Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Kurds and Israel: Straws in the wind

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, a proud and independent nation lived and thrived in its own land in the heart of the Middle East.  Throughout the ages, although subject to many foreign invasions, this people refused to be integrated with their various conquerors and retained their distinctive culture.  At the start of the First World War, their country was a small part of the Ottoman empire.  Afterwards, in shaping the future Middle East, the Western powers, in particular the United Kingdom, promised to act as guarantors of this people’s freedom.  It was a promise subsequently broken.

The broad outlines of this story may sound familiar, but no, it is not the Jewish people or Israel being described.  It is the long, convoluted and unresolved history of the Kurds.  Yet events have conspired to bring the Kurdish and the Jewish people into an embryonic relationship that might yet develop into a new political force in the Middle East.

The Kurds are an ethnic group who have historically inhabited a distinct geographical area flanked by mountain ranges, once referred to as Kurdistan.  No such location is depicted on current maps, and the old Kurdistan now falls within the sovereign space of four separate states.  Even so, the area is still recognizable, and the people who inhabit it still consider themselves Kurds.

It is certainly an odd, indeed unique, situation.  What was once Kurdistan, together with all its 30-plus million inhabitants, is currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  Most Kurds live within Turkey’s borders, but Kurds form the largest minority in Syria, while within Iraq they have developed a near autonomous state. 

     As for Turkey, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the three-decade conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK. Comprising about 20% of Turkey's 77 million population, fractious Kurds have long been a pressing political problem for Turkey.  But on June 25, 2014 Turkey's government took its first concrete step in an effort to secure peace with its Kurdish population, seeking to advance talks ahead of elections in August, when Erdogan will doubtless become the country's first directly elected president. Even though Erdogan is seeking the Kurdish vote, there is no possibility of Turkish Kurds being granted any form of autonomy. It may seem paradoxical, but Erdogan strongly supports Kurdish independence in Iraq mainly, one suspects, because he would prefer a weakened and divided Iraq on his doorstep to a strong unified state.

As for the rest of historic Kurdistan, the current turmoil within the Middle East has provided the Kurds an unexpected opportunity to reassert their long-suppressed yearning to rule themselves.  There is a surprising sub-text to this upsurge in Kurdish self-confidence    growing indications that the Kurdish leadership is anxious for a close and friendly working relationship with Israel.

Kurdish nationalism emerged with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s.  The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. He helped set up a Kurdish Republic (KDP) in Iran in 1946, but this was crushed by the Iranian army and he was forced into exile.

When the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in 1958, Barzani returned but, just two years later, after another uprising, his KDP was broken up by the Iraqi government.  A peace deal between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish rebels was eventually signed in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.

When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud.  But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.

Later, during the 1990s, the KDP and the PUK fought a bitter civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal.  Eventually the two organizations established a unified regional government. Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and later served as its president. He was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

Meanwhile in Syria the civil war brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics.  Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. In October 2011, sponsored by Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) composed of no less than 15 separate parties all pressing for Kurdish autonomy.

In June 2014 the leader of the Kurdish Left, one of the 15, penned a letter to Israel’s President-elect Reuven Rivlin.  Israel “isn’t our enemy,” wrote Mahsum Simo; Syrian President Bashar Assad and his aides were.  “We in the Kurdish Left Party ask the government and people of Israel to stand by the Syrian people [more than before],” he said.

On June 25, the Jerusalem Post reported that Amir Abdi, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Party, when asked what kind of relationship his party envisages with Israel, responded:  “We share a strong relationship with the friendly State of Israel and do not forget” the aid they have given to wounded Syrians inside their country.

His sentiment was reiterated by Mohammed Adnan, chairman of the Revolutionary Congregation for Syria’s Future which, he explained, was made up of all ethnic and religious groups in Syria.

“It is our job to build a peaceful future,” he said, and “cooperate with Israel...We are ready to make peace.”

Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who served as former Likud deputy minister Ayoub Kara’s chief of staff, has independently met with members of the liberal and democratic Syrian opposition who want friendly relations with Israel. Safadi asserts that these moderate opposition groups want to make the unprecedented offer of inviting an Israeli representative to take part in future working meetings with foreign government representatives.

These are straws in the wind, indeed.  It seems clear that if Iraqi Kurdistan eventually emerges as a sovereign state, Israel will be among the first to recognize it.  And if any sort of united or autonomous Kurdistan straddling Syria, Iraq and Iran emanates from the current turmoil, Israel might find itself with a valuable friend and ally within the very heartland of the Middle East.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 July 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 June 2014:

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The West and Iran - a muddle and a mistake

On June 16 Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran are to be restored.  The British embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in London are to be re-opened, initially on something less than ambassadorial level.

It was in November 2011 that the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, voted amid cries of “Death to England”, to sever ties with London.  Afterwards, hundreds of protesters stormed the British embassy compound and looted the residence. The UK ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, and his family were evacuated at some speed.

This pattern of events is nothing new.  Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the UK and Iran have been in an on-off diplomatic relationship.  Immediately after the overthrow of the Shah, Britain suspended all relations with Iran, and it was not until 1988 that the British embassy was reopened.  Only one year later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa ordering Muslims across the world to kill British author Salman Rushdie. Diplomatic ties with London were broken off again, only to be resumed at a chargé d'affaires level in 1990. 

They remained uneasy until the election in June 2013 which resulted in the elevation to the presidency of the apparently “moderate” Hassan Rohani – the man who had held the UN and the West at bay with soft words for month after month, while allowing Iran’s uranium enrichment  programme to forge ahead.

Nevertheless much international opinion, the US, the EU and the UK among them, seized on Rohani’s election as on a gift from heaven – a chance to avoid grasping the nettle of Iran’s unacceptable nuclear and political ambitions and to by-pass outright confrontation.  Hence the talks about Iran’s nuclear program – an initiative enthusiastically entered into in November 2013 by the six countries known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council:  China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany).  The talks which have of course got nowhere were heavily supported by Russia, since this was a sure way to avert the one-time threat of a military strike, by either the US or Israel, against their ally’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, events within Syria and the wider Middle East have given the geo-political kaleidoscope a thorough shake-up – and a new pattern has emerged.    

The Syrian conflict, which began as an internal protest against the regime of Bashar Assad, quickly morphed into a free-for-all where jihadists of many persuasions joined the conflict to fight each other with ferocity.  Assad and his regime were part of the wider Shia axis, master-minded by Iran’s ayatollahs, and including their heavily-armed instrument, Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They were initially opposed by a grouping of Syrians opposed to Assad – a grouping half-heartedly supported by the US and the West, though not to the extent of providing direct military assistance.  When al-Qaeda, representing  Sunni Islam, joined the fight against Assad, any hope of direct Western support for the opposition vanished. 

Then a Sunni military force, far more extreme, more bloodthirsty, more ruthless than al-Qaeda began to make its presence felt in Syria.  With the ambition of creating a caliphate across the Middle East, subject to the strictest application of Sharia law, the new body became known by the acronym ISIS, standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant).  The first stage of the plan was to take over all of northern Syria and turn it into an Islamic state.

However Assad, supported by Russia, Iran and a substantial Hezbollah force, appears to have turned the tide.  So ISIS, forced to flee parts of Syria, has spilled over into Iraq where, confronting the demoralised Iraqi army, it has made substantial gains and could soon be threatening Baghdad itself.

But the prospect of this formidable force controlling large areas of Iraq is a genuine threat to the West. Among a number of other undesirable consequences, it puts oil supplies in jeopardy.  So although in next-door Syria the West is opposing Assad and his Shia Iranian ally, in Iraq the West is making overtures to Iran, in the hope that it will act as proxy for them in beating back the fanatical Sunni ISIS. This is what is behind the UK’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, and Washington’s recent statement that the US is “open to engaging the Iranians” over the crisis in Iraq.

What a mistake!  In a twinkling of an eye Iran has been transformed from a sponsor of terror around the world, supporting the Assad regime’s mass slaughter in Syria, developing nuclear weapons to further its war against the West and its declared aim of exterminating Israel. Suddenly it has become America’s ally and the West’s new best friend.

Both President Obama and Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, have ruled out any prospect of taking direct military action to tackle ISIS. They are looking to Iran to take the steps necessary to halt the Sunni extremists in their tracks – and indeed Iran has already sent the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force to supervise the defence of Baghdad.

The Quds Force has, of course, undertaken a similar – and highly successful – role in neighbouring Syria, where its efforts have helped to revive the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And herein lies the fundamental paradox that both US and British policymakers must now contend with. In Syria they oppose the Iranian-back Assad regime, in Iraq it is the Iranian-backed Shia forces they support.  Indeed, desperate for help to enable Iraq’s government prevail against the Islamist militants, they are increasingly relying on the experienced Shia fighting forces flooding in from Syria.

When you sup with the devil, runs the old saying, be sure you use a long spoon.  Deep confusion about the challenges posed by the Middle East seems to hold sway both in the White House and in Whitehall. But assuredly there will be a price to pay for the West’s determination not to engage directly with ISIS on the ground.  Look to the on-going negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power.  Iran suddenly finds itself with a dominant – if not winning – hand.    What quid pro quo will it exact for its continued involvement against ISIS forces in Iraq, and what price will the West have to pay for it further down the line? Time will tell.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 June 2014:

Saturday, 14 June 2014

This Palestinian façade

        Full marks to Egypt’s newly elected president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Alone among the world’s statesmen, he has refused to recognize the cobbled-together Fatah-Hamas “unity” government.  Hamas is formally designated a “terrorist organization” by the United States and the European Union, just as it is by Egypt.  All the same, based upon Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s assurances that his new administration is composed solely of non-political technocrats, that it will honour all agreements entered into by the PA, recognize Israel and reject terror, the US and the EU, together with the United Nations and China, have declared that they accept and will work with the new administration. 

        Once again, led by the US, the world as a whole prefers to turn a blind eye to stark reality in favour of insubstantial hopes and unachievable promises.

        UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Fatah-Hamas unity government, said the UN was prepared to support it and its efforts to reunite the West Bank and Gaza, and hoped that the move would provide new opportunities to progress the peace process with Israel.

        The EU was equally forthcoming. "We welcome the declaration by President Abbas that this new government is committed to the principle of the two state solution based on the 1967 borders, and to the recognition of Israel's legitimate right to exist. The EU's engagement with the new Palestinian government will be based on its adherence to these policies and commitments."

        Yet when on June 11 a rocket was fired from Gaza into southern Israel, narrowly missing a major traffic highway, the US said it did not hold the PA responsible. “We acknowledge the reality that Hamas currently controls Gaza,” said US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki to reporters in Washington.

        So, although Abbas heads a Fatah-Hamas unity government, it is not to be held to account for the continued terrorist activities of one of the partners.  If Israel decided to bring these crimes against humanity to the International Court of Justice, that body might not take the same view.

        Egypt’s el-Sisi sees the situation more pragmatically.  He knows Hamas for what it is – an extremist Islamist organisation, closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, intent on overthrowing the new Egyptian administration by supporting terrorist activity both in the Sinai and within Egypt itself.  So when the PA and Hamas claimed that Sisi, as a gesture of support for the new Palestinian government, would open the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egyptian Sinai, they were wide of the mark.

        Cairo’s response was that the border terminals would remain open only if PA security forces from Ramallah assumed control of the borders and officiated at the crossings. But Hamas has no intention of handing this strategic resource over to Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah. Any PA bid to take over control of the Gaza crossings would be forcibly resisted.  A standoff has therefore already developed between the two partners.

        In the event, not only has Cairo kept the Rafah crossing shut, but it has strengthened military oversight on its borders with Gaza to prevent incursions at any point. In addition, a law has been drafted by the Egyptian authorities proposing long prison sentences for anyone attempting to “prepare, dig or use” a tunnel connecting Egypt to a foreign “entity” or nation (in other words Hamas or the Palestinian government) for the passage of goods or persons.

        Under the unity deal, the PA is obligated to urge Egypt to end its blockade of Gaza.  Success in that particular venture is, to say the least, dubious.

        This Fatah-Hamas “reconciliation” papers over wide discrepancies of policy, bitter enmity and divergent aspirations between the two partners.  For example, the unity deal stipulates that Hamas will incorporate Fatah-led PA forces in Gaza, and that this will be reciprocated in the West Bank.  This is an aspiration likely, in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to be “more honored in the breach than the observance.”  For how will Hamas and the PA coordinate on security when they have continued to target each other's members since the signing of the reconciliation deal? The Freedoms Committee, which was set up to help implement the agreement, says the ongoing arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank has "strained the reconciliation atmosphere", and that the charging of Fatah members in Gaza is also continuing.  

        How will Hamas and Fatah forces coordinate vis-à-vis Israel, particularly given the PA’s cooperation with Israel on security issues, including the arrest of Hamas members – a hugely unpopular policy among Palestinians. Just last week, Abbas described the "security relationship" with Israel as "sacred", adding that it would continue regardless of a Palestinian unity government or any disagreements with Israel.

        This, and his insistence that the new government will adhere to non-violence, contrasts with statements by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh who has said that the reconciliation deal "aims to unite the Palestinian people against the prime enemy, the Zionist enemy", and that "it aims to pursue the choice of resistance in all forms".

        The UN, the EU, and the US choose to ignore or discount the glaringly obvious fact that Hamas defiantly remains what it has always been – an Islamist, terrorist organization intent on supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s subversion of the new Egyptian administration, and of pursuing the so-called armed struggle against Israel.  It has chosen to associate itself with its prime internal enemy, the Fatah-led PA, for its own reasons – doubtless hoping to participate, and to triumph, in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, as a vital step towards replacing the PA in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza. And what’s in it for Abbas?  Why, he has regained some sort of nominal foothold in Gaza – the great weakness he has had to cope with since 2007.

         The New York Times, in an editorial on June 7, puts in a nutshell the dilemma that the Obama administration has manoeuvred itself into. “The United States and other countries that consider Hamas a terrorist group may find it impossible to continue aiding the Palestinians if Hamas plays a more pronounced role,” it wrote, adding that the US “has to be careful to somehow distinguish between its support for the new government and an endorsement of Hamas and its violent, hateful behavior. To have some hope of doing that, the United States and Europe must continue to insist that Mr. Abbas stick to his promises and not allow Hamas to get the upper hand.”

        It seems pretty obvious that this Fatah-Hamas unity deal, far from representing reconciliation, is a façade that conceals as violent a fraternal struggle for power and supremacy as ever.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 14 June 2014:

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Peace Talks: Secrets and Lies

Any trusting souls hoping for a positive outcome to the recent peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and believing that both parties were acting in good faith, have been cruelly deceived.  Recently revealed documents show that, well before the talks reached their disastrous conclusion, all the discussions about two states, borders, refugees and Jerusalem were masking a secret, and quite different, agenda of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

            Within the internal structures of the PA, Erekat heads the Negotiations Affairs Department, a body set up in 1994 to implement one of the many Interim Agreements reached between Israel and the PLO.  Taking over as head of the organization in 2003, Erekat has used the post to build up what has been termed “a sizable, self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing empire.”          

            The suspicion has long been that Erekat, as the PA’s chief negotiator for more than twenty years, has been operating to an agenda far removed from whatever may have been before him on the many peace tables he has sat around.  During that time he has become well versed in laying grievances, charges and accusations at Israel’s door and, whenever events seem to move towards compromise and a possible accord, equally versed in resigning in high dudgeon.   On his own admission he has resigned from the post of chief negotiator no less than nine times – and reversed his decision on each occasion. 

Erekat is on the record as saying: “Whoever is able to reach an agreement to solve this conflict will be the most important figure in the region after Jesus Christ.”  That comment is a perceptive observation.  For he knew then, and he has recently demonstrated again, that a solution to the conflict requires the Palestinian cause to abandon more than it either wishes, or is realistically able, to do. 

For example to acknowledge that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – one of the stumbling blocks in the recent talks would be for the Palestinians to discard the aspiration, held equally by Fatah and Hamas, of an eventual Palestine “from the River to the Sea” – that is, the eventual elimination of Israel.    Hamas openly advocates the “armed struggle” in pursuit of this aim; Fatah, although pursuing a “softly, softly” approach, has never ceased lauding as heroes those responsible for indiscriminate acts of terror against Israelis, and from providing lavish financial support to the families of those jailed for such acts. 

When Mahmoud Abbas seemed to imply in a TV interview in 2012  that he had abandoned his right of return to his original family home in Safed, he aroused a hornet’s nest of protest within the PA.  The “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to properties abandoned during the 1948 or 1967 conflicts, even down to the fourth or fifth generations, remains non-negotiable as far as hard-line Palestinian opinion is concerned.  To accept a compromise on that would require a sea-change in how the government, the media and the education system inculcate the general public with the Palestinian narrative.  Yet if compromise is necessary on any issue, this is the issue. Indeed, during the course of past peace negotiations, proposals for dealing with it have been made, and apparently accepted – though the Palestinian negotiating teams, headed by Saeb Erekat, have invariably balked at the last minute, knowing that compromise of any sort is not acceptable to the hard-liners waiting in the political wings.

In 2000-2001 Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank in exchange for peace. Yasser Arafat rejected that offer and initiated an intifada that left thousands dead. In 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered an even better deal that included equal land swaps, under which the Palestinians would obtain part of Israel in exchange for territory in the West Bank. Once more, the Palestinians, having discussed the matter down to the finest detail, did not accept. 

            Again in the most recent round of talks, whatever was offered clearly failed to sway the Palestinian side, but this time the explanation has been revealed.  The reason, it now appears, is because Saeb Erekat planned to use the negotiations mainly as a means to obtain the release from Israeli jails of some 100 convicted  terrorists ­ a step agreed by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu as a sweetener to bring the PA to the table in the first place.  Erekat then proposed abandoning the peace process and reverting unilaterally to the “international route” – namely, seeking UN recognition for Palestinian statehood and the isolation of Israel.

Even before Kerry could present his bridging proposals in March 2014, Erekat had written an official PLO strategy document, designated “Study Paper No 15” of his Negotiations Affairs Department.  The 65-page document sets out a strategy for achieving Palestinian sovereignty within the 1967 boundaries, by-passing the then on-going peace discussions.  Among the recommendations are that the PA “put forward requests for accession to international institutions, protocols and conventions, and specifically the four Geneva Conventions,” and  move towards “reconciliation and the strengthening of Palestinian national unity... with the Hamas and Jihad movements in election of a new State of Palestine Executive Committee.”

Abbas, now emboldened to implement the PA’s long-term strategy, has subsequently acted on both – steps towards obtaining international recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state without having to make concessions.  Erekat’s document sets out detailed  proposals aimed at achieving Palestinian sovereignty through by-passing peace talks with Israel altogether.  He envisages a wholesale mobilisation of international opinion in support of the Palestinian position, and in opposition to Israel.

Israel’s national security chief, Yossi Cohen, is reported to have written to the White House, the EU and numerous ambassadors on April 22, attaching Erekat’s policy paper.  In his letter he points to the fact that Erekat’s paper was written nearly a month before the PA president unilaterally signed 15 international conventions.  At the time, Abbas claimed he did so in response to Israel’s refusal to honour its commitment to release the final round of prisoners.  In fact, said Cohen, Erekat had clearly planned the manoeuvre weeks before – timing that, according to Cohen, demonstrates that the Palestinian leadership never intended to follow the peace talks through.

Erekat’s document, said Cohen, proves that Palestinian policymakers had recommended to Abbas a strategy of unilateral moves “outside of the agreed negotiation framework” nearly two months before the April 29 deadline for the completion of the talks. So, when Obama met Abbas at the White House in March to discuss progress in the peace negotiations, the PA president was already bent on torpedoing the talks and following a unilateral course.

 “The document,” wrote Cohen, “serves as damning evidence of bad faith on the part of the Palestinian side.”

The facts seem to bear him out.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 5 June 2014: