Tuesday, 21 June 2016

France’s Middle East peace initiative and the Hamas conundrum


          The exact location in Paris where France’s Middle East peace conference took place on June 3 was not announced in advance to the world’s media. The precaution was fully justified on security grounds. For just prior to the meeting of some thirty foreign ministers from around the globe, Hamas had issued a statement condemning the French initiative. Hamas, be it remembered, rules nearly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza strip, and is supported by unknown numbers of Palestinians – perhaps a majority – in the occupied territories.

          "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa to the website Al-Monitor, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause. The international community cannot offer any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the approval of Hamas, which won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006."

          Moussa’s last point is rather sparing with relevant facts. The legislative elections of 2006 indeed gave Hamas a substantial lead over its Fatah rivals, and after much bargaining the two parties agreed to form a national unity government. But sharing power was the last thing Hamas wanted. In a bloody fratricidal coup, it fought, defeated and expelled its Fatah rivals in the Gaza strip. In fact Hamas rules Gaza by might, not by right.

          Moussa had more to say regarding the French initiative. Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948, the return of the Palestinian refugees who have been displaced from their home and lands since 1948, and the liberation of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance, he added, until the "restoration of Palestinian rights."

          Hamas is quite explicit as regards its objectives. It intends to continue its armed struggle until it has defeated Israel and rendered Mandate Palestine judenrein. Global opinion, West and East, consistently ignores, or underplays, this factor in the equation. Almost without exception the world supports the two-state concept as the answer to the perennial Israel-Palestine dispute. This was the ideal set out by France’s President François Hollande, as he launched the ministerial peace conference: “two states living side by side in peace.” How peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel – that is the question not asked, and therefore left unanswered.

          Any yet, in acknowledging the difficulty of the task before the international community, Hollande perhaps nodded in the direction of the Hamas conundrum. Referring to the fact that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority had been invited to this first of France’s two projected peace conferences, he said: "We cannot substitute for the (absent) parties. Our initiative aims at giving them guarantees that the peace will be solid, sustainable and under international supervision.”

          Could “international supervision” guarantee that a new, sovereign Palestine in the West Bank would not very quickly be infiltrated by Islamic State, as well as taken over by Hamas, either through force of arms or by democratic election? What then of Israel’s security, with Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s road and rail infrastructure under direct threat of rocket and missile attack?

          French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault gave a press conference after the summit. He said that the participating ministers had decided to set up teams by the end of June charged with working on "economic and security incentives for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal.” The security incentives he mentions would need to be very explicit and substantial if they are to be meaningful.

          The joint communiqué issued after the conference emphasised that the status quo is not sustainable, and stressed the importance of both sides demonstrating, “with policies and actions, a genuine commitment to the two-state solution in order to rebuild trust and create the conditions for fully ending the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and resolving all permanent status issues through direct negotiations … also recalling relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and highlighting the importance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.”

          The Arab Peace Initiative, let it be said, has been comprehensively rejected by Hamas. Its basis is an undertaking to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel in return for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on a two-state basis. Although incorporated into US Middle East policy by President Obama early in his administration, Israel has been equivocal about it until quite recently. On May 30 Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, surprised many by saying: "The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002 but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples."

          More than two weeks passed. Then on June 15 a spokesman for the Arab League rejected Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate. “This is completely unacceptable,” said Secretary-General of the Arab League, Dr Nabil Elaraby, “because the Arab Peace Initiative has a certain philosophy and a certain order.” This delayed response should perhaps be considered as a first move in a longer diplomatic game, especially so in light of the specific mention, not once but twice, of the Arab Peace Initiative in the joint communiqué following the Paris conference.

          What was not mentioned, but ought perhaps to be seriously considered, is the concept of establishing a sovereign Palestine within the framework of a new legal entity – a confederation, either comprising only Israel and Palestine, or even a three-party confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. In a confederation sovereign states link themselves together to co-ordinate common action on critical issues. A new, weak Palestinian state would be instantly vulnerable to IS and Hamas – but not only Palestine, for both are already knocking on Israel’s and Jordan’s doors. A three-partner confederation might be conceived specifically to achieve close military and economic cooperation, thus providing not only high-tech security for all three, but also the basis for the future growth and prosperity of each partner.

          If something along these lines emerges after France’s second conference, planned for the end of 2016, the whole enterprise will have been worthwhile.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 June 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 June 2016:

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Iran's winning ways

          The Iranians, heirs to the ancient civilization of Persia which stretches back into the mists of time, have inherited both its ruthless and its subtle and devious ways of achieving its purposes. Persia was once the superpower of the ancient world, and Iran’s current repressive Islamist rulers seek again the hegemony the nation once enjoyed. Undeterred by apparent reversals of fortune, they are relentless in their pursuit of their objectives – jihad against western values in general, and the US and Israel in particular; jihad against Sunni states and peoples whom they regard as apostates against the true faith of Islam, namely the Shia tradition of which they claim to be the standard-bearers; and jihad against any of their own citizens who challenge or flout the repressive Islamist way of life they have established in their country.

          In their single-minded determination to achieve their aims, the current Iranian regime continuously initiates, facilitates or supports, regardless of the death and destruction caused, a succession of terrorist activities. This ruthless and amoral single-mindedness brings results, at least in the short term. Time and again Iran seems to triumph in the face of adversity, and bounce back from reversals of fortune.

          Just consider its position in world politics in mid-2016. Uniquely, Iran has succeeded in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. Not only is Iran courted and deferred to by the United States and much of the West who are dedicated to removing Syria’s President Bashar Assad from power, but it is an active battlefield ally of Russia fighting to support Assad’s bid to regain power. Moreover, it is benefitting from a highly advantageous trade deal with Russia which guarantees it delivery of the long-range S-300 missile system – the most advanced in the world.

          As far as the US in concerned, Iran’s current “favoured nation” status, unreciprocated though it is, is the result of nifty Iranian footwork in the diplomatic area.

          The evidence is now pretty overwhelming that President Barack Obama came to the presidency in 2009 with a pre-determined strategic plan for the Middle East, based on ideas contained in the final report of the Iraq Study Group, a congressional commission co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton.

          At the time the major jihadist enemy of the West was al-Qaeda. The report advanced the clever-clever notion that if the US made allies of Iran and the Assad regime in Syria – the heartland of Shia Islam – America could step back, and those states could be relied on to combat the Sunni-led threat to the world, al-Qaeda. The Study Group’s conclusions lined up very well with Obama’s declared intention of reducing America’s direct involvement in the Middle East.

          Obama began his presidency with a great weight of guilt on his shoulders. He renounced the concept of America as the world’s champion of democracy and freedom, prepared to fight if necessary to maintain its values. Early on he asserted that any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail; that “problems must be dealt with through partnership”. His new doctrine emphasized diplomacy to promote its aims, and downplayed military might; it aimed at adopting a more humble attitude in state-to-state relations, and playing a more restrained role on the international stage.

          It is certain that none of this escaped Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. He undoubtedly perceived the golden opportunity this new approach provided for Iran to advance its own interests.

          The good times started in June 2013, with the election as President of the candidate blessed by Khamenei – the self-styled “moderate”, Sayyed Hassan Rouhani. Also blessed, without a doubt, was the deliberate change of tactics from the confrontational stance of ex-President Ahmadinejad, during previous attempts by the UN to induce Iran to control its nuclear program. Henceforth all was to be charm and sweet reason – and indeed, immediately after his election, Rouhani immediately agreed to start substantive talks with world leaders about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

          World leaders swallowed the bait. A succession of negotiations followed, but with Iran convinced that the Obama administration had discounted any sort of military confrontation aimed at preventing Iran achieving its goal – a deal allowing it to produce nuclear weapons in the fullness of time. That was precisely the eventual outcome, while in return for simply talking, Iran was rewarded with the progressive lifting of financial sanctions. 

          The authors of the Iraq Study Group report were either ignorant of some of the realities that rendered their conclusions basically flawed, or deliberately chose to ignore them. They set aside the fundamental philosophy underlying the Iranian Islamic Republic – to oppose, and eventually destroy, Western political and cultural values, and to achieve political and religious dominance in the Middle East.

          For the past eight years the Obama administration has ignored Iran’s clearly signalled political priorities, and has failed to respond adequately to its continued terrorist activities and its support for terrorism. Instead, it has engineered a deal which has enormously enhanced Iran’s clout and alienated, or at least disillusioned, its erstwhile allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom have good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. Washington may well have initiated a nuclear arms race in the region, for it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia, for instance, would stand idly by while Iran turned itself into a nuclear power.

          Has Obama’s placatory approach resulted in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’,“ proclaimed Ayatollah Khamenei just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.” 

          For the moment Iran seems to hold a winning hand, but the recent concatenation of circumstances which have favoured it are unlikely to last indefinitely. It faces formidable political and religious foes in the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia, as well as jihadist opponents such as Islamic State (IS). Much of the Western world seems to have woken to the dangers posed to its way of life by IS, but seems unaware that Iran is as implacable an enemy. One can only hope that realization does not dawn too late.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 15 June 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 June 2016:

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Britain's EU referendum - the Israel dimension

          On June 23 Britain mounts only the third nationwide referendum in its history. UK citizens, at home and abroad, will be asked whether they favour the nation remaining in the European Union or leaving it. 

          Can Israel’s interests be affected at all in such an apparently domestic British issue? The Remain campaigners lay heavy stress on the trading advantages that accrue to the UK from membership of the EU, and the financial disadvantages to the economy as a whole, and to individual households, from leaving. Those advocating “Brexit” (the portmanteau term now in common use to describe Britain’s exit from the EU) are concentrating their arguments on the need to regain control of Britain’s borders and thus manage the current influx of migrants from Europe, uncontrollable under EU rules. Also in their sights is the goal of taking back sovereignty from the unelected European Commission which initiates all EU legislation, thus restoring to the UK Parliament democratic accountability for the governance of the nation.

          In the early weeks of the referendum campaign, polls of public opinion showed a small but consistent majority in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. There was, however, also a consistently large body of “don’t knows” – some 20 percent of the electorate – and as the period of “purdah” started (a period of three weeks prior to the election, in which the government is debarred from policy announcements affecting the issue), a sudden reversal in the polls put the Brexiteers in the lead. The best of the campaigning, including a series of TV events, has still to take place, and the effect on the electorate is anyone’s guess.

          What of the Israel dimension?

          The EU’s relations with Israel reached a particularly parlous state on November 12, 2015. The issue? The labelling of goods “from the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967”. The European Commission announcement stated that the EU does not consider the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be part of sovereign Israel. So it advised that all products originating from those areas and being sold in the EU should be labelled to indicate they are not from Israel proper.

          “For products from Palestine that do not originate from settlements,” states the notice, “an indication … could be 'product from the West Bank (Palestinian product)' ‘product from Gaza’ or 'product from Palestine'.

          The EU seemed blissfully unaware of the anomaly it was promulgating. Bending over backwards to ensure that certain goods are labelled as not emanating from the Israel that the EU recognizes, it recommends they are labelled as coming from a state of Palestine that does not exist.

          What is this “Palestine”? In effect the EU has determined it consists of the territory occupied by Jordanian forces on July 20, 1949 – the date of the armistice in the first Arab-Israel war – together with Gaza, where the de facto rulers, Hamas, are designated a terrorist organization by the EU.

          This declaration by the EU provided a huge boost to the burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, dedicated to the delegitimization and eventual destruction of the state of Israel. Though the EU seemed unaware of, or indifferent to, the implications, the UK government recognized them. On 17 February 2016 the UK formally announced moves designed to make procurement boycotts by public authorities illegal. The proposed legislation will apply across the board to central and local government, NGOs and the National Health Service.

          “Any public body found to be in breach of the regulations,” ran the official statement. ”could be subject to severe penalties.”

          The British government’s plan came under heavy fire from some left-wingers and pro-Palestinian activists. A spokesman for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of restricting local democracy and freedom of expression.

          Israel’s supporters characterized the move as “welcome,” with MP Eric Pickles, the head of Conservative Friends of Israel, declaring “the attempt by the irresponsible left to demonize Israel is bad for British business, bad for the local taxpayer, and deeply damaging to community relations.”

          The gap between the EU and the UK on the anti-Israel activities of the BDS movement and its adherents was emphasized in April 2016, when the UK government ceased funding the charity War on Want. Founded in 1951, War on Want's initial mandate was to tackle global poverty and inequality. But following a disastrous period in the 1980s, when the charity was forced into insolvency under the management of anti-Israel campaigner George Galloway, it was hijacked by anti-Israel activists to emerge as a leading backer of the anti-Israel BDS movement. It also became a major sponsor of so-called "Israel Apartheid Week", the annual anti-Israel hate-fest.

          Reacting to the UK decision to cease funding War on Want, NGO Monitor president, Professor Gerald Steinberg, said: “Other institutional donors, in particular the European Union, should follow suit and immediately end their funding for this anti-human rights organization." According to NGO Monitor, between 2012 and 2015 the British government gave War on Want £500,000 (over $700,000), while the EU gave another £211,000 (over $300,000). There have so far been no signs that the EU intends to follow Steinberg’s advice.

          It seems clear that the UK Conservative government under David Cameron is not at one with the EU on anti-semitism or the BDS movement. But the issue is a comparatively minor one when set against the weighty pros and cons of Britain’s membership of the EU. So David Cameron, a true friend of Israel, is the leading advocate of the Remain campaign for reasons far removed from Israel’s interests. Also among the leading figures on the Remain side, however, is Jeremy Corbyn, the hard left leader of Britain’s Labour party which is currently grappling, though not very effectively, with apparently deeply-rooted anti-semitism in its ranks.

          The two leading advocates of Brexit are doughty supporters of Israel – Michael Gove, the Justice Minister, and Boris Johnson, ex-Mayor of London and strong contender for next leader of the Conservative party. A UK freed from the shackles of the EU could, depending on the political colour of its government, prove a stronger ally for Israel than one constrained by the generally hostile attitude of majority EU opinion.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2016:

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016

In my latest book I explore and explain the whys and wherefores of the Middle East’s growing chaos.

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ provides an accessible overview of the discord that is dominating the Middle East. The West’s continuing failure to crush Islamic State, Iran’s increase in status, the apparently endless conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, the interminable Israeli-Palestinian dispute - these, and more, are explored and explained.

Through all its sadness and brutality, the Middle East has become a fashionable topic for news media around the world. While millions know that the region has problems, not many in the West understand why. They know Islamic State means death, but fail to appreciate why this follows from ideas that motivate the organization, or its long-term objectives. They see Syrian refugees flooding into Europe, but are hazy as to who is fighting whom in their homeland, and why. 


"The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016" provides an up-to-date overview of the problems currently affecting the Middle East, and sets them in context. By providing an account of the bewilderingly complicated events of the past two years, but also explaining their background, I try to give readers the tools to understand issues of concern to the whole world. Written in easily understood terms, the book is ideal for readers interested in comprehending the complex problems emanating from the Middle East.

The grim reality in today's Middle East began attracting the world's attention from the beginning of 2014. The growth in size and influence of the bloodthirsty and inhumane Islamic State, and the hordes of terrified refugees fleeing from the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name but two examples, forced themselves on the public’s attention. From this time, major themes dominated the politics of the region, such as the rise in the power and influence of Iran, the failure to defeat Islamic State in Iraq or Syria, the continuing devastation of Syria and the surprising incursion of Russia into the Middle East. These, as well as assessments of particular areas of conflict or special interest such as Turkey and the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon and South Sudan, form the framework of this book.


Foreword                                                                                          ix     
1. Islamic State and Islamism                                                             1
2. Iran and the nuclear deal                                                               47
3. Syria’s civil conflict                                                                         85
4. Israel and Palestine                                                                      107
5. Turkey and the Kurds                                                                   182
6. Egypt’s struggle for stability                                                          201
7. Russia flexes its muscles                                                              215
8. No end of trouble                                                                          228
                               • Saudi Arabia’s new broom                               232
                               • The sorry state of Yemen                                 243
                               • Libya and the anti-Islamist struggle                 250
                               • Lebanon in limbo                                             260
                               • Why Tunisia?                                                   271
                               • Hope for South Sudan                                     275
                               • The non-Arab Middle East                               280
                               • Arab-Israel peace – a new approach               287

‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016’ is published as a paperback at £11.99 ($17.50) and as an ebook at £4.99 ($6.50).

Available from Amazon and all other retail on-line booksellers

About the Author:I have been commenting on the Middle East scene for over thirty years. I am Middle East correspondent for the Eurasia Review and my articles also appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post, in on-line publications, and in this blog, “A Mid-East Journal”. My books include “One Man’s Israel” (2008), “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and “The Search for Détente” (2014). A past chairman of the Society of Authors’ Broadcasting Committee and the Contributors’ Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association, I am a veteran radio and audio dramatist and abridger. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2006 I was awarded the MBE for services to broadcasting and drama.
Visit my blog:  www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com/
and my official website:  www.nevilleteller.co.uk/