Monday, 31 May 2010

May reviewed

May ended on a tragic and dramatic note that could scarcely have been foreseen. A self-styled "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" comprising six ships in all, sponsored by the Turkish organization for Human Rights, Liberties, and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), was making for Gaza from Turkey. The IHH, a radical Islamic organization, was proscribed by Israel in 2008 for allegedly serving as a major component in Hamas’s global fund-raising machine.

Early this morning, as the six ships were approaching Gaza, though still in international waters, the Israeli Navy intercepted them, reminded them of the naval blockade that Israel has imposed on the strip, and ordered them to stop or make for a port in Israel where their cargo would be examined and transferred to Gaza.

When they refused to stop, Israeli commandos stormed the leading ship. On boarding , the commandos encountered fierce resistance from activists armed with knives, bats and metal pipes. According to the Israeli Defence Forces (the IDF), the soldiers started using non-lethal measures to disperse those attacking them, but the activists succeeded in stealing a weapon from one of the soldiers and reportedly opened fire, leading to an escalation in violence. Nine activists are reported killed, while several Israeli commandos were wounded, one seriously.

The fallout from this incident has yet to be assessed, but there has been very nearly universal condemnation of the Israeli action. The EU has called for an investigation. Turkey has summoned the Israeli ambassador to give an explanation. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to visit Washington this coming week at the invitation of President Obama, has cancelled his trip.

It all began so differently. May saw the start of the long-awaited and long-postponed proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – talks at arms length, with US Middle East special envoy, George Mitchell, acting as honest broker and go-between. But as to what occurred in the first meeting on 9 May – if indeed that meeting actually took place – is shrouded in secrecy. So secret, indeed, that some of the media actually denied that anything at all had taken place, and heralded the second round, two weeks later, as the opening of the talks.

Little of substance about the talks has become public knowledge even now, and there were clear signs during the month that this cloak of silence is intentional. At press conferences held after 9 May, the US spokesman for the Department of State, Philip J Crowley, virtually refused to provide any information on the progress of the talks. "I can't tell you where they are in that process," he said, which seemed to suggest that he had been gagged, or had voluntarily agreed to withhold any substantive information.

In fact, if a vow of silence has been taken by all concerned – and if, as appears the case today, 31 May, that the watertight seal is holding – no more favourable augury for some sort of successful outcome could be hoped for. Instead of the two sides issuing statements, or leaks, with their own spins on them, in the hope of achieving some sort of PR advantage, it would seem that something of substance may have been put on the table by one side or the other, and is under serious consideration.

Another possible benefit of this self-imposed silence is that, until this mornng, it provided no obvious or immediate excuse for the usual disruptive tactics, from the Islamist extremists in Gaza and elsewhere, calculated to disrupt any move towards a negotiated peace. Just before the proximity talks started there were reports of Hamas supporters in the West Bank being armed, in anticipation, it was feared, of just such activity. The absence of any news – even direct confirmation that the talks were actually under way – may have been designed to dissuade them from action and win the peace process a reprieve. The Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident, however, may have served the purpose of the Islamist extremists even better. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, has condemned it as "a massacre". Old Middle East observers were waiting to see where the disruption would stem from this time. Now we know. The question is whether it will be sufficient to bring them to a full stop.

It was towards the end of May that President Obama invited Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the United States – a much warmer note to their exchange than when they last met in April, at the height of the diplomatic furore which led to the postponement of the first attempt at proximity talks. Fences seem to have been mended, and a new understanding forged in the fire of the controversy. Netanyahu agreed a series of concessions calculated to appease hurt Palestinian feelings over the building project in Jerusalem that sparked the controversy, and he has assured the President that there would be no provocative action on Israel's part while the negotiations proceeded.

For his part, the President was prepared accept a "gentleman's agreement" that Israel would cease construction in that part of Jerusalem that lies over the "Green Line", without insisting on a firm commitment, which might have had the effect of breaking Netanyahu's rather fragile coalition government.

The meeting is the first casualty of the flotilla incident.

The last week in May also saw the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Review conference. On Friday the 28th the conference adopted a declaration upholding the principles of disarmament and calling for an international conference in 2012 with the aim of establishing a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East. The declaration called on the UN secretary general, the US, Russia and Britain to designate a facilitator to organize the conference in 2012 to be attended by "all" Middle East nations. It called on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and to place "all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Astonishingly, the resolution failed entirely to mention Iran, which is in longstanding violation of the NPT and UN Security Council Resolutions, and which, in the view of most of the rest of the world, poses the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation in the region. indeed the five permanent members of the Security Council seem on the verge of agreeing to impose a fourth round of sanctions against Iran because of its failure to comply with its obligations under the treaty.

So May ends, and June begins, on an equivocal note. How are the proximity talks faring? Are they yielding sufficiently promising results to enable face-to-face talks to commence soon? Or will they be entirely scuppered, yet again, by the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

A nuclear-weapons-free Middle East?

Imagine representatives of Iran and Israel sitting at the same table discussing how to reach the goal of a Middle East free from nuclear weapons.

It happened. Back in May 1993 the International Atomic Energy Authority (the IAEA) convened the first of a series of conferences in Vienna on just this subject, and both Iran and Israel attended. Over the four years to 1997 other such conferences and workshops took place.

Nor was this very surprising. As far back as 1980, Israel and Egypt had jointly proposed a resolution in the United Nations (GA/63/38) on the desirability of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear-weapons-free zone – and the General Assembly decided that henceforth this resolution would be adopted annually without a vote. Moreover, in 1990, UN General Assembly resolution 45/52 had invited all countries of the region, "pending the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East, to declare their support for establishing such a zone."

This UN resolution, like the IAEA conferences that followed, petered out without any obviously positive outcome. Clearly, a pre-requisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East would be peaceful relations between all the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed and carried forward?

But that desirable goal has never seemed remotely within reach. Take Israel out of the picture, and consider the intra-regional rivalries and conflicts in the Middle East over the past 40 years – the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan, the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the civil war in South Lebanon, the seizure of Gaza by Hamas, the growth of extreme Islamism exemplified by Al-Qaeda and the subsequent undermining of "moderate" Muslim states. To extend the scope of the argument somewhat in order to make the point, it has been calculated that of the 11 million Muslims killed in conflicts since 1948, some 90 per cent were killed by fellow Muslims.

So when US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, spoke at the UN earlier this month (3 May) about creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, there seemed nothing new in her reiteration of a long-held aspiration. However, all may not be as it seems. For something of a reinvigoration of the long-term objective appears to be gathering momentum, though with a recognisable spin – pressure on Israel to declare itself a nuclear state, to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to reveal its total nuclear capacity and to start the process of dismantling its nuclear warheads.

Last month US and Egyptian officials discussed an Egyptian working paper, "Middle East free of nuclear weapons". The paper asks all 189 states that are party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to reveal what they know of Israel's nuclear arsenal, deny it nuclear materials and insist on it dismantling nuclear warheads. By coincidence or design, the 22 nations that are party to the Arab League and also to the NPT wrote to the IAEA at the same time with similar suggestions.

Whether in response to these moves or not, the IAEA has placed "Israeli nuclear capabilities" on its provisional agenda for its June board meeting in Vienna. In addition the IAEA's new director general, Yukiya Amano, is reported to have asked the foreign ministers of the agency's 151 member states to propose ways of persuading Israel to sign the NPT. No mention was made of India or Pakistan, both with nuclear weapon capabilities and neither of which are signatories.

Earlier this month Russia, along with the other permanent members of the Security Council, expressed support for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Without mentioning Israel by name, the countries voiced support in a unanimous statement for the “full implementation” of a 1995 resolution intended to free the Middle East from nuclear arms.

Egypt, which has long taken a lead on this issue, has now effectively manipulated the Iranian issue to create a new linkage between Iran and Israel. They are pushing the argument that Iran can only be effectively pressured into abandoning its nuclear ambitions if Israel can be forced to sign the NPT and declare its nuclear capacity.

But this proposed "linkage" has little validity. Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons arises from its ambition to dominate the Middle East – to "devour the Arab world", as Egypt's President Mubarak has put it. Iran claims Bahrain, and sends weapons to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In truth Israel is irrelevant to these plans, except to serve as a convenient whipping boy. President Ahmadinejad would certainly like Israel out of the way, but Iran will continue with its policies regardless of whether Israel signs the NPT or not.

The "equality norm" is also considered invalid by many observers who point out that Iran threatens Israel, while Israel has never threatened any state, either with conventional or with nuclear weapons. However it is recognised that Israel's nuclear capability, whatever it consists of, provides the country with a degree of deterrence against the sort of threatening situations it faced in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.

One major question for Israel is whether it can retain its policy of nuclear "opacity" in an increasingly transparent world. With even the USA disclosing last month that it possesses 5,113 nuclear warheads, and completing negotiations with the Russian Federation on new cuts in its nuclear stockpiles, how long can Israel refrain from declaring its own nuclear capacity?

One Israeli expert on the subject – Avner Cohen, author of "Israel and the Bomb" – argues that it is time for Israel to consider adopting greater transparency in these matters. But he is cautious in his advice, for he perceives that a sudden announcement by Israel of its nuclear capability would inevitably rack up tensions in the Middle East and be perceived by the rest of the region as an aggressive show of force.

Signing the NPT is probably a non-starter for Israel. The actions of other signed-up members reveal the treaty to be a thing of straw. In the last ten years, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria have repeatedly deceived the inspectors of the IAEA and developed nuclear-based weapons programmes, thus contravening their obligations. Another signatory to the NPT, North Korea, even expelled IAEA inspectors and completed its secret nuclear weapons programme, without any effective Western response.

Israel has long been aware of the limits of the NPT, realising that to sign it would weaken its position in the region and actually leave it more vulnerable to attack. However there is no such danger in subscribing to the ideal of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East – a concept that would require peaceful dialogue between the nations of the region to achieve, and therefore very much an outcome that Israel would desire.

Where the current moves fall down is trying to push Israel into nuclear transparency and signing the NTP, claiming this to be a vital step towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, before there is anything approaching the peaceful relations between the nations of the region that would be essential to achieving it.

There's a phrase to cover this: putting the cart before the horse.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lebanon, Hezbollah and the peace process

Tomorrow, Monday 24 May, the Lebanese prime minister, Said Hariri, is due to arrive in Washington on his first official visit to the United States. He will be meeting President Obama in a dual capacity – as one of the main players on the Middle East stage, and also as holding the current presidency of the UN Security Council, a position which Lebanon retains until 31 May.

The situation is more than a trifle bizarre, since Hariri heads a national unity government that includes Hezbollah, the Shi'ite Islamist guerrilla body backed by Syria and Iran, and proscribed as "a terrorist organization" by the United States. Yet almost inevitably Obama and Hariri will discuss current US-led international efforts to impose new UN sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.

Lebanon, it is reported, has quietly asked the permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States – not to push for a vote on a new Iran sanctions resolution while it holds the presidency. When, or if, the vote is called, Lebanon is expected to abstain, given that Iranian-backed Hezbollah participates in its government.

Lebanon's history is, perhaps, more convoluted than many another state's – and this is not the place to rehearse it in detail. Sufficient to note that the end result is a sovereign nation whose day-to-day existence, as well as its future development, is heavily influenced by its neighbour, Syria, and the remoter once-colonial power, France.

During the Second World War Vichy France, Hitler's puppet state, first assumed control of Lebanon, but the country was liberated by Free French and British troops in 1941. It was declared an independent sovereign nation, and France handed over power to the first Lebanese government as from 1 January 1944.

The "National Pact", an unwritten agreement reached in 1943 and subsequently revised, established the basis of modern Lebanon. Political power in Lebanon is allocated on what is known as a "confessional" system, with seats in the parliament allocated 50-50 as between Muslims and Christians. Posts in the civil service and in public office are distributed in the same way. The top three positions in the state are allocated so that the President is always a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.

Efforts to alter or abolish the confessional method of allocating power have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades, but no other system has yet displaced it. In 1989 many of the provisions of the National Pact were codified, and so, in effect, sectarianism was perpetuated as a key element of Lebanese political life.

And this partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government. Hezbollah, an extremist Islamist group, originated within the majority Shiite block of Lebanon society. It emerged with a separate identity in the early part of the 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Perhaps its most notorious terrorist actions – and ones that certainly will not be far from the forefront of President Obama's mind when he meets Hariri – were those of 23 October 1983 when the United States Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up in a suicide bombing just twenty seconds before an apartment building containing a group of French peacekeepers. Just six months previously, on 18 April, the US embassy in Beirut had been subject to a suicide car bombing which killed 63 people.

Born in blood, fire and explosion, Hezbollah can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but the group achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000. In the election that followed – the first to include south Lebanon since 1972 because of the civil war and the Israeli presence that followed – Hezbollah formed an electoral alliance with the Amal party and took all 23 seats in South Lebanon, out of a total 128 parliamentary seats.

Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process. Following the elections in April 2009 Hariri took five months to pull together his government. The resulting 30-minister cabinet includes 15 ministers from Hariri's coalition, and 10 from the opposition including two Hezbollah ministers. The remaining five were nominated by President Suleiman.

Ahead of his trip to the States, Said Hariri has been on a whistle-stop tour of Arab capitals. Last week he visited Riyadh for talks with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, Amman to meet King Abdullah, and then Damascus where he met Syrian President Bashar Assad. Yesterday (Saturday 22 May) he travelled to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

After that meeting, Hariri is reported as calling on the international community to make "serious efforts" to push the peace process forward. "The only end for this process," he said, "is peace." And this is the message he proposes conveying to President Obama. One can only hope that he is speaking for the whole of his coalition government.

One last, and vital, entry in Hariri's diary before he steps on the plane for America, underlines yet again, if underlining were needed, the continuing influence in Lebanese affairs of the previous colonial power. French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, will arrive in Lebanon early today, and will meet Lebanese President Michel Suleiman as well as Hariri. The French government may have its own reasons for rushing Kouchner out to Lebanon at short notice, prior to a vital meeting with the US President. But official early reports speak of Kouchner's desire to reiterate his country’s support for Lebanon’s national unity government, and to emphasise France’s commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which effectively ended direct hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel and established a buffer zone), and to the role subsequently played in south Lebanon by the peacekeeping forces which include 1,500 French soldiers.

There may be more to it than that.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The proximity talks - dead silence

"No reports of progress" is far from the same as "reports of no progress". It's the former we are faced with as regards the proximity talks that apparently had their first round on Sunday 9 May, not the latter.

It was ten days ago that the first round of the long-awaited proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority took place – or did they? Security must have – for once – been totally watertight, for since then not a single newspaper, TV or radio station seems to have provided a report of what occurred. We are in the dark about what issues were on the agenda, how the discussions fared, whether any sort of agreement was reached, and if so on what topics.

Had anything in fact taken place on 9 May? Not according to Reuters, who last Tuesday (18 May), reported that "the first substantive sessions" since the Palestinians agreed to the indirect "proximity" talks had just started. On the other hand during his daily press briefing the day before (Monday 17 May), US State Department spokesman, Philip J Crowley, said: "both sides have agreed to begin to address core issues. I can’t tell you where we are in that process. But in doing so … our objective … is to begin to make progress and, as rapidly as possible, move the parties into direct negotiations." Which indicates that the process was already well advanced, though Crowley consistently sidestepped requests for clarification of any sort.

But dead silence certainly does not signify dead in the water. If that had been the outcome, we should certainly have heard all about it, for rumour has it that the White House has a contingency plan up its sleeve, to be produced with a flourish if things go wrong – an international peace summit, to be held under the auspices of the Quartet.

There are a few clues as to what might have been discussed. Just prior to the start, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian's chief negotiator, said that at the start the focus would be on borders and security. "But," he added, "this doesn't mean that we will neglect the other issues. Nothing will be agreed upon until we agree on everything."

He then provided his interviewer with a short, but not insignificant, addendum. "These talks will be with the United States, instead of with Israel."

And, of course, in one sense he is not incorrect. Both sides – the Israelis and the Palestinians – will indeed be talking not to each other, but to George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy. It may be that he will be invited, or may be able, to contribute a positive input in the discussions as they proceed, but it is surely disingenuous of Erekat to claim that the Palestinians will not be talking to the Israelis, for Mitchell's role is largely to act as an intermediary between the two parties. Proposals tabled by one side will be conveyed to the other, and reactions and counter-proposals conveyed back. The process may not be precisely two parties talking to each other, but they will certainly be conversing, even if at arms-length.

All those concerned agree that this preliminary phase of proximity talks should be followed as soon as possible by direct face-to face discussions. "As time goes by," Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister is reported as saying, "we cannot reach decisions and agreements on critical issues like security and our and their interests without sitting in one room. Peace cannot be made from afar."

Washington, too, is pressing hard for the direct talks to start as soon as possible. It is reported that President Obama phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today, Tuesday, to reiterate that the two sides needed to “negotiate seriously and in good faith.”

In the statement issued by the White House following the call, the President is reported to have stressed that he intends to hold both sides accountable for "actions that undermine trust during the talks.”

It might almost be assumed that, among such actions, would be leaking accounts of what has taken place during the discussions, particularly if the leaks issue forth with a spin on them. Perhaps all parties have adopted a self-denying ordinance as regards relations with the media, at least until there is something substantive to report.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Restoring the Jordan – a source for peace

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) is a unique organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. The aim? By protecting their shared environmental heritage, they seek to promote regional development and create the conditions necessary for an enduring peace.

At an international conference held in Amman on 3 May, FoEME issued two reports concerning the current state of the River Jordan, and what needs to be done to remedy a worsening environmental problem. In brief, the organisation calls on the Israeli and Jordanian governments and the Palestinian Authority to work together to return fresh water to the near-dry Jordan river. For the first time the FoEME identified the ecological water needs of the Lower Jordan River and from where that water can come.

According to these studies, in the past 50 years more than 98 per cent of the river's water has been diverted to supply the needs of Jordan, Syria and Israel. The river now carries about 30 million cubic metres of water a year, compared to 1.3 billion cubic metres prior to the 1930s.

Based on the first study, Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME Jordanian Director, identifies the problem as the near-total diversion of fresh water from the river, resulting in a 50 per cent loss of biodiversity. He says that some 400 million cubic metres (mcm) of water annually are urgently needed to be returned to the river to bring it back to life.

FoEME Palestinian Director Nader Khateeb assesses responsibility for the annual return of the river's water, based on the proportions diverted, as 200 mcm by the Israeli government, 90 mcm by the Jordanian government and 100 mcm by the Syrian government.

That amount, which exceeds Israel's current water desalination output, seems impossible in light of the water shortage in the region. But FoEME states that the goal can be met, and in the second study, which deals with current poor water practices, explains how. It identifies over a billion cubic metres of water that could be saved and made available from water economies by Israel, Jordan and even Palestine for reviving the Lower Jordan River.

Gidon Bromberg, FoEME Israeli Director, is quoted as saying: "In the middle of the desert we continue to flush our toilets with fresh water rather then using greywater or – even better – waterless toilets. We can do much better in reducing water loss and we need to treat and reuse all of the sewage water that we produce." ("Greywater" is waste water resulting from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing and bathing. Waste water generated from toilets is designated "blackwater").

"If conservation measures are taken in Jordan, Israel and the PA," says Bromberg, "large amounts of water could be put toward rehabilitating the Jordan, at a cost below that of desalination." Measures proposed include repairing leaks in the water distribution system and covering reservoirs to decrease evaporation.

The UN has attempted to concentrate the world's mind on water usage and mis-usage generally by declaring 22 March "International Water Day". Israel takes the subject seriously, and while a parliamentary commission is currently charged with investigating how to meet the country's increasing water needs, reservoirs with a combined storage capacity of some 66 billion gallons are being constructed specifically to contain recycled and flood water. Construction has also just begun on a water treatment plant at Bitanya, south of Lake Kinneret, The plant will treat the sewage now coming in from the Tiberias area and will also desalinate brackish water. The treated wastewater will be used for irrigation, allowing Israel's Water Agency to send water from Lake Kinneret into the southern Jordan. Within several years, it is claimed, all the major sources of pollution of the southern Jordan will be taken care of.

Meanwhile the Southern Jordan administration, which includes representatives from local government and government ministries, is formulating a plan for rehabilitating the river which will cover such issues as water quantity and quality, public access, and the location of nature reserves. FoEME plan to turn Peace Island, at the confluence of the Yarmuk and the Jordan, into a joint Israeli-Jordanian park that will attract tourists. Work on creating the park and rehabilitating the Jordan River is to be carried out in parallel.

Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all share the waters of the Jordan river and its source tributaries. Water is generally perceived as one of the high priority issues in the Arab-Israeli dispute. The key to success is co-operation, a co-operation based on self-interest. The Jordan Times recently gave particularly encouraging support for the position of FoEME: "All the countries on the river banks have to stop overusing its water, stop polluting it and assist in restoring its traditional sources of freshwater. If inaction continues, the riparian countries will face the condemnation of the international community."

Water resources in the Jordan river basin are trans-boundary. Sharing them has been an inevitable feature of life in the region in the past, is so now, and will remain so following any peace accord. Issues remain outstanding – one particular problem is in respect of the West Bank which largely contains the three principal underground aquifers of the region. One of these aquifers provides Tel-Aviv with most of its water. The eventual peace agreement, therefore, and a regional water settlement are closely interdependent, and the fact of life that water resources have to be shared should serve as a considerable inducement on all parties to reach agreement on the bigger issues.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Russia steps centre stage

Russia has been pressing for some time to play a more central role in current Middle East politics. Russia is, of course, a founder member of the "Quartet" – the foursome comprising the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia – that was set up in Madrid in 2002 to mediate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 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.

Russia has played its part in recent interventions by the Quartet into the developing situation – in particular in the meeting of 19 March held in Moscow, which roundly condemned the by now notorious announcement of a major building project in a Jerusalem suburb. At the same time the meeting fully endorsed the projected start of the proximity talks, which had been brokered by the US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell.

It was Israel's President, Shimon Peres, back in January, who approached Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to say that Russian involvement was critical for the peace process. Peres stressed that Russia's status as a non-aligned player put the country in a unique position to build confidence on both sides.

Reports from Jerusalem later indicated that Medvedev had pledged that Russia would do everything it could to contribute to the process – including hosting a Middle East peace conference. Incidentally, other contenders for this prize since the start of 2010 have been France's President Sarkozy, and also US President Obama, who is reported to have used the threat to "go it alone" with a summit conference run by the Quartet if the current peace talks become bogged down – thus, in effect, outflanking them.

And now President Medvedev is on a tour of the Middle East, starting with a visit to Damascus on Monday, in the first official visit by a Russian or Soviet leader to Syria. Here, it is reported – though with how much accuracy it is difficult to judge – the Russian president pushed President Bashar Assad hard for a rapprochement between Syria and Israel. However, what he may have given with one hand, Medvedev hastily withdrew with the other by jointly affirming with Assad, Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear energy programme, which, world powers generally acknowledge, is really a drive for an atomic weapons capability.

Medvedev also told Assad that he hoped to increase Russian cooperation with Syria in the oil and gas sectors, and also – and perhaps significantly – in the field of atomic energy. However, beyond a vague reference, he gave no further details on what nuclear cooperation had been discussed. Syria armed with a nuclear capability would pose just as severe a threat to stability in the world in general, and that of the Middle East in particular, as Iran – and would merit as severe a reaction.

While in Damascus, Medvedev took the opportunity to meet Hamas's political chief, Khaled Mashaal – who “chanced” to be in the vicinity at the time. According to the Novosti news agency, the Russian President called on Mashaal to free the captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit has been in Palestinian captivity since he was abducted in a 2006 cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas have been engaged in ongoing indirect negotiations over a prisoner swap deal which would see Shalit released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, but the exchange has yet to be finalized.

Medvedev's next port of call was Turkey, Russia's second largest trading partner, where he met with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following their meeting, a joint statement was issued to the effect that, in their view, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, should not be excluded from the Middle East peace process. There was an immediate reaction from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Terrorists are terrorists,” ran the statement, “and Israel sees no difference whatsoever between Hamas terrorists acting against Israel and Chechen terrorists acting against Russia. There is no difference between Khaled Mashaal and Shamil Basayev [the slain Chechen separatist and guerrilla leader]. Israel has always sided with Russia in the fight against Chechen terror, so we expect similar backing when it comes to Hamas terror against Israel."

This Russian initiative is difficult to read. An apparently unrelated news item in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz on Tuesday may provide a clue. Military intelligence, it was reported, in an analysis of what is going on in Syria, indicated that President Bashar Assad was prepared to examine the possibility of a peace agreement with Israel. We have heard this particular refrain before, but the visit by the Russian President is surely intended to increase Russia's influence in the Middle East. It may just also be a pre-emptive strike, as it were, directed towards Russian involvement in the possible future peace talks between Syria and Israel that Medvedev has apparently called for. Previous proximity talks between Syria and Israel were hosted by Turkey. Perhaps Russia seeks to take over.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Déja vu

It was exactly two months ago – on 9 March – that I headed the article I wrote that day: "They're Talking!" In a somewhat surprised, but pleased, frame of mind I reported that the idea of proximity talks had been endorsed on all sides. Washington had come up with the idea when it seemed clear that direct face-to-face negotiations were a step too far for the Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had gone along with it. And PA President Mahmoud Abbas had received the endorsement of both the Arab League and subsequently the Palestine Liberation Organisation to participate.

Who would have guessed, at that moment, of the battering that the peace process would have to endure in the next two months, of the ups and downs, reverses and frustrations, displays of political brinkmanship and political statesmanship? Yet the straws of what was to follow were actually there, blowing in the wind, in my 9 March article.

For in it I reported that on 8 March the Palestinians had issued a strongly worded protest after Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit. Israel issued a hasty explanation about this breech, and indicated that the 10-month freeze on West Bank construction remained Israeli policy and intention.

But the provocation that was to cause the breakdown of this initiative, and the two-month delay in reinvigorating it, was already in train. For it was on 9 March that US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel to inaugurate the peace talks in which the USA had invested so much effort. He had no sooner set foot in the country than the Israel Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, authorised the by-now infamous announcement of a future 1600-apartment development project in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo. Ramat Shlomo lies on the other side of the "Green Line" that delineates Israel's boundary at the end of the Six Day War in 1967.

The fact that building in Jerusalem had been specifically excluded from Netanyahu's 10-month construction freeze was irrelevant, given the delicate nature of the political situation. The announcement was seen, and perhaps it was meant to be seen, as an assertion of the long-held view of Likud and other more extreme Israeli political parties that Jerusalem was the "eternal and undivided capital of Israel" – a position disputed by the Palestinians. The future status of Jerusalem is certain to be one of the issues for final resolution during any serious peace negotiations.

The US administration took offence, and relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu went into the deep freeze for several weeks. But the cloud had a silver lining. Out of the controversy, a new realism was born – on both sides. The President came to appreciate that there were limits to what he could ask of Netanyahu, given his fragile coalition – and though he did request a raft of confidence-building concessions in order to get the peace talks back on track, he stopped short of demanding a formal moratorium on construction in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu, for his part, was prepared to go as far as he could in giving Obama the assurances he sought. He devised – and his coalition cabinet approved – a series of measures including a prisoner release offer, a lifting of West Bank roadblocks and an easing of the restrictions on imports to Gaza. And, with a nod and a wink, he assured the President that there would be no provocative action on Israel's part while the negotiations proceeded – in short, while there would be no formal declaration to this effect, in practice a "gentleman's agreement" would ensure that there would be no construction in areas beyond the "Green Line", including Jerusalem.

This was enough to permit the wagon-train to start rolling once again. There was a distinct impression of déjà vu. Once again the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, returned to the region and reopened discussions with the interested parties. Once again Netanyahu declared his willingness to participate in proximity talks. Once again PA President Abbas sought cover from the Arab League to enter the discussions, and once again the League assented – though with a requirement of positive results within four months. Once again the PLO were asked, and yesterday they gave their agreement at a meeting in Ramallah in the West Bank. PLO spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo said after the meeting that the vote marked the official start of the talks.

How do matters differ now from how they stood in March?

The elephant in the room is Hamas, the extreme Islamist group that seized power in Gaza and is at daggers drawn with the PLO. An announcement from them on Friday dubbed the proposed proximity talks "absurd". They would only "give the Israeli occupation an umbrella to commit more crimes against the Palestinians. Hamas calls on the PLO to stop selling illusions to the Palestinian people." The same day, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a left-wing Palestinian militant group, was reported also to have rejected the idea of proximity talks, saying negotiations would be "ill and absurd, whether direct or indirect".

Meanwhile Mahmoud Abbas has spoken of concerns in the PA at evidence of large scale transfers of arms by Hamas to its cadres in the West Bank. PA officials fear that the arms transfers could presage an attempt by Hamas to carry out attacks on Israel from the West Bank, while allowing quiet to continue to prevail in the movement's own enclave in Gaza. This could also herald an attempt by Hamas to disrupt the talks, and to try to seize some sort of political advantage over the PLO in their bid for the support of the Palestinian population.

All attempts at a reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO have come to naught. A long series of discussions brokered by Egypt seemed on the verge or achieving a rapprochement, but failed at the last moment. Mahmoud Abbas believes it was what he terms "outside forces" – namely Iran and Syria – which have scuppered every effort to bring the two sides together. The last thing these rejectionist states wish to see is a sovereign Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Each seeks to dominate the region – ambitions frustrated by the mere presence of Israel.

It is against this background that the delicate negotiations – resumed after a gap of nearly 18 months – are expected to start next week. Will they survive the hazards that can already be discerned? Time will tell.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The J Street and JCall Phenomena

On Monday the European Parliament in Brussels witnessed the official launch of a new organisation. Calling itself "JCall", it is self-consciously modelled on an American body born just two years ago – "J Street." The "J" in both titles may be assumed to stand for "Jewish", though the title of the parent body has a more complex provenance.

"J Street" was founded in Washington, DC. The city of Washington is constructed on a neat and orderly grid of numbered and lettered streets. None of the numbered streets appears out of sequence, and none of the streets named for the alphabet is missing – except for "J". There is an "I Street" and a "K Street"; there is no "J Street". It's a conundrum that has puzzled American minds for centuries. There is no convincing explanation, except that in the mediaeval alphabet the letters "I" and "J" were interchangeable, and the planners of Washington may have decided to omit one of them to avoid confusion.

Still, it gave the founders of this new Jewish-orientated lobbying body a golden opportunity, which they seized. A second happy coincidence is that other major lobbying bodies happen to have congregated in nearby "K Street".

Decked out with an intriguing and appropriate title, what was "J Street's" agenda?

Its founders were, in essence, rebelling against what they perceived as the traditional approach of mainstream Jewish American opinion-makers – namely, uncritical endorsement of the policies and actions of Israeli governments, regardless. If they had any one particular body in their sights, at least at the start, it was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America's leading pro-Israel lobbying group, whose main objective has been to ensure that American support for Israel remained strong.

Nevertheless, according to its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, "J Street" is now proud of AIPAC's many accomplishments. In his view the two groups have different priorities rather than different views. "J Street", he has said, is neither pro- nor anti- any individual organization or other pro-Israel umbrella groups. What it has sought is to provide a political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who believe, in their words, that a "two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy."

In brief, "J Street" was born in 2008, at a time when the "two-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine conflict had not gained general acceptance in the main right-wing Israeli political party, Likud, or in other more extreme right-wing parties. While some Jewish opinion formers worldwide continued to reflect those views, others favoured the approach of centrist and left-wing Israeli political parties. The Kadima party, for example, was founded on the belief that it was not in Israel's interest to continue to govern many millions of Arab citizens in the occupied territories. Demographically and democratically, such a situation offered Israel no secure future. Israel needed to work actively towards the establishment of a sovereign Palestine based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was to allow the free airing of views like these that "J Street" was founded. However, along the way it has given its support to controversial policies like opposing sanctions on Iran and trying to initiate a congressional resolution in favour of the Goldstone report's condemnation of Israel's Gaza campaign.

Views such as these, to say the least, did not always accord with those of the Israeli government. There was a perception among Israeli officials that "J Street" placed much of the fault for the stalled peace process on Israel. But as the situation on the ground has changed, so has the adverse Israeli view of "J Street". The rapprochement was strengthened towards the end of April, when "J Street’s" executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, finally met with Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren – a meeting built on months of discussions, aimed at clarifying the Israeli government’s understanding of "J Street’s" views.

Then last week "J Street" leaders visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. They were welcomed by the Israeli establishment, meeting President Shimon Peres, senior Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer, and others. The trip included meetings in Ramallah with top Palestinian leaders and a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman.

And now the debate that American Jewry has been engaged in for the past two years has reached Jewish Europe. The question: " How critical in public should you be of Israeli government policies that you believe are not in Israel’s best interests?"

In the past, the founders of JCall believe, many European Jewish communal leaders have adopted an "Israel right or wrong" approach, defending unconditionally anything said or done by a current Israeli government. That, as "J Street" has demonstrated, seems to them increasingly inappropriate. But lobbying for a two-state solution and a peaceful outcome in the Middle East, as "J Street" has been doing, is a long way from calling for occasional condemnation of Israeli policies, or for European pressure on the Israeli government. And JCall's main activity so far has been to amass signatures for an online petition repudiating blind support for Israeli policies, and calling for the European Union to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution.

The European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing elected European Jewish community leaders, has condemned JCall’s petition calling for European pressure on Israel’s government as “divisive, counter-productive and unhelpful.” There is something in what they say. To commit the future of Israel to the goodwill of European governments is to ignore the lessons of history. Europe's previous attempts at providing "solutions" to the Jewish problem do not inspire confidence. European governments can scarcely have the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people at heart. Jews the world over would have every reason to be alert and sceptical about any advice to Israel, however friendly the source.

There is everything to be said for open discussion and a free exchange of opinion, but JCall's current approach seems particularly ill-conceived. They are pushing at an open door. The fact is that the Israeli government has already accepted the two-state solution; it has, in a sense, contained its extremists, at least for the present. For progress to be made towards a peaceful outcome, the Palestinian side somehow has to contain their extremists. Some movement there has undoubtedly been, as evidenced by the endorsement provided by the Arab League for the start of the proximity talks.

Given present circumstances, both "J Street" and JCall seem more than a trifle irrelevant.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Ready, Willing and Able?

So the proximity talks are on again. The event that caused the sudden chill in US-Israeli relations, that led PA President Mahmoud Abbas to declare himself unwilling to resume peace negotiations, even at arms length, that evoked criticism by the EU and the Quartet – now that event seems no obstacle at all.

A housing development in Jerusalem – the casus belli – should never have been an issue in the first place. Ever since the city was unified after the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli governments and Jerusalem mayors of whatever political persuasion have been developing and expanding all areas of Jerusalem – those largely occupied by Jewish, as well as those largely occupied by Arab, households. When the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank last November, he explicitly excluded construction in Jerusalem. This was well understood by all parties who negotiated the start of proximity talks early in March.

The diplomatic and political débacle was caused not by the fact of a future housing scheme in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo suburb, but in the nature and timing of its announcement. One might term it "insensitive" if the suspicion did not exist that it was, in fact, deliberate and designed to attract maximum media attention. Some things are understood, but best left unsaid. This announcement, authorised by Israel's Interior Minister at the moment the US Vice President had arrived to inaugurate the proximity talks, certainly fell into that category. It is doubtful if Prime Minister Netanyahu had been consulted.

Yet now, with Netanyahu maintaining, or at least not formally disavowing, Israel's long-held position on building in Jerusalem, the obstacle is apparently no obstacle at all. What has in fact changed is the atmosphere. A new understanding between the Obama administration and Netanyahu has been forged in the fire of the controversy - a "gentleman's agreement". The Israeli Prime Minister has tacitly agreed to halt construction in East Jerusalem, while the American President has tacitly acknowledged that there is a limit to the amount of pressure Netanyahu can accept and still maintain his coalition government. Obama asked for a series of gestures from Israel to help sweeten Palestinian opinion, and Netanyahu has responded with a prisoner release offer, a lifting of West Bank roadblocks and an easing of the restrictions on imports to Gaza.

These concessions, backed no doubt by some intense persuasion from Washington, have been sufficient to lead Arab League nations, in their meeting in Cairo on 1 May, to endorse a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In doing so, the League made it clear that their agreement was for four months, during which time they expected to see some positive results.

US special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is expected back in the region this coming week, and the proximity talks could start shortly afterwards. The earlier demands for an explicit Israeli declaration halting all construction in Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" have been quietly brushed under the carpet, not only by Washington, but by the PA President and the Arab League.

Assuming the talks do, indeed, get under way, what chance of success do they have? The two leading participants – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas – will by definition be ready and willing to engage in negotiations with a two-state solution the desired outcome, but would either be able to deliver?

Concessions there would undoubtedly have to be on both sides in hammering out answers to the major outstanding issues – the nature and extent of land swaps in returning to an approximation of Israel's 1967 borders, the nature and extent of compensation for forgoing the right of return on the Palestinian side, the status of Jerusalem if the capital of a future Palestinian state is to be in its environs, the future administration of Jerusalem's holy sites, means of physically linking Gaza to the West Bank.

Could Netanyahu carry his coalition with him if agreement were ever reached round the negotiating table on these and related matters? Could he carry the country? Could he in fact deliver? Major political upheaval would be likely, a referendum might be mooted, and even then, depending on the nature of the proposition, some violent settler resistance or even wider civil unrest is not improbable.

Could Abbas deliver? He has the backing of the Arab League in entering the talks – vital, since he is risking opposition from Palestinian hardliners backed by Syria and Iran. But would that cover be maintained in the face of a compromise agreement? Syria is a member of the Arab League, but its protests at the approval twice given by the League to the peace talks have so far carried no weight. Will this continue to be the case? Then, Abbas has lost control of Gaza to Hamas, which is wholly opposed to peace negotiations with Israel. What is the value of an agreement between Israel and a PA whose writ does not run in a major part of its territory?

Hanging over these forthcoming proximity talks will be the report in the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" a few days ago. This asserted that President Barack Obama has told several European leaders that if Israeli-Palestinian talks remain stalemated into September or October, he will convene an international summit on achieving peace in the Middle East.

This conference, it was reported, would be run by the Quartet – the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia – in a bid to forge a united global front for creating a Palestinian state. Israeli officials have said that if such a plan emerges, Obama could postpone it until after the mid-term Congressional elections in November.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships are likely to oppose such a conference. It would deprive them of ownership of the peace process. In any case, it is doubtful if an outcome unacceptable to either side could simply be imposed. Israel is, after all, a sovereign state, and the PA aspires to become one. Though one never can tell, It does not seem a likely scenario,. The reports may fall into a category familiar in the British media during the Blair years and dubbed "disinformation". They may, in short, be designed simply to inject some degree of urgency into the forthcoming discussions.

In any case, September is likely to be a critical month. In endorsing the talks, the Arab League is requiring them to show progress within four months, that is by September. The UN General Assembly is due to reconvene in late September, and in addition September 26 marks the end of the 10-month period Israel allocated for a freeze on West Bank settlement construction. Whatever else is on the table at the time, Netanyahu will have to decide by then whether to allow such building to be resumed.

So, as May commences, we cast our eyes towards the distant horizon of September with some trepidation but surely, also, with a little hope.