Friday, 30 June 2017

Moves on the Arab-Israeli chessboard


        Broad goals such as “America First” and “Make America Great Again” set the tone of President Donald Trump’s administration, but viable domestic policy objectives are hard to discern. The Muslim travel ban, the Mexican wall and the healthcare reforms were challenged from the first, and as yet are not being fully implemented. Whether withdrawing from the Paris climate change treaty yields the US positive results only time will tell.

        On the foreign policy front, however, Trump does seem to have one firm objective – to confront Islamist extremism in the Middle East, and not wholly for its own sake, but as one vital element in a determined effort to broker an Arab-Israeli understanding leading to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

        A sequence of events over April, May and June 2017 point to the initiation of a clear-cut policy on this issue. Its implementation might be dated from 7 April 2017. That was the day the US launched a missile attack on Syria. Trump had ordered the US military to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at the al-Shayran air base from where Syrian government warplanes had taken off to drop chemical weapons on rebel forces in Idlib province, regardless of the collateral damage to the civilian population. The nerve gas had killed at least 86 people, including 33 children.

        President Trump’s decision was so obvious a reversal of the line taken in similar circumstances by his predecessor, ex-President Obama, that it sent diplomatic shock waves around the world. A rapid, and far from unfavourable, reassessment of Donald Trump permeated the media, and the prestige of the US soared. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah were forced into a quick rethink on future tactics, but most important of all, a clear message went out to the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East, long disenchanted with ex-President Obama, that a new kid had arrived on the block.

        That message was rammed home when Trump, on his first foreign foray as president, landed in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on 20 May for a meeting with some 50 leaders of the Arab world. On the subject of Iran and Islamist extremism, he did not mince his words. His direct denunciation of Iran was welcomed by his Saudi hosts and his audience, all of whom believed that Obama, for his own reasons, had empowered their regional enemy throughout his presidency.

        “For decades,” said Trump, “Iran has fuelled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”

        He was equally blunt about Islamist extremism. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive them out! Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy lands. And drive them out of this Earth.”

        Did he already know of the action to be taken only 16 days later by an influential band of the leaders he was addressing? Suddenly, on 5 June, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cut all ties with Qatar, accusing the country of undermining the security of its neighbours by supporting the region’s arch-enemy, Iran, and financing terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. They halted all land, air and sea traffic with Qatar, ejected its diplomats and ordered Qatari citizens to leave within 14 days. The decisiveness and the unexpectedness bear all the hallmarks of Saudi’s then deputy crown prince, since elevated as heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

        The next day Jordan joined the move, announcing that it was downgrading its diplomatic relations with Qatar and revoking the license of the Doha-based television channel, Al Jazeera.

        Whether or not Trump had prior knowledge of the Arab states’ intentions, he was very quick to claim the credit for initiating it. “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off,” he wrote.

        Some Pentagon officials were said to have been taken aback by Trump’s tweet, particularly given the American military’s close ties to Qatar. Al Udeid Air Base, outside the Qatari capital, Doha, is home to more than 11,000 American and coalition service members. Qatar also houses the forward headquarters of the US Central Command and an American intelligence hub in the Middle East. All the same officials and commentators agreed that there was little immediate threat to the American military facilities in Qatar, not least because Qatar views America’s military presence as an insurance policy against the potential aggression of its neighbours.

        Striking while the iron was hot, Trump soon despatched his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, to lay the groundwork for what he has called the “ultimate deal” – Israeli-Palestinian peace. Kushner arrived in the region on 21 June, accompanied by US Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, and immediately held preliminary meetings with both Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and PA president, Mahmoud Abbas.

        Meanwhile the administration seemed anxious to dampen expectations of a speedy outcome. The White House spokesman emphasized that “forging a historic peace agreement will take time,” and that Kushner and Greenblatt will likely make “many visits” to the region. So Trump, who has received a commitment from both sides to pursue peace, is playing it long, seeking only to improve the atmosphere in the first instance. There is no talk yet of a summit conference, although the US is believed to be sounding out Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states about their willingness to be involved in due course.

        With the US now re-established as the major power broker in the Middle East, the dynamic young Mohammed bin Salman promoted as heir to the Saudi throne, and President Donald Trump fully committed to pursuing his anti-Islamist, pro-Arab-Israeli peace agenda, a glimmer of hope is surely justified. The question is: can supreme deal-maker Trump really deliver?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 7 July 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 June 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 5 July 2017:

             [Next posting: Friday 7 July 2017 at 5.30 pm GMT]

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The Qatar crisis - a US follow-through?

        On 23 June 2017 Fox News reported that President Trump was considering calling a Camp David-style summit to address growing tensions among long-established US allies in the Arab world and renew his call for those nations to confront the “crisis of Islamic extremism.” 

        It was on 5 June that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and five other Muslim countries severed diplomatic and commercial relations with Qatar, accusing it of funding groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State, and working with Iran to destabilize the region. The proposed gathering would be modeled on the 1978 Camp David summit that led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

        “It’s a Camp David moment,” a senior White House official told Fox News. “We’ve seen nothing like this in 40 years, and now the president wants to follow through. The president now wants to bring all the key players to Washington. They need to disavow groups like the Brotherhood for the stability of the Middle East at large. It’s not just about Qatari elements funding the Brotherhood but disavowing support for extremism in general.” 

        A Middle East expert close to the White House told Fox News that the meeting being discussed would be a move to restore American alliances weakened during the Obama years. The White House plans were being formulated partly in response to calls in the Middle East for re-invigorated American leadership.

Friday, 23 June 2017

After Abbas

        A firm grip on the reins of power does not equate with riding high in public popularity – at least not in Palestinian politics. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), emerged from Fatah’s carefully stage-managed 63rd Congress, held in November 2016, overwhelmingly confirmed in post and greatly strengthened within his party. But just a few months later a poll of public opinion among Palestinians revealed that 77 percent of Palestinians believed that the PA was corrupt , and 65 percent wanted Abbas to resign.

        Abbas’s triumph at the 63rd Congress had been complete. Having out-manoeuvered his rivals and blocked opponents supporting challengers to his position, he was unanimously re-elected leader by the 1,400 delegates.

        Just a month before the Congress, Abbas’s age (then 81) and his state of health, always an issue simmering in the background, suddenly came to the boil. In 2005 and again in 2008 he had undergone cardiac catheterization, a procedure in which a thin plastic tube is inserted into an artery or vein, and then advanced into the heart chambers to diagnose and clear any blockages. On 6 October 2016 Abbas was suddenly admitted to Esteshari hospital in Ramallah for a third cardiac catheterization.

        Speculation immediately flared as to whether Fatah might soon name a deputy to serve as successor or interim president if Abbas were to become incapacitated or die – and if so, who?

        The first name to surface was Mohammed Dahlan, the charismatic Palestinian politician regarded by Abbas as his greatest enemy. Dahlan, 53, a protégé of Yasser Arafat and former security chief in Gaza, lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) after Abbas expelled him from Fatah in 2011 accused of corruption and defamation. With backing from friends and supporters, Dahlan has been plotting his comeback ever since.

        The Middle East Eye website asserts that Egypt, Jordan and the UAE had liaised in a plan to shunt Dahlan in as next PA president, and that Hamas was prepared to put aside its long history of hostility to Dahlan (when head of security in Gaza in 1995-2000, he’d had hundreds of Hamas members arrested for undertaking armed operations against Israel). It was also reported that the UAE had held talks with Israel about the plan to install Dahlan.

        Influential backing he may have, but Dahlan does not command much support among Palestinians. The latest opinion poll reveals that only 7 percent would opt for Dahlan in a new presidential election with other candidates to choose from.

        The outstandingly popular alternative to Abbas among Palestinians is Marwan Barghouti. If Abbas were out of the picture, and there were a two-horse race, Barghouti would gain 59 percent of the popular vote. As a credible candidate, however, Barghouti faces a few problems. For a start, he is currently serving multiple life terms in an Israeli jail for orchestrating, as head of the Tanzim terrorist faction, shooting attacks in which five civilians, one of them a Greek monk, were killed.

        Rumours persist that he would conduct a presidential campaign from his prison cell, but it is far from certain that this would be feasible in the absence of Israel’s agreement, although since his imprisonment he has managed to be elected to Fatah’s central committee and re-elected to the PA parliament. There is no sign that Israel intends to release him, or would do so if he announced his intention to stand in a presidential election campaign. Palestinian reaction to the idea of voting for a lame duck president, confined indefinitely to a prison cell, is uncertain.

        Barghouti’s nearest rival is Hamas’s new leader Ismail Haniyeh, who comes a poor second to him in the Palestinian popularity stakes, but who might be more credible as a presidential candidate since he is at least a free man. Haniyeh, as a leading figure in Hamas, has been a fierce political opponent of Abbas ever since 2007 and the fratricidal coup that led to Hamas grabbing the Gaza strip from Fatah. This in itself has raised his profile among Palestinians disillusioned with Fatah in general and Abbas in particular.

        At least five other leading Palestinian figures are credible candidates to succeed Abbas, although none figures very prominently in the recent Palestinian opinion poll. The best known is perhaps Saeb Erekat, the chief PA peace negotiator for some twenty years. During that time he has become well versed in resigning in high dudgeon whenever events seem to move towards compromise and a possible accord. 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. He is now secretary general of the PLO, thanks to the uncovering of a certain piece of treachery. When Abbas heard that Abed Rabbo, Erekat’s predecessor in office, had been plotting with Fayyad and Dahlan to oust him, the president promptly fired him. Four days later Abbas appointed Erekat in his place.

       Salam Fayyad is another hopeful. An economist by training, he served as Abbas’s prime minister from 2007 to 2013, and won considerable praise from the international community for cleaning up the PA's finances, tackling corrupt practices rife in the organization, and concentrating on developing transparent institutions of government. His economic policies were perhaps a little too transparent for Abbas, however, and in 2013 he was replaced.

        Other names in the frame include Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of Yasser Arafat; Mohammed Ghoneim, a founder of the PLO and a powerful figure in Fatah, but himself 80; and Jibril Rajoub, a bitter rival of Dahlan, which will probably keep them both out of the top post.

        And so it goes within Palestinian political circles – a perpetual battle for power. Appointments, treacherous plots against the leader, inter-contender rivalry, appointments, resignations, dismissals. Meanwhile Abbas sails serenely on, still president in the twelfth year of his four-year term, refusing to institute new presidential or parliamentary elections, and signally failing to favour, let alone appoint, a potential successor.

        French King Louis XV is said to have coined the phrase: Après moi, le déluge (After me, the Flood). Abbas may be contemplating something similar.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 June 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 June 2017:

                  [Next posting: Friday 30 June at 2.30 pm GMT]

Friday, 16 June 2017

Could Putin out-trump Trump on Jerusalem?


        At the heart of the constitution of the United States lies the principle of the separation of powers. Conceived as a way to prevent the abuse of power generally, it has been used mainly to stop excessive power accumulating in the hands of the President. Ex-President Obama is on the record as finding the system “frustrating". As for Donald Trump, from the moment he assumed office he has been challenged by the legislature and the judiciary. He spent his first 100 days seeing some of his main electoral promises being foiled – from repealing the nation’s health care law to temporarily banning people from some Muslim nations to finding resources for a US-Mexican wall.

         But the separation of powers principle can also work in the opposite direction. For 22 years successive presidents have been frustrating the declared will of the US Congress.

        It was way back in 1995 that Congress passed legislation requiring the US embassy in Israel to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem no later than 31 May 1999. Although adopted by the House of Representatives and the Senate by overwhelming majorities, the Jerusalem Embassy Act has never been implemented. Every President since then – Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama – has used the powers contained in Section 7 of the Act to sign a 6-month waiver “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”

        Throughout his presidential election campaign, Trump pledged repeatedly to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His first chance to allow the Act to come into effect was 1 June 2017, when the last waiver signed by ex-President Obama ran out. When 1 June came around, lo and behold Trump fell into line with all his predecessors in office and signed a further 6-month waiver.

        There were very good reasons for Trump’s decision. Between taking office and 1 June he had embarked on an ambitious plan to broker a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He had hosted meetings with both Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas. He had undertaken his first foreign tour, which had included a meeting with over 50 leaders of the Arab world in Saudi Arabia, followed by visits to Israel and to the PA-controlled city of Bethlehem. He had extracted promising indications of support for a renewed peace effort from all parties. To have implemented his promise on the US embassy would certainly have disrupted the delicate state of his peace deal initiative.

        At present not a single foreign embassy is located in Jerusalem. This is because in international eyes the exact status of Jerusalem remains undetermined. Back in 1947 the original two-state UN plan envisaged Jerusalem as “a corpus separatum under a special international regime” to be administered by the United Nations. The UN as a whole, like the European Union (EU), still clings to this concept. But incongruously, both the UN and the EU also assert their support for the objective of “a viable state of Palestine in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem." Now, Jerusalem is either an international entity or part of it is Palestinian. It cannot be both.

        The UN Security Council in its latest pronouncement on the subject at least appears consistent. Urging countries and organizations to distinguish "between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967", its Resolution 2334, passed on 23 December 2016, makes no mention of an internationalized Jerusalem, but refers three times to “Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

        Resolution 2334 was passed by 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council, with only the US abstaining. Of the 15, only one nation has recognized the logical implications of what they voted for – namely that if East Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, then West Jerusalem must be an integral part of sovereign Israel.

        On 6 April 2017 Russia issued a quite astonishing statement. While reaffirming its support for the two-state solution and that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a future Palestinian state, Moscow declared: "At the same time, we must state that in this context we view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."

        This declaration, ground-breaking in itself, carries a corollary. Countries normally site their embassies in the capital city of the country with which they have established diplomatic relations.

        It is almost certain that, deep within the Kremlin, the political pros and cons of Russia moving its embassy to West Jerusalem are being carefully calculated. Russia is currently fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran in Syria, supporting President Bashar al-Assad in his battle to retain power. Iran, its satrap Hezbollah, and Assad’s Syria are all ferocious enemies of Israel and would certainly be opposed to any move that enhanced Israel’s status. On the other hand, Russia owes them little, and their battlefield collaboration did not inhibit Moscow’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

        As regards the Palestinians, Russian President Vladimir Putin has fostered good relations with PA President Abbas. They last met in May 2017, when Putin reaffirmed his support for settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and Abbas indicated that Moscow ought to be involved in any peace process. That was music to Putin’s ears, for he has consistently advanced Moscow’s claims to be a major player in any future peace negotiations.

        But these warm words are as nothing compared with Russo-Israeli relations, which are flourishing. There is Gazprom’s multi-million 20-year contract, signed in 2016, to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the vast Tamar field. Moreover Putin is courting Israel to grant Gazprom a share in the even vaster Leviathan field. Collaboration is also being developed in a whole variety of other areas including free trade, nuclear and other hi-technology, space cooperation and agriculture. Moving the Russian embassy to West Jerusalem could do nothing but enhance this burgeoning relationship.

        Much more to the point, perhaps, from Putin’s perspective, is the positive effect on Russia’s global status of pre-empting Trump. Putin is intent on re-establishing Russia as a major global force to be reckoned with. He was quick to seize the opportunity in the Middle East when Obama’s vacillation and reluctance to take effective action in Syria left a power vacuum. To be the first nation to establish its embassy in what Putin himself has declared to be the capital of Israel would snatch the ball from Trump’s grasp, and establish Russia firmly as a major player in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

        Having weighed the odds, will Putin act?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 16 June 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 17 June 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 25 June 2017:

            [Next posting: Friday 23 June 2017 at 3.30 pm GMT}

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The UK balance of power

           The 10 newly elected DUP MPs, with DUP leader Arlene Foster

        The world now knows that Britain's general election resulted in what is known as a “hung parliament”. While prime minister Theresa May’s Conservatives won most seats, they did not gain enough to command a majority in the House of Commons. To win essential parliamentary votes, such as the legislative programme or the budget, they will need additional support . The only grouping in the new parliament politically close to the Conservatives is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing Northern Ireland party that won 10 seats in the election – 10 vital seats for, added to the Conservatives’ total, they provide that essential majority over all other parties.

        What is the DUP? The party was founded in 1971 by the Reverend Ian Paisley, at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was intended to focus loyalist opposition to the IRA and its offshoots, then intent on fighting the British army and police, and undertaking terrorist attacks within the UK. Did the birth of the DUP in the midst of bombs and bloodshed generate a sort of fellow feeling towards Israel? Probably, and there were other factors at play, but it is certainly true that the DUP has consistently demonstrated strong sympathy and steady support for Israel.

        When Paisley launched the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel in March 2009, he certainly drew a parallel between Israel’s and Northern Ireland’s struggles against terrorism. He also prayed for peace in Jerusalem, demonstrating another strand in the genetic makeup of the DUP – a Bible-believing Protestant background. Many members and supporters of the DUP sincerely accept the Biblical basis of the Jewish people’s connection to the land.

        The DUP’s support for Israel has been all the stronger, perhaps, because it is matched by fierce support for the Palestinians by their political enemies, Irish Republicans. Sein Fein, the political wing of the republican movement, has long associated itself with the Palestinian cause. Co-operation and trading, including training and arms procurement, between the PLO and the IRA dates back to the 1970s. The connection continues. When a Sinn Fein delegation travelled to Turkey last November, a meeting with Hamas officials featured on their agenda. The visit was roundly condemned by DUP spokespeople in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

        In October 2014 the UK parliament in its wisdom decided to vote on recognizing the (non-existent) state of Palestine “alongside the state of Israel”. The motion was passed by 274 votes to 12 – in other words only 286 MPs voted out of a total of 650 members. But the 12 stalwart No voters included all 8 DUP members of parliament at the time.

        Recent Conservative administrations have been supportive of Israel. David Cameron, the previous prime minister, counted himself a friend. Theresa May sprang to Israel’s defence after ex-Secretary of State John Kerry launched his verbal attack on Israel in the dying days of the Obama administration. It is reasonable to assume that this aspect of Conservative thinking will be sustained at the highest decision-making level in the new UK administration by the ever-supportive voice of the DUP.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 13 June 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 June 2017:

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hezbollah's next war with Israel

        Hezbollah planted itself in the soil of Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the state was being torn apart by civil conflict. Drawing their inspiration from the extremist Shia-based philosophy expounded by Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei, Hezbollah’s three founders declared that its purpose was to oppose Western influences in general and Israel’s existence in particular. Heavily supported by Iran, it proceeded over the following years to give effect to its raison d’être by initiating a series of horrendous terrorist operations against the objects of its hatred.

        The most notable were the bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon, the bombing of the US and French military barracks in Beirut, abductions and murders of Western and Sunni Arab figures in Lebanon, and the hijacking of a TWA flight en route from Athens to Rome. These terrorist attacks, because they were deniable by the Iranian regime, were an integral element of a larger Iranian terrorist campaign waged to undermine the influence of Western countries and Israel in the Middle East, and keep France from assisting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

        On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah launched a sophisticated attack on Israel. The target was the armoured Humvees (four-wheel drive military trucks) that regularly patrolled the Israeli side of the border. To act as a diversion, rockets were fired from inside Lebanon at northern Israeli border towns, while Hezbollah guerrillas crossed the border into Israel and disabled two of the armoured trucks with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The ambush left eight Israeli soldiers dead, while two Israeli soldiers were abducted and taken to Lebanon. In exchange for their release, Hezbollah demanded the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. Israel refused and responded with airstrikes and artillery fire, following this up with a ground invasion of southern Lebanon and an air and naval blockade. Hezbollah then launched more rockets into northern Israel and engaged the IDF in guerrilla warfare.

        At that time Hezbollah’s missiles were unguided rockets fired indiscriminately across the border. Much has happened since 2006. Hezbollah has now acquired a huge stockpile of missiles and guided rockets largely funded by Iran, manufactured in Iran and Syria, and smuggled into Lebanon. Today Israeli intelligence estimates that Hezbollah possesses an arsenal of some 150,000 tactical ballistic missiles including Scuds, Fateh-110 Iranian missiles, and M-600s, a Syrian modified version of the Fateh-110. Many have a range enabling them to cover the whole of Israel. Moreover Hezbollah is in possession of some very effective air defence systems, including the SA-17 Buk anti-aircraft missile battery of Russian origin.

        Why has Iran been expending enormous sums of money to boost the arsenal of its Lebanese satellite, Hezbollah? One guess will suffice – Iran and Hezbollah are preparing for their next war with Israel, “which is right around the corner or closer”, according to Hezbollah sources reported recently on the website Ya Sour.

        Hezbollah has more up its sleeve than its greatly enhanced arsenal. Among the “surprises” to come are the fronts on which it will attempt to fight. The report claimed that Hezbollah has transferred high quality and specialized weaponry to the Golan Heights, which will act as a second front to south Lebanon. A third “surprise” is that it intends to fire long-range projectiles at Israel from deep within Syria, namely the Qalamoun and Anti-Lebanon Mountain ranges, areas firmly under the Shi’ite group’s control on both the Syrian and Lebanese sides of the border.

        The Long War Journal, an on-line publication issued by the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, believes that Hezbollah has indeed amassed a missile arsenal around the city of Baalbek, close to its Beqaa Valley stronghold, and nearly completed a tunnel in the Zabadani valley, linking the stronghold to Qalamoun. The purpose is to conceal the transfer of weapons from aerial surveillance. Qalamoun has been the focus of recent Israeli airstrikes.

        The Hezbollah sources told Ya Sour that the group was shifting its missile operations to the Qalamoun area because it would be easier to camouflage the rockets and protect their storehouses and launchers from attack by Israeli planes. They added that the huge Qalamoun region, partly on the Lebanese and partly on the Syrian sides of the border, was ideal for launching long-range ballistic missiles at Israel.

        In a video clip released on 16 February 2017, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah gave a list of strategic targets in Israel, declaring that he would attack them in the next round of fighting. These included an ammonia plant in Haifa (slated to be closed shortly), nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek, and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems weapons development facilities.

        Rattled by Israel’s repeated attacks on the arms convoys trying to reach Lebanon from Syria, the Iranians, according to a recent report, have established rocket-manufacturing facilities sited either inside Lebanon, or – one expert analyst believes – in the Hezbollah-controlled Quseyr area in Syria. The report, published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida, cites an aide to the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as its source. He asserts that the IRGC built the missile-making facilities more than 50 meters underground, and fortified them against air strikes before handing control over to Hezbollah three months ago. The missile factories can reportedly produce surface-to-surface missiles with a range of more than 500 kilometres, capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, as well as Israeli ships and offshore gas rigs in the Mediterranean.

        There can be no doubt that Israel is monitoring these developments closely, is aware of the build-up, and is well-prepared to counter any future onslaught. For example, Israel's state-of-the-art anti-missile system, known as David's Sling, passed its final tests in January 2017 and would be available to de­fend sensitive sites in Israel, and indeed offshore, against Hezbollah's arsenal of missiles and rockets. Moreover the army is tightening intelligence coverage of Hezbollah activities while undertaking extensive engineering works along the border to impede penetration by attacking forces.

        In any event, Hezbollah is still heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war which, while enhancing its fighting skills, has much weakened it by way of casualties – a minimum of 1048 Hezbollah fighters, according to a recent survey. It is unlikely Hezbollah would be in a position to engage in a new full-time military conflict any time soon.

        So while the Iranian-Hezbollah cabal may be as determined as ever in its aim of destroying Israel, the next Hezbollah-Israeli war is probably not just around the corner.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 9 June 2017:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 June 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 June 2017:

                [Next posting: Friday 16 June 2017 at 2.30 pm GMT]

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Has Trump set the peace ball rolling?

        US President Donald Trump left Israel on Tuesday afternoon, 23 May 2017, after a visit lasting just 28 hours. In the words of the leader in the Jerusalem Post the next morning, “his major contribution to the peace process so far has been his successful resuscitation of non-cynical discourse on the prospects of peace. But the truly hard work has barely begun.”

        Widely noticed, and extensively remarked upon, was the fact that throughout his tour of the Holy Land, which included a meeting with PA President Abbas in Bethlehem, the words “Palestinian state,” “two-state solution,” “settlements,” or “embassy” never passed Trump’s lips. What he did say, more than once, was that he firmly believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was possible.

        During his meeting with Arab leaders in Riyadh, Trump had been impressed by their apparent willingness to engage with Israel, but they made it clear that normalizing relations between the moderate Sunni states and Israel was dependent on a successful outcome to Israel-Palestinian peace talks. All the same there were indications that a warming of relations could occur earlier, if positive steps were taken by Israel, leading towards a settlement. Media reports in early May 2017, just prior to Trump’s visit, revealed that an unreleased discussion paper had been shared among several Gulf countries which proposed the lifting of some trade restrictions, opening direct telecommunications links, and allowing Israeli aircraft to overfly their countries. Other incentives could include issuing visas to Israeli sports teams and trade delegations for events in Arab states, and opening the region for Israeli trade and business.

         Accordingly – at odds with recent statements by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – Trump adhered to the traditional view that a settlement of the Israel-Palestinian dispute was the key to unlocking an unprecedented empowerment of the region. Reflecting the position expressed to him by the Arab leaders, Trump indicated that a peace settlement would bring in its train widespread economic cooperation across the Middle East, including Israel, ushering in an era of industrial, technological and commercial development never previously experienced.

        In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014 Netanyahu had tentatively proposed an alternative scenario, apparently the exact opposite, that he subsequently repeated on more than one occasion. He said:

        “After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world…Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

        In fact the two points of view are not chalk and cheese. If the Sunni Arab world had not already realized that they shared vital – indeed existential – interests with Israel, Trump would have found little sympathy among his Arab hosts with the idea of future close cooperation with Israel.

        Netanyahu’s vehement opposition to the nuclear deal concluded between the western world and Iran in 2016 had been music to the ears of many Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, which had long suffered from Iranian-inspired efforts to destabilise and overthrow their regimes. Iran’s ambitions to dominate the Sunni states of the region and impose its own brand of Shi’ite Islam on them had made that non-Arab, albeit Muslim, state a feared enemy.

        Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not recognize Israel, yet remarks by Israeli minister Israel Katz on 27 February 2017 seemed to let the cat out of the bag. "Yes, there is cooperation between Israel and these countries,” said Katz, “which cannot be discussed in detail. This cooperation is going to be significantly upgraded, because the US is going to lead it. The first goal is to block Iran and push it out of the area."

        Israeli-Arab cooperation across the region is a fact of life. The Israeli and Egyptian military have long been collaborating closely in the Sinai peninsula, fighting jihadist terrorists. Israeli-Jordanian relations blossomed in the autumn of 2016 when the two sides signed a 15-year gas purchase agreement valued at $10 billion, under which Jordan will buy 45 billion cubic meters of gas from Israel. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his strong Muslim Brotherhood roots, supports Hamas and rarely misses an opportunity to lambast Israel, yet June 2016 saw a formal end to the six-year rift between the two countries following the Mavi Marmara affair, and the restoration of diplomatic relations. In the first quarter of 2017 Turkish exports to Israel increased by 20 percent and Israeli exports to Turkey rose by 45 percent. As for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Israeli technology firms are engaged in secret, extensive business dealings with them. Media reports claim that “trade and collaboration in technology and intelligence are flourishing between Israel and a host of Arab states, even if the people and companies involved rarely talk about it publicly.”

        So Trump has a solid foundation on which to build his Israel-Palestinian peace initiative, should he choose to do so. His next step, if earlier reports are to be credited, is likely to be some form of US-led, but Arab-dominated, conference aimed at setting the parameters of future face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Provided with a “regional umbrella”, and encouraged by Trump’s obvious desire and support for a successful outcome, PA President Abbas might at last feel sufficiently protected to engage in meaningful discussions with Israel.

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

Published in the Eurasia Review, 4 June 2017:

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 June 2017:

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