Friday, 21 July 2017

Secret goings-on in the Mediterranean


               Flag of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 July 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Secret-goings-on-in-the-Mediterranean-500311

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 July 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/23072017-secret-goings-on-in-the-mediterranean-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 July 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/07/23/secret-goings-on-in-the-mediterranean/
        
                [Next posting:  Friday 28 July 2017, at 4.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Trump's Mid-East venture


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


        He might have added: “Watch this space."

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 July 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Trumps-Mid-East-venture-499716

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 July 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/15072017-trumps-mid-east-venture-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 July 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/07/17/trumps-mid-east-venture/

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

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

A start-up Middle East – the Peres vision

                                                                   
                                                                    Shimon and Chemi Peres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12  July 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/A-start-up-Middle-East-the-Peres-vision-499492

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

Friday, 7 July 2017

Qatar and the Hamas dimension


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line:  7 July 2017:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Qatar-and-the-Hamas-dimension-499062

Published in the Eurasia Review: 8 July 2017:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/08072017-qatar-and-the-hamas-dimension-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 10 July 2017:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2017/07/10/qatar-and-the-hamas-dimension/

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