Friday, 22 February 2019

Islamic State - the worldwide caliphate that never was

A mugshot photo of al-Baghdadi detained at Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2004

                                                                               Video version
           In September 1934, at a major Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, Adolf Hitler declared that the Nazi revolution was complete, supreme power was his, and “in the next thousand years there will be no other revolution in Germany”. Thus began the much trumpeted Thousand-Year Reich. At its zenith Germany had conquered and occupied up to 40 percent of Europe. By May 1945 the Nazi regime had been comprehensively defeated. It had lasted eleven years.

          In June 2014 Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a worldwide caliphate, and himself as caliph of the whole of Islam. The organization he headed, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), was renamed Islamic State (IS). He announced that he intended to spread his caliphate across the Middle East and Europe, conquering both Rome and Spain. And indeed, for a year or so his territorial conquests were considerable. By February 2019 all had been lost. His worldwide caliphate had lasted less than five years.

          At its optimum, IS held large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The areas it controlled pressed up hard against Turkey’s southern border, and they stretched to within only a few kilometres of the borders of Iran and Jordan. At its apogee IS was effectively governing a state of more than 34,000 square miles and controlling millions of people. Its revenue came from oil produced in the areas it had over-run, bought at bargain prices by dealers in Turkey and elsewhere. Its income was augmented by smuggling, taxes, ransoms from kidnappings, selling stolen artifacts, extortion and controlling crops.

          Islamic experts explain that in the extremist world-view the Ummah (or ‘community of believers’) is in a state of total war with three designated enemies: the West, the Jews, and Shia Muslim regimes together with their inhabitants. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to ‘suppress the true faith’ – beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape – but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law and democracy.

          IS’s treatment of the people it had conquered was barbaric in the extreme. Hundreds of Yazidi men were butchered in a series of blood-thirsty killing sprees, and at one time IS was believed to be holding some 3,500 women and children from the Yazidi community as slaves.

          IS and its followers also clearly revelled in carrying the war into the heart of the enemy, instigating acts of indiscriminate terror in Western cities and against Western tourists around the world. Adhering to a religious philosophy which glorifies death, its adherents still flock to commit suicide in acts designed to destroy as many innocent lives as possible.

          The succession of terrorist outrages committed inside Western countries make some sort of sense only if based on the assumption that democratic societies are basically unstable, and that under sufficient pressure they will implode – an assumption replete with wishful thinking, and on a par with Hitler’s belief in 1940 that a sustained bombing campaign on London would result in a collapse of morale.

          Individuals induced to undertake suicide terror attacks may glory in their own “martyrdom” and gain satisfaction from causing death, misery and mayhem, but they do little to advance the establishment of a world-wide caliphate. Although such attacks may generate fear in Western populations, they are more likely to stiffen their governments’ determination to boost their counter-terrorist operations and bear down heavily on those who plan and perpetrate terror.

          At one time it seemed that to remove IS from their well-entrenched positions in places like Mosul and Raqqa would be well-nigh impossible. At its optimum, the IS caliphate occupied an area bigger than Jordan or Austria, and governed around 10 million people. Today, thanks to the sustained efforts of the US-led coalition, with an especial mention of the battlefield victories of the Kurdish Peshmega fighting force, the IS caliphate on the ground has disappeared. Its barbarous reign is effectively over.

          Several positive benefits follow. IS can no longer terrorize those living under its control. Its power to influence impressionable young Muslims from around the world to join its ranks is severely compromised. As for the hundreds of volunteer fighters now languishing in camps, to say nothing of the young women who flocked to join them as jihadi brides, the scales may have fallen from the eyes of at least some. Yet extremist Muslim philosophy retains a strong appeal to impressionable young minds, and it would be a mistake for the Western democracies to lower their guard simply because IS’s grip on the territory it once controlled has been wrested from it.

          What has happened to al-Baghdadi? Some media have reported him dead. In contrast, on 19 February 2019 the Arabic-language service of Russia Today (RT) television quoted an Iraqi intelligence source as saying: "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and is in Syria," a report confirmed by local media, which have also reported that al-Baghdadi, dressed in civilian clothes, is on the run in Syria, continually changing locations.

          That sort of fate was avoided by Adolf Hitler back in 1945. On 30 April. when it was clear beyond any doubt that his Thousand-Year Reich was dead and gone, he took a gun and shot himself. He was 56.


Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 February 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 February 2019:

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Where’s the positive thinking about Israel-Palestine?

                                                                               Video version
          Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday, 9 April. Ahead of the general election, old political parties like Likud and Labor, and newly-formed ones like Israel Resilience and New Right, have been publishing their platforms – the policies on which they seek the support of voters.

          Anyone scrutinizing these party platforms for new outside-the-box proposals for tackling the Israel-Palestine situation will search in vain. Not one of the political parties, new or old, is offering any new thinking on the perennial problem facing the nation and the region.

          The Likud leadership, with advance knowledge of what is contained in the long-awaited, and long-delayed, Trump peace deal, may be relying on just that. Typically trumpeted in advance as “the deal of the century”, it will probably receive an equivocal reception when it is eventually unveiled after the general election. Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas has already condemned it sight unseen, while recent reports suggest that its main hoped-for supporter, Saudi Arabia, has been laying down conditions before agreeing to come out in its defence.

          So there is room enough, and to spare, for some bold, positive thinking about how the long-standing problem might be resolved.

          On 3 September 2018 the Palestinian Information Center, known as Palinfo, published this: “During a meeting with an Israeli delegation that visited Ramallah on Sunday, 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,” said Abbas.”

          The statement was more or less ignored by commentators in the media.

          Abbas has a good deal of reason on his side. Prowling around the PA stockade is Hamas, ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, hungry for power in the West Bank, and harrying Abbas for a decade. Every effort to effect a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and they are numerous, have failed. The PA leadership is rightly worried about losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or even via democratic elections, for Hamas has a fair following among the Palestinian public which is not enamoured of the inadequacies of the PA. The latest poll of Palestinian opinion shows no less than 80 percent of the public believe that PA institutions are riddled with corruption.

          The poll, held in December 2018, revealed a significant rise in Hamas’s popularity and that of its leader, Ismail Haniyeh. If only Abbas and Haniyeh were nominated in new presidential elections, Abbas would receive 42 percent and Haniyeh 49 percent of the vote, compared to 47 percent for Abbas and 45 percent for Haniyeh in the previous poll in September 2018.

          Like it or not, Abbas realizes that if ever a sovereign Palestine came into being, it would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than his own resources could provide – one powerful reason for supporting the confederation concept.

          An even more fundamental issue 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, and reiterating the message in the media and the schools that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of its 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.

          The political reality is that any viable solution would have to be based on an Arab-wide consensus, within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed. In recent times moderate Arab states, led perhaps by Saudi Arabia, have begun to perceive Israel as an ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political. The US-led summit on Middle East security, held in Warsaw on 13 and 14 February 2019, focused its attention on the threat posed by Iran to the Arab world. The PA, fearful that the Israel-Palestine issue was being sidelined, declined an invitation to attend and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Arab nations to boycott the conference.

          It seems increasingly likely that the Arab League could prove a broker for peace acceptable to all parties. Under its shield the PA could participate, with Jordan and Israel, in bringing Abbas’s concept of a three-state confederation to reality. This new entity – a Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – could come into legal existence simultaneously with a new sovereign Palestine that ideally would include Gaza.

          The negotiations to bring about this kind of political solution would be lengthy, intensive and complex. But if successful, the end-result would be eminently worthwhile. A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation, geared to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, could also be dedicated to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. From the moment it came into legal existence, the confederation could make it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, including Hamas, would be disciplined and crushed from within. The Israel Defense Forces would act in concert with the defence forces of the other states to guarantee the security of Israel and that of the confederation as a whole.

          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 a configuration offering the possibility of a peaceful and thriving Middle East. Surely it is attractive enough for at least one of Israel’s contending political groupings to adopt as its proposed policy in the forthcoming election?

Published in the Eurasia Review, 16 February 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 16 February 2019:

Friday, 15 February 2019

Britain's next Labour government and Israel

This article appears in the edition of the "Jerusalem Report" dated 25 February 2019
          In the UK the political pendulum is always on the move. Sometimes it swings very slowly, but swing it does. So, although the timing may be unsure, what is certain is that at some point in the future a Labour government will be voted into power in the United Kingdom.

          The current political situation gives Labour supporters grounds for optimism. Back in 2017 prime minister Theresa May, in an attempt to boost her party’s standing ahead of her Brexit negotiations, engineered a snap general election. Against all the odds – and they were substantial at the time – the Labour party, invigorated by an influx of enthusiastic young people, slashed May’s majority and left her with a minority government.

          In Israel it is necessary for the party winning most seats to do deals with smaller parties in order to build a parliamentary majority. In the UK it is highly unusual, but on this occasion May was forced to seek an arrangement with the 10-member Northern Irish DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) – an arrangement that came unstuck in the furore of Brexit.

         When the House of Commons came to vote on the exit deal that May had negotiated with the EU, the DUP refused to back her. Facing opposition also from the Labour party and even from considerable numbers of her own Conservatives, May suspended the parliamentary vote on her deal while she undertook to open further discussions with the EU. When she returned to the Commons with the minor clarifications she had wrung from the EU, she suffered the worst parliamentary defeat in modern British history.

          A chaotic situation ensued. Labour tabled a vote of no confidence in the government, but failed to win it. The party could try again, and if they succeeded a general election would be a very likely outcome. But even if the government manages to soldier on until 2022 when, in accordance with the UK’s 5-year fixed term parliamentary system, a general election must take place, the Labour hierarchy is extremely hopeful that it would win an outright majority and form the next government.

          What would be the effect on Israel and on Britain’s Jewish community of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn?

          Whatever Corbyn’s own views on anti-Semitism – and he repeatedly condemns it, sweeping it up with his passionate denunciation of racism in all its forms – there is no doubting his pretty total opposition to Israel. It is not only Israel’s current right-wing government that he abhors, but Israel’s very existence. He is on record as viewing the establishment of the state of Israel as a racist endeavour – and he strove hard to have this opinion appended to Labour’s eventual and grudging acceptance of the internationally approved definition of anti-Semitism. On this he was defeated by his party’s ruling body, but it is an opinion shared by his closest advisers.

           The man Corbyn appointed to run Labour’s election campaign in 2017, and who will run it in 2022 if not before, is Andrew Murray. Debarred on account of his past affiliations from working in the House of Commons, banned from the Ukraine, and refused entry to Israel until 2025, Murray chaired the anti-Israel organization Stop The War for some twelve years. In 2009 one of the group’s founders, John Rees, described Hamas and Hezbollah as a legitimate part of their movement. Murray has denounced as “bloody aggression” Israel’s reaction to Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilians. Seeking to isolate Israel from international left-wing interests, he has called on UK trade unionists to break their long-standing fraternal links with the Histadrut, Israel’s trade union movement.

          Few wield more power in the group surrounding Corbyn than Seumas Milne, a fierce opponent of Israel. Before joining Corbyn’s team in 2015, Milne was comment editor for The Guardian, running a controversial operation that was notoriously anti-Israel. “I never regarded him as a journalist,” a former Guardian colleague is reported as saying, “but as a propagandist...The basics of reporting both sides of an argument were anathema to him.” 

          In 2009 Milne described Israel as a state “created by European colonists, built on the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.” That same year he told a rally that the creation of Israel was a “crime”. In an anti-Israel rally in 2014 Milne declared: “Israel has no right to defend itself from territory it illegally occupies… It’s not terrorism to fight back. The terrorism is the killing of civilians by Israel on an industrial scale.”

          Seamus Milne is Labour’s director of communications and strategy. Should Corbyn ever become prime minister, Milne is likely to mastermind a hard-line anti-Israel policy for the new Labour government. One Labour insider has been quoted as saying: “Israel would have to assume that diplomatic relations [with the UK] were unofficially null and void.”

          A word also about Jon Lansman, the leader of the hard-left organization Momentum. Back in 2015 Lansman skillfully master-minded Corbyn’s campaign to gain the leadership of the Labour party. Voting for the leader of the Labour party is open to all paid-up members, and prior to the poll Lansman mounted a recruitment campaign that boosted party membership to an all-time record of 600,000. Against all the odds he secured a win for a declared Marxist, who had consistently opposed the social democratic policies of his party and its leaders.

          Labour stalwarts were shocked, and in Corbyn’s early days as party leader his MPs, by an overwhelming majority, passed a vote of no confidence in him. As a result the leadership election was re-run, and he won again on a majority of 61 percent, henceforth maintaining that his mandate came not from his MPs, but from the popular vote. 

          Having achieved a key position in the inner sanctum of the Labour party, Lansman embarked on a “democratization” process aimed at removing as many social democrat Labour MPs as possible. Under current arrangements a “sitting member” is automatically the party’s candidate in the next general election, if they choose to stand. However the process is well under way of requiring a fully-fledged re-selection process in each constituency. At the same time hard-left members are being infiltrated into the party at local level to guarantee the selection of “correct-thinking” candidates.

          As for a future Labour government’s policy towards Israel, the general outline was clearly demonstrated in the party’s annual conference in September 2018. To a standing ovation and the wild waving of Palestinian flags, Corbyn pledged that “as soon as we take office” Labour would recognize a Palestinian state. Denouncing as “illegal and inhuman” Israel’s response to the Hamas-inspired attempts to breach the Gaza-Israel border, he demanded “an independent international investigation into Israel’s use of force” against what he described as “unarmed Palestinian demonstrators”. Earlier, in a near-unanimous show of hands, the conference passed a motion calling for a freeze of UK government arms sales to Israel.

          If implemented by a future Labour government, this ban would be consistent with Corbyn’s support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. As he said in 2015: “I think the boycott campaign, divestment campaign, is part and parcel of a legal process that has to be adopted.”

          Setting aside for the moment the effect on Israel of a BDS policy, for the UK it would be a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. UK-Israeli trade is flourishing as never before. From some $6 billion four years ago, in 2017 it achieved over $9 billion, while the figures for 2018 look set to hit a new record. As for arms sales, in 2017 the UK issued $283 million-worth of arms licenses to British defense companies exporting to Israel – in 2016 it was $110 million and only $26 million in 2015.

           All this – to say nothing of the close collaboration between the UK and Israel in the fields of intelligence and high-tech security – will be at risk. British-Israeli cooperation in cyber security is rated a “first-order partnership”. With many Israeli cyber companies involved in the British market, several UK firms have joined the growing list of multinational corporations establishing cyber security centres in Israel.

          From the point of view of the advisory team surrounding Corbyn, there is a certain electoral logic to a BDS delegitimization policy towards Israel. The current population of the United Kingdom is about 66 million, of which some 3.4 million, or 5.15 percent are Muslim. The total number of Jews residing in the UK is about 270,000, or 0.4 percent of the total population. So although the British Muslim community contains a substantial moderate element, the calculation might be that sufficient Muslim opinion would respond positively to an anti-Israel policy to provide Labour with an electoral advantage.

          However much Labour politicians might decry anti-Semitism as such, an actively anti-Israel Labour government would inevitably embolden anti-Jewish feeling within the population and change the climate of opinion toward the Jewish community. Shechita [slaughtering animals in conformity with religious practice]  and Brit Mila [religious circumcision] might be at risk, despite Muslim objections (both practices are common to Islam and Judaism). The inevitable conclusion is that the prospects for Israel in general, and for British Jewry in particular, of a Corbyn-led Labour government look grim indeed. If there is any hope, it may lie in the fact that the last Labour leader to contest a general election on a far-left agenda – Michael Foot – suffered the worst electoral defeat in recent times.

          Is the British electorate ready for Corbyn’s Marxist-inspired policies? Or eventually, once the inexorable electoral pendulum has swung far enough, will British voters give their trust to a Labour party under more moderate leadership?

Published in the Jerusalem Report, 25 February 2019:

Friday, 8 February 2019

Tales from a Diplomatic Life

This review of Zalman Shoval's memoirs: "Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy" appears in the Jerusalem Post magazine of 8 February 2019

          Zalman Shoval made aliyah in 1936 at the age of 6. Mandate Palestine was in turmoil, and it was not long before he got caught up in the political excitement. Aged 14, the enthusiastic young Zionist penned an essay describing the future Jewish state that he was certain would soon emerge. His headmaster gathered the higher grade students together, and had Shoval read it out to them. This, Shoval recalls in his “Jerusalem and Washington: A Life in Politics and Diplomacy”, was his first political appearance in public.

          It was to be the beginning of a life largely devoted to the internal politics and foreign policy of Israel. Starting with the pre-State struggle against the British administration, Shoval’s career in the political sphere mirrors the history of Israel itself. Along the way he was elected to the Knesset from time to time, and also served two terms between 1990 and 2000 as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

          So for most of his working life Shoval was at the heart of Israel’s political machine, and his take on the nation’s major political and diplomatic events is unflinchingly honest. In describing the period leading up to his first ambassadorial appointment, Shoval provides an uninhibited account of some of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings and political back-stabbings that seem an inextricable part of Israel’s statecraft. He is equally frank when, as Israeli ambassador, he turns to his dealings with various US administrations and his experiences on the world stage.

          Party labels change with bewildering rapidity in Israeli politics, but the political inclinations of individuals are more constant. Throughout his long and distinguished career in public affairs, Shoval leaned to the right of the old Ashkenazi élite. So when in 1965 David Ben Gurion broke from the centre-left Mapai to form a new party, to be called Rafi, Shoval went with him.

          Rafi’s fortunes waxed and waned. They were at a particularly low ebb in 1968 when a number of powerful voices in the party advocated reunifying Rafi with Mapai, a proposal which Ben Gurion strongly opposed. He was outvoted. The reunification went ahead and, together with a smaller left-wing group, this new political entity became the Labor party. Neither BG nor Shoval approved of its political direction, and as soon as Shimon Peres entered the government, Shoval left Labor.

          Just before the 1969 Knesset elections Ben Gurion, then aged 80, gave his approval to suggestions from his closest political allies to revive Rafi. Shoval was among the leading figures in its reconstitution, and was placed fifth on its list in the general election. In the event Rafi won four seats – but when Ben Gurion resigned in 1970, Shoval found himself shoe-horned into the Knesset for the first time.

          During his time in parliament, and subsequently, Shoval became well-known in political circles as a powerful advocate, both in private and in public, for policies he believed in. The general election of 1977 was a triumph for Menachim Begin, but his success in the polls generated a torrent of adverse publicity. Once a commander in Etzel (or the Irgun as it is more commonly known in English), Begin was being castigated in the international media as a terrorist. Shoval was drafted in to brief foreign correspondents with a more favourable view, which he did with great success.

          It was partly for these skills that he was seconded to Israel’s delegation to the UN where he honed his abilities in political public diplomacy. Following the historic visit of Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, Shoval was directly involved in the negotiations which led to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and was present throughout the Camp David discussions between Begin, Sadat and US President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

          It was during the days of the Shamir-Peres unity government that his name was bandied about as a possible ambassador to the US. Shoval is frank about the political machinations that underlay his delayed, but eventual, appointment, and about the problems and tensions generated by the fact that although appointed by prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, foreign minister David Levy regarded himself as Shoval’s direct superior.

          Certain major themes dominate Shoval’s account of his public service. The most persistent was the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the continuing attempts to achieve some sort of breakthrough. One stumbling block was the settlement issue, and Shoval’s insider account describes the tensions between the US and Israel on the matter. An authoritative legal opinion by President George H W Bush’s special legal adviser on international law debarred Washington from describing them as “illegal”, but they were a constant bone of contention, described by various US administrations an “obstacle to the peace process”.

          He was involved in peace effort after peace effort – Madrid, Oslo, Annapolis, Wye River, the Quartet’s Road Map – all to no effect. Shoval sets out the background to each, describes the personalities and the clash of political opinions involved, and explains as only someone on the inside could, the reasons for failure on each occasion.

          Anyone fascinated by the minutiae of Israel’s politics, its intrigues and machinations, but also its successes and failures, will be delighted to be led by Zalman Shoval through his personal account of his country’s high points and low during a major period of its history.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Yemen and the Pope

                   Video version
For once the description “historic” was no exaggeration when, on 3 February 2019, Pope Francis I set foot on the Arabian peninsula. This was the first time, since the establishment of the Muslim faith fourteen centuries ago, that a pontiff had ever done so. He was visiting the Sunni Gulf state of the UAE (the United Arab Emirates), at the invitation of its crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The visit was arranged to demonstrate the reality behind the UAE’s designation of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. 

          The Pope was accorded a right royal welcome. Inter-faith discussions with leading Muslim clerics and scholars were organized, and facilities were provided for him to celebrate a public mass at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the capital city of Abu Dhabi before a congregation of some 135,000 people. Many of them were reported to be Catholic migrants from places such as the Philippines and South America, part of a large migrant community in the oil-rich country, but the gathering included also imams, muftis, ministers, rabbis, swamis, Zoroastrians and Sikhs.

          Pope Francis did not mince words in his address, a message clearly intended as much for his hosts as for the world in general: "War cannot create anything but misery, weapons bring nothing but death. I am thinking in particular of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya."

          It was a controversial thing to say, for it is no secret that the UAE is heavily involved in the war in Yemen.

          The conflict in Yemen had its origins in the sadly misnamed “Arab spring” uprisings of 2011. Mass protests, a near-assassination, and pressure from neighbouring petro-states forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in favour of his vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi was then universally recognized as the legitimate president of Yemen.

          Although a Sunni Muslim, the deposed Saleh seemed intent on manoeuvring a return to power in collaboration with the Iran-backed Shia rebel group known as the Houthis. It was through Saleh that the Houthis were able to gain control of most of the Yemeni military, including its air force. As a result, and supported with military hardware from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, they overran large tracts of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a.

          Yemen sits to the south of Saudi Arabia behind a thousand mile border, and it seemed as though Iran was about to gain a significant foothold on the Arabian peninsula and thus threaten Saudi Arabia directly. Determined to prevent this, in March 2015 the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), assembled a coalition of Arab states including the UAE, obtained the diplomatic backing of the US, Turkey and Pakistan, and launched a series of air strikes against the rebels. The aim was to beat back the Houthis and re-establish Hadi in power.

          The unconventional Saleh-Houthi partnership came to an abrupt end on 2 December 2017, when Saleh went on television to declare that he was splitting from the Houthi rebels. On 4 December Saleh's house in Sana'a was besieged by Houthi fighters and he was killed.

          Four years of combat have not succeeded in defeating the Houthis. In December 2018 peace talks negotiated by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, achieved a minor easing of the humanitarian disaster which has overtaken the civilian population, but co-operation between the two sides stalled. They accuse each other of violating the ceasefire in the vital port city of Hodeida. Griffiths is reported to be trying to arrange a new round of talks, possibly in Jordan.

          Although the Houthis were responsible for initiating the turmoil in the first place, it is the Saudis and their coalition who are at the receiving end of the world’s opprobrium for the humanitarian devastation that the conflict has wrought. After investing billions of dollars in the war, MBS is said to want to cut his military losses and withdraw from Yemen in exchange for some diplomatic arrangement.

          What Yemen needs are elections, an inclusive government, and a new structure for the state. Can Griffiths bring the Houthis to accept this? UN Resolution 2216 aims to establish democracy in a federally united Yemen. A lasting political deal would of course involve the end of the Saudi-led military operation, and probably a major financial commitment by Saudi to fund the rebuilding of the country.

          Finally the Houthis must be given the opportunity to choose. Do they wish to remain an outlawed militia permanently, or would they prefer to become a legitimate political party, able to contest parliamentary and presidential elections and participate in government? The price would be serious engagement in negotiations aimed at a peaceful transition to a political solution for a united Yemen.

          Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and its main ally, the UAE, are facing accusations of transferring American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen, in violation of their agreements with the United States. Local commanders were reported as claiming that the Saudis and the UAE were using US weapons as currency to buy off different factions and militias in the Yemeni conflict, including Iranian-backed fighters.

          The charges, which immediately became the subject of an inquiry in the US Senate, were endorsed on 6 February 2019 in the report of an investigation by Amnesty International. Titled: “When arms go astray: Yemen’s deadly new threat of arms diversion to militias,” it claimed that the UAE has become a major conduit for armoured vehicles, mortar systems, rifles, pistols, and machine guns which were being illicitly diverted to unaccountable militias accused of war crimes and other serious violations.

          These revelations give added urgency to the words of Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi: “Let us commit ourselves against the logic of armed power…God is with those who seek peace.“

Published by the Eurasia Review, 10 February 2019:

Published by the MPC Journal, 11 February 2019:

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Palestinian politics in turmoil

                                                                         Video Version
          The struggle between Hamas and Fatah for the soul of the Palestinian people began almost from the moment that Hamas was created in 1987 as a radical off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

          Hamas regarded the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organization), founded in 1964 to “liberate Palestine through armed struggle”, as not effective enough, despite the string of terrorist actions it perpetrated. When the PLO entered into peace talks with Israel, Hamas was appalled. Its leader, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, condemned the first Oslo Accord agreement of 1993, and rejected the PLO recognition of the State of Israel. Yasser Arafat, he declared, was “destroying Palestinian society and sowing the seeds of discord and division among Palestinians.”

          Hamas was never comfortable either with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which emerged from the Oslo accords, nor with its claim to be the sole representative of the Palestinian people. It rejected the PA’s “play it long” policy of pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries, even though it was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s efforts to obtain recognition of a State of Palestine within the United Nations, since to do so would also legitimize Israel.

          At the heart of the Hamas-Fatah conflict is this fundamental difference about the most effective route to reach their common objective. It led to the refusal by Hamas in 2006 to participate in a national unity government dominated by Fatah. Led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted an armed coup in Gaza, ousted Fatah from the Strip and seized control. Since then Hamas has made no secret of its aspiration to replace Fatah as the governing body of the West Bank. Sometimes it chooses to acknowledge Abbas as Palestinian leader; sometimes it refuses to recognize him as PA president at all on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005 for a four-year term, has long expired. Hamas has, moreover, consistently tried to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells in the West Bank to launch attacks on Israel.

           Ismail Haniyeh, who replaced Mashal as leader of Hamas in 2017, pursued the same hard line. Abbas reacted by attempting to force Hamas into submission through cutting financial support and restricting the Strip’s access to electricity. The many efforts at reconciliation between the parties, the most recent sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism has led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.

          The current PA government, headed by prime minister Rami Hamdallah, was formed in 2014 following a temporary truce between Fatah and Hamas. On 27 January 2019, in view of the obvious split between the two organizations, the Fatah Central Council recommended that the PA government be disbanded, and that Abbas form a new administration mainly drawn from various PLO groups.
           The next day, as Hamdallah indicated that he was willing to step down, Hamas declared that a new PA government would serve only to deepen its split with Fatah.

          “A new government consisting of PLO factions will consolidate the rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Our people are in need of a national unity government representing all Palestinians.”

          As Abbas accepted Hamdallah’s resignation and set about forming his new government, conspiracy theories proliferated. One Hamas official, Hazem Qassem, declared “This is an attempt by Abbas to detach the West Bank from the Gaza Strip.”

          A dissident Fatah figure, Khaled Abu Hilal, believed that Abbas was in the pocket of US President Donald Trump. “Fatah’s intention to form a political factional government in the West Bank proves that Abbas is involved with the deal of the century.” He was referring to Trump’s pending peace plan for the Middle East which, according to wilder Palestinian speculation, will propose setting up a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip.

          Two PLO groups, the DLFP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the PLFP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) declared that they would not participate in the new government – an irrelevance in their view The real priority, they declared, was to heal the Fatah-Hamas split. Miriam Abu Dakka, a senior PFLP official, maintained that Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction was not authorized to decide on forming a new government, and had usurped the function of the PLO.

          Azzam al-Ahmed, one of many possible successors to Hamdallah, said that the rationale behind forming a new government was to disengage from Hamas, which had been trying to exploit the current administration. Hamdallah himself, on the other hand, said that attempts to detach the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian state would not succeed.

          “There will be no state in the Gaza Strip,” he said, “and there will be no state without the Gaza Strip… National unity and reconciliation are the ideal solution to ending the occupation. And,” he added for good measure, “the deal of the century will not materialize.”

          This change of government comes hard on the heels of another political coup engineered by Abbas in December 2018, when he announced a new Supreme Constitutional Court ruling calling for the dissolution of the PA’s Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), and for elections to it to be held within six months. The following day Hamas rejected this as unconstitutional, asserting that neither Abbas nor the court were permitted to dissolve the PLC. Hamas called instead for general elections, including for the presidency.

           Hamas has dominated the PLC ever since the 2006 elections. It holds 76 of the 132 seats. Fatah holds only 43. However, ever since Gaza and the West Bank have been at loggerheads, the PLC has been dormant, and Abbas has increasingly ruled by presidential decree. The dissolution of the PLC would allow Abbas to consolidate his power by moving much of the decision-making process to the PLO Central Council, in which Hamas does not feature.

          Meanwhile, Public Opinion Poll 70, conducted in December 2018 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, not surprisingly reveals that confidence in the political system among Palestinians, as well as Abbas’s popularity rating, continues to decline.

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 February 2019

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 February 2019: