Thursday, 29 March 2018

Regime change in Gaza

                                                                                     Video version      
          Suddenly, it seems, the appalling circumstances in which the vast majority of Gazans are living have struck the public conscience.  The Strip suffers from a chronic lack of water, of electricity, of medical resources – and the situation seems to be deteriorating from week to week.  Gaza’s problems stem from a variety of causes, but the people of Gaza have little inclination to analyse the reasons for the humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed them.  The struggle to exist in anything approaching decent living and working conditions occupies most of their attention,

Ever since Hamas took up arms against Fatah in 2007, seized power and drove it out of Gaza, the two Palestinian organizations have been at daggers drawn.  Numerous attempts to effect a reconciliation have failed.  The simple fact is that the bedrock of the Hamas philosophy is to destroy Israel and take over the whole of the old Mandate Palestine ­­− an aim inconsistent with any attempt to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Alternatively, the more that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) has engaged with the UN, the EU and world powers in efforts to gain recognition for a Palestine based on the pre-Six Day War boundaries, the less likely has been any sort of reconciliation with Hamas. Hamas, in line with Iran, wants Israel out of the picture altogether. 

Hamas has devoted much of its efforts over the past decade to boosting its military capacity and deploying it against Israel.  Taking second place by a large margin have been policies for reducing poverty, developing the Strip’s infrastructure, improving its health, educational and social services, making people’s lives better.  Instead Hamas has fomented three full-scale military confrontations with Israel.  The results of the conflicts of 2008, 2012 and 2014 are that large urban areas lie in ruins, and life for ordinary Gazans has been infinitely diminished.

Of the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into Hamas’s coffers each year from charitable institutions concerned for the welfare of the Palestinian people, from Iran and Qatar and via proactive fund-raising efforts, huge sums have been expended on military hardware and on the construction of sophisticated tunnels running under the borders of Israel and Egypt – the former to allow terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, the latter largely to facilitate the smuggling of goods and services, though Egypt also suspects Hamas of actively supporting Muslim Brotherhood efforts to subvert the government of President Fattah al-Sisi through terrorist activity inside Egypt.

The liberal co-existence between Gaza and Israel envisaged at the time Israel withdrew completely from the Strip in 2005 – open borders and free travel – came to nothing once Hamas had gained control.  Now at last world opinion is hardening against the negative, rejectionist, non-conciliatory philosophy underlying the Hamas organization.

In high-level, multi-nation conferences held in the past few weeks a strong theme has been emerging:  PA rule must be re-established in Gaza.  Hamas’s illegal seizure of power in Gaza must be reversed, and Gaza must be included in any Israel-Palestinian peace deal. 

Speaking on March 20, 2018, ahead of the regular meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee that handles donor funds to the Palestinians, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said unequivocally that, from the EU’s point of view, “there is no realistic alternative to the two-state solution, and there is no alternative to the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.”

 “We see it very clearly,” she said.There is no state of Palestine without Gaza, nor with Gaza alone. This is why we expect all Palestinian factions to defy the spoilers and continue on the path of reconciliation, with courage and determination.”

At that meeting Joan Polaschik, the official representing the US, said: “We view the PA as the legitimate governing body in Gaza…Hamas’s continued control of Gaza remains our biggest challenge…Let’s be clear: Hamas and its commitment to violence is the primary obstacle to rapidly improving the lives of the people of Gaza.”

For years the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian accord has been stalemated by the fact that a sizeable proportion of the Palestinian people formed the power base for the rejectionist Hamas organization.  Hamas not only refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, it rejected the legitimacy of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and turned its back on his efforts to gain acceptance for a state of Palestine at the UN.  “All or nothing” remains its philosophy, as evidenced by the latest Hamas-inspired mass protest on the Israeli border.  The demand is that some 5 million descendants of Arab families that fled from their homes during the 1948 war must be allowed to return to the homes vacated by some 700,000.

But, as even the Arab world is finally acknowledging, Hamas represents an obstacle to attaining regional stability and economic development.  If a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process is ever to take off, the PA will have to assume control of the Gaza Strip − either through its own efforts, or with assistance.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 April 2018:

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 April 2018:

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Reality checks in the Middle East

       video version
A new pragmatic spirit is dawning in the Middle East.  Old outworn attitudes are beginning to crumble.  For example, when have officials from leading Arab states sat round a table with those from Israel – which many of them do not formally recognize as yet − to discuss how to alleviate a problem affecting the region?  Yet that is precisely what happened on Tuesday, 13 March 2018, when Israeli national security officials met their counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the White House to discuss a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Gaza Strip. The meeting was not covert.  The Arab states involved were content for it to be conducted in the full glare of the media.

Despite having been under a virtual blockade imposed by neighbouring states for months, Qatar was invited, and agreed, to participate in the discussion.  Their presence was an ironic illustration of the complexity of affairs in the region, but also a sign of its growing realism.  Consecutive US and Israeli governments had long criticized Qatar for its support for Hamas in Gaza, and a prime reason cited by the Gulf states and Egypt for imposing sanctions was that Qatar had consistently poured money into Hamas’s coffers.  Clearly, though, Qatar’s financial support had done little to alleviate the desperate living conditions afflicting a large part of the civilian population.  Most of the millions received by Hamas from Qatar, Iran, overseas charitable associations and fundraising, went on vast military expenditures including the construction of hundreds of sophisticated tunnels under the Israel and the Egyptian borders – the former intended to launch attacks on civilian targets in Israel, the latter to facilitate the smuggling of goods and equipment.

The summit on Gaza had been called by Jared Kushner, the US president’s son-in-law and senior adviser on Middle East peace, as well as Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations.  It marked an unprecedented moment for Israeli diplomacy, as their dialogue with officials from Arab states was publicly recognized for the first time. The Trump administration had planned the meeting over several weeks and released a list of attendees on the morning of the summit which also included officials from Canada and various European governments.  A notable absentee was the Palestinian Authority, which had elected not to attend.

“We regret that the Palestinian Authority is not here with us today,” said Greenblatt, in opening remarks to the conference. “This is not about politics. This is about the health, safety and happiness of the people of Gaza, and of all Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians.”

The purpose of the meeting was to address the humanitarian challenges in Gaza but, as media reports indicated, Greenblatt and Kushner were at the same time putting the final touches to a comprehensive peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which the resolution of the Gaza crisis was an integral part. The Jerusalem Post reported that the White House was even then deciding on the exact timing for rolling out the plan.

In anticipation of its appearance, however, it was the subject of an unusual article in the London-based Arabic journal Asharq al-Awsat, a further demonstration of the new pragmatism affecting the region. On March 10, 2018, journalist Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote a piece under the title “Will Trump’s ambitious Middle East policy succeed?”  The universally hostile reaction by the Arab world to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the declaration by PA president Mahmoud Abbas that the US had ruled itself out as a peace broker,  seems to have lasted just three months.  Here was an authoritative Arab journal, albeit with great caution, suggesting the possibility of Trump’s key peace effort actually succeeding.  Al-Rashed wondered whether Donald Trump could pull it off where every other American leader had failed.  Would he be able to bring both Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table and help them reach what has become known as "the deal of the century"?

“Truthfully,” said al-Rashed, “the chances are low. Dozens of gifted statesmen and mediators have attempted to solve this issue in the past, but to no avail. However, I still wouldn't rule out Trump's potential success. I say this not because I believe in the American president's superb negotiating skills, but because the international and regional conditions that prevailed for so many decades have changed dramatically in recent years.”

He pointed out that Arab leaders who so vehemently opposed reaching a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and even Bashar Assad have disappeared from the political arena. So have radical socialist organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which once dominated Palestinian politics. Islamist movements too, he claimed, are struggling to survive, let alone gain momentum. Moreover. the Arab public has shifted its attention away from Palestine, focusing instead on the turmoil within their own societies.

All the same Al-Rashed believes that bringing an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people will remain a top Arab priority, but that all that is needed is a reasonable and realistic framework that could be sold to both sides. “Trump understands the huge opportunity that stands before him,” wrote al-Rashed. “His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, together with adviser Jason Greenblatt have ensured that forging this deal stays at the top of the president's list of priorities. While l remain sceptical that anything will come out of this effort, I am also curious to learn more about Trump's peace  proposal.  It may be so crazy that it might just work.”

A final straw in the wind.  On March 15, in reacting to the attempted assassination in England of Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, Israel, while vigorously condemning the attack, did not specifically mention Russia as the most likely perpetrator, the position of the UK itself and a number of other countries,   On March 16 the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv, in a statement about Israel’s reaction, noted what it termed “the wise position of West Jerusalem” Moscow’s first formal recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 March 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 March 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 31 March 2018:

Monday, 12 March 2018

Britain turns its back on BDS

                  video version
          The organization dedicated to isolating and delegitimizing Israel by way of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has so far not reacted officially to the announcement that Britain’s Prince William is to visit Israel this summer. Since he will also be visiting Jordan and what are described in the announcement as “the Palestinian occupied territories”, and since both Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, have welcomed the news, hard-line BDS supporters do not have much of a leg to stand on. Moreover Prince William probably ranks considerably higher in the public popularity stakes than either Roger Waters or Lorde – performers closely associated with their pro-BDS views – and so the prince’s visit is likely to have a major positive effect on young people’s view of Israel across the world. 
          The extreme sensitivities of the situation were on display within minutes of the announcement. When the British embassy in Tel Aviv issued a Hebrew-language press release, it omitted the word “occupied” from the Kensington Palace statement. 
          “What kind of translator do you have?” tweeted a Palestinian official, Xavier Abu Eid, pointing out that the British consulate in Jerusalem did include “occupation” on its Arabic-language account. 
          In fact, the term “Palestinian occupied territories” is an exact reflection of the British government’s position on the vexed Israeli-Palestinian situation. Although more than 70 percent of the countries of the United Nations have, at the urging of the PA, recognized a State of Palestine, the European Union has not formally done so but has left it to individual states to act on this matter as they choose. A clutch of them have granted Palestine official recognition, but the UK government has always adopted a nuanced approach. Back in 2011 Britain was prepared to grant Palestine non-member observer status at the UN, though it refused to approve full state membership. In October 2014 a House of Commons motion called on the government to recognize Palestine as an independent state, but the government has not subsequently implemented the advice. 
          A fair number of contemporary issues bear on the forthcoming royal visit. In Britain all eyes are on Brexit, and the delicate, not to say precarious, state the negotiations with the EU have reached. In Prime Minister Theresa May’s keynote speech on March 2, 2018, she made it crystal clear that, after withdrawal, the UK would not enter into any formal customs union with the EU. Several considerations affected this decision, but high among them was the UK’s determination to negotiate independent trading arrangements around the world – impossible when locked into a customs union. 
          Israel is a prime potential trading partner for the UK, and areas in which Israel excels − especially in high-tech fields such as cyber security, Research and Development, and Fintech (financial technology) − are largely outside the EU-Israel agreement which currently governs the terms of trade. A recent UK government White Paper identified Israel as a trading priority for post-Brexit Britain because of the potential synergies between Israel’s high levels of innovation and British strengths in design, business growth, finance and high-technology. 
          A second factor is the United States’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The immediate, almost universal, wave of protest has largely died down, and recognition seems to have dawned − in certain quarters at least – that President Donald Trump’s announcement drew no boundaries in Jerusalem, but left wide open the possibility of an eventual separate or conjoint Palestinian capital in the Jerusalem municipality. Far from placing an additional obstacle in the path of an eventual agreement, Trump’s announcement appears to have injected a cold douche of reality into the situation. For there is no denying the plain fact that Jerusalem is indeed Israel’s capital. Nor has Trump’s announcement inhibited the UK from proposing a royal visit. 
          Thirdly, as the visit to Britain in March 2018 of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman demonstrated, the UK allies itself with the moderate Arab world that is opposing radical jihadist terror organizations intent on disrupting the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all known to be collaborating with Israel – albeit below the radar − in combatting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah, Iran’s instrument in its bid for political and religious dominance of the Middle East. 
          Fourthly 2018 marks Israel’s 70th anniversary, and an official royal visit is a logical consequence of the recognition and celebration by the British government last November of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. PA President Abbas has welcomed Prince William’s intention to visit the Palestinian occupied territories, but at the back of his, and the prince’s, mind will doubtless be his demand in March 2017 that Britain apologises for the Balfour Declaration – a demand that was swiftly rejected by the British government, just as when Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly the previous September. “We ask Great Britain,” said Abbas, “as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to … bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people...” 
           The official UK response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
          A royal visit in 2018 fits neatly into that policy position.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 March 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 March 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 19 March 2018:

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The enigma that is Qatar

                                                                                    video version
          It is not easy to pigeon-hole Qatar, a stand-alone Middle Eastern state in more ways than one − geographically, politically, economically, influentially. Itself a small peninsula projecting into the Persian Gulf from the vast Arabian Peninsula, Qatar clearly aspires to become a major player in the region and beyond. In pursuit of this objective, its tactics have sometimes puzzled, sometimes infuriated, its neighbours. But then, as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – and certainly number one on a per capita basis – Qatar has reckoned for a long time that it could afford the luxury of proceeding along its own preferred path, without too much concern for what others thought.

          For example, Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists − from Hamas in Gaza, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to hard-line Syrian opposition fighters − while also offering itself as a key US ally, was rooted in pragmatism: Qatar wanted to extend its influence in the region by being friends with everybody. “We don’t do enemies,” Qatar’s one-time foreign minister is reported to have said: “we talk to everyone.” And talk they certainly did through the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera world-wide media network.

          But Qatar’s wayward policies, especially with regard to Islamist groups, had long infuriated its neighbouring Arab states, and back in January 2014 − perhaps influenced by the fact that Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year − Gulf states suddenly pressured 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 the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations. The inexperienced Al-Thani was unable to withstand the pressure. In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, his arm was twisted, and the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement whose terms, although never made public, were believed to be virtually the same as those they had refused to sign a few weeks earlier.

          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 the constant Muslim Brotherhood-based criticism of Egypt’s government and its president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to silence the provocative Islamist figures that dominated its media platforms.

          They were soon to find that Qatar had no intention of meeting their expectations, but simply continued its support of Islamist extremists intent on undermining the stability of the region. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action. On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. In addition they suspended all land, air and sea traffic, virtually imposing a trade blockade on the Gulf state.

          This bombshell initiative had been preceded by the visit of US President Donald Trump to Saudi Arabia on 20 May 2017 for a meeting with some 50 leaders of the Arab world. On the subject of Islamist extremism he had been characteristically blunt. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists...Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. And drive them out of this Earth.”

          So for some eight months Qatar has been under siege. Although most major trade routes into and out of the country have been closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods sent in by Iran and Turkey. As for exports, Qatar is the largest global exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and this has been maintained. As a result, the country seems to be weathering the blockade and to be reasonably well placed to sustain itself for some time ahead.

           In fact in 2017 Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 1.9 percent during the third quarter of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016. Its economy is still growing at 2.5 percent, with the building and construction sector growing by 15 percent – a phenomenon not unconnected with government spending on infrastructure development and facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

          Around which issue controversy has raged since 2010, when Qatar was awarded the hosting rights. Just how the tiny Arab emirate managed to win this glittering prize remains an open question. Accusations of bribery on a massive scale have persisted, and on 22 February 2018 the journal Goal contained reports that the 2022 hosting rights might be pulled from Qatar on two grounds – bribery and political instability.

          The main charge levelled at Qatar in the June 2017 débacle was that it had failed to fulfill 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," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister told reporters, “to its hostile media, and to interference in affairs of other countries.”

          Qatar refused to comply with an initial list of 13 demands, and has since been told by its neighbours that they want it to accept six broad principles on combating extremism and terrorism such as its support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and its cooperation with Iran. Shi’ite Iran is, of course, the main rival of Sunni Saudi Arabia in both the religious and the political arenas. There has been little meeting of minds on these matters either.

          Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless. While continuing to inject vast sums into Hamas’s coffers, it has recently been wooing US Jewish American leading figures by way of meetings with the Emir and funded trips to the Gulf state. These overtures, to which some distinguished individuals have succumbed, sit uneasily alongside Israel’s fragile, developing, and vitally important relationship with the Sunni Arab world which initiated the blockade of Qatar in the first place. 

          Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Qatar is close to meriting the same epithet.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 March 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 March 2018:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 March 2018:

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Documenting Horrors - A Review of "Days of the Fall" by Jonathan Spyer

Documenting Horrors
by Neville Teller

            Author and journalist Jonathan Spyer’s latest book explores the disintegration of the Middle East over the past decade. Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars is an up-close and personal account of the two major conflicts in the region that exemplify its descent into chaos, both physical and moral.

            British-Israeli reporter Spyer, whose column “Behind the Lines” appears in The Jerusalem Post,  had been focusing on the Levant in general, and Syria in particular, for a good few years before President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was caught up in the revolutionary fervour sweeping across the Arab world. 

           As the Arab Spring, sparked just before the end of 2010 in Tunisia, spread like wildfire across the region, some of its leaders began to be consumed in the flames. January 2011 marked the fall of Tunisia’s president. In February Egypt’s Mubarak was overthrown. In March, Assad’s Syria was set ablaze as pro-democracy protests erupted following the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. When security forces opened fire on demonstrators, nationwide protests demanded Assad's resignation. 

          “As soon as the uprising began,” writes Spyer, “I started to bother my Syrian contacts to get into the country.”

          He succeeded, and there followed a series of intrepid, hair-raising incursions into the very heart of the conflict in Syria itself, and later into neighbouring Iraq. Dicing with death on more than one occasion, Spyer managed to infiltrate heavily guarded borders, sometimes crawling at night through mud and under barbed wire to do so, and then undergoing the same unpleasant experience to get himself out again. Sometimes it required the risky business of bribing security guards. In each war zone that he penetrated Spyer interviewed a wide variety of people, civilians and fighters, affected one way or another by the conflict that had overwhelmed them.

          It is through his account of these personal, sometimes moving, always thrilling adventures, that the broader political story of the past few years emerges. As Spyer reminds us, it is a story not yet concluded.

          Given the extent of the revolutionary ardour sweeping across the Arab world, and the fate of several of its leaders, it seemed to many in the early days of Syria’s uprising as though Assad‘s days of power were numbered. “How long until Assad is destroyed?” Spyer asked a Salafi rebel fighter, on his first incursion into conflict-torn Syria. “I give it roughly a month,” was the reply. And yet the regime clung on.

          The US and other western governments had ruled out taking direct military action in support of the opposition, and they stuck to this policy even when, in the spring of 2013, evidence emerged that Assad, indifferent to the collateral misery inflicted on innocent civilians, had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Spyer believes that it was this spineless US and western stance that enabled the regime to transform almost certain defeat into what may turn out to be nearly complete victory. Undisguised brutality and an unrestrained use of military force were the hallmark of Assad’s approach. Spyer asserts that his backers – Iran and Russia – saw the world as he did. “Assad, Iran and Russia tested the will of the tired hegemon, and it was found wanting.”

          Not the least impressive of Spyer’s achievements over the course of the Syrian conflict was how he, a Jew, often carrying an Israeli passport concealed about his person, managed to evade detection as he came and went in one of the world’s major conflict zones. He found himself relying on dubious contacts who could have betrayed him at any time. Western journalists were being caught, kidnapped, and sometimes executed. Spyer had more than one hairbreadth escape.

          On one occasion, in a vehicle crammed full of Muslim refugees who might have lynched him had they known he was an Israeli, he had to show his passport to a Turkish security officer. Luckily for him the distinguishing gold menorah on the cover had been quite rubbed away from its long concealment about his person, and what he presented seemed to have an innocuous plain blue cover. For another assignment – to Damascus in 2017 – Spyer had to adopt a false name and a concocted identity. In deep cover, expecting to be unmasked at any moment, he joined a delegation of pro-Assad fellow travellers for an official tour of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.

         Nerve-wracking episodes like this were bound to take their toll. Spyer recalls that just after his return to Jerusalem from a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan – a visit that nearly ended in his capture by Assad’s border guards – his voice suddenly disappeared, and he remained unable to speak for three or four days.

          Days of the Fall chronicles the life-threatening missions undertaken by one journalist in pursuit of the human reality behind the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. At the same time Jonathan Spyer provides an authoritative background to the political events surrounding them. On both counts this is a book well worth reading. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 2 March 2018:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 June 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 June 2019: