Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood and the subversion of the West

“Jihad and preparation for Jihad are not only for the purpose of fending-off assaults and attacks against Muslims by Allah's enemies, but are also for the purpose of realizing the great task of establishing an Islamic state, strengthening the religion and spreading it around the world..."
                     Jihad is the Way by Mustafa Mashhur
                     Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, 1996 – 2002

“The presumption is that the duty of jihad will continue … until all the world either adopts the Muslim faith or submits to Muslim rule.”
                     “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror”
                       by Prof Bernard Lewis

Who could have predicted that a little-reported civil disturbance in Tunisia just before Christmas 2010 would have produced results as cataclysmic as those we have been living through?

The ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 set the spark to the tinder box and then, like an uncontrollable forest fire, popular action spread with extraordinary speed across the Middle East and North Africa. Who, even with the inestimable benefit of hindsight, would claim as inevitable a self-generated revolution in Egypt, causing the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in February?

Two Arab leaders ousted, and the unprecedented revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests next swept across Libya. The Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, and killed in October 2011. Then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. allowed himself to be replaced as president of Yemen by Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi in February 2012.

Meanwhile the revolutionary torch was being flung from state to state, and popular demonstrations sprang up also in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Oman. Minor incidents occurred in Kuwait, Lebanon. Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. And now we have a virtual civil war in Syria.

For decades accepted liberal Western opinion had held that the Israel-Palestine issue was the one festering sore in the Arab body politic. Solve that, nodded the wise heads, and all would be sweetness and light in the Arab world. The so-called “Arab Spring” has demonstrated that this is far from the case – that the causes of popular disaffection among the Arab masses run deep, and that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is largely irrelevant to them, concerned, as they now are, to free themselves from the shackles of repression, human rights abuses, state censorship, and the other trammels of the dictatorships or absolute monarchies under which most of them exist. For once it has not been possible for these rulers to blame the usual scapegoat, Israel, for the troubles that now beset them. Their problems are largely of their own making, and will have to be resolved without recourse to the traditional external whipping-boy.

Out of all this turmoil in the Arab world, one clear winner is emerging − the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In both the parliamentary and the presidential elections held in Egypt following the overthrow of President Mubarak the MB won decisive victories, and President Mohamed Morsy became the first member of an Islamist party to become head-of-state of an Arab country. He was not in office long before he moved decisively to emasculate the body that had effectively ruled Egypt and was seeking to retain a degree of power – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The Brotherhood’s grip on the reins of power in Egypt is now tight. Other Middle East rulers may well be considering their own situations in relation to the MB.

For the Muslim Brotherhood spans the Middle East and – jumping on the bandwagon of the Arab Spring − includes contingents in Libya and Tunisia. It is also active in Jordan. It holds power in Gaza, and is seeking to overthrow Fatah, which rules the West Bank. It has the support of Islamist Turkey, while in Syria the MB-funded Tawhid Brigade is actively combating Assad’s military forces in Aleppo. Qatar and its world-wide media empire, Al-Jazeera, are firm supporters.

Nor do the MB’s activities and influence end in the Middle East. Political author Lorenzo Vidino has demonstrated how since the early 1960s, Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers have “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organised network of mosques, charities and Islamic organisations”. The organisation has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and numerous other European countries.

Why should this often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity by the MB concern the Western world?

The answer lies in the basic aims and purposes of the Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, 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.” As a start, Al-Banna wrote that the Islamic flag must be raised again in the territories once ruled by Islam. “Thus Andalusia (Spain), Sicily, the Balkans, the Italian coast, as well as the islands of the Mediterranean…must return to the embrace of Islam.”

Seeking to bring about this Islamic aspiration through political means, the MB’s 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.”

The ambition of the Muslim Brotherhood is boundless. Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, which can then unite and expand. In working towards this end the organisation has demonstrated ruthlessness as well as patience, supported terrorism as well as democratic political action,.

As Vidino pointed out, the MB’s success in Europe, “their acceptance into mainstream society and their unchallenged rise to power would not have been possible had European élites been more vigilant, valued substance over rhetoric, and understood the motivations of those financing and building these Islamist organizations.”

He asks why Europeans have been so naïve.

“Bassam Tibi,” he writes, “a German professor of Syrian descent and an expert on Islam in Europe, thinks that Europeans fear the accusation of racism. Radicals in sheep's clothing have learned that they can silence almost everybody with the accusation of xenophobia. Any criticism of MB-linked organizations is followed by outcries of racism and anti-Muslim persecution.”

And so the Western world seems to be sleep-walking towards, if not positively embracing, the elimination of its own cherished freedoms and way of life. Politicians and opinion-formers seem not to care that the MB is infiltrating democratic Western countries and piggy-backing to increased power and influence in the Middle East on the back of the Arab Spring.

One organisation that seems to have realised the danger, and conceived a strategy aimed at countering this slow creep of Islamism is the "Friends of Israel Initiative" (FII), founded by former President of Spain, José María Aznar. Its members include Peru's former president Alejandro Toledo, former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, British historian Andrew Roberts, Northern Ireland's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lord Trimble, and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, among others.

The body was formed in 2010 with the purpose of ending the delegitimisation of Israel on the world stage, because its members perceived Israel to be an integral part of the West, a cornerstone of Western civilisation, and they judged that the weaker Israel is, the weaker the entire West will be perceived to be.

“Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization,” said José Maria Aznar at the launch of the FII in the United States. “Delegitimising Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are…. Defending Israel today means strengthening the West.”

Their message needs to be heeded. Israel is the exposed vanguard of the West. It needs to be protected and supported, not attacked and delegitimised, if the slow undermining of our values by the MB and its associates is be contained and reversed.

A shorter version of this article was published in the on-line Jeruslaem Post magazine on Monday 15 October 2012:

Thursday, 23 August 2012

NAM - a dangerous irrelevance

If ever there was an organization that had outlived its raison d’être, it is the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The 16th summit of NAM will be held at the end of this month under the auspices of its new chairman, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

NAM is a fossil leftover from the Cold War, and like the Cold War itself, NAM should have been consigned to the pages of history long ago. Founded in Belgrade in 1961, it was conceived as an instrument to enable states in the developing world to steer a middle course between the two superpowers of the time – the USA and the Soviet Union.

Its founding fathers were Yugoslavia’s then-president Josip Broz Tito, India’s Jarwahala Nehru, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Indonesia’s Sukarno. Like the original rationale for the movement, these leaders are long gone and the world’s geopolitical landscape has shifted radically since.

Yet even in its heyday, the movement didn’t demonstrate much logic or cohesion. Members of NAM fought each other (vide Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980) or, in clear defiance of their basic aims, lined up with one or the other of the superpowers − a situation that eventually blew up in the movement’s face when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. As a result, NAM’s member countries were split into Muslim states and those that were supported by the Soviets.

Representing the hopes of smaller, developing countries to achieve some sort of clout on the world stage, the NAM membership consists of no less than 120 nations - some 55 percent of world population. In the words of Fidel Castro, NAM’s purpose is to "struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony.”

To paraphrase Castro, this means opposition to Western values as well as a rooted opposition to the US and Israel. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that of NAM’s 120 member states, 32 states do not even recognize Israel.

Leaders such as Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsy have both announced their intention to attend the international summit. Following these announcements, the US State Department spokesperson opined, “Iran is going to try to manipulate the NAM summit and the attendees to advance its own agenda.”

Iran’s own “covert” agenda, of course, is to continue defying the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in its ever-accelerating quest to acquire nuclear weapons and achieve domination of the Middle East. Its “overt” agenda is to eliminate Israel from the map of the Middle East. Needless to say, if Iran succeeds in garnering support from 120 nations and 55 percent of the world’s population for either of these twin ambitions, it would deal a grievous blow to Western interests.

The scope of golden opportunities that NAM’s revolving chairmanship has afforded Iran is almost endless. And Iran will have the power to speak in the name of all NAM states over the next 3 years. In all likelihood, Iran will begin by building support from NAM countries ahead of Ahmadinejad’s slated address to the UN General Assembly in September. No doubt the president hopes to have better luck than he had in 2011 when, during the course of his diatribe, diplomats from more than a dozen countries walked out.

One would think that all of this would provide a good enough excuse for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to exclude himself from the summit. Unfortunately, Ban showed himself to be remarkably coy, and far from announcing in no uncertain terms that he would not be attending such a summit, he procrastinated for as long as possible before finally accepting the invitation to attend.

One wonders if Ban actually believes Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, who recently assured the world that the purpose of the forthcoming conference was to “eliminate world problems and help resolve ongoing crises.” One further wonders precisely which issues “central to the global agenda” will be solved in Tehran.

The statement of Seyyed Mahmoud Madani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative, seems nearer the mark: “The world has accepted the Islamic Republic as a country that has stood up to the bullying powers and is capable of confronting them.”

Let's hope the "bullying powers" are taking note.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post today, 23 August:

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Israel and Iran − a tangled tale

Relations between the Jewish people and the Persians (or Iranians, as they have become) have certainly had their ups and downs.

It may seem irrelevant to go back nearly three thousand years, but it is worth noting that on the one hand, in the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great, the Jewish people found one of their greatest friends. Some fifty years after the Babylonians had overthrown the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroyed the first Temple and carried off the Jewish inhabitants, Cyrus conquered Babylonia. He not only allowed Jews to return to their native land, but he ordered the rebuilding of the Second Temple.

On the other hand, only half a century later, in Haman, vizier to the Persian King Ahasuerus, Jews encountered one of their greatest enemies – on a par, perhaps, with Hitler in the modern era. For like Hitler, Haman’s hatred of Jews was visceral, and he attempted to have the whole Jewish population of the far-flung Persian empire, which included Jerusalem, slaughtered – a fiendish plot thwarted by the courage of the Jewish Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai.

Jumping to more modern times, the ambivalence persists. From the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 until the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, Israel and Iran maintained close ties. After Turkey, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation. In those early years Israel viewed Iran − a non-Arab power on the edge of the Arab world − as a natural ally, and fostered the relationship as part of the strategy favored by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, of an alliance of the periphery.

After the Six Day War in 1967, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. Israeli construction firms and engineers were active in Iran, and military projects − though kept secret − are believed to have been wide-ranging, including an Iranian-Israeli attempt to develop a new missile.

A sea-change in Israeli-Iranian relations appeared to follow the ousting of the Shah in 1979 and the coming to power of the Islamist Ayatollah Khomenei, but − as in most political scenarios − all was not exactly as it seemed.

Khomenei became Supreme Leader of Iran in December 1979. Less than a year later, on 22 September 1980, Iraq launched a simultaneous invasion by air and land into Iranian territory, hoping to take advantage of the continuing chaos in the country following the revolution. One of the factors influencing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was his fear that Iraq's long-suppressed Shia majority would be influenced by the Iranian revolution to rise against him. Saddam also had ambitions to replace Iran as the dominant state in the Persian Gulf.

If there was a consistent theme running through Gulf politics, it was the rabid hatred that the Khomeini régime professed for all things Israeli, which it lumped together with all things Western in general and all things American in particular. Linked to his all-encompassing enmity for the Zionist state was the Ayatollah's oft proclaimed objective to “liberate” Jerusalem. Yet it was to Iran that American and Israeli made weapons consistently found their way throughout the conflict, and the various arms for-hostages deals saw Israel acting as honest broker. Israel seemed to have adopted a clear pro Iranian stance. What could explain a country persistently supporting its declared enemy?

When the Iran Iraq conflict broke out in September 1980, most of the Arab world lined up in support of Iraq – the solid, centralist, Moslem state that had sent a fighting contingent to support the Arab cause in all the major conflicts with Israel. Syria, however, did not fall into line. Influenced, perhaps, by his long standing personal hostility to Saddam Hussein, perhaps by the ancient split between the Ba'athist parties in the two countries, Syria's President Hafez el-Assad, supported by Libya's Gaddafi, threw his weight behind Iran.

But this pro-Persian axis represented little threat to Israel. From Israel's point of view it was the pro-Iraqi line up that was the key to the situation. Iraq represented the Arab enemy – six divisions of it – and was supported by the bulk of the Arab world including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Iran's military machine was rudimentary compared to Iraq's, and was heavily dependent on US weaponry, originally purchased by the Shah. In fact, according to the then speaker of Iran's Parliament, Ali Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani – probably the most powerful man in Iran after Khomeini – Iran had been obliged throughout the conflict to continue to buy American weapons on the open market. Israel represented an additional source of supply.

What was the thinking behind this Israeli strategy? Israeli military intelligence perceived a long term interest in keeping open channels with Iran, especially those which fostered the flow of military materials. The change of régime from Shah to Ayatollah could not, it was argued, alter the geopolitical realities. Iran did not, like Iraq, have a long history of open conflict with Israel, and in 1980, of course, the full scale nature of the Islamic fundamentalist philosophy and its translation into unrestrained revolutionary action was not yet fully appreciated. More to the point, Khomeini would not live forever and, the argument ran, his régime was unlikely to persist unaltered after his death.

So the strategy was to hold off an Iraqi victory and keep the channels with Iran open, in the hope of re establishing effective working relationships with more moderate elements, if or when they emerged − precisely the arguments now being used to justify the delaying tactic of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Back in 1980, however, redressing the military balance in Iran's favour seemed a useful step.

However, Israel's policy, which made some sort of sense at the start of the conflict, became progressively less relevant as Iran gained the upper hand. The old argument about keeping Israel's enemies occupied in fighting each other lost its point once an Iranian victory began to seem possible.

Meanwhile Israel's reported arms sales to Iran did not go unchallenged inside Israel itself. There was a degree of public unease at the thought that the interests of Israel's arms dealers might be dictating the country's foreign policy, though cash from arms deals with Iran certainly provided a useful addition to Israel's balance of payments.

Despite continual calls for an end to the conflict by the UN Security Council, hostilities continued until August 20, 1988, when Iran announced its unconditional acceptance of a ceasefire.

By an unhappy coincidence, at the very moment the Iranians were making their announcement, an Israeli Defence Force intelligence officer was briefing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on the unlikelihood of an early end to the conflict. Members emerged from the committee room to a patent demonstration that the country's intelligence community had been caught napping. The committee re convened to grill senior officers about the failure. Harsh words spilled over into the media. The ashes of past intelligence errors, both of omission and of commission, were raked over. Some political analysts tried to point out the impossibility of predicting the unpredictable, but the military intelligence services had been undeniably humiliated.

Their humiliation was, if anything, deepened by the failure of events to turn out as they had predicted, for the death of Ayatollah Khomenei in June 1989 in fact made no difference. His successor, Ayatollah Khameini, was if anything even more hardline in his Islamist fervour and his anti-Israel rhetoric.

And yet, a recent article by David Blair in the London Daily Telegraph suggests that, just as Iran and Israel had a covert relationship for much of the Eighties, so one should be in existence today.

Writing of the 1980s, Blair says: “The back channel between Israel and Iran was handled by David Kimche, a former deputy head of the Mossad, who was then director general of the Israeli foreign ministry. For years," claims Blair, "Kimche held secret meetings with the Islamic republic’s leaders, sometimes in European cities, sometimes in Tehran. Even after his official retirement from government service in 1989, Kimche remained a regular visitor to Tehran."

To cope with the threat of an Israeli, and possibly an American, strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Blair writes: "we must hope that two carefully chosen interlocutors, one American 'mountain climber' and one Iranian (and, who knows, perhaps even an Israeli) are meeting regularly in a neutral setting.

"Their talks," he adds, "would be entirely secret. And quite right too."

If such a back channel is indeed open and functioning, it would certainly represent yet another unexpected twist in the tangled tale of Israeli-Iranian relations.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Israel considers

This letter was published in the London Daily Telegraph today, 21 August 2012

     I can assure Professor Wade Mansell (Letters, August 20), that the debate here in Israel about the pros and cons of a possible pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is intense. Iran’s leaders are committed to wiping Israel from the map. Only on Sunday Ayatollah Khamenei categorised Israel as a “cancerous tumour”; on Friday President Ahmadinejad declared that Israel was an “insult to humanity” that needed to be wiped out. A government’s main duty is to protect its citizens, and Israel has learned that it can rely on no other nation to do so. Nevertheless, voices within Israel urging caution are strong. Meanwhile, in anticipation of a possible use by Iran of chemical weapons, gas masks are being issued to all who want them.
     Neville Teller

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A nuclear Iran - how does Israel respond?

Rafsanjani is a name that has a familiar ring to it, but I suspect is difficult for most people to pinpoint. In fact, he is a predecessor of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, serving from 1989 to 1997.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani enjoyed a rather colorful career. He was elected chairman of the Iranian parliament around the time that the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, and he served in that office until its cessation in 1988. Throughout that time he was also the de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military. In 1989 he stood as president.

During most of his time in office he was as hard-line on both the subject of Israel and Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as his current successor, Ahmadinejad. Since then, though, he has become increasingly estranged from the ruling junta in general, and Ayatollah Khamenei in particular. He has repeatedly made it known that he is in disagreement with the leader over how the country is run.

Last January his daughter, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former MP and a critic of the government, was sentenced to six months in prison for "making propaganda against the ruling system". Her trial took place behind closed doors, and according to the website Mashregh News, she has been banned from taking part in political, cultural and media activities for five years.

Nor is this the only brush the Rafsanjanis have had with the government. Efat Maraashi, Rafsanjani's wife, was the first person, in an interview on the day of the disputed 2009 presidential election, to order the people to take to the streets if the vote was rigged. A group of senior members of Rafsanjani's party, including Hossein Maraashi, Mrs Rafsanjani's cousin, were detained after the elections.

In Rafsanjani’s famous Friday Prayer sermon, which coincided with the 2009 summer protests. he called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press. That there were an estimated 1.5 million worshippers attending that Friday Prayer was a bitter pill for Khamenei to swallow. In January, Rafsanjani's official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for its refusal to remove the transcription of the sermon.

So it would appear that Rafsanjani is his own man, and not afraid to speak his mind. In February 1987 Rafsanjani addressed Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), in an astonishingly frank manner about Iran’s intentions in the nuclear field:

Regarding atomic energy, we need it now... Our nation has always been threatened from outside. The least we can do to face this danger is to let our enemies know that we can defend ourselves. Therefore, every step you take here is in defense of your country and your evolution. With this in mind, you should work hard and at great speed.

In a speech given in December 2001 he was equally candid:

If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists' strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.

Last week, Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit published an interview with a key figure in Israel’s security establishment, in which the dilemma for Israel was clearly spelled out:

What does Rafsanjani say? He says that between the Muslim world and Israel there is no balance, and therefore there will also be no balance of deterrence. Israel is not … Japan, that absorbed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and within 15 years became a world power. Israel is a one-bomb state. After a single atom bomb, it will no longer be what it was or what it was meant to be. A single atom bomb is enough to finish off the Zionist story. In contrast, says Rafsanjani, the Muslim world has a billion and a half people and dozens of countries. Even if Israel strikes back hard at the country that dispatched the bomb, Islam will remain intact. A nuclear war will not make the Muslim world disappear, but it will do irreparable damage to Israel.

For this security expert, these words seems to be enough to spell out the necessity for Israel to take unilateral military action against Iran – not to wipe out its nuclear programme, mind, for that would be impossible, but at least to postpone its ultimate objective of producing a nuclear missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv for a couple of years. In those 2 years, he adjudges, the basic interests of the international community regarding Iran will not change, and so the continued combination of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and the intelligence battle will greatly increase the odds that the Iranian regime will fall before Iran goes nuclear. He did not specify whether he looked to Rafsanjani as a key figure in engineering a change of régime, but it is worth noting that Rafsanjani and his family have become progressively alienated from the government, and he is too powerful a figure in the country to be simply crushed.
That is the expert's judgement, but it is as suspect as the options of doing nothing, or waiting to co-ordinate action with the Americans, when the time comes that the necessity to do so overwhelms them. But there is no evidence available in the public arena that Israel is indeed able, by means of military strikes, to delay the Iranian nuclear program by two years – or, for that matter, at all – especially when the political fallout for military action is so enormous.

Which is not, of course, any reason for Israel to sit on its haunches while the nation that is dedicated to wiping it from the pages of history prepares to do so. Nor, we may be assured, is Israel doing so. What is thus called for is coordination, timing, and intensive diplomatic activity involving the numerous nation states – many of them Muslim − that greatly fear Iran’s intentions.

Back in September 2010, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published a well-documented report detailing concerns in Kuwait and the Gulf over the threat currently posed by Iran to them. “More and more voices in the Kuwaiti press and public,” it reported, “describe Iran as a threat to the security and stability of the Gulf states.” This it ascribes to “events, reports, assessments, and rumors regarding hostile Iranian activity in the Gulf.”

Among these it lists: the discovery of a money laundering operation in Bahrain connected to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); the arrest of 250 operatives in Bahrain suspected of membership in terror cells, and reports that similar cells exist in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the uncovering of an Iranian espionage network in Kuwait; reports about Iranian plans to occupy the Gulf states and to assassinate senior military commanders and media figures in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf and in Lebanon; and assessments that Iran's influence in the region will grow in the wake of the US withdrawal from Iraq. “The sense of threat generated by all these factors,” states the report, “is compounded by the advances in Iran's nuclear program.”

As a result, the Institute reports, columnists and public figures in Kuwait are united in their assessment that Iran intends to take over the Gulf States, and are speculating about the nature of this takeover, how it might be implemented, and ways to address the threat.

Iranian-Israeli political analyst, Meir Javedanfar, believes that Iran is worried not only by the possibility of a military strike by Israel, but also by the Israeli government’s ability to justify it. As Javedanfar sees it, if Israel had a consensus of world opinion on its side, this would severely curtail Iran’s ability to justify its own retaliation. The State of Israel, he concludes, should not forget that it “has the diplomatic option of significantly hurting the regime in Tehran.”

Let us hope wise counsels within the Israeli government are noting this sort of advice as well as the more gung-ho voices that may be louder, but not necessarily more perceptive. Back then the world ignored Rafsanjani’s frightening decrees, but now it’s time for the world to realize that the same mistake cannot be repeated with his successor.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post 15 August, under the title "Radical then, radical now."

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Differing dreams

This letter appears in the Jerusalem Post today, 14 August 2012

I know, I suspect you know, and Martin Sherman certainly knows, that the ultimate dream of Palestinian leaders, “moderate” and extremist alike, is an Israel-free Middle East (“The alchemy of Palestinian nationhood” Into the Fray August 10). As he points out, there is no secret about it. In paying lip-service to the two-state solution, and even perhaps working towards it, any Palestinian leader would still have his eye on the eventual goal.

But then, as Sherman does not point out, much of the liberal Western world believes that many Israeli politicians, and perhaps up to 50 per cent of the Israeli public, dream of a Greater Israel which incorporates the whole of Judea and Samaria − and perhaps chunks of Lebanon and Jordan, to boot − within its boundaries.

Sherman asks why Israel’s leadership has been unable to expose the two state solution as a flimsy falsehood. He does not ask why the members of the Quartet (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia), both individually and collectively, endorse it, nor why much of the rest of the Western world goes along with it as well. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how deviously attained, the case for a sovereign Palestinian state has been made, as far as the majority of liberal opinion is concerned.

Politics is a hand-to-mouth kind of business. Ultimate objectives are rarely attainable, let alone attained. Whatever the differing dreams of the principals in peace negotiations might be, the achievement of an agreement would create such a totally new situation that all bets about the possible future would be off. Provided sufficient safeguards were built into the terms of the accord, a two-state solution might indeed provide Israelis and Palestinians with the peace, and the chance to live normal lives, that both sides in the dispute crave.

Neville Teller

Thursday, 9 August 2012

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 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-weapons-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 − the last in November 2011 − petered out without any obviously positive outcome. There is a clear and patent prerequisite to establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East − peaceful relations between all the countries of the region. How else could its implementation be discussed, carried forward and monitored?

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 in May 2010, following a conference taking stock of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the five permanent UN Security Council members issued a unanimous statement: "we are committed to a full implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East and we support all ongoing efforts to this end," there seemed nothing new in the reiteration of a long-held aspiration. And indeed the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom, the treaty depository powers and sponsors of the 1995 NPT Resolution, committed themselves to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene a regional conference to discuss the issue in 2012.

This new NPT conference is indeed scheduled to be held in Helsinki later this year, or possibly early in 2013. In preparation for it, Finland's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs is reported to have visited Jerusalem secretly in April for talks about Israel's involvement.

Israel will clearly wish to coordinate its position with the US. The Obama administration is known to support such a conference, since it is in line with their continued efforts to promote the NPT. However, the conference will take place after the forthcoming US presidential election, and it may be that Israel will postpone committing itself one way or the other until the outcome.

The purpose of the conference is ostensibly to discuss how to proceed with banning nuclear arms from the Middle East, but the main item on the agenda is likely to be an attempt by Arab states and Iran to curb Israel's nuclear capability. The first step in this long-running enterprise is always an attempt to create a linkage between Iran and Israel − only if Israel is forced to sign the NPT and declare its nuclear capacity, the argument runs, can Iran be effectively pressured into abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

This proposed "linkage" has, of course, little validity. It is now clear to world opinion that Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons arises from its ambition to dominate the Middle East – to "devour the Arab world,", as Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak once put it. Iran lays claim to Bahrain, and sends weapons to Assad’s regime in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In truth Israel is irrelevant to these plans, except to serve as a convenient whipping boy from time to time. Iran President Mahmoud 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 continually threatens to destroy Israel, while Israel has never threatened any state, either with conventional or with nuclear weapons. It is, though, generally recognized that Israel's nuclear capability, whatever it consists of, provides the country with a degree of deterrence against the sort of hazardous 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 US disclosing the number of its nuclear warheads, and completing negotiations with the Russian Federation on new cuts in 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 programs, thus contravening their obligations. Another signatory to the NPT, North Korea, even expelled IAEA inspectors and completed its secret nuclear weapons program, without any effective Western response.

Israel has long been aware of the limits of the NPT, realizing 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. Indeed, a poll of Israeli Jews conducted last November by the University of Maryland found that 64 percent of those questioned favored establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, even when it was spelled out that this would mean that Israel as well as Iran would give up the option of having nuclear weapons.

Where current moves fall down is in 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 that admirably covers this approach to the issue: putting the cart before the horse.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post today, 9 August 2012:

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

An Israeli referendum?

The one democratic pool into which Israel has never dipped its big toe is the referendum. But then, small and democratic though Israel may be, it’s not a Switzerland where, under the constitution, voters can demand a binding referendum on all sorts of issues, great and small, at federal, cantonal and municipal level. Quite the reverse. The Basic Laws of Israel do not provide at all for holding referendums or popular plebiscites.

That, of course, has not stopped various calls for them over Israel’s 64-year history. As early as 1958, in a bid to reduce the influence of the National Religious Party, Ben-Gurion suggested a referendum on the electoral system. Later Begin toyed with the idea of offering a referendum on proposed laws, provided at least 100,000 citizens requested it. In the 1970s a plebiscite on the future of the West Bank was briefly considered; while in 2005 settlers in the Gaza Strip opposed to the loss of their homes, asked for a national referendum on Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan. Sharon opposed the idea, and the law was instead passed through the Knesset.

Referenda are far from confined to Switzerland. In fact more than forty nations have held them in the recent past, or conduct them as a matter of course from time to time. Close to home, the possibility of a referendum is about to feature in the current struggle in Egypt between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The high constitutional court of Egypt has refused to declare illegal the extraordinary powers granted by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to themselves; at the same time the court has deferred until September a ruling on dissolving the second constituent assembly as it did the first. That first body included parliament members, which is illegal according to the provisional constitution issued by the SCAF after the fall from power of the previous president, Hosni Mubarak.

The second assembly, however, still faces some of the problems of the first, such as parliamentary members elected again and Muslim Brotherhood domination, and so it awaits a ruling from the court on its future. In the meantime, they are hastening to prepare the new constitution in terms heavily favoring the Brotherhood element; including the powers of the president, and downgrading the power and influence of the military. They are hoping to complete the new constitution before the court rules. If so, their constitution will be put to the people in a referendum – and that, it is adjudged, will confer legitimacy on it whatever the court rules.

“If the constitution is drafted in time,” noted Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, on 5 August 2012 in the Jerusalem Post, “it will be submitted to the people in a referendum before the court has made public its decision. It will then be nearly impossible for the court to rule against the democratically expressed will of the people.”

This gambit is precisely the thinking behind the most recent attempt to graft a referendum on to Israel’s Basic Laws.

On Monday, 22 November 2010 the Knesset, by a vote of 65-33, passed into law an Act unique in the nation’s history. In future, any proposal to withdraw from Israeli territory would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in the legislature. In the event that this was impossible, a national referendum would be mandatory. The law took immediate effect.

Because the law applies only to sovereign Israeli territory, no referendum would be needed to withdraw from any part of the West Bank. However, should the Knesset not approve by a two-thirds majority a pullout from east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights, a referendum would be required, as both have been annexed by Israel. It would also be required if, under a future deal with the Palestinians, Israel ceded land within the pre-1967 lines in exchange for keeping the settlement blocs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke in favour: "A referendum will prevent an irresponsible agreement, but at the same time will allow any agreement that satisfies Israel's national interests to pass with strong public backing." He was convinced, he added, that any agreement he submitted to the Knesset would indeed enjoy such backing.

Then Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said it was a sign of "weak leadership," and Kadima voted overwhelmingly against the bill.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was highly critical of the new law. "The Israeli leadership, yet again, is making a mockery of international law, which is not subject to the whims of Israeli public opinion. Under international law there is a clear and absolute obligation on Israel to withdraw not only from east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but from all of the territories that it has occupied since 1967. Ending the occupation of our land is not and cannot be dependent on any sort of referendum."

Erekat’s view, while understandable, takes no account of the political realities. As Israel’s previous withdrawals from occupied territory – notably the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza strip – have shown, when it comes down to evacuating settlements, the government needs the utmost determination in imposing its will against often implacable opposition from its own citizens. But these earlier examples could be as nothing compared with the situation that could develop, if it came to forcible evacuations from West Bank settlements.

Imagine the situation. An Israeli government has concluded a draft peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority involving the swapping of Israeli territory in exchange for retaining some West Bank settlements, but evacuating others. But the government is unable to command a majority for that action in the Knesset. In such circumstances, a national referendum could provide it with enhanced legitimacy for taking the necessary action. Settlers determined to combat government efforts to evacuate them would have a far weaker case if government action were backed by a majority of the nation.

All the same, should the parliamentary vote fail, going to the Israeli public would undoubtedly be something of a gamble.

The law received more than 61 votes, meaning it was passed by an absolute majority of the 120-member Knesset. This will make it harder for anyone to seek to overturn it through the High Court of Justice, because it will eliminate the argument that the law passed with insufficient support for such fundamental, quasi-constitutional legislation.

Knesset House Committee chairman Yariv Levin, whose panel prepared the law, told the plenum before the vote that it "reflects the need to ensure that fateful, irreversible decisions about conceding parts of the homeland to which Israeli sovereignty have been applied" will not be made via dubious political horse trading ("as has happened in the past," he added). Instead it will reflect the will of the people, either by way of a genuine two-thirds majority in the Knesset, or failing that, by a referendum of the nation as a whole. As such, he said, the law will promote national unity, because even opponents will not be able to argue − as they have in the past − that the Knesset's decision was not actually supported by a majority of the public.

And that, in the final analysis, is the nub of the case in its favour. Of course, the sixty-four thousand dollar question is, with the peace process apparently irretrievably log-jammed, will even the prospect of a national referendum ever arise?

Published in the online edition of the Jerusalem Post on 6 August 2012:

Monday, 6 August 2012

The Friends of Israel Initiative

Israel is not without friends. Despite the burgeoning of so-called anti-Zionism within Western liberal opinion (anti-semitism as such is considered not politically correct), who could have predicted that considerable numbers of well-respected figures, virtually all of them non-Jewish, from countries all around the world, would come together to defend Israel against the insidious and growing campaign to delegitimize her, waged by her enemies and supported by numerous international institutions?

More than two years have gone by since the Friends of Israel Initiative (FII) was launched. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the enterprise has received little publicity, and is not yet on the political map. It deserves to be better known.

Who are these people, prepared to take so unfashionable and therefore so courageous a stand?

The "Friends of Israel Initiative" is led by former President of Spain, José María Aznar. The list of members includes Peru's former president Alejandro Toledo, former Italian Senate president Marcello Pera, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, British historian Andrew Roberts, and Northern Ireland's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lord Trimble.

Other members of the Board of FII include former Czech President Vaclav Havel, Spanish former industry minister Carlos Bustelo, French entrepreneur Robert Agostinelli, and Professor George Weigel. With a working budget of almost £1 million a year, FII has been funded by a dozen private donors from Spain, America, Israel, France, Italy and Britain.

It was in May 2010 that José Maria Aznar brought together a high level group in Paris to launch a project aimed specifically at asserting Israel's position as a legitimate democratic sovereign nation, an integral part of the Western world and of fundamental importance to its future. Although the FII acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is important, the members of the group are even more concerned about the rising tide of radical Islamism and the prospect of a nuclear Iran, both of which threaten the entire world.

The Mexican newspaper El Financiero defined the purpose of the Initiative as to "reaffirm Western values," and counteract "anti-Semitic criticism of Israel." According to Spain's ABC News Internacional, the Initiative is founded on the conviction that "the campaign against Israel corrodes the international system from within, beginning with the United Nations."

The FII is committed to act consistently and diligently in its effort to disseminate its members’ vision of Israel as a democratic, open, and advanced nation like any other, and that it should be perceived and treated as such.

Israel, the organisation maintains, is a sovereign democracy which like all the others is, of course, capable of making mistakes. Nonetheless, it asserts, this should not be used as an excuse to question Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, or its basic rights as an independent state.

The FII has been officially launched in France, the UK and the USA. At the launch in Washington in September 2010, José Maria Aznar explained more fully the motivation behind the new organisation.

“Israel is under a new kind of attack,” he said. “Not conventional war as in 1948, '56, '67 or ‘73. Not terrorism as we saw in the '70s, '80s and '90s. But a new kind of attack – an attack on Israel’s legitimacy, on her right to exist. A "soft war", where many of its adversaries are employing legal tricks, multinational bodies, and an army of dubious NGOs to present Israel internationally as an illegitimate state, a barbarian state, a state that should be isolated and converted into a pariah state.

“We think this is intolerable. It is unjust, morally wrong, and a strategic risk – not only for Israel and its people, but for all of us. Israel is an integral part of the West, and the weaker it is, the weaker the entire West will be perceived to be.

“Let me be clear. We certainly don't want to defend any particular Israeli government, or any particular set of policies, or any particular party. Israel's institutions are mature enough to defend their choices. We want to stand up for the right of Israel to exist. Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization. Delegitimising Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are.

“Letting Israel be demonized will lead to the deligitimisation of our own cherished values. If Israel were to disappear by the force of its enemies, I sincerely doubt the West could remain as we know it.

“Is it craziness for a group of mostly Europeans and non-Jews, to say: Enough. Stop this nonsense of making Israel responsible for all the problems in the region, if not beyond? Enough of the short sightedness which refuses to see Israel as a corner stone of our Western civilization?

“Defending Israel today means strengthening the West, standing up for our values, and supporting their right to exist as a normal country, a fellow democracy and a noteworthy ally in our great western alliance. I hope that you will share our vision, and will help us in bringing reason and decency back to the discussion concerning Israel.”

These are sentiments that ought to command widespread support within the Western community of nations. They combine reason with the most basic appeal of all – self-preservation. Yet the message has evoked little response from opinion leaders the world over.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.