Saturday, 28 September 2019

Jordan’s problems – can Trump’s peace deal help?

        Jordan presents itself to the world as a constitutional monarchy – a state supporting a multi-party political system, an elected parliament, and a prime minister who is the head of government.

        Constitutional experts beg to differ. Most maintain that Jordan is an autocracy in which authoritarian power is exercised by the king through legal manipulation, described by the Journal of Democracy as “selective economic reforms, new civil society regulations, and hollow pluralism initiatives.” In fact the king is the country’s ultimate authority in respect of all three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. He appoints the prime minister and chooses the cabinet. The judges are appointed and dismissed by royal decree. Political parties were legalized in 1992 provided they acknowledge the legitimacy of the monarchy.

        These democratically dubious constitutional arrangements do not, however, affect the popularity of the monarchy, and there is no demand within Jordan for constitutional change. However the usual consequences of autocratic rule – corruption, unemployment, poverty, high taxes, rising food prices and poor government services – regularly result in outbursts of popular protest. Over the course of 2019 the scale and depth of Jordan's economic problems have been unprecedented, and massive public demonstrations have been the result. In May and June the public took to the streets in great numbers to protest at increased taxes and soaring prices. The rebellion was nationwide, uniting all sectors of Jordanian society. In response, King Abdullah dismissed the government, froze prices, and appointed a new prime minister, Omar al-Razzaz, whom he ordered to produce reforms.

        The new government promised to act within its first 100 days on a wide range of issues including corruption, a national dialogue on "tax justice", improving health, water, transport, and other public services, and opening direct electronic communication channels with citizens.

        This pattern – public protest, followed by promised government action – is normal for Jordan, but this time the old nostrum did not work. The government’s promises carried no weight with Jordan’s teachers who organized mass strikes on September 5 and 8. The capital, Amman, was plunged into chaos as thousands of teachers from across the country, wearing white caps and carrying placards, paraded through the streets demanding better working conditions and a 50 percent salary increase that they said had been promised by the government five years ago. Hundreds of police were deployed and main roads were closed to prevent protesters reaching the prime minister’s office. Tear gas was used to disperse the crowds.

        Subsequent talks between Jordan's government and the national teachers' union have so far proved inconclusive, and at the time of writing the 100,000 teachers remain on strike and 1.4 million pupils and students are locked out of their classrooms.

        Jordan’s domestic situation is parlous. The economy is close to breaking point. Public debt stands at $39.9bn, nearly equal to the country's economic output, while unemployment is running at close to 20 percent. The government was able to ride out the storm of the summer protests over plans to increase income tax only because of a $2.5bn handout from Saudi Arabia. This enabled King Abdullah to reverse the planned tax rise and stabilize the situation temporarily.

        Jordan has traditionally turned to the monarchies in the Gulf to shore up its economy. However, the focus of these states is increasingly on countering Iranian aggression. Their financial support has dwindled, leaving Jordan more exposed than ever.

        Meanwhile the Israel-Palestine issue looms. On June 22, 2019 the White House unexpectedly released the economic leg of its peace plan. “A New Vision for the Palestinian People” set out in considerable detail a scenario under which, with a huge input of funding for the region, prospects for the Palestinians would be immeasurably transformed for the better. The plan covered all aspects of Palestinian life from education and health care to taxes, roads and railways.

        The US presented this leg of its ultimate deal in a workshop held in Bahrain which Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, urged the Arab world to boycott. Abdullah, a close ally of the US, ignored his plea and sent a delegation.

        Although Jordan’s message was that no cash offers can replace a political solution, reports from inside Jordan indicate that some officials believe that the country could – and should – profit from any plan that promises billions in economic aid. In June 2019 a prominent MP, Fawaz al-Zubi, said Jordanians should be open-minded about anything they could gain from the deal.

        About what the plan might portend politically, there are only fears. For example, few subjects in Jordan are more charged than the role, presence and future of people of Palestinian descent. They represent perhaps more than half the population, yet they are seen as a political threat by some of Jordanian descent who have never accepted that they will stay permanently.

Rumours abound in Jordanian official circles that Trump’s deal will include proposals potentially disastrous for the country, and that Jordan will be pushed towards accepting them in exchange for the economic aid that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have traditionally provided. They believe that the Palestinians – or at least their regional supporters – might be bought off with the promise of a bright economic future and, in the process, Palestinian statehood will be buried and with it hopes of removing at least some of Jordan’s Palestinian citizens and refugees.

        “Don’t meet trouble halfway” is a wise adage. Perhaps a jittery Jordan should take note, await the forthcoming peace deal with equanimity, and regard it, when it does finally arrive, as a challenge and an opportunity.

Published in the Jerusalem Post as "Jordan in trouble:  will the peace deal help?" on 23 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom as "Trump's peace deal:  is there anything in it for Jordan?" on 22 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 September 2019:

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Labour Friends of Israel

This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated October 7. 2019

        In his four brief years as leader of Britain’s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn has earned a global reputation as antisemitic, unable or unwilling to tackle an upsurge of rampant antisemitism within his party. He himself contends that he is far from being an antisemite, and that he has spent a political lifetime fighting racism in all its aspects. He has declared time and again that he is dedicated to expunging any trace of antisemitism from within the Labour party. Unfortunately, his efforts in that direction have so far proved disappointingly ineffective. 

        One possible explanation is that in his own mind antisemitism is completely divorced from anti-Zionism – a distinction which does not stand up to close scrutiny. For anti-Zionist he certainly is, making no secret of his fundamental opposition to the very existence of Israel, whose creation he believes was a colonialist enterprise, and which he accuses of oppressing the Palestinian people and illegally occupying their land. He is a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to delegitimize and overthrow the state of Israel. 

        Corbyn has emerged from the extreme left of Britain’s Labour movement. A self-acknowledged Marxist, he views the history of the Western world as a story of capitalist domination and colonialist expansion at the expense of powerless peoples. He regards the foundation of Israel as a prime example of this process – a “racist endeavour” he has called it. 

        In expounding these opinions Corbyn exposes himself as an aberration in the long history of Britain’s Labour movement. The towering giants of Labour’s past held a very different view. Firebrand Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, for example, the revered founder of Britain’s National Health Service and the darling of the left, was a fervent Zionist. 

        The first post-war Labour government, led by Clement Attlee, which came into power in 1945, was fearful of upsetting the Arab world and strictly controlled Jewish immigration into Palestine. Bevan opposed this policy to the point of threatening to resign, arguing in cabinet that British policy in Palestine was inconsistent with the spirit and tradition of the Labour Party. 

        Bevan and his wife, Jennie Lee, a formidable Labour figure in her own right, visited Israel for the first time in 1954. They returned inspired. Jennie Lee found in the kibbutzim: “the kind of passion that socialist workers everywhere who have had their own experience of victimization and of exile through poverty, should particularly understand.” 

        Bevan himself waxed lyrical, endorsing the Jewish people’s ancient relationship with the land of Israel: "The immediacy of the remote past is an intimate reality… Nazareth, Galilee, Jerusalem, all these and so many more belong to [the Jew] in a special sense, for they whisper in his blood, and evoke memories of a time that was, before he was compelled to seek shelter in reluctant lands." 
        Other seminal Labour figures like Michael Foot and Richard Crossman campaigned persistently for a Jewish homeland within Palestine. Tony Benn wrote passionately pro-Zionist articles in the Jewish Vanguard, thrilled at the prospect of building socialism in Israel. Future Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, recalled that when Labour swept to power in 1945 the whole Labour movement, including the radical left, was “overwhelmingly pro-Zionist” and favoured the establishment of a Jewish state. It was from this general support within Labour that the idea emerged of forming a body to be called the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI). It was founded at the 1957 Labour Party Conference. 

        Quickly drawing wide support from within the party, the LFI defined itself as a group dedicated to promoting a strong bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel, with special emphasis on strengthening the long-established ties with the Israeli Labor party – at the time the party of government. 

        Perhaps the high point in the Labour party’s relationship with Israel occurred during the 1960s and 1970s with the accession of Harold Wilson as leader of the party and, in 1964, as prime minister. Wilson was dedicated to Israel and the Zionist cause. As the veteran left wing Zionist Labour MP, Ian Mikardo, told the audience at the close of LFI’s annual dinner in October 1975, Wilson was “not only Israel’s most important friend in the Labour party, but also her most consistent friend.” 

        Harold Wilson resigned the premiership on March 16, 1976, five days after his 60th birthday. After his retirement his first overseas trip was to Israel, where he received an honorary doctorate and visited a forest near Nazareth that had been named after him. He then settled down to write an account of the tangled relationship between Britain, the US and Israel. His book, “The Chariot of Israel”, was according to Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s deputy leader, “one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew.” 

        In the light of Wilson’s strong attachment to Israel, it is perhaps not all that surprising that he then agreed to become president of the Labour Friends of Israel. At the dinner in 2016 commemorating the centenary of Wilson’s birth, the LFI’s then director, Valerie Cocks, said: “He spoke about Israel in the most loving, warmest possible way.” 
        Former Labour chairman and ex-trade union official, Lord Tony Clarke said: "I think [Wilson] would be ashamed that we seem to have lost our way on Israel. His support of Israel was never in doubt. He realized the responsibility that the Labour Party had in the run up to the creation of the state 68 years ago. Israel is built on the founding principles of socialism in this country." 

        The breakdown in relations between Britain’s Labour party and its Jewish community, bad enough in itself, has extended to the traditionally close links between Labour and its Israeli counterpart. 

        It was in April 2018 that Israel’s Labor Party suspended relations with Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of sanctioning antisemitism and showing hostility towards Israeli policies. Then Labor leader, Avi Gabbay, wrote directly to him. 

        “It is my responsibility to acknowledge the hostility you have shown to the Jewish community,” ran the letter, “and the antisemitic statements and actions you have allowed as leader of the Labour party UK.” 

        Referring to the upcoming Holocaust Remembrance Day, he said that Israel would be reminded of the horrors of antisemitism. “As such,” he continued, “I write to inform you of the temporary suspension of all formal relations between the Israel Labor party and the leader of the Labour Party UK.” 

        The rupture was confirmed by Labor’s new leader, Amir Peretz, following a BBC television documentary “Is Labour Antisemitic?” broadcast on 10 July 2019. The programme set out evidence of interference by Labour officials in the process of investigating antisemitic incidents in the party, and of the harassment of staff. 

        "As far as I'm concerned,” said Peretz in a radio interview, “I have no intention of generating contacts with Labour as long as Corbyn is there. I do not intend to allow anyone from among us to have contacts of that kind. I think he has crossed all the red lines." What he did not say, nor has he done, is to sever relations with the Labour Friends of Israel which, despite all the furore within Labour over the antisemitism issue, the resignation from the party of nine Labour MPs in February 2019 and three Labour peers in July, maintains its existence, its membership and its integrity. 

         The organization currently counts around 75 MPs and 36 peers as its parliamentary membership. Its current policy objectives are to strengthen relations between Britain and Israel, support those striving for peace, and call for the renunciation of violence and the spread of democracy across the region. 

        “We support constructive and informed discussion within the Labour movement,” says LFI on its website, “explaining the intense debate within Israel over the challenges the country faces, including constant security and existential threats.” Then it adds: “We work closely with the Israeli Labor party and other left wing and centrist politicians, trade unions, progressive groups and individuals, encouraging strong bilateral economic, political and cultural ties.” 

        Among its other activities, LFI organizes fact-finding tours to Israel and the Palestinian territories. The most recent was in July 2019, when it hosted a group of centre-left parliamentarians. The group was led by the recently appointed LFI chair, Dame Louise Ellman MP, who took over from Joan Ryan on August 7. During the week, meetings with both Israeli and Palestinian ministers took place. 

        Coexistence projects featured among their tour. They visited a MEET (Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow) summer school in Jerusalem which brings young Israelis and Palestinians together to learn tech and entrepreneurial skills; and a SACH (Save A Child’s Heart) in Holon.  SACH performs life-saving operations on children with cardiac conditions, as well as providing training for doctors and nurses from developing countries. 

        LFI is flourishing. As long as it continues to attract scores of Labour parliamentarians who reject the anti-Zionist policies of the hard left as exemplified by Labour’s current leadership under Jeremy Corbyn, there is hope that one day Britain’s Jewish community might return to its traditional support for the party.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 7 October 2019:

Friday, 20 September 2019

What do you make of Qatar?

        Qatar – dubbed “the wild card of the Middle East” – makes for an intriguing case study. Not much is generally known about this stand-alone Gulf state except perhaps that it established what is now a global media empire called Al-Jazeera, that its national airline is a long-time sponsor of the Sky News TV channel, and that it won the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in somewhat dubious circumstances,

        On which matter it should be remembered that when Qatar was awarded that prize, it stated that Israeli players would be allowed to compete – and indeed in March 2019 Israel’s national anthem was played in Qatar after an Israeli athlete won a gold medal at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup. But will there be any Israelis present in Qatar’s stunning new stadium in 2022 to cheer their team on? That is still unclear. So far Israeli citizens have been unable to apply for visas to visit Qatar.

        The international NGO, StandWithUs, is formally requesting FIFA to ensure that the Qatari government will allow Israeli citizens to receive entry visas into the country to attend the 2022 World Cup. FIFA’s code of ethics specifically prohibits banning people based upon their country of origin.

        Qatar, possibly the wealthiest nation in the world, persists in going its own sweet way, unfettered by diplomatic norms. Take its relationship with Israel. Since the 1990s, Qatar has both built ties with Israel and severed them, not once but several times. In 1996 Qatar allowed Israel to open a trade office in the capital, Doha. For four years Qatar was the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to have normalized relations with Israel.

        In November 2000, though, following the second intifada, Saudi Arabia and Iran threatened to boycott a summit being organized by the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference) unless Qatar broke off relations with Israel. Qatar succumbed, and closed the Israeli trade office.

        Just a month later, former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and a Qatari official met secretly in Geneva and contacts were resumed. Over the next few years Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni were among the high profile Israelis to visit Qatar. In 2006 Israel supported Qatar’s bid to become a member of the UN Security Council, a major step in Qatar’s rise as a regional peace broker.

        Although Qatar severed trade relations with Israel after the 2009 Gaza conflict, it twice sought to restore them. It offered to allow the Israeli mission in Doha to be reinstated, provided Israel allowed Qatar to send building materials and money to Gaza to help rehabilitate the infrastructure. Israel refused on the grounds that Qatari supplies could be used by Hamas for military purposes against Israel.

        Qatar took matters into its own hands. In 2012 it set up a Gaza Reconstruction Committee (GRC), pledged to invest more than $400 million in humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the Strip over the following six years. It has lived up to its word. It has constructed the Bin Khalifa residential city, encompassing 116 buildings, and more than 2,000 apartments, the Palace of Justice, several sports facilities and stadiums, a reservoir, more than 40km of roadway, a hospital and rehabilitation center and several other housing complexes. The GRC works in tandem with other multilateral and international reconstruction groups. All projects go through a rigorous planning and approval process with the Israeli government.

        On September 10, 2019, as the six-year funding project reached its end, Mohammed al-Emadi, chairman of the GRC, spoke on Al-Jazeera TV, claiming that Qatar has been instrumental in ensuring calm on the Gaza-Israeli border, “despite the occasional flare-up of violence.”

        Whatever its rationale, Israel has raised no public objection to Qatar pouring millions of dollars into Gaza. "Life is full of contradictions and strange things,” was how Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for Israel's military intelligence, described the situation.

        An even stranger thing is the fact that for more than two years Qatar has been under a siege initiated and operated by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt,

        Qatar’s strategy of backing Islamists while also offering itself as a key US ally had long infuriated its neighbours. Back in January 2014 Gulf states suddenly pressured Qatar to sign an agreement undertaking not to support extremist groups and not to interfere in the affairs of other states. When the Qatari government flatly refused to comply, they broke off diplomatic relations. Qatar’s 33-year-old Emir, Sheikh Tamim al-Thani, had been in power for less than a year and was unable to withstand the pressure. A few months later the Qataris signed an undertaking known as the Riyadh agreement.

        Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain clearly gained a very different impression of what had been agreed than the Qataris. Expecting Qatar to curtail its support for extreme Islamism, they were soon to find that it had no intention of meeting their expectations. Finally, their patience exhausted, the Gulf states and Egypt took drastic action. On 5 June 2017, without any sort of warning, they broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar and, suspending all land, air and sea traffic, imposed a trade blockade.

        With most trade routes closed off, Qatar has been sustained by continuous shiploads of food and other goods from Iran and Turkey.  But its vast global export market for liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been maintained. As a result, the country has weathered the blockade and seems able to sustain itself indefinitely. In fact in 2018 Qatar’s economy showed one of the fastest growth rates in the region.  Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 2.8%, and is expected to maintain that growth into 2020.

        So Qatar continues on its capricious way regardless. Recently it has been wooing leading Jewish American 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, 20 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom as "The Maverick State of Qatar", 16 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 September 2019:

Friday, 13 September 2019

After Isis

This review of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post Magazine of 13 September 2019

        With the experienced eye and pen of a journalist fully conversant with his subject, Seth Frantzman – the Middle East affairs analyst and op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post – recounts in his new book, “After ISIS”, the rise and decline of the organization that ravaged the Middle East for more than five years – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

        The years 2013 to 2019 were a momentous period in modern history. In leading us through the ever-changing situation, Frantzman provides much more than a recital of the facts. In line with his sub-title – “How defeating the caliphate changed the Middle East forever” – he explains them. Because he was himself present at various times in the war zones and killing fields, his account is leavened throughout with personal experiences of how the shifting pattern of events impacted on people caught up in them. Nor does he desist from pointing out the various failures of the West during the long struggle to defeat the self-styled caliphate set up by the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

        Nothing moves Frantzman more than his personal witness of the horrific genocide that ISIS perpetrated on the Yazidi people in and around Sinjar in 2014. He arrived in the region very shortly after the slaughter. “To come face to face with genocide is unimaginable,” he writes, describing how he visited a mass grave and found bones sticking out of the ground, a skull with a bullet hole in it, women’s hair matted and twisted between rocks, clothes and blindfolds lying on the surface. The sight moved him to righteous anger.

        “No international investigators are here,” he writes. “No NGOs are working here to protect the human remains. The world was silent again. These lives could have been saved… How could the Western powers with all their technology, all their drones, their EU Parliament and councils of human rights and international criminal courts, do nothing?”

        Nearly six years later he saw new photos from Sinjar. “The city was still in ruins. On Mount Sinjar, people still lived in tents and huts… Survivors were still picking through rubble.” The International Commission on Missing Persons was apparently trying to document the remains in the mass graves, but the grave in one photo was not cordoned off or protected from the elements. There were more than two hundred mass graves in Iraq. Of the handful so far discovered in Syria, one near Raqqa contained an estimated thirty-five hundred bodies.

        As Frantzman leads us through the sequence of events that slowly but surely squeezed ISIS out of the vast areas of Iraq and Syria that it had originally conquered, he provides an informed commentary on their impact. He embraces issues ranging from the effect on Europe of the influx of refugees from the Middle East, to the success of the Kurds’ Peshmerga fighters against ISIS, the subsequent boost to their independence aspirations, followed by the efforts by Turkey’s President Erdogan to remove what he saw as a Kurdish threat to his regime.

        Frantzman brings to light the temporary battlefield alliances that were formed and disintegrated as the US-led coalition slowly crushed ISIS – at one time ISIS was actually in a deal with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime that resulted in some three thousand ISIS fighters being removed from Syria and deposited in Iraq. He deals also with more profound changes in political thinking in the region, for example how Iran’s growing influence encouraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to look increasingly toward Israel as an ally, and how it changed the strategic thinking of Jordan and Egypt.

        In dealing with the final days of the caliphate as a territorial entity, Frantzman describes as “staggering” the numbers of ISIS supporters, family members and fighters hemmed into a tiny enclave on the Euphrates River. From late January to the end of February 2019, tens of thousands were transported out of ISIS’s final redoubt.

        Yet in considering whether the post-ISIS era would simply replicate the worst days of al-Qaeda terrorism under Osama bin Laden, he is not wholly pessimistic. He points to the concerted anti-terrorism effort, backed by US finance, being undertaken by the US Special Operations Command in some ninety countries. The real question about extremism, he believes, is why and how it exercises such an appeal, and even here he sees grounds for hope. With hundreds of thousands of social media accounts linked to ISIS shut down, he writes, it appears that social media giants have learned the lessons of 2014, when an estimated forty-five thousand ISIS accounts helped attract tens of thousands worldwide to join ISIS and travel out to Syria and Iraq.

        He sees some hope too in the rise of a younger generation of Middle East leaders that came of age in the 1980s or 1990s, in an era of US hegemony, taking over from leaders who had run the region since the colonial era. “With the Saddam Husseins, Mubaraks, Gaddafis, and Salehs out of the way,” he writes, “there may be a new way forward.”

        The basis for Frantzman’s qualified optimism lies in his belief that the whole ISIS episode was a unique phenomenon – a one-off. In his words: “”it appears that the power of ISIS was sui generis. A group like this will not appear again. This was the apogee of Islamist extremism and jihadist groups.”

        Although the US-led coalition finally gained a territorial victory, Frantzman is critical of the pattern of the military effort. “A lesson of the ISIS war,” he writes, “is that you can win the battle, but you might end up leaving the battlefield to adversaries – such as the Syrian regime or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq – when it is all over.”

        “After ISIS” is a comprehensive, insightful, thought-provoking account of how an exceptionally ruthless and brutal organization succeeded in capturing the imagination of scores of thousands of Muslims the world over, how it rose to control large parts of Syria and Iraq and rule over millions, and how finally it was defeated. For anyone wishing to understand how this all came about and what might follow, “After ISIS” is essential reading.

“After ISIS: How defeating the caliphate changed the Middle East forever”
by Seth J Frantzman
Gefen Publishing House
299 pages $16.95

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, 13 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 September 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 20 September 2019:

Friday, 6 September 2019

Is the Trump-Taliban deal dead in the water?

        Over the past 18 years there has been an armed insurgency in Afghanistan. It is being waged by the extremist Muslim organization called the Taliban, and directed against coalition troops led by the US. Up until 4 am on Sunday morning. September 8, a breakthrough aimed at ending the conflict seemed to be within sight. Nine painstaking rounds of talks between the US and the Taliban over the past year appeared to be resulting in an agreement. Any such development is now moribund.

        We are within days of marking the 18th anniversary of the worst-ever terrorist attack on the United State – the events of 11 September 2001. It was quickly established that responsibility for the onslaught lay with the al-Qaeda movement, but the US was convinced that the Taliban was sheltering its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. As a result, shortly after 9/11 a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and America embarked on its longest war. It has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American military and civilian personnel. 

        Despite the additional troops sent to Afghanistan from time to time, the Taliban actually gained ground. According to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.” 

        Coming into office in January 2017, President Donald Trump promised a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops. Later that year he changed tack, announcing an increase in troop levels to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that this was a first step in a strategy aimed at opening negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal. 

        In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators. On 25 February 2019 peace talks began, with the co-founder of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Barada, at the table. They got off to a good start. Agreement was reached on a draft peace deal involving the withdrawal of US and international troops from Afghanistan, matched by an undertaking by the Taliban to prohibit other jihadist groups operating within the country. 

        Deadlock soon followed. Among other stumbling blocks was the Taliban’s refusal to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regarded as a US puppet regime. But on September 2, 2019 Zalmay Khalilzad, head of the US negotiating team, revealed in a TV interview details of the long-awaited deal. The Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan would never again be used as a base for militant groups seeking to attack the US and its allies, in exchange for the withdrawal of 5,400 of the 14,000 US troops. A pullout of the remaining forces would depend on conditions, including a ceasefire and the start of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. 

        US officials said they had received a commitment from the Taliban that it would respect the country’s democratic constitution – one of the few tangible legacies of the allied intervention. But with the Taliban still engaged in military activity affecting Afghan civilians, public support for a deal is tempered with a great deal of scepticism. Many fear that it could see hard-won rights and freedoms eroded. The memory lingers of the strict religious laws imposed on the population, and the brutal treatment of women, when the Taliban ruled large areas from 1996 to 2001. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in common with much of Afghan public opinion, knows that It would be an unmitigated disaster for Afghanistan if the outcome of any peace agreement was a resumption of the Taliban’s tyrannical rule. 

        So it came as a complete surprise, not to say shock, to learn from a tweet issued by President Trump late on Saturday night (EST) that a secret meeting between the president and Taliban leaders, with President Ghani also present, had been planned for this weekend, to take place at Camp David. Right throughout the formal peace discussions the Taliban had maintained their armed insurgency, concluding that this policy had, if anything, strengthened their negotiating position. 

        They had clearly decided to pursue the same tactics in respect of the unprecedented invitation to the United States. On September 5 a suicide car exploded in the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing at least 10 Afghan civilians, and two soldiers, one of them a US paratrooper. The Taliban claimed responsibility. 

        This time they miscalculated badly. On learning of the death of Sergeant Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, Trump cancelled the meeting and called off peace talks entirely. Justified as it is, this move smacks of Trump’s “Art of the Deal”, which is to maintain the initiative and keep the other side on tenterhooks. For Trump to achieve his aim of withdrawing from Afghanistan, negotiations will have to be resumed sooner or later. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 10 September 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 9 September 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 9 September 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 8 September 2019

An Anglo in Israel

This article of mine appears in the Jerusalem Post magazine of 6 September 2019

        Most outsiders’ impression of daily life in Israel is based on media reports, and the media concentrate on the violent, the shocking and the newsworthy. So on visits back to the UK the general line of enquiry from relatives and friends is: “What’s it like living in Israel with all that violence?” Pointing out that knife crime in Britain is at an all-time high doesn’t wash as a response.

        I often reply by saying that a stroll down London’s Oxford Street is similar in most respects to a stroll down Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff. You don’t expect, and rarely if ever witness, anything more distressing than a heated political argument between friends. What’s more, if Britain prides itself on having become a genuine multi-ethnic society over the past half-century, a glance at the crowds on Dizengoff should convince any visitor that Israel is comparable in that respect.

        As for the charge, loosely flung around by BDS supporters, that Israel is an apartheid state, that I say is easily disproved by a trip to Hadassah hospital as either patient or visitor. The most sceptical would be convinced that racial discrimination simply does not exist. The six- or eight-bed wards are filled indiscriminately with Jewish and Arab Israelis, and the doctors and nurses who work side by side for all the patients are a similar mix. The apartheid charge is a fantasy.

        Yet of course Israel faces problems which, unresolved for decades, feed extremist agendas and spill over into violence. Arab citizens have grievances, but they are at least able to vote representatives to the Knesset to speak on their behalf and strive to redress them. Palestinians in the West Bank, still subject to Israel’s Civil Administration, resent living in a sort of no-man’s-land controlled by the military. Then there are the two million Palestinians in Gaza, who exist under an administration run by Hamas, an extreme rejectionist organization hell-bent on eliminating Israel and regaining the whole of mandate Palestine.

        Hamas and its perpetual program of threatened or actual violence does exemplify one unique aspect of life in this country. Being under existential threat of attack from all sides generates a particular frame of mind. A glance at a map of the Middle East reveals that Israel sits in the midst of states not only hostile, but positively dedicated to its destruction. To the west is Hamas. To the north is Lebanon, now virtually dominated by Hezbollah, an Iranian-controlled terrorist organization which is continually threatening all-out war. To the north-east lies Syria, a vital link in Iran’s so-called Shia Crescent. Beyond lies Iran itself, wholly intent on wiping Israel off the map. With Israel’s two immediate neighbours, Jordan and Egypt, there exists an uneasy peace – a Cold Peace – in which governments cooperate in respect of their self-interest, but friendly relations between peoples is virtually non-existent.

        These are the factors, I tell them, that gives life in Israel its special flavour. People under siege generate a bond of common concern, and we can’t really forget the threat. Its reality is brought home by the occasional practice sounding of air-raid sirens, when we are expected to take cover, and sometimes by the real thing. All the same, though everyone is aware that danger lurks around the corner, normal daily life in Israel proceeds for the most part placidly – or as placidly as your Israeli can tolerate.

        For the truth is that action and excitement are more to the general taste. Living under these conditions produces a sort of nervous energy that is almost palpable. Israel is a young country, and there is a vibrancy in the atmosphere, a feeling that society is on the move.

        Israelis are proud of the title “Start-Up Nation” because, with a population of about 9 million, Israel has become an acknowledged world leader in high-tech innovation. This feeling of a nation moving ahead is enhanced for anyone travelling around the country. Construction, both commercial and residential, is booming; infrastructure development is everywhere in evidence. For example, the Jerusalem light railway, itself a major innovation, is being extended. The Tel Aviv light railway is under construction. The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast rail link, though admittedly late in arriving, is on the way. The government publication “Infrastructure for Growth 2019” lists 204 mega projects in the pipeline, totaling 196 billion shekels ($56 billion).

        So why, concerned friends ask, doesn’t Israel sort out the Israel-Palestinian dispute once and for all, gain the world’s approval, and forge ahead?

        Efforts to resolve the conflict are strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, but the sad truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.

        The reason is not difficult to deduce. Arab opinion as a whole resents the presence of the state of Israel in its midst. Palestinians mark Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 annually with their own Nakba Day (“Day of Catastrophe”). Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.

        Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas has spent the past 14 years nominally supporting the “two-state solution”, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War?

        Given the founding beliefs of Abbas’s party, this tactic – inherited from his predecessor, Yassir Arafat – obviously represents only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, an objective explicit in what he says in the Arabic media, but which he never expresses in his statements to the world.

        Supporting the two-state solution has swung world opinion to the Palestinian cause – but the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader could ever sign up to an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine”. To do so would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. It would probably be more than his life was worth.

        No, the innumerable peace negotiations have at least yielded one inescapable truth. Short of committing hara-kiri, Israel could never offer enough because its very existence is anathema to the other side.

        Unless and until the Palestinian leadership accepts that Israel is here to stay, the stalemate seems doomed to persist. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, due to be unveiled after the Israeli elections on 17 September, has been condemned in advance by the Palestinian leadership. What is needed is an Arab-wide consensus, reached with Israel, on the future geo-political configuration of what was Mandate Palestine.

        One possible result of intensive, but realistically-based, negotiations might be the creation of a new legal entity – a Confederation comprising three sovereign states: Israel, Jordan and a new-born Palestine. Such a Confederation, conceived specifically to guarantee the security of all three partners through close military and economic cooperation, might also provide the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each. Living in Israel might then be even more stimulating than it is already.

Published in the Jerusalem Post magazine, 6 September 2019:

Monday, 2 September 2019

Are Iran and Israel edging towards war?

            Military activity by Israel over the weekend of August 24-25, 2019, reported widely in the media, ratcheted up Iranian-Israel tension in the region. Because these operations appeared to be a response to the threat of imminent hostile action, the idea that they may also be consistent with a deeper strategy was not the subject of much comment. Yet alongside a determination to prevent the transfer of Iranian military hardware to Hezbollah, an Israeli policy of consistently degrading Iran’s armed forces and their proxies is becoming increasingly apparent.

          This longer-term pattern of Israeli military thinking parallels what is emerging as Iran’s deeper purposes in the region. Despite its standoff with the US over the past two years, Iran’s power base in the Middle East has been substantially enhanced. Its “Shia Crescent”, once a rather aspirational concept, is now a reality. Having supported and developed the military capabilities of its proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, Iran is now engaged in transferring to them its advanced missile and unmanned drone capabilities. The Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza are making use of them. If Iran has its way, Hezbollah will one day unleash them on Israel. 

          At the same time Iran pursues with increasing determination its opposition to much of the Sunni Muslim world in general, and to Saudi Arabia in particular, seeking constantly to undermine and eventually overturn their regimes. In this one particular the moderate Arab world and Israel know they stand shoulder to shoulder. 

          The latest clashes began early on the morning of Saturday, August 24, when, acting on intelligence indicating an imminent “killer” drone strike, Israel attacked military sites in Syria. Details remain sketchy, but it appears that the targets were Iranian controlled bases in Aqraba, south-east of the capital, Damascus. Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, which is closely tied to Iran’s forces in Syria, claimed that Israel had targeted Hezbollah positions. 

          Shortly afterwards Lebanese sources reported that two Israeli surveillance drones had come down in a Hezbollah stronghold in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. An unmanned drone was said to have fallen on the roof of a media center belonging to the group, and a second to have exploded in mid-air and crashed nearby. Some reports speculate that they had been involved in the earlier attack in Syria. 

          Then on Sunday night, August 25, Israeli aircraft carried out three airstrikes deep inside Lebanon on a base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the terrorist group fighting alongside Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias in support of Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The base is located in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, near the border with Syria. 

          Later that Sunday evening three rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel. Two were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, but one exploded next to the Route 34 highway. Within hours the Israeli Air Force had launched a series of strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip, hitting a Hamas military base

          Is all this military activity by Israel, largely explicable as direct reaction to provocation, consistent with a longer-term strategy aimed at weakening Iran’s aggressive capabilities? There have certainly been some unclaimed and unexplained anti-Iran activities in the recent past. 

          For example a blast on Tuesday night, August 20, apparently caused by an aerial attack, struck a pro-Iranian Shiite militia facility 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. It came after three unexplained explosions in recent weeks on Iraqi Shiite militia sites that served or hosted Iranian assets. The last of these demolished a weapons depot. One report said that 50 missiles stocked at the targeted site were destroyed. 

          Iraq’s paramilitary groups backed by Iran have blamed the series of recent blasts at their weapons depots and bases on the US and Israel. The Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Shaabi, is the umbrella grouping of Iraq's mostly Shia militias. It said the US had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region and carry out missions on Iraqi territory. The US-led coalition, in Iraq to fight remnants of the Islamic State, denied the accusation. 

          Another blast the week before at a weapons depot run by one group sent rockets hurtling across southern Baghdad, killing one person and wounding 29 others. A government investigation of an earlier explosion near Baghdad concluded that it was caused by a drone attack. 

          Israel has, in line with its normal policy, neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for these attacks inside Iraq, but if it did carry them out, it would be an extension of its normal anti-Iran campaign. The last time it struck Iranian targets inside Iraq was in 1981, when Israeli fighter jets bombed a nuclear reactor under construction south of Baghdad. 

          Escalation is also been the name of the game on Iran’s part. Its recent attempt, frustrated by the Israel Defense Forces, to launch a flotilla of “killer drones” into Israel has upped the stakes. Israel’s immediate claim of responsibility for the strike against the Iranian-controlled bases in Syria also strikes a new note. It underlines Israel’s determination to foil any ambition Iran might harbour of establishing a permanent power base in either Syria or Iraq. 

           The world must hope that neither side will advance its political aims to the point of armed conflict.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 September 2019: