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: