factors are to be successfully addressed – internal Palestinian political tensions, Hamas rejectionism, and Israel’s vital security interests.

        The PA has painted itself into a political corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA leadership has spent decades making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result of its own narrative is that now no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel unilaterally. The political backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, has made it impossible. For any new peace initiative to become a viable possibility, the PA leadership would have to be provided with cover from other Arab states.

        Trump referred to this regional approach in his joint press conference with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 15 February 2017. The journal, Al-Monitor, reports that prior to the Trump-Netanyahu meeting the US administration had held discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about a “regional umbrella” to possible Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

        From the Israeli perspective, a Palestinian state created on pre-Six Day War boundaries, however much modified by land swaps, simply will not do. Almost certainly Hamas, which is intent on Israel’s destruction, would gain power sooner or later, either through elections, or by way of a violent coup as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. Once administering a sovereign Palestine. the PA leadership would be extremely worried at the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

        New “out-of-the-box” thinking is required. One neglected possibility is an initiative, backed by the US, the Arab League and Israel, aimed at bringing two new legal entities into existence simultaneously – a sovereign state of Palestine and a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

        A confederation is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to its own defence and that of its constituent sovereign states, but in addition to cooperating in the fields of economic development, infrastructure and trade.

        Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition from whatever source, Hamas or Fatah, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defence forces of the confederation.

        A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here is a viable game-plan for deal-maker Trump to consider.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 May 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Can-deal-maker-Trump-facilitate-Israeli-Palestinian-peace-490551

Published in the MPC Journal, 19 May 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/05/19/can-deal-maker-trump-facilitate-israeli-palestinian-peace/

         [Next posting Saturday , 21 May 2017 at 10.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Hezbollah and the balance of power in Lebanon

                                                       The flags of Lebanon and Hezbollah   

        Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, is a fervent Hezbollah supporter; Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, most certainly is not. Hariri’s position is scarcely surprising, since he has every reason to believe that back in 2005 his father, Rafik, was brutally assassinated by Hezbollah operatives, acting on the orders of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

        Why should it matter what either of Lebanon’s leading figures think of Hezbollah? Because that organization has succeeded in infiltrating so deeply into Lebanon’s body politic that it has become a virtual “state within a state”. It not only directly runs a range of social, health, infrastructure and media services, but its heavily armed military wing conducts itself much like an independent army. Its political bloc, designated “March 8”, holds 57 of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament.

        In short, although plainly and obviously subject to outside foreign control in the shape of both Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has gained a tenacious grip on the internal power structure and functioning of the Lebanese state. The fact that it has been designated a terrorist organization by, inter alia, the Arab League (of which Lebanon is a member) has not affected its position as a major political player within Lebanon.

        It was around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – that Hezbollah planted itself in the soil of Lebanon, a state torn apart by civil conflict. Drawing its inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, Hezbollah declared that its purpose was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. It backed its vision with a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later.  Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

        Sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias, civil war had erupted within Lebanon in 1975. This small country, divided in beliefs and weak by design, was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbor, Syria. President Hafez al-Assad invaded and all but annexed it. The end of the war in 1990 did not end Syria’s military occupation. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but Bashar al-Assad, who had by then taken over from his father as Syria’s president, left Hezbollah in place, partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s conflict with Israel.

        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 echoes of Hariri’s cold-blooded slaughter have continued to reverberate through Lebanese politics. Hariri had been demanding that Hezbollah disband and direct its thousands of fighters to join Lebanon's armed forces. This demand has become ever more insistent since Hezbollah began fighting in Syria alongside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in support of Bashar al-Assad. A large segment of Lebanese opinion hates Assad and favors toppling him.

        In a recent interview on Egyptian television, Lebanon’s President Aoun described Hezbollah’s armed forces as a “complement” to the Lebanese army, and “an essential part of Lebanon’s defense." Adverse reactions came swiftly, from the UN and from within Lebanon.

        Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN secretary-general, reminded Aoun of the UN Security Council resolutions that “clearly call for the dissolution and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias. Keeping arms in the hands of Hezbollah and other armed groups outside the state framework would limit Lebanon’s capacity to exercise its sovereignty and full authority over its geographical area.”

        Fares Soueid, secretariat coordinator of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition, tweeted: “If Aoun believes that Hezbollah is able to protect Lebanon, why don’t we call on Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) to move into the presidential palace?”

        Lebanon’s Future Movement, led by Prime Minister Hariri, issued a statement confirming its commitment to the UN resolutions which preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty and security: “The Lebanese State’s arms are the only legitimate weapons in Lebanon.”

        On 21 April 2017 Hezbollah organized a media tour in south Lebanon. The next day, Prime Minister Hariri visited the area and heavily criticized the appearance of Hezbollah armed militants in the UN buffer zone meant to be free of Hezbollah presence. "What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, did not order and do not accept.“

        A week later, on 27 April, a Hezbollah arms supply hub in Syria, close to Damascus International Airport, was attacked from the air and destroyed. Fahad al-Masri, head of the National Salvation Front in Syria, said that the strikes targeted arsenals of weapons and munitions that had arrived recently from Iran. “A large portion was to support Hezbollah and the other armed militias belonging to Iran in Syria,” he said, adding, “there was also qualitative and strategic weaponry to be transferred to Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s military arsenal.”

        Al-Masri characterised the strike as a “blessed” blow on Hezbollah by Israel. Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria, but in a radio interview minister Israel Katz appeared to confirm Israel’s involvement: "The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel's policy to act to prevent Iran's smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah." He was referring to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier statement: “whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act."


        Slowly, perhaps too slowly, leading elements among Lebanon’s opinion formers are coming to recognize that Israel is not their enemy. Their true antagonist is the malign organism that has taken root within their own body politic – Hezbollah – and that, in this, they are at one with Israel. Indeed, to think what may have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago, Israel could prove a staunch ally in helping Lebanon reassert itself as a fully sovereign state.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 May 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Hezbollah-and-the-balance-of-power-in-Lebanon-489876

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 May 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/09052017-hezbollah-and-the-balance-of-power-in-lebanon-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 7 May 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/05/07/hezbollah-and-the-balance-of-power-in-lebanon/

                  [Next posting: Saturday, 13 May 2017, at 8 pm GMT]

Saturday, 29 April 2017

What will Erdogan do with supreme power?

                                                           

        The news from Turkey following the referendum on 16 April is worrying. The coup attempt on 20 July 2016, in which rogue troops commandeered fighter jets and tanks to bomb parliament, led the Turkish cabinet to declare a six-month state of emergency. On 19 January, as the six months drew to a close, the state of emergency was extended for a further three months. Now, following the referendum, the Turkish cabinet has once again added three months to the extraordinary powers permitted the president and his government under the terms of the emergency legislation.

        The actions taken by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan under the emergency powers may provide a template of what life will be like when Turkey is transformed from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. For example, in what appears to be a fresh political crackdown, thousands of opposition activists have been arrested for protesting the referendum result.

        Under the new constitution proposed by Erdogan the role of prime minister will be scrapped and the president will become the head of the executive, as well as the head of state. He will be given sweeping new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree. The president alone will be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament, which will lose its right to scrutinize ministers or propose an inquiry.

        Erdogan argued that the reforms he sought would streamline decision-making. Decision-making is certainly streamlined when judicial independence and press freedom have been stifled and political opponents imprisoned. An all-powerful president will be akin to a dictator on the lines of a Hitler or a Stalin. On 13 March a Council of Europe inquiry expressed “serious concerns at the excessive concentration of powers in one office... It is also of concern that this process of constitutional change is taking place under the state of emergency.”

        Erdogan’s presidential ambitions go back a good few years. The events of 2013, when he held the post of prime minister, may have crystallized them. Twice during the course of the year violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, broke out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. The underlying cause in both cases was a widespread perception that Erdogan had become too dictatorial in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.

        Over the course of summer 2013 opposition built up within Erdogan’s own party, the AKP. This centered around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen was once one of the AKP's main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Fethullah Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operated.

        Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force. Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP. By the end of the year Erdogan’s own son had been named in the widening corruption investigation. Erdogan declared the police investigation a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.

        Those elections were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions. Returned to office, Erdogan was able to change the constitution to allow him to remain as prime minister beyond his statutory three terms. Subsequently he was able to stand for president in 2014, and then to imbue the office – once largely ceremonial – with increased powers. Now he can go the whole hog and turn his long-held dream of gaining supreme power into reality.

        Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for inciting the coup attempt in July 2016, and he has been exacting a ruthless revenge on those accused of having links with Gulen. 170 media outlets have been shut down, including 29 publishing houses, 3 news agencies, 45 newspapers, 16 TV stations, 23 radio stations, and 15 magazines. 1,577 university deans have been forced to resign, while 2,700 judges, 163 admirals and generals and 24,000 teachers and Interior Ministry employees have been fired.

        Blanket repression of any sort of opposition to Erdogan has marked the months of the emergency. It certainly marked the referendum campaign itself, when the “No” camp faced unprecedented difficulties in trying to get its message into the media.
     
        Turkey has been knocking on the EU’s door for decades, but the requirements laid down for entry have consistently proved too onerous for Turkey to achieve. Now, in view of the Erdogan government’s human rights abuses of the past year, allied to his own desire to re-introduce the death penalty, it seems that both the EU and Turkey are backing away from the idea altogether. Exacerbating the situation, the European Commission recently called for an investigation into alleged voting irregularities in the referendum.

        So presidential Turkey seems likely to put its EU application on the back burner, and to consolidate its strong position within the Sunni Muslim world. That presupposes continued opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and thus an anti-Iran line in the Middle East. Despite US support for some anti-Islamic State groups linked to Kurdish separatists, a re-empowered Erdogan will be largely on side with the US, and also with the Gulf States and Israel, with which he has recently patched up his quarrels of the past decade or so.

        History teaches us that absolute power is what dictators and autocrats have traditionally sought but that, in the process of obtaining and exercising it, they almost invariably bring about their own undoing. Will Erdogan buck the trend?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 28 April 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/What-will-Erdogan-do-with-supreme-power-489270

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 April 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/28042017-what-will-erdogan-do-with-supreme-power-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 May 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/05/02/what-will-erdogan-do-with-supreme-power/

                       [Next posting:  Saturday 6 May at 9 pm GMT]


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Egypt's economic tightrope

                                                           

        Egypt’s government, under the leadership of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand the danger of economic collapse; on the other simmering popular discontent, which could descend into open revolt, at the steps being taken to relieve the problem.

        How did the country get itself into this predicament? The short answer is that revolutions cost money, and since February 2011 Egypt has sustained not one, but two full-scale political and social upheavals.

        The first upsurge of popular anger was generated by opposition to the repressive regime maintained for thirty years by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, but fanned into flames by the Arab Spring already raging across the Middle East. Mubarak was forced from office. In subsequent elections the Muslim Brotherhood – a politico-religious movement long banned for subversion and plotting to overthrow the government – won a majority in parliament and also the presidency, in the person of Mohamed Morsi.

        The Muslim Brotherhood rule had lasted for less than two years before the Egyptian public realized that Morsi was systematically using his mandate to seize authoritarian powers. The last straw was perhaps a proposed new constitution which included legislative and executive powers beyond judicial oversight. It seemed clear that Morsi was well on his way to imposing a profoundly undemocratic regime on the country. Consequently the coup engineered by the Military Council against the government gained as much popular support as that which had swept Mubarak from power.

        In acting as they did the military had a motive of their own. According to a Reuters report on 2 July 2013: "Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsi was governing Egypt reached the tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria" – in other words, a military alliance with Islamic State (IS) to defeat President Bashar Assad and absorb Syria into the then mushrooming Islamic caliphate. Unlike the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, most Egyptians – even the profoundly religious – are not jihadists.

        The military coup executed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi could have led to a quick economic collapse, but the Gulf states hastened to provide financial support to maintain the new regime. Their direct financial aid ended in 2015, and since then Egypt’s economic difficulties have worsened.

        In the past six years, the Egyptian currency has lost more than 70 percent of its value. On the day that Mubarak fell, you could buy one US dollar with 5.8 Egyptian pounds; today a dollar costs some 18 Egyptian pounds. At the end of 2010, Egypt’s foreign debt was $34.7bn. By the end of 2016 it had reached an all-time high of $67.3bn.

        It was this rapidly deteriorating economic situation that led to Egypt’s application in 2016 to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for some form of financial assistance. The IMF is notoriously rigorous in the conditions it imposes before agreeing to disburse its resources. Eventually the IMF was satisfied that the program of policies and structural reforms presented by the Egyptian government would indeed address the problems afflicting the country. Accordingly, on 11 November 2016 the IMF formally approved a three-year loan of about $12bn to support the government’s economic reform program. The arrangement was to be subject to five reviews over the course of the loan period.

        The IMF believes that the program “will help Egypt restore macroeconomic stability and promote inclusive growth. Policies supported by the program aim to correct external imbalances and restore competitiveness, place the budget deficit and public debt on a declining path, boost growth and create jobs while protecting vulnerable groups.”

        The IMF concerns itself with popular discontent only in so far as social unrest might disrupt the tough fiscal and economic action it requires of its debtors. In negotiating with the EU over Greece’s parlous state, for example, the IMF’s main concern is to safeguard the structural reforms needed to tackle the country’s huge debts. It is doubtful whether the IMF is worried overmuch by the simmering unrest evident in Egypt since the Sisi government started implementing its program.

        In fact daily life has been disrupted by inflation and soaring prices. Inflation is currently running at around 30 percent. Everything imported is in short supply, from medicine, to sugar. Food prices have risen by some 40 percent; imported staples such as flour, rice, and coffee have increased by up to 80 percent.

        The journey towards economic recovery will be lengthy and painful, but it has already started. The economy grew by 4.3 percent last year, and it’s projected to grow by 5.4 percent by 2019. Exports are up by 25 percent, while the country’s trade deficit has fallen by 44 percent. Foreign investment is needed to help get Egypt back on its feet, but it is being inhibited by the succession of terror attacks engineered by jihadists intent on overthrowing the Sisi administration. The attacks on two Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday which killed 44 people, were the latest in a sustained effort by extreme Islamists to destroy Egypt’s tourist industry, which normally accounts for 12 percent of the country’s GDP.

        Egypt is among the top recipients of US military and economic assistance. Prior to Sisi’s meeting in Washington with President Trump on 3 April 2017, all US aid packages were being evaluated as part of the new administration's push for dramatic budget cuts to diplomacy and development. From Trump’s warm endorsement of the US-Egypt relationship and his declared strong support of the Egyptian people, it seems clear that the $1.3bn military aid package, and the hundreds of millions of economic assistance that Egypt receives annually from the US are not under threat.

        Now Sisi must keep his nerve, stick to the rigorous financial reforms demanded by the IMF, and ride out the consequent fall in popularity ratings. A survey at the end of 2016 showed that Sisi’s popularity had declined by a half since taking power. The survey asked respondents what they wanted Sisi to do in 2017. Decreasing prices was the first choice of 35 percent of those questioned. On present evidence they are likely to be disappointed.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 April 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Egypts-economic-tightrope-488591

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 April 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23042017-egypts-economic-tightrope-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 April 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/04/25/egypts-economic-tightrope/

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