Saturday, 25 February 2017

Squaring the two-state circle

        The year 2017 will witness a double anniversary in the convoluted history of the Middle East, one of 50 years, the other a centenary. June 6 is the date in 1967 which marked the outbreak of the Six Day War; “November 2nd, 1917” is the date that appears below the words “Foreign Office” on the single sheet of paper that contains the Balfour Declaration. Both continue to influence every aspect of Arab-Israeli relations and the interminable Israel-Palestine dispute.

        How is that situation ever to be resolved?

        Hard-liners on each side see a solution only in the utter defeat of the other. Hard-line Israeli opinion favours annexing the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper; the Palestinian hard-line objective is to eliminate Israel altogether, converting the whole of what was once Mandate Palestine into a new sovereign state of Palestine.

        The consensus of world opinion rejects both extremes, overwhelmingly supporting what has become known as the two-state solution. Indeed a joint Palestinian-Israeli poll revealed on 16 February 2017 that a majority of Israelis and just under half of Palestinians are also in favour.

        The idea of partition traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by Great Britain supporting the concept of establishing a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine. Subsequently Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.

        The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”

        What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time. In particular, the combined Arab attack which followed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948 ended with armistice agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Jordan. These agreements recognized that where the three armies were positioned at the moment the fighting ceased would be Israel’s temporary boundaries, but not its permanent state borders. These were to be established in final status negotiations.

        In the event the boundaries lasted for twenty years. When combined Arab forces massed against Israel in 1967 for a three-pronged attack, the resultant Six-Day War saw Israeli forces overrunning vast tracts of land. In subsequent peace treaties the Sinai was returned to Egypt, and Jordan was granted oversight of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, but Israel remained the occupying power in the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Attempts over the years to reach a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians proved fruitless. The Gaza strip was handed back to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2005, and shortly afterwards was seized by the extreme jihadist group, Hamas.

        "Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table," declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa in June 2016, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause.” Hamas's solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based "on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance until the restoration of Palestinian rights."

        The world supports the two-state concept, but the question rarely asked is 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.

        Other problems obstruct the two-state route. PA president Mahmoud Abbas leads a Fatah party whose constitution states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit and the homeland of the Palestinian people.

        Why then, one might ask, has Abbas spent the past twelve years nominally supporting the two-state solution? Because pressing for recognition of a Palestine within the pre-Six-Day War boundaries is a tactic inherited from Abbas’s predecessor, Yassir Arafat. It represents the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine.

        Nevertheless, given that the PA provides lip-service to the two-state solution, a Palestinian state on pre-Six Day War boundaries will not do. Hamas would seize power, just as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This prospect may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them very much indeed is the prospect of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

        Just as threatening would be Islamic State which would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defence, like a cat on a mouse.

        An even more fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian. The end-result is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel. The consequent backlash, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.

        How is the circle to be squared?

        US President Donald Trump seems intent on fostering renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but under what has been called a "regional umbrella" - that is, the joint auspices of moderate Middle East states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.  The 50 Arab leaders that Trump addressed in Riyadh on 20 May 2017 had already indicated a willingness to engage with Israel, especially in the light of their shared interest in reducing the power and influence of Iran in the region.

        So, under the auspices of the US and at the instigation of the Arab League, the PA might be invited to an Arab-Israeli peace conference with the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine -  but only within the context of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine.  Two new legal entities would be established simultaneously - a Palestinian state roughly within the pre-Six Day War boundaries but suitably adapted by way of land swaps, and a Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation (JIP), dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. 

        Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, Hamas or Fatah, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the confederation. 

     A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security and future growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where an answer might lie.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 2 March 2017:

         [Next posting: 5 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Trump's Middle East policy takes shape

        Never mind the traditional first hundred days. Within US President Trump’s first twenty days in office the broad outlines of his policy for the Middle East had emerged. It clearly has two over-riding objectives – to defeat Islamic State (IS) and to cut Iran down to size. In the Trump world view, both IS and Iran represent clear and present dangers to the stability, values and way of life of the civilized world in general, and the US in particular.

        Both on the campaign trail, and once he was in office, Trump has reiterated his intention to eliminate “radical Islamic terrorism”.  Back in 2015, at the height of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee migration into Europe, the London Daily Express reported an IS operative claiming that more than 4,000 covert IS gunmen had been smuggled into western nations – hidden amongst innocent travellers, refugees and migrants. The report continued: “The operative said the undercover infiltration was the beginning of a larger plot to carry out revenge attacks in the West in retaliation for the US-led coalition airstrikes.”

        Objectionable as Trump's proposed travel ban may be, as well as inept in its execution, the disruption and mayhem caused by IS in Syria and across large areas of Iraq, as well as its pernicious activities in Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, must be presumed to be the rationale for his controversial and disputed travel restrictions on the citizens of those countries as well as of Iran.
        As regards Sudan, IS militants have been active ever since they infiltrated the country in 2015. A senior IS figure, accused of helping to plan the terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis in which 21 people were killed, was extradited to Tunisia in December 2016.

        Libya, war-torn since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, was soon penetrated by IS jihadists intent on toppling the UN-backed Government of National Accord. Khalifa Haftar, the government’s military commander, is currently seeking Russian support in an effort to overcome them.

        In Somalia the extremist terrorist group al-Shabab was once strongly aligned with al-Qaeda. In 2015 a large segment defected, pledged their allegiance to IS, and turned on their erstwhile comrades. Al-Shabab is intent on disrupting the country, overthrowing the administration and establishing Sharia law – one group favouring the al-Qaeda version; the other pledged to IS and the pretensions of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be the caliph of all Muslims worldwide.. With al-Shabab controlling large areas of the country, it was only by decamping to a heavily-guarded former air force base in the capital, Mogadishu, that legislators felt safe enough to elect their new president, Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo, on 8 February 2017.

        Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2015 between two factions claiming to constitute the Yemeni government, quickly morphed into a hydra-headed monster. Not only did the Shi’ite Houthi forces clash with the Sunni forces loyal to the legal government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, but IS militants moved in to oppose the Islamist terror group calling itself AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), already active in the conflict. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the Iranian-backed Houthi seizing control of the country, then joined the fray in support of Hadi, and Iran responded by intensifying its support for the Houthi rebels.

        “The support that the Houthis enjoy from their northern neighbour Iran,” wrote Sir Graeme Lamb, former head of UK Special Forces, in September 2016, “is very real, be it political, propaganda, psychological, hands-on training, specialist advisors, weaponry, sanctuary or financial support. Without it, the rebel cause would probably slump.”

        As for Iran, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the regime in general and the nuclear deal struck under the leadership of his predecessor, Barack Obama, in particular. On the campaign trail Trump variously pledged to "dismantle the disastrous deal" and to "force the Iranians back to the bargaining table to make a much better deal." 
After taking office he described it as “the worst deal I’ve ever seen negotiated.” In a lengthy TV interview, he described Iran as “the number one terrorist state”, maintaining that the nuclear deal had weakened America and emboldened Iran’s leaders.

        When Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels began planting mines in the strategic waterway at the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, Trump personally warned the Islamic Republic that it was “playing with fire.” As a counter measure he not only despatched the destroyer USS Cole to the area, but announced a fresh round of anti-Iran sanctions, targeting 13 individuals and 12 organizations.

        The tit-for-tat continues. Iran’s test-firing of ballistic missiles on 1 February provoked US national security adviser Michael Flynn to announce that he was putting Iran “on notice”. The result? A deliberate snub by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a second round of missile firings on 8 February. Trump believes his predecessor, ex-President Obama, obsessed by his desire to conclude the nuclear deal, gave away far too much both diplomatically and in hard cash (“we gave them $1.7 billion in cash, which is unheard of, and we put the money up and we have really nothing to show for it”). In due course Trump may seek to renegotiate the terms of the nuclear deal, though the obstacles to doing so are formidable given that five other world powers were signatories in addition to the US – the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany.

        Set against Trump’s twin objectives of defeating IS and reducing the power and potential nuclear capability of Iran, other aspects of US-Middle East policy take second place. Washington’s reaction to Israel’s renewed settlement building program was restrained, and Trump’s declared intention of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems to have been put on the back burner. 
He and Benjamin Netanyahu hit it off on a personal level during the Israeli prime minister’s visit on 15 February, but references to a possible resumption of peace negotiations were indeterminate.

        To achieve his major 
objectives in the Middle East Trump will need the cooperation, overt or covert, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The price to the US will be to endorse an even stronger Russian presence, both physically and diplomatically, in the region. Believing Russia to be less threatening than radical Islamism, it is a price Trump may well be prepared to pay.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 18 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 18 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 20 February 2017:

           [Next posting:  26 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation

        The Islamist world is fierce, bloody and fratricidal. Many of the extremist groupings are in bitter conflict with one another, not always along the traditional Sunni-Shia divide. Sometimes intra-Islamist conflicts are essentially political in nature. One long-running political feud is the continuing struggle between Hamas and Fatah.

        The Hamas-Fatah conflict does not concern itself with religious doctrine, nor even with basic political objectives. Both organisations are Sunni Muslim; both are pledged to restore to Islamic rule the whole of Mandate Palestine, including the area currently occupied by the state of Israel. Their fundamental disagreement is over the strategy for achieving their common purpose, and their struggle is a struggle for power within the Palestinian body politic.

        Hamas sprang from the loins of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had gained a strong foothold in the Gaza strip following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Hamas organization came into existence in 1987, soon after the start of the first intifada masterminded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under its Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat. From its earliest days Hamas saw itself as a rival to Fatah. Hamas opposed the PLO entering peace talks with Israel, utterly rejected the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and was appalled by the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel. On 5 September 1993, shortly after the Oslo terms were announced, Hamas issued its Leaflet 102 condemning both the agreement and the PLO leadership:

        “We will therefore insist on ruining this agreement, and continue the resistance struggle and our jihad against the occupation power… The leadership of Arafat carries the responsibility for destroying Palestinian society and for sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

        Hamas was unimpressed by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed on 5 June 1967 – that is, on the day before the Six-Day War – as only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. This strategy was, in fact, spelled out by Arafat in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm's Grand Hotel on January 30, 1996: "We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem," he said, adding that the PLO plans "to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.”

        Hamas would have no truck with the two-state solution because it would consolidate Israel’s position on what they regard as Palestinian soil. Equally they have rejected all the efforts by PA president Mahmoud Abbas to gain international recognition for a state of Palestine comprising the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Any recognition of the pre-Six Day War boundaries would work two ways – it might delineate a sovereign Palestine, but it would also legitimize Israel’s place within what had been Mandate Palestine.

        This fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective lies at the heart of the perpetual Hamas-Fatah conflict. There are others. Both are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian population, and Hamas makes no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognise him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells aimed at launching attacks on Israel from the West Bank. In this connection it vehemently opposes the security coordination between the PA and Israel in the West Bank – Israel’s guarantee of continued PA control – which Abbas once described as “sacred”.

        Which brings us to the long-sought chimera of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. “Chimera” is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “a grotesque product of the imagination”, which seems an apt description. Wikipedia lists no less than 12 attempts since 2005 to reconcile the two warring factions, all ultimately unsuccessful.

       Perhaps the most hopeful was the “government of national unity” formed by agreement between Fatah and Hamas in 2014, a diplomatic coup that brought the peace negotiations then in progress between Israel and the PA to a shuddering halt. Abbas announced the “historic reconciliation” a month before the talks were due to end, and appeared to imply that the inclusion of Hamas in a government of national unity would make no difference to the aim of achieving a sovereign state based on the two-state solution.

        “There is no incompatibility,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “between reconciliation and the talks…The government reports to me and follows my policies. I recognize Israel and so will the government. I renounce violence and terrorism, and I recognize international legitimacy, and so will the government.”

        Hamas would have had to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements. It seemed inconceivable that it would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region.

        The arrangement lasted just twelve months. Nationwide Palestinian elections, promised as part of the deal, never took place.

        The merry-go-round continues to revolve. Following recent meetings between Hamas and Fatah officials in Switzerland, Beirut and Moscow, a further attempt at reconciliation is planned to take place soon in the Gulf state of Qatar. The chances of success seem remoter than ever. A few weeks ago Israel’s Security Agency announced it had arrested a large network of Hamas operatives in Ramallah that had been working to undermine and overthrow the PA administration. In a tit-for-tat exercise, a Hamas-administered court in the Gaza Strip on 25 January 2017 sentenced eight Fatah members to various prison terms for “undermining revolutionary unity.”

        Meanwhile the recent announcement by the PA that long-delayed municipal elections would take place on 13 May 2017 was immediately denounced by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum as “unacceptable.” It “strengthens division, serves Fatah politics, comes at the expense of the Palestinian people and the unity of its institutions, and confirms that the government is working in favour of Fatah.”

        Not the most auspicious of omens for an imminent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 12 February 2017:
Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 14 February 2017:

         [Next posting: 19 February 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Saturday, 4 February 2017

The state of Lebanon


        Uniquely among the 50 Muslim-majority nations of the world, Lebanon has a Christian president. The inauguration of Michel Aoun on 1 November 2016 ended a 29-month power vacuum and a political stalemate that had frozen the country's constitutional processes.

        “Not before time” would be a natural reaction, considering the length of the presidential inter-regnum. The truth, however, is that the absence of a largely figurehead president over that period, while politically inconvenient and somewhat of an embarrassment, made little difference to Lebanon as it ambled along under the guidance of prime minister Tammam Salam.

        Along the way, Lebanon’s relations with Saudi Arabia plummeted as Hezbollah, an integral part of Lebanon’s body politic, plunged into the Syrian conflict together with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in support of President Bashar Assad. Aoun took early steps to repair fences by visiting Saudi Arabia in January 2017. He could do little domestically to mitigate the result of an influx of more than a million refugees fleeing the horrors of the civil war that raged in Syria. Lebanon’s population of less than 4 million in 2000 had, by the end of 2016, swollen to more than 6 million, most of the addition being Sunni Muslim refugees.

        In theory Lebanon should be a template for a future peaceful Middle East. It is the only Middle East country which, by its very constitution, shares power between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims and Christians. Theory, however, has had to bow to practical reality. In fact, Lebanon has been highly unstable for much of its existence, and its unique constitution has tended to exacerbate, rather than eliminate, sectarian conflict.

        Modern Lebanon was established in 1944 on the basis of an agreed "National Pact", with the top three positions in the state allocated so that the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim.

        Theoretically no system could seem more just, more designed to satisfy all parties in a multi-sectarian society. In practical terms, it has proved a constant irritant, and efforts to alter or abolish it have been at the centre of Lebanese politics for decades.

        The Taif agreement which ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989 incorporated a deal with the Christian community designed to buy their acceptance of their defeat in the conflict. Based on the fiction that Christians made up half the population of Lebanon, Taif reserved half the seats in parliament for them. Everyone knew that the parliamentary allocation was unfair. A recent analysis of voter registration lists by The Economist revealed that only 37% of Lebanese voters are Christian; Shias are 29 percent; Sunnis, 28 percent. Yet the Christians get 64 of parliament’s 128 seats, whereas the Sunnis and Shias get only 27 each, the rest going to the Druze and Alawites. Meanwhile, not only the Syrian refugees, but also the half-million Palestinians, most of them Sunnis, who have arrived in Lebanon since 1948, have never been granted citizenship and are debarred from voting.

        This mismatch between demography and political power partly explains the presence of Hezbollah in the Lebanese government.

        Hezbollah, an extremist Shia Islamist group, emerged in the early 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored movement aimed at resisting the presence of Western and Israeli forces. Responsible for a string of notorious terrorist actions, such as the suicide car bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983, and the blowing up of the United States Marine barracks six months later, Hezbollah was born in blood, fire and explosion.

        It can scarcely be said to have become respectable, but Hezbollah achieved a certain acceptability in Lebanese society following Israel's withdrawal in May 2000 from the buffer zone it had established along the border. In the election that followed Hezbollah, in alliance with Amal, took all 23 South Lebanon seats out of a total 128 parliamentary seats. Since then Hezbollah has participated in Lebanon's parliamentary process and been able to claim a proportion of cabinet posts in each government. As a result it has achieved substantial power within Lebanon’s body politic – far too much, according to the March 14 Alliance, an organization dedicated to overthrowing this “state within a state”. Now, although the nwq prime minister, Saeed Hariri, is a long-time opponent of Hezbollah, it has secured two ministerial posts.

        Liberating Lebanon from the influence of Hezbollah and Syria was the aim of Saeed’s father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in February 2005. When then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, sent a fact-finding mission to Beirut to discover who was responsible, he was certainly unaware that he was giving birth to what might be termed a new judicial industry – the Lebanon Inquiry process. Now in its twelfth year it is being conducted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which, if its elaborate website is anything to go by, is comparable to some thriving commercial enterprise.

        The STL court, consisting of 11 judges, sits in The Hague. So far no less than 236 witness have provided testimony, 113 of them in person. Hearings are broadcast through the STL website. The tribunal runs its own public affairs office, which arranges briefings and interviews for journalists, and a media centre whose facilities include Wi-Fi internet access, television screens to follow the hearings, and recording facilities in Arabic, English and French.

        Ever since Hariri’s assassination, Hezbollah and the Syrian régime have sought to disrupt the UN investigation. As a result the five identified defendants have not been apprehended, and the trial of Ayyash et al. is being held in absentia. When it began on 16 January 2014, after years of pre-trial hearings, the prosecution carefully steered clear of accusations against Syria. Latterly it has become clear that the prosecution believes President Bashar Assad wanted Rafik Hariri killed, and used Hezbollah and his own security apparatus to achieve his objective. Hearings are scheduled to continue well into 2017, and possibly beyond, but Assad and Hezbollah face an increasingly probable verdict of having planned and executed the murder of Rafik Hariri. 

        On 17 January Michel Aoun visited the Special Tribunal for Lebanon for a briefing by the two leading judges. Judge Ivana Hrdličková is reported as telling Lebanon’s new president: “I am determined to promote the values of efficiency, transparency and accountability”. She said nothing about when the interminable judicial process might reach a conclusion. But when it does, will Lebanon be prepared for the political consequences?

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 6 February 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 February 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 February 2017:

            [Next posting: Saturday 11 February 2017 at 7.30 pm GMT]