Thursday, 17 August 2017

Israel-Palestine - a deal in the making?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        The first signs of a deal in the making?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 August 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 August  2017:

Friday, 11 August 2017

A new bid for Kurdish independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 6 August 2017:

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 11 August 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 August 2017:

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

China looks towards the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 July 2017:

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 August 2017:

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