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/

      [Next posting:  Saturday 29 April at 9 pm GMT]

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Saudi Vision 2030 one year on

                   The Riyadh metro, scheduled to open in 2019, will be a 6-line network with 85 stations

        The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is such an established feature of today’s Middle East that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is less than a hundred years old. It was only in 1932 that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, after a 30-year political and military struggle against local warlords and the Ottoman empire, named the area that he had conquered “Saudi Arabia”, and proclaimed himself its first king. 

        It was doubtless with an eye to the eventual centenary celebrations of the monarchy and the kingdom that in April 2016 Saudi’s dynamic young deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, launched Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to revitalize the nation. If it succeeds, by 2032 Saudi Arabia will have been transformed from its current dependency on oil revenues into a modern, thriving, entrepreneurial society, its prosperity underpinned by flourishing industrial, financial, economic and commercial sectors.

         Saudi Vision 2030 has been described as a “neo-liberal blueprint”. It envisages, among hundreds of initiatives, privatizing entire sectors of the economy, cutting subsidies, courting investors at home and abroad, streamlining government services, and going public with the national oil company, Saudi Aramco.

        The plan is partly a response to the dramatic fall in oil prices post-2014. “We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of… commodity price volatility or external markets,” the deputy crown prince has said.

        A number of factors contributed to the drop in oil prices. The rate of growth of economies such as China, India and Brazil began to slow, and with it their demand for oil. Meanwhile the US and Canada began increasing their efforts to produce oil themselves. In the US private companies began extracting oil from shale formations, using the process known as fracking, while Canada began extracting from Alberta's oil sands, the world's third-largest crude oil reserve. As a result the two North American countries were able to cut their oil imports sharply, putting further downward pressure on world prices.

        Russia also pressed ahead. Its oil extraction in 2016, an increase of 2.5 percent on the previous year, set an all-time record.

         Saudi Arabia itself contributed to the fall in the oil price. Faced with letting prices continue to drop or cutting production, and thus ceding market share, Saudi kept its production stable. It reckoned that low oil prices offered less of a long-term disadvantage than giving up market share. But the policy took its toll. In 2015 alone Saudi’s net foreign assets fell by $115 billion, and they continued to fall throughout 2016. The rate of the drawdown prompted the International Monetary Fund to warn that Saudi’s reserves could be exhausted within five years, assuming oil prices remained low and public spending was not curtailed. Saudi’s low oil price policy undoubtedly sharpened awareness of the need to reduce the country’s reliance on oil revenues.

         One of the key issues Saudi Vision 2030 aims to tackle is unemployment. With nearly three-quarters of the population under the age of 30, Saudi Arabia faces a potentially huge rise in the number of young people coming into the job market in the next few years. Diversifying the economy, and thus employing more domestic labor, will depend in part on expanding Saudi Arabia’s manufacturing base. For example, whereas Saudi Arabia currently imports 98 percent of its military needs, one of Vision 2030’s ambitious goals is to manufacture 50 percent of all military gear and hardware, including sophisticated aircraft, inside the kingdom.

         Saudi Vision 2030 also plans to expand its less robust industries through direct investment. The country’s sovereign wealth fund – the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – is slated to lead this effort, and the proposed transfer to the Fund of Aramco shares would boost its resources to some $2 trillion, making it the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. These huge assets will be used to fund development projects under the plan.

        In the retail sector national Saudis represent just 20 percent of the workforce. Under Vision 2030 retailers can for the first time be completely foreign-owned, and this reform could create one million new retail jobs as early as 2020. In addition to expanding youth employment, the plan seeks to raise the percentage of women in the overall workforce by 2030 from 22 to 30 percent.

        One early success story arising from Vision 2030 is the Riyadh metro, an impressive $20 billion project already under construction. EU Commissioner for Transport Violetta Bulc visited the project, an integrated urban rail and bus system, in January 2017. She described it as “the biggest global project in urban mobility.”

        “The timeframe is very demanding,” she said, “but so far they’re keeping to the deadlines well.” It is scheduled for completion in 2019.

        Bulc believes her delegation laid the foundation for the EU to work more closely with Saudi Arabia on the implementation of Vision 2030, leading to further trade, business and investment exchanges.

        Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, included Riyadh in her first overseas trip after triggering Bexit, running the risk of criticism from human rights and left-wing activists who want Britain to cut military ties with the Saudis over allegations of war crimes in Yemen. Her trip underlines her commitment to investing in Britain’s long-standing alliance with the Saudis and other Gulf states.

        She has personal experience of the importance of Britain’s relationship with the Saudis from the six years she spent as home secretary, where part of her brief was to oversee the operations of MI5, the UK’s domestic security service. Over the years, Saudi intelligence officials have provided information that has helped thwart a number of major terrorist attacks against Britain, including the plot to blow up a number of flights from Heathrow to the US.

        But it is trade not security that weighs heaviest on Theresa May’s mind at the moment. Having closer ties with the Saudis offers post-Brexit Britain a new world of economic opportunity outside the confines of the EU. Under Vision 2030 the Saudis are planning to develop a whole range of new industries and technologies, spending trillions of dollars and creating a wealth of commercial opportunities that Britain will be eager to exploit. 


        Saudi Vision 2030 is only just off the launching pad. The hugely ambitious project will doubtless run into problems as it proceeds. To keep it on track will require a sustained effort, and as a start a conference scheduled for early May 2017 in Riyadh plans to analyse progress achieved in its first year. The plan as a whole may never be realized fully, but the imagination that inspired it is surely to be applauded.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 16 April 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Saudi-Vision-2030-one-year-on-488112

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 April 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/19042017-saudi-vision-2030-one-year-on-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 18 April 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/04/18/saudi-vision-2030-one-year-on/

          [Next posting: 22 April 2017 at 8.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Turkey’s referendum: will Erdogan win supreme power?

                                                           

        Since mid-July 2016 Turks have been living in a state of emergency, subject to the sweeping powers permitted the president and his ministers in this situation. Triggered by the coup attempt on 20 July, in which 240 soldiers, police and civilians were killed trying to stop rogue troops who had commandeered fighter jets and tanks to bomb parliament, the state of emergency was extended on 19 January 2017 for a further three months.

        Officially, therefore, the emergency comes to an end on 19 April, but by then Turkey may be facing a quite different emergency, the biggest perhaps since Kamel Ataturk swept away the Ottoman sultanate in 1922. For three days earlier, on 16 April, Turkey will have voted in a referendum on whether to grant its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supreme powers, changing Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.

        Under the new constitution that Erdogan is asking the Turkish nation to endorse, the role of prime minister would be scrapped and the president would become the head of the executive, as well as the head of state. He would 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 would be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament, which would lose its right to scrutinize ministers or propose an inquiry.

        Erdogan argues that the reforms he seeks would streamline decision-making and avoid the unwieldy parliamentary coalitions that have hamstrung Turkey in the past. The problem is that while a presidential system works well in a country with proper checks and balances like the United States, in Turkey, where judicial independence and press freedom have plummeted, an all-powerful president would 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 incidents precipitating the protests may have been different, but the underlying cause was essentially the same – a widespread perception that Erdogan had become too dictatorial and too arrogant in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.

        In May 2013 popular fury was triggered by a terse government announcement that a shopping mall was to be built on Gezi Park, one of the last green public spaces in the centre of Istanbul. Over the course of the summer, though, a more dangerous 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 undertook a major cabinet reshuffle, describing the police investigation as 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. The AKP party had to retain its political lead. It did so and, 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 greatly increased powers. If he succeeds in the forthcoming referendum, he will have realized his long-held dream of supreme power.

        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.

        The referendum that would effectively confirm sweeping powers like these in Erdogan’s hands is already under way. On 27 March Turkish citizens started to vote at airports and borders in Turkey, as well as in Turkish diplomatic missions in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Denmark. Voting will start in other countries in due course. All voting outside the country will end on 9 April, with the main referendum vote taking place on 16 April in Turkey itself.

        On present indications, Erdogan is not assured of a favorable outcome. Of 28 recent public opinion polls, 12 predict a ‘no’ vote and eight ‘yes’. But the gap has been narrowing. Gezici Research has found that while the ‘no’ camp was ahead in January by 58 to 42 percent, when early voting began on 27 March its lead had reduced to just 51 percent. This no doubt reflects the fevered efforts by Erdogan’s AKP party in the last few weeks before the referendum. While the “no” campaign is having a hard time getting its message past the AKP’s pressure on media outlets, the “yes” campaign has bought massive TV, radio, newspaper and billboard ads. 


        Will Turkey’s opposition maintain its momentum and carry the day? Or will Erdogan reverse the tide and finally reach his long-held objective of accruing supreme autocratic power in his own hands?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 8 April 2017:
http://ow.ly/BuQn30aIn0Y

          [Next posting: Sunday 16 April, 2017 at 8 pm GMT]

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Is BDS winning?


                                                   
                                                         
        The life cycle of many enterprises can best be described as a parabola – an arch-like curve, like an object thrown high in the air which falls back to earth. From a slow start they often gain considerable momentum, reach an apogee, and then decline. Is the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement following this pattern? Born in 2005, it grew rapidly in influence, penetrating university campuses across the free world, local governments, trade unions, churches, and even supermarkets and concert halls. It reached what seemed like a high point in 2015, a decade after it began. Since then opposition has hardened, and it has suffered a series of reverses. Are they significant, or is it still on the up and up?

        Many of BDS’s liberal-minded supporters, especially perhaps churches such as the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Scotland and the World Council of Churches, but also left-wing and liberal bodies across the globe, including some Jewish organizations, subscribe to the campaign because they support a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders, and oppose the frozen status quo which has perpetuated the Israeli occupation of the West Bank since the Six Day War.

        “Useful idiots” is a term often wrongly attributed to Lenin. It describes people who support a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause to promote it. The unpalatable truth is that many BDS supporters are, all unwittingly, the “useful idiots” of a movement whose leaders regard the whole BDS enterprise merely as a stepping stone towards an officially unacknowledged objective – Israel’s destruction. Were they aware of this, very many BDS supporters would not subscribe to it. The scales fell from the eyes of the United Methodist Church in May 2016, when it voted to withdraw from the umbrella organization promoting BDS in the United States.

        The term “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” first made its appearance in a declaration issued in July 2005 by an amalgam of Palestinian organizations. It condemned Israel in a succession of emotive trigger-terms (colonialist, ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination, occupation and oppression), drew a direct parallel between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and apartheid South Africa, and called for a similar world-wide response from all “people of conscience.”

        Neither that original BDS document, nor the movement that developed from it, have time for the nuances of a highly complex situation. There is no reference to the unanimous decision by the League of Nations in 1923, later ratified by the United Nations in 1947, that the Jewish people had the right to establish a national home in the land of their origin, side by side with an Arab state. The BDS view of the founding of Israel is that “the state of Israel was built mainly on land ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian owners”.

        This implication of malevolent intent, and indeed action, by Israel omits any reference to the fact that Israel’s original boundaries were actually set in the UN-sponsored 1949 armistice agreements with Egypt and Jordan, following the unsuccessful attack by Arab armies on the nascent state.

        On equally shaky ground, the BDS declaration defines the outcome of the 1967 Six Day War as “Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank”, implying that Israel acquired it in the course of an aggressive war. There is no indication that Israel overran the West Bank only in the course of defeating the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian armies that had banded together to annihilate it.

        Based on foundations as uncertain as these, what precisely does the BDS movement claim that it wants to achieve?

        According to a recent interview with the BDS founder, Omar Barghouti, BDS has three objectives: ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and other Arab territories since 1967; ending what BDS terms “Israel’s system of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens”; and respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes – “refugees” as defined by UNWRA, the UN organization dealing specifically with the Palestinian issue.

        The UNWRA definition of “refugee” uniquely includes not only the original 850,000 Palestinian Arabs displaced during the Arab-Israel war of 1948, but all their descendants generation after generation. The number has consequently mushroomed to around 7 million – all of them, apparently, entitled to return to their original family dwellings. How 7 million people could be accommodated in the living space once occupied by 850,000 is left unexplained, and for a very good reason. The call, clearly, is intended to swamp Israel with eponymous “refugees” to the point where the Jewish state ceases to exist as such.

        Unlike the leaders of the movement, many BDS apologists are quite unequivocal about their desire to eliminate the state of Israel. Pro-BDS author Ahmed Moor writes: “”BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.” Or As’ad Abu Khalil: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel.” And John Spritzler: “I think the BDS movement will gain strength from forthrightly explaining why Israel has no right to exist.” And BDS activist Anna Baltzer: “We need to wipe out Israel.”

        Over and above this, BDS has recently latched itself to a social theory that has become very popular with the politically correct – intersectionality, the idea that all forms of discrimination are interlinked. Into these intersecting forms of oppression, BDS has injected the anti-Israel cause. As a result, groups considering themselves oppressed increasingly perceive Israel as part of the oppressive global power structure, and Palestinians as fellow victims.

        This concept has penetrated many US and UK radical student movements and other left-wing groups. BDS has convinced many activists that you cannot fight for any cause – women's rights, academic freedom, anti-racism – without acknowledging that Israel is oppressing Palestinians. In short, intersectionality offers BDS an acceptable way of wielding the classic anti-Semitic weapon – linking every perceived evil in the world to the Jews.

        Inevitably the reality behind the BDS façade is emerging – that its leaders have no interest in a two-state solution, that all the talk of freeing the Palestinians from their colonialist apartheid oppressors masks its true objective, which is to overthrow the state of Israel. This is why some 20 US states have passed anti-BDS legislation, while others are in the process of doing so, why the British government has prohibited procurement boycotts by all UK public authorities, why in 2016 the Paris municipality barred city departments and city-affiliated organizations from fostering ties with the BDS movement .


        BDS cannot continue fooling the world indefinitely. Has it begun its fall to earth?


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 April 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Is-BDS-winning-485795

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 April 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/04/10/is-bds-winning/

           [Next posting: 8 April 2017 at 8.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Israel-Palestinian peace: the "regional umbrella" approach

                                            

          Suddenly - and  especially in view of the forthcoming visit to Washington of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas - the media is awash with reports, rumours and hints about a fresh approach to tackling the perennial Israel-Palestinian stand-off. Cynics, contemplating the history of the Middle East over the past 70 years, might well conclude that every conceivable method of reconciling the conflicting aspirations of the two parties has already been tried and failed. But changing circumstances can reconfigure political opportunities. An initiative impossible in 2007 may have become perfectly viable by 2017.

          A series of factors combine to provide the basis for the new approach. 

          First, it has become clear that the Palestinian Authority (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 glorifying the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian.

          The end-result of its own narrative is that now no Palestinian leader dare enter face-to-face negotiations, let alone sign a peace agreement, with Israel. The political backlash that would follow, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have 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 which extends from entering peace negotiations in the first place, to assurances that any subsequent armed opposition from hardline rejectionists would be crushed.

          Secondly, the time for achieving widespread Arab support for a reconsideration of the Israel-Palestine situation has never been more propitious. The Sunni Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, is united in its opposition to Iran’s naked ambition to dominate the Middle East in both religion and politics. In that, as it is well aware, it is at one with Israel. Arab interests coincide with Israel’s also in combatting extreme jihadists, including Islamic State, and Israel is collaborating with various states – some still do not formally recognise Israel – both militarily and in the fields of security, intelligence and logistics.

          The seeds of a new approach to peace negotiations were laid as far back as September 2014. Speaking to the UN General Assembly, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” This is precisely what has come about in the past year or two. The emergence of Donald Trump as US President seems to have boosted the prospects.

          This regional approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making is what stood out in Trump’s statement at his joint press conference with Netanyahu on 15 February 2017. The authoritative Middle East journal, Al-Monitor, reports that prior to the Trump-Netanyahu meeting, the US administration held discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about a “regional umbrella” to possible Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

          According to a senior Fatah security official, the PA decided to take Trump at his word about this regional approach and, says Al-Monitor, held “intense deliberations” with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As a result, together with Egypt, it will suggest to Washington the outline of a new regional approach.

          This new outline will be based on three principles. 

          First, that the basis for future peace negotiations is the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

          Second, that the US administration should shortly hold a summit in Washington with the Arab leadership, chaired by Trump, focused on preparing a regional peace conference with the participation of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, leading to Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

          Third. that Palestinian statehood should be pursued through an attempt to reach a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation agreement backed by the Arab League.  

        According to the Fatah official, such a confederation agreement will be difficult to achieve given the historical suspicion between the Jordanians and the Palestinians, but “at this point, this is the best route to statehood. Historically and demographically we are tied to Jordan and to the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River. It will need the backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.”

          Missing entirely from this scenario is the vital matter of Israel’s security. 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. This in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them very much indeed is 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.

          By failing to take into account both Israel’s security needs and those of a new sovereign Palestine, the Palestine-Jordan confederation is an inadequate concept. A much more robust approach is required. One such might be 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. The area designated “Palestine” back in 1923, at the time the League of Nations mandated Great Britain to administer it, would, in a sense, be legally reconstituted.

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

          A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development, to say nothing of administering Jerusalem’s holy sites. 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, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defense 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’s where the answer to a peaceful and thriving Middle East might lie. 


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 March 2017:
http://ow.ly/zeHU30ajTdf

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 March 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/31032017-israel-palestinian-peace-the-
regional-umbrella-approach-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 April 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/04/01/israel-palestinian-peace-the-regional-umbrella-approach/


       [Next posting:  1 April 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]


Saturday, 18 March 2017

Assad in the ascendant?


          Back in the glory days of the so-called “Arab Spring”, when Middle Eastern dictators were falling like ninepins, it seemed that the overthrow of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya and Saleh of Yemen would inevitably be followed by the downfall of President Bashar Assad of Syria.

          But, it now seems, providence had reserved a different fate for Assad. A determination to cling to power, however ruthless or inhumane the methods, allied to a favorable concatenation of political circumstances, has enabled Assad to emerge from a long, multi-faceted combat battered, depleted territorially and logistically, but still in power.

          In the amoral world of international relations, power commands respect. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that green shoots of acceptance are beginning to sprout, even among states that were once totally opposed to Assad.

          From the beginning Assad found himself with powerful allies to help counter his formidable opponents. Syria has long been a vital component of Iran’s so-called “Shia crescent”(so dubbed by Jordan’s King Abdullah) – that area of Shia and Shia-allied states and peoples that form the foundation of Iran’s policy for achieving religious, and thus political, hegemony in the Middle East. The crescent embraces Lebanon and so, in supporting Assad against the Syrian democratic forces that were attempting to overthrow him, Iran was able to augment its own Revolutionary Guards with Hezbollah fighters.

          Dictators take risks, often winning a trick by relying on the spinelessness of their opponents. Assad knew full well that US President Obama had threatened immediate counter measures if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, sensing indecision in his opponent, in August 2013 Assad authorised the use of the potent nerve agent, sarin, in an attack on the town of Ghouta, quite regardless of collateral civilian casualties. Sarin is officially designated a weapon of mass destruction.

          In the event Obama turned somersaults to avoid the decisive response he had promised. When Russia’s President Putin claimed to have extracted an undertaking from Assad to destroy all the chemical weapons he had originally claimed not to possess, Obama seized on the chance of avoiding any form of punitive action. The result was enormously to strengthen Putin’s position in the Middle East, while the deal was not worth the paper it was written on – if indeed it was ever written down. The subsequent record abounds with convincing evidence of the continued use by Assad of chemical weaponry of various kinds, including VX, sulfur mustard and chlorine.

          Meanwhile Assad had assured himself of a powerful new ally in his effort to cling to power in Syria. For his part Putin had two main objectives in view when he sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015 – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both, as he launched massive air and missile attacks mainly against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          As a result, by the end of 2016 Assad had retaken the city of Aleppo after a particularly brutal conflict, and in addition currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria including the tiny enclave of Deir Az Zor in the south-east, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the north-western coastal region.

          Nothing succeeds like success, and some of the states in the Middle East are reported to be making tentative moves towards a rapprochement with Assad.

          Jordan’s position towards the Syrian civil war has never been entirely clear. While supporting moderate rebel groups from the FSA, the Jordanians have not openly called for Assad to step down, and recent reports seem to indicate that Jordan is moving closer to him and his supporters. It was at Russia’s invitation that Jordan attended the latest round of talks between the Syrian regime and rebels in Astana. It was also present during the Geneva talks on 23 February 2017. In addition Jordan’s King Abdullah recently met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a staunch supporter of Assad, to discuss the Syrian crisis.

          Jordan is hosting the Arab League annual meeting scheduled for 29 March. Syria was suspended from the League in 2011 over Assad’s failure to end the bloodshed caused by brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy protests, and the League imposed economic and political sanctions on him. So, as was the case in previous summits, Assad was not invited to the forthcoming meeting.

          And yet recently reports have begun to emerge of a concerted attempt by Russia, Egypt and Jordan to get Assad readmitted to the League. This move was apparently spearheaded on 25 February by Egypt’s parliamentary Committee for Arab affairs, which issued a statement describing Syria’s continued suspension as 'totally unacceptable’.

          A response from the Syrian side was not long in coming. Botros Morjana, head of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee at Syria’s People’s Assembly, expressed the committee’s appreciation of the call for the return of Syria to the Arab League.

          There is as yet no indication that Assad will indeed be attending the forthcoming meeting. Rumours however abound: there's been a flurry of official and diplomatic activity; military officers and intelligence agents from Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria are flying back and forth between Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus and the Russian command in Syria, all engaged in detailed planning for the event; Assad will arrive in Amman armed with a Russian safe-conduct guarantee, aboard a Russian military aircraft which would fly him there and back from Russia’s Syrian air base at Hmeimim. And so forth.

          If Putin could indeed persuade Saudi King Salman to accept Assad’s return to the Arab summit, the Russian president’s reputation in the Arab world would soar. An historic handshake and greetings between Assad and Salman would signify the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian rebels, and the Assad regime. But for Assad, whom few expected to emerge alive from the nearly seven years of warfare, it would mark collective Arab recognition of his personal triumph against all the odds. It may not happen this time – but it’s on the cards.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 March 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Assad-in-the-ascendant-484519

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 March 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/22032017-assad-in-the-ascendant-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 March 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/03/21/assad-in-the-ascendant/
           [Next posting: Saturday 26 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Commonwealth spreads its wings


        The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know little about.  The Commonwealth games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest across the globe, but as for the background or purposes of the organization there is little general knowledge or concern. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics. 

        The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, but that is no longer a pre-requisite. What unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter.

        These 
“Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting equality in terms of race and gender,world peace. democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, free trade and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world. What it has so far failed to demonstrate is the drive, or even the willingness, to provide positive leadership on the world stage in favour of the core values it professes. Change may be in the offing.

        On 23 February 2017 the UK’s Daily Telegraph carried an exclusive, and rather startling, news report. The Royal Commonwealth Society, it announced, was planning to open a branch in the United States, with a view to eventually bringing America into the fold as an "associate member". The project was said to build on President Donald Trump's fondness for Britain and the royal family, and to be backed by the Queen. Michael Lake, the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, said that the plans had been hastened by the "opportunity of a new president” and would further Britain's ties with America.

        In December, reported the Daily Telegraph, Lake wrote a letter addressed to Donald Trump, which was handed over to the president by Nigel Farage, the former head of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), who continues to have close ties with the US administration. Lake wrote that opening a Commonwealth branch in America would help the UK and the US "find imaginative ways" in which they could work together. The response from the White House was described as "very positive".

        To put this initiative in perspective, the Royal Commonwealth Society is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself. Founded as far back as 1868 as The Colonial Society, it has morphed through a variety of titles, emerging in 1958 under its current designation. Committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens across the world, the RCS boasts the Queen as its patron, and numbers among its vice presidents the UK Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London.

        The American initiative is part of an effort by Michael Lake to raise the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth in general, and its role within UK foreign policy in particular. The Commonwealth, he said, “has been very introspective, it needs to be more extrovert." In pursuit of that objective, “we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-commonwealth countries." The idea, he said, was to promote mutually advantageous links with reliable friends around the world on everything from business to defence. Lake believes that the Commonwealth, a flexible arrangement held together by common values and culture, operates less formally than governments.

        A new branch of the RCS has already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, acting as a Baltic-Scandinavian hub, to help facilitate business ties with Commonwealth countries. Last year the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the alliance of 52 member states. As regards the Middle East there seems no good reason why the RCS should not turn its attention to Jordan or Israel – or indeed a sovereign Palestine, if such a state ever emerges – as a base for expansion of Commonwealth influence, and the creation of new “associate members”. All three, after all, would have strong historic connections with Britain in its colonial days. Israel, indeed, already has a flourishing “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), founded as far back as 1953.

        Two factors have provided the Royal Commonwealth Society with a window of opportunity through which to expand its operations. One, of course, was the emergence on the political stage of Donald Trump. The other was Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU). Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe.

        This aspect of Brexit is currently under close scrutiny in the UK parliament by one of the Select Committees of the House of Commons – the International Trade Committee. It is conducting a detailed inquiry into post-Brexit UK trade options, recently taking evidence about “the potential impact of alternative trading arrangements after the UK leaves the EU and also the future of trade with the Commonwealth.”

        One of the sub-committees is examining the opportunities for developing UK trading relationships with the Commonwealth once a Brexit deal has been concluded, including the scope for increasing UK exports, the future of trade with developing Commonwealth countries, and the potential for trade agreements and exports with major economies such as India, Canada and Australia.

        The trading arrangements of individual Commonwealth members with the UK have long been governed through EU policies. Brexit potentially means substantial new trade and investment opportunities for the Commonwealth, as well as augmented trade and investment flows between members. “Associate membership” will certainly count for something in this brave new world, and not beyond the bounds of possibility is the concept of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine, allied within a new three-state confederation, each an associate member of the Commonwealth.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 March 2017, as
"The Commonwealth - a place for Israel?":
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/The-Commonwealth-a-place-for-Israel-483906

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 March 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/17032017-the-commonwealth-spreads-its-wings-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 March 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/03/13/the-commonwealth-spreads-its-wings/

          [Next posting - Saturday 18 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Iran emboldened

        Emboldened by the misconceived policies of ex-US President Obama, Iran has become positively confrontational under President Donald Trump. Iran and the US always backed different sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen, but now they stand ideologically opposed on most issues involving the region.

        Early in February Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but the new US ambassador to the United Nations called the test "unacceptable". Washington put the Islamic Republic “on notice” and imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country.

        No sooner were the new sanctions announced than Tehran, defiant, held a full-scale military exercise. Three types of missiles, radar systems and cyber warfare technology were tested. The aim of the exercise, according to the website of Iran’s élite Revolutionary Guards, was to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions.”

        Then, although not widely reported at the time, on the evening of Sunday 5 February 2017 a surface-to-surface missile was fired by Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthis into Saudi Arabia itself. It struck a military base at al-Mazahimiyah, about 40 kilometres west of Riyadh. The missile was a variant of a Russian Scud known as the “Borkan”. Although the attack was never confirmed or denied by the Saudi authorities or the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, confirmation came from several Saudi citizens via postings on Twitter. Some reports suggested that subsequently a state of emergency had been declared in the city.

        Yemen’s “alternative” Houthi government, backed as it is by Iran, was quick to announce its victory. Yemen’s SABA news agency quoted a Houthi spokesman describing the attack as a “successful test-firing of a precision long-distance ballistic missile… the capital of [expletive] Saudi Arabia is now in the range of our missiles and, God willing, what is coming will be greater.”

        This is not the first such attack – on 31 January a Borkan-1 missile reportedly killed 80 coalition soldiers on a Saudi-UAE military base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. But it is the first Iranian-inspired military strike into Saudi Arabia’s heartland and, if the usually reliable Debkafile website is to be believed, it is the first test of a newly-enhanced Iranian Scud – a dress rehearsal for a real military onslaught currently in the planning stage.

        Early in February Debkafile reported that Iranian engineers were working round the clock on a project dubbed “Riyadh First.” The objective was to add 100 kilometres to the range of Iran’s Scud surface missiles, to enable them to explode in the centre of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The report claimed that the project, sited at the Al Ghadi base in Big Ganesh, 48 kilometers west of Tehran, was ordered by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Revolutionary Guard air force commander, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the missile testing site, was reported to have ordered all other work halted in order to concentrate on the fast-track “Riyadh First” Scud development project.

       This project, it was claimed, was what lay behind the threat made by Hajizadeh on 11 February: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”

       All the indications are that Iran, boosted by its nuclear deal struck with the US and other world powers, by a massive financial donation from the US, the lifting of sanctions and the eagerness of the western world to forge commercial links, has been emboldened to pursue its ambition of achieving political and religious hegemony in the Middle East. Just as Iran’s leaders have used Hezbollah as a proxy fighting force in Syria, so, it appears, they are preparing to use the Houthis as their instrument in launching direct military action against Saudi Arabia.

        Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the director of Saudi Arabia's general intelligence agency, Khalid Bin Ali al-Humaidan, paid unannounced and unreported visits to both Ramallah and Jerusalem on 21 and 22 February.

        One matter of concern to the Saudi leadership must be the reports that Iran is fostering closer ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas fell out with Shia Iran, once one of the group's main backers, after Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Syrian rebels. Ties were renewed in February 2016, when Hamas, after a visit to Iran, announced a "new page of cooperation". At the end of January 2017 senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared, during a trip to Algeria, that "efforts and contacts are under way to boost relations with Iran.”

        As for the PA, reports are abroad of a secret meeting in Brussels on 15 February between Palestinian and Iranian officials as part of a new diplomatic initiative. Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee, was said to be in charge of the Palestinian side.

       During his visit to Jerusalem, al-Humaidan may have explored security issues related to the idea of a US-Israeli-Arab regional conference endorsed by Trump and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met in Washington on February 15. The Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed in 2002 by Saudi’s then Crown Prince Abdullah, and subsequently confirmed more than once by the Arab League, is the best basis for any Arab-backed effort at resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Given the active security, intelligence and military cooperation that has developed between Israel and a number of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, active Arab involvement in a new peace initiative is not impossible.

        Saudi Arabia, in line with both the US and Israel, is desperately anxious to discourage any further boost to Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East, and actively seeks to downgrade it. Iran, of course, is not part of the Arab world – a further cause of resentment at its ambitions for regional hegemony, both political and religious. In cocking a snook at the Trump administration, the West generally and much of Sunni Islam, Iran is at last in danger of over-reaching itself.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 March 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Iran-emboldened-483194

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 March 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/03/06/iran-emboldened-op-ed/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/07032017-iran-emboldened-oped/

                 [Next posting: 11 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Squaring the two-state circle


        The year 2017 will witness a double anniversary in the convoluted history of the Middle East, one of 50 years, the other a centenary. June 6 is the date in 1967 which marked the outbreak of the Six Day War; “November 2nd, 1917” is the date that appears below the words “Foreign Office” on the single sheet of paper that contains the Balfour Declaration. Both continue to influence every aspect of Arab-Israeli relations and the interminable Israel-Palestine dispute.

        How is that situation ever to be resolved?

        Hard-liners on each side see a solution only in the utter defeat of the other. Hard-line Israeli opinion favours annexing the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper; the Palestinian hard-line objective is to eliminate Israel altogether, converting the whole of what was once Mandate Palestine into a new sovereign state of Palestine.

        The consensus of world opinion rejects both extremes, overwhelmingly supporting what has become known as the two-state solution. Indeed a joint Palestinian-Israeli poll revealed on 16 February 2017 that a majority of Israelis and just under half of Palestinians are also in favour.

        The idea of partition traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by Great Britain supporting the concept of establishing a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine. Subsequently Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

        The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”

        What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time. In particular, the combined Arab attack which followed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 ended with armistice agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan. These agreements recognized that where the three armies were positioned at the moment the fighting ceased would be Israel’s temporary boundaries, but not its permanent state borders. These were to be established in final status negotiations.

        In the event the boundaries lasted for twenty years. When combined Arab forces massed against Israel in 1967 for a three-pronged attack, the resultant Six-Day War saw Israeli forces overrunning vast tracts of land. In subsequent peace treaties the Sinai was returned to Egypt, and Jordan was granted oversight of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, but Israel remained the occupying power in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Attempts over the years to reach a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians proved fruitless. The Gaza strip was handed back to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005, and shortly afterwards was seized by the extreme jihadist group, Hamas.

        "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa in June 2016, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause.” Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance until the restoration of Palestinian rights."

        The world supports the two-state concept, but the question rarely asked is how peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel.

        Other problems obstruct the two-state route. PA president Mahmoud Abbas leads a Fatah party whose constitution states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit and the homeland of the Palestinian people.

        Why then, one might ask, has Abbas spent the past twelve years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because pressing for recognition of a Palestine within the pre-Six-Day War boundaries is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

        Nevertheless, given that the PA provides lip-service to the two-state solution, a Palestinian state on pre-Six Day War boundaries will not do. Hamas would seize power, just as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them very much indeed is 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.


        Just as threatening would be Islamic State which would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defence, like a cat on a mouse.

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

        How is the circle to be squared?

        At the instigation of the Arab League, the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference with the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine, but only within the context of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. 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, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the confederation. 


     A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security and future growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where an answer might lie.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 February 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Squaring-the-two-state-circle-482566

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 February 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/02/28/squaring-the-two-state-circle-op-ed/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/02032017-squaring-the-two-state-circle-oped/

         [Next posting: 5 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]