Monday, 31 December 2012

An Israeli-Palestinian meeting of minds

We hear a great deal about the issues that separate Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). A question asked less often is: how much overlap is there between them?

If the vast range of opinion within the Israeli body politic were to be taken into account, the question would become meaningless. Within Israel one can find strands of political opinion well to the right of Ghengis Khan and well to the left of anything Mahmoud Abbas has yet articulated. The only practical approach is to assume that Israel’s position is that currently adopted by its democratically elected government − the government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If opinion polls have any validity, this seems likely to remain the situation after the forthcoming general election.

The position of the PA must be taken as that publicly stated by its current President, Mahmoud Abbas, to non-Arab audiences. There is no denying that like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, he has made directly contradictory statements for domestic consumption, and the gap between his two positions is wide indeed − so wide that he would face a problem in carrying Palestinian public opinion with him in any substantive peace negotiations. Nor is there much point in referring back to the founding charter of Fatah, Abbas’s party, where the ultimate objective is clearly the elimination of Israel. History has its place in the overall scheme of things, but politics is a game for the here and now.

It is equally of little value to place too much emphasis on the total rejectionism of Hamas, the extreme Islamist de facto government of the Gaza strip. The apparently irreconcilable split between Hamas and Fatah certainly weakens Abbas’s position on the world stage, but curiously it is also one of the factors binding the PA and Israel together. Both parties would like nothing better than to see the PA re-establish its authority in Gaza, although neither is prepared to do very much about it. Cooperation has so far been confined to countering attempts by Hamas to gain a foothold in the West Bank. To go further would involve Abbas in a damaging loss of credibility with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. Indeed, he pays lip service to the concept of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but the two are chalk and cheese as regards an acceptable strategy towards Israel. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist; Abbas has taken to asserting it.

It is an undoubted fact that both Israel and the PA are publicly committed to the two-state solution. Netanyahu declared his support for the concept in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, as well as when he addressed the US Congress in May 2011. He reiterated his position in a letter he sent to Mahmoud Abbas a year later, following the establishment of his national unity government.

Speaking to the joint meeting of the US Congress, Netanyahu said:

“Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples − a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. This is not easy for me. I recognize that we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland in Judea and Samaria. The Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land. But there is another truth: The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state.”

For his part, Abbas was widely quoted following his interview on Israeli TV in November 2012: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital…the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.”

Before the end of the month, he was addressing the UN General Assembly, asking for Palestine to be recognised as a non-member state. He said: “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We will accept no less than the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

The differences between the stated positions of Israel and the PA seem paper thin. Why then has the peace process been in the deep-freeze for so long? Perhaps because both leaders are well aware that peace is a dangerous game, and that there are lunatic extremists in both camps. After all, each has a chilling reminder of predecessors who moved too far or too fast. It would require exceptional courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late president of Egypt, Anwar Saddat, did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.' And no doubt Netanyahu also has the fate of his predecessor as Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in mind from time to time. So, yes, caution is to be commended, but caution to the point of immobility has brought us to the present impasse.

Paralysis of the peace process may suit the leadership of both parties, but opinion polls reveal that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favour an end to the conflict and the chance to live in peace, side by side. The result of two parallel polls released this morning indicate that two-thirds of Israelis would support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, if a referendum on such an accord were held by Israel's government.
There is the true meeting of minds.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 31 December 2012:

Monday, 24 December 2012

The UK and Israel in 2013

Israelis tend to regard the UK − or “Anglia” as they persist in calling it in Hebrew (a politically incorrect term in the UK these days to describe the nation) − with a jaundiced eye, for historically the relationship between Britain and Israel has been bitter-sweet.

For some the bitterness outweighs the sweetness: Britain’s failure to fulfil its League of Nation’s mandate to establish a Jewish National Home in the inter-war years, its failure to affect the course of the Holocaust as it progressed, even to the extent of refusing to bomb the Auschwitz crematoria, its heartless treatment of Jewish refugees seeking to enter Palestine after the war.

Some take a kinder view. They recall that Britain, a global super-power in 1917, was first to acknowledge the Jewish people’s historic connection to the Holy Land, and to declare to the world that it was in favour of establishing a national home for them in Palestine. They remember Lord Allenby for his conquest of Palestine and his capture of Jerusalem, and also, with affection, the Christian Zionist General Orde Wingate, a founder of the Israel Defense Forces, known to the Jewish troops he commanded as “The Friend”. They remember the “kindertransport” − the rescue mission during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, when the UK took in nearly 10,000 Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany.

The problem with Britain’s relationship with the Zionist movement, and later with Israel, has always been Britain’s need, in its own self-interest as it saw it, to maintain good relations also with as much of the Arab world as possible – and especially with the oil-rich Arab states. The resultant balancing act has led to many a wobble.

What are Israel’s prospects for a strong supportive UK in 2013?

Judging by remarks made by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, earlier this month, they are − with just a few reservations − excellent. To deal with the reservations: Britain’s primary need in 2013 will be to trade its way out of recession, and this may well lead to stronger economic ties with a range of Middle Eastern states. For example, only last week Britain announced a multi-billion pound defence deal with Oman; other such deals are in the offing as Gulf states become increasingly nervous about Iranian ambitions and the rise of extreme Islamism on the back of the Arab Spring. As regards the Arab Spring, the UK seems as hypnotised as the USA with the idea that somehow democracy will leap, fully-fledged, from the flames of revolution. That the white-heat of rebellion might result in the accession of extremist Islamist governments – like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt − is, for the moment at least, largely discounted.

The good news is to learn that the UK’s prime minister said – as he did on 11 December − “I’m not an acquaintance of Israel. I’m not a colleague of Israel. I am a passionate friend of Israel – and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

David Cameron was unrestrained in his admiration for Israeli achievement in a whole variety of fields.

“Israel is growing faster than Russia – and almost twice as fast as Brazil. It’s got more start-up businesses per head than any other country. The big question is: how do they do it? Yes, it’s about Israel getting its debts down, investing in education, signing free trade agreements, but it’s more than that – it’s about the aspiration and drive of its people. These are people who have innovated around every problem that life has thrown at them. The land is dry - so they come up with new water technology. There’s little oil – so they find other energy alternatives. So we want to work much more closely with Israel – on innovation, on technology.”

It seems, therefore, that in 2013 Britain will be seeking ever closer ties with Israel in terms of trade and of scientific and technical innovation. As an earnest of that intention, Cameron announced the appointment of the UK’s first technology envoy to Israel, Saul Klein − someone, he said. “with huge experience in early-stage investment.”

Turning to the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Cameron believes that the only way to secure long term peace and security is the two-state solution.

“To me it is clear what needs to happen. We need the US administration to give this priority. We need Europe to act even-handedly. We need the Palestinians to understand there is only one path to statehood, and that is through negotiations with Israel. We made that clear with that UN vote a couple of weeks ago. We said that Britain could not support a resolution that set back the prospects for peace and that did not commit the Palestinians to return to negotiations without preconditions. So we did not vote for it.”

On the other hand, it might be observed, the UK did not vote against it, either. Balancing, as ever, on the wobbly high wire, the UK abstained.

On Iran, Cameron believes that the regime must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, but that the policy of sanctions is working, that the Tehran régime is cracking. Nevertheless, he said : “if Iran makes the wrong choice, nothing – and I mean nothing - is off the table.” 2013 might be the crunch year for military action.

Cameron concluded: “I look forward to the day when the relationship between Britain and Israel is about prosperity more than about security, to the day when the Jewish people can see the future not with uncertainty but with hope, and as a friend of Israel I will work with you till that day comes.”

Not a bad prospect for UK-Israeli relations.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 26 December 2012:

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Arab Peace Plan - not quite clinically dead

At the end of November the London-based Arab daily, Al-Sharq il-Awsat, reported that the king of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, following complicated back surgery, was clinically dead. So far, the story has not been confirmed − and one might hope that reports of the king's death are greatly exaggerated and that he is making a good recovery − but mention of Abdullah inevitably brings to mind that he was the instigator of one of the most surprising episodes in the long-drawn-out Arab-Israeli dispute.

A summit conference of the Arab League had been arranged for March 2002 in Beirut. At that time Abdullah was Saudi’s Crown Prince, although he had been effectively ruling the kingdom on behalf of his ailing father, King Fahd, since 1996. On the 20th of March, a few days ahead of the summit, he electrified the assembled Arab foreign ministers by floating a peace plan for Palestine-Israel.

Basically, he called for peace with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from all territories captured in the 1967 war. There was a significant condition: a "just settlement" of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN Resolution 194 (a sort of "right of return" or, for those who do not want to go back, agreed compensation). However, Abdullah did not specify whether refugees, now perhaps including third or fourth generation descendants of those who left the region in 1948, were to be "returned" to Israel or to the Palestinian state that would be created. The plan was discussed for a week, amendments were incorporated (notably a clause which prevented the 350,000 or more Palestinians living in Lebanon claiming Lebanese citizenship), and it was adopted on the 28th of March 2002. The Arab League has since readopted the Initiative on several occasions, notably at the Riyadh summit in 2007.

The quid pro quo for Israel’s agreement to the plan would be that all 22 Arab States would consider the Arab–Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement and establish normal relations with Israel.

Israel has never made an official response to the proposals, but reactions have divided as might be expected between right- and left-wing political opinion. Following the Riyadh summit, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, rejected the plan outright; previous prime minister Ehud Olmert expressed reservations, but welcomed the initiative as a "new way of thinking. The willingness to recognize Israel as an established fact,” he said, “and to debate the conditions of the future solution, is a step that I can't help but appreciate."

Perhaps the median view was set out by Israel's president, Shimon Peres. He applauded the "U-turn" in the Arab attitude towards peace with Israel as reflected in the Saudi initiative, though "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording … it doesn't have to agree to every word."

In March 2009, shortly after President Obama took office for the first time, and optimism was the order of the day, George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, announced that the new administration intended to "incorporate" the Saudi initiative into its Middle East policy. That intention has never been clarified, and if it has indeed been implemented, it has been done without much of a fanfare.

Now we learn that Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is urging the Arab League not to withdraw its 2002 peace plan, since he himself is planning to call for renewed negotiations with Israel for six months, on condition that Israel freezes construction in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem during that time. How he intends to reconcile this initiative with his other stated intention to seek a reconciliation with Hamas, the de facto government in the Gaza strip, he does not specify. In fact it is a circle that is impossible to square. As Hamas’s leader, Khaled Mashaal, made perfectly clear during his visit to Gaza, the destruction of Israel remains his goal. Negotiations, peace initiatives, recognition of Israel − all are anathema to Mashaal and the terrorist organisation he leads.

Abbas cannot both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. His apparent attempt to do so leads to the inevitable conclusion that this is yet another of his moves calculated to generate favorable world media attention, but actually designed to circumvent any genuine effort to reach an accommodation with Israel.

The Arab Spring was initially seen by the West as the Arab masses clamouring for democracy and throwing off the shackles of dictatorship. The reality has proved rather different. Jihadists and other Islamist extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have used the various national rebellions to stir the pot of disaffection and advance their particular cause. The MB, still holding the reins of power in Egypt, is at one with its progeny, Hamas, in its basic objective regarding Israel – namely it seeks Israel’s ultimate elimination. It is perhaps significant that while the advance text of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s address to the United Nations on September 26, included an endorsement of the Arab peace plan − that section was omitted from his speech. Instead he simply endorsed Palestinian statehood without stating whether his vision would accommodate Israel or not.

And yet, if there is a pinprick of light in the dark tunnel in which Israeli-Arab relations now find themselves, it is perhaps Abdullah’s bold initiative in 2002 − for audacious, even its greatest detractors must allow it to have been. The fact that it is still referred to, by friend and foe alike, proves that it is not yet totally dead in the water.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 17 December 2012:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Construction in the West Bank - how illegal is it?

World opinion, led by the Obama administration, is in no doubt.

“These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s immediate reaction when the Israeli government authorised the construction of 3000 new homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, following the Palestinians winning their bid in the UN General Assembly to become a "non-member observer state".

She did not use the world “illegal”, but Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, was less inhibited in his condemnation.

"I am extremely concerned by reports that the Israeli cabinet plans to approve the building of 3,000 new housing units in illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law... The UK strongly advises the Israeli government to reverse this decision.”

Hague summoned to the Foreign Office Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, to convey the government’s displeasure in person. Hague’s move in calling in the Israeli ambassador was followed by France and Sweden. Australia and Brazil followed suit.

That the West Bank and Gaza are Palestinian land, that Israel has no legal right to any of it, and that all settlements built on land that Israel did not occupy before the 1967 war, including east Jerusalem, are illegal in international law − all this is now taken for granted by a kind of generalised world consensus. On its website the BBC, obligated by its Charter to impartiality, sets out the case both for and, in somewhat mealy-mouthed fashion, against:

“It is widely accepted that under international law, the Jewish settlements in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 are illegal. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war states: ‘The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies.’ Within the international community the overwhelming view is that Article 49 is applicable to the occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights…Israel is a party to the Geneva Conventions, and bound by its obligations.

“But its government argues that the international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to the Palestinian territories because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place… Israel therefore denies the formal, de jure, applicability of the 4th Geneva Convention in the occupied territories.”

As for these territories belonging to the Palestinians, Israel would argue that no Palestinian state existed in 1967, nor does it today, despite the recent UN General Assembly vote. What does exist are the Oslo Accords, negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”. Under the Accords the issue of settlements was to be decided in the permanent status negotiations. None of the agreements signed between the parties contain any limitation on building by the parties in the areas under their respective jurisdictions.

One legal opinion holds that while Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits "individual or mass forcible transfers" of civilians, this has not happened, and is not happening, in the territories under Israeli administration. Further, under Article 49 the Occupying Power is obliged not to "deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population" to territories under its control, and that there has been no such active or forcible deportation or transfer of Israeli civilians. On the other hand, it is opined, Article 49 does not oblige Israel to prevent voluntary settlement by its civilian population.

More broadly, the case has been made by international lawyers that Judea and Samaria legally belong to Israel and the Jewish people under international law. Professor Talia Einhorn, for example, is on the record as saying that Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip are all incorrectly categorized by the world community as “occupied,” because prior to Israel’s liberation of those areas in 1967 no sovereign power legally controlled them, while the original Mandate for Palestine − never revoked and still valid − designated those areas as part of the Jewish national home.

“From the standpoint of international law,” says Einhorn, “there is no essential difference between the areas on the two sides of the Green Line.” The last legally binding document to be adopted regarding the areas in question, she says, remains the 1920 San Remo resolution, which deeds full sovereignty to the Jewish people.

It has also been pointed out that Article 80 of the United Nations Charter, by recognizing the continuing validity of rights granted to all states or peoples under already existing international instruments, including those adopted by the League of Nations, protects Article 5 of the Mandate ("The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of, the Government of any foreign Power."}

It is time for a clear ruling, one way or the other. Either construction in the occupied areas under Israel’s jurisdiction is illegal, or Israel’s position on Article 49 of the Geneva Convention is valid. Where can an authoritative legal opinion be sought?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), established under the UN charter, is composed of fifteen judges, each from a different nation. One of its main functions is to provide advisory opinions on legal questions. To clear the fog of confusion that surrounds this issue, there is surely a case for Israel applying to the ICJ for an opinion on whether the provisions of the Mandate survived the demise of the League of Nations, and on the legality or otherwise of its construction policies in the occupied territories.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 11 December 2012:

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Muslim Brothers - not all that fraternal

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the fundamentalist Islamist organisation, influential enough in the Middle East before the Arab Spring, has been riding high ever since. The revolutionary forest fire that has swept across the region has provided the MB with a golden opportunity to increase its influence − an opportunity it has seized in a whole clutch of states.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, saw the MB − in the guise of the Ennhada party − win overwhelming power in October 2011. In support of Libya’s new Islamist party, the Party of Reform and Development, and capitalising on the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, the MB held its first public conference on Libyan soil in November 2011. In Yemen the MB became ever bolder in stirring up opposition to the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, and eventually forced his resignation. And of course Egypt, the birthplace of the Brotherhood, elected its post-revolution President from the ranks of the MB.

Governments affected adversely by the MB’s current upsurge in confidence include Kuwait, Algeria, Sudan, Somalia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – to name only some. Wherever it manifests itself – and its stretch is far from confined to the Middle East − the MB is dedicated to the tenets set out originally by its founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1928. He declared, quite simply: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet.”

Seeking to bring about this Islamic aspiration, the MB’s official motto is: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. And death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our ambitions.”

These high-flown aspirations, which might be defined as the organisation’s long-term strategy, may indeed be common to the MB in all its various national manifestations. When it comes down to tactics, however, a different picture begins to emerge.

Take the relationship between Egypt and Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. Mohammed Morsi of the MB had no sooner taken over as President in Egypt, than the leaders of Hamas, itself an offspring of the MB, approached him with a half-baked plan to declare Gaza an independent Islamist state in its own right. But becoming complicit in Hamas’s continued indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli citizens was far from what the new Egyptian president had in mind.

On the contrary, just one week after his meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Morsi caused a real brouhaha in Egypt when it was revealed that he had written to Israel’s President, Shimon Peres: "I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people."

So is Morsi MB enough? Perhaps not, for only last week, one day after Morsi had mediated the cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians to end the eight days of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Mohammed Badie, the top leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, denounced peace efforts with Israel and urged holy war to liberate Palestinian territories.

The anomalies abound, but the evidence suggests that Morsi knows where Egypt’s best interests lie and will not go too far, at least for the present, in the direction of extreme Islamist political action. The country is relying on a new $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and a $6.4 billion support package from the EU, to say nothing of a hefty package of loans and grants from the USA.

On the other hand, there is nothing more typical of MB tactics than Morsi’s recent crude grab for autocratic powers that has landed him with the makings of a second revolution. This demonstrates, as nothing could more clearly, the inherent anti-democratic extremism of the MB, and its long-term agenda. For example, the Arab Spring has not so far greatly penetrated the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Arab monarchies, thanks to cradle-to-grave welfare systems funded by their boundless oil revenues, but these governments regard the rise of the MB on the back of the revolutionary movement with alarm. Dubai’s police chief, Dhahi Khalfan, is on record as saying that the MB was fomenting an “international plot” against the Gulf States.

When the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, declared that Gulf Arab countries should work together to stop the MB plotting to undermine governments in the region, Mahmoud Hussein, the MB secretary-general, responded: “Members of the Muslim Brotherhood respect their hosting nations, and do not call for bringing down any system of governance in the countries they live in.”

If you believe that, as the old saying goes, you will believe anything. For the statement runs clean counter to the basic underlying principles of the MB, which are that ideas such as democracy and human rights are products of Jewish influence and Western decadence, and that Islam must work towards restoring the lost caliphate and eventually, through violent jihad, take over the entire world.

A grim prospect, indeed, for the world. A brotherhood the MB may be, but it is scarcely compatible with the brotherhood of man. There is little in the MB’s view of the future by way of Liberty, Equality or, indeed, Fraternity.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 4 December 2012:

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Hamas seeks independence for Gaza

For eight days, during Israel’s Pillar of Defense operations, Hamas stood at the centre of the world stage, representing the Palestinian cause, or at least the so-called “armed struggle”. And of course, in the intensive negotiations leading to the cease-fire, it was Hamas who was one of the two principals settling the terms for the cessation of hostilities.

Where was the Palestinian Authority (PA) − the so-called “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”? Completely sidelined.

Now, following Pillar of Defense, Hamas stands high in Arab popular opinion. Compared with the last formal clash with Israel in 2008, it has demonstrated a greatly enhanced offensive capability. Its prestige has been augmented by the support of its Muslim Brotherhood (MB) friends (Egypt, Turkey, and the foreign ministers of a range of Arab states who came calling while hostilities raged.) And it can point to a significant easing of restrictions on the free flow of goods and people into and out of Gaza as part of the cease-fire agreement.

It is unfortunate indeed for PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, that these events occurred just a few days before he is due to stand before the UN General Assembly and ask them to vote on recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state within the pre-1967 borders. If successful, this would have the effect of upgrading the PA delegation at the United Nations to non-member ‘observer State’. Although Abbas is almost certain to be granted what he seeks, it will be clear to the world that he is speaking for only a proportion of the Palestinian people − in short, that his writ does not run in Gaza, home to 40 per cent of Palestinians.

What is worse, perhaps, is that Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, is totally opposed to Abbas’s bid for recognition of a Palestine within the 1967 borders because, by implication, that vote also recognises Israel outside them. Hamas views each round of armed conflict with Israel as a stage in a long-term war of attrition. Refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and liberating Palestine "from the river to the sea", remains the aim of the Islamist organization – boosted now by the results of the “Arab Spring” which has brought MB regimes to power across the Arab world.

When Abbas gets his vote in the UN, the Palestine state that will be recognised consists of 6205 square kilometres of land in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The rest of what was Mandated Palestine will, by definition, be acknowledged by the UN General Assembly as Israel. So although the PA remains nominally the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, in practice it is pursuing a policy that will be rejected not only by Hamas in Gaza, but by a significant proportion of Arab, including Palestinian, opinion.

Which perhaps explains the little known fact, reported in Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat last July, that Hamas was considering a unilateral declaration of independence, and that the possibility was seriously discussed between Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi. Khaled Mesmar, head of the Political Committee at the Palestinian National Council, was reported at the time as saying: “Hamas is trying to garner as much support as possible for the idea of secession, especially among several Arab regimes.”

There’s a scenario to strike despair into the heart of PA President Abbas. Unity between Hamas and Fatah has been stretched virtually to breaking point already. Hamas refuses to accept the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority, and it has been doing its best to undermine the PA administration in the West Bank. It has been infiltrating its agents into the region to recruit students to its version of Islamic jihad, and attempting to win over public support through welfare programs of various sorts.

These efforts have been countered both by PA security forces and, on occasion, by those of Israel, and so far the status quo has been preserved. However, secession of Gaza from the Palestinian state for which Abbas will shortly seek recognition would create an irreversible schism in the Palestinian body politic.

The end result might well be a negotiated peace between Israel and a sovereign Palestine sited on the West Bank. But with the Gaza strip, there would be only a continuing uneasy truce or ceasefire, on the lines of that negotiated to end Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation.

One intriguing possibility arises from the reported discussions between Egypt’s President Morsi and Gaza’s prime minister Haniyeh last July. Could Egypt be considering a more active role in an independent Gaza − somehow renewing, not the direct administration it once exercised perhaps, but a sort of stewardship? After all Hamas, like President Morsi, is a child of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their interests are likely to coincide.

Another dread possibility for PA President Abbas to consider in the dark watches of the night.

Published in the online Jerusalem Post magazine, 25 November 2012:

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Who wants to defeat Hamas?

One British journalist, writing from Gaza during Israel’s current Pillar of Defense operation, dropped into her report, as a throwaway line, “Hamas, which is the elected government in Gaza….” The idea that somehow Hamas is a legitimate administration has found quite widespread acceptance. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Hamas, unwilling to share power with Fatah following the elections of 2006, seized control of Gaza in a fratricidal and bloody coup d’état.

These elections, held across the West Bank and Gaza, were for seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). By appointing as prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, President Mahmoud Abbas reflected in his national unity government the fact that Hamas had won 74 seats and the ruling Fatah 45.

But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Ever since, despite various attempts at a reconciliation, the two wings of the Palestinian body politic have remained not only distinct, but positively hostile. The fact that President Abbas has participated in peace efforts aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel − the two-state solution − is total anathema to the Hamas leadership. They maintain implacable hostility to the very existence of the State of Israel, which they refuse to recognise. Armed struggle, with the elimination of Israel from the Middle East as its objective, is their credo.

In pursuit of this objective, Hamas seeks every opportunity to challenge the Fatah government and undermine the PA administration in the West Bank. Hamas refuses to recognise Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate President of the PA. Boosted by the “Arab Spring”, and especially by the enhanced standing it has given to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world, Hamas has been flexing its muscles. Not only did it step up its rocket attacks into Israel and support various terrorist activities in Sinai, it has been infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a program called "Kutla," which entails spreading jihadi ideology among them and, through its “Da'wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population. Recently Israeli security forces arrested around 30 Hamas activists in the Ramallah area, suspected of heading a command cell aimed at increasing the strength of Hamas in the area. The PA itself, equally opposed to Hamas’s attempts to increase its influence, arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the area in September. In short, Abbas is fighting a rearguard action to prevent Hamas from seizing control in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza.

Meanwhile he stands on the world stage severely handicapped. When he speaks, he cannot speak for the Palestinian people as a whole because his writ does not run in what must be a vital part of any sovereign Palestinian state, should one ever come into being. Abbas desperately needs to retain authority in the West Bank and regain control of Gaza.

As far as the PA is concerned, any form of armed intervention in Gaza is out of the question (even though Hamas did not hesitate to employ this tactic against the PA back in 2007). The effect on Palestinian public opinion of any such action does not require much imagination. Nevertheless Abbas, no less than Israel, simply must defeat Hamas in what has become a struggle for survival. The fact of the matter – unpalatable no doubt in some quarters − is that Israel’s interests and the PA’s coincide in this crucial aspect of the tangled Israeli-Palestinian scenario.

Whatever his public pronouncements, Mahmoud Abbas must be viewing Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation with decidedly mixed feelings.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 20 November 2012:

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The fight for the West Bank

Over and above Israel's "Pillar of Defense" action against Hamas, the Palestinian body politic itself is engaged in a fratricidal struggle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian “man-in-the-street”.

In one corner sits the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) and is the effective government of the Palestinian area of the West Bank. Its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, whatever his ultimate ambitions may be, declares himself in favour of a negotiated peace settlement with Israel based on a two-state solution.

In the other corner, in volatile and belligerent mood, crouches Hamas, which seized power in the Gaza strip in 2007 and has been the de facto government there ever since. Hamas refuses to recognise the State of Israel, condemns any peace settlement which does so, and believes in “the armed struggle” designed to remove Israel from the map of the Middle East.

Whether the two groups are all that far apart in their ultimate objectives is a moot point, for Fatah’s official emblem portrays crossed rifles and a hand grenade superimposed on a map of the old Mandate Palestine, with no indication of Israel’s existence. Not surprising, perhaps, since the word “Fatah” means “conquest by means of jihad.”

Yet Fatah and Hamas are in a fight, perhaps to the death, for ultimate control of the Palestinian cause.

Fatah, founded in the early 1960s by Yasser Arafat, initially concentrated on terrorist raids on civilian Israeli targets. In 1968 it took over control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO), and it was the PLO that was party to the peace negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995.

The original idea was that the Accords would last for a five-year interim period, during which a permanent agreement would be negotiated. In fact, they are still the effective basis of the governance of the West Bank.

If the PA can claim legitimacy, the same cannot be said of its president, Mahmoud Abbas. His status is challenged, indeed denied, by Hamas.

Abbas, who became president of the PA in 2005, was elected to serve until 9 January 2009. But as the time drew close, Fatah and Hamas were unable to agree the details of new elections. So the due date came and went, and Abbas, by diktat, extended his presidential term for a further year.

When this second deadline also expired without a further election, the PLO simply declared that Abbas would remain president until new elections, whenever that may be. Hamas refused to recognise this indefinite extension, or to regard Abbas as legitimate president. So the de facto Hamas government in the Gaza strip declared that in their view Aziz Duwaik, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006, was acting PA President. Duwaik won his spurs, in Hamas’s eyes, by having served a three-year term in an Israeli jail for his involvement with the terrorist organisation.

And still no date has been fixed for new Palestinian elections. Details would need to be agreed between Fatah and Hamas, and the two bodies seem further apart than ever.

Hamas, always seeking to extend its power base beyond Gaza to the West Bank, has been emboldened by a number of factors. The Arab Spring, and especially its outcome in Egypt with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), boosted its self-confidence, for Hamas is itself an offshoot of the Egyptian MB. President Morsi may not have become a second Ahmadinejad, endorsing the most extreme of terrorist activities against Israel − indeed, rather the reverse − but Hamas’s direct and indirect support of jihadist actions in Sinai and out of the Gaza strip, have increased since his election.

More recently, responsibility for the continuous barrage of rockets fired into Israel from Gaza is being claimed by a new grouping of extremist Sunni Islamists, the Mujahideen Shura Council of Jerusalem (MSC). Hamas appears content - for the moment, at least - to turn a blind eye to their activities, and those of other salafist jihadis operating from within Gaza, since they boost Hamas's credibility with their own constituency.

Then, President Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad have been facing major internal problems in the West Bank. With the rising cost of living as the catalyst, riots have been occurring throughout the West Bank. Dozens of police officers and civilians were injured in clashes involving several thousand protesters, roads were blocked by burning tyres and rubbish bins, and strikes by taxi and bus drivers paralysed the West Bank's public transport system. Palestinian security forces, who kept a low profile during the first days of demonstrations, began using teargas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators.

Battening on these propitious signs, Hamas has recently stepped up its activities in the West Bank aimed at challenging the Fatah government, both by direct action, and perhaps via elections, if or when they eventually occur. It has been infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a program called "Kutla," which entails spreading jihadi ideology among them and, through its “Da'wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population. Last week Israeli security forces arrested around 30 Hamas activists in the Ramallah area, suspected of heading a command cell aimed at increasing the strength of Hamas in the West Bank.

The PA itself, equally opposed to Hamas’s attempts to increase its influence in the West Bank, arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the area in September. For Mahmoud Abbas realizes that until he prevails in this struggle with Hamas, he stands on the world stage with one arm tied behind his back. When he addresses the UN General Assembly later this month, he will be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians; his writ does not run in an integral part of any future Palestinian state. The fight against Hamas is one conflict he simply cannot afford to lose.

The paramount question for Abbas is, how does he regain control of Gaza?

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 15 November 2012:

Monday, 12 November 2012

A secret Palestinian peace deal

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas created something of a stir recently by declaring in a TV interview that he had given up the idea of returning to his home town Safed. He also said, quite unequivocally, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.”

His remarks were treated with the usual scepticism by opponents of the two-state solution. But he had been equally clear when, in October, he met with representatives from the three leading Israeli political parties - Kadima, Labour and Likud − who support the Geneva Initiative.

“I could have made peace with Olmert,” Abbas is reported to have said “We reached agreement on all the core issues. I’m sure that if negotiations had continued, within two months we would have reached an agreement.”

He was referring to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, initiated amid high hopes in Annapolis on 27 November 2007. And what he probably had in mind was the fact that those talks spawned not one, but two potential peace deals, before they finally collapsed in December 2008, in the wake of Israel's strike against the Hamas régime in the Gaza Strip.

One of the deals was the well-publicised offer from Ehud Olmert, made in the dying days of his premiership. The other – little referred to in the media, but revealed in an interview in April 2009 by chief PA negotiator, Saeb Erekat – was a far-reaching, written peace proposal submitted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Israeli government during the final days of the Bush administration. In his interview. Erekat disclosed that he made a secret trip to Washington on 18 December 2008 in order to present a copy of the document to President George W Bush.

Parallelling each other in recriminations, Abbas claims that he asked Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, to reply to this secret proposal in writing, but Olmert failed to do so. Olmert makes precisely the same charge against Abbas. In an interview in November 2009 he said that he showed Abbas a map embodying the full offer he had made for territorial compromise on both sides. Abbas wanted to take the map away. Olmert agreed, so long as they both signed it. It was from Olmert's point of view, a final offer, not a basis for future negotiation. But Abbas could not commit. Instead, he said he would come with experts the next day.

"But," said Olmert, "the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said: ‘we forgot we are going to Amman today, let's make it next week.’ I never saw him again."

The details of Olmert's final offer are well known. The territorial solution would start from the situation obtaining on the ground just prior to the Six Day War, but modifications on both sides would allow Israel to keep the biggest Jewish settlement blocks, including some suburbs of Jerusalem. This would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 % of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. In return there would be a swap of land to the Palestinians from Israel as it existed before 1967.

"I showed Abu Mazen how this would work to maintain the contiguity of the Palestinian state," said Olmert "I also proposed a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It would have been a tunnel fully controlled by the Palestinians but not under Palestinian sovereignty, otherwise it would have cut the state of Israel in two."

Olmert's solution for Jerusalem was for the city to be shared – Jewish neighbourhoods to be under Jewish sovereignty, Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty so that they could be the capital of a Palestinian state. As for the sites within the old city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, they would be jointly administered by five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian state, Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian right of return would be resolved by Israel accepting an agreed number of Palestinians − 1,000 a year for five years was suggested. “In addition,” said Olmert, “we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering."

For his part, Saeb Erekat, speaking of the proposal submitted by Abbas, said that it dealt with all the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem and borders. Given the extent and depth of the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas during 2008, the two plans could not have been that far apart. And indeed, in his interview, Erekat claimed that it was the "most advanced offer" ever made by Palestinians, echoing Olmert's similar claim from the Israeli side.

“There was a proposal of Mr Olmert.” said Erekat. “There was a proposal from President Abbas. I went to the US secretly and handed over what we proposed in writing. History will show that President Abbas is a man of courage and commitment. We no longer need negotiations. We need decisions.”

His implication is clear. The two parties had been within a whisker of reaching an historic agreement. The spade work has in fact been done. Why reinvent the wheel?

One good reason might be that much water has flowed under the bridge since 2008, and that the Middle East has become a very different place. If actually resurrected and put to their respective constituencies, would either proposal now stand up to democratic scrutiny?

So yes, the bare bones of a final agreement are probably in place. The trick would lie in putting flesh on the bones and then, trusting the outcome is no Frankenstein's monster, breathing life into it.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 12 November 2012:

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The leaked Palestine Papers – round two

Many a true word is spoken in jest.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same) is a witty epigram from the pen of one-time editor of Le Figaro, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. It sums up the feeling of déja vu generated by the flurry of excitement over Mahmoud Abbas’s recent interview on Israel’s TV Channel Two.

The President of the Palestinian Authority was born in Safed, in northern Galilee. In 1948 he and his family left for Syria during the Israel-Arab conflict. During the TV interview Abbas said that he had visited Safed once − “but I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it. But not to live there.”

The Palestinians have long demanded that Israel grant the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians to land and property situated in Israel that they or their families lived on prior to 1948. Abbas’s comments during the interview have been generally regarded as a more flexible stance on the issue.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres commented that his “courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace.” Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, said that his words “should prove to the Israeli public that we do have someone to talk to and we can negotiate.” Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said: “these are the statements we heard in the negotiating room.”

What Tzipi Livni was referring to, and what all three had in mind, were the years of painstaking step-by-step negotiations that culminated in the oh-so-near agreement of 2008 between then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas – the innermost details of which were revealed to the world when a huge collection of secret documents suddenly became public in January 2011. They became known as the “Palestine Papers”.

Between 23 and 26 January 2011 thousands of secret documents, generated during peace talks between IsraeI and the Palestinians over the ten years 1999 to 2010, were published by Al-Jazeera. In order to protect its source, Al-Jazeera redacted sensitive portions, but it was strongly suspected that the whole cache of nearly 1,700 files − which included minutes of meetings, e-mails, 153 reports, 54 maps and no less than 64 draft agreements − had been leaked to Al-Jazeera by a former disgruntled member of the Negotiations Support Unit headed by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The documents obtained by Al-Jazeera were shared in advance of publication with the UK newspaper The Guardian − notorious for its anti-Israel stance − in an effort to ensure the wider availability of their content. Taken as a whole, the leaked papers revealed how far negotiations had gone in reaching agreement on the major issues at stake for both parties. In particular, perhaps, they demonstrated that the realistic two-state solution under consideration had largely settled the border issue and superseded the call for “a right of return” of some 5 million Palestinians.

The Guardian chose to portray the slow, painstaking process of negotiating a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a major betrayal of the Palestinian cause. It went to town castigating the Palestinian leadership as “weak and craven” for offering concession after concession to the Israelis, surrendering “land which the Palestinians have lived on for centuries.”

“Plus ça change…” The Guardian’s take on Mahmoud Abbas’s recent TV interview was to repeat the charge that the Palestinian cause was being betrayed. Their headline read: “Mahmoud Abbas outrages Palestinian refugees by waiving his right of return,” and their story was accompanied by a picture of a giant Abbas photograph being burned by so-called “Palestinian refugees”, though the five indistinct figures portrayed do not appear particularly outraged.

The newspaper asserts that “the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is facing widespread condemnation and anger in the Palestinian territories and abroad after he publicly waived his right to return to live in the town from which his family was forced to flee in 1948.”

To counter Abbas’s further statement: “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel,” the Guardian quotes Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas ruler in Gaza: "No one has the right, whoever he is … to give up an inch of Palestinian land," and Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, who said the president's statement did "not represent in any way the views of the Palestinian people".

Condemned for procrastinating and condemned for acting, castigated as hard-line and castigated for softening his line, harried by activists in the West Bank and harried by Hamas in Gaza, it seems as though Abbas simply cannot do the right thing. There is always some vested interest that will never be satisfied. Perhaps that’s part of what makes the Palestine-Israel dispute one of the most intractable in modern history.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 8 November 2012:

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Talking Turkey and the EU

It was in April 1987 that Turkey knocked on the EU’s door and asked to be let in. Twenty-five years later, Turkey is still lingering on the threshold.

One key factor barring the way to Turkey’s full membership occurred many years before it applied.

The population of Cyprus has historically consisted of about 75 per cent Greek and 25 per cent Turkish origin. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greek Cypriots began to press for Enosis − union with Greece. Matters came to a head in 1974 when the military junta then controlling Greece staged a coup in Cyprus and deposed the president. Five days later, Turkey invaded and seized the northern portion of the island. The Turkish invasion ended in the partition of Cyprus along a UN-monitored Green Line. In 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence. Turkey is the only country in the world which recognises it.

Greece itself was admitted to the EU as far back as 1981; Cyprus (the portion, that is, not occupied by Turkey) became a full member in 2004. So one major stumbling block to Turkey’s accession is the fact that the country is at daggers drawn with two established EU members.

But that is only one stumbling block among several. Also to be considered is the direction that Turkey has been taking on the international scene since its current government came to power.

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

Erdogan, a charismatic politician, acquired his pro-Islamist sympathies while still at university. In 1998, when mayor of Istanbul, they earned him a conviction for inciting religious hatred, and he went to jail for several months. All the same, in 2002 his Islamist AKP party won a landslide victory in the elections, and Erdogan became prime minister.

Rooted as he is in hard-line Islamism, Erdogan's unqualified condemnation of Israel's incursion into Gaza in November 2008 came as no great surprise. Nor did his refusal to accept the 2011 UN report into the Mavi Marmara affair, which concluded that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza strip was legal, and raised "serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH” – a Turkish Islamist organisation supported by the government.

A report on Israel-Turkey relations prepared by the Centre for Political Research concluded that: "for Erdogan, Israel-bashing is a way of bolstering his status with Islamic and Middle Eastern states, which Turkey would like to lead."

An Islamist axis led by Turkey? Only a few years ago the idea would scarcely have been feasible. Today the mere possibility represents one further obstacle on Turkey’s path towards full membership of the EU. For there is rooted opposition among a tranche of EU members to the very idea of clutching an Islamist viper to their Judeo-Christian bosom.

Chief among them is Germany. “Accepting Turkey to the EU is out of the question,” said Angela Merkel in 2009, and there is no reason to believe that she has changed her mind. Her chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla, said on his website: “I ask myself how a country that discriminates against Christian churches could be a member of the EU.” The most that German opinion-leaders would like to offer Turkey is “privileged partnership” in the EU.

France under president Nicolas Sakozy was equally rooted in its opposition to Turkey’s accession. With the change of president to socialist François Hollande, Turkey hoped, in the words of Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that “a new course in Turkish-EU relations will gain momentum”. But Hollande, during his presidential election campaign, said that while France has long accepted the principle of Turkish accession to the EU, major conditions have not been met and may not happen for several years.

Austria – perhaps recalling that Muslim forces of the Ottoman empire twice stood at the very gates of Vienna, beseiging the city − have proved strong opponents to Turkey’s entry to the EU. The USA and the UK, on the other hand, with shorter memories, apparently discount the threat that Islamism poses to the West and remain strong supporters of Turkey’s bid.

But is Turkey as committed to joining the EU as it once was? After all, Turkey’s economy is booming, while the EU is in dire financial straits. Moreover, Kristina Karasu, writing in Der Speigel, points out that following the AKP’s overwhelming re-election in June 2011, Turkish desire for reforms has stalled.

“Even as Prime Minister Erdogan likes to position his country in the Arab world as a role model for Muslim democracy,” she writes, “thousands of Kurds, students and more than 100 journalists are sitting in jail in Turkey based on what are sometimes absurd charges.”

For the Turkish bid to be successful, EU member states must unanimously agree. In December 2011, a poll carried out across Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK, revealed that 71 percent of those surveyed were opposed to the EU admitting Turkey as a full member.

A hesitant bridegroom and a bashful bride. The prospect of an early marriage is not bright.

Published in the online Jerusalem Post magazine, 1 November 2012:

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Latin American anti-Israel nexus

36 member nations of the UN General Assembly do not recognise Israel.  Most are what might be termed “the usual suspects” − states with Muslim majorities ranging down the alphabet from Afghanistan to Yemen. A thought-provoking exception to the standard pattern is provided by four countries situated south of the United States − Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

What binds these four rejectionist Latin American states in their anti-Israel stance? One factor is long-standing opposition to the domination of the region by their super-power northern neighbour, the USA; a second is the stirring of this pot by a mischief-making Iran intent on advancing its own global strategy.

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in August 2005, Iran has been engaged in extending and strengthening its relations with vulnerable Latin American states. Chief among these have been Venezuela and Bolivia, though Nicaragua, Cuba and also Ecuador have been on their shopping list. To gain political, economic, cultural and religious influence in the region, Iran has been using every opportunity to exploit these countries’ desire to combat what they see as “American imperialism”.

Ahmadinejad found a willing disciple in the shape of Hugo Chávez, who had been president of Venezuela since 1999 and whose policies from the start were defiantly anti-American. Iran’s visceral hatred of Israel, the US’s solid ally in the Middle East, was easily implanted in him. Venezuela severed relations with Israel in 2008 in the wake of Israel’s incursion into Gaza to counter Hamas’s continual rocket attacks. Since then Chavez’s anti-Israel pronouncements have become increasingly paranoid. At a rally in June 2010, he announced: “Israel is financing the Venezuelan opposition. There are even groups of Israeli terrorists, of the Mossad, who are after me trying to kill me.”

As for Cuba, its long-lasting stand-off with the United States made it a prime target for Iran’s wider strategy in the region. Anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist attitudes, common in communist regimes, were present in Cuba from the start of their Revolution in 1959. Approximately 94 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled after the Revolution, Those that remained found themselves discriminated against, along with other religious groupings, though in a curious and anomalous twist, protection against national, religious and racial hate was also a part of the Cuban criminal code.

Overt anti-Israel sentiment came to the fore in Cuba’s foreign policy just before the 1973 Yom Kippur war. In September 1973 Fidel Castro embraced both Colonel Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat at the fourth Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Algiers, and formally broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. Next year Castro invited Arafat to Cuba, and provided advance training for the Palestine Liberation Organisation and other Palestinian military organizations.

Opposing Israel became one outlet through which Fidel Castro could express his hatred of the power concentrated in the United States. Little has changed in that respect since Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, took over the presidency. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, in his whistle-stop tour of Latin America in January 2012 which, as well as Cuba, took in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador, made that clear enough.

As far as Nicaragua is concerned, it was the accession of the Sandanista junta in July 1979 that changed a close and flourishing relationship with Israel − and, indeed, with the United States − to fierce hostility. The Sandanistas took Marx and Engels as the source of their political philosophy. In 1982 the Sandinista government severed diplomatic relations with Israel, but with the ousting of the Sandinista regime in 1990, ties with Israel were restored.

All the same, Iran began reaching out politically to Nicaragua, actively supporting the Sandanista’s efforts to regain power. Finally, in the elections of November 2006, Sandanista Daniel Ortega became President for the second time. Ahmadinejad traveled to Managua to attend his inauguration. In June 2008, Ahmadinejad hosted Ortega in Tehran to discuss ways to increase their countries’ cooperation. It was following the Mavi Marmara incident, on 2 June 2010, that Nicaragua again broke off all relations with Israel.

Where Bolivia is concerned, reasonably harmonious diplomatic relations with Israel ended with the elections of December 2005, the triumph of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and its leader, Evo Morales, becoming President. Bolivian politician and journalist José Brechner has described Morales as: “the classic barbarian leader similar to those of other times, but with foreign support.”

Brechner records how Morales initiated his friendship with the Muslim world well before he came to power − he was the proud recipient of the Gadaffi Award, and the Libyan dictator’s “Green Book” became his new bible. The old one was soon discarded once he came to power, as he cosied up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs from Iran.

Slavishly imitating Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Morales broke first with the United States in 2008, and then with Israel in June 2010.

In late May 2009, a secret dossier drafted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Iran’s activities in Latin America was leaked to the press. The report claimed that “since Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, Tehran has been promoting an aggressive policy aimed at bolstering its ties with Latin American countries with the declared goal of ‘bringing America to its knees.’”

Recognising or not recognising Israel is only one move of a pawn in this larger game being played out between a Latin America nexus, backed by its Islamist games-master, and its powerful northern neighbour.

Published in the online Jerusalem Post magazine, 28 October 2012:

Friday, 19 October 2012

Palestinians' bid to recognise Israel

Later this year, on 29 November, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), plans to ask the UN General Assembly to vote on recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state within the pre-1967 borders. If successful, this would have the effect of upgrading the PA delegation at the United Nations from non-member ‘observer entity’ to non-member ‘observer State’. The PA hopes that the convincing majority which the make-up of the General Assembly guarantees it, will pave the way for widespread recognition of a Palestinian state.

But an intriguing anomaly lies at the heart of Abbas’s projected bid.

In their zealous backing for the Palestinian cause, do all the supportive nations fully appreciate the implications of recognizing a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders? For, simply put, the corollary of a sovereign Palestine within 1967 borders is a sovereign Israel outside them.

Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip – an integral element in any future Palestinian state − understands completely the implications of what Abbas proposes to do, and is totally opposed to it. Hamas utterly rejects the concept of two states in the Holy Land. It believes there should be just one − a fundamentalist Islamist state, with Israel eliminated from the map of the Middle East.

To be brutally honest, that is probably what Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party also want (Abbas has been pictured on a number of occasions next to a map of the old British Mandate Palestine surmounted by the Palestinian flag, and with no mention of Israel; he has, moreover, said many times that he will never acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state). It is only that the Fatah-led PA choose to reach their ultimate objective by more devious means than total refusal to recognize the existence of the “enemy” while simultaneously pursuing armed resistance to it.

Some 36 countries represented in the UN General Assembly, not all of them with Muslim majorities, are more in sympathy with Hamas than with Fatah, for they do not recognize Israel as a state. They range from Algeria to Venezuala, Bolivia to Pakistan. Moreover, Egypt’s new president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme Islamist organization supported by Hamas. Turkey supports the Brotherhood. So does Libya and Tunisia. So does Hezbollah, lodged firmly in Lebanon’s body politic.

Do these and like-minded states actually appreciate that support for a sovereign Palestine in a two-state solution is support for the sovereignty of Israel? And if they do, how many will oppose Abbas’s bid for recognition? My guess is none, for all believe that in granting Abbas the recognition he seeks, they will be giving Israel a poke in the eye. And how many will follow through the logic of Palestinian recognition of Israel by doing so themselves? Unfortunately, logic is not in great supply in international diplomacy.

The fact is Abbas is not only fighting for recognition of a Palestinian state; he is fighting a rearguard action against Hamas to retain control of the West Bank.

When Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, the idea was that Abbas as PA President, would call free and fair elections across the Palestinian body politic. The elections gave Hamas 74 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, and the ruling Fatah party 45. Without an overall majority, President Abbas accordingly formed a national unity government led by Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

But sharing power with Fatah did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip in a bloody coup d'état. Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Efforts at reconciliation between the two power blocs within the Palestinian body politic began as early as 2008, but they consistently failed. All such efforts are attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. For in Hamas’s eyes, Abbas’s peace initiatives − ineffective though they have been − have placed the PA beyond the pale. Hamas remains what it has always been – an extreme Islamist and terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel. It is also committed to winning the power struggle within the Palestinian body politic, overcoming Fatah, and taking control of the whole of the Palestinian entity.

So Abbas, in making his UN bid, will be speaking only for West Bank Palestinians, and only for those prepared − for the present at least − to live alongside a sovereign Israel. Of course, in by-passing face-to-face negotiations and taking unilateral action, Abbas will have thrown a spanner in the diplomatic works of the peace process. Every agreement between the two sides, including the Oslo Accords which currently govern relations between them, has at its heart the premise that negotiations between the parties is the only acceptable path to a settlement.

Abbas has embarked on a perilous journey. If he gets his UN recognition for a sovereign Palestine within the 1967 boundaries, he will ipso facto have confirmed Palestinian recognition of Israel. He is gambling that a PA success at the UN will, in the eyes of the Palestinian man-in-the-street, out-trump Hamas’s persistent refusal to recognize Israel or relinquish its indiscriminate rocket attacks on the civilian population. For the battle against Hamas is one battle that Abbas must win.

It’s a long shot.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine on Monday, 22 October 2012:

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Is Israel the enemy?

Arab News, founded in 1975, is an English-language newspaper with a wide and diverse readership across the Arab world. The publication proudly asserts that its website receives hundreds of thousands of hits every day. Emanating from Saudi Arabia, its news and comment sections cover the global scene in most of its aspects – political, economic, social, sporting. Printed at state-of-the-art facilities in Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam, Arab News can be found on newsstands throughout the Middle East.

Last Saturday, 6 October, a strange and uncharacteristic article appeared in its pages under the by-line of Abdulateef Al-Mulhim. Al-Mulhim, a retired Commodore of the Royal Saudi Navy, is a regular contributor to Arab News and to various on-line sites. It may be relevant to record that he served extensively in the United States, part of the time at the Maritime College of the State University of New York.

Watching the Al-Arabiya TV network, the most respected news outlet in the Middle East, and seeing reports and pictures of starvation in Yemen, massive destruction and mass slaughter in Syria, an under-developed Sinai, car bombs in Iraq and devastation in Libya, Al-Mulhim was struck by an unusual, not to say unorthodox, thought. None of all that destruction, all those atrocities, had been caused by an outside enemy (the outside enemy). They were the work of the very authorities that were supposed to protect and safeguard the people of those countries. So nothing if not clear-thinking, Al-Mulhim asked himself, who is the real enemy of the Arab world?

“The Arab world wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of innocent lives fighting Israel, which they considered their sworn enemy,” he wrote, adding wryly, “an enemy whose existence they never recognized.”

The Arab world has many enemies, he asserted, “and Israel should have been at the bottom of the list. The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for the human lives and finally, the Arab world had many dictators who used the Arab-Israeli conflict to suppress their own people. These dictators’ atrocities against their own people are far worse than all the full-scale Arab-Israeli wars.”

Al-Mulhim proceeded to outline the history of the major Arab-Israeli conflicts, concluding that the Arabs gained nothing from them but hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. “And now,” he says, “with the never-ending Arab Spring the Arab world has no time for the Palestinian refugees or the Palestinian cause, because many Arabs are refugees themselves and under constant attacks from their own forces.” He declares that Syrians are fleeing from their own country, not because Israeli planes are dropping bombs on them; “it is the Syrian Air Force which is dropping the bombs.”

Finally, Al-Mulhim turns to Israel, comparing it to the disarray of so many of the Arab states. “What happened to the Arabs’ sworn enemy?” he asks. His answer?

“Israel now has the most advanced research facilities, top universities and advanced infrastructure. Many Arabs don’t know that the life expectancy of the Palestinians living in Israel is far longer than many Arab states, and they enjoy far better political and social freedom than many of their Arab brothers. Even the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip enjoy more political and social rights than some places in the Arab World. Wasn’t one of the judges who sent a former Israeli president to jail an Israeli-Palestinian? The Arab Spring showed the world that the Palestinians are happier and in better situation than their Arab brothers who fought to liberate them from the Israelis. Now it is time to stop the hatred and wars, and start to create better living conditions for the future Arab generations.”

There is no doubt at all that it was courageous of Al-Mulhim to say what he said, and to do so under his own name (though no more, perhaps, than might be expected from an ex-navy commodore). And with fundamentalist groups vying with each other in their zeal to impose their own versions of Islam on the Arab world, it was equally brave of Arab News to print it.

Now, it is churlish to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the fact is that Al-Mulhim’s article was written in English for an English-language newspaper. Is it too much to expect that a version in Arabic is reprinted in another of the 29 publications produced by the Saudi Research & Publishing Company?


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Great Islamic Divide: Sunnis vs Shi’ites

Ask most people in the West what they know about Islam, and you are likely to get a blank stare. Many are aware that the religion has two main branches – Sunni and Sh’ite − but as for the differences between them, or where each is mainly practised, most people haven’t a clue.

Classic explanations of Islam’s great divide usually include a statement like: “The so-called division of Muslims between Shia and Sunni is akin to the differences between Catholics and Protestants.” However true that may once have been, it needs qualification in the light of current circumstances. The Sunni-Shi’ite division is now far from “so-called”, and the present situation within Islam can best be compared to the intensive intra-Christian religious conflicts that ravaged Europe on and off for three centuries. Doctrinal differences have been transmuted into political altercations, and these have inevitably turned into a struggle for power and domination.

It is estimated that 75–90% of the world's one billion Muslims are Sunni, while only some 10–20% are Shia. Sunnis form the overwhelming majority in most Muslim countries; Shia make up the majority only in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Bahrain (collectively known as the Shia Crescent).

The Sunni-Sh’ite divide has been polarized by the civil war in Syria. Up to quite recently Shi’ite dominance in the Middle East was growing rapidly. But now that Syrian President Assad's régime, dominated as it is by members of the Shi’ite offshoot sect of Alawites, seems in danger of being overthrown, the balance of power in the region has shifted. Both Iran and Hezbollah have seen their reputations damaged, for their support for Assad runs counter to their support for Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere.

Tehran stands by the Assad regime in order to protect what it calls the “axis of resistance” in the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza strip being the other members of the axis along with Iran and Syria. Assad's fall would cost Iran − a Shia-Muslim but non-Arab state − an invaluable foothold in the heart of the Arab world. Hezbollah, the Shia-Islamist terrorist organization lodged in the body politic of Lebanon, would lose its main protector, and also the route through which it receives vital Iranian weapon supplies. So would Hamas in Gaza.

Syria’s revolution is a Sunni-led rebellion against the government, but it is certainly not confined to internal Syrian elements. Naveed Hussain of the International Herald Tribune has described how Syria has become a magnet for global jihadis, including Al Qaeda, which has sent some 6,000 militants from Iraq and Turkey to help topple the régime. Nor is that all. Hussain points out that Sunni extremists from as far afield as Europe are trickling into Syria to join their ideological affiliates, Jabhat al-Nusrah (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and Ahrar al-Sham (radical Salafists), in a “jihad” against the “heretical regime” of Bashar al-Assad. The recent increase in suicide bombings and kidnappings is the signature of jihadi tactics.

In fact, the Syrian conflict has become a paradigm of the division between extremist Sunni and extremist Shi’ite elements within the Muslim world.

When did this great divide in Islam first appear? It goes back to the very origins of the religion. When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, he left a community of about one hundred thousand Muslims organised as an Islamic state on the Arabian Peninsula. He also bequeathed to his followers a dispute over who should succeed him and lead the fledgling state. His followers could not agree on whether to choose bloodline successors or leaders most likely to follow the tenets of the faith.

The group now known as Sunnis went for the latter option, and chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shi’ites, on the other hand, favored Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali and his successors are called Imams. They not only lead the Shi’ites, but are considered to be descendants of Muhammad. The two branches of the religion have developed along their chosen paths ever since.

Historian R Scott Appleby, who has written extensively on modern religions, explains that for Sunni Muslims the loss of the caliphate after World War I was a devastating blow. Up to that moment, the caliph had been continuously present as guardian of Islamic law and the Islamic state. In 1924 the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk constitutionally abolished the institution. and transferred the caliphate’s powers to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the parliament of the newly formed Turkish Republic.

The end of the caliphate saw the emergence of Sunni fundamentalist leaders in nations like Egypt and India, in various attempts to provide a viable alternative. Then in 1928 the Egyptian schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna founded the first Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Sunni world, the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus Sunni religious fundamentalism was born from a combination of doctrinal differences and political action.

In the case of the Shi’ites, Martin Kramer has shown how a basic reinterpretation of Muslim history and ancient texts underpinned the thinking of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the overthrow of the Shah in Iran in 1979 and opened the gates to a upsurge in Shi’ite fundamentalism.

Subsequently, fundamentalism in one branch of Islam inevitably fostered fundamentalism in the other, as sects in each camp sought to outdo one another in their religious zeal.

Now, equally inevitably perhaps, the two camps are at each other’s throats.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Obama and Israel - an end-of-term assessment

Cast back to those heady first days of the Obama administration. One can well imagine how the thinking went inside the White House. Here is the first black president of the USA, a man with connections in the Muslim world and a “black power” background – surely he can achieve things that no other US president could attempt, bringing his unique perspective to bear on some of the world’s most intractable problems. He can reach out a hand of friendship to the Muslim world, seek a new understanding, dispel deeply-ingrained suspicions, turn a new leaf. Hence his speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009. “It’s worth a try” must have been the feeling within the administration at the time.

“This,” as Scott Wilson reminded us in the Washington Post, “was the change that Obama had promised — a new approach to old problems.”

Now, of course, the effort seems to have been doomed from the start, and the outcome has been truly devastating. As Charles Krauthammer puts it:

“From Tunisia to Lebanon, American schools, businesses and diplomatic facilities set ablaze. A US ambassador and three others murdered in Benghazi. The black flag of Salafism, of which al-Qaeda is a prominent element, raised over our embassies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Sudan…. Iran repeatedly defies US demands on nuclear enrichment, then, as a measure of its contempt for what America thinks, openly admits that its Revolutionary Guards are deployed in Syria. Russia, after arming Assad, warns America to stay out, while the secretary of state delivers vapid lectures about Assad meeting his international  “obligations.” The Gulf states beg America to act on Iran; Obama strains mightily to restrain - Israel.”

Some commentators, viewing the past from today’s perspective, now condemn Obama as an out-and-out enemy of Israel from the start. That is scarcely a sustainable point of view. Despite this attempt of his at establishing a “new deal” with the Muslim world, Obama never turned his back on Israel, as he reminded his Jewish electorate last March, at the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference:

“…you don't just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture at every fork in the road we have been there for Israel. Every single time.”

And he went on to enumerate them. US-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation never closer; joint exercises and training never more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, US security assistance to Israel has increased every year. And there’s the administration’s record on the Israeli-PA peace process. Despite a variety of setbacks, throughout 2010 the administration persisted, and indeed achieved a worthy success in September when it brought the parties to the same table, pledged to achieving an agreement.

That too, though, quickly fell apart – and the Obama administration, through its repeated insistence on a construction freeze throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, forced Mahmoud Abbas into a corner on the issue, and thus bears a share of the responsibility for its failure. Abbas was left unable to fudge the issue − as it had been fudged so many times in the past, without affecting PA-Israeli negotiations. For truth to tell, construction in West Bank areas that are virtually certain to remain in Israel’s hands in any final settlement is not an issue worth scuttling peace talks over − while Israeli construction in areas likely to be handed over to a new sovereign Palestine could only be of eventual benefit to them.

Black mark there, then, for Obama. But subsequently, by word and deed, he has shown that he remains Israel’s friend. As he put it, fairly and memorably, in his AIPAC speech:

“When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, when one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimise the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now when the chips are down, I have Israel's back.” [or in English English: "I stand behind Israel".]

Where Obama failed from the start was in recognising the nature and the aims of the Iran administration, and the extent to which extremist Islamist views, such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, had captured Muslim public opinion across the Middle East.

A final verdict on Obama’s “engagement” with the Muslim world? Brave, but foolhardy. And if fate and the American electorate grant him a second term as President, the world will doubtless discover that that lesson has been well and truly learned.