Friday, 30 April 2010

April Reviewed

If the issues involved were not so serious, one might be inclined to compare the Israeli-Palestinian scene over this past month to that stately Elizabethan court dance, the Pavane. In that refined sequence of steps, participants go round in a circle, they advance and retreat, they touch fingertips then break away. Pursuing the analogy, as we reach the end of April we find the dance in a sort of hiatus, the dancers poised, awaiting the next burst of music.

This temporary lull in proceedings began in mid-March when the proximity talks, carefully nurtured by the US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, were put on hold. The stage had been set, the actors assembled, the Chorus (in the shape of US Vice President Joe Biden) had arrived to introduce the show with a flourish – but the curtain failed to rise. Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai – who is also leader of the religious party, Shas – chose the moment that Joe Biden stepped foot in Israel to authorise the announcement of a major housing project in Ramat Shlomo, a district in Jerusalem that lies over the "Green Line".

In itself this should have no effect at all on the frail consensus that had led to the agreement to start talking. In imposing a ten-month construction freeze in the West Bank back in November 2009, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically excluded construction in Jerusalem from the moratorium. The USA, the Palestinian Authority and indeed the Arab League, which had endorsed the idea of PA President Mahmoud Abbas participating in the talks, had all gone ahead well aware of the Israeli position.

Yet the announcement proved to be a political and diplomatic thunderbolt. It was perceived in Washington as a deliberate snub to the Vice President. Netanyahu took steps to prevent future embarrassing debacles of a similar nature, but President Obama was less than fully mollified, and presented the Israeli prime minister with a list of requirements – one report suggests it ran to thirteen items – that he regarded as necessary before the proximity talks could take place.

As weeks went by and Netanyahu pondered his response, no doubt clearing it step by step with his coalition partners, rumours began to circulate about the possibility of the Obama administration devising some sort of peace plan of their own, or imposing some sort of settlement on both parties. Finally, denials on both fronts were issued. Nothing was to be imposed by Washington, but every effort was to be expended on getting the proximity talks up and running.

Then last Saturday reports emerged that, during a meeting with US special envoy George Mitchell the previous day, Netanyahu had agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, to remove several roadblocks in the West Bank, and to ease the blockade on the Gaza Strip, as a series of gestures towards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He had also, it was reported, agreed to enable the Palestinian Authority to act in Area C of the West Bank, which contains most Israeli settlements and about 70,000 Palestinians (about 4 per cent of the West Bank Palestinian population).

These concessions were presumably in response to President Obama's list of actions considered necessary to get the proximity talks up and running. The pressure on Netanyahu must have been intense, and presumably his coalition cabinet must have considered that in the final analysis they would yield commensurate positive results. However, reports indicate that Netanyahu specifically refused President Obama's requirement to freeze construction in East Jerusalem, as well as a request to return all territories classified as Area C in the West Bank to PA control. That indeed would have been the surrender of a vital Israeli bargaining counter in future negotiations - should they indeed eventually materialise.

During the period that Washington awaited Netanyahu's response and the Israel-Palestine situation wallowed in a sort of limbo, other speculations were floated and have been blown aside. For example (see the article "Mending fences" of 23 April), US and Israeli officials apparently worked out a formula for ending the current crisis which included the idea of establishing a Palestinian state within temporary borders as an interim measure. One Israeli newspaper reported that Netanyahu was "amenable" to the idea. Whether he was or not, it soon emerged that PA President Abbas certainly was not.

Then, there was the plan of PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced in August 2009, to create a de facto Palestinian state within two years. Fayyad has worked consistently, and with some success, to strengthen the economic and financial development of the West Bank and to create the infrastructure necessary for a viable sovereign state. As the evidence of his achievements mounted, reports began to appear mooting the possibility of a unilateral declaration of a sovereign Palestine by August 2011.

This, too, PA President Abbas, speaking on Israeli television on Monday, has quashed – though in doing so he has created tensions within Fatah. "We stand by agreements," said Abbas, regarding the unilateral declaration of statehood. During the interview, the Palestinian leader also confirmed that he is committed to returning to the negotiating table next month. He said he hopes to get Arab League approval for indirect talks at their meeting on 1 May.

On the other hand – once more round the dance floor – Syria's Al-Watan daily newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Arab League was expected to reject the Obama administration's proposal to begin indirect Middle East peace negotiations in the coming weeks. That may, of course, be nothing more than wishful thinking.

During April the main rejectionist states – Iran and Syria – have forfeited a deal of the goodwill that Barack Obama seemed willing to lavish on them at the start of his presidency. Hoping to engender a new, post-Bush, atmosphere in the Muslim world, Obama expended a great deal of energy in trying to "engage" with them. His hope was to obtain at least their tacit agreement to his efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the PA. Neither was amenable to his charm campaign.

But Iran has continued to defy Washington's efforts to restrain their continued enrichment of uranium, and during April Obama reacted by leaving open the threat of a US nuclear response to any nuclear aggression by Iran. Obama also started to gather international support for a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran.

It was towards the end of the month that reports emerged of a transfer by Syria of highly sophisticated Scud missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon. These Scud Ds are capable of reaching Israel's southernmost city, Eilat, from the Israel-Lebanon border. As a result, Obama's plan to reinstate formal diplomatic relations with Syria, by posting a US ambassador to Damascus, was put on hold.

And so we end April on a hushed note. The Arab League meets on 1 May either to endorse or to veto PA President Abbas's involvement with the projected proximity talks. If they do take off, a mid-May launch date has been proposed. On Monday, 3 May, Benjamin Netanyahu flies to Cairo to secure the backing of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to the proposed proximity talks.

Does the dance continue, or will the music fade away and the dancers once again leave the floor? My guess? To change metaphors, the configuration of the zodiac looks promising. Unregenerate enemies Israel will always have, but with a sovereign Palestine up and running, the way is open for dynamic economic, financial and commercial development in the region, led by Israel, on a scale few have so far envisaged. Think Hong Kong or Shanghai. That may be the sort of future that awaits the region.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Towards a Palestinian state alongside Israel

Last week Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu let it be known that he was prepared to consider a Palestinian state within temporary borders as an interim measure in the long, slow trek towards an Israeli-Palestinian accord. It was reported that he – and one assumes he has the backing of his coalition partners in this – considers such an interim step a possible way to unfreeze the stalled political process, created because of the Palestinian leadership's refusal to resume talks on a final settlement. Is such a state anywhere near reality?

It was in August 2009 that the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced his plan to create a de facto Palestinian state in two years.

“We have decided to be proactive," he announced, "to expedite the end of the occupation by working very hard to build positive facts on the ground, consistent with having our state emerge as a fact that cannot be ignored. This is our agenda, and we want to pursue it doggedly.”

His blueprint included making the Palestinian economy less dependent on Israel, unifying the legal system and downsizing the government. The plan also involved building infrastructure, harnessing natural energy sources and water, and improving housing, education, and agriculture.

How far has he got?

Ten days ago the World Bank published a progress report on economic and financial development within the Palestinian body politic. It pointed to steady progress in implementing Fayyad's reform programme and building the institutions required by a future state. The PA, it said, has strengthened its public financial management systems, improved service delivery, and made significant security and fiscal reforms. The picture was not entirely rosy, however. Although Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew in 2009 by about 6.8 percent, the report warned that most of the growth is in the West Bank; Gaza continues to experience falling per capita GDP. Moreover the World Bank noted that the growth so far has been dependent on large inflows of donor assistance.

In 2009 the PA’s recurrent budget deficit rose by $300 million to nearly $1.6 billion. The World Bank says, and the PA acknowledges, that donor assistance on this level is unsustainable. Accordingly the 2010 budget commits the PA to reducing its recurrent deficit to about $1.2 billion, while also increasing development expenditures to $670 million. Community development projects are a central part of the PA’s strategy. The PA reports that it has already completed 1,000 of these demand-driven projects since the launch of the plan last August, and it aims to complete another 1,000 by the end of 2010.

These projects include building schools, improving water supplies and sanitation, and notably updating and improving the electricity supply (a new electricity regulator is operational). These schemes have so far been limited to the West Bank's Areas* "A" and "B", namely those under Palestinian civil control. Fayyad plans to extend them shortly to Area "C", which is under Israeli security and civil control and includes Jerusalem. A pre-requisite to doing this would be substantial progress in peace negotiations. This would provide the conditions for the necessary cooperation on the part of Israel, the Palestinians and the international community.

Of course the major obstacle that Salam Fayyad faces is the implacable opposition of Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, brought down the wrath of Israel on its head by its indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli citizens, and now suffers from restricted access to trade and other interchanges through the blockade of its borders imposed by both Israel and Egypt.

Apparently undeterred, Salam Fayyad is planning to rebuild the Gaza Strip. His proposals to make good the destruction left by the conflict were presented at the Sharm El-Sheikh conference for rebuilding Gaza in March 2009. Donor countries pledged $4.7 billion, though it is still necessary to find a way of implementing these pledges that would preclude the de facto Hamas government in Gaza from using the money in ways other than those intended. Meanwhile, the Fayyad government spends $1.5 billion annually in the form of salaries to Palestinian Authority employees who were appointed in Gaza prior to the Hamas coup, paid through banks in the West Bank. It also provides for other services and operational expenses, including the Electric Power Company.

The World Bank report concludes that the PA seems well on the way to creating "a Palestinian state that can deliver services and economic prosperity to its population". But, it cautions, this is no time for complacency. A great deal more action is required from all the parties involved – it names the Palestinians, Israel and the international community – if a future state is to come into being with genuinely solid underpinnings.

*Note on West Bank Areas A, B and C
The 1993 Oslo Accords declared the final status of the West Bank to be subject to a forthcoming settlement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. Following these interim accords, Israel withdrew its military rule from some parts of the West Bank, which was divided into three areas:

Area A, controlled and administerd by the PA, comprises 17% of the West Bank and contains 55% of the West Bank Palestinian population.
Area B is controlled by Israel but administered by the PA. It comprises 24% of the West Bank and contains 41% of the West Bank Palestinians.
Area C, controlled and administered by Israel, comprises 59% of the West Bank and contains only 4% of the West Bank Palestinian population.

Area A comprises Palestinian towns and some rural areas away from Israeli population centres. Area B adds other populated rural areas, many closer to the centre of the West Bank. Area C contains all the Israeli settlements, roads used to access the settlements, buffer zones, the Jordan Valley, East Jerusalem, and the Judean Desert.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Mending fences

US-Israeli relations have been in the freezer for a good few weeks. A defrost seems in the offing.

Relations have been somewhat shaky for some time. Following President Obama's election in November 2008, Israel strove to adjust to the change of direction in American policy as the new president began to operate his reconceived approach to Middle East affairs.

Obama came to office, it seemed clear, determined on convincing the Muslim world of America's desire to bring peace and stability to the region. His speech in Cairo in June 2009 was intended to usher in a new post-Bush era in US-Muslim relations. "The cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end, he said. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

In the following months he strove to engage with all the main players in the region, as he attempted to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table. The game plan, it emerged, was to strive not merely for an agreement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but for a much wider "comprehensive peace in the Middle East", involving also Lebanon, Syria, and including the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.

The results of this new USA approach to Middle East affairs were not surprising.

First was the inevitable uncertainty, if not fear, within Israel at what the new president might be prepared to concede to rejectionist states like Iran and Syria – to say nothing of their al-Qaeda inspired puppets Hamas and Hizbollah – in return for "engaging" with the US (code for giving tacit acceptance to the peace discussions in the first place, and then to whatever the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations might yield).

Needless to say, the "engagement" policy has yielded few results. Iran has spurned Obama's approaches, and ploughed ahead with its continued arming of Hamas and Hizbollah on the one hand, and its uranium enrichment programme on the other. As a result the President has explicitly excluded Iran from his new "no first strike" nuclear policy, and is actively seeking a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran.

As for Syria, again the President's approach has been ignored. Syria's latest move has been to deploy highly sophisticated Scud missiles into Lebanon to arm HIzbollah for what might become a new conflict with Israel. The USA was about to resume formal diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an ambassador to Damascus after a gap of four years. That appointment in currently on hold.

As Obama pursued his policy of currying favour with the Arab world, resentment was aroused within Israel at what Obama was requiring of her. How far would he go in pressuring Israel to surrender vital political and security bargaining positions? That particular aspect of affairs came to a head following the Ramat Shlomo incident, when Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, authorised the announcement of a major building project In the Jerusalem district just as the US Vice President, Joe Biden, arrived in the country to inaugurate the PA-Israel proximity talks.

The diplomatic flurry that followed has still not been sorted, though positive signs have now been detected. When Benjamin Netanyahu met Barack Obama in Washington shortly after the debacle, the President expressed his displeasure by presenting the Israeli Prime Minister with a list of actions that he considered necessary to re-establish confidence and put the peace process back on track.

There followed several weeks of silence. It is only in the past few days that signals have begin to appear from the White House of a willingness to see an improvement in relations with Netanyahu. The word is that PM Netanyahu and senior members of his staff have been holding intensive consultations with US officials, in an attempt to resolve the key issues that have caused a crisis in relations between the two countries in the last months.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said a few days ago that extensive talks had been held with the Israelis and the Palestinians on concrete steps that both parties could take to improve the atmosphere, and that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell would be continuing those talks. Both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have now met Mitchell, who has been visiting Jerusalem. Later Mitchell moved on to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Last week several appeasing messages highlighted American commitment to Israel's security, crowned by President Obama's message of greeting on Israel's Independence Day, which this year fell on 19 April. Senior aides to the president, including his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and National Security Adviser, General James Jones, also publicly expressed their support of the strong ties between the two countries.

Then the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that the formula hammered out between US and Israeli officials for bringing an end to the crisis comprises these elements:
1. advancing to an interim stage and a Palestinian state within temporary borders;
2. delaying the discussion on Jerusalem, with an Israeli commitment to avoid provocations;
3. identifying the areas in which Netanyahu and Obama differ, with construction in East Jerusalem topping the list; and
4. a certain American toughening of its attitude toward Iran and Syria.

And surprisingly, media reports almost immediately indicated that Prime Minister Netanyahu is amenable to the idea of an agreement with the Palestinian leadership that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The prime minister is understood to endorse this goal as a way to get the process moving again, despite the differences between the sides on final status issues such as Jerusalem.

A sense of realism has started to pervade Washington. Indications from these latest talks are that they realize that Netanyahu must maintain his stance on the integrity of Jerusalem if he wants to preserve his coalition, However, now the US administration seems prepared to turn a blind eye to that, provided Palestinians don't hear in the news that a new round of construction has been approved in that part of Jerusalem that lies over the Green Line.

As for the PA President, indications are that Mahmoud Abbas told Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak several months ago that he is willing to do without a public pronouncement on a construction freeze in Jerusalem. A discreet promise to that effect by the defense minister would suffice.

So very slowly, it appears, the tentative peace negotiations are being manoeuvred back on to the track. At this stage it would take very little to derail them once again, and there is no shortage of candidates willing and eager to do just that.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Muddled thinking

On the website of today's Guardian newspaper (London), Keith Kahn-Harris and Joel Schalit argue that progressive Zionists, preparing for the failure of Obama's peace plan, should start thinking about a new model of statehood – "an Israel-Palestine like no other nation", they dub it.

In rethinking Israel-Palestine, they say, Jews can find inspiration from Zionism itself. "Zionism has never been a purely a political ideology. In the work of early Zionists such as Ahad Ha'am, we find a vision of Israel as a global Jewish cultural hub. Now is the time to consider what such visions might mean in a post-two-state context.

"Developing Plan B is a long-term goal. In the short term, Jews need to focus on reforming Israeli politics. Any Israel that remains an occupying power, that discriminates against its own Arab citizenry, not only compromises its own democracy, but will never let a Palestinian state function democratically either. If democracy is the ultimate solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, since Israel is the stronger party, it has to be fixed in Israel first."

It is extremely difficult to get to grips with what the authors are saying, either in terms of their analysis of present circumstances, or their proposals for future action. What does emerge is that a majority of Israelis favour the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine impasse (presumably Kahn-Harris and Schalit do not), and that this accords with the US government's declared intention. But the devil, as so often, is in the detail.

The desired objective is a sovereign Palestinian state sitting alongside an Israel with secure borders. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority has been prepared, with many an if and but, to enter into arms-length discussions with Israel aimed at reaching agreement on such an outcome. The problem is the conflict that is tearing the Palestinian body politic apart. Hamas, which though elected to the PA on a majority, later turned on its Fatah partners and seized control of the Gaza strip in a bloody coup. Hamas and Fatah are literally at daggers drawn.

Hamas is unequivocally in the rejectionist camp where an accommodation with Israel is concerned. It is an essential component of the Hamas-Hizbollah-Iran-Syria axis which is totally opposed to any accommodation with Israel.

The Obama administration has perceived that what is essentially required is not simply a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, but what they term, "a comprehensive peace in the Middle East". They have been seeking somehow to "eliminate the negative", to come to some sort of accommodation with Iran and Syria - and through them, Hamas and HIzbollah, and through Syria, Lebanon.

The buzz word in the early days was "engagement". That is why Obama spoke directly to the Muslim world in his June 2009 Cairo speech, why he has directed personal video appeals to the Iranian people on two separate occasions. But so far his efforts have yielded few results. Iran is as obdurate as ever in its pursuit of nuclear power, and Obama's tone has hardened. He specifically excluded Iran, as a "rogue state", from his recent declaration forswearing the possibility of a first nuclear strike by the USA. And Washington is actively seeking a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran for persisting in enriching uranium.

As for Syria, engagement has failed there too, so far. The recent news that Syria has been supplying sophisticated Scud missiles to Hizbollah, arming them for a possible further conflict with Israel, has aroused ire in the States. The President's idea of re-establishing a US ambassador in Damascus, on the point of being ratified, is now on hold.

The moral? Good intentions as regards a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine are not enough. Something more is needed to create the conditions in which a two-state solution could be brought about and stick. Something dramatic, has been suggested – something like a Sadat-type visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah by Barack Obama, and a declaration delivered in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and in the PA parliament building.

But then, we all remember what happened to Anwar Sadat.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The word from Jordan

While in Washington for the nuclear summit, Jordan's King Abdullah has taken the opportunity of fulfilling one or two speaking engagements. Last Wednesday evening he addressed the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, non-partisan organization committed to influencing the discourse on global issues.

Speaking to a sold-out audience in Chicago's Four Season's hotel, Abdullah declared that solving the Israel-Palestine struggle was of central importance for two vital reasons – as a catalyst for resolving other world conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and because an independent, viable Palestinian state would be in the security interests of the United States.

Though the king's intentions were doubtless admirable, both legs of his argument are somewhat wobbly.

If the Palestinian Authority and Israel reached total agreement on a two-state solution tomorrow, al-Qaeda and its satraps would scarcely blink. The on-going Israeli-Palestinian problem has only a peripheral influence on extreme Islamist objectives, which are concerned with expanding Islamist rule wherever possible, and challenging Western-aligned ruling regimes in such Muslim countries as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Their final aim? To establish as broad-based a pan-Islamism or caliphate as possible, based on the shariah. Israel, as a western-orientated, democratic and decidedly non-Muslim state sitting plumb in the middle of the region is certainly an irritant, ideally to be eliminated as soon as possible. But the Israel-Palestine issue scarcely affects broader Islamist aims and activities in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, though it suits pro-Islamist propagandists to portray it as a crucial component in inflaming Muslim sensibilities.

On the other hand, where moderate Muslim opinion is concerned, an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would undoubtedly have a significant effect world-wide, and might well result in a diminution of both passive and active support for al-Qaeda and the groups associated with it.

As for the security interests of the United States, an independent Palestinian state could be of value only if it were clear of the internal conflicts that currently ravage the Palestinian body politic. Hamas and Fatah are literally at daggers drawn. A peace agreement with Fatah – which is currently all that is on offer – and a new Fatah-ruled sovereign Palestine would simply be a seedbed for future conflict. Hamas is beholden to both Iran and Syria for military and financial support, and those two states are totally rejectionist as far as a peaceful accommodation with Israel is concerned.

This is why the Obama administration is laying such emphasis on a comprehensive solution in the Middle East, going well beyond a resolution of the Israel-Palestine dispute. It has come to realise that, like love and marriage, they go together like a horse and carriage – and you can't have one without the other.

Still each journey starts with a single step, and the only way to move forward at present is to ensure that the proximity talks, brought to a standstill by Israel's ill-timed announcement towards the end of March of the planned 1600-apartment development in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo, are reactivated. This, King Abdullah has been pressing for. He told the Council on Global Affairs - and doubtless President Obama previously - that he believes there is still a chance to have the parties come together to discuss a peace treaty that serves the interests of Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and the rest of the world. To disregard the option of peace, he asserted. means leaving the arena to other parties that seek conflict and destruction.

“Whenever there is a lull in the peace process," he said, and never was a truer word spoken, "there are others out there that take advantage of that to create mischief. So what we don’t want is the possibility of a crisis happening between Gaza and Israel, between Lebanon and Israel, or Iran and Israel. These things do happen when there is an absence of a process moving forward.”

The King made another observation of more than passing significance. He expressed the hope that Israel would, as he put it, "shed the fortress mentality" and become part of the regional neighbourhood.

Despite the best efforts of PA prime minister Salam Fayyad – and they have been formidable – a newly-created sovereign Palestine sitting alongside Israel would struggle to reach viability, let alone prosperity. However, with a sovereign Palestine up and running, the way is open for a new configuration in the region – a formal economic and commercial confederation of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, possibly to be augmented in due course by a Lebanon freed from the shackles of a militant Hizbollah. An economic alliance along these lines, paralleling the Benelux countries within the EU, could open the way to dynamic growth and development in the region on a previously unimaginable scale.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Power play

To follow on from my previous piece ("Syria – a hard nut to crack"), one might reasonably ask which component of the Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis is top dog?

Certainly not either of the two Islamist movements that have acquired power in Gaza and Lebanon respectively – Hamas and Hizbollah. Each is heavily dependent for financial and military support on the two sovereign states that make up the rest of the axis. So which leads the pack – Syria or Iran?

Unless (or regrettably until) Iran acquires some form of nuclear capability, Syria can reasonably stake a claim to hegemony of the "rejectionist" front in the Middle East – the grouping that is viscerally anti-Israel and vehemently opposed to the idea of a peace settlement based on a two-state solution of the Palestine-Israel conundrum. To play a key role like this in one of the central aspects of Middle East politics realises, in part at least, Syria's long-cherished ambition, a staple of the "Assad Doctrine" that dominated the agenda of President Bashar al-Assad's father, and a hark-back to the "Greater Syria" dream of regional domination.

Until 1920 "Syria" referred to a region that, in today's terms, comprised Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, plus the Gaza Strip and the port of Alexandretta in Turkey's Hatay province. This area, known since 1920 as Greater Syria, is what their presidents and officials dream of reclaiming.

In his book "Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition", Daniel Pipes describes going through passport control on entering Syria, and seeing a military map on the wall. To his surprise he noticed that the map showed the Golan Heights under Syrian control, though they have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel did not exist; instead, there was a state called Palestine which was separated from Syria by a line designated a "temporary border", and a "temporary border" was also all that separated Syria from the province of Hatay, a part of Turkey since 1939. Syria's boundaries with Lebanon and Jordan appeared not as international, but as something called "regional", borders.

The Syrian dreams of re-establishing this regional empire, this "Greater Syria", are most certainly not shared by its Islamist partner, Iran. Their close collaboration and expressions of eternal friendship smack somewhat of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1940 – a marriage of convenience, to be ditched whenever it suits either party to do so. Not to say that it does not pose enormous dangers to the Middle East and to the world while it lasts.

For it is undoubtedly the case that Iran, too, is seeking domination in the region (Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has spoken of Iran seeking to "devour the Arab world"). Not only is Iran bidding for leadership of the rejectionist front as far as a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement is concerned, but additionally it takes a lead in supporting the extremer Islamist forces that are seeking to overthrow more "moderate" Muslim governments, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Pakistan.

Does Iran support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – the SMB – the thorn in the flesh of President Bashar al-Assad as they were to his father, Hafiz? Probably not directly. Assad, heading an essentially secular regime, regards Islamic extremism as its core enemy, and has been grappling for a long time with the SMB, the extreme Islamist grouping within Syria. Pragmatically, this has not inhibited his support for the Islamist Hamas group, or his using that extremism as a political weapon in his struggle against Israel. So Hamas operatives from the Gaza Strip are rotated to Syria for basic training. Thousands may have been trained in Syria by instructors who learned their techniques in Iran.

One might have thought that Iran would have supported its client regime, Hamas, at every turn. Hamas, after all, is as dedicated as Iran's President Ahmadinejad to the fight against Israel and against the prospect of a two-state solution to the long Palestine-Israel dilemma. But when in 2009 Egypt attempted to act as honest broker between Hamas and their rival Palestinians, Fatah, in discussions aimed at leading to a reconciliation between them, Iran was not pleased.

The terms of a reconciliation deal were laboriously hammered out, but when it came to actually signing up to an agreement, Hamas demurred, There was first one postponement, and then another. Finally, in Cairo last October Fatah lost patience with the delays and unilaterally signed the pact. Hamas, however, said it still had reservations and needed another few days to consider the document. Six months later they have still not signed it.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has blamed Iran for impeding the reconciliation. “Iran doesn't want Hamas to sign the Cairo reconciliation document,” he said, declaring that the Palestinians should be “free from Iranian tutelage.” He and Fatah certainly are (their engagement in the peace process, not to mention their determinedly non-Islamic form of government, render them beyond the pale, as far as Ahmadinejad is concerned).

The complexities of these relationships do not end there. Although it suits Iran's book to support Hamas with weaponry and in other ways, the suspicion remains that they may be even more sympathetic to the militant and jihadist groups allied to Al-Qaeda which have taken root in Gaza, and are baying at Hamas's heels. Thoroughly dissatisfied with the non-fundamentalist nature of the administration that Hamas has set up in Gaza, these various groups have taken direct and violent action against Hamas officials and "anti-Muslim" establishments in Gaza like internet cafes, music shops and pharmacists that sell contraceptives.

How about Hizbollah in Lebanon? Is Iran competing with Syria's influence there?

It was towards the end of February that Sheikh Naim Qassem, the Deputy Secretary-General of Hizbollah, attended a banquet in Damascus hosted by President Assad in honour of Iran's President Ahmadinejad. The next day a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that at the meeting Ahmadinejad passed $300 million over to Nasrallah, who had asked Ayatollah Khamenei for the money. The funds, which were donated, inter alia, for "exporting the Islamic revolution", are to be disbursed by Hassan Mahdavi, the Force Commander of the Lebanese Quds Corps, part of the 125,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC).*

The Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis may look firm and formidable. Things are not always what they seem.

*Note on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps(the IRGC)
What is a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard doing in Lebanon? Good question. The IRGC, founded following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has developed into a highly influential body exercising power way beyond the military sphere. It operates also in the social, political and economic fields inside Iran and beyond. It began deploying fighters abroad during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, to "export the ideals of the revolution". The Quds unit was set up in Lebanon in 1982, where it was instrumental in the formation of Hizbollah.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Syria - a hard nut to crack

In its first heady days of power, the Obama administration plunged into the turmoil of the Middle East with high hopes. "Engagement" was the key word. The new president would hold out the hand of US reconciliation to the Muslim world in general, and to Iran and Syria in particular.

The Muslim world has been less than impressed with Washington's achievements in the region so far, and the administration's recent sharp words to Israel, and even sharper demands on her, have failed, at least so far, to change the perception of US ineptitude and weakness of purpose. The most obvious result of the recent cooling of US-Israeli relations has been the call from Jordan's King Abdullah this week for even tougher action against Israel.

As for the hopes of US-Iranian reconciliation, they were rebuffed from the word go by President Ahmadinejad. It is sometimes forgotten that in March 2009 Barack Obama broke new ground by addressing a video directly to the Iranian people on their New Year (Nowruz). In it he spoke of a new beginning and emphasised that his administration was committed to diplomacy.

He repeated the exercise a few weeks ago. But this time, although still offering Iran's leaders engagement with the United States. his tone was a deal less conciliatory. “We are working with the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable," said Obama, "because they refuse to live up to their international obligations.”

And indeed, subsequently, he has done just that. His new and recently-announced nuclear policy specifically excludes "rogue states" like Iran from his new pledge of no initial nuclear strike, while at this week's nuclear summit in Washington he has succeeded in getting international agreement, with China notably demurring, to new United Nations sanctions against Iran for its persistent refusal to stop enriching uranium.

Where Syria is concerned, the Obama administration has persisted, well beyond the point of realistic expectation, with the belief that somehow the engagement policy will bear fruit. During her confirmation hearings in January 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she and President Obama: "Believe that engaging directly with Syria increases the possibility of making progress on changing Syrian behaviour." Among the new administration's core demands would be ending support for terrorist groups; cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency; stopping the flow of weapons to Hizbollah; and respect for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence."

Sixteen months later, it is difficult to see progress on any of these areas. One American commentator recently suggested that the administration's policy of "engagement" appears to be morphing into "appeasement", as its efforts to woo Bashar al-Assad are repeatedly rebuffed. Yet the administration persisted. It was in January that President Obama decided to restore full diplomatic relations with Syria after a four-year gap. He appointed diplomat Robert Ford as US ambassador to Damascus.

Only three days ago the House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee approved Ford's nomination, although three Republican senators registered their objection. At or around the same time, Israel's President, Shimon Peres, announced that Syria was delivering "accurate" Scud missiles to Hizbollah in Lebanon. The statement was backed by a Kuwaiti newspaper report of the transfer of truckloads of scud missiles from Syria to Hizbollah, in a shipment sanctioned by the Syrian government. Shortly after the allegation was made public, United States officials confirmed that Syria was supplying Hizbollah with ballistic missiles capable of inflicting heavy damage on Israel's cities.

As an immediate result senior Republican politicians are to press the US Congress to block plans to reappoint an ambassador to Syria. A full floor vote on the projected appointment may be delayed while the Israeli allegations are investigated.

Shimon Peres's use of the word "accurate" to describe the missiles being delivered to Hizbollah in Lebanon is interesting. The most advanced missile in the Scud series – the Scud D – has a shorter range than the Scud C (300 km as against 550 km), but carries a much greater payload and is accurate to within 50 metres as against the Scud C's 700 metres. Both would be capable of reaching Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, from the Lebanese-Israel border.

"Scuds are weapons in a league of their own," say Israeli security specialists. "This will be the first time that any terrorist-guerrilla group can boast of possessing ballistic missiles of the kind that are usually contained within the arsenals of organised armies."

Mind you, Israel's Arrow 3 anti-missile defence system, the result of numerous successful US-Israeli tests against Scuds and more sophisticated missile systems, would on the face of it be more than capable of offering a high level of protection against any such Hizbollah attack – but that is hardly the point. Syria does not seem inclined to abandon its decades-long ambition of achieving some sort of hegemony in the region.

Like his father before him, it seems that President Bashar al-Assad views the Middle East as divided into two camps: collaborators and rejectionists – those prepared to consider peace with Israel and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem, and those who will have no truck with concessions for the sake of peace. The return by Israel of the Golan to Syria dominated Bashar's father's thinking, and it remains a dominant factor in Syria's current political stance, but equally dominant is the old "Assad Doctrine" – the idea that the Arab nations could extract maximum concessions from Israel only by acting in concert. Implicit in the Assad Doctrine is the assumption that Damascus will play a leading role in such Arab negotiations.

Which might explain both Syria's persistent adherence to the Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis, and her continued rejection of Obama's moves towards "engagement".

But Obama's patience is not inexhaustible as his changing attitude to Iran has demonstrated. This latest evidence of Syria's recalcitrant adherence to the policy of terrorism may yet evoke a change in Washington's approach.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

No shoulder shrugging by Obama

Once again – as so many times in the past – an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, sailing off in reasonably high hopes, has run out of wind and is becalmed. It's a pattern that has become wearisomely familiar over the decades. Equally familiar is the way the US presidents involved on each occasion – George Bush the elder, Blll Clinton, George W Bush – have run out of time, shrugged their shoulders and let matters rest. The Madrid peace conference, the Oslo peace accords, the Hebron agreement, the Wye River memorandum, the Camp David proposals, the Quartet road map – to name only some – have come, left something of a legacy, and gone, and with them the US presidents concerned.

This time, the pattern seems to have taken a strangely unfamiliar turn. Yes, the proximity talks that were due by now to be well under way, are bogged down, and neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side seem in any hurry to see them get under way. On the Israeli side, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still considering the list of demands thrust at him by President Obama a few weeks ago, described as essential for establishing the conditions for the proximity talks to get going.

For his part, Mahmoud Abbas has taken refuge behind Washington's demand that Israel cancel the proposed 1600-apartment building project in the Ramat Shlomo suburb of Jerusalem. Until this condition is met, he is now saying, he is disinclined to engage in the proximity talks.

But President Obama is not shrugging his shoulders. Unlike his predecessors, he came to office with a Middle East peace accord high on his agenda. And unlike his predecessors, he approached this element of his overall strategy with the firm intention of mending fences and rebuilding trust with the Muslim world. During his first year in office he appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East with a clear remit to work towards a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East".

Mitchell himself, during an early visit to Syria, elaborated what was meant by "comprehensive". He said he was seeking peace agreements not only between Israel and the Palestinians (we all know that), but also between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon. A tall order indeed, but even so not quite tall enough for the White House. "And it also includes," added Mitchell, "the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states."

In my piece "An American Peace Plan?" (8 April), I gave details of the report by journalist David Ignatius of a meeting on 24 March between the president and seven former and current national security advisers. At this meeting, Ignatius said, the idea was mooted that President Obama might propose his own solution to the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Further details of what might be afoot are now emerging. Reports speak of a possible new US peace initiative, multilateral in approach and embracing all the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, not just Palestinians and Israelis. The initiative would combine the 2000 Camp David proposals and the 2002 Arab peace plan, and add various points which have subsequently been discussed.

Ignatius now says that the more activist among the advisers at the 24 March meeting argued that the step-by-step approach favoured by George Mitchell has failed, and that even if proximity talks get off the ground, they will quickly fail. The way forward, they advised, was a grand gesture, a major peace push, before the end of Obama's first term.

The essential elements of a possible peace plan have become obvious during the long series of peace initiatives over the years – issues like the final shape of an Israeli Jerusalem and a possible Palestinian Al-Quds; the administration of the holy places in the Old City; Israel's return to its 1967 borders, modified by agreed land swaps to allow some at least of the West Bank settlements to remain in Israeli hands; international security guarantees; and recognition of Israel by the Arab world – or, at least, as much of it as would go along with such a deal.

And there lies the rub. For until the bitter, and sometimes bloody, struggle for power between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is resolved, no peace deal could stick. And Hamas is part of the Islamist Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis and the tool of the viscerally anti-Israel Iran. Obama's early overtures to Iran proved fruitless, and one main purpose of the nuclear summit, currently taking place in Washington, is to obtain international agreement for a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran. These, if obtained, would be backed by the new US nuclear strategy announced by President Obama last week – no first use of nuclear weapons except against "rogue states", of which Iran is one.

To resolve even the apparently unresolvable, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, has, it is reported, urged Obama to make an Anwar Sadat-style "journey for peace" by leading Arab and peace-process leaders in joint appearances at Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and the Palestinian legislature in Ramallah.

"Only a bold and dramatic gesture," he is reported to have said, "in a historically significant setting can generate the political and psychological momentum needed for a major breakthrough."

The approach that now seems to be in the making in Washington is entirely in line with President Obama's strategy for the Middle East outlined by George Mitchell: "a comprehensive peace." That's a prize – and a legacy – worth any president's time and attention, and certainly not to be shrugged at.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Hidden agendas at the nuclear summit

Today King Abdullah of Jordan flew to the United States for discussions with President Obama, ahead of the nuclear summit scheduled to take place this coming Monday and Tuesday, 12 -13 April, in Washington. Yesterday Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that he would not be attending the nuclear summit.

When Netanyahu first let it be known that he would be going, eyebrows were raised - certainly in Israel, and pretty much around the world. It would have been the first time that an Israeli prime minister had ever attended an international conference on nuclear issues. But when Netanyahu learned that some participants were bent on pushing "an Israel-bashing agenda," it is understood, he called off his trip

Whatever assurances host Barack Obama may have given about controlling the agenda, Netanyahu was wise to ignore them. Consider the list of participating Muslim nations: Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. It was pretty obvious that one or other would be likely to seize the golden opportunity, with the world's media focused on them, to indulge in their favourite sport.

Since 1995 Egypt has repeatedly called for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty*, and is likely to do so again at the Washington summit. Israel maintains a policy known as "nuclear ambiguity". While never officially admitting it has nuclear weapons, Israel has consistently maintained that it would not be the first to "introduce" nuclear weapons to the Middle East, leaving the exact interpretation of the pledge vague. Most believe that Israel is in effect undertaking never to initiate a nuclear strike, but reserving the right to respond with one if subject to a nuclear attack.

Whatever his invited guests may have in mind, it is unlikely that "Israel-bashing" is on President Obama's agenda on this occasion. His main purpose in calling the summit is to achieve an international consensus on imposing a fourth set of United Nations sanctions on Iran, for its persistent refusal to cease enriching uranium. This objective is high on Netanyahu's wish list, too, so it was perhaps quite a politic move to absent himself from the summit, thus helping to save the conference from being diverted from its primary aim.

A secondary reason for Netanyahu's absence, perhaps, was to avoid facing a possible further showdown with the US president, given that the list of requirements passed to him by Barack Obama after his last trip to Washington is still in his pending tray.

No such considerations restrain Jordan's King Abdullah from seeking a meeting with the US president. From an interview he gave to the Wall Street Journal just prior to leaving for the States, Abdullah seems intent on urging the US to exert even more pressure on Israel, particularly on the subject of the expansion and development of the suburbs of Jerusalem. The King says that the announcement of the 1600-apartments project in the ultra-orthodox Jewish district of Ramat Shlomo is a major obstacle to the putative proximity peace talks, and has pushed Jordanian-Israeli relations to their lowest point since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994.

But the King did not mention that an equally vital obstacle to any peace initiative is the continuing bitter – and sometimes bloody – conflict between the Hamas and the Fatah wings of the Palestinian body politic. A comprehensive peace involving a two-state solution will be impossible before some sort of accommodation is worked out between them. And that particular power struggle seems every bit as intractable as the Israel-Palestine one.

But some commentators have been wondering whether the King has another, though hidden agenda. Far from wishing Israel to succumb to demands that would result in a weakened position on the Middle East scene, it has been suggested that the Jordanian monarch is actually in favour of as strong an Israel as possible, though it is impossible for him to say this directly.

The Hashemite monarchy has never been in a position fully to defend its kingdom against its enemies, domestic or foreign. It has always been more or less dependent on outside powers. Abdullah fears war. The Iranian axis – which includes Syria, Lebanon, Hamas, Hizbollah, and elements of Iraq – is the biggest threat to his regime. Syria dispatched the al-Qaeda bombers who blew up the hotels in Amman in 2005. Today Syria threatens Jordan almost as much as it did in 1970, when it supported the PLO in its bid to overthrow Abdullah’s father, King Hussein. Back then, Israel stepped in and saved the Hashemites. Now Abdullah is preoccupied with the threat from Iran and his fear that Ahmadinejad's bid to achieve domination in the Middle East will not be thwarted.

A strong – even a nuclear – Israel, backed by a nuclear-strong USA, is the surest safeguard he could find to offset the ambitions of Tehran in general, and guarantee Jordanian security in particular.

*Note on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, came into force in March 1970. Currently there are 189 states party to the treaty, five of which are recognized as nuclear weapon states: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China (they are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council). Four non-parties to the treaty are known or believed to possess nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and North Korea have openly tested and declared that they possess nuclear weapons, while Israel has had a policy of opacity regarding its own nuclear weapons programme. North Korea acceded to the treaty, violated it, and withdrew from it in 2003.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

An American peace plan?

There has been a suspicion in Israeli government circles for some time that the Obama administration is laying the ground for an imposed settlement of the Israel-Palestine issue, with the establishment and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state as a basic objective. This, it was perceived, is what lies behind the much tougher line that Washington has been taking with Israel while the proximity talks were being negotiated.

Is this a likely scenario?

President Obama came to power determined to regain credibility for the USA in the Muslim world. His speech In June 2009 in Cairo was seminal. He said the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end, and he called for a "new beginning." Already, in the previous month, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, speaking in the new President's name, had called for an end of all Israeli settlement building in the West Bank: "We think it is in the best interest of the effort that we are engaged in, that settlement expansion cease." Significantly, perhaps, construction in Jerusalem was not mentioned.

It has taken some time for it to sink in that Obama is dead serious on both issues. His determination to strengthen his credentials as a sympathetic third party in Muslim eyes has become obvious as he has sought, wherever possible, to avoid actions that would undermine them.

We learnt some time ago that political and defence circles in the US have been arguing that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian dispute in general, and the unresolved position of the West Bank settlements in particular, undermine the strategic interests of the United States, and, they maintain, of Israel as well. The latest set of demands made of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – not yet answered – reflect Obama's determination to stick to the two strands of his policy: retain credibility in the Muslim world and bring the Israel-Palestine dispute to an end. It seems he may have concluded that the only way to advance matters is to formulate an American peace plan.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? If the US can put a well-considered and credible peace plan on the table, and then try to persuade both the Palestinian Authority and Israel to accept it, the whole Middle East dispute will have been put on a new footing. Could the US impose such a settlement if the two sides could not agree? Unlikely – and it is certainly preferable for the two sides themselves to come to a mutually acceptable agreement. But it is possible to see something of the logic behind this sort of thinking on the part of the US, given Obama's self-declared priorities.

On the Arab side, the bare bones of a settlement have already been tabled – the 2002 Arab League peace plan, which the new US administration has already embraced. According to the plan, the Arab world would formally recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her, in exchange for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war.

If the US is indeed thinking along the lines of developing its own version of a peace plan, then it behoves the Israeli government to get its thinking cap on, and also come up with one which would bear scrutiny at a negotiating table. Of course such plans already exist – those sponsored in 2000 by Ehud Barak at Camp David, for exampale, and those advanced by Ehud Olmert in 2008. Olmert wanted to annex 6.3 per cent of the West Bank to Israel – areas that are home to 75 per cent of the Jewish population of the territories. In return, he proposed the transfer of territory to the Palestinians equivalent to 5.8 per cent of the area of the West Bank as well as a safe-passage route from Hebron to the Gaza Strip via a highway on which there would be no Israeli presence. This plan, presented to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, was overtaken by events and Abbas never responded to it.

So is this talk of an American peace plan all pie in the sky?

Well, according to today's edition of the Washington Post, senior US officials have indeed discussed whether President Obama should propose his own solution to the intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and they cite a meeting on 24 March between the president and seven former and current national security advisers.

What is more, a US official confirmed to the Post that a report about that session by columnist David Ignatius was correct. In it Ignatius said he had been informed that the American peace plan would be linked with the issue of confronting Iran, which is Israel's top priority. The official he spoke to described the issues as two halves of a single strategic problem: "We want to get the debate away from settlements and East Jerusalem and take it to a 30,000-feet level that can involve Jordan, Syria and other countries in the region," as well as the Israelis and Palestinians.

A second official explained to Ignatius that the United States cannot allow the Palestinian problem to keep festering – providing fodder for Iran and other extremists. "As a global power with global responsibilities, we have to do something." He said the plan would "take on the absolute requirements of Israeli security and the requirements of Palestinian sovereignty in a way that makes sense."
Commenting on the Ignatius piece, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said that the US is willing to play an active role once the parties reach the negotiation stage, but did not want to force any of the parties into an agreement.

So an imposed settlement, no. But a peace plan, possibly. And there the matter rests for the moment. A flurry in the media dovecotes, work possibly in hand in the depths of some Washington office, and the take-off of the proximity talks still in the balance.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A clash of summits

Today Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey is in Paris for talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

There is a growing international consensus that fresh UN sanctions (the fourth set) should be imposed on Iran for continuing to defy Security Council resolutions ordering it to suspend the enrichment of uranium. When Sarkozy was in America last week, he and President Obama came to a complete understanding about the need for new UN sanctions on Iran.

"My hope is that we are going to get this done this spring," said Obama. "I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place. The long-term consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran are unacceptable. And so Nicolas, myself and others agree that we have engaged."

Concurring, President Sarkozy said the US and French administrations were "inseparable" on the subject. "The time has come to take decisions. Iran cannot continue its mad race to build a nuclear weapon."

Which makes one rather wish to be a fly on the wall during the discussions today between Erdogan and Sarkozy. For Erdogan, in an interview before his visit, said he doubted that more sanctions against Iran would help persuade the Islamic Republic to assuage Western concerns about its nuclear program.

In an interview with the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Erdogan said he had repeatedly told his "dear friend" Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there should be no nuclear arms in the region, "but," he is quoted as adding, "Iran does have a right to nuclear energy."

An Islamist axis including Turkey? Only a few years ago the idea would scarcely have been feasible. Turkey and Israel had long forged a close military, trade and cultural relationship. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel back in 1949 (even before the Shah's Iran in 1950), and Israel became a major exporter of arms to the country. Israeli holidaymakers and businessmen flocked to the country, and a major deal saw Turkey exporting vast container-loads of water to Israel as a preliminary to the plan to build a massive pipeline from Turkey to supply Israel with water, electricity, gas and oil.

Then the atmosphere soured. From the time Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, Turkey's old secularist, pro-Western stance began to change, and support for Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran began to dominate Turkey's approach to foreign affairs.

It was while still at university that Erdogan met Necmettin Erbakan, who went on to become Turkey's first Islamist prime minister. As a result, Erdogan entered Turkey's Islamist movement. He was a charismatic politician, rose rapidly, and in 1994 became mayor of Istanbul. But Turkey at the time was essentially a secular state in which religion, as a matter of policy, was kept entirely separate from government and administration. It was no great surprise that Erdogan's pro-Islamist sympathies earned him a conviction in 1998 for inciting religious hatred, and he went to jail for several months.

As a result, he was debarred from standing for election or holding public office. All the same, the Islamist AKP party, which he was leading by then, won a landslide victory in the 2002 elections. Soon afterwards the law was changed, and Erdogan became prime minister.

Rooted as he is in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in December 2008 was no great surprise, nor the extraordinary scene at the Davos conference in January 2009, when he stormed out of a panel discussion after castigating Israeli President Shimon Peres for the action.

A report on Israel-Turkey relations prepared for the Israeli Foreign Ministry a few weeks ago by the Centre for Political Research concluded that ever since his party took power, Erdogan has conducted an ongoing process of fashioning a negative view of Israel in Turkish public opinion by backing radical Islamist newspapers like Vakit, which was originally also published in Germany, but was shut down there due to its anti-Semitic content.

"For Erdogan," the report concludes. "Israel-bashing is a way of bolstering his status with Islamic and Middle Eastern states, which Turkey would like to lead." And indeed, according to today's edition of Hurriyet, Turkey's daily English language newspaper, in recent remarks Erdoğan has gone as far as saying that Tehran’s nuclear programme is peaceful, and the Middle East’s nuclear problems can be laid at Israel's door.

Meanwhile Barack Obama’s nuclear summit is scheduled for April 12-13 in Washington. Britain will be represented not by the prime minister, but by the foreign secretary, David Miliband (a General Election campaign will be in full swing in the UK), but the meeting will be attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and dozens of other leaders. Washington has welcomed China's decision in particular to join negotiations on imposing new sanctions on Tehran.

What the US administration may not have known, when doing so, is that China has also said it would take part in a nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran only five days after the Washington event. Iran says that experts and officials from some 60 countries have been invited to the April 17-18 meeting in Tehran, called "Nuclear energy for everyone, nuclear arms for no one."

Two nuclear summits within a week of each other. Interesting times we live in.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Confusion in the ranks

Following on closely from my last piece ("The Missing Link") comes news of a meeting last night between Hamas and the main Palestinian factions of the Gaza Strip. Their purpose – and this has the authority of Asharq Al-Awsat, the leading Arabic international daily newspaper behind it – was to discuss prospects for inter-Palestinian reconciliation, as well as a possible truce with Israel. The report does not, it might be added, appear in the English-language edition of the paper.

According to the Arab publication, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front all participated in the meeting. Notable absentees, although invitations had been issued and accepted, were representatives of Fatah, the ruling party in the West Bank. They appear to have backed out at the last minute.

Hamas spokesman, Ayman Taha, is reported to have described the meeting as the “first fruits” of a series of inter-Palestinian talks to resolve the situation in the Gaza Strip and lead to the removal of Israel's blockade. No mention was made of the equally severe blockade maintained by Egypt along its border with Gaza, involving the current erection of a steel barrier at the Rafah crossing in order to curtail the extensive smuggling of goods of all kinds, including weaponry, from Egypt into the Strip.

This meeting of non-Fatah Palestinian leaders to discuss a possible truce with Israel coincided with the launch of a rocket into the country from within Gaza. One can only speculate as to which group might have sent it on its way – perhaps a militant body too extreme to have been invited to the meeting. The rocket reportedly hit an open area outside a kibbutz in the Western Negev.

This tactical anomaly was not the only one to mark the occasion. Yesterday morning (Sunday) the spokesman of Islamic Jihad was interviewed on the movement's official radio station. He told listeners that the group had stopped firing rockets into Israel because of the need to lift the Gaza blockade and alleviate the Palestinians' suffering. Those remarks did not remain for very long on the radio's website, for they were reportedly removed after a few hours. Later on Sunday a statement from a leading member of Islamic Jihad insisted that the organization's military wing would "continue to use rockets according to the circumstances on the ground."

These incidents seem to reveal a classic case of the left hand not quite knowing what the right hand is doing – which is of little consequence, if the outcome moves the situation forward towards some sort of accommodation. But what is really to be made of these events?

Hamas itself, to say nothing of the more extreme Islamic militant groups that have been attacking Hamas leaders and engaging in violence within Gaza, are designated "terrorist" by the USA and the EU. If the proximity talks are indeed still on the agenda – and this seems more likely than not at the moment - it is understandable if Fatah holds off at present from associating with them.

As for Hamas, it is certainly in their interest to curb the internecine conflict that has been disrupting their administration within Gaza. They also, more cynically, have an interest in maintaining a period of calm with Israel in order to continue rebuilding their military infrastructure and smuggle in advanced weaponry.

An example was revealed last Thursday, when Egyptian security forces discovered a massive arms cache in the central Sinai Peninsula that they believed was on its way to Hamas in Gaza. The cache, according to Egyptian media reports, included 100 anti-aircraft missiles, likely to be shoulder-launched, as well as 40 rocket-propelled grenades and 40 other explosive devices.

Hamas was believed to have shoulder-to-air missiles before Operation Cast Lead, but they were not used because Hamas had not had the chance to train their fighters. The same applied to anti-tank missiles. Intelligence analysts now believe that Hamas has trained its men to use the advanced weaponry, mostly by sending them to Iran and Lebanon.

All of which leads to the conclusion that any truce agreed by Hamas and the other militant groups within Gaza would be a tactical device to allow them to complete their preparations for something quite different. There may indeed be a degree of confusion at the moment within their ranks. Those parties set on the course for a genuine settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute must be on the alert to ensure that there is none within their own.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Missing Link

A basic inconsistency at the heart of the current US-led peace effort in the Middle East has been starkly revealed by the events of the past few days.

Last week two Israeli soldiers were killed while pursuing a group of Hamas fighters trying to lay mines near the border fence between Gaza and Israel. During the shoot-out two other Israeli soldiers were wounded, and two Hamas men killed. This incident came against a background of increasing rocket attacks into Israel from within Gaza. Following a period of comparative calm after the end of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, March saw something like 20 rocket and mortar attacks. A rocket fired from Gaza two weeks ago killed a Thai agricultural worker in a nearby Israeli town. On Thursday another rocket was fired into Israel.

That seemed to be the last straw. On Friday Israel struck back. According to an Israeli military spokesman, aircraft blasted two weapons-making factories and two weapons-storage facilities. Reports speak of two caravans near the town of Khan Younis being blown up, together with a cheese factory in Gaza City and, in the central refugee camp of Nusseirat, a metal foundry. There were no fatal casualties from any of these attacks, though three children were reported to have been injured by flying debris.

So far, one might say, situation normal. This wearisome pattern of incitement and retaliation consistently emerges when the first rays of a possible peace negotiation flicker above the horizon – and at this moment, despite the diplomatic furore of the past few weeks (outlined in "March Reviewed"), a start to the US-inspired proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is far from impossible. So an upsurge in extremist action on one side or the other was not unexpected.

What is less explicable is the reaction of Western governments, led by the United States.

For example, US State Department spokesman, Philip J Crowley, said on Friday that although Israel has a right to defend itself, "our message remains to the Israelis and Palestinians that we need to get the proximity talks going, focus on the substance, move to direct negotiations and ultimately arrive at a settlement that ends the conflict once and for all."

The UK echoed the message. A Foreign Office official told the media that Britain encouraged "Israelis and Palestinians to focus efforts on negotiation and to engage urgently in US-backed proximity talks."

But statements like these, matched by those from the UN, the EU and elsewhere, simply do not reflect the realities of the situation. The proximity talks, if or when they take place, will be between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The military provocations and the indiscriminate firing of rockets onto the civilian population of Israel emanate from within Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas – and even more so the Al-Qaeda inspired militant groups operating within Gaza – are opposed tooth and nail to the concept of negotiating with Israel, either directly or at one remove by way of the proposed proximity talks.

So even if, by some heaven-sent miracle, the proposed round of indirect discussions hosted by George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, do lead to face-to-face negotiations, and they in turn result in an agreement on substantive issues, what would have been achieved? Hamas, which has dissociated itself from President Mahmoud Abbas's initiative, even though it has the backing of the Arab League, would not be party to the agreement. It would continue to pursue the support of the Palestinian man-in the-street, in the hope of eventually overturning the Fatah-led government of the West Bank.

In this struggle for power, Hamas is actually fighting on two fronts. For at its heels are the militant Islamist groups that refuse to abide by Hamas's virtual ceasefire, and indeed oppose the Hamas administration for failing to live up fully to extremist Muslim standards. A recent statement from the Jihadi Salafis ran: "We will not stop targeting the figures of this perverted, crooked government, breaking their bones and cleansing the pure land of the Gaza Strip of these abominations." They and Jaljalat, Jund Ansar Allah, Army of the Nation, and the Salafi Army of Islam, to name some only, not only mount armed attacks on senior Hamas figures, but pursue their own agenda in attacking Israel.

This aspect of the Arab-Israeli dispute is the missing link in all the well-intentioned calls to Israel and "the Palestinians" to abandon recourse to arms and participate in the proposed proximity talks. Hamas, and the extremist militant groups it is signally failing to control, are not, and would not wish to be, parties to the peace discussions. But they are very much an element to be reckoned with before any final agreement can be achieved.

It would be best if, In their public statements, all those striving for a settlement in Israel-Palestine acknowledged this indisputable fact.