Saturday, 15 June 2019

The state of Iraq

          The years of internal conflict that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq in 2003 have at last been succeeded by a degree of precarious stability. 

          Iraq is a federation of three elements held in uncertain balance – the Shia majority, the Sunni minority and the Kurds in their northern autonomous region of Kurdistan. But it also faces the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate that dominated large areas of the country for more than three years. In addition the government has to cope with the presence of two competing power brokers lodged within their body politic – the US and Iran. 

          Iraq’s political parties, mirroring the balance of politico-religious power underlying the Lebanese constitution, have reached an informal agreement under which the presidency is reserved for Kurds, the premiership for Shia Arabs, and the post of speaker of parliament for Sunni Arabs. Accordingly, in October 2018 the veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih was elected by parliament to serve as president for the first of a maximum of two four-year terms. In line with the political agreement, Salih appointed Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shi’ite, as prime minister.
          Mahdi, with a wealth of ministerial experience under his belt. is faced with a formidable agenda. The defeat on the ground of IS, the result of a united effort by government and Kurdish forces backed by support from the US and its coalition, leaves Mahdi with the task of rebuilding the infrastructure of large parts of the country. 

          Yet although all the territory previously part of the IS caliphate has been reclaimed, the organization’s destructive activities have not been effectively quelled. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report for 2018 condemns IS for dozens of explosive attacks on civilian-populated areas, and the capture and extra-judicial killing of civilians. 

          In February, UN Secretary General António Guterres said in a report to the Security Council that IS has already "substantially evolved into a covert network...it is organizing cells at the provincial level, replicating the key leadership functions." Despite its losses, said Guterres, it still controls between 14,000 and 18,000 militants in Iraq and Syria. Cells "appear to be planning activities that undermine government authority, create an atmosphere of lawlessness, sabotage societal reconciliation and increase the cost of reconstruction and counter-terrorism."

          These activities include kidnappings for ransom, targeted assassinations of local leaders, and attacks against state utilities and services, including setting fire to crops in bizarre imitation of Hamas’s attacks on Israeli farmers close to Gaza.

          A severe humanitarian problem also faces the authorities. The newly elected US senator for Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, recently visited Iraq and found that some 30,000 widows and children of dead IS soldiers had been interned in camps in the desert, including 10,000 children under the age of 5. She was not able to discover what, if anything, was planned for them.

          In a recent interview with President Salih, journalist Christian Caryl elicited a frank appraisal of the difficulties facing the nation. Salih himself pointed out that Mosul, its second-largest city, had been recaptured from IS more than a year ago, yet the city remains in ruins. Discussing the effectiveness of Iraq’s administrative machinery, the president admitted the need to fight a deeply entrenched culture of corruption in the bureaucracy, the government’s failure to provide basic public services such as water and electricity, and the challenge of preventing a full-scale IS revival.

          Taking all its problems into account, however, a vital factor affecting Iraq’s current, as well as future, prospects is that it is the second–largest crude oil producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after Saudi Arabia. 

          During the first half of 2018, Iraqi crude oil output stood at about 4.5 million barrels per day (b/d), including oil produced in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Disputes between the government and the KRG flare up from time to time, but an innovative “swap deal” with Iran involving northern crude production seems to be functioning very effectively. 

          Iraq abuts Iran right along its 900-mile (1450 kilometer) eastern border. Accordingly, in the far north Kurdish Iraqi crude oil is trucked to Iran, while in the far south Iran ships the equivalent volume of crude oil from its Kharg terminal to Basra. Iraq plans to double the amount swapped with Iran in this way to 60,000 b/d of crude oil.

          In this, and in many other ways, Iran is intent on retaining Iraq within its sphere of influence. Washington believes Iran’s aim is to destabilize the country. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently accused Iran of financing and training militia groups and promoting Islamist politicians, including followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Shiite cleric who controls a militia known as the Mahdi Army. 

          Deeper analysis suggests the main motives for Iranian involvement are to push out coalition forces and Western influences; to keep Shi’ites in power, since Shia Iraq is a useful support for Iran’s much wider “Shia Crescent”; and to maintain Iraq as a federal state, minimizing Sunni influence and optimizing the Shia regions. 

          Iraq is slowly emerging from the trauma of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the turmoil that followed his overthrow. There is a long road yet to travel, but there is reason for hope. Iraq may yet develop into a democratic and prosperous island of stability in a chaotic Middle East. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 June 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/15062019-the-state-of-iraq-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 17 June 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/06/17/the-state-of-iraq/

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel

This review appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
             
                                       
          The title chosen by Jerold S Auerbach for his new book, “Print to Fit” is a deliberate inversion of the slogan invented by the first owner of the New York Times (NYT), Adolph Ochs, which has appeared on the front page ever since – “All the News that’s Fit to Print.” Auerbach subjects the New York Times to a meticulously researched analysis of its attitude over the years 1896 to 2016 towards Zionism and Israel, and comes to a firm conclusion. With some notable exceptions, the paper’s coverage has consistently been skewed against both. In short, what the NYT has printed has often, perhaps usually, been designed to fit the profound anti-Zionism of its original owner, passed on to succeeding generations of publishers, all of whom have been family members.

          At least part of this indictment has very recently been acknowledged as valid by the NYT’s editorial board itself.

          On Thursday April 27, 2019 the NYT international edition published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon. As a tsunami of adverse criticism from around the globe engulfed the paper, the cartoon was withdrawn, the editor responsible was disciplined and several apologies appeared in its pages. Then, on April 30, in an editorial denouncing its “appalling political cartoon”, the editorial board acknowledged its own historical contributions to the rise of anti-Semitism.

          “In the 1930s and the 1940s,” it wrote, “the Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.”

          In Zionism’s early days political cross-currents motivated Adolph Ochs, and Auerbach examines them in some detail. In the very year that Ochs acquired the Times – 1896 – Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, published “The Jewish State”, while in the following year the first World Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. From it emerged Zionism’s fundamental objective: “To establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law."

           Most old-established and well-assimilated Jewish families in the States, mirroring the same type of families in Britain, were profoundly opposed to the concept, arguing vehemently that there was absolutely no need for a sovereign Jewish state with all the trappings of nationhood, since Jews were not a race, a nation or a people, but merely adherents of a religion. Many wealthy American Jews, deeply anxious not to be suspected of entertaining the idea of a dual loyalty, proclaimed themselves unreservedly American by nationality and Jewish by religion. They were patriotic Americans of the Jewish faith. Their Zion was America.

          Ochs and his family belonged to the Reform wing of Judaism, where these beliefs were strongest, and it was from this source that the NYT drew much of its opinion journalism on the issue of Zionism. As Auerbach illustrates with chapter and verse, published comment turned largely on the thesis that Zionism was wrong in principle and in any case impossible to realize. The NYT covered only briefly the appearance in November 1917 of the document that eventually led to the fulfilment of the Zionist dream – the Balfour Declaration, which announced that the British government favoured the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

          Although Zionist achievements in Palestine were occasionally lauded in the pages of the NYT – for example, the inauguration of the Hebrew University in 1925, the rapid development of Tel Aviv and the agricultural successes of the young pioneers – adverse criticism of Zionism as a principle remained a persistent feature of its coverage during the Mandate years. The violently anti-Jewish Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was the subject of laudatory articles, and the deteriorating situation between Arabs and Jews was at first laid firmly at the Zionists’ door. Although its coverage later became more nuanced, the NYT’s balance always tilted away from the requirement laid on the British government by the Mandate to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was the doomed attempt to realize this, the NYT often argued, that lay at the root of Palestine’s ills. In short, the problem in Palestine was Zionism.

          Auerbach maintains that the greatest dereliction of its journalistic duty, however – as the editorial board itself acknowledged in 2019 – was in how it handled the rise of Nazism, its adoption of anti-Semitism as state policy, the discrimination and indignities heaped upon Jews in the 1930s, and the deliberate attempt to exterminate the whole Jewish population of Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1940s.

          In addition to that innate anti-Zionism that marked the NYT’s editorial policy from the beginning, Auerbach identifies a second factor at play over the years. Each of the successive publishers, acutely aware that they themselves were Jewish, were one after another determined to ensure that the Times was never perceived as a “Jewish” newspaper lest it be devalued “in Gentile circles”.

          Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Ochs’s son-in-law and immediate successor, insisted that Jews were not to be identified as a distinctive group in stories run by the NYT. So in describing the plight of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the late 1930s, the Times deliberately ignored the fact that they were Jews. By-passing the fact that the prime reason for their predicament was the institutional anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, it described thousands desperately seeking places of refuge as “a problem of mankind.” Auerbach quotes an NYT editorial which, describing the fate of 500 Jewish refugees stranded in a riverboat on the Danube for months, does not mention that they are Jews but identifies them as “helpless and terrified human beings.”

          The fact that Jews were major victims of the Nazi regime was consistently downplayed – a deliberate editorial policy instituted in order to avoid the NYT being perceived as too pro-Jewish. Even at the end of the war in Europe, Auerbach notes that the horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page. “The liberation of Dachau did,” he writes, “without any indication that most victims were Jews.”

          The New York Times never lost its basic distaste for Zionism and thus, more often than not, for Israel. The reaction of its Jewish correspondent to the Six Day War was disappointment that Israel had not used its military triumph “to offer the Palestinians honorable terms.” In the 1970s the policies pursued by Israel’s first right wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, mostly infuriated the NYT. It had no time for the Greater Israel concept, and deplored the extension of settlements. Even coverage of the Begin-Anwar Sadat peace treaty of 1979, although given an approving nod, was the subject also of an admonition. Israel had to “distinguish its security needs from territorial ambitions on the Arab populated West Bank.”

          Following the first intifada and the terror bombings inside Israel, voter opinion strengthened on the right; the NYT’s stance on Israel hardened accordingly. During the second intifada, which witnessed some of the most horrific suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians, the Times, as Auerbach puts it, “resolutely held ‘both sides’ responsible.”

          In essence that remains the NYT’s editorial position to this day. Extraordinarily, the convictions and attitudes that dictated Adolph Ochs’s editorial approach to Zionism and Jewish affairs as he published his first edition in 1896 were maintained over the years. Auerbach asserts that the NYT’s reporting from Israel was consistently dominated by journalists “whose evident liberal bias constricted and distorted their coverage.” The Times, he maintains, remained faithful to Ochs’s concept that Zionism challenged American Jews’ loyalty to the United States. Accordingly, the NYT came to believe that criticism of the Jewish state somehow affirmed American patriotism. Somewhere along the way, Auerbach affirms, all the news “fit to print” became news “printed to fit New York Times discomfort with the idea – and since 1948 the reality – of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”

          “Print to Fit” leads the reader through Israel’s story along an unfamiliar route. The New York Times is one of the world’s leading newspapers. It is regarded as a “journal of record”. For more than 120 years it has been shaping American opinion. Jerold S Auerbach argues convincingly that, as far as Zionism and Israel are concerned, the paper has consistently been far from objective in its editorial policy, has fallen short of its own high standards, and has consequently failed in its journalistic obligations to the public.

          On November 14, 2001, in The New York Times' 150th anniversary issue, former executive editor Max Frankel wrote that before and during World War II, the Times had maintained a consistent policy to minimize reports on the Holocaust in their news pages. Laurel Leff, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, concluded that the newspaper had downplayed the Third Reich targeting of Jews for genocide. Her 2005 book Buried by the Times documents the paper's tendency before, during and after World War II to place deep inside its daily editions the news stories about the ongoing persecution and extermination of Jews, while obscuring in those stories the special impact of the Nazis' crimes on Jews in particular. Leff attributes this dearth in part to the complex personal and political views of the newspaper's Jewish publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, concerning Jewishness, antisemitism and Zionism.


Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 24 June 2019:

Monday, 10 June 2019

Islamic State - the British connection

This article of mine appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 24 June 2019
          In 2006 the trenchant British political commentator Melanie Phillips published a volume that quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Titled Londonistan, it was the first major attempt to explain how and why the UK had become what Phillips termed “the epicentre of Islamic militancy in Europe” – a hub for recruiting, financing and promoting Islamic terror and extremism.

          The incentive behind the book, and the urgent need Phillips felt to arouse the public’s awareness to the major problem facing it, was probably the London bombings on 7 July 2005, the worst terrorist attack to take place on British soil.

          At 8.50 on that morning explosions tore through three trains on the London Underground, killing 39 people. An hour later 13 people were killed when a bomb detonated on the upper deck of a bus in central London. In addition more than 700 people were injured.

          It was subsequently established that the attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers with rucksacks full of explosives. The investigation characterized the four as “ordinary British citizens”, but the British public was forced to recognize that these relatively unassuming young men, living what appeared to be quite normal lives, had been radicalized by extremists living freely in Britain and operating from institutions functioning legally on British soil.

          For decades Britain’s laissez faire attitude towards immigration had meant that centres of extremist Muslim thought had been established across the UK without any effective system of control.

          Professor Lorenzo Vidino of George Washington University, an expert on Islamism in Europe and North America, has explained in detail how, since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organized network of mosques, charities and Islamic organizations”. By way of an often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity the Brotherhood now has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Austria and numerous other European countries. 


          Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood. Its basic principles lie at the heart of both IS and al-Qaeda. In founding the Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, Hassan al-Banna declared: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

          The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its strategy, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. “The presumption,” said Professor Bernard Lewis in his book “The Crisis of Islam”, “is that the duty of jihad will continue … until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”

          This ruthless obsession with imposing its version of Islam on the entire globe is, in the view of its adherents, of such paramount importance that its achievement justifies the use of any means, however excessive. The more confusion, dissension and terror created, the better. Those willing to sacrifice their own lives in pursuit of these ends are martyrs.

          These were the teachings promulgated in Britain from the 1980s by radical Muslim preachers to willing or vulnerable young Muslims. In November 1999 a UK newspaper reported that Muslims were receiving weapons training at secret locations in the UK. The report identified Anjem Choudray as a key figure in recruiting for these training centres. Choudary was convicted of soliciting support for a proscribed organization, namely Islamic State (IS), and in 2016 imprisoned.

          Finsbury Park is a district in the north-east of London. In 1994 a new 5-storey mosque was officially opened in a ceremony attended by Prince Charles and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who had contributed funds for the building. Three years later a fanatically radical cleric named Abu Hamza al-Masri became its imam, and soon the mosque was being described as "the heart of the extremist Islamic culture" in Britain.

          One of his disciples was Richard Reid, born in London in 1973, a young criminal who had been in and out of prison from the age of 16. During his incarceration in 1992 for various street robberies, he converted to Islam, and on his release in 1995 began attending the Finsbury Park Mosque. Here he fell under the sway of terrorist talent spotters and handlers allied with al-Qaeda, including Djamal Beghal, one of the leaders of the foiled plan for a 2001 suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Paris, and then of Abu Hamza.

          On December 22, 2001 Reid boarded an American Airlines flight between Paris and Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he tried unsuccessfully to detonate. Passengers subdued him on the plane, and in 2002 he pleaded guilty in a US federal court to eight counts of terrorism. He was sentenced to three life terms plus 110 years in prison without parole.

          By the end of 2014 Islamic State had reached its physical apogee. Spread across Syria and Iraq, it covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. At the same time it was claiming responsibility for a succession of horrific terrorist attacks across the world, causing the deaths of thousands. At its high point, IS was attracting thousands of young Muslim recruits, both male and female. Britain was an especially fruitful recruiting ground. In November 2014 Labour MP Khalid Mahmoud told the media that he believed as many as 2,000 British citizens were fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.

          One such UK citizen who achieved worldwide prominence was a young man described by a former schoolfriend as “a typical north-west London boy.” Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but moved with his parents to the UK aged six. He attended a good school, and went on to university where he graduated in computing. In late 2013 he joined IS on the Turkey-Syrian border.

          In August 2014 IS issued a video capturing the horrific death of US journalist James Foley by beheading. Just before the gruesome murder, a man standing beside Foley, dressed in black, wielding a blade and speaking in a British accent, delivered a warning to the US government. He then appeared to start cutting at his captive's neck before the video faded to black. The next screen showed James Foley’s body on the ground.

          Over the following months a series of similar videos were issued, showing further beheadings. In at least two of them the masked figure himself appeared to kill his victim. The man in black with the British accent was later positively identified as Mohammed Emwazi.

          On November 12, 2015, US officials reported that Emwazi had been hit by a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria. His death was confirmed by IS in January 2016.

          Bethnal Green is a district in east London. It sprang into sudden prominence in February 2015, when three schoolgirls attending the Bethnal Green Academy suddenly disappeared. CCTV equipment located at Gatwick airport caught the three – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase, and Kadiza Sultana – leaving the country. Another image showed them several hours later at a bus station in western Istanbul.

          The three were following their friend – confusingly named Sharmeena Begum – who had fled to join IS the previous December. Media reports suggested that Sharmeena had been targeted for recruitment by a group known as the "Sisters Forum", affiliated to the Islamic Forum of Europe, that met at an east London Mosque.

          When the three teenagers reached the Syrian border, they were picked up by smugglers working for IS and taken into the group's territory in northern Syria. Once there, they were each married off as “jihadi brides” to foreign fighters, three of the thousands who had flooded in from across the world. In Nazi fashion, Islamic State aimed to raise a new generation of children supporting its so-called caliphate, and grooming young women to the cause was key to that plan. A month later, five other girls from Bethnal Green Academy, all aged 15 or 16, were barred by the High Court from travelling abroad.

          In February 2019 a heavily pregnant Shamima Begum resurfaced at the al-Hawl refugee camp, along with 1,555 other women and children who had travelled from abroad to join IS. Her two Bethnal Green companions were believed to be dead. Shamima and her Dutch-born husband had retreated with IS to their final stronghold of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and when the caliphate faced final defeat by US-backed Kurdish-led forces, they had fled.

           In interviews with the British media Shamima begged to be returned to the UK, but when questioned she said she did not regret joining IS, and that she was “OK” with the beheadings she had witnessed. Her story initially was that she had been nothing but a Muslim housewife, but later, after she had given birth and this baby had died like her previous two, reports emerged that Shamima had played an active role in the caliphate’s reign of terror. It was claimed that she had been a member of the “hisba”, the IS morality police, a feared group which enforced the organization’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. There were also allegations that she had stitched suicide bombers into explosive vests, so they could not be removed without detonating.

          As a result the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped Shamima of her British citizenship and debarred her from returning to the country – a decision currently being appealed in the British courts which, in a typically British gesture of tolerance, have granted Shamima and her supporters legal aid with which to pursue their case. Londonistan is living up to its reputation.


Published in the Jerusalem Report issue dated 24 June 2019:
https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Islamic-State-the-British-connection-592430

Impasse in Afghanistan

                                             Video version      
          Certain areas of the world, simply on account of their geographical location, seem destined to be perpetual trouble spots. One such unhappy country is Afghanistan. Because of its position plumb in the middle of central Asia, Afghanistan is a prize that has been fought over and won by foreign occupiers many times in its long history. Its domestic story is equally turbulent, with warring tribes battling it out over the centuries for power and control. In 2019 the basic pattern persists.
          Britain gained control over Afghanistan in the 19th century as part of its imperial expansion, but after it granted India independence in 1947 the political dynamic in central Asia changed. Afghanistan became a client state of the Soviet Union, and when a military coup by the hard-line Islamist Mujahadeen seemed about to remove the country from the Soviet sphere of influence, the USSR invaded.

          Soviet forces were soon mired in continuous and unproductive guerrilla warfare, and in 1989 the USSR admitted defeat and withdrew. But the turbulence had left its legacy – first, the jihadist group al-Qaeda, set up by Osama bin Laden, and then the rise of the hard-line Islamist organization calling itself the Taliban. From the mid-1990s until 2001 the Taliban ruled Pashtun areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, imposing an oppressively strict version of Sharia on the population.

          It was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 that focused the world’s attention on the Taliban. It was soon established that the events of 9/11 were the responsibility of the al-Qaeda movement, and the US accused the Taliban of providing sanctuary for its master-mind, Osama bin Laden. Shortly afterwards a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban were driven from power.

          President Barack Obama authorized an annual spend of some $5 billion on the Afghan security forces in an effort to raise their efficiency to a level that would enable the United States and its partners to reduce support, and eventually withdraw.

          It hasn’t worked. The Taliban have actually gained ground since 2017, in part because of increased support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran. 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 presidential office promising a quick win against the Taliban followed by the withdrawal of American troops, Donald Trump changed tack in 2017. Explaining that his policy was to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge, he announced that he would raise troop levels from 9,000 to 14,000. What he did not disclose was that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Taliban to try to reach a deal leading to US disengagement from Afghanistan.

          In December 2018 the Taliban announced that they would meet with American negotiators in Qatar to find a peaceful solution to the 17-year armed insurgency in Afghanistan.

          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 surprisingly productive start. Agreement was actually reached on a draft peace deal which involved 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. After no less than six rounds of talks the Taliban negotiators were demanding an American troop withdrawal within six months of any agreement, and were refusing to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they regard as a puppet regime.

          American negotiators, on the other hand, were unwilling to withdraw US troops until the Taliban had reached a deal with the Afghan government, believing that an early withdrawal without peace would leave the country open to civil war, or a swift Taliban military takeover.

          At this point Russia stepped in, and invited the Taliban to peace talks in Moscow to be attended by “senior Afghan politicians” planning to challenge President Ashrat Ghani in this year’s presidential election. The talks were held between 28 and 30 May, and a Taliban official reported that “decent progress” had been made, though there had been no breakthrough and further talks would be necessary. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Taliban delegates reiterated their position that no ceasefire could be possible while foreign forces remained inside Afghanistan.

          Trump caused alarm within the Afghan government earlier this year when he appeared to signal he would pull out troops unilaterally from a conflict he considers a costly failure. The prospect of such a withdrawal seems to have receded, but the mere rumour was sufficient for some Taliban delegates to think they can wait out America.

          “They still think the Americans are going to leave en masse,” said one US official. “They are waiting for the Trump tweet.”

          Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, chief US negotiator, will be meeting the Taliban envoys in June for a seventh round of talks, as he tries to clear away the obstacles to an agreement.

          Success, he said, “will require other parties to show flexibility.” But the Taliban show little signs of doing so. Even Khalizad’s call for a ceasefire has fallen on deaf ears..

          “No one,” said Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, “should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad, or forget our forty-year sacrifices before reaching our objectives.”

          An impasse indeed. 
 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 June 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/08062019-impasse-in-afghanistan-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 June 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/06/08/impasse-in-afghanistan/

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Trump versus Iran - the state of play

                                                                                  Video version
        May 2019 has seen a marked deterioration in the long-running US-Iran standoff. Back on 8 May Washington announced it had acquired credible intelligence suggesting a possible Iranian attack on US troops on the ground and at sea. Accordingly the Pentagon dispatched an aircraft carrier, B-52 bombers and other military resources to the Gulf.

        On 24 May Vice-Admiral Michael Gilday, director of the Joint Staff, announced a further deployment. “We have had multiple credible reports,” he said, “that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack US personnel in the Middle East.”

        In response the Pentagon decided to send additional American troops, drones and fighter jets to the Middle East, including some 1,500 US military personnel, a Patriot battalion to defend against missile threats, and a fighter aircraft squadron.

        Referring to a recent rocket attack in Iraq, armed drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations and the sabotage of four vessels including two Saudi oil tankers, Gilday said: “We believe with a high degree of confidence that this stems back to the leadership in Iran at the highest levels.”

        Iran’s leadership at the highest level, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, has never concealed the fundamental purposes of his administration – total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.

        US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. Obama came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength and its political record. In his apology tour, which began in Strasbourg on April 3, 2009, he said that throughout the nation’s existence, "America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”.

        His mention of Iran at that early stage is significant. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar puts it, was to transform US-Iranian relations, with the aim of using Shia Iran to help defeat Sunni Al-Qaeda. In 2014 the Wall Street Journal revealed that Obama had exchanged secret correspondence on at least four occasions with Iran’s Supreme Leader, attempting to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict.

        The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event the opposite was the case. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.

        In Syria, Iran used its alliance with President Bashar al-Assad to build what amounts to a state-within-a-state, just as it did in neighbouring Lebanon in the 1980s when it set up Hezbollah. By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. In consequence the US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.

        Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

        Donald Trump denounced both Iran and the nuclear deal from the start, and after he was elected president soon withdrew from the deal and re-imposed sanctions that severely harmed Iran's economy. He has consistently accused Tehran of breaching the spirit of the nuclear deal and supporting extremist groups in the Middle East. He recently ordered countries worldwide to stop buying Tehran's oil or face sanctions of their own, and placed new sanctions on Iran's metals, its largest non-petroleum-related source of export revenue.

        Despite a show of bravado, the Iranian leadership is rattled. Though the EU opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and is seeking to maintain its trade ties with Iran, its proposals for economic guarantees have been judged "insufficient" by the Supreme Leader. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has questioned whether Europe has the will to continue with the current deal.

        Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morphe into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.

        Doubtless, against this domestic unrest the leadership sets its success on the world stage. Iran’s geopolitical reach extends through Iraq, into Syria, then to Lebanon and out as far as the Gulf state of Bahrain. The achievement of this strategic Shia Crescent has been a dream of the radical Iranian leadership for decades. It is now a reality. Iran’s leadership feel confident they can out-maneuver any sanctions that the Trump administration may impose.

       As for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Iran, in the midst of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.


Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 May 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/31052019-trump-versus-iran-the-state-of-play-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 31 May 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/05/31/trump-versus-iran-the-state-of-play/?fbclid=IwAR3jk1eDhJ1blDiS5uknACh1dokVaRpEkS88saz1y8Ge2c9LxF1OMURK7YA
 

Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Destruction of the Shtetl

Grigory Kanovich’s latest novel tells of the dramatic and heartbreaking fate of a Lithuanian town called Mishkine.
          The towering chronicler of shtetl life in its heyday was, of course, Sholem Aleichem. Its disintegration has been recorded with humanity and deep understanding by Grigory Kanovich in his great success “Shtetl Love Song”. Now he recounts its destruction – ultimately a tale of violence and death that Aleichem could never have envisaged – in “Devilspel”.

          Kanovich focuses our attention on Mishkine, an obscure Lithuanian township. Here Jews and Lithuanians have lived side by side for generations, separate in their religious beliefs and customs, but with lives inextricably interwoven. Intermarriage is far from unusual. Conversion one way or the other not unknown. Indeed, one central character, a young half-Jewish Lithuanian called Yuzik, falls in love with Elisheva, a Jewish girl, is converted by a rabbi and has himself circumcised. But before the novel’s end, in an ironic twist of fate, Elisheva has been baptized by the local priest in an effort to protect her from the Nazi invaders and their Lithuanian collaborators.

          “Devilspel” is set in the summer of 1941, the period during the Second World War when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Within a week Lithuania, ruled by the USSR since the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, is in German hands. Many Lithuanians, resentful of the rule of their historic Russian oppressors, greet the invaders as liberators. Relationships are torn apart as collaborators hasten to implement the anti-Jewish orders of their new masters.

          In Mishkine – as in townships across Lithuania – virtually all the Jewish inhabitants are rounded up, slaughtered and buried in a communal grave in a forest clearing. Kanovich, concerned above all with the individuals of his town, their lives and their fracturing relationships, chooses not to describe the massacre in any detail, but concentrates instead on the way of life that it cut short, and the aftermath.

          The sense of a world on the brink of extinction permeates the novel. Significantly Mishkine’s Jewish cemetery, run by Danuta Hadassa, the non-Jewish widow of the deceased Jewish grave-digger, features prominently. Danuta symbolises the complex mixture of origins, faiths and relationships that characterized Lithuanian shtetl life in its final stages.

          Danuta has two sons, Yuzik and Aran, who fall in love with Jewish sisters, Elisheva and Reiza, the daughters of the town’s tailor, Gedalya Banksheva. Yuzik – or Yakov as he came to be known after his conversion – helps his mother run the graveyard, while she herself, once totally ignorant of Judaism, comes to cherish the Jewish dead she finds herself in charge of. The girl he loves, Elisheva, works on an isolated farm and is thus not included in the round-up of the town’s Jews. Not knowing what has become of her relatives, she returns to the family home, only to find it occupied by her father’s old apprentice, Juozas, who is now a leading figure among the pro-German Lithuanians. When she learns what has happened to the Jews of the town, she insists on being taken out to their mass grave in the forest to say her farewell, and Juozas, who was once sweet on her, reluctantly shows her the place.

          The experience is too much for her to bear, and the next day Juozas finds her dead. He brings her body to the Jewish cemetery, where Yakov buries her. But Juozas, fearing Yakov will tell the authorities about “his seditious kindness and dangerous tolerance”, denounces him to the authorities, who come for him the next day. The novel ends where it began – in Mishkine’s Jewish cemetery – now deserted and overgrown, inhabited only by the ravens who daily “tried to awaken the dead with their ominous cawing.”

           Grigory Kanovich was born into a traditional Jewish family in the Lithuanian town of Jonava. He was twelve on the outbreak of the Second World War, and fled with his parents, spending the war years in Kazakhstan and the Ural Mountains. When they returned in 1945, they discovered that during the three-year German occupation more than 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population had been massacred. Kanovich conceived it to be his life’s work to record for posterity the collective memory of past generations of “Litvaks” – Lithuanian Jews.

          In “Devilspel”, as in his “Shtetl Love Song”, Kanovich uses both the precision of direct personal knowledge, and deep emotional perception, to chronicle for us the very spirit of the shtetl-township, its way of life, and the motives, ambitions and passions that move its inhabitants, both Lithuanian and “Litvak”. However in this work he goes further. He takes as his central theme the moment when the old way of life stood on the very brink of extinction, and he imagines for us the swirl of emotions and the turn of events that might have been in play as it finally came to an end. “Devilspel”, a remarkable literary work, appeals to both heart and mind. For anyone who wants to understand how past generations of millions of today’s Jews spent their lives, it is required reading.


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 17 May 2019

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Britain bans Hezbollah

This article appears in the edition of the Jerusalem Report dated 27 May 2019

          Al Quds Day in 2019 falls on May 31. Al Quds, literally “The Holy One”, is the Arabic term for the city of Jerusalem. The occasion, despite its twenty-year history, is not one that commands much universal recognition. 

          In 1979 Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the last Friday of Ramadan would henceforth be consecrated as Al Quds Day, an annual opportunity for all enemies of Israel to have a field day. To mark the occasion those so inclined around the world organize marches and rallies to denounce Israel and declare their support for the Palestinian cause.

          The UK has witnessed Al Quds Day rallies for many years. A dominant feature, as demonstrators chanting slogans and waving banners parade through central London, has been the preponderance of the yellow and green flag of Hezbollah, the organization dedicated to destroying Israel. That flag will be notable by its absence from the rally being planned for 3 pm on June 2, 2019.

          Britain has had a long relationship with Hezbollah. and has disengaged from it only slowly. The divorce was made final on 26 February 2019, when Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced in the House of Commons that he was banning the organization as a whole under the Terrorism Act 2000.

          “We are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party,” said Javid. “Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety.” Anyone expressing support for any part of Hezbollah could in future face a prison sentence of 10 years.

          Although Labour’s front bench spokesman maintained that there was no new evidence justifying a change in the UK’s position, the Labour party did not oppose the measure.

          The UK first banned what was then described as Hezbollah's “terrorist wing” in 2001. This followed a long succession of terrorist attacks against Western targets, and culminated in the abduction by Hezbollah in 2000 of three Israeli soldiers from the Israeli side of the Israel-Lebanese border, and their subsequent murder.

          In 2008 the UK added what it designated Hezbollah’s “military wing” to its ban, after the organization targeted British soldiers in Iraq. But it reserved judgment on the organization as a whole, citing as its reason Hezbollah’s direct involvement in the internal politics of Lebanon.

           As a consequence, since Hezbollah’s so-called “political wing” was not proscribed, the rally parading through the streets of London every year to mark Al-Quds Day was legally entitled to display the Hezbollah flag. Distasteful as this annual display of racism was to many Londoners, and as much as successive Home Secretaries disapproved, it was not an offence to do so.

          Any distinction between so-called “military” or “political” wings of Hezbollah – a distinction which the EU copied from the UK – is illusory. Presenting the new measure in the Commons, Javid said: "There have long been calls to ban the whole group, with the distinction between the two factions derided as smoke and mirrors. Hezbollah themselves have laughed off the suggestion there is a difference. I've carefully considered the evidence and I'm satisfied they are one and the same with the entire organization linked to terrorism."

          And indeed Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassen, declared in 2012: "We don't have a military wing and a political one...Every element of Hezbollah…is in the service of the resistance." He added unequivocally: “We have one leadership, with one administration." In short, Hezbollah is a unified organization, and its jihadist purpose is basic to its existence.

          A glance at Hezbollah's organization confirms this. It has a unified command structure consisting of five sub-councils, or assemblies. Above them sits the Shura Council, which controls the leadership of Hezbollah and all its operations, and comprises nine members, seven of whom are Lebanese and the other two Iranian.

          Iran’s involvement at the very top of today’s Hezbollah is no surprise. In the 1970s Lebanon, torn apart by civil conflict, was under the occupation of the Shia-aligned Syrian government. Around 1980 – the exact date is disputed – Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, still basking in the glory of his 1979 Islamic Revolution, decided to strengthen his grip on Shi’ite Islam by consolidating a number of Lebanon’s militant Shia Muslim groups. He formed and funded a body calling itself Hezbollah, or “the Party of God”. Its forces were trained and organized by a contingent of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

          Hezbollah declared that its purpose, in line with Khomeini’s, was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Very shortly Hezbollah was acting as Iran’s proxy in perpetrating a campaign of terror against their two perceived enemies. A wave of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations were carried out across the world. These include the detonation in 1983 of an explosive-filled van in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 58 Americans and Lebanese, and the bombing of the US Marine and French Drakkar barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 American and 58 French peacekeepers.

          In 1992 Hezbollah operatives boasted of their involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people, and two years later claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina and the subsequent death of 85 people. The atrocities continued: 21 people, including 12 Jews, killed in an airplane attack in Panama in 1994; the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing inside Saudi Arabia killing 19 US servicemen; the 2005 assassination of one-time Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2012 Burgas bus bombing in Bulgaria killing 6. Over the eight years of the Syrian civil war Iran recruited thousands of Hezbollah fighters to help keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and restore his lost territories to him.

          It is no surprise, therefore, that Hezbollah in its entirety has been designated a terrorist body by the Arab League, as well as by a batch of other nations including Canada, the Netherlands, the USA, all the Gulf states that form the Gulf Cooperation Council and, of course, Israel. Now the group is joined by the UK, but notably absent from the list is the United Nations. In praising Britain’s decision, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, said: “We will continue to lead the struggle for the Security Council to recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and mobilize the international community against it, as it serves as an arm of Iran to spread Tehran’s aggression.”

          During its 38 bloodthirsty years of existence Hezbollah has nevertheless managed to achieve a certain acceptability in Shia Muslim sections of Lebanese society. In the election that followed Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone that it had established along the border, Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process, and has been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic, to a point where it has been dubbed “a state within a state”.

          In Lebanon’s 2018 general election Hezbollah again strengthened its parliamentary position. When the subsequent political deadlock was finally resolved on January 31, 2019 and a government was formed, the organization was allocated three ministries including, for the first time, the Ministry of Health which controls one of the country’s largest budgets. In addition the Finance Ministry is in the hands of a Hezbollah ally.

This situation causes a delicate diplomatic dilemma for all the states that have proscribed Hezbollah. In supporting the ban in the House of Commons, UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said; “We are staunch supporters of a stable and prosperous Lebanon. We cannot, however, be complacent when it comes to terrorism. It is clear the distinction between Hezbollah’s military and political wings does not exist, and by proscribing Hezbollah in all its forms the government is sending a clear signal that its destabilizing activities in the region are totally unacceptable and detrimental to the UK’s national security.”

But Hunt added: “This does not change our ongoing commitment to Lebanon, with whom we have a broad and strong relationship.”

Because Lebanon’s constitution is itself a precarious balancing act between its various religious factions, it has coped with this unsatisfactory position for two decades. But if Hezbollah’s power within the Lebanese administration ever became dominant, Britain might have to think again about its relationship with Lebanon itself.


Published in the Jerusalem Report, 17 May 2019:
https://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Britain-bans-Hezbollah-589893

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Sudan ablaze


                                    
                                                                                Video version
          Back in June 1989 a Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a bloodless military coup in Sudan. Once he had ousted the previous regime, it was not long before he assumed full executive and legislative powers, declared himself President and established a dictatorship. He ruled Sudan for a full 30 years with an iron grip.

         He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. Bashir’s 30-year rule came to an end on 4 April 2019, when widespread popular uprisings precipitated a coup by the military which ousted him. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the umbrella group representing those agitating for complete change in Sudan, are determined that this uprising will not be hijacked by another military junta.

          Currently the military group that engineered the coup rules through a Transitional Military Council (TMC). Sensitive to the popular mood, the TMC have agreed to hand over power to civilian rule, but the two sides are by no means in one mind about the details. Still to be settled is the composition of the "presidential council" that will temporarily replace the head of state, and also how and when an interim parliament and government will be established.

          The African Union (AU) has been acting as honest broker. It is well-placed to do so. Founded in 1999, its membership consists of 55 nations located on the African continent. After a meeting on 6 May 2019 between UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Moussa Faki Mahamat, representing the AU, a joint UN-AU communique welcomed "AU-led efforts to facilitate a consensual and civilian-led transition, in close coordination with the UN".

          The AU initially gave the military coup leaders 15 days to hand over power, but extended the deadline to 60 days. It strongly supports the concept of a civilian-led transitional government as the next step for Sudan.

         Sudanese protesters rally outside the army complex in Khartoum on 18 April 2019

          When Bashir seized power in 1989, Sudan – then Africa’s largest country – was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between north and south. Eventually Bashir acknowledged that secession by the south was the only way forward. Following a referendum, South Sudan split from the north and became independent in July 2011. It was the culmination of more than a century of armed struggle by southern Sudanese activists.

          Demography lay behind the conflict. Most inhabitants in the north are Arab by descent, and Muslim by religion. The south is home to most of the 570-plus Sudanese tribes, very few of whom are either Arab or Muslim. A fair proportion were converted to Christianity by western missionaries.

          Towards the end of the nineteenth century Sudan became the focus of interest by Western European colonial powers. The Blue and White Niles converge just outside Khartoum, Sudan’s major city, and Britain, France and Belgium laid claims to it. Britain had plans for an irrigation dam at Aswan, in Egypt, and needed control of the Nile’s headwaters. In line with the gung-ho philosophy of the time, the British government authorized Brigadier Horatio Herbert Kitchener to conduct military campaigns against the unstable Sudanese regime, nominally in support of the Egyptian government which had previously held power. Kitchener’s campaigns culminated in a decisive victory in the battle of Omdurman in September 1898 – and as a result he was created an Earl, and took the title Lord Kitchener of Khartoum.

          Sudan was subsequently administered by Egypt, under Britain’s watchful eye, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Agreement. It lasted from 1899 to 1955, but tensions were present from the start between the northern part of the country and the south, which soon began demanding autonomy if not outright independence. Fifty years of continuous civil conflict ensued, only brought to an end with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005. Subsequent negotiations led eventually to southern Sudan splitting from the rest of the country in 2011 and achieving independence.

          But as Bashir was signing the 2005 peace agreement with the south, another conflict was breaking out in the western region of Darfur. Claiming government discrimination against the region and its non-Arab population, rebels took up arms. The brutal measures employed by Bashir to suppress this led to his being accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

          Despite an international arrest warrant issued by the ICC, Bashir organized, and unsurprisingly won, consecutive elections in 2010 and 2015. And so far he has avoided arrest, even when he ventured outside Sudan. For example in 2017 he visited Jordan for an Arab League summit. On 6 May 2019 the ICC ruled that Jordan failed to meet its international legal obligations to arrest Bashir during that visit. The ICC appeals chamber said that a sitting head of state does not have immunity from arrest for alleged grave crimes, even when the leader is from a country that has not joined the ICC.

         Media reports claim that he is being held in Kober prison in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The transitional military council that assumed control in the country has said they would not hand Bashir over to face justice at the ICC, but could try him in Sudan or a forthcoming civilian government could do so. Meanwhile not only is Bashir wanted by the ICC, but Sudan’s public prosecutor has ruled that he is to be interrogated on charges of financing terrorism and money laundering.

          Bashir’s fate has become one element in the negotiations aimed at settling the civil conflict and returning the country to civilian rule.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 May 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/12052019-sudan-ablaze-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 12 May 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/05/12/sudan-ablaze/

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Trump's deal of the century – straws in the wind


                                                                            Video version
          Following Israel’s general election and Benjamin Netanyahu's victory at the polls, Washington announced that the Trump peace plan – dubbed by the President as “the deal of the century” – would be unveiled after Ramadan, which in 2019 concludes on 4 June. In short, there is little more than a month to go before the big reveal.

          Meanwhile the Palestinian leadership is redoubling its efforts to build Arab opposition to the plan, none of whose details have yet been revealed. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has toured Arab capitals seeking a consensus to oppose it, whatever it contains and whenever it is revealed.

          While in Cairo in April 2019, Abbas attended a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and urged them to support Palestinian opposition to the deal. Abbas’s new prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, appointed after a recent PA government reshuffle, met a visiting Democrat US Senator in April. Their reported exchange revealed the extent of the fears generated within the PA about what the secret plan might actually contain. Simply on the basis of speculation the Palestinian leadership is pretty certain that it is going to endorse Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, thus destroying the two-state solution and any chance of establishing an independent Palestinian state on pre-1967 lines.

          At about the same time a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip announced the formation of a new body called “The Higher National Commission for Resisting the Deal of the Century”. The official said that the body consisted of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as from Arab and Islamic states, who would discuss mechanisms for strangling the not-yet-born peace plan at birth. He urged all Palestinian factions to resort to “armed and popular resistance” to the Trump deal.

          Meanwhile, on 23 April Jared Kushner gave an interview at Time Magazine’s 100 Summit, an annual gathering of the world’s most influential people. For the first time, in discussing the peace plan that he has been heading for the Trump administration for the past two years, he gave some insight into its construction. His peace team had studied all the different past efforts, said Kushner, and analysed how and why they had failed.
                                                 
          “We’ve taken, I think, an unconventional approach,” he said. “Normally they start with a process and then hope that the process leads to a resolution ... What we’ve done is the opposite. We’ve done very extensive research and a lot of talking to a lot of the people. We’re not trying to impose our will.”

          He called the Arab peace initiative of 2002 a very good attempt, but if it had been workable, “we would have made peace a long time ago.” His peace team had decided on a bottom-up focus. “How do you make the lives of the Palestinian people better? What can you resolve to allow these areas to become more investable? We deal with all the core status issues because you have to do it, but we’ve also built a robust business plan for the whole region.”

           Avoiding a question about the two-state solution he said: “I think that the document you’ll see, which is a very detailed proposal, is a … comprehensive vision for what can be if people are willing to make some hard decisions … There’ll be tough compromises for both [sides].”

          Kushner said he was hopeful that when Israel and the Palestinians examined the proposal they would recognize that “this is really a framework that can allow us to make our lives all materially better. And we’ll see if the leadership on both sides has the courage to take the lead to try to go forward.”

          Taking his lead from Kushner, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman was also prepared to indicate the direction of travel the peace team had taken. He told the media that the plan was an effort “to think out of the box and capture the imagination and hopes of both sides for a better life.”

          Asked about the rationale of unveiling the plan if the Palestinians had already rejected it, Friedman drew a distinction between the Palestinian people and its leadership.


          “The Palestinian people deserve the opportunity to consider a meaningful alternative to the status quo,” he said, “as does Israel. We see value in presenting that vision, even if the initial Palestinian leadership reaction is negative.”

          Finally in an interview with CNN in mid-April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set out the strategic objectives of the peace initiative. He described it as "a vision that has ideas that are new, that are different, that are unique, that tries to reframe and reshape what’s been an intractable problem ,,. We hope that we can get to a better place. Everyone wants this conflict resolved. We want a better life for the Israelis without this conflict, and we certainly want a better life for the Palestinian people."

          Both Trump and his peace team have indicated in the past that their initiative is indeed not so much a plan as a deal, a give-and-take proposal in which both sides would be expected to compromise. Until the details are revealed, it would be impossible for either Israel or the Palestinians to predict whether the benefits on offer would justify the sacrifices demanded.

The main obstacle to its favourable reception is that the PA leadership is scarcely in a compromising mood. They have rejected Trump as an honest broker following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his recent declaration in support of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. What can Trump put on the scales to outweigh that?

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 May 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/05/04/the-deal-of-the-century-straws-in-the-wind/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 5 May 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/05052019-the-deal-of-the-century-straws-in-the-wind-oped/

Friday, 26 April 2019

The virtual Islamic State


                       Video Version
          Just a few years ago the Islamic State (IS) was only too real. Spread across Syria and Iraq, It covered more than 34,000 square miles and controlled millions of people. Its revenues came from oil produced in the areas it had overrun, sold at bargain prices to dealers in Turkey and elsewhere, augmented by taxes levied on its population, the sale of stolen artifacts, ransoms from kidnappings, smuggling and extortion.

          At its height IS had set up a system of government that in many aspects paralleled that of a modern state. The ruler – the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – headed a central structure of advisory councils and administrative departments that were replicated regionally, and then right down at local level. These departments oversaw a range of functions and services including health provision, education, a legal system, security, finance and media – services which came with a clear ideological orientation, particularly the religious and educational institutions it set up in newly acquired territory.

          Once an area fell under its sway, IS focused on getting the utilities and sanitation systems up and running, and distributing food supplies, often providing better services than many of the populations had previously enjoyed – and consequently sometimes winning their support.

          IS reached its apogee at the end of 2014. By February 2015 it had been driven out of the Syrian border town of Kobane by Kurdish Peshmerga forces; in April of that year it lost the Iraqi city of Tikrit. From then on, facing a military coalition bent on its destruction, it began to disintegrate. Gradually but inexorably, as its forces suffered defeat after defeat, its territory shrank Finally on Friday March 22, 2019, following a lengthy battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates, IS lost its final stronghold.

          Al-Baghdadi’s dream of establishing a Muslim caliphate spanning the Middle East was dead. His caliphate had lasted less than five years. But the period of IS’s territorial decline also witnessed an increase in Its global appeal to young Muslims, both male and female, who came in their thousands to join the organization. Some, no doubt, have since become disillusioned by IS’s military defeat, but many have not. They will be aware that although the real on-the-ground caliphate has been obliterated, the virtual Islamic State has remained as potent as ever.  And on 29 April 2019 IS published a video showing al-Baghdadi alive and well, the figurehead for a continuing, if virtual, Islamic State.


          Throughout the period 2014-2018 Islamic State conducted or inspired a continuing series of terrorist activities across the globe. The TV network CNN, which maintained a running tally, recorded more than 70 such operations conducted in some 20 countries, resulting in a death toll of nearly 12,000 people. In 2018 alone there were 25 IS-inspired terrorist attacks, and the massacre of 2463 people.
          Within a month of IS’s final defeat on the ground, and as if to proclaim that a virtual version of the organization was fully functional, IS claimed responsibility for the horrific killing campaign in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. In a coordinated operation by suicide bombers that simultaneously targeted three churches and three hotels in Colombo, no less than 359 people were slaughtered and more than 500 injured.

          What motivates this merciless determination to attack, bomb and massacre people?

          The progenitor of the modern Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Before becoming the leaders of IS and al-Qaeda, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of al-Qaeda), all belonged to the Brotherhood.

          In founding the organization Al-Banna declared quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

          The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. Mustafa Mashhur, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from 1996 until 2003, set out its underlying philosophy in his 1995 book “Jihad is the Way”.

          “Jihad and preparation for Jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks against Muslims by Allah's enemies, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state, strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world."

          Islamic State strongly supports the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood. At its heart is a ruthless obsession with imposing its extremist version of Islam on the entire globe. If it cannot achieve its aim by territorial conquest, it will do so by sowing ideological dissension within societies that will not accept its concept of Islam. This purpose, in its view, is of such paramount importance that its achievement must not be deflected by normal human sentiments. The end justifies the use of any means, however extreme.

          During the period that al-Baghdadi held his territory, he used it to provide thousands of young recruits from around the world with a radicalizing education, combat training and experience.   To this, as far as the male recruits were concerned, he added a taste for rape, ultra-violence, and martyrdom.

          The danger these recruits pose does not end when they leave Iraq or Syria, or because the caliphate has been destroyed. The threat of terrorist violence by returnees, by local terrorist groups that affiliate with IS, or from individuals radicalized online by the group’s jihadist propaganda remains a toxic global threat.

          Meanwhile the virtual Islamic State lives on. On top of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, IS recently claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, an attempted attack in Saudi Arabia, and on 18 April the IS news agency claimed that its soldiers had assaulted a military barracks in the democratic Republic of Congo, killing eight people.

          As one US news site put it: “The Caliphate is defeated, but Islamic State is just getting started.”


Published in the Eurasia Review, 29 April 2019:
https://www.eurasiareview.com/29042019-the-virtual-islamic-state-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 29 April 2019:
https://mpc-journal.org/blog/2019/04/29/the-virtual-islamic-state/