Friday, 27 December 2019

Iraq in turmoil

          Iraq is in total chaos from two unconnected threats to its very existence. On the one hand domestic protesters have brought the country to a standstill with their demands for a total clear-out of the government – president, prime minister and all; on the other, ISIS is staging a full-scale regrouping in the vast areas that lie between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north and government troops down in the south. 

          Anti-government protests began sweeping across Iraq in September 2019. They quickly turned violent as the government responded with assassination attempts and kidnappings of prominent activists. The latest to be killed was Alui al-Assami. On December 20 two unidentified gunmen riding a motorcycle intercepted Al-Assami in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, fired on him and killed him instantly. Later that day protesters headed to the headquarters of political parties that are widely seen as affiliates of Iran. and set them ablaze.

         The government’s violent crackdown on protesters has led to the deaths of dozens in Nasiriyah, but it has failed to bring public servants back to work. So far the security forces, or Iran-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have killed nearly 500 protesters, most of them unarmed civilians. Well over 27,000 have been wounded. Live rounds are reported to have been used, and military-grade tear gas canisters fired directly into crowds.

          Meanwhile Iraq’s top Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani has condemned the continued crackdown on demonstrations and called for an early election. After prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned amid national anti-corruption demonstrations, the Iraqi parliament missed its constitutionally mandated duty to nominate a replacement. Despite rumors to the contrary, no-one had been nominated by December 25.

          Officials say that Iran, a key player in Iraqi politics, wanted to install Qusay al-Suhail, who served as education minister in the previous government. But protesters categorically reject his candidacy, along with anyone from the wider political establishment which has been in place since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. They are demanding the resignation of both President Salih and of parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi.

          Electoral reform has been among one of the protesters' top demands, and the national parliament in Baghdad has approved several articles of a new draft election Bill. The draft law proposes changing the electoral system to a mix between direct voting and party lists, but this latter element has already been rejected by protesters, who believe it gives the parties too much power and would allow them to disregard voters’ wishes.

          It is obvious that some sort of resolution on the political front is still a long way off.

          Meanwhile ISIS is reforming and diversifying. On December 22, 2019 the BBC led its main news bulletins with a report indicating that two years after losing the last of its territory in Iraq, ISIS is re-organizing in the country. The report claimed that ISIS was mounting a sophisticated insurgency.

          The militants are now more skilled and more dangerous than al-Qaeda, according to Lahur Talabany, a top Kurdish counter-terrorism official. A different kind of ISIS has emerged, he says, which, to avoid being a target, no longer wants to control territory. Instead – like their predecessors in al-Qaeda before them – the extremists have gone underground in Iraq's Hamrin Mountains.

          "This is the hub for ISIS right now," he said. "It's a long range of mountains, and very difficult for the Iraqi army to control. There are a lot of hide-outs and caves."

          The militants are benefitting from strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government. Kurdish intelligence officials estimate that ISIS is10,000 strong in Iraq with between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, and a similar number of sleeper cells and sympathisers.

          Reestablished in northern Iraq , ISIS is raising money by extorting payments from farmers under penalty of destroying crops. It also has investments in markets ranging from car sales and fish farming to production of cannabis. It is in the ungoverned spaces in eastern Syria and across northern Iraq, particularly in the border areas between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and those that the central government controls, that have been taken over by ISIS. And small ISIS units are operating in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar.

          ISIS has been recruiting followers among the tens of thousands of people housed in the Kurdish-run displacement camps in Syria, especially Al Hol, home to 70,000 people. To this must be added some 10,000 ISIS fighters in separate makeshift prisons.

          More than a year after Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS, the movement is rising from its ashes like the legendary phoenix. A politically ravaged Iraq, its government clinging precariously to power, has provided prime conditions for ISIS to stage its comeback. Unless the West takes notice reasonably soon, the five-year battles of 2014-2019 may have to be fought all over again.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 31 December 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 28 December 2019:

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Britain repudiates Jeremy Corbyn - the Jewish dimension

This article of mine appears in the new edition of the Jerusalem Report, dated 6 January 2020
          Britain’s 2019 general election was both historic and unique. It was historic in the scale of the nation’s rejection of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn – not since 1935 had Labour suffered so massive an electoral defeat. It was unique in the fact that never before had antisemitism and the interests of the Jewish community played a role in a British election.

          Commenting on the election result the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone – suspended but never expelled from the Labour Party for a succession of antisemitic remarks – said: “The Jewish vote wasn’t very helpful.” But the Jewish vote was not very significant either. There are about 290,000 Jews in the UK, some 0.4 percent of the population. They tend to be concentrated in certain locations within the big cities – London, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow. So although the Jewish vote could perhaps have influenced the result in a few constituencies, it could not possibly have had any significant effect on the overall picture.

          Nevertheless, the issue of antisemitism was undoubtedly a major factor before and during the election campaign in eroding confidence in the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and in the party’s eventual electoral downfall. The 2019 election was lost by Labour on two issues: Brexit and Corbyn’s unpopularity.

          Large swathes of Labour’s traditional working class supporters in the centre and north of England had voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, while Labour’s middle-class professionals and new, young, urban-based adherents were solidly Remain. In attempting to mollify both by adopting a so-called “neutral” position on the issue, Corbyn succeeded in satisfying neither. His core working-class support felt betrayed by his failure to carry through his initial promise to implement the result of the referendum, and deserted Labour in droves.

          Labour canvassers attempting to drum up support on the doorstep found that Labour’s Brexit failure was matched by a widespread rejection of Corbyn himself as a possible prime minister. He was perceived as unpatriotic, untrustworthy on the issue of the nation’s security, and tarred with the brush of antisemitism – in that order.

          The antisemitism issue had been highlighted in an unprecedented intervention by the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, shortly after the election was called. In an article in The Times, Britain’s leading newspaper of record, he virtually urged both the Jewish community and the nation as a whole, not to vote Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 Downing Street as prime minister. His article was endorsed almost immediately by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the leader of the Church of England.

          "With the heaviest of hearts,” wrote Rabbi Mirvis, “I call upon the citizens of our great country to study what has been unfolding before our very eyes,” setting out in stark detail some of the main failures in leadership on the issue of antisemitism in the Labour party that had marked Corbyn’s period in office. We have watched with incredulity, he said, “as supporters of the Labour leadership have hounded parliamentarians, party members and even staff out of the party for facing down anti-Jewish racism. Even as they received unspeakable threats against themselves and their families, the response of the Labour leadership was utterly inadequate.

          “We have endured quibbling and prevarication over whether the party should adopt the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism in the world. When the breakthrough came it was not without amendments, suggesting Labour knows more about antisemitism than Jewish people do.”

          “Mendacious fiction” was how the Chief Rabbi described claims by the Labour leadership to be doing everything it reasonably could to tackle anti-Jewish racism, and that it has “investigated every single case”. He maintained that there are “at least 130 outstanding cases currently before the party – some dating back years – and thousands more have been reported but remain unresolved.”

          Rabbi Mirvis asked how complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition have to be in order to be considered unfit for high office.

          “Would associations with those who have openly incited hatred against Jews be enough?” he queried. “Would support for a racist mural, depicting powerful hook-nosed Jews supposedly getting rich at the expense of the weak and downtrodden be enough? Would describing as “friends” those who endorse and even perpetrate the murder of Jews be enough?”

          His wry conclusion was: “It seems not.”

          Elsewhere in the article the Chief Rabbi wrote: “Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they proudly called their political home for more than a century… This is the Labour Party in name only.”

          He concluded: “It is not my place to tell any person how they should vote. I simply pose the following question: What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? …Be in no doubt – the very soul of our nation is at stake.”

          The last opinion polls before election day were far from unanimous. Some predicted a hung parliament like the one Boris Johnson was seeking to escape from, with no party gaining an outright majority. Most forecast a small working majority for Johnson’s Conservative party, with the more adventurous suggesting a margin of error reaching as high as 40 seats.

          Then, on the dot of 10 pm, with the voting stations firmly closed, the media announced the result of the nationwide exit poll. To the total incredulity not only of the TV and radio presenters, but of the nation as a whole, it appeared that the Labour party had suffered a major defeat, losing nearly 50 seats, while the Conservatives, with a total tally of some 370 seats, had won a majority over all other parties of something like 80.

          Next day one UK journalist, Allison Pearson, wrote: ”Oh, that exit poll! Will we ever forget the sense of joy’n’relief intermingled when it flashed up on the BBC? Immediately, I called my Jewish friend. “Thank God, thank God,” she said, over and over, a lifelong Labour voter made politically homeless by the terrible Trots.” Pearson concluded her article with: “I hope the Chief Rabbi is pleased. The soul of our nation is intact.”

          Labour’s electoral débacle started early. The first results began to appear at about 11.30 pm. The first two were Labour seats returning candidates with reduced majorities. Then came Blyth Valley, a constituency so solidly Labour that it had been considered beyond the reach of the Conservatives. Lo and behold, it had confounded all expectations and chosen a Conservative as its Member of Parliament – a Conservative, moreover, tantalizingly named Ian Levy. Mr Levy’s family claims a 500-year ancestry in Blyth, a coastal town in the south-east of the county of Northumberland. So shocked by the result was Levy, a mental health worker, that with tears in his eyes he could hardly deliver his victory speech.

           Johnson won the election on a slogan of just three words – just as he had achieved his surprising victory in the Brexit referendum. On that occasion his campaign was masterminded by the maverick strategist Dominic Cummings, who devised the crowd-puller: “Take Back Control”. For the 2019 election, Johnson summoned back the young Australian strategist who had devised and carried through his two successful bids for the London mayoralty, and the Conservative’s 2015 general election campaign. Isaac Levido left his job as deputy director of Australia’s Liberal Party in August 2019 and came to the UK to put the Conservative party on a war footing, working under the general direction of Dominic Cummings. Cummings no doubt had a say in the three-word vote-winning slogan repeated constantly by Johnson during the campaign: “Get Brexit Done”.

          That slogan will persist at least until the UK actually leaves the EU on January 31, 2020. But Johnson has a broader vision for the country - a vision drawing its inspiration from Britain’s nineteenth century Jewish-born prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Back in the 1840s, while leading a rebel group called “Young England” in the Tory party (the predecessor of today’s Conservatives), he wrote two novels in which he expounded his view that the rapid industrialization of Britain had widened the chasm in society between the rich and the poor.

          Into the mouth of one of his characters in Sybil, or The Two Nations, he put: “Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Although Disraeli himself never used the phrase “One Nation”, it was under that soubriquet that his political philosophy was subsequently adopted by the Conservative party, and had an enormous influence on its development. As Boris Johnson has declared: “I'm a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy.”

          Standing outside the prime minister’s London residence in Downing Street, after the final results of Britain’s 2019 general election had been published, Johnson reiterated the underlying philosophy of his predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli: “In winning this election we have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before…Those people want change. We cannot, must not, let them down. And in delivering change we must change too. We must recognize the incredible reality that we now speak as a one-nation Conservative Party literally for everyone.” 

          Johnson shares with Disraeli another deeply-held political philosophy – Zionism. Like his eminent predecessor, Johnson has declared himself “a passionate Zionist.” Unlike Corbyn, who promised to recognize the state of Palestine and end arms exports to Israel if he became prime minister, Johnson is enthusiastically in favour of expanding all aspects of Anglo-Israeli trade, which has been growing exponentially in the past few years. Under the Johnson government, UK-Israeli relations are likely to become even closer across the board, not least in the high-tech, security and intelligence fields. Post-Brexit Britain is eager to expand relationships with friendly nations outside the EU. Israel stands high on that list. The UK’s 2019 general election is likely to prove highly beneficial not only to its Jewish community, but to Israel as well.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 27 December 2019:

Friday, 20 December 2019

Turkey racks up tension in the eastern Med

          There was reason behind Turkey’s invasion in 1974 of northern Cyprus, an area largely inhabited by ethnic Turks. Turkey was reacting to a coup, masterminded by the then military junta in Greece, aimed at overturning the Cypriot government and substituting one favoring Enosis, or union with Greece.

          But strong-arm tactics, no matter how justified, had fallen out of favour. Turkey eventually seized nearly 40 percent of the island, and set up the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), but the world has never accepted its legitimacy. It has been recognized by no international organization and no country other than Turkey itself. Despite many attempts over the years to re-unify Cyprus, a political accommodation has never been achieved. As for dislodging the illegal Turkey-backed regime by military force, that has never seemed a viable option. No nation or international body has been prepared to take on Turkey’s formidable military machine.

          So for most of the past 45 years the issue has been one of those many unresolved political problems that the world seems content to view with a blind eye, like Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. But the discovery around 2010 of vast reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG) off the coasts of Israel and Cyprus was bound to bring equally vast consequences in its train.

          Among the first, and perhaps the least anticipated, has been the creation of a new geopolitical entity in the eastern Mediterranean – a tripartite alliance of Greece, Cyprus and Israel that promises to bring both stability to the region, and the prospect of enormous technological, economic and environmental advances.
          The next, and even more surprising development, was the foundation in January 2019 of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) by a consortium consisting of Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Energy ministers from each met in Cairo in July 2019 to discuss how to accelerate the development of the region’s vast gas resources and to increase cooperation. The aim was to pave the way for a “sustainable regional gas market” by fostering regional energy cooperation.

          Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and does not recognize the government of Cyprus, its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), its maritime border agreements with Egypt, Israel or Lebanon, or the licenses that Cyprus has awarded to foreign energy companies. Having positioned itself outside the international agreements, Turkey has been drilling for some years in waters internationally recognized as being part of Cyprus’s EEZ. Accordingly, it was not invited to participate in the new Forum.

          The EU has repeatedly said it considers Turkey’s drilling offshore Cyprus as illegal and, together with the US, has warned Turkey to halt its operations. In July the EU suspended all EU-Turkey high-level dialogue, and asked the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey. In November 2019 the EU imposed new sanctions on Turkey, saying they would be lifted as soon as Turkey ceased its unauthorized drilling operations.

          Turkey is driven by a sort of illegal logic. Having seized and occupied northern Cyprus, it is now claiming a share in the vast oil and liquefied natural gas bonanza that has unexpectedly appeared off the coastline of its unrecognized Republic. It describes the areas in question as part of the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot EEZs. Turkey does, of course, have a Mediterranean coastline, but it runs to the north of Cyprus, while the gas reserves are in the so-called Energy Triangle south and east of the island.

          On December 15 Turkey racked up tension in the region by sending a military drone to Cyprus to protect its two ships drilling for oil and gas. The drone flew from the southern coast of Turkey, landed in an air base in Turkish-occupied north Cyprus, and was immediately deployed on its first mission. Reacting to the immediate objections from the EU, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close two key US bases on Turkish soil – Incirlik, from where American jets target Islamic State targets, and Kurecik, home to a NATO radar station.

          In adopting an obviously aggressive stance, Erdogan is reacting to the US threat of sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. He is also angry about recent votes in Congress recognizing the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. Erdogan is also making a pre-emptive strike against Washington’s plans to establish a security organization in the eastern Mediterranean based on the cooperation of countries like Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Jordan – a project reported to be discussed at the trilateral summit between Greece, Cyprus and Israel scheduled for December 19 and 20.

          Meanwhile the vast potential of the oil and gas reserves in the Energy Triangle is beginning to be realized. Israel is to start pipeline exports to Egypt before the end of 2019, while Cyprus has also reached a provisional deal to pipe gas to Egypt from its Aphrodite field. 

          A key infrastructure project in the region is the EastMed pipeline, planned for completion by 2025. With the political backing of Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Italy this ambitious 2100 km pipeline is designed to link the offshore gas resources of both Cyprus and Israel to Greece and Italy. Turkey’s frustration at being excluded from these highly lucrative enterprises is understandable, but it is not likely to win a share by way of a maverick effort directed against the combined will of the rest of the world.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 21 December 2019:

Published in Israel Hayom, 26 December 2019:

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

An un-put-downable thriller

This review of mine appears in the new edition of The Jerusalem Report dated  23 December 2019

           In “The Persian Gamble”, Joel C Rosenberg picks up the threads of his riveting best-selling spy thriller, “The Kremlin Conspiracy”, and races ahead with the follow-up. 
          The Russian president, Alexander Luganov, has been assassinated, along with the head of the FSB, Russia’s security service. The killer is Oleg Kraskin, the president’s son-in-law who, totally disillusioned with the policies being pursued by the Russian government, is already preparing to defect to the United States.  But when Kraskin learns of a nuclear deal that Luganov is negotiating with North Korea, and realizes that it could trigger a new world war, he takes the split-second decision to kill the president. 
          Marcus Ryker, former US secret service agent, is in Moscow to spirit the defecting Kraskin out of the country, while Jennifer Morris, the CIA station chief in Moscow, is standing by to help him.  After the killing, Kraskin duly meets up with them, but an already difficult mission is made ten times more so when they realize that they are on the run with the man who killed the president. 
          From this beginning Rosenberg fashions a fast-moving page-turner of a thriller, played out in an entirely plausible contemporary setting.  The reader is held riveted by a plot in which succeeding events build, one after another, to a hair-raising climax..
          Rosenberg’s storyline is, in some respects, too convincing for comfort.  The elements that could make it happen are all present in today’s febrile world.
          The plot is easy to follow, though the storyline moves us rapidly from location to location.  To help readers chart their way through it. Rosenberg provides a cast of characters at the start of the book.  He lists no less than 36, each with a brief description. 
          The real villain in Rosenberg’s take on today’s world is Iran.  With nearly two billion dollars handed over to Iran by the US as part of the nuclear deal struck in 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader approves the purchase of five Russian-made nuclear warheads from North Korea.  It takes a good deal of persuasion on Marcus’s part, but finally US defence and security chiefs authorize him to intercept the warheads before they reach Iranian soil.  Once they were in Iranian hands, they come to realize, war in the Middle East would become inevitable.
          In attempting to accomplish this larger objective Marcus Ryker, together with the defector-assassin Oleg Kraskin and CIA chief Jennifer Morris, have to avoid capture by the Russians.  The plane in which they hoped to bring Kraskin out of Russia is blown out of the sky, but they eject from it just in time.  Then it’s a cat-and-mouse game evading the police and security across Russia, while Ryker tries to convince his contacts back in the US about the Iranian-North Korean deal, and that the nuclear weapons are within Iran’s grasp.
          Finally Marcus makes a deal with the US government he will rejoin the secret service provided they allow him to intercept the five nuclear warheads, which are already at sea,.  Ryker’s efforts to track down the ship carrying the weapons, and the breathtaking series of events when he finally succeeds, forms the final section of Rosenberg’s novel.  The eventual showdown is between hero and villain Marcus Ryker and the Iranian leader who has masterminded the purchase of the nuclear warheads from North Korea, Alireza al-Zanjani.
          Marcus Ryker is a typical action-savvy hero figure in all but one respect.  He is a practising Christian, and his deeply held faith emerges time and again as the plot progresses.  This aspect of the novel perhaps explains why it has been published by Tyndale House Publishers.  Founded in 1962, Tyndal House is the world’s largest privately held Christian publisher.
          At nearly 500 pages “The Persian Gamble” is not a short book, but it is constructed from very short and sharp chapters – 93 of them.  As a result the reader is kept on the alert, reluctant to leave the story, turning time and again to the next short chapter, eager to follow one incident on to the next.  “The Persian Gamble” is a thriller that falls within the category of “un-put-downable.”  It is highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Time for electoral reform in Israel

          Throughout Israel’s constitutional logjam it has been difficult to see the wood for the trees. The trees that have been blocking the view are the political maneuverings of the main protagonists. Many, if not most, voters believe that some form of unity government was well within the grasp of either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, if either – or, indeed, if Avidgor Liberman – had deigned to compromise. Their rigid red lines, however, proved too powerful a disincentive to do that. As a result the national interest, which is crying out for a return to effective government, has suffered

          The wood, hidden from view by these burgeoning trees, is the fact that it is Israel’s current electoral system which has landed the country in this mess. The way governments are elected is in urgent need of reconsideration and reform.

          What are its obvious weaknesses? To anyone nurtured in the bosom of US or UK democracy, the most obvious problem is that Israeli general elections do not return a majority party but require weeks of intensive back-room negotiations before a government can be formed, and that sometimes these negotiations fail to deliver. Having failed twice, what assurance is there that a third general election would yield a different outcome?

          Israel’s system presupposes that all governments will be coalitions. But no immutable law states that democratic governments must be coalitions. The normal result of general elections in the UK and the US is that one or other of the two main parties is returned to power with a working majority and subsequently forms a government. Neither require weeks of sometimes unsavory wheeling and dealing following elections.

          When the Israeli electorate go to the polls, they are asked to choose the one party among the many competing – sometimes 30 or more – with whose policies they most agree. The number of seats that each party gains in the Knesset is almost exactly proportional to the number of votes the party obtains in the general election. That is a democratic plus.

          The downside is that inevitably the nation’s vote is fractured. No one party can emerge as the outright winner. Hence the back-room trading and bargaining. Concessions are demanded by the smaller parties in return for their support. The policies finally agreed between the cobbled-together majority can be far from the policies any elector voted for.

          A considerable additional weakness in the current arrangements is the total lack of personal engagement between members of the Knesset and the people. MKs gain their seats because of their position on their party lists. In the US, citizens know who the two senators representing their State is, just as they know by name the individual who represents their constituency in Congress.

          The UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which returns one member of Parliament (MP) in a first-past-the-post voting system. Once elected that MP is deemed to represent all the voters in the constituency, and any of them with a problem would look to “their” MP for help. Every voter therefore has a direct personal link with an MP, whether that MP is a backbencher or a minister – even the prime minister.

          The main disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that seats in parliament do not match the national voting pattern. Candidates can and do win a seat having gained far less than 50 percent of the votes in their constituency. The system produces large majorities but a democratic deficit.

          Proposals to reform Israel’s electoral system by combining the constituency concept with proportionality have been put forward on several occasions. The last attempt, in 1988, proposed that Israel be divided into 60 constituencies, each of which would elect one MK, while another 60 would be elected by the current system. Electors would all vote for both a candidate and a list. The proposal foundered.

          Back in 2005, President Moshe Katsav set up a commission to examine constitutional issues including the electoral system. It met regularly for more than a year, and it too finally favoured a combined system although with a different constituency structure. The commission’s recommendations, like earlier attempts at electoral reform, were not followed up. Nor indeed were subsequent efforts, like those of Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson in 2006.

          This is a nettle that must be grasped. The dire events of 2019 point in no other direction. Electoral reform simply must be a major element in the political program of Israel’s next government, whenever it is formed.

Published in Israel Hayom, 3 December 2019: 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Palestinians edge towards elections

          Elections have become fashionable in the Holy Land. Israel has had two of them in the past year and seems poised for a third. Now the Palestinian Authority (PA) has caught the bug. After lengthy haggling, the PA, Hamas, Fatah and a clutch of other Palestinian factions have agreed to hold elections for the legislature and then for president early next year.

          It’s not before time. The last effort was 14 years ago, back in 2006. The outcome was so disastrous that there has been little appetite for repeating the experiment. Hamas won more votes and more seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) than the ruling Fatah party, but when President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to form a government of national unity, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya refused to serve as prime minister under him. Instead, led by Khaled Mashal, Hamas mounted a truly bloody coup in the Gaza strip, and ejected Fatah bag and baggage. With brief periods of respite, Hamas and Fatah have been at daggers drawn ever since.

          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 Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), 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 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 that was only the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. Equally Hamas opposed 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. 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 became 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, often sponsored by Egypt, have failed, and the Hamas-Fatah schism even led some to speculate on an eventual full-scale separation between the two Palestinian communities.

          The idea of new elections has come and gone several times over the past few years, always to be frustrated at the last minute. They were scheduled to be held between April and October 2014 in accordance with a Fatah-Hamas agreement reached in April 2014, but were delayed indefinitely. In October 2017, under a so-called Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, general elections were agreed to take place by the end of 2018. Once more they failed to materialize.

          On 26 September 2019, nothing daunted, Abbas again announced that he intended to set a date for elections. Hamas responded positively. but on 6 November Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a splinter terrorist organization active in Gaza, rejected Abbas’s terms, which specified that in order to be eligible to run, candidates would have to recognize the agreements signed by the PLO. Most of these, based as they are on the PA’s stated position of supporting the two-state solution, are anathema to Hamas.

          None the less, and protesting vigorously at the PA's decision to stop demonstrations in Ramallah in support of Palestinians jailed by Israel, Hamas finally, on November 26, signed its agreement to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2020. Judging by the past record, the chances of these elections actually taking place must stand at no more than 50-50.

          In any case, a possible hurdle stands in the way. On November 11 Abbas said that there would be no new Palestinian elections unless they included east Jerusalem. Chief of Hamas politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, endorsed that. East Jerusalem is administered by Israel, and its Palestinians citizens have the special status of “permanent residents”. Normally demonstrations of Palestinian sovereignty are not permitted within Jerusalem, but in the 2006 elections Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were permitted to vote (they did so at post offices), and there seems no good reason why the same should not apply in 2020.

          Free and fair legislative elections whose result is respected by the contending parties could start healing the divisions which ravage the Palestinian body politic. As for new presidential elections, they are overdue by a decade at least, and could restore democratic legitimacy to Abbas who, despite his 84 years, shows no signs of stepping aside. The question is – will they actually take place?

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 5 December 2019:

Published in the MPC Journal, 4 December 2019:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 December 2019: