Saturday, 25 October 2014

Green Lines and Red Lines

          “Settlements” – there’s a word to conjure with.  It carries connotations of hardy pioneers, supported by their doughty wives, trekking across empty plains to set up a collection of makeshift homes on virgin land, aiming to scratch a living from the barren soil.  When applied to Israel, however, the term has been stretched well-nigh beyond breaking point to embrace wholly urban districts of Jerusalem with populations of up to 50,000, like Ramot, Pisgat Ne’eve, or Gilo, or fully-fledged cities such as Beitar Illit, Ma’ale Adumim or Modi’in.  Over the years “settlement” has become a catch-all description for housing and social developments, large and small, carried out in the areas that Israel captured from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967 – in other words, beyond the Green Line. 

            The Green Line?  During the 1949 Arab-Israeli Armistice Agreement talks, presided over by UN mediator Dr Ralph Bunche, someone seized a green pencil and delineated the boundary lines between the armies of Israel and those of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria at the moment the fighting ceased in 1948.  At Arab insistence, the terms of the Armistice Agreements made it abundantly clear that the Green Lines were not creating permanent borders. In the words of former President of the International Court of Justice, Professor Judge Stephen M Schwebel, they "expressly preserved the territorial claims of all parties, and did not purport to establish definitive boundaries between them."

As far as the West Bank and East Jerusalem were concerned, the wording states:  “No provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.” 

From 1949 the areas bounded by the Green Lines represented the status quo between Israel and its Arab neighbors until, on 6 June 1967, Israel pre-empted the co-ordinated Arab attack about to be launched on it from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In the fighting that followed, areas beyond the Green Line west of the River Jordan fell into Israel’s hands, and over the years the basic principle of the armistice agreement has become blurred.  In many minds – including, it would seem, among UN and EU officials – those armistice lines, which “did not purport to establish definitive boundaries”, have morphed into the borders of a putative sovereign state of Palestine.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) certainly subscribes to this view.  Ignoring entirely the terms of the agreement, it is currently asking the world to recognise a state of Palestine bounded by the Green Line, and including East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Previous peace negotiations, of which there have been many, have produced modified versions of this demand, including the swapping of land on either side of the Green Line to allow the major Israeli conurbations to remain within Israel while increasing the area allotted to a Palestinian state by equivalent amounts.  As each attempt at reaching a deal has collapsed, so the delicate give-and- take of negotiation and compromise has collapsed with it. Now, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas wooing the UN Security Council for its backing to by-pass peace negotiations altogether, recognise the state of Palestine and demand Israel’s withdrawal from the whole of the occupied territories within a given deadline – November 2016 has been mentioned – the settlement issue has assumed major significance.  It is certainly impacting on Israel’s relations with the EU.

Last week a confidential internal EU briefing document, intended only for the eyes of the EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, found its way into the media. Declaring that the EU regards sustaining the two-state solution as its priority, the document sets out a series of “Red Lines” regarding possible Israeli intentions in what it designates “the occupied Palestinian territories”.  Faaborg-Andersen is required to hold “thorough discussions” with the Israeli government on these new EU Red Lines.  Reading between the lines – if one may put it so  it is a fair assumption that the EU is gearing itself up to tighten the economic restrictions it has already imposed on industrial and commercial activity by Israeli companies with interests beyond the Green Line.

Back in June the Director of Carnegie Europe, Jan Techau, wisely remarked that EU-Israeli relations were in danger of being “hi-jacked by settlements”.  Mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and Israel, he believes, is being undermined by the settlement issue, which is increasingly dominating the debate between the two sides.

That EU-Israeli relationship is certainly fast-developing.  Not only is scientific and technology cooperation intensive, but the trade volume between the two is enormous and growing. In July 2012, the EU took unprecedented measures to enhance its relations with Israel in sixty trade and diplomatic policy areas, including increased access to its single market, closer cooperation on transport and energy, and enhanced ties with nine EU agencies.  And in October 2012, despite fierce opposition from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, the European parliament ratified a critical framework agreement to facilitate the export to Europe of Israeli industrial products.

Yet, as veteran Middle East observer Stephen J Rosen recently pointed out, the EU’s policy towards Israel seems to be moving in opposite directions at the same time. While one path is marked by expanding economic co-operation, the other shaped by policies centred on the settlements is apparently designed to encourage boycotts of Israel's major banks and many of its key companies and research institutions. 

The settlement issue divides Israeli public opinion pretty nearly down the middle, but none can deny that it has become a hot potato in Israel’s international, and indeed Jewish diaspora, relations.  In the judgement of the Director of Carnegie Europe:  “The current government still underestimates the enormous damage it does to its own reputation and credibility when it authorizes further developments of settlements in disputed areas.” 

Should dialogue fail to resolve the EU’s new Red Lines to its satisfaction, they could well turn into ultimata to Israel, with tightening of sanctions as the deterrent.  There is surely a pressing need for Israel to engage with the EU about the settlement issue, as part of a wider dialogue aimed at clarifying the whole matter of financial, industrial and commercial activity outside the Green Line.

“There’s no point trying to dress it up,” writes Elinadav Heymann, director of the European Friends of Israel, “the issue of settlements is a boil on the EU-Israel relationship that needs to be lanced.”  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 October 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Green-Lines-and-Red-Lines-379836

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 October 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/25102014-green-lines-red-lines-oped/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+eurasiareview%

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A very British compromise

The vote by the British House of Commons on October 13 urging the government to recognise the state of Palestine was followed, predictably enough, by a great deal of Palestinian triumphalism and not a little Israeli shroud-waving.  Closer examination of the vote, however, and the circumstances surrounding it, indicate that neither is really justified.

There was, of course, a great deal of behind-the-scenes activity in the run-up to the debate – one of the few that backbench members of parliament are allowed to initiate during each parliamentary session. The original motion, proposed by Labour MP Grahame Morris and put forward by the Backbench Business Committee, was “That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel.”

By common custom backbench debates in the House of Commons are usually followed by a free vote – that is, members are under no instruction from their party leaders about which side of the debate to favour.  Ahead of this particular debate, however, the leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, initially issued what is known as a “three-line whip” – in other words a positive order to all 257 Labour MPs.  This required all those who were actually present for the debate to vote in favour of the motion.

          But this was a highly unusual, not to say unprecedented, parliamentary step to take.  Normally, a three-line whip represents an instruction from the party both to be present in the House of Commons and to vote as the party requires.  MPs who disobey lay themselves open to be severely reprimanded, or even worse.  On this occasion, though, the Labour leader was virtually inviting all members of his party who opposed the motion to absent themselves from the debate.

          Miliband’s instruction led to a near revolt not only among Labour backbenchers, but also by more senior members of the party. Dozens who opposed the motion on principle  indicated that they would not attend.  To avoid an embarrassing rebellion, Miliband compromised, and the projected three-line whip was replaced by a milk-and-water “one-line whip”, which results in nothing more than a slap on the wrist for any members who ignore it.

           Compromise number one.

            In addition, Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, together with other senior Labour MPs, intervened in the heated situation by tabling an amendment to the original motion.  This proposed that the recognition of Palestine should be within a "negotiated two-state solution" – a key sticking-point among those planning to absent themselves from the debate. Labour MP Grahame Morris, who had initiated the debate, indicated that he was prepared to compromise, and accepted the proposed amendment. 

           Compromise number two. 

           So in the event, the motion that was debated ran: 'That this House believes that the Government should recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution.'

           That, it must be acknowledged, is a very different kettle of fish from simply recognising the state of Palestine.  In short, what 274 British MPs voted in favour of was negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians with the objective of securing a two-state solution, and a belief that if the British government recognised the state of Palestine this would, in some way, contribute to the desirable outcome.

            The former part of that proposition would not be faulted by the Israeli government or, if opinion polls are to be believed, by some 60 per cent of the Israeli public.  According to a recent poll even some 30 per cent of Palestinians would endorse it. However, the latter part is highly debatable. The poll reveals that the vast majority of Palestinians want the whole of mandate Palestine “from the river to the sea” in Palestinian hands – in other words, they endorse Hamas’s objective of eliminating the state of Israel.  It also shows that Hamas, designated a terrorist organisation by much of the Western world including the EU, is more popular among Palestinians than the PA.  In any open parliamentary election held in the “state of Palestine” Hamas is likely to emerge the victor.  The result would be to turn the West Bank into another Gaza – an extended launching pad for rockets and mortars to be fired indiscriminately into Israel – and inevitable further conflict.

            The controversial nature of the Commons debate, no less than the circumstances surrounding it, resulted in only 286 MPs voting on the motion out of a total of 650. Ultimately, 193 out of 257 Labour MPs voted in favour, 39 out of 303 Conservatives, and 39 out of 56 Liberal Democrats – scarcely a ringing endorsement of the motion. 

In the event, therefore, the whole episode is considerably less earth-shattering than supporters of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and his current tactics are claiming.  Intent now on by-passing peace negotiations, Abbas is openly seeking to gain global recognition of a state of Palestine within the boundaries pertaining on the day the Six-Day War began on June 5, 1967.  As far as the West Bank is concerned, those are simply where the armies of Israel and Jordan happened to be positioned in 1948 when hostilities ceased in the Arab-Israel war.  They were recognised as temporary in the 1949 Armistice Agreements: “No provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.”
 
It is factors such as this which render it essential that any resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue follows negotiations by the parties concerned, and are not the result of unilateral declarations by the PA, or recognition by outside parties of a so-far non-existent state of Palestine. 

If compromise marked the initiation of the debate, it was also evident after the event. Even the Labour party, which backed the motion, interpreted the vote in a way that would not bind their hand were they to win the next general election and form the government.  Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote that the motion “does not commit Labour to immediate recognition of Palestine.”

 Nor does the motion change British government policy.  As Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood made clear during the debate: “The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time most helpful to the peace process, because a negotiated end to the occupation is the most effective way for Palestinian aspirations of statehood to be met on the ground.”  In other words, the government may note the vote, but will do nothing about it until it is good and ready.

All in all, the whole affair, and its outcome, typify the very British art of compromise.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 19 October 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/The-vote-on-Palestine-A-very-British-compromise-379213
Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 October 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/19102014-british-compromise-oped/

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Some ally, Turkey!

  What can explain, let alone justify, Turkey sitting on its hands while conflict rages just over its border, and the forces of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) seem about to overwhelm the Kurdish fighters defending the much-reduced enclave of Kobani?  After all, Turkey is a member of NATO and nominally part of the international coalition dedicated to destroying IS.

            As the US continues to pressure Turkey’s newly-elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to do more, he is demanding two ridiculous preconditions before considering direct action.  He is insisting that the US somehow impose both a buffer zone and a no-fly zone along its border with Syria.

     Why are these demands so patently spurious?  Because the Turkish army, one of the largest and best equipped in NATO, is perfectly capable of imposing its own buffer zone along its border without outside assistance.  And since neither IS nor the Kurds are using aircraft, a no-fly zone is obviously superfluous to requirements.

Turkey’s stance today brings to mind one of the more shameful episodes of the Second World War – the story of the collapse of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

Poland had been under Nazi occupation since 1939.  The uprising by the Polish resistance was timed to coincide with the Soviet Union's Red Army approaching the eastern suburbs of the city and the consequent retreat of German forces.  However, on the orders of Josef Stalin the Soviet advance stopped short on the east bank of the Vistula. Providing no assistance at all to the Polish fighters, the Red Army watched as they were slowly but surely annihilated.

Winston Churchill pleaded with Stalin to help Britain's Polish allies, but to no avail. It was obvious that Stalin had halted his forces in order to allow the Polish resistance to be crushed.  The Polish resistance represented Polish independence, and was a major obstacle to his intention of bringing Poland directly within the Soviet sphere of influence.  He had no desire to see an independent Poland triumph over the Nazis before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation could assume control of the country.

In the event the Nazis utterly crushed the uprising, and then took the most brutal revenge.  Warsaw was virtually razed to the ground while, in addition to the death of some 16,000 members of the Polish resistance, between 150,000 and 200,000 Polish civilians were slaughtered, mostly in mass executions.

Arthur Koestler called the episode "one of the major infamies of this war.”

Today, Turkish tanks stand immoblle and inactive only yards away as the Kurds who are defending Kobani are being destroyed by the forces of IS.  The historical analogy is alarmingly close.  Erdogan clearly regards the Kurdish independence movement, long a pressing political problem for him, as a greater threat than IS – not a position likely to win much sympathy with Western powers.

Since 2002 Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic reaction to the tide of secularism that swept the country after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman caliphate 90 years ago. AKP leader.  Erdogan, with his own roots in the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, has now achieved a political dominance unparalleled since Ataturk but, as Oxford historian Mark Almond has recently pointed out, he is the antithesis of Turkey’s father-figure.

Ataturk wanted to distance the new Turkey from the Ottoman Empire’s involvement with Arabs and Muslims. “Europe is the future, forget the past” was his motto. But Erdogan has embraced a sort of “neo-Ottomanism” as his foreign policy. For years he has assiduously allied himself with extremist Muslim positions, including an visceral and intemperate opposition to Israel.  Although AKP leaders have publicly remained loyal to Turkey’s application to join the EU, the lure of religious solidarity with extremist Sunni Arab movements from Hamas in Gaza to the Muslim Brothers of Egypt has had a stronger emotional pull – a pull which extends in some influential quarters to sympathy for IS.

 It is quite understandable that the idea of the US establishing a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border is proving deeply divisive in Washington. Turkey has presented the plan as a humanitarian gesture designed to protect refugees, but if Obama took the lead in establishing such a zone, it could lead to a direct confrontation between the US and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.  The area would probably turn into an anti-Assad power base, and setting it up would go far beyond President Obama’s original mission of degrading IS.  Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former American envoy to the Syrian opposition, has said: “It would mainly be a place where an alternate government structure would take root and for the training of rebels.”  

If Turkey wants it, Turkey is perfectly capable of going ahead and establishing it.  However Erdogan prefers to use it as a bargaining chip with the US, a quid pro quo for  Turkey’s direct involvement in the anti-IS conflict. Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, admitted as much in a news conference on October 10, going so far as to say that Erdogan’s primary goal was to defeat the Assad government before thinking of tackling IS. “Tyranny and massacres will remain in the region as long as the Assad regime continues,” he said, discounting the ethnic cleansing and horrific mass-murder being perpetrated by IS across northern Syria and Iraq.

Turkey cannot emerge from this episode smelling of roses.  Kurds enraged at Turkey’s unwillingness to help their embattled brethren in Kobani, are already erupting in violent protests, forcing Ankara to deploy the military, impose curfews and close schools. There have been protests and riots in every Turkish city where there are a significant number of Kurds. Twenty-two people have been killed in the past week in the fiercest street clashes that Turkey has seen for years, as Kurds battle it out with the police. If Kobani does indeed fall to IS there will be a real surge of violence across Turkey. The 15 million Turkish Kurds will blame the Turkish government for denying its defenders reinforcements, weapons and ammunition.
     
    The Western powers can perfectly well see what game Turkey is playing – standing by while IS slowly but surely crushes its traditional Kurdish enemies, and using the humanitarian disaster thus created to pressure the US into helping remove Assad and his government.  Now firmly ensconced within NATO, Turkey is able to act in this sort of way with comparative impunity but it was in April 1987 that Turkey first knocked on the EU’s door and asked to be let in.  Twenty-seven years later Turkey is still lingering on the threshold.  Its behaviour during this international crisis should mean that the EU’s door remains firmly barred.     

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 12 October 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Some-ally-Turkey-378651

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 October 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/12102014-ally-turkey-oped/

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Saudi Arabia and Qatar: the biters bit

                “Oh villains, vipers, damned without redemption…
      Snakes, in my heart-blood warmed, that sting my heart!”
–        William Shakespeare: “Richard II”
                                   
   There is ample evidence that those strongholds of Wahhabist Islam, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have until recently been supporting, both financially and logistically, the self-styled Islamic State (IS), as well as its extremist precursors.  But now the penny seems to have dropped.  The rulers of both countries have at last realised that they are threatened by the very creature they have fostered. IS has vowed to topple the Qatari and Saudi regimes, both of which it considers, in the words of  General Jonathan Shaw, Britain's former Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, to be “corrupt outposts of decadence and sin.”  So Qatar and Saudi Arabia now have every reason to lead an ideological struggle against IS.  The question is – are they doing so wholeheartedly, or are they even now equivocating?

            What were Saudi Arabia and Qatar playing at, in the first place?  US Vice-President Joe Biden spelled it out to Harvard University’s John F Kennedy Forum on August 28:

“They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war …they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad – except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world."

Now, perhaps too late, both states have realised that they have been clutching a viper to their respective bosoms. Both have nominally allied themselves to the US-led coalition aimed at defeating and eliminating IS.  The problem is that IS retains an undoubted appeal to Wahhabist adherents within both countries.  The US Treasury has released documents suggesting that Qatar is failing to crack down on individuals alleged to be sponsors of terrorism (it names Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy in one report).  Other reports specify that Qatari-based financiers have funded the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaeda that is accused of responsibility for kidnapping James Foley (who was murdered) and John Cantlie (whose life currently hangs in the balance), and handing them over to IS.

          The Emir of Qatar has insisted that his country does not fund terrorism, although in his statement he added the troubling caveat that Qatar and the West might disagree over what precisely constitutes a terrorist movement. But surely this is not the time, nor is it appropriate, to indulge in semantics.  Accordingly, one of the UK’s leading newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, has launched a campaign to “stop the funding of terrorism.”  Anything that could result in money and weapons falling into the hands of the enemy, the newspaper maintains, should be exposed and stopped, and the West needs to put pressure on any state that appears to tolerate or even abet terrorism.

However, the immorality of abetting terrorism seems to take a back seat when profits – especially oil profits are involved.  So IS is not short of cash. In addition to the more than $420 million it is reported to have looted from the central bank when it captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, it is enjoying a continuous flow of revenue from the sale of oil from the refineries it has seized.  IS now seems to control the majority of Syria's eastern oil fields and  also several smaller fields in Iraq. Analysts put its income from oil smuggling at between $1 million and $3 million per day, even though it is fencing the oil at a massive discount. In New York and London crude trades at just above $100 a barrel; IS is content to receive between $10 and $25 a barrel, while the middlemen in Syria, to whom they peddle it and who then bring it to refineries in Turkey, Iran, or Kurdistan, are rubbing their hands at the enormous profits they are able to obtain from the trade.

Turkey’s involvement in the transactions have been described by Ali Ediboglu of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “$800 million worth of oil that ISIS obtained from regions it occupied this year is being sold in Turkey. They have laid pipes from villages near the Turkish border at Hatay. Similar pipes exist also at  Kilis, Urfa and Gaziantep [Turkish border regions]. They transfer the oil to Turkey and parlay it into cash.”

The strong Wahhabist strain that harbours sympathy for IS in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and is partially frustrating both states’ attempts to act decisively against it, is a religious movement within Islam variously described as "orthodox", "ultra-conservative", "fundamentalist", " or "extremist ".

Wahhabism is named after an eighteenth century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-WahhabThe alliance between his followers and the House of Saud proved durable, and the ruling family continued to maintain its politico-religious alliance with the Wahhabi sect over the next 150 years, through to its eventual proclamation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, and then into modern times. Today Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab's teachings are state-sponsored and are the dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

As for Qatar, its adherence to Wahhabism was always less rigid than Saudi Arabia’s. Qatar traditionally defined its state religion as “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land”.  The distinction refers to the fact that the Saudi government has less control of an empowered clergy compared to Qatar, that has no indigenous clergy with a social base to speak of. It also reflects a Saudi history of tribal strife over oases, as opposed to one of communal life in Qatar, and Qatar’s outward looking maritime trade history. 

It was as recently as 2011 that Qatar decided to pledge itself unreservedly to traditional Wahhabism.  On December 16, 2011 Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani inaugurated the “Imam Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab” Mosque in Doha, reaffirming his commitment to carry the message and spread the teachings of Islam to the whole world. The Muslim nation, he asserted, was in need of renewal and the inspiration of Wahhab’s call.

Now Wahhabism has turned round and is biting both states, clearly threatened as they are by the expansionist Islamist force and extremist Islamist philosophy of IS that will have no truck with any version of Islam other than its own, self-declared, caliphate.  If IS is to be unconditionally defeated, there is an urgent need for both Saudi Arabia and Qatar to plug their porous Wahhabism, and stand solidly behind the US-led alliance.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 October 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Saudi-Arabia-and-Qatar-The-biters-bit-378428

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 October 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/07102014-saudi-arabia-qatar-biters-bit-oped/

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Militant Islam - can it be turned to advantage?

Examine what Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014, and it seems clear that he is shaping a new pragmatic approach to the political problems, emanating from the Middle East, that encompass the Western world.  His vision is bold, and it has validity, but whether he will be able to persuade world leaders to sign up to it is disputable.

Two main aspects of his concept strike a novel note. 

The first is how he is now defining “militant Islam”.  It is the self-styled Islamic State (IS) itself that has provided him with a political advantage that he has seized on.  By rendering itself obnoxious and a threat to both the Western world and neighbouring Arab states, IS now exemplifies militant Islam.  Led by the US, a formidable alliance at least in theory has declared its intention of destroying the organisation.

Using this opportunity, Netanyahu is seeking to extend the concept of militant Islam to include all jihadist and extremist Muslim organisations the world over, Sunni and Shia alike. He of course includes Hamas and Hezbollah – the one Sunni-based, the other Shia which have a special relevance to the Israel-Palestine situation, but he extends his concept further.  He encompasses Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, even India each battling one or other extremist Islamist grouping. There is, of course, ample chapter and verse to justify this view of the universal dangers posed by each and every jihadist group – statements by their leading figures declaring their ultimate ambition to impose their particular brand of Islam on the entire world.

Significantly, and not without sound reasoning, he includes Iran in his definition of the militant Islamic nexus.  He quotes the global mission of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, “set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world, until the cry "There is no God but Allah" echoes throughout the world…’
        
And now, with Iran standing on the brink of realising its aim of becoming a nuclear military power, Netanyahu virtually entreats the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), who are negotiating with Iran over control of its nuclear program, not to be “bamboozled” into an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces, and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.  It is not unreasonable, given Iran’s record of promoting and exporting terrorism around the world, to consider what would follow if militant Islamists were armed with weapons of mass destruction, supplied by a nuclear-powered Iran.

In attempting to bring Western leaders round to this point of view, Netanyahu faces an uphill struggle.  There are powerful voices in the US, the UK, the EU and Russia, of course, which are prepared to take Iran’s new charm offensive at face value, and favour inviting it back into the comity of nations.  They accept its assurances regarding its peaceful nuclear intentions, and they see in Shia Iran a useful ally in the fight to destroy Sunni-based IS.  It would not be easy to persuade those who hold this view that IS and Iran are simply two sides of the same coin.

Netanyahu faces a problem also in attempting to equate militant Islamists fighting established governments in very different parts of the world.  He himself admits in his speech that they operate in a variety of countries, target different victims and even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. His argument is that their basic similarity of aim outweighs these superficial differences.  They all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam, he asserts, “where there is no freedom and no tolerance – where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated, and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice: convert or die. For them, anyone can be an infidel, including fellow Muslims.”

He certainly has a point, but any attempt to mobilise world opinion against the concept of a universal militant Islam would be a difficult enterprise. He is not likely to garner widespread support.  But he would be satisfied if the world accepted that Iran was part and parcel of the militant Islamic nexus.  He summed up his argument in a telling phrase: “To defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”

That is one of the two strands of innovative thinking that Netanyahu offered the General Assembly. The other, although cleverly founded on the current determination on all sides to defeat IS, was to step onto very thin ice indeed – the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS and Iran in particular. The ice is thin because, however willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them.

It is certainly the case that after decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world are realising that they and Israel face many of the same dangers the most pressing being a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. It is, however, a long step from that to the idea of openly embracing your traditional antagonist, long held up to the Arab world as the epitome of evil intent.
            
To sugar the pill, Netanyahu effectively turns a cherished belief on its head. “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. But these days I think it may work the other way around namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

He is, in effect, inviting the active involvement of a range of Arab countries into the peace process.  If successful, this would certainly counter the latest ploy of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, which is to by-pass peace negotiations altogether, seek UN approval of a sovereign Palestinian state, and isolate and delegitimize Israel in the UN courts of justice.

Not without reason Netanyahu asserts that today there is a new Middle East presenting new dangers, but also new opportunities.  Locked into his UN speech are a coherent set of ideas, firmly based on current political realities, with the potential to reinvigorate a long stultified situation.  It is dispiriting, but probably realistic, to conclude that in the event, the difficulties of doing so will probably prevail.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 September 2014:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Militant-Islam-can-it-be-turned-to-advantage-377867

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Militant Islam - the universal threat

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2014.  Examine what he said, and it is clear that he is in the process of developing a new pragmatic approach to those political problems, emanating from the Middle East, that encompass the Western world.  Will he be able to persuade its leaders of the validity of his vision?

Two main aspects of his concept strike a novel note. 

The first is his use of the term “militant Islam”, not once but many times, and how he explains it.  It is not, he says, militants as such; nor is it Islam.  Militant Islam, he asserts, is a self-defining entity composed of organizations with a common objective which is – and he demonstrates this with chapter and verse – to dominate the world.  Contrasting the support that the UN General Assembly gave President Obama for confronting ISIS, with their opposition to Israel for confronting Hamas, he says: “They evidently don’t understand that ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree. ISIS and Hamas share a fanatical creed, which they both seek to impose well beyond the territory under their control.”

His equating of the self-styled Islamic State with Hamas is not new.  Netanyahu has drawn that parallel several times, even though – so far – it has not met with general acceptance.  Recently the US State Department spokeswoman said there was no comparison.  But Netanyahu makes a stronger case when he defines what he now understands militant Islam to be – groupings of Islamist extremists, no matter what name they give themselves, no matter where they operate, who share a fanatic ideology.

“Boko Haram in Nigeria;  Ash-Shabab in Somalia; Hezbollah in Lebanon; An-Nusrah in Syria; the Mahdi Army in Iraq; the Al-Qaeda branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere.  Some are radical Sunnis, some are radical Shi'ites. They operate in different lands, they target different victims and they even kill each other in their quest for supremacy. But they all seek to create ever-expanding enclaves of militant Islam,” he asserts, “where there is no freedom and no tolerance – where women are treated as chattel, Christians are decimated, and minorities are subjugated, sometimes given the stark choice: convert or die. For them, anyone can be an infidel, including fellow Muslims.”

Netanyahu draws a comparison between militant Islam’s ambition to dominate the world, with the same global ambition of the Nazis in the mid-twentieth century.

“The Nazis,” he says, “believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith. They just disagree about who among them will be the master of the master faith.”

Will militant Islam have the power to realize its unbridled ambitions?  His answer: Yes, if the world fails to understand that militant Islam encompasses also Iran. 

“For 35 years,” he says, “Iran has relentlessly pursued the global mission which was set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world, until the cry "There is no God but Allah" echoes throughout the world…’  And ever since, the regime’s brutal enforcers, Iran's Revolutionary Guards, have done exactly that.”

And now Iran stands on the brink of realising its aim of becoming a nuclear military power.  Netanyahu begs the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), who are negotiating with Iran over control of its nuclear program, not to be “bamboozled” into an agreement that will remove the sanctions it still faces, and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

“It’s one thing to confront militant Islamists on pick-up trucks, armed with Kalashnikov rifles,” says Netanyahu. “It’s another thing to confront militant Islamists armed with weapons of mass destruction.”

“ISIS must be defeated,” he asserts. ”But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”

That is one of the two strands of innovative thinking that Netanyahu offered the General Assembly. The other was to step onto very thin ice indeed – the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and Islamic State and Iran in particular.

“After decades of seeing Israel as their enemy,” he declared, “leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that, together, we and they face many of the same dangers. Principally this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world. Our challenge is to transform these common interests to create a productive partnership – one that would build a more secure, peaceful and prosperous Middle East.”

The ice is thin because, however willing some Arab governments may be to enter into a recognised relationship with Israel, they would find difficulty in carrying popular opinion with them. Netanyahu must understand this, but he soldiers on.

“Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab World. But these days I think it may work the other way around – namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

To achieve that peace, he asserts, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere. He is, in effect, inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process. 

This concept he carefully links to his earlier argument.  He points out that Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on its borders from which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel.

“Israel cannot have territories from which it withdraws taken over by Islamic militants yet again. That would place the likes of ISIS within mortar range – a few miles – of 80% of our population.” 

So any peace between Israel and the Palestinians involving other Arab states must be anchored in mutual recognition and what he calls “rock solid security arrangements on the ground”. Not without reason Netanyahu asserts that today there is a new Middle East presenting new dangers, but also new opportunities. Israel, he maintains, is prepared to work with Arab partners and the international community to confront those dangers and to seize those opportunities.

“Together,” he says, “we must recognize the global threat of militant Islam, the primacy of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability and the indispensable role of Arab states in advancing peace with the Palestinians.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 October 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/01102014-militant-islam-universal-threat-oped/

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Distorting Islam

          Writing in the London Daily Telegraph on September 18, Dr Hasanat Husain, a prominent British Muslim, depicts the Islamic State as “composed of people who have vowed to establish a blood-drenched caliphate in which only their distorted version of Islam – a fusion of misogyny, intolerance and mayhem – will hold sway. We have an obligation,” he asserts, “to snatch our faith from the clutches of these killers. These so-called Muslims are damaging Islam and dishonouring the Prophet.”  He calls on Muslims “in particular” to stop IS from the pursuit of its unacceptable objective.

            Dr Husain is surely correct in maintaining that the bloodthirsty activities of IS are damaging Islam certainly so in the eyes of the non-Islamic world.  He does not, however, go quite as far as British prime minister, David Cameron, a few days earlier, in his televised address utterly deploring the beheading by IS of its third victim, aid worker David Haines.  “Islam,” declared Cameron, “is a religion of peace.”

There is a widespread belief that the word “Islam” is derived from “al-Salaam” (which is “peace”).  However, Lissan al-Arab, perhaps the most authoritative lexicon of the Arabic language, states that it is derived from the root verb istaslama, which means 'to submit' or ‘to surrender' (meaning, of course, submission to the will of Allah).

             Cameron’s assertion instantly stirred up a hornets’ nest of comment.  Quoting all sorts of chapters and verses from the Quran and elsewhere, writers fell over each other to maintain that the Muslim religion was nothing of the sort.  Indeed, when Pope Benedict XVI was asked whether Islam could be considered a religion of peace, he refused to respond positively. "It certainly contains elements that can favour peace,” he said. “It also has other elements.  We must always seek the best elements."

            The best elements must surely include the five tenets of Islam which are the foundation of observant Muslim life, and which together constitute the basic religious duties every Muslim must perform.  These are first the declaration of faith (“There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his messenger”); secondly undertaking ritual prayer five times a day; thirdly compulsory alms-giving of at least 2.5 per cent of one’s income; fourthly fasting in the month of Ramadan; and fifthly making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once, if possible.

It is, perhaps, when examining the broader principles underlying the faith that Pope Benedict’s misgivings are revealed.  They are summarised rightly or wrongly by author and film-maker Gregory M Davis, who writes:  “Islamic scholarship divides the world into the House of Islam (i.e., those nations who have submitted to Allah), and the House of War (i.e., those who have not). It is this dispensation that the world lived under in Muhammad’s time and that it lives under today. Then, as now, Islam’s message to the unbelieving world is the same: submit or be conquered.”  Supporting this contention, journalist Melanie Phillips in a recent article wrote: “Millions of Muslims believe that Islam should rule the world, and that jihad is the path to this end. The fact that millions of other Muslims do not believe this does not make it any less of a core Islamic tenet.” 

But for the vast majority of the Muslim world considerations like these are academic, if not arcane.  Most people know that there is ample opportunity in the sources and holy writings of Islam, no less than of Judaism or Christianity, for zealots, extremists or opponents to place their own distorted interpretations on the faith.  William Shakespeare, as ever, puts the case in a nutshell and most felicitously in “The Merchant of Venice”:

                    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
                      An evil soul producing holy witness
                      Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
                     A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
                    O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”


Of course, most Muslims deplore the brutality and violence being perpetrated in the name of their religion by extremists, seeking dominance and power.  These sentiments were expressed with some force in a letter sent to the UK prime minister on September 14 by a coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims.

            “Dear Prime Minister,” they begin, “as human beings, we have been sickened by the murders committed by the terror group ISIS.  As Britons, we have been troubled that some young men from our society have been misled into believing that taking part in such hatred and poison would be some kind of adventure.  And, as Muslims we have been appalled that these actions are being undertaken by those who claim to be inspired by our faith, which is a vicious libel on the Islam we believe in.”

They continue: "We do not believe the terror group responsible should be given the credence and standing they seek by styling themselves Islamic State. It is neither Islamic, nor is it a state… we believe the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that 'Un-Islamic State' (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternative name to describe this group and its agenda – and we will begin to call it that."

There could be no more unequivocal a rejection of the distorted concept of Islam espoused by IS and other jihadists, both Sunni and Shia, who are making hay while the sun shines on a war-torn Iraq and Syria. 

These leading British Muslims speak also for others in their community.  On September 17 a group of young British Muslims joined the fight back against IS militants with a video and social media campaign which they call Not In My Name. Their intention is to show that IS does not represent the Islamic faith or the Muslim community, and to spread the word that British Muslims reject IS, its ideology and actions that "use Islam to justify evil objectives.”

In the years since the growth of indiscriminate terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, there have been many calls to the Muslim world to take a more proactive stance against those who carry out these acts in the name of Islam.  It has taken the emergence of IS, and its particular forms of brutality, at last to rally moderate and reasonable Muslim opinion against the distortion of their faith.  

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 September 2014:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/22092014-distorting-islam-oped/