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.