Monday, 28 January 2013

Post-election Israel and the peace process

Discount the immediate response of Palestinian Authority (PA) spokesmen to the outcome of Israel’s election: “nothing has changed”. Much has changed. It is pretty clear that Israel’s next government, whoever may lead it and whatever its final composition, will contain as a vital component the 19 elected members of Yesh Atid (There is a Future) − a party dedicated to negotiating a two-state solution with the PA. Its leader, Yair Lapid, has said specifically: “Yesh Atid will not join a government that will not conduct diplomatic negotiations.” Given Israel’s political realities, a coalition without Yesh Atid does not seem feasible.

For the past two years PA President Abbas has been demanding a freeze on construction in the West Bank as one precondition for resuming peace negotiations – one, it might be noted, among several which have varied from time to time. This building issue has been a useful red herring for Abbas, fearful of moving too far and too fast, doubtless mindful of the fate of a previous Arab leader who did just that – Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. After all, who would willingly put their head on a chopping block?

The current political configuration bears a certain resemblance to that of four years ago. As now, in early 2009 both President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu had just come into office. Then, in response to Obama’s urgent request, Netanyahu succeeded in persuading his newly formed right-wing coalition to agree a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. In the event a 10-month building moratorium began at the end of November 2009. Most of the subsequent ten months was spent in shilly-shallying by Abbas, who sought cover from the Arab League for every tiny step he took. Much of the time was wasted in so-called “proximity talks”, with President Obamas’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, scurrying from side to side, trying to build confidence between the parties.

When finally Abbas was persuaded to come to the negotiating table for direct face-to-face talks with Israel, all but three weeks of the 10-month building moratorium had been used up. To reach this point Abbas had required not only the good offices of the United States and the support of the Arab League, but also the physical presence at the table of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Once there, optimism ran riot among all the participants. Extravagant claims were voiced on all sides of a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute within twelve months.

It proved too much for Abbas. As the leader of Fatah, he was in principle dedicated to wresting back mandate Palestine in toto from Israel, but the party was also in bitter conflict with the extremist terrorist organisation, Hamas, that had seized power in Gaza and was battling with Fatah for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people. Seizing the imminent end of Israel’s 10-month construction freeze as a handy excuse, Abbas demanded a resumption of the moratorium as a pre-condition for continuing the peace discussions. This was a price that Netanyahu’s coalition could not deliver. The result: a two-year stalemate in the peace process that only a radical change in the political landscape could alter.

Such a change has indeed taken place, and not only in Israel following the general election. Abbas himself is very differently placed from where he was in 2010. Under his belt he now has the endorsement of the UN General Assembly to his request that Palestine be considered a state with “non-member status.” He has, moreover, once again come to some sort of patched-up agreement with Hamas, brokered by Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, that will nominally lead to new PA elections covering Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Whether this arrangement will indeed hold on this occasion is problematic, given the many previous attempts at healing the Fatah-Hamas rift that have failed. On this occasion, however, Hamas may feel that they would emerge from elections much strengthened, in view of their self-designated “victory” following Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defense.

Some people know Mahmoud Abbas very well, following meetings, discussions and negotiations sometimes extending over years. Among such are Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and former prime minister, Ehud Olmert. When Abbas in a recent TV interview, said quite unequivocally, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.” each of those who are very well acquainted with him welcomed the statement as a courageous act by a man they believed was a genuine partner for peace.

A new Israeli government with members dedicated to renewing negotiations with the PA (even, one supposes, if some sort of construction freeze were called for), a Mahmoud Abbas strengthened by both a UN triumph and a possible healing of the bitter internal Palestinian feud − from such disparate elements as these it may be possible to resurrect a peace process that, while guaranteeing Israel the security it must have, would lay the foundation for a peaceful future for all the inhabitants of this unsettled corner of the world.

Published in the on-line editions of the Jerusalem Post and the Jerusalem Report, 30 January 2013:

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Mali points the way

2013 has opened with a quite astonishing and heartening development. Against all the odds, and quite at variance with precedent, the civilised world has pretty well unanimously agreed to take a determined stand against one display of Islamist extremism.

Nothing in the recent past could have suggested that a European power − in this case, France − would have deployed its formidable military capability against a group of Islamist jihadists intent on seizing power in the West African republic of Mali. Nor that this action by its former colonial masters would have received the unanimous support of the government of the country, the UN Security Council and the European Union. Nor, indeed, that the British government would go so far in support of France as to put C-17 transport planes of the Royal Air Force at France’s disposal and speak of providing training and support for the Malian army.

Yes, self-interest is at stake. Last March, Tuareg tribesmen and members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb seized control of the northern part of the country. Last week they moved south, taking Konna and threatening Mopti, home to the only army garrison between them and the capital, Bamako. With a civilian administration controlled by a small, weak army, Mali must have seemed to Islamist extremists as vulnerable and ripe for a takeover. Once in their control, the country could be used as a springboard for attacks not only on other African states, especially Nigeria, but also on Europe. It is clearly a strategic priority for the civilised world that the insurgents are defeated, and that more moderate Tuareg elements regain power and resume a democratic form of government.

It has taken this particular example of Islamist ruthlessness to precipitate a decisive response. But extreme Islamism has been active for decades in its global jihad against Western values, and the West has turned a blind eye. For example no country stirred a finger when the Islamist terrorist organisation, Hamas − an offspring of Egypt’s extremist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) − seized power in 2008 in the Gaza strip, in a bloody fratricidal coup against fellow Palestinians.

The MB and its Islamist and al-Qaeda-backed adherents have flourished in the wake of the Arab Spring, and governments affected adversely by their current upsurge in confidence include Algeria of course - as the hostage bloodbath in that benighted country has just proved - but also Kuwait, Sudan, Somalia, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – to name only some. Wherever it manifests itself, the MB and its associates are 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.”

That is the agenda of these Islamist militants. That is why this often stealthy, but steady and sure, expansion of influence and activity should concern the Western world far more than it has done up till now. For the MB not only spans the Middle East but, as political author Lorenzo Vidino has demonstrated, since the early 1960s its members and sympathisers have “moved to Europe and slowly but steadily established a wide and well-organised network of mosques, charities and Islamic organisations”. Islamism has active branches in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and a variety of other European countries. Seeking to bring about their Islamic aspirations 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.” Its goal, stated quite openly by its leaders, is to create situations in which Sharia law can be imposed on states, with the aim eventually of uniting them and thus continuing the expansion of Islamism.

This is precisely what the insurgents in Mali − known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) − have done in the ministate they have established in the north of the country. An extreme form of Sharia has been imposed. Refugees in the 92,000-person camp at Mbera, Mauritania, describe the Islamists as "intent on imposing an Islam of lash and gun on Malian Muslims."

So the West has reason enough to seek to defeat this al-Qaeda–backed insurgence in Mali, and to re-establish a legitimate civil government. On this occasion France’s President François Hollande has led the way, and the rest of the civilised world has not demurred. The question is: does President Hollande’s determined action mark the beginning of a more resolute response by the West to other examples of Islamist extremism, as they manifest themselves in the Middle East and elsewhere? Will others be similarly stalwart in defence of Western values? Or is this decisive action, welcome as it is, a flash in the pan?

Time will tell.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 17 January 2013:

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Israel, Palestine and the International Criminal Court

There’s a fairly widespread feeling that one of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) main motives in seeking an upgrade of its status at the UN recently, was to enable it to haul Israeli officials before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes committed during Israel’s first – and possibly also its second − Gaza incursion.

Throughout the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead the broadcast media was out in force, capturing the horrors of war for the world’s television sets. Soon charges were being levelled against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from the usual sources of “disproportionate” military activity. It was not long before they turned into accusations of war crimes. On the day after hostilities ceased − 22 January 2009 − the PA submitted a declaration to the International Criminal Court accepting its jurisdiction for “acts committed on the territory of Palestine”.

This initiative was seen by world opinion as the first stage in a bid to indict Israeli officials for actions committed during Operation Cast Lead. It failed on purely technical grounds.

The powers of the ICC, which came into being under the Rome Statute on 1 July 2002, are constrained in a number of ways: It has no jurisdiction in respect of crimes committed before the ICC itself came into existence; its jurisdiction can be activated only by sovereign states; it can investigate crimes only in states that have signed the Rome Statute. Any state that is not party to the Statute can accept the jurisdiction of the ICC with respect to crimes committed on its territory. This is the crack through which the PA sought to squeeze itself. But the PA was not a sovereign state, and having considered its request for three years, in April 2012 the ICC prosecutor rejected it and referred the issue back to the UN Secretary General.

However, on 29 November 2012 the UN General Assembly voted in favour of recognizing Palestine as a state with observer status, even though a non-member of the UN. It is generally agreed − although not, perhaps, by the PA − that this resolution had no power to create a Palestinian state. Even so, it may cause the newly appointed ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, to reconsider her predecessor’s opinion.

Why? Because in rejecting the PA’s application, her predecessor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, cited the UN General Assembly as the final authority for deciding who a “state” is for the purposes of filing a case with the ICC. Moreover, he indicated that his decision was influenced by the fact that the PA had only “observer” status within the UN – implying that if it had been a “non-member observer state” his decision might have gone the other way.

So it remains a possibility that the ICC will agree to accept the PA’s request to submit itself to the jurisdiction of the court. If so, could the PA in fact initiate a criminal action against Israel?

As far as Operation Cast Lead is concerned, the two external inquiries each originally castigated Israel severely, and each subsequently had its main charges substantially modified.

The board of inquiry set up by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, ignored the eight years of attacks against Israel and Hamas’s methods of armed operation which put Palestinian civilians at risk, and found the IDF was responsible for death, injuries and damage in seven of the nine incidents it investigated. In his response, sent to the UN Security Council, Ban Ki-moon made it clear that he took a different view. He criticized the firing of rockets at Israeli towns, and praised the coordination between the IDF and the UN during Operation Cast Lead and during the inquiry itself.

The UN-appointed Fact Finding Mission led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, was set up to investigate alleged violations of human rights during the Gaza War. Its report accused both the IDF and the Palestinian militants of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Lo and behold, on 1 April 2011 Goldstone published a personal retraction in The Washington Post, noting that subsequent investigations "indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy". He concluded: "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document."

All of which would seem to cut the ground from beneath the PA’s feet, should it seriously consider hauling Israel before the ICC in respect of Operation Cast Lead. As regards Israel’s latest sharp lesson to Hamas, Pillar of Defense, the operation and the outcome resulted generally in a more even-handed account in the world’s media of the initial provocation and the subsequent Israeli reaction. There seems little of substance to place before the ICC.

Assuming, however, that the PA persists, and that the ICC prosecutor accepts it as a competent party, two questions remain. What are its chances of success, and is there anything Israel could do in response?

As regards the former, the ground rules of the Rome Statute are explicit: “If a state becomes a party to this statute after its entry into force, the Court may exercise its jurisdiction only with respect to crimes committed after the entry into force of this Statute for that State….” The PA’s declaration was made on the day after Operation Cast Lead ended. It seems clear that the ICC could not consider alleged crimes committed before that day.

Is there any counter action Israel could take? If Palestine is eventually considered by the ICC to be a state, Palestinians could be indicted for crimes committed on their own soil which, let us recall, the UN General Assembly assumed to include Gaza. The rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza at Israel’s civilian population centres almost certainly constitute crimes against humanity. Israel and the United States have withdrawn from the Rome Statute, but nothing in the Statute says that a state referring charges to a prosecutor must be a party to the treaty.

The PA needs to beware. If it persists in pursuing its action, it may be opening a Pandora’s box.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 14 January 2013:

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Hamas flexes its muscles

There’s a great deal of talk these days about a “reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah. In December the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) allowed Hamas to celebrate its 25th anniversary in the West Bank; last Friday Hamas permitted a rally in Gaza city to commemorate Fatah’s “launch of the revolution” 48 years ago. Buoyed up by recent self-proclaimed “successes” on both sides (Hamas has deluded itself into believing it won a great victory in the recent Operation Pillar of Defense; the PA regards its recent vote in the UN General Assembly as tantamount to achieving a sovereign Palestinian state), there is now much loose talk of “moving forward towards unity”, in the words of Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.

However the underlying truth is that Hamas and Fatah are irreconcilable, for Hamas is concerned above all with outflanking Fatah in the battle for Palestinian hearts and minds. It refuses to accept Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate president of the PA, to endorse the PA’s policy of seeking to establish a sovereign Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or even to acknowledge Israel’s existence. So it is unlikely that current efforts at reconciliation will achieve anything more than the many previous abortive attempts.

On the contrary, strange rumours have been circulating about Hamas in the past few months.

They were sparked off shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won its convincing victory in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, and the MB candidate, Mohamed Morsi, topped the poll for president. Hamas, founded in 1987 during the first intifada, was an offshoot of the Egyptian MB, set up with the specific aim of establishing an Islamic state in the whole of the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The overwhelming success of the Brotherhood in what is arguably the leading nation in the Arab world − and Gaza’s next door neighbour to boot − must have seemed to the Hamas leadership like a golden opportunity too good to miss.

Accordingly, in July 2012, very shortly after Morsi took over as Egypt’s president, Arab newspapers like Al-Arabiya and Al-Hayat reported a meeting between Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and President Morsi. The subject of their discussion, according to the reports, was the possibility of Hamas issuing a unilateral declaration of independence − in short, breaking away from the PA and establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the Gaza strip, possibly under the benign overlordship of an MB Egyptian government. 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.”

Clearly the proposal – if indeed it was made in the terms reported − was not to President Morsi’s liking, for no such move followed. However subsequent events further strengthened Hamas to a degree that the leadership could not have foreseen back in July, and may have led to renewed efforts in that direction.

Emboldened by the MB’s success in Egypt, and also by the growing confidence of jihadists elsewhere as a result of the Arab Spring, Hamas began stepping up its rocket attacks on Israeli civilian targets. Israel’s reaction, in the form of Operation Pillar of Defense, gave Hamas the opportunity to stand for eight days at the centre of the world stage, representing the so-called “Palestinian armed struggle”. As a result Hamas greatly enhanced its standing in Arab popular opinion.

Riding the crest of this popular acclaim, the latest story to surface concerning Hamas is a statement made in the last days of 2012 by senior Hamas official, Musa Abu Marzouk, a likely candidate to replace Khaled Mashaal as head of the organisation. A frustrated President Abbas had been reported as saying that if there was no progress in the peace process: “I will take the phone and call Netanyahu and tell him : ‘Sit in the chair instead of me, take the keys, and you will be responsible for the Palestinian Authority’.” Abu Marzouk riposted: “Why does Abbas want to hand the keys over to Netanyahu? Why not hand it over to Hamas?” Hamas’s record, he asserted, “qualified it to run the West Bank successfully.”

Fatah officials are reported to have reacted angrily. Jamal Muheisen, a member of the Fatah Central Council, claimed that Hamas was renewing its pursuit of a unilateral declaration of independence for Gaza − though now, he asserted, Hamas had turned from seeking to do so under Egyptian auspices, and was conducting secret negotiations with Israel, with US approval, aimed at establishing an Islamic emirate in the Gaza strip. The West Bank, claimed Muheisen, was to be left as cantonised pockets of Palestinians separated by the Israeli settlements.

So the rumoured claim − which has about it the hallmarks of paranoid fears by an embattled Fatah − seems to be that Israel is prepared to allow the Gaza strip to become an extreme Islamist Palestinian state in its own right, and for Hamas to take over from the PA as the ruling authority in Palestinian-occupied West Bank areas, provided they leave all Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria under Israeli control.

The whole story seems wildly improbable, starting with the idea of secret Israel-Hamas negotiations. Even more unlikely is the concept of an Israel-approved takeover by Hamas of areas of the West Bank, however tempting the kickback. Hamas’s objective, its very raison d’être, is undisguised – the elimination of Israel, and the establishment of an Islamist Palestine “from the river to the sea”. To permit Hamas to assume control of parts of Judea and Samaria would indeed amount to Israel clutching a viper to its bosom.

This, surely, is one rumour too far.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 6 January 2013: