Wednesday, 31 March 2010

March reviewed

It has been a roller-coaster of a month, filled with events that could not possibly have been predicted. Are the prospects for the start of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority better or worse than they were at the start of the month? That's difficult to assess, given all that has happened in the intervening 31 days.

At the beginning of March the assassination of the leading Hamas commander, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, presumably by Israel's secret service Mossad, was still high on the political agenda. Whatever the private views of various governments around the world, the action was nearly universally condemned. Yet it was not easy to see how the event could impact on the Israel-Palestine peace process.

It did several weeks later, when British foreign minister, David Milliband, expelled an Israeli diplomat because forged British passports had been used by the Israeli operatives carrying out the assassination. This expulsion, almost unprecedented between friendly states, certainly put additional strains on relations between the UK and Israel.

Even greater strains, equally unprecedented, were created in relations between the USA and Israel in the middle of the month.

George Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, had very skilfully wooed the various interested parties into agreeing to reopen peace talks with Israel. A special meeting of the Arab League had given its backing, the Palestinian Authority had authorised President Mahmoud Abbas to do so. It all seemed so much a done deal, that Washington arranged for US Vice President Joe Biden to fly to the Middle East to inaugurate this first phase of "proximity talks" – a sort of shuttle diplomacy in which Mitchell would act a honest broker between the two parties. The intention was that this phase would quickly lead to face-to-face negotiations.

Then everything went wrong. First Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, announced a controversial scheme to demolish some Arab properties in the Silwan neighbourhood to provide space for an open area of parkland. Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu quickly stepped in to quash the scheme. Then, on the day that Mitchell announced that proximity talks had been agreed, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for 112 housing units to be built in a West Bank settlement, apparently contravening the 10-month freeze on such construction agreed by the government. Barak hastily explained to the media that this very limited building work was essential on safety grounds.

The final major diplomatic debacle occurred shortly after the US Vice President arrived in the Middle East. Israel's Interior Minister. EIi Yishai, who also happens to be the leader of the religious Shas party, authorised the final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" that separates West Jerusalem from the parts of the city captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War.

Washington was outraged. The move was seen as an insult to the Vice President and to the US administration. Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, was pretty unequivocal in her condemnation not only of the timing of the announcement, but also of its substance. This hardening of attitude was maintained when Netanyahu flew to the States towards the end of the month. In unhappy discussions with President Obama, he was faced with a series of demands – including abandoning the Ramat Shlomo construction plans – designed to soothe outraged Arab opinion and provide sufficient by way of conciliatory gestures to enable the proximity talks to start.

For his part, Netanyahu stuck firmly to his position that no Israeli prime minister had ever agreed to limit the improvement and expansion of Jerusalem. In agreeing to freeze construction in the West Bank for ten months, his government had explicitly excluded Jerusalem.

The Quartet – the UN, the EU, the USA and Russia – in its meeting in the middle of March condemned the Ramat Shlomo building plans but supported the start of the proximity talks. The Arab League, meeting at the end of the month, adopted roughly the same position. Statements from Mahmoud Abbas were equivocal. He would state his position on the proximity talks in the first week in April.

Will Israel agree to accept President Obama's demands? If they cannot do so in full, will they offer enough to satisfy Washington? Will what is on offer be sufficient to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to participate in the proximity talks?

It is with these questions unresolved that we await the start of April and what lies ahead.

Monday, 29 March 2010

No vision from the Arab League

Anyone looking to the meeting of the Arab League in Libya this past weekend for some stirring vision for achieving peace in the Middle East will have looked in vain. It was a disappointing event. The summit ended without any significant decisions being taken, and most Arab leaders left early on Sunday afternoon, opting to give their final statements in writing.

There was a final declaration on key Arab issues. Prime among them was the unacceptability of any actions by Israel that alter the features of East Jerusalem, and an appeal to the international community to help maintain the status quo. The declaration authorises the establishment of a legal committee with powers to raise these issues before national and international courts.

In his keynote address, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged the conference to accept the conclusion of last week’s meeting of the diplomatic Quartet – comprising the UN, the European Union, the US and Russia. He said there was no alternative to a two-State solution, and that all final issues should be resolved within 24 months despite possible provocations from extremists. He appealed for Arab leaders to support US-led efforts to initiate proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most speakers reiterated their previous statements towards the Palestinian issue, namely that they support peace with Israel as a strategic solution. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, supported PA President Mahmoud Abbas in his decision to refrain from holding proximity talks with Israel until Israel renounces its building plans in East Jerusalem.

But this is an Aunt Sally of a reason to break off the move towards peace negotiations. There is already a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank, announced last November. In doing so, Netanyahu explicitly excluded Jerusalem from the freeze. So nothing at all has changed as regards the position a fortnight ago when Abbas, with Arab League backing, agreed to participate in the proximity talks. All that has happened is a diplomatic furore following the announcement of building plans in the Ramat Shlomo district of Jerusalem at the moment that US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel.

Not even Yitzhak Rabin, as he stood on the White House lawn shaking Yasser Arafat's hand, contemplated freezing the expansion and development of Jerusalem, both west and east. For it must be remembered that successive mayors have indeed built for the whole city. So the suspicion must remain that Mahmoud Abbas has gratefully seized on this latest furore over construction in Jerusalem - handed to him by the Obama administration - as a reason to push off the prospect of restarting peace discussions, with all the political hazards from Hamas and other Islamist extremists that this would attract.

As is not uncommon in meetings of the Arab League, divisions between member states, and between Arab leaders and their populations, became evident. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that his country, because it opposed indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis, would not be party to any statement issued by the summit.

This is an extraordinary position to adopt, seeing that the whole idea of proximity talks is based on two years of precisely such negotiations between Syria and Israel, hosted by Turkey. They were broken off when Israel attacked the Hamas regime in Gaza in December 2008.

Perhaps the most positive outcome from this 22nd summit meeting of the Arab League was the decision to hold an extraordinary summit before October to discuss overhauling the League itself. This was announced at the closing session by its Secretary-General, Amr Moussa. A five-party committee was set up, comprising Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, to prepare a document for the extraordinary summit to consider.

President Obama has staked much on achieving a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He has strained relations with Israel, America's essential ally in the Middle East, to an unprecedented degree. In doing so, he has given comfort to the very Islamist extremists that he is dedicated to overcoming - yet if he can persuade Mahmoud Abbas to the proximity talks, he could still out-manoeuvre them.

As far as Israel is concerned he has laid down a series of demands, among them opening a Palestinian commercial interests office in East Jerusalem, ending the demolition of structures in Palestinian neighbourhoods, stopping construction in Jewish districts in East Jerusalem, and abandoning the building project in Ramat Shlomo that sparked off the present diplomatic row.

Will these demands be acceptable to, or accepted by, Israel? It does not seem very likely. And the fear now in Israeli government circles is that the Obama administration is laying the ground for an imposed settlement, with the establishment and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state as its objective.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Obama-Netanyahu story

Benjamin Netanyahu has been remarkably unfortunate. On both occasions that events have propelled him to the premiership in Israel, he has had Democratic presidents in the White House to deal with - and let's be honest about it, Netanyahu is a born Republican.

Back in the 1990s Netanyahu's relationship with Bill Clinton was a disaster. The two men never got on. After meeting him for the first time, Clinton is reported as remarking: "he thinks he is the superpower, and we are here to do whatever he requires." One of Clinton's aides categorised Netanyahu's performance in the White House as "nearly insufferable". And later, in 2000, Netanyahu was vehemently opposed to Clinton's Camp David peace initiative during which the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat appeared to come close to an agreement that would have given a sovereign Palestinian state by far the greater part of the West Bank, and also East Jerusalem as a capital.

Now Netanyahu is heading a fragile coalition, held together through the support of right wing religious parties who are unyielding in their support of the West Bank settlers and the indivisibility of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, under pressure from the Obama administration, he succeeded last June in persuading his Cabinet to agree to his supporting a two state solution, and in November to vote in favour of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. So lessons in realpolitik appear to have been learned.

One might hope also that Netanyahu has learned just a little more in the way of diplomatic niceties in the intervening decade-and-a-half, but there was little sign of a meeting of minds between him and Barack Obama this week. Hours of discussion between the two failed to result in an agreed media statement, and Netanyahu actually postponed his return to Israel by an extra day in the hope of achieving some form of common position that will enable the proximity talks to get going. He and the President have spoken long and earnestly, not once but twice; Israeli officials have had discussions with their opposite numbers; there have been meetings with the President's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell – but a common position on building in East Jerusalem cannot be hammered out.

Just before boarding a plane back to Israel yesterday, Netanyahu said that progress had been made towards resolving the diplomatic crisis, but this optimistic spin was not echoed by the White House spokesman who commented on the Israeli prime minister's visit. All he allowed himself to say was: "I think we're making progress on important issues. But nothing more on substance to report than that."

So the deadlock remains on the substantive issue of the current and future status of Jerusalem. And yet, while the Israeli prime minister was still in Washington, ducking and weaving as the Obama administration threw punches at him, it is reported that the Pentagon and Israel's defence establishment were finalising a large arms deal, details of which will be announced very shortly. Israel, we are told, is to "purchase" three new Hercules C-130J airplanes designed by Lockheed Martin at a total cost of a quarter billion dollars. The aircrafts were manufactured specifically for Israeli needs, and include a large number of systems produced by Israel's defence industry.

And where is the money coming from? American foreign assistance funds.

It looks as though there might be more to the Obama-Netanyahu relationship than meets the eye.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

It all boils down to Jerusalem

The past two weeks have been a testing time for what is generally regarded as one of the most stable of alliances between nations – that of Israel and the United States. The diplomatic dust has yet to settle.

From the moment that President Obama took office, it was clear that two of his major policy objectives were to strive for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and to try to build bridges between America and the Muslim world. Only the most cynical would categorise these aims as mutually exclusive, but they were certainly calculated to move the United States into new and unfamiliar territory.

Meanwhile, in Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heading a fragile coalition heavily dependent on the support of right-wing religious parties. In the general election of February 2009 his Likud party actually won only 26 seats, as against the 27 of Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni. However a greater percentage of the popular vote went to right-wing rather than left-wing parties, and President Shimon Peres accordingly invited Netanyahu to form a government. Over the course of the year, under pressure from the United States, Netanyahu for the first time endorsed the idea of the two-state solution, and in November he managed to persuade a majority of his Cabinet to vote in favour of a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

In describing the step as "designed to encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbours," Netanhayu stressed that the settlement freeze would not be implemented in east Jerusalem. "We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital," he said.

President Obama's peace initiative began in earnest in January 2010. Having appointed George Mitchell his special envoy to the Middle East the previous autumn, he now despatched him to the region. Mitchell's remit: to facilitate the renewal of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that had been suspended on the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza. Slowly, patiently, with skill, Mitchell made his round of all the parties most closely concerned. When it appeared that direct face-to-face talks might prove too large a step in the first instance, he came up with the idea of starting the process with "proximity talks" based on a working model pioneered by Turkey, who for two years acted as honest broker while Israel and Syria exchanged ideas about a possible settlement of their differences.

He sold the idea to Israel's Netanyahu, to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to the Palestinian Authority, to the Arab League. The pieces of the jigsaw were in place. It was a done deal. President Obama decided to send the Vice President, Joe Biden, to Israel to initiate the resumption of negotiations.

But there was a fly in the ointment. The extreme right wing parties in Netanyahu's coalition remained as opposed as ever to any accommodation with the PA that involved curbing the development of either the West Bank settlements or East Jerusalem. The Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, happened to be also the leader of the extreme right-wing party, Shas. Selecting the moment that the US Vice President arrived in Israel, Yishai allowed the release of an announcement authorising the construction of 1600 new housing units in a district of Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" –that is, part of the city captured from Jordan in the Six Day War.

This was clearly a calculated statement of defiant opposition to the delicately-balanced agreement on the proximity talks, a slap in the face to the US Vice President, and a insult to President Obama who had invested so much in bringing the two principal parties so far. It was also a knife in the back of the Israeli prime minister. For I believe Netanyahu when he says that he was not party to the announcement. Indeed, he immediately instituted arrangements that should mean that gung-ho maverick actions of the like could never happen again.

Meanwhile there was a diplomatic mess to be cleared up. US Secretary of State Clinton did not mince her words about what had happened – her condemnation was forthright – but at the same time she was careful to emphasis that the underlying bond between America and Israel remained as close, indeed unshakable, as ever. Netanyahu and Clinton had a meeting on Sunday in Washington, before each addressed the annual conference of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). What passed between them can be judged from what each then said to the conference.

In her speech, Clinton reiterated the US commitment to Israel's security and the unbreakable ties between the two nations, while repeating her criticism of construction over the armistice line in Jerusalem. For his part, Netanyahu reasserted Israel's right to continue construction in Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, stressing that the districts in which construction was taking place over the Green Line were ones which it was understood by both sides would stay with Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, he said, building in these areas in no way precluded the possibility of a two-state solution.

Essentially that is where matters stand. Condemnation of the Jerusalem construction plans has been universal – from the Quartet meeting in Moscow last week, from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, from Hillary Clinton, to mention but a few. Netanhayu is reported to have offered a time-lag on their implementation to allow agreement to be reached on this matter, as part of a wider accommodation. Will this be sufficient to allow the proximity talks to get under way? Time will tell.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The close unshakable bond

"We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, at the very height of the diplomatic furore between the US and Israel – sparked when the leader of the religious Shas party, who also happens to be the Interior Minister, announced a new building project in a Jerusalem district well over the Green Line*, at the very moment the US Vice President stepped foot in the country to initiate the proximity peace talks.

This "close unshakable bond" is a great puzzle to many. The "reds under the beds" theorists, of whom there are many, of course ascribe it to the result of some malign Zionist conspiracy, whose aim is to achieve heaven-knows-what sinister ends – all on a par with the notorious, and long-discredited, forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (still quoted as a sort of gospel by extremist Islamist spokesmen).

Others more prosaically nominate the "enormously powerful Jewish lobby at the heart of the Washington machine." They are referring to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is indeed powerful, and has proved very successful during both Democratic and Republican administrations in achieving its main objective: to ensure that American support for Israel remains strong.

But why should American policy-makers allow US policy to be shaped by such lobbying?

The current international dynamic suggests a whole host of reasons, including Israel's strategic position in the heart of the Middle East. Israel's western values and democratic traditions provide a strong and reliable base from which to counter extreme Islamist activity in the region – notably from Iran, Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to name but some. Current American perceptions see potential threats not only to US interests, but actually to homeland security, from these sources and their international connections.

Considerations such as these have developed over the years, but they are essentially peripheral to a more fundamental rationale for that "close and unshakable bond" between the USA and Israel that is such a mystery to many. I am referring not to the so-called "Israel lobby", but to the Jewish connection to the body politic of the USA.

Visit the Jewish museum in Philadelphia (or the National Museum of American Jewish History,to give it its formal title), and you find in an early display cabinet a letter of greetings to the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Philadelphia signed by George Washington. A little further down sits a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the head of his Jewish community, thanking him for his loyal address. The fact is that the history of the United States is quite unlike that of any other western country, and that Jews were part and parcel of the foundation of the nation. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the Jews were there from the start.

In fact, the connection runs even deeper, for most of the early immigrants left their native shores in order to escape religious persecution. The national identity of the United States is embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and belief in God is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. The Bible is a cornerstone of the American national structure. Early fundamentalists, no less than those of today, would base their support of the Zionist dream on the Old Testament, its account of the release of the Jews from slavery and their journey, under God's guidance, to the "promised land, flowing with milk and honey".

The Jewish population of most nation states is minute. France has the largest in Europe, and there Jews represent some 0.8 per cent of the total population. In the UK there are something less than 300,000 Jews out of a total population of some 61 million – that is less than 0.5 per cent. But while Jews in European countries are counted in their thousands, in the States they number millions. Estimates vary but, according to some, more Jews live in the United States than in Israel. So Jewish opinion counts in the States, and both major political parties court it. Jews notoriously disagree among themselves on almost everything, and they spread their political favours accordingly. Nevertheless, a majority would certainly be in support of Israel's continued secure existence, no matter how opposed they might be to the policies of any individual Israeli government.

Given this background, Hillary Clinton's remark does not, perhaps, seem so surprising. Nor, perhaps, that she and Benjamin Netanyahu will be meeting later today (Sunday) at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington, which they will both address. Nor indeed that President Obama will also be meeting Netanyahu during his visit to the USA.

So the world had best acknowledge that, for better or worse, the USA has two self-imposed international obligations: its "special relationship" with the UK, and its "close unshakable bond" with Israel. Perhaps it should be added that neither is immutable. What is, in politics? Or in life?

*Note on the Green Line
The war between Israel and its Arab neighbours that followed the establishment of the State of Israel was brought to an end in an armistice agreement in 1949. Green ink was used during the armistice talks to draw the lines on the map that would separate Israel from her neighbours (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). The term was later applied to delineate also the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967. These include the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and those parts of East Jerusalem captured from Jordan.

Friday, 19 March 2010

What tune will the Quartet play?

The latest game in town: who can embarrass visiting guests the most?

Israel appeared top of the league last week, when Shas party leader and Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, selected the moment that US Vice President Joe Biden set foot in the country to announce a new 1600-unit housing construction project in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood. The intense diplomatic fallout has yet to settle.

Not to be outdone, a hitherto unknown extremist group inside Gaza which calls itself Ansar al-Sunna, chose a first visit yesterday by the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, Lady Ashton, to launch a Kassam rocket into Israel, the third in 24 hours. This one hit the Netiv Ha’asara area and killed a Thai greenhouse worker in his thirties.

This newly-established militant group, which is inspired by Al-Qaida, embarrassed the Hamas administration by its action almost as much as the EU visitors. Hamas has been faced over the past three years by a mounting security challenge from militant groups within Gaza. Sharing the hardline Islamist ideology of Al-Qaida, they have mounted a series of armed attacks, including bombings against Hamas officials and facilities. Their rationale is that Hamas has failed to impose Islamist rule in the Strip, that internet cafés, music shops and pharmacies that sell contraceptives are all allowed to flourish. Denouncing the Hamas régime as "crooked and perverted", they see their role as "cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations".

Hamas have been acting in a noticeably low-key way since the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and have been observing an unofficial truce on firing rockets. Concerned about further retaliation, they have been urging militant groups not to mount attacks on Israel, though with little success.

If Lady Ashton and her team came to Gaza prepared to castigate Israel for its Operation Cast Lead, the wind has been rather taken out of their sails. "I'm extremely shocked by the rocket attack and the tragic loss of life," said Catherine Ashton, immediately after the attack, adding that she was anxious that the proximity talks get under way as quickly as possible.

She is now in Moscow, in anticipation of today's meeting of the Quartet which is likely to put its weight behind the resumption of negotiations, despite the disruptive events of the past week. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will be participating in the Quartet meeting, also expressed his condemnation of the rocket attack. "All such acts of terror and violence against civilians," he said, "are totally unacceptable and contrary to international law."

So perhaps it will be with a new sense of the realities of the situation that the Quartet will conduct its deliberations today. They may take on board the fact that the threat of extreme Islamism to the stability of the Middle East, and to the "moderate" Arab governments of the region, is real. They need to appreciate that Iran in particular, with its aim of "devouring the Arab world" (in the words of Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak) is an ever-present danger. Its nuclear and political ambitions must be curbed. Perhaps the Quartet will realise that Hamas is a broken reed in this struggle, and that in consequence Israel and the Palestinian Authority must come to an accommodation, and soon, as a first step towards winning the conflict against extremists who would impose their way of life on the whole civilized world.

If the Quartet succeed in conveying this message to the parties concerned, and in ensuring that a start is indeed made soon in the proximity talks, they will have proved their worth.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Groundhog Day for Israel-Palestine

This pattern, too, seems inevitable, invariable, inexorable. No sooner do the two sides in the seemingly everlasting Israeli-Palestinian struggle approach the possibility of negotiation, seem on the brink of agreement, than some form of extremist action from one side or the other, undertaken with the express purpose of derailing the process, succeeds in doing so. It's a dreary tale of hopes raised and hopes dashed, not once but time and time again.

And now, once again, events seem to be following the time-hallowed sequence. The present stand-off with the USA was no accident. It was a committee of Israel's Ministry of the Interior that sparked it off by announcing approval of a plan to erect 1,600 new homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo. The Interior Minister is Eli Yishai, leader of the religious Shas party, and he knew precisely what he was doing. I believe Benjamin Netanyahu – though many would not – when he says he did not know the announcement was about to be made. To me, this seems a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the (literally) right hand was doing.

The fact is that, within the context of a final peace settlement, the issue of Jerusalem is insoluble given Netanyahu's present shaky coalition, dependent as it is on extremist right-wing religious support.

But as I set out in the piece entitled "Jerusalem" (13 January) the answer to the Jerusalem issue is no mystery. It's staring us in the face. The ceding of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian sovereign state has long been included in the various peace plans that have come and gone over the years. It wasn’t all that long ago that Israeli Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV: "We can find a formula under which certain neighbourhoods, heavily-populated Arab neighbourhoods, could become, in a peace agreement, part of the Palestinian capital that, of course, will include also the neighbouring villages around Jerusalem." And indeed, as prime minister in 2000, Barak led Israel's delegation at the Camp David peace talks, which included just such a vision.

It all depends on how you define "Jerusalem". The municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, which Israel lived with from 1948 to 1967, were radically redrawn after the Six Day War, and have been subject to a number of revisions since. A solution to the conundrum lies in redefining the boundaries one last time – and, in doing so, defining the boundaries of a new municipality, Al-Quds. An agreed redrawing of boundaries would indeed enable Israel to claim Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the new sovereign Palestinian state would acquire its own sister capital, Al-Quds.

Such a solution does not seem a viable option, given the shape of the present Israeli government.

Another pattern may be repeating itself. The last time that Netanyahu headed a government his intransigence infuriated Bill Clinton and his White House aides. The subsequent deterioration in US-Israel relations was certainly one factor in "Bibi" (as he is known in Israel) losing the subsequent election. What mainly exasperated the Clinton administration was Netanyahu's foot-dragging over the Oslo accords, which he had opposed from start to finish.

Since then Netanyahu's previously firm stance on territorial concessions has certainly relaxed on a personal level. He has not only declared himself in favour of the two state solution, but he succeeded in establishing a ten-month freeze on West Bank (though not East Jerusalem) settlement construction. All the same, he is in hock to those in his cabinet with views as extreme and deeply-held on these issues as ever.

The present débacle has undoubtedly provided the Obama administration with an opportunity to brighten its image – somewhat tarnished since the President's Cairo speech last June – in the Arab world. The unprecedentedly harsh rebukes to Israel emanating from Washington in the past few days are likely to have boosted Arab confidence in America as an effective peace broker if, or when, the parties get to sit down together around a negotiating table.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Middle East Realpolitik

American diplomat and author, Dennis Ross, goes so far as to assert: "Most Arab governments want Israel to be strong when it comes to Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas, and Syria." He believes that "common interests" between Israel and the Arab countries, on issues such as Iran and confronting the Islamists, are larger than commonly believed. He believes that pushing the peace process forward will help strengthen Arab co-operation with Israel on such threats. In short, he is convinced that realpolitik will be guiding future political action in the Middle East.

The term "realpolitik" was coined by a nineteenth-century German writer and politician, though the concept it embodies can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince", published in 1513, the classic study of power, its acquisition, expansion, and effective use.

"Realpolitik" has assumed various shades of meaning over the years. Today it is generally accepted to denote politics based primarily on practicalities rather than ideology, morals or principles.
To what extent does it govern the actions of the main players in the Arab-Israeli dispute?

Well it was surely realpolitik behind the speed with which the Arab League convened a special meeting on 3 March to back Mahmoud Abbas's participation in the proximity talks with Israel that had been so painstakingly organised by US special envoy, George Mitchell – and, indeed, at the equally speedy endorsement and go-ahead provided by the Palestinian Authority a few days later. For cast to one side were the pre-conditions that had been cited by Abbas as the reason for not coming to the table – a full cessation by Israel of construction in West Bank settlements and in Jerusalem.

Whether realpolitik will triumph, and the proximity talks actually go ahead, given Israel's inept and provocative actions of the past week, it will be fascinating to observe. The next set piece, which will certainly be aimed at keeping the proximity talks initiative on the rails, will be the meeting of the Quartet in Moscow this coming Friday.

Realpolitik involves pursuing political objectives without regard to morality. Power, its acquisition and its retention, are the supreme considerations. However realpolitik does not extend across the total spectrum of political consideration. What the concept ignores, I would suggest, are the ideological motives that might lie at the root of unprincipled action.

Examples? Just two, for considerations of space – though there's many a book still to be written on the subject.

Consider Hamas. Its founding charter commits the group to the destruction of Israel and to the replacement of the Palestinian Authority with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza. So ideology certainly underlies the organisation's rationale. Realpolitik, however, has governed its pursuit of its objectives, in respect both of Palestinians and of Israelis.

There is no conflict more bitter than between members of the same family, and straight after the elections of January 2006, even though they trounced the rival Fatah party, Hamas immediately inaugurated a struggle for power. In June 2007, in a bloody coup, they ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip altogether, and seized control. For the next twelve months Hamas pursued its struggle against Israel by firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into towns adjoining the border, until the six-month truce brokered by Egypt broke down and Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead into Gaza. Not much morality in either case.

Or take Israel. Israel's political stance, too, has a strong ideological base – the determination not to be ousted from the "national home for the Jewish people", as it was defined in the Balfour Declaration issued by the British government in 1917. This was the basis for the Mandate to govern Palestine, granted to Britain by the League of Nations, and later of the 1947 UN Resolution recommending partition - virtually a two-state solution.

The basic principles underlying the establishment of Israel, however, were never a justification for its pursuing expansionist policies back in the 1970s and 1980s regardless of the consequences for the Palestinian population, or pursuing them subsequently. There is a strong argument for believing that Israel's victory in the Six Day War in 1967 contained within it a pitfall that entrapped much of the nation – the "Greater Israel" concept that bedevilled national political action for the next twenty years. Another way of regarding this period, perhaps, is that it was a phase that Israel and the region as a whole needed to pass through, in order to allow the two-state concept at last to gain some general consensus both within Israel and in the Arab world generally. Small comfort though, in that view, for the people kept waiting for the light to dawn on both parties.

Now Israel and the Palestinian Authority seem on the brink of starting a dialogue, brokered by the United States, with the two-state solution as a basic objective. Whether the principal parties believe that an agreement would stick, or would bring the Israel-Palestine story to a happy ending, is doubtful. Realpolitk, however, dictates that the attempt should be made, in order to placate world opinion if for no other reason.

The truth is that the fulcrum of political attention in the Middle East is not, currently, Israel-Palestine, but Iran. Much of the Arab world, with the notable exception of Syria, regards Iran's present political activities with little short of alarm. Iran's nuclear ambitions are but thinly veiled, and if allowed to come to fruition would totally destabilise the Middle East. For a nuclear and militantly Islamist Iran would then pose a major political threat to many "moderate" Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia; it would shift the internal balance of power in such Muslim countries in favour of the Islamist extremists who are intent on overthrowing those governments (Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has spoken of Iran seeking to 'devour the Arab world').

The fact is that Iran is trying to create a coalition with Syria, with Hizbollah in Lebanon and with Hamas in Gaza. Last Friday, during a visit to Tunisia, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reported to have blamed Iran for impeding the possible reconciliation, brokered by Egypt, between his Fatah party and its arch-rival Hamas. “Iran doesn't want Hamas to sign the Cairo reconciliation document,” said Abbas, adding that the Palestinians should be “free from Iranian tutelage.”

The fact, of course, is that the practice of realpolitik is open to any sovereign state, and the state apparently most skilled in its deployment appears, at the moment, to be Iran itself. That argues for those nations and alliances opposed to Iran's ambitions, nuclear or political, to get their act together. Perhaps investing in a copy of Machiavelli's "The Prince" might be a good first step.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Quartet to the Rescue?

A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since my piece of 25 February ("Moscow and Tripoli – the scene shifts"). In that article I mentioned that a meeting of the Quartet had been mooted for 19 March, and that the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks actually taking place might partly depend on its outcome. In fact even more may hang on the result of the forthcoming Quartet meeting in Moscow than might originally have been envisaged.

Only 17 short days ago Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was unwilling to commit himself to re-entering negotiations with Israel. He had laid down a series of conditions, including a complete freeze by Israel on construction in the West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem. Moreover, he required the backing of Arab governments before considering the idea, and he proposed to raise the matter in the next scheduled meeting of the Arab League on 27 March in Tripoli.

But in the interim the Israeli-Palestinian kaleidoscope has been given a thorough, and totally unexpected, shaking. To start with, a special meeting of the Arab League was convened almost at once in Cairo, and the League promptly backed the idea of Abbas entering into "proximity talks" with Israel, to be hosted by the US. The Palestinian Authority gave its go-ahead a day later. Previous conditions laid down by Abbas were set aside or ignored. Additional assurances sought by Abbas from the US were provided to his satisfaction. Indeed it appears that a preliminary round of talks, with US envoy George Mitchell as interlocutor, may actually have taken place.

The deal seemed so cut-and-dried that Washington arranged for Vice President Joe Biden to travel to the Middle East to inaugurate, as it were, the reopening of peace negotiations.

Then it all went sour. First the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, summoned the media to announce a highly controversial scheme in the Arab neighbourhood of Silwan that would have destroyed some hundred houses in order to provide space for an open area of parkland known as the "King's Garden." It was only a last minute intervention by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that succeeded in kicking this potential public relations disaster into the long grass.

Worse was to follow. On the day that George Mitchell announced that proximity talks had been agreed, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for 112 new housing units to be built in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit. Facing accusations of violating the government's announced freeze on West Bank construction, Barak hastily assured the media that this was a one-off measure taken on safety grounds.

Finally, and worst of all, US Vice President Joe Biden had not been in the region twenty-four hours before Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, announced final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood in north-east Jerusalem. The action was instantly condemned outright by Joe Biden himself, and indeed it could only be interpreted as inept and insulting at best, and at worst downright provocative and intentionally disruptive of the peace initiative.

Arab voices in general, and those of Palestinians in particular, have been raised in protest. Statements issued from various sources have suggested that the prospects of the proximity talks getting under way, once George Mitchell returns to the Middle East this coming week, are far from as bright as they had been. Whether they have actually been derailed, time alone will tell.

Which makes the meeting of the Quartet in Moscow this coming Friday of even greater significance than might otherwise have been the case.

The Quartet? An ad hoc gathering of the USA, the UN, the EU and Russia. In 2002 it seemed obvious that the complex, ongoing Middle East conflict could only be resolved through coordinated international pressure on Israel and the Palestinians. In consequence the Quartet was formed, and its first session was held in Madrid in April 2002. In 2003, the Quartet proposed the Roadmap, a detailed timetable for peace, intended to lead to a two-state solution with a democratic Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel. On 19 November 2003, the UN Security Council officially endorsed the Roadmap with Resolution 1515.

The Roadmap is a three-stage peace plan under which both sides have pledged to move simultaneously towards reaching an accord. In the first phase the Palestinians are called upon to introduce measures to stamp out terrorism, build democratic structures, draft a constitution, reform the security apparatus and hold free and fair elections. Israel is meanwhile expected to facilitate the establishment of workable social, government and economic structures, and to halt the building of settlements. The second phase envisages the creation of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and elements of sovereignty. The third phase envisages an agreement on the final status, incorporating the issues of borders, refugees, Jerusalem and settlements.

Expected to attend the forthcoming Quartet meeting are UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs Lady Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the Quartet's special envoy, appointed on 27 June 2007, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Host Lavrov has already announced that during the Moscow meeting he is going to seek bilateral talks with the other Quartet representatives. Russia has previously indicated its interest in the idea of holding an Israeli-Palestine peace conference in Moscow. Is that the rabbit that Lavrov will be producing out of his hat?

Friday, 12 March 2010

In the Balance

After months of delicate, painful, slow manoeuvring by all parties, the renewal of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, originally scheduled to start in earnest next week, hangs in the balance. Has Wednesday's announcement from Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, of plans to build 1600 new housing units in an East Jerusalem suburb – extraordinarily timed, whether deliberately or not, to coincide with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden – scuppered the carefully nurtured "proximity talks" initiative? Signals emerging from Ramallah, Washington and Jerusalem are mixed.

On Wednesday Arab League chief Amr Moussa said that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had decided to scrap the talks in protest. By yesterday a more reasoned reaction seemed to be emerging. Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat declared that the talks would go ahead only if George Mitchell, the US envoy, informs the PA that Israel's East Jerusalem construction plans have been cancelled. “We can’t go to the talks while Israel is building settlements,” he said.

Hanna Amireh, a senior PLO official in the West Bank, appeared to endorse this line. Abbas had decided to postpone the launching of the indirect talks with Israel, he stated, until an agreement was reached on settlement construction. “The president is still willing to resume the talks," said Amireh. "At this stage we are only talking about a postponement and not a cancellation.”

But it seems as though the US has been exerting as much pressure as it can on Mahmoud Abbas not to walk away from the negotiations, even temporarily as a gesture. Both George Mitchell and Vice President Biden spoke with Abbas yesterday night, urging him to stay with the peace initiative. Conversations are also said to have taken place with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two events that have followed may be coincidental, but probably are not.

US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late on Thursday night (early Friday by Arabia Standard Time – one of the five time zones in the Middle East*),that the US believes indirect peace talks will go ahead as scheduled. "As far as I know, we are still moving forward," said Crowley. "We have not heard from the Palestinians that they have pulled out. George Mitchell is planning to be in the region next week and for further discussions on these issues. We remain committed to the process that is under way."

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has certainly apologised to Vice President Biden for the timing of the Interior Ministry's announcement, and has indicated that he has given Minister Yishai a dressing down. It is doubtful, however, if he actually disapproves of the planned development. Should it go ahead it would be entirely in line with the government's position on Jerusalem – that it is the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel". Which is why Netanyahu, while freezing West Bank settlement building for ten months, never gave an assurance about building in Jerusalem.

All the same it cannot have escaped his attention, nor that of Washington, that the plans themselves are three years old, and that following Wednesday's final approval of them, construction could not in any case commence for another two years. Saeb Erekat said that the PA could not enter negotiations while Israel was building settlements. As no building will in fact be proceeding, and as the status of Jerusalem in general, and East Jerusalem in particular, will certainly be on the table in any forthcoming talks, there would clearly be plenty of time to come to an agreement on these plans.

A significant event of a different kind – not widely reported in the world's media – took place yesterday. Five foundations in the Gush Etzion settlements of Efrat and Bat Ayin in the West Bank were destroyed by Israeli inspectors. The move was aimed at demonstrating that Israel is serious about enforcing the ten-month West Bank moratorium, passed by the government last November.

This operation seems to have been a sort of preliminary to a main event planned to start next week, and calculated indeed to make it into the world's headlines. Israel's Defense Ministry, it is reported, will be launching “Stage 3” of its crackdown on new construction in West Bank settlements, aimed at enforcing the current settlement freeze. The cabinet-approved operation provides for the arrest and indictment of settlers who obstruct officials distributing stop-work orders, as well as of settlers and contractors who illegally build in the settlements.

Under the plan, inspectors arriving at settlements to enforce the freeze will be accompanied by large police forces, which will arrest anyone who tries to prevent the inspectors from entering the gates of the community. In addition, criminal charges will be pressed against the owners of lots where construction is taking place in violation of moratorium regulations, as well as against contractors, and possibly against regional council chiefs if they are aware of the activity.

This remedial action by the Israeli government may be what is necessary to overcome any remaining hesitancy on the PA's part about coming to the proximity talks table . It may be sufficient to allow Abbas to accede to Washington's urgent request not to scupper this fragile peace initiative before it has fairly got going.

The events of this past week, and those about to occur next, should also serve as a warning to gung-ho Israeli politicians to think a little more before they leap.

* Note on Time Zones in the Middle East
Depending on which countries are included in the definition of "Middle East", there are five time zones in operation, differing from each other for most of the time by only an hour. Exceptions are Iran, which is running half-an-hour ahead of its Middle East neighbours, and Afghanistan which operates one hour ahead of Iran.

The main time zones in the Middle East are:
Gulf Standard Time
Arabia Standard Time
Eastern European Time
Iran Standard Time
Israel Standard Time

Daylight saving is followed by only three of these: Eastern European Time, Arabia Standard Time and Israel Standard Time.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Stephen Potter was a peculiarly English humourist. He flourished in the golden age of British radio (a period, say, between 1935 and 1965), and his wry, self-deprecating delivery of home truths delighted listeners for many years. In 1947 he published a book which he titled, tongue-in-cheek: "The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating)". It was filled with what he called "ploys" – subtle ways of disconcerting your opponent so that you gained an advantage and won the game, even if you didn't actually deserve to. He may have gained some of his ideas from watching world-class chess players, who seem to have turned these techniques into an art form.

Potter's book was so successful that, a few years later, he published a sequel, "Lifemanship" in which he expanded his original ideas from the area of sport to life itself. He followed this in 1952 with a volume he called: "One-upmanship". The book introduced a new word into the language. It is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: "the art of maintaining a psychological advantage."

Which may be a somewhat roundabout way of approaching the current débacle in the Israel-Palestine situation.

After months of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table, after the emergence of the idea of a first phase of talking at arms length – so-called "proximity talks", after the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was persuaded by the USA and by the Arab League to abandon his previous conditions for re-opening talks – after all this, on Monday, just as the resumption of talks was announced by Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, Israel's defence minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit.

The Palestinian side was up in arms, pointing out that if proof were needed that Israel was not serious about peace talks, this was it. They claimed it negated the assurance given by prime minister Netanyahu of a ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank. The Israeli response was that this was an exception to the ban, made on the grounds of safety.

On Tuesday American Vice-President, Joe Biden, arrived in the Middle East to oversee the start of the renewed peace process. He had no sooner set foot in Israel than the Interior Ministry announced plans to build 1600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-orthodox neighbourhood in north-eastern Jerusalem, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu'afat.

Outrage on the Palestinian side was immediate, and is by no means mollified yet. The announcement was also condemned on all sides, not least in unequivocal terms by Vice President Biden. Netanyahu is understood to have had no prior knowledge of the announcement, and he reportedly told Biden that this was only a final approval of a plan begun three years ago, that regional councils are responsible for planning decisions of this type, and that his government attempts not to interfere with their work. He also noted that actual construction is not set to begin for another two years. In any event, the ten-month freeze on construction that he had announced was specifically not extended to East Jerusalem.

What is going on? The only conclusion that an outside observer can come to is that we are witnessing the result of some internal Israeli show of one-upmanship. Last week it was Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, seeking to demonstrate his prowess, who came close to destroying dozens of Palestinian homes in Silwan. On Monday it was defence minister Ehud Barak flexing his muscles, with his permission for 112 new housing units in Beitar Ilit. Yesterday we had Interior Minister Eli Yishai using his construction decision in Ramat Shlomo as a means of bolstering his own standing within Shas. It can be taken as a signal of the party's opposition to all concessions in Jerusalem, and hang the consequences.

Or is it, as one commentator suggests today, that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli sides really believe in the peace process at all? It is not, he opines, as though anyone in the Palestinian Authority really believed Netanyahu, Lieberman, Barak et al wanted peace, even before this latest stunt. Meanwhile, he suggests, the Israeli government is doing all it can to prove that it is not interested in a final status agreement based on the 1967 borders as demanded by the U.S. and the Palestinians. Another display of one-upmanship? But perhaps this is only the game to be expected as the two sides jockey for position.

For it does seem, at the moment at least, as though the proximity talks have not been derailed. George Mitchell is expected back in the region next week to conduct the second round, and the U.S. administration hopes that direct discussions might be resumed, even if only between junior-level Israeli and Palestinian officials, within a reasonably short time. The Arab League, the US initially following them, proposed that this first phase last only four months, but Mitchell has now said that his administration is not operating to a timetable, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.

Let's hope so.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

They're Talking!

Even though it's only at arm's length and through an intermediary, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have now formally re-engaged in talks designed to lead to a settlement of their differences. This is the burden of last night's announcement from Washington. That it has occurred at all is pretty extraordinary, given the obstacles that for more than a year have seemed to block the path to any imminent resumption of negotiations. Those problems have not gone away. They have been temporarily circumnavigated, and will have finally to be resolved if the talks are to succeed.

What are the chances?

On the plus side the US administration in general, and President Obama's middle east envoy George Mitchell in particular, will be deeply engaged in the initiative. "We will be actively involved in managing the indirect talks," said a US official, "and also proposing ideas of our own." In the initial stages, Mitchell is expected to shuttle between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah. This first phase, to which the US has allotted a period of four months, will probably be concerned with the structure and scope of the talks. If these are successful, it is Mitchell's intention to move as soon as possible to direct face-to-face discussions on matters of real substance.

From the US point of view the talks will be based on the Obama administration's stated objectives for the Middle East. In President Obama's speech to the United Nations, he set out his goal of a secure, Jewish state in Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine and an end to the 1967 occupation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently spoke of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with territory exchanges, combined with Israel's desire for a secure Jewish state that includes "recent developments," meaning some sort of deal on some at least of the West Bank settlements.

The Israeli position was set out by prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a Jerusalem speech last night. Welcoming the renewal of the peace process, he said that the two principles that would guide him during the talks were the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the need for real security arrangements on the ground that would ensure Israel’s security.

From the Palestinian perspective, on Sunday the PLO endorsed the indirect talks, following Arab League backing last week for four months of negotiations which, the Palestinians say, should focus on security and the borders of a future state. Saeb Erekat, the PA chief negotiator, is insistent that the negotiations resume from where they stopped during Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister. He reiterated the Palestinian outline for a peace deal – a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip along the lines in place before Israel captured the two territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, "with agreed swaps". Olmert had offered Abbas an Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, and Israeli territory in exchange for the remaining 6 percent. In addition, Israel would symbolically accept 5,000 Palestinian refugees and enable international governance for the holy sites in the Old City.

However In a Jerusalem meeting with Quartet envoys on Friday, George Mitchell's deputy, David Hale, said the understandings reached by Ehud Olmert and Abbas would not be binding. In fact, Abbas never responded formally to Olmert's offer. So the talks will be based on agreements actually signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the road map.

Yesterday the Palestinians issued a strongly worded protest after Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the settlement of Beitar Ilit, despite the construction freeze in the West Bank settlements. During his meeting with George Mitchell in Ramallah, Abbas said that this decision showed that the Netanyahu government was not serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians. According to chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, Abbas was particularly concerned about the decision to build the new homes in Betar, “despite the big deception called settlement freeze.” He said the decision was at the top of the agenda of the Abbas-Mitchell talks.

According to an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman, the decision was made because of “safety issues.” The 112 units, it was explained, are part of a larger project, and not building them, while the others are in various stages of construction, constituted a safety risk. In Washington, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israeli officials had explained that the construction was approved before the moratorium.

"On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced," said Crowley. "On the other hand, this is a the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of, as we move ahead with these parallel talks."


Sunday, 7 March 2010

East Jerusalem and the King's Garden

The Old City of Jerusalem stands on a hill, completely enclosed by its ancient city wall which is punctuated by seven gates. Beneath the Old City, to the south-east, the terrain falls away into the Kidron Valley, and extending along the valley is a neighbourhood known as Silwan.

Except for a few Jewish residences, noticeable for their fencing, security and flags, the neighbourhood is home to some 45,000 Palestinians. The area is an unplanned hotch-potch of dwellings of every conceivable type, some little more than shacks, some of a very high standard, comparable to the best in the most affluent Jewish neighbourhoods. However, the vast majority of the hundreds of buildings that have sprung up in Silwan since 1967 were built illegally – that is without municipal planning permission.

In November 2008, at the second time of trying, Nir Barkat – described as "secular" as opposed to "religious" – was elected mayor of Jerusalem. Determined to spearhead improvements for the city and its inhabitants, he spent his first year drawing up imaginative and far-reaching plans for regulating new building in East Jerusalem, and consulting widely on them. And indeed, the mayor succeeded in assembling a diverse support group for his proposals. Even some on the Arab side were convinced by his insistence that he was not seeking to oust existing Arab residents, or bring in new Jewish residents under the cover of the redevelopment.

At a press conference last week, Mayor Birkat gave details of his plan to develop the area of Silwan known as ‘The King's Garden' ('Gan Hamelech' in Hebrew; ‘El Bustan' in Arabic). Barkat says he has no hidden agenda. But on either side of the Bustan neighbourhood there are disputes over recent Jewish settlement, and residents fear a pincers operation.

In northeast Silwan stands one of the area's few Jewish blocks of apartments – the illegally-erected seven-storey Beit Yehonatan. The courts have ordered it to be evacuated, but so far no action has been taken. To the west, also part of Silwan, is the so-called City of David, an archaeological park with a Jewish theme run by a settler group. Mayor Barkat says his plan has nothing to do with the City of David or the settlers, but few Palestinians believe him.

The Mayor's basic proposal was, by retrospective legislation, to legalise all buildings in Silwan already constructed that were up to four storeys high, thus resolving the vast majority of the building violations in the area. But his plans also included allowing the seven-storey Beit Yehonatan to continue in existence – and this gained him the backing of some right-wing politicians for his plans.

Many on the political left supported his proposals because the four-storey rule would constitute retroactive legalization for the vast majority of Silwan’s illegal dwellings, thus averting the distress associated with demolishing people's homes.

But the Birkat plans did indeed call for the demolition of about 100 homes, built without the proper permits in the area designated as 'Gan Hamelech' - 'The King's Garden'. Even though the plans call for a large-scale construction project that would see the entire area rebuilt and the Palestinian residents re-housed in new multi-storey buildings, this was the aspect of the proposals that aroused the greatest controversy.

Gan Hamelech is the starting point and centrepiece of his wider Silwan revamp. The aim was to elevate the King’s Garden into “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” – a flourishing Arab neighbourhood playing host to a vibrant flow of Israeli and foreign tourism.

The plan was to knock down Gan Hamelech’s illegal structures and rebuild from scratch – a development of modern buildings, with commercial premises on the ground floor and new homes for the old residents on up to three floors above. Birkat planned to add recreation areas and health clinics for the residents, and hotels for the incoming tourists. And, through more effective planning and zoning, he intended to revive at least some of the lost parkland – land that, according to some sources, was where King David wrote his psalms, and according to others where King Solomon wrote "The Song of Songs". Take your pick. The essential point was that one myth or the other would have boosted the area and attracted tourists.

But the national government – initially, in the form of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman – would not back Barkat's “east Jerusalem’s Abu Ghosh” vision. Officials in City Hall recognized that Gan Hamelech was, as one of them put it, “the second most incendiary place after the Temple Mount.” The disastrous effect on Israel's image of carrying out close to 100 imposed demolitions in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood could be imagined.

And so, shortly before he held his press conference last Tuesday to unveil his Gan Hamelech project, Mayor Barkat received a telephone call from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Exactly what passed between them is not recorded, but the result was that Barkat announced that he had been asked to shelve the plan until the affected local Palestinians give it their formal approval.

That may take some time in coming.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Challenging Hamas – a continuing tale

In my piece of 15 February ("Challenging Hamas") I wrote about the extremist Islamist group known as "Salafis", and more especially about their jihadist element which has organised itself inside the Gaza Strip to challenge what they perceive as the back-sliders of Hamas. They have been engaging in violent armed conflict with Hamas forces, their rationale being that since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, the regime has failed to impose Islamic law.

The Jihadi Salafis identify with Al-Qaida, as do other extremist groups within the Gaza Strip. Last week, radical elements set off three explosive charges in the Shati refugee camp, not far from the home of Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Two weeks ago, the car of a Hamas police officer was blown up in Khan Younis and three cars of Hamas officials exploded in Gaza City. Three similar explosions occurred in January. Also, there have been attempts to blow up Red Cross vehicles, and pharmacies that sell condoms.

Last week, Hamas arrested dozens of suspected supporters of the "Army of Islam", identified with Gaza's Salafi branch (they are also known as "The Soldiers of the Monotheism Brigades"), and is also moving against the Darmush clan.

Today come reports that Ahmed Ja’abri, commander of Hamas's armed wing ("the Izaddin al-Kassam Brigades"), has sent an urgent letter to Hamas leader in Damascus, Khaled Masha’al, warning that the situation in the Gaza Strip is deteriorating, and that Hamas has started losing control over the territory.

According to a report in a London-based Arab-language newspaper, Ja’abri wrote that “several worrisome explosions recently occurred in Gaza, security anarchy is extensive, and al-Kassam men are being killed.”

The Jihadi Salafis are only one element among the radical Islamist groupings in Gaza who are causing such a domestic headache to Hamas. Jaljalat consists of former Hamas members who left the organization because they felt it was not a jihadist movement. Jaljalat opposes attacking fellow Palestinians. On the other hand, there are groups like Jund Ansar Allah, Army of the Nation, and the Salafi Army of Islam, which are much closer ideologically to Al-Qaida. These groups are responsible for attacks on internet cafés, music stores, and Christian institutions in Gaza.

The largest confrontation to date between Hamas and radical Islamist groups occurred last year in Rafah, when Hamas attacked a mosque in which Jund Ansar Allah operatives were holed up, killing 26 Palestinians, including the leader of the group.

In one recent report, the head of the Salafist movement in Gaza said his supporters would support the Hamas government if it followed Sharia law. If it failed to do so, the Salafists would view the Hamas government as an obstacle to the implementation of God's laws – and act accordingly.

A note about Hamas's armed wing:

"Izadeen Al-Qassam Brigades” is the armed branch of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). Linguistically, in Arabic "Ezz" means support, adherence, or pride, and “Deen” means religion. Al-Qassam can be translated as "the breaker" or "divider". Historically, Ezzedeen Al-Qassam was the name of a pioneer mujahid who was killed in 1935 near Jenin. Al-Qassam was born in Syria and expelled to Palestine for resisting the French occupation of Syria and Lebanon. In Palestine, he fought against the British occupation under the Mandate.

The Mandate? Following the first World War, the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to govern Palestine. The Mandate incorporated the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British Government stated that it "views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…."

It was only this January that Sheikh Nizar Rayyan, considered the mufti of the Izzadin al-Kassam Brigades, and among Israel’s top five targets in Gaza, was assassinated in an Israeli Air Force strike.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A Go-Ahead from the Arab League

Although the next meeting of the Arab League was originally scheduled for 27 March, a special meeting was convened yesterday in Cairo to consider the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas has been under considerable pressure to do so ever since President Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, returned to the Middle East in January. After some shuttle diplomacy around the major Arab capitals and in Israel, Mitchell came up with the idea of kicking off the resumption of talks, suspended in December 2008 at the start of the Gaza conflict, by a preliminary phase of indirect negotiations. Taking the idea of "proximity talks" from the Turkey-hosted indirect discussions between Israel and Syria, he suggested the same process as a way to re-start the process, leading to direct face-to-face discussions in due course.

Abbas, aware of the tight-rope he is walking as regards Palestinian public opinion – and indeed of Hamas tugging at one end of the rope in an effort to dislodge him – has been coy about agreeing. He first made a number of requirements of Israel about freezing all construction on the West Bank and Jerusalem. Netanyahu went some, but not all, of the way to meeting his requirements. Abbas then requested clarification of the proximity talks proposal from the USA. US officials appear to have satisfied him. He then still held back, indicating that he would need cover from other Arab governments before taking the plunge.

Well, now that cover has been provided. The Arab League has provided its backing for the US plan to hold indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. The US and Israel immediately welcomed the Arab League endorsement and Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that "conditions were now ripe" to resume negotiations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the Arab League's announcement: "We were very pleased by the endorsement that came out of Cairo today. We are very committed to try to bring about the two-state solution, and we hope the proximity talks will be the beginning of that process."

The process may begin as early as Sunday. George Mitchell is due to arrive in the region on Saturday night, and hopes the two sides will declare their willingness to start the process the following day. On Monday US Vice President, Joe Biden, also arrives in the region, and is expected to deliver the official notification to Israel from the Palestinian Authority of their agreement to the start of indirect talks.

If all goes according to plan, next week promises to turn the tide of much adverse criticism of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

But what of the mountainous obstacles, as well as the nitty-gritty difficulties, that both sides face in trying to come to an agreement?

Despite myriad challenges, there are optimistic voices among both Israelis and Palestinians. Gadi Baltiansky, once a member of Ehud Barak's negotiating team when he was prime minister, now heads the Geneva Initiative, an influential non-governmental organization that produces detailed proposals for a final-status agreement. In its most recent report, the institute offered an answer to every logistical problem facing the two-state solution, except for the refugee question.

On the Palestinian side, a similarly optimistic view comes from former PLO negotiator Khalil Tafakji, who today heads the maps department at Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem. He thinks that most of the commonly raised difficulties can be solved “with a good map” and use of innovative transportation links like sunken roads. Tafakji believes that if there is a political will, there is a diplomatic way. “If we can make trust between the two peoples,” he said, “we can overcome the problems.”

The longest journey begins with but a single step. The resumption of peace talks next week might just be that step.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Dirty Work in Dubai

If I have desisted so far from commenting on the assassination in Dubai of leading Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on the night of 19 January, it is because I have been uncertain whether it would have any direct effect on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Even now, this is far from assured. But like a stone thrown into a calm pond, the ripples of the operation are spreading outwards, and it has begun to seem possible that the event may indeed impact on the central issue.

First, the facts. On Tuesday the 19th of January 50-year-old Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, born in the Gaza strip but resident in Syria since 1989, boarded Emirates flight EK 912 in Damascus, bound for Dubai. He landed at 2.30pm, but the local authorities were unaware of his arrival, because he entered the emirate under an assumed identity.

Mabhouh booked into the al-Bustan Rotana hotel under his false name and checked into room 130, on the first floor. He had asked for a room with no balcony and sealed windows. He spent about an hour in his room, and at around 4.30 pm he left the hotel.

What he did, or who he met, between then and 9 pm when he returned, is not known. What is known is that at 9.30 pm Mabhouh's wife called his mobile phone, and there was no reply. It is possible that by then he was dead.

The next morning his body was found in his room.

Once it was established that the death was not from natural causes, Dubai's police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, took charge of the investigation. After ten days Tamim met with the Palestinian consul in Dubai, Hussein Abdul Khaliq, to impart his preliminary findings. He told the consul that he believed seven people had taken part in the assassination, and that the identity of four were already known to investigators, including names and pictures. He then told Arab journalists that he was not ruling out the possibility that Mossad, Israel's secret service, had killed Mabhouh, but neither was he ruling out other suspects.

His caution may have been in response to a statement by a Hamas source that Mabhouh, long engaged in arms smuggling from Iran into Gaza, had been imprisoned in Egypt for almost a year in 2003, and that he was wanted not only by the Israelis, but also by the Jordanians and the Egyptians and did not lack enemies. But by then it was generally assumed that the assassination was indeed the work of Mossad, who were known to have been responsible for other operations of the kind, some successful, others less so.

It was not until 17 February, a full month after Mamoud's death, that Tamim revealed that the Dubai police had collated hours of CCTV footage from the airport and inside the hotel, and released a 27-minute composite video following the events leading to the murder. Tamim also released photographs of some of the surveillance team, possibly including the actual killer or killers. At this point the team was assumed to consist of eleven members, all of whom were travelling under passports "cloned" from genuine ones issued by a number of countries including Ireland, Germany, France and Australia. Most belonged to British citizens with dual nationality currently living in Israel.

The diplomatic fallout was immediate. Although Israel, following its usual custom, had refused either to confirm or deny that the operation was the work of Mossad, Israeli ambassadors around the world were summoned to be told that the use of false passports of sovereign states for nefarious purposes was unacceptable.

Meanwhile the investigation proceeded, and by yesterday Dubai's police chief had upped the number of suspects involved in the assassination to no less than 27, at least two of them women. Although he has said that he is "99 per cent certain" that the operation was carried out by Mossad, he has never retracted his early view that whoever leaked details of Mabhouh's arrival to his assassins was "the real killer". He believes that Mabhouh was betrayed by a "close associate". an "agent" in Hamas's ranks, and has urged Hamas to investigate. The Hamas man, he claims, leaked information on al-Mabhouh's whereabouts to the assassins. "I am certain that there has been a security breach from their side," he said.

Hamas has blamed its Fatah rival, which controls the West Bank, for helping the alleged Israeli hit team. Two Palestinians from Gaza who once worked for Fatah security are in custody in Dubai, after being handed over by Jordan. Two days ago the Dubai police arrested a third Palestinian suspect. Speaking yesterday in Beirut, Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned collaborators with Israel that their acts were tantamount "not only to a crime, but to treason."

But an event of this sort inevitably spawns conspiracy theories of the most bizarre kind. Stories of involvement, even collaboration, by the British and other Western secret services in the operation have emanated not only from Islamist sources but at least one way-out American commentator. None of these is likely to impact on the political, as opposed to the diplomatic, scene.

What is troubling is the effect this has all had on a very gentle easing of tensions between Israel and the Arab states. Last month, Israel's Shahar Peer was allowed to play in a Dubai tennis tournament, a year after the event's organizers were fined $300,000 for denying her a visa to participate in the international tournament citing security concerns. Earlier this year (as I reported in my piece of 18 January) an Israeli cabinet minister was allowed into the Emirates for the first time to attend a conference on alternative energy in Abu Dhabi, where International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is based.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's militant Hizbollah group has openly asked Lebanese authorities to tighten border controls against would be assassins. "We call upon Lebanese security agencies to follow and monitor any person carrying a European passport and to deal with him as a potential spy," Hizbollah legislator Nawaf Al-Moussawi said in a televised interview yesterday.

All of which provides a troubling background to the hopes of the "Quartet", due to meet shortly, to try to get peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians back on track.