Sunday, 30 September 2018

Saudi Vision 2030 – a progress report

                                                                                  Video version
        It comes as something of a surprise to realize that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is less than a hundred years old. It was only in 1932 that Abdul Aziz ibn Saud emerged from many years of political and military struggle against other local chieftains and the Ottoman empire and was able to name the area that he had conquered “Saudi Arabia”, and proclaim himself monarch. 

        It was doubtless with an eye to the eventual centenary celebrations of the monarchy and the kingdom that in April 2016 Saudi’s dynamic young crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS), launched Saudi Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to revitalize the nation. If it succeeds, by 2032 Saudi Arabia will have been transformed from its current dependency on oil revenues into a modern, liberalized, thriving, entrepreneurial society, its prosperity underpinned by flourishing industrial, financial, economic and commercial sectors.

        Saudi Vision 2030 has been described as a “neo-liberal blueprint”. It envisages, among hundreds of initiatives, privatizing entire sectors of the economy, cutting subsidies, courting investors at home and abroad, streamlining government services, and going public with the national oil company, Saudi Aramco. 

        In its two-year review of Saudi Vision 2030, issued in May 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared that Saudi Arabia was making "good progress" in implementing reforms likely to help spur economic growth.

        The basic aim of Vision 2030 – to lower Saudi Arabia’s dependency on oil by creating new revenue streams – was fostered by the oil price collapse of 2014-15, which forced the government to declare a deficit budget in 2016. For many years the Saudi economy had been dependent on, and sustained by, oil. Oil income accounted for some 90% of export earnings and 87% of budget revenues. This clearly left the kingdom highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of oil. 

        It was a document produced in 2015 by the business consulting firm McKinsey, “Saudi Arabia Beyond Oil”, that laid the foundations of Vision 2030 by proposing how the kingdom might redirect its economy away from oil dependence and build a sustainable economy.

        What those proposals could not adequately tackle, however, was the temptations that a rebound in oil prices might have on the diversification program. Vision 2030 got off to a flying start in its first two years, but by 2018 oil prices had soared from their low of $30 a barrel to $80 – nowhere near the heady days of 2008, when they topped $145 per barrel, but significant enough. 

        The result, one authoritative economic source suggests, is that the Saudi government, no longer hemorrhaging money from foreign exchange reserves, has fallen back on an old habit of acting with less urgency when times are good for the oil industry. Now that it has extra oil revenue it is slowing down reform efforts a little, while still moving toward a positive current account balance. 

        “The primary challenges for the government,” said the IMF’s mission chief for the kingdom, Tim Callen, “are to sustain the implementation of reforms, achieve the fiscal targets it has set, and resist the temptation to re-expand government spending in line with higher oil prices.”

        Britain’s prime minister Theresa May included Riyadh in her first overseas trip after triggering Brexit – the UK’s decision to leave the European Union – disregarding criticism from human rights and left-wing activists who want Britain to cut military ties with the Saudis over allegations of war crimes in Yemen. She has personal experience of the importance of Britain’s relationship with the Saudis from the six years she spent as home secretary, where part of her brief was to oversee the operations of MI5, the UK’s domestic security service. Over the years, Saudi intelligence has provided information that has helped thwart a number of major terrorist attacks against Britain, including the plot to blow up a number of flights from Heathrow to the US. 

        This close alliance was heavily emphasized when MBS paid a three-day visit to Britain in March 2018. The visit achieved a significant result. The UK and Saudi Arabia agreed to set up a new bilateral government body, to be known as The Strategic Partnership Council. Its remit will be to assist in the roll-out of Vision 2030, and to promote British involvement in Saudi’s rapidly developing service sectors. 

        Vision 2030 has started its long journey. There are certainly obstacles ahead, but also enormous opportunities. For example, Saudi Arabia has vast, untapped mineral reserves with an estimated value of $1.3 trillion – more than the individual economies of most of the world's nations. Those include substantial deposits of uranium, gold and copper. Moreover the kingdom is undertaking massive construction projects, including the $20 billion Riyadh metro project, new cities like Qiddiya, the planned home for a nascent Saudi entertainment industry, and Neom, a special economic zone that will function as an urban-scale tech incubator.

        In reviewing the progress of Vision 2030 recently, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that what encourages him more than the grand plans, is the system of highly detailed benchmarks the Saudis have established to measure their progress. The kingdom, he said, is monitoring criteria from the increase in average life expectancy to the number of peer-reviewed articles by Saudi scientists that appear in international journals.

        "That's the level of precision with which they are trying to manage this incredible transition of their country," he said. "I think they have a very, very high probability of 

Friday, 21 September 2018

Israel is not without friends

                                                                                Video version
          It was in May 2010 that former Prime Minister of Spain, José Maria Aznar, brought together a high level group in Paris to launch a project aimed specifically at supporting Israel as a legitimate democratic sovereign nation. A fundamental purpose of the initiative was to affirm that Israel is an integral part of the Western world and of crucial importance to its future.

          Who are these people, prepared to take so unfashionable and therefore so courageous a stand? It is a glittering list of men and women in all walks of life, almost none of them Jewish, who have reached positions of eminence in their own fields.

          The current list of members of the Friends of Israel Initiative includes three former Heads of State, four former Heads of Government, and seven former government ministers, as well as a former ambassador, State Governor, head of a national intelligence agency and military commander, together with people still active in the academic, journalist and business fields. A number of original members of the group have subsequently been appointed to official or governmental posts, and have therefore withdrawn for the time being from active involvement. 

       Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada, takes over the Chair of the Friends of Israel from founder José Maris Aznar as from 1 September 2018.
          Founded out of a sense of deep concern about the unprecedented campaign of delegitimization against Israel waged by the enemies of the Jewish state and supported by numerous international institutions, the key aim of the Initiative is to counter the growing efforts of bodies like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and its followers to isolate the State of Israel and eventually overthrow it. The Friends of Israel Initiative is committed to disseminating its members’ vision of Israel as a democratic, open, and advanced nation like any other, and to insist that it should be perceived and treated as such. 

          The Initiative maintains that Israel is a sovereign democracy which like all others is, of course, capable of making mistakes. Nonetheless, it asserts, this should not be used as an excuse to question Israel’s right to exist, its legitimacy, or its basic rights as an independent state.

          The body’s major project for 2015 was to prepare a full and carefully reasoned report aimed at changing the perception that many have about Israel. Sometimes, as the Prologue to the report explained, ”it is because people don’t know better; sometimes it is the result of extremely biased opinions in the media. We want to introduce some rationality when talking about Israel and because of that, this report highlights the many positive aspects of a dynamic, vibrant, and promising Israel, yet without keeping silent about some controversial issues. In any case, what we want is for the reader to feel and see the positive effect of having Israel, a strong Israel, at our side. Having a secure Israel means more security for us; having a prosperous Israel enriches us all. Thinking the opposite is simply wrong as this report demonstrates with clarity and simplicity.”

          The document, entitled “Israel: A Vital Asset of the West”, was launched at a meeting in the UK’s House of Commons in November 2015.

          The same year the Initiative sponsored a new major enterprise – the High Level Military Group (HLMG). HLMG consists of military leaders and officials from NATO and other democratic countries. Its mandate is to address the implications for western warfare of fighting enemies who disregard the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), but exploit other nations’ adherence to it.

          A few months later the Initiative sponsored a new High Level Home Front Group (HLHFG), made up of top intelligence, counter terrorism and police officials from the US, UK, Spain, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, and Colombia. Its remit was to evaluate the Israeli experience in preventing and stopping indiscriminate attacks in cities, as well as the recruitment of terrorists, so as to assist other nations facing similar threats.

          At the initial launch of the Friends of Israel Initiative in Washington in September 2010, José Maria Aznar explained the motivation behind the new organization. 

          “Israel is under a new kind of attack,” he said. “Not conventional war as in 1948, ‘56, ‘67 or ‘73. Not terrorism as we saw in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But a new kind of attack …to present Israel internationally as an illegitimate state, as a barbarian state, a state that should be isolated and converted into a pariah state… 

          “Let me be clear. We don't want in any case to defend any particular Israeli government or any particular set of policies or any particular party. Israel's institutions are mature enough to defend their choices. We want to stand up for the right of Israel to exist. Judeo-Christian values form the roots of our civilization. Delegitimising Israel undermines our identity, warps our values and put at risk what we are and who we are…

          “Is it craziness for a group of mostly Europeans and non-Jews, to say: Enough. Stop this nonsense of making Israel responsible for all the problems in the region, if not beyond? Enough of the short sightedness which refuses to see Israel as a corner stone of our Western civilization? Defending Israel today means strengthening the West...”

          These are sentiments that ought to have commanded widespread support within the Western community of nations. They combine reason with the most basic appeal of all – self-preservation. Yet Aznar’s message evoked little response at the time from opinion leaders the world over, and the real achievements of the body he founded remain generally unrecognized.

          An old English saying seems particularly appropriate: "There are none so blind as those who will not see."

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 October 2018:

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Abbas wants a Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation

                                                                                              Video version
        Commentators viewing the Israel-Palestine scene seem agreed that the spotlight has settled on the word “confederation”. Despite the wraps that have been wound tightly around the Trump peace deal – “the deal of the century” – the media have come to believe that chief among its provisions is a proposal for a West Bank-Jordan “confederation”. 

        On September 2, 2018, a delegation from Israel’s Peace Now organization travelled to Ramallah in the West Bank. Their purpose was to discuss with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prospects for settling the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statements that follow such meetings rarely contain anything of substance. This was an exception.

        The next morning, the Palestinian Information Center, known as Palinfo, published an account of Abbas’s conversation with the Israelis that was replete with surprising, not to say startling, details. The news website reported the exchange in a deadpan factual manner, with no comment.

        “During a meeting with an Israeli delegation that visited Ramallah on Sunday,” ran the report, “Abbas said that senior US administration officials, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, asked him recently about his opinion of a ‘confederation with Jordan’. “I said yes to the offer, but I want a three-way confederation with Jordan and Israel,” Abbas said.”
                                                              Mahmoud Abbas         
        Now when exactly did Abbas speak with the Trump peace plan team, Kushner and Greenblatt? It could only have been some time in 2017 while the plan – “the deal of the century” – was being built brick by painstaking brick. That the plan is virtually complete has been confirmed by Kushner on more than one occasion. Equally clear is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not been briefed on its provisions. Abbas disengaged from all dealings with Washington back in December 2017, when President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention of moving the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has subsequently declared that the US has disqualified itself as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

        Leaks are always possible, despite the tightest security. It is just on the cards that the word “confederation” has somehow slipped through the intensive screen of secrecy that the three-man peace team – Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman – have erected around the plan. After all, back in June 2018, all three met with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in New York to discuss US efforts “to promote peace in the Middle East and to meet humanitarian needs in Gaza.” The outline of the long-awaited plan might well have been disclosed to Guterres, since it took place just before Kushner and Greenblatt embarked on a tour of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Israel. Significantly there were no plans to meet with Abbas. 

        If that one word “confederation” has somehow escaped the security net, it has given rise to a plethora of speculative possibilities, most failing to define what a confederation actually is, or how it differs from a federation. A federation is a political system in which individual states join together under the umbrella of a central authority; a confederation 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; in a federation the stress is on the supremacy of the central government. 

        So to describe an amalgam of Jordan and the West Bank as a “confederation”, as some commentators have done, would be a misnomer. In any case the Jordanians immediately rejected the idea of uniting with, or taking over, the West Bank . But Abbas’s response - that he believed in a triangular confederation comprising Jordan, Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine – that is a game changer.

         On this he is not wrong. Prowling round the PA stockade is Hamas, ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, and harrying Abbas for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all and is dedicated to destroying it. Given a new sovereign Palestine, it would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel.

        This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, a new sovereign Palestine would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

        An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it 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 in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement unilaterally with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible. 

        Any viable solution will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus, within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political. The Arab League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. Under its shield the PA could participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity that could come into existence simultaneously with a new sovereign Palestine.

        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. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could make 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 – this is not only a configuration offering considerable potential advantages to Israel, but it is also the possible answer to achieving a peaceful and thriving Middle East. 

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2018:

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Britain’s left-wing, Israel and anti-Semitism

This article appears in the edition of the "Jerusalem Report" dated 17 September 2018
        Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of Britain’s Labour Party back in 2015, it has been torn apart over the issue of anti-Semitism. 

        Corbyn won his landslide victory in the leadership election thanks to the support of an organization called Momentum – a hard-left group set up in opposition to the social democratic principles that had projected Tony Blair and his “New Labour” to electoral success in the 1990s and early 2000s.

        Britain’s Labour Party has always revelled in its own description of itself as “a broad church”. Founded at the turn of the 20th century by a trade union movement based on Marxist principles, Labour also embraced from the start much gentler social democratic concepts inherited from the Christian and philanthropic impulses of the Victorian Liberal Party.

        There was a strong Jewish connection from the start. In late-19th century Britain, the working classes were slowly becoming aware of their power within a capitalist economy. Jewish workers and activists were among the first to force poor working conditions and poverty-level wages into the public consciousness. In the sweat shops of London’s East End, the hub of Britain’s Jewish community at the time, clothing workers slaved for up to 18 hours a day, six days a week. The first effective action took place in 1889, when the Great Dock Strike brought the East End to a standstill. The protest was supported by 8,000 workers, mostly recent Jewish immigrants from Tsarist Russia, fleeing discrimination and persecution.

        The sweatshop workers were galvanised into action by Rudolph Rocker, the German-Jewish editor of a radical Yiddish newspaper, The Workers’ Friend. The secretary of the Tailors' Strike Committee was a Lithuanian Jewish anarchist called William Wess. Its chairman was Lewis Lyons, son of German Jewish immigrants. They built links with local non-Jewish campaigners in the area through William Morris's Socialist League.

        Solidarity from Irish Catholic dockers, who replenished the strike fund when it was nearly exhausted, resulted in victory for the immigrant Jewish tailors. The employers caved in. A 12-hour working day with meal breaks was conceded. Emboldened by their growing clout, the trades unions mounted a series of strikes for increased wages and better working conditions, and it was the burgeoning trade union movement that gave birth to Britain’s Labour Party in 1906. 

        From its start the Labour Party was widely supported by Jewish members, but it also drew some of its most active leaders from the Jewish community. This was because three years earlier the first branch of Poale Zion (Great Britain) had been formed.

        Poale Zion, which viewed Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, was highly influential in the development of the British Labour movement. An especially noteworthy achievement was the Labour Party's War Aims Memorandum, drafted by Sidney Webb and Arthur Henderson in 1917. This document, which preceded the Balfour Declaration by three months, recognized the "right of return" of Jews to Palestine. In 1920 Poale Zion was affiliated to the British Labour Party as The Jewish Socialist Labour Party.

        In the mid-1920s, Poale Zion’s parent body – the World Union − set up an office in London's East End led by Shlomo Kaplansky and David Ben-Gurion. In the same building Moshe Sharett was at work as a Yiddish-English translator. The subsequent growth and development of the British Labour Party was significantly enhanced by the Jewish contribution. Some of the Jewish Labour MPs in the inter-war years became legends in their own lifetimes. The roll-call resounds even today: Marion Phillips, Manny Shinwell, Sydney Silverman, Lewis Silkin. 

        The 1945 general election, which saw the first post-war Labour government. brought a clutch of new Jewish Labour MPs into the British parliament. Some went on to highly successful political careers – people like Maurice Edelman, Harold Lever, Ian Mikardo and David Weitzman. Later, the Labour party, both in opposition and in government, was adorned by a glittering array of Jewish names: Leo Abse, John Silkin, Joel Barnett. Reginald Freeson , Renée Short, Eric Moonman, Greville Janner and Gerald Kaufman.

        These people, and many other Jews, were integral to the growth and development of the Labour Party in the twentieth century. During much of that time, most of Britain’s Jewish community saw the Labour party as its natural home.

        In 1918 the party had incorporated into its constitution, as Clause 4, the out-and-out socialist objective of securing “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” In practical terms that meant that a future Labour government would be obligated to nationalize as much of the state’s economic infrastructure as possible, and indeed when Labour came into power after the 1945 general election, it proceeded to enact this programme. It brought into public ownership the coal and steel industries, Britain’s railway system, road transport, the electricity and gas industries, and of course, by establishing the National Health Service, the provision of health care.

        Although at first there was general acceptance by the public of this great socialist experiment, disillusion soon crept in. When inadequate services, soaring prices and strikes began to affect the public, their mood changed. Within the Labour movement the social democratic leadership began to see that electoral success depended on softening, if not abandoning, Clause 4. After losing the 1959 general election, Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell made a courageous attempt to have Clause 4 amended. The harder left wing fought back, and defeated him. 

        It was a Pyrrhic victory, since it was followed by the brilliant electoral successes of Tony Blair and his “New Labour”. Blair was an unapologetic social democrat, and he conceived of a middle way in British politics. For a time he succeeded beyond all expectations in gaining the confidence of the British electorate. 

        Before Blair’s edifice came tumbling down in the débacle of the Iraq war, he managed to have Clause 4 and all references to nationalization radically revised. After Blair’s departure his New Labour limped on briefly, but the Labour party was in disarray. When a leadership election was held, three of the four candidates could reasonably be described as social democrats. The fourth was a wild card, a known and long-standing rebel within the parliamentary Labour party. The most prominent figures in the party urged members not to vote for him. But New Labour was a busted flush, and in the event Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a landslide.

        Corbyn, who had become a member of the UK parliament in 1983, had been a rebel before becoming an MP, and remained a rebel after taking his seat. During the 1970s a Trotskyist hard-left group, called the Militant Tendency, embarked upon a long-term, calculated effort to infiltrate and eventually take over the Labour party. Militant supporters succeeded in gaining powerful positions within the inner governance of the party, and all efforts by social democratic elements to root Militant out failed. In 1982 Corbyn wrote in the journal he helped manage, London Labour Briefing, supporting Militant and opposing its expulsion from the party. For a time he was successful, but eventually Militant defied the Labour establishment once too often, decisive action was taken, and the party was cleansed.

        When in 1984 the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) blew up the hotel housing Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government leadership, killing 4 people and paralyzing the wife of a minister, Norman Tebbit, London Labour Briefing came out in support of the terrorists, joked about the dead and mocked Tebbit. A few weeks later Corbyn invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – both suspected one-time members of the IRA − to visit Parliament. In 1986 he joined a picket outside the Old Bailey to protest at the trial of the man who planted the bomb.

        Jeremy Corbyn is an exponent of a hard-left political agenda peculiar to Britain. It is based on a particular view of the British class system, its colonialist past and capitalism. He opposes the lot. Everywhere Corbyn sees victims of overwheening colonial exploiters or unscrupulous big business, and clearly feels a bond of sympathy with all who claim to be struggling against them, no matter how ruthless their methods. 

        A fashionable new-wave philosophy called “Intersectionality” has captured the left-wing in the UK and Antifa in the USA. Intersectionality holds that there is a link between all manifestations of oppression, however diverse, and therefore between all victims. Female victims of sexual inequality have a bond with black victims of racial inequality and with victims of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inequality, and so on.

        Intersectionality decrees that Palestinians are quintessential victims, and that their villainous oppressors are Israel, which it accuses of every sort of monstrous criminality including genocide. The logic of intersectionality decrees that anyone who opposes racism, homophobia or sexism must necessarily oppose Israel. That diktat is easily extended to all who support Israel, and by a further extension all Israelis, most of whom happen to be Jews. This is how eminent academics have come to refuse to engage professionally with their Israeli counterparts, while stoutly maintaining that they are not anti-Semitic in doing so.

        In pursuit of this philosophy Corbyn has shared platforms with Irish terrorists, extremist Islamist proponents, and representatives of proscribed terrorist bodies like Hamas and Hezbollah. In 1984 he advocated cutting ties with Poale Zion. In 2013 he declared that some Zionists “don’t understand English irony”, despite having lived in the UK “for a very long time, probably all their lives.” In 2014 he was content to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the graves of terrorists who carried out the Munich Olympic massacres. Turning a blind eye to Jewish persecution over the centuries and the rationale for the emergence of Zionism, he appears to view Israel as a colonialist and racist enterprise, and the Palestinians as its victims.

        This explains his failure so far to endorse the examples of anti-Semitism provided by the internationally accepted definition, and why so many Jewish members of the Labour party, inheritors of the huge contribution made to its history by Jews of an earlier generation, feel so hurt. Their feelings are shared by the vast majority of the Labour members of parliament who abhor the shilly-shallying over tackling anti-Semitism in the party, and have voted overwhelmingly in favor of adopting the International definition in full.

        If Corbyn and the party’s National Executive Committee are eventually forced to do so by internal pressure and the weight of public opinion, they are likely to insist that the provisions start to bite from a given date. To allow the definition to apply retrospectively would put Jeremy Corbyn himself, together with an incalculable number of his closest followers, in danger of being charged with anti-Semitism and bringing the party into disrepute.

        Corbyn’s leadership campaign had been masterminded by a Jewish friend, Jon Lansman, who set up the organization called Momentum. It now has a membership of more than 40,000. Momentum is a hard-left organization, busily engaged in seizing the reins of power within the Labour movement. It is the Militant Tendency story all over again. How will it end this time?

Published in the Jerusalem Report, issue dated 17 September 2017: