Saturday, 25 March 2017

Israel-Palestinian peace: the "regional umbrella" approach


          Suddenly - and  especially in view of the forthcoming visit to Washington of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas - the media is awash with reports, rumours and hints about a fresh approach to tackling the perennial Israel-Palestinian stand-off. Cynics, contemplating the history of the Middle East over the past 70 years, might well conclude that every conceivable method of reconciling the conflicting aspirations of the two parties has already been tried and failed. But changing circumstances can reconfigure political opportunities. An initiative impossible in 2007 may have become perfectly viable by 2017.

          A series of factors combine to provide the basis for the new approach. 

          First, it has become clear that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has painted itself into a political corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, the PA leadership has spent decades glorifying 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 in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian.

          The end-result of its own narrative is that now no Palestinian leader dare enter face-to-face negotiations, let alone sign a peace agreement, with Israel. The political backlash that would follow, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible. For any new peace initiative to become a viable possibility, the PA leadership would have to be provided with cover from other Arab states which extends from entering peace negotiations in the first place, to assurances that any subsequent armed opposition from hardline rejectionists would be crushed.

          Secondly, the time for achieving widespread Arab support for a reconsideration of the Israel-Palestine situation has never been more propitious. The Sunni Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, is united in its opposition to Iran’s naked ambition to dominate the Middle East in both religion and politics. In that, as it is well aware, it is at one with Israel. Arab interests coincide with Israel’s also in combatting extreme jihadists, including Islamic State, and Israel is collaborating with various states – some still do not formally recognise Israel – both militarily and in the fields of security, intelligence and logistics.

          The seeds of a new approach to peace negotiations were laid as far back as September 2014. Speaking to the UN General Assembly, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “A broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” This is precisely what has come about in the past year or two. The emergence of Donald Trump as US President seems to have boosted the prospects.

          This regional approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making is what stood out in Trump’s statement at his joint press conference with Netanyahu on 15 February 2017. The authoritative Middle East journal, Al-Monitor, reports that prior to the Trump-Netanyahu meeting, the US administration held discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about a “regional umbrella” to possible Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

          According to a senior Fatah security official, the PA decided to take Trump at his word about this regional approach and, says Al-Monitor, held “intense deliberations” with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. As a result, together with Egypt, it will suggest to Washington the outline of a new regional approach.

          This new outline will be based on three principles. 

          First, that the basis for future peace negotiations is the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.

          Second, that the US administration should shortly hold a summit in Washington with the Arab leadership, chaired by Trump, focused on preparing a regional peace conference with the participation of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, leading to Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

          Third. that Palestinian statehood should be pursued through an attempt to reach a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation agreement backed by the Arab League.  

        According to the Fatah official, such a confederation agreement will be difficult to achieve given the historical suspicion between the Jordanians and the Palestinians, but “at this point, this is the best route to statehood. Historically and demographically we are tied to Jordan and to the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River. It will need the backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.”

          Missing entirely from this scenario is the vital matter of Israel’s security. From the Israeli perspective, a Palestinian state created on pre-Six Day War boundaries, however much modified by land swaps, simply will not do. Almost certainly Hamas, which is intent on Israel’s destruction, would gain power sooner or later, either through elections, or by way of a violent coup as it did in Gaza, and the new state would become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. This in itself 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.

          By failing to take into account both Israel’s security needs and those of a new sovereign Palestine, the Palestine-Jordan confederation is an inadequate concept. A much more robust approach is required. One such might be an initiative, backed by the US, the Arab League and Israel, aimed at bringing two new legal entities into existence simultaneously – a sovereign state of Palestine and a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The area designated “Palestine” back in 1923, at the time the League of Nations mandated Great Britain to administer it, would, in a sense, be legally reconstituted.

          What is a confederation? It is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states, as opposed to a federation, in which the stress is on the supremacy of the central government. 

          A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development, to say nothing of administering Jerusalem’s holy sites. 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, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defence forces of the confederation. 

          A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where the answer to a peaceful and thriving Middle East might lie. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 March 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 31 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 April 2017:

       [Next posting:  1 April 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Assad in the ascendant?

          Back in the glory days of the so-called “Arab Spring”, when Middle Eastern dictators were falling like ninepins, it seemed that the overthrow of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya and Saleh of Yemen would inevitably be followed by the downfall of President Bashar Assad of Syria.

          But, it now seems, providence had reserved a different fate for Assad. A determination to cling to power, however ruthless or inhumane the methods, allied to a favorable concatenation of political circumstances, has enabled Assad to emerge from a long, multi-faceted combat battered, depleted territorially and logistically, but still in power.

          In the amoral world of international relations, power commands respect. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that green shoots of acceptance are beginning to sprout, even among states that were once totally opposed to Assad.

          From the beginning Assad found himself with powerful allies to help counter his formidable opponents. Syria has long been a vital component of Iran’s so-called “Shia crescent”(so dubbed by Jordan’s King Abdullah) – that area of Shia and Shia-allied states and peoples that form the foundation of Iran’s policy for achieving religious, and thus political, hegemony in the Middle East. The crescent embraces Lebanon and so, in supporting Assad against the Syrian democratic forces that were attempting to overthrow him, Iran was able to augment its own Revolutionary Guards with Hezbollah fighters.

          Dictators take risks, often winning a trick by relying on the spinelessness of their opponents. Assad knew full well that US President Obama had threatened immediate counter measures if chemical weapons were used in the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, sensing indecision in his opponent, in August 2013 Assad authorised the use of the potent nerve agent, sarin, in an attack on the town of Ghouta, quite regardless of collateral civilian casualties. Sarin is officially designated a weapon of mass destruction.

          In the event Obama turned somersaults to avoid the decisive response he had promised. When Russia’s President Putin claimed to have extracted an undertaking from Assad to destroy all the chemical weapons he had originally claimed not to possess, Obama seized on the chance of avoiding any form of punitive action. The result was enormously to strengthen Putin’s position in the Middle East, while the deal was not worth the paper it was written on – if indeed it was ever written down. The subsequent record abounds with convincing evidence of the continued use by Assad of chemical weaponry of various kinds, including VX, sulfur mustard and chlorine.

          Meanwhile Assad had assured himself of a powerful new ally in his effort to cling to power in Syria. For his part Putin had two main objectives in view when he sent his forces into Syria on September 30, 2015 – to establish Russia as a potent political and military force in the region, and to secure his hold on the Russian naval base at Tartus and the refurbished air base and intelligence-gathering centre at Latakia. He achieved both, as he launched massive air and missile attacks mainly against Assad’s domestic enemies, namely the rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

          As a result, by the end of 2016 Assad had retaken the city of Aleppo after a particularly brutal conflict, and in addition currently controls the capital, Damascus, parts of southern Syria including the tiny enclave of Deir Az Zor in the south-east, much of the area near the Syrian-Lebanese border, and the north-western coastal region.

          Nothing succeeds like success, and some of the states in the Middle East are reported to be making tentative moves towards a rapprochement with Assad.

          Jordan’s position towards the Syrian civil war has never been entirely clear. While supporting moderate rebel groups from the FSA, the Jordanians have not openly called for Assad to step down, and recent reports seem to indicate that Jordan is moving closer to him and his supporters. It was at Russia’s invitation that Jordan attended the latest round of talks between the Syrian regime and rebels in Astana. It was also present during the Geneva talks on 23 February 2017. In addition Jordan’s King Abdullah recently met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a staunch supporter of Assad, to discuss the Syrian crisis.

          Jordan is hosting the Arab League annual meeting scheduled for 29 March. Syria was suspended from the League in 2011 over Assad’s failure to end the bloodshed caused by brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy protests, and the League imposed economic and political sanctions on him. So, as was the case in previous summits, Assad was not invited to the forthcoming meeting.

          And yet recently reports have begun to emerge of a concerted attempt by Russia, Egypt and Jordan to get Assad readmitted to the League. This move was apparently spearheaded on 25 February by Egypt’s parliamentary Committee for Arab affairs, which issued a statement describing Syria’s continued suspension as 'totally unacceptable’.

          A response from the Syrian side was not long in coming. Botros Morjana, head of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee at Syria’s People’s Assembly, expressed the committee’s appreciation of the call for the return of Syria to the Arab League.

          There is as yet no indication that Assad will indeed be attending the forthcoming meeting. Rumours however abound: there's been a flurry of official and diplomatic activity; military officers and intelligence agents from Russia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria are flying back and forth between Cairo, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus and the Russian command in Syria, all engaged in detailed planning for the event; Assad will arrive in Amman armed with a Russian safe-conduct guarantee, aboard a Russian military aircraft which would fly him there and back from Russia’s Syrian air base at Hmeimim. And so forth.

          If Putin could indeed persuade Saudi King Salman to accept Assad’s return to the Arab summit, the Russian president’s reputation in the Arab world would soar. An historic handshake and greetings between Assad and Salman would signify the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia, which backed the Syrian rebels, and the Assad regime. But for Assad, whom few expected to emerge alive from the nearly seven years of warfare, it would mark collective Arab recognition of his personal triumph against all the odds. It may not happen this time – but it’s on the cards.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 March 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 March 2017:
           [Next posting: Saturday 26 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Commonwealth spreads its wings

        The Commonwealth is a facet of contemporary life that most people know little about.  The Commonwealth games, interposed every four years between the Olympics, might arouse a flicker of interest across the globe, but as for the background or purposes of the organization there is little general knowledge or concern. And yet the Commonwealth has the potential to exert an enormous power for good on global politics. 

        The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 52 independent sovereign states with a combined population of some 2.4 billion people, almost a third of the world’s inhabitants. Most, but not all, of the member states were once part of the now defunct British Empire, but that is no longer a pre-requisite. What unites this diverse group of nations, beyond the ties of history, language and institutions, are strong trade links and the association’s 16 core values set out in the Commonwealth Charter.

“Commonwealth values” commit the organization to promoting equality in terms of race and gender,world peace. democracy, individual liberty, environmental sustainability, free trade and the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease. In short, the Commonwealth stands for all that is good in this wicked world. What it has so far failed to demonstrate is the drive, or even the willingness, to provide positive leadership on the world stage in favour of the core values it professes. Change may be in the offing.

        On 23 February 2017 the UK’s Daily Telegraph carried an exclusive, and rather startling, news report. The Royal Commonwealth Society, it announced, was planning to open a branch in the United States, with a view to eventually bringing America into the fold as an "associate member". The project was said to build on President Donald Trump's fondness for Britain and the royal family, and to be backed by the Queen. Michael Lake, the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, said that the plans had been hastened by the "opportunity of a new president” and would further Britain's ties with America.

        In December, reported the Daily Telegraph, Lake wrote a letter addressed to Donald Trump, which was handed over to the president by Nigel Farage, the former head of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), who continues to have close ties with the US administration. Lake wrote that opening a Commonwealth branch in America would help the UK and the US "find imaginative ways" in which they could work together. The response from the White House was described as "very positive".

        To put this initiative in perspective, the Royal Commonwealth Society is a voluntary organization distinct from, but highly supportive of, the Commonwealth itself. Founded as far back as 1868 as The Colonial Society, it has morphed through a variety of titles, emerging in 1958 under its current designation. Committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens across the world, the RCS boasts the Queen as its patron, and numbers among its vice presidents the UK Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, the Commonwealth secretary-general, and all the Commonwealth High Commissioners in London.

        The American initiative is part of an effort by Michael Lake to raise the profile and relevance of the modern Commonwealth in general, and its role within UK foreign policy in particular. The Commonwealth, he said, “has been very introspective, it needs to be more extrovert." In pursuit of that objective, “we have adopted a policy of getting branches of the Commonwealth in non-commonwealth countries." The idea, he said, was to promote mutually advantageous links with reliable friends around the world on everything from business to defence. Lake believes that the Commonwealth, a flexible arrangement held together by common values and culture, operates less formally than governments.

        A new branch of the RCS has already opened in Helsinki, Finland’s capital, acting as a Baltic-Scandinavian hub, to help facilitate business ties with Commonwealth countries. Last year the RCS opened a chapter in Dublin, as part of a campaign to help persuade the Irish Republic to rejoin the alliance of 52 member states. As regards the Middle East there seems no good reason why the RCS should not turn its attention to Jordan or Israel – or indeed a sovereign Palestine, if such a state ever emerges – as a base for expansion of Commonwealth influence, and the creation of new “associate members”. All three, after all, would have strong historic connections with Britain in its colonial days. Israel, indeed, already has a flourishing “Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association” (IBCA), founded as far back as 1953.

        Two factors have provided the Royal Commonwealth Society with a window of opportunity through which to expand its operations. One, of course, was the emergence on the political stage of Donald Trump. The other was Brexit – the decision of the British people to leave the European Union (EU). Brexit will free the UK from many of the trade constraints imposed by membership of the EU, and allow it to pursue trading opportunities across the globe.

        This aspect of Brexit is currently under close scrutiny in the UK parliament by one of the Select Committees of the House of Commons – the International Trade Committee. It is conducting a detailed inquiry into post-Brexit UK trade options, recently taking evidence about “the potential impact of alternative trading arrangements after the UK leaves the EU and also the future of trade with the Commonwealth.”

        One of the sub-committees is examining the opportunities for developing UK trading relationships with the Commonwealth once a Brexit deal has been concluded, including the scope for increasing UK exports, the future of trade with developing Commonwealth countries, and the potential for trade agreements and exports with major economies such as India, Canada and Australia.

        The trading arrangements of individual Commonwealth members with the UK have long been governed through EU policies. Brexit potentially means substantial new trade and investment opportunities for the Commonwealth, as well as augmented trade and investment flows between members. “Associate membership” will certainly count for something in this brave new world, and not beyond the bounds of possibility is the concept of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine, allied within a new three-state confederation, each an associate member of the Commonwealth.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 March 2017, as
"The Commonwealth - a place for Israel?":

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 March 2017:

          [Next posting - Saturday 18 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Iran emboldened

        Emboldened by the misconceived policies of ex-US President Obama, Iran has become positively confrontational under President Donald Trump. Iran and the US always backed different sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen, but now they stand ideologically opposed on most issues involving the region.

        Early in February Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but the new US ambassador to the United Nations called the test "unacceptable". Washington put the Islamic Republic “on notice” and imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country.

        No sooner were the new sanctions announced than Tehran, defiant, held a full-scale military exercise. Three types of missiles, radar systems and cyber warfare technology were tested. The aim of the exercise, according to the website of Iran’s élite Revolutionary Guards, was to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions.”

        Then, although not widely reported at the time, on the evening of Sunday 5 February 2017 a surface-to-surface missile was fired by Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthis into Saudi Arabia itself. It struck a military base at al-Mazahimiyah, about 40 kilometres west of Riyadh. The missile was a variant of a Russian Scud known as the “Borkan”. Although the attack was never confirmed or denied by the Saudi authorities or the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, confirmation came from several Saudi citizens via postings on Twitter. Some reports suggested that subsequently a state of emergency had been declared in the city.

        Yemen’s “alternative” Houthi government, backed as it is by Iran, was quick to announce its victory. Yemen’s SABA news agency quoted a Houthi spokesman describing the attack as a “successful test-firing of a precision long-distance ballistic missile… the capital of [expletive] Saudi Arabia is now in the range of our missiles and, God willing, what is coming will be greater.”

        This is not the first such attack – on 31 January a Borkan-1 missile reportedly killed 80 coalition soldiers on a Saudi-UAE military base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. But it is the first Iranian-inspired military strike into Saudi Arabia’s heartland and, if the usually reliable Debkafile website is to be believed, it is the first test of a newly-enhanced Iranian Scud – a dress rehearsal for a real military onslaught currently in the planning stage.

        Early in February Debkafile reported that Iranian engineers were working round the clock on a project dubbed “Riyadh First.” The objective was to add 100 kilometres to the range of Iran’s Scud surface missiles, to enable them to explode in the centre of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The report claimed that the project, sited at the Al Ghadi base in Big Ganesh, 48 kilometers west of Tehran, was ordered by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Revolutionary Guard air force commander, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the missile testing site, was reported to have ordered all other work halted in order to concentrate on the fast-track “Riyadh First” Scud development project.

       This project, it was claimed, was what lay behind the threat made by Hajizadeh on 11 February: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”

       All the indications are that Iran, boosted by its nuclear deal struck with the US and other world powers, by a massive financial donation from the US, the lifting of sanctions and the eagerness of the western world to forge commercial links, has been emboldened to pursue its ambition of achieving political and religious hegemony in the Middle East. Just as Iran’s leaders have used Hezbollah as a proxy fighting force in Syria, so, it appears, they are preparing to use the Houthis as their instrument in launching direct military action against Saudi Arabia.

        Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the director of Saudi Arabia's general intelligence agency, Khalid Bin Ali al-Humaidan, paid unannounced and unreported visits to both Ramallah and Jerusalem on 21 and 22 February.

        One matter of concern to the Saudi leadership must be the reports that Iran is fostering closer ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas fell out with Shia Iran, once one of the group's main backers, after Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Syrian rebels. Ties were renewed in February 2016, when Hamas, after a visit to Iran, announced a "new page of cooperation". At the end of January 2017 senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared, during a trip to Algeria, that "efforts and contacts are under way to boost relations with Iran.”

        As for the PA, reports are abroad of a secret meeting in Brussels on 15 February between Palestinian and Iranian officials as part of a new diplomatic initiative. Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee, was said to be in charge of the Palestinian side.

       During his visit to Jerusalem, al-Humaidan may have explored security issues related to the idea of a US-Israeli-Arab regional conference endorsed by Trump and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met in Washington on February 15. The Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed in 2002 by Saudi’s then Crown Prince Abdullah, and subsequently confirmed more than once by the Arab League, is the best basis for any Arab-backed effort at resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Given the active security, intelligence and military cooperation that has developed between Israel and a number of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, active Arab involvement in a new peace initiative is not impossible.

        Saudi Arabia, in line with both the US and Israel, is desperately anxious to discourage any further boost to Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East, and actively seeks to downgrade it. Iran, of course, is not part of the Arab world – a further cause of resentment at its ambitions for regional hegemony, both political and religious. In cocking a snook at the Trump administration, the West generally and much of Sunni Islam, Iran is at last in danger of over-reaching itself.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 March 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 March 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 March 2017:

                 [Next posting: 11 March 2017 at 9.30 pm GMT]