Friday, 31 July 2015

Who's in favour of a Middle East peace conference?

          For nearly fifty years the accepted mantra has been that only direct face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can yield a mutually acceptable settlement. That formula has been tested to destruction.

           It founders on two jagged obstacles. One is the basic Palestinian ethos, consistently promulgated through the media and in the classroom, that the very presence of Israel is anathema. All political parties subscribe to the aim of eventually regaining Mandate Palestine complete, “from the river to the sea”. Hamas and Fatah differ only on the method by which this desirable objective is to be achieved. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel at all and champions the armed struggle; Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), chooses to give lip-service to the concept of the two-state solution – but only as a first step towards the final goal. But no PA leader dare take that first step and sign a peace agreement with Israel. The political backlash would be too great, and he would be lucky to escape with his life.

          So however close in their direct negotiations with Israel Yasser Arafat, and later Mahmoud Abbas, came to achieving a fully-fledged sovereign Palestine, actually signing off on an agreement proved a step too far. The Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Camp David negotiations of 2000, the intensive wheeling and dealing of 2007 – all finally came to naught.

          The second apparently insurmountable barrier follows from this: the maximum that Israel is able to offer in face-to-face negotiations is less than the minimum the Palestinians are able to accept – whatever that minimum, if it exists, may be.

          In short, direct bargaining between Israel and the Palestinians is a busted flush. Is there a viable alternative route leading away from a bleak future of endless conflict?

          Yair Lapid, chairman of Israel's Yesh Atid party, believes : “The only way to achieve the two-state solution is to give up on direct talks and manage the negotiations through a regional conference supported by the United States.” His idea has been gathering support from members of Israel's Labor, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and Meretz parties.

          Its rationale is that the Palestinian leadership alone is incapable of making the compromises needed to reach a deal with Israel, especially regarding Israel’s security. The PA, political writer Dov Lipman recently maintained, can and will make the necessary compromises only in the context of a regional solution in which Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states give it the backing – or force it – to do so. The motivation for these “moderate” states to pressure the Palestinians has, Lipman maintains, increased significantly following the completion of the Iranian deal, which emphasises their community of interest with Israel in confronting extremist Islam in the form of a potentially nuclear armed Iran, and with Islamic State (IS) spreading across the region.

          It may come as a revelation to some that the idea of a broadly-based peace conference is backed by Israel’s prime minister. In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu advanced the concept of a working alliance between Israel and those Arab states opposed to militant Islamists in general, and IS 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.”

          He was on thin ice.  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 of course understands this, but he soldiered on, in effect inviting the active involvement of Arab countries into the peace process.

          “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 asserted, not only Jerusalem and Ramallah need be involved, but also Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere.

          This position is not so very far from the initiative recently announced by France. As a former colonial power, France has long seen itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. As far back as August 2009, when newly-elected US President Obama was clearly eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process, going so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

          In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. The concept of a Paris-located international conference reappeared last December, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, in his recent visit to the Middle East – a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the EU, Arab nations and UN Security Council members.

          More recently, Paris seems to be having second thoughts about the resolution, though not about a possible conference. Having met with Fabius in Cairo, PA foreign
minister Fiyad al-Maliki, speaking on Voice of Palestine radio on July 7, said: “I can say that the idea of the French draft resolution in the Security Council is not a main topic for decision makers in France anymore.” However, said Maliki, still uppermost in their minds was a negotiations support committee comprised of representatives of the UN Security Council, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

          As for the possible US reaction to this French initiative, President Obama is holding his cards close to his chest, but some remember the rumours of April 2013 – never wholly quashed – that the US favoured a multi-national peace conference. Given Netanyahu’s own words on the concept, Washington and Jerusalem may be preparing a somewhat surprising response.


Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 3 August 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Whos-in-favor-of-a-Middle-East-peace-conference-410880

Publishd in the Eurasia Review, 2 August 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/02082015-whos-in-favour-of-a-middle-east-peace-conference-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 3 August 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/08/03/whos-favour-middle-east-peace-conference/

Friday, 24 July 2015

The sovereign state of Palestine that never was

           “What if” is a fascinating game.  It forces you to use your imagination, think round a subject, probe possibilities, consider options.

On July 11, 2000, Israel’s prime minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat, met at Camp David under the chairmanship of US president, Bill Clinton. Their declared aim was to reach agreement on all outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians – a so-called final status settlement.  The summit ended on July 25 without a settlement. 

What if the negotiations had proved successful?  TV archives would hold pictures of Barak and Arafat shaking hands, backed by a beaming Bill Clinton and we could be marking July 25, 2015 as the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.

What sort of Palestine would it have been?

No official records exist of the final position of the two parties, and the unofficial accounts differ in important respects.  So some guesswork and a little creative imagination are called for. 

An agreement would probably have been on the basis of the final set of recommendations (known as the “Clinton Parameters”) formally put to the two principals in January 2001.  Israel accepted the plan in principle, the Palestinians did not.

What if they had done so? Well, a sovereign state of Palestine would now control 97 percent of the West Bank plus a Gaza Strip larger by roughly a third, to compensate for the 3 per cent of the West Bank absorbed into Israel.  Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, all of which would have passed into Palestinian hands, and Palestinian territory on the West Bank would be contiguous, with no cantons. The West Bank would be linked with Gaza by both an elevated highway and an elevated railroad running through the Negev.

Sovereign Palestine would have as its capital a new municipality– Al Quds.  The boundaries of Jerusalem would have been re-drawn. Al-Quds would incorporate Arab neighbourhoods previously inside Jerusalem's boundaries, together with adjacent regions such as Abu Dis, el-Azaria, Beit Jala, Anata and A-Ram.  In the Old City the Palestinian state would have religious autonomy over the Temple Mount, while the Muslim and Christian quarters, though also autonomous, would remain under formal Israeli sovereignty.

The new Palestine would by now have become home to hundreds of thousands of refugees, all with the right of return to the Palestinian state.  Those returning would have received reparations from a $30 billion international fund set up specifically to compensate them.

How different might the events of the past fifteen years have been? 

There would, of course, have been no second intifada – which means there would have been no sudden increase in terrorist attacks inside Israel, and therefore no need for Israel’s security fence or wall. 

Yasser Arafat maintained a firm grip on Palestinian politics.  What he said for Arab consumption differed pretty radically from his public utterances in English, or his stance on the world stage. For example, Arafat had told an Arab audience in Stockholm in 1996, ‘We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion… We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.’ 

Arafat’s colleague Faisal al-Husseini was even more explicit.  He described the Oslo process as a ‘Trojan Horse’ designed to promote the strategic goal of ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ in short, replacing Israel with Palestine.

Fully aware of Arafat’s real agenda, Hamas would have had little incentive to oppose a settlement approved by him.  So there would have been no take-over of Gaza by Hamas, and therefore no indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israeli citizens and no Israeli response in the form of operations Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense or Protective Edge. There would have been no naval blockade of Gaza by Israel.  Accordingly, there would have been no “freedom flotilla”, and no Mavi Marmara incident – no death of nine Turkish citizens, and perhaps no freezing of Turkish-Israeli relations in consequence.

There would, of course, have been no need for any attempt to secure recognition by the United Nations for a sovereign Palestine, for by now Palestine would have long been a fully-fledged UN member.  Palestine would have followed Serbia into membership (they joined in November 2000), and beaten East Timor (September 2002).

Would the new sovereign Palestine have become a base for terrorist attacks on Israel, in pursuit of Arafat’s stated long-term aim – or would shorter-term political and economic realities have exerted their logic?  Would self-interest have dictated that the fledgling state co-operate industrially, commercially, economically, militarily, even culturally, with its nearest, flourishing neighbor?  By now, would Palestine be thriving under mutually advantageous treaties not only with Israel, but perhaps also with Jordan and Egypt?  In fact, would a sovereign Palestine by now be cultivating a prospering economy and be well on the way to becoming part of the developed world?   Who may say?  It is certainly a possible scenario.

One school of historical thought tends to reject “what if” hypotheses.  It maintains there is a sort of inevitability attached to major historical events regardless of possible minor variations. On this reading, Arafat’s death in 2004 would have resulted in Mahmoud Abbas being elected President of Palestine, but his attempt to form a national unity government would still have foundered on the Fatah-Hamas split. Hamas would still have taken over Gaza, and subsequent events would not have been very different.  With the objective of ousting Israel entirely from the Middle East, the rockets would still have been fired, Israel would have had to respond and we might well have found ourselves pretty much where we stand in July 2015. That is another, if overly pessimistic, possibility.

But only consider the wasted opportunity of that 2000 Camp David negotiation, and all the avoidable death and destruction over the past fifteen years, both Palestinian and Israeli. So felicitous a concatenation of circumstances from the Palestinian point of view is unlikely to present itself again in the foreseeable future.  The political wheel has turned. 

So we are unable to wish a sovereign Palestine “Happy 15th Anniversary”.  Fifteen years ago the Palestinian leadership, not for the first time, signally failed to recognize this truth, expressed so felicitously by William Shakespeare:
 “There is a tide in the affairs of men,
  Which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune:
  Omitted, all the voyage of their life
          Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

Published in the Eurasia Review, 24 July 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/24072015-the-sovereign-state-of-palestine-that-never-was-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 24 July 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/07/24/sovereign-state-palestine-never/

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Israel and Islamic State

Islamic State (IS) is advancing on Israel, both physically and politically. It is not that Israel is likely to feature very prominently in the long-term strategic thinking of IS’s leader, the self-proclaimed caliph of all Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  His sights are set, in the first instance, on subjugating and then converting the Muslim world to his own extreme version of Islam.  Israel’s existence is doubtless perceived as a side issue, to be dealt with in due course.

The feeling in Israel about IS was, until quite recently, mutual.  IS, its wild ambitions and its bloodthirsty and brutal way of going about achieving them, was regarded as a peripheral regional problem. Israel was content to sit on the sidelines and watch extreme Islamists slog it out among themselves, far from Israel’s borders.  But IS’s apparently inexorable growth in power and reach across the Middle East and beyond, is engendering a change in attitude.  Whether deliberately or not, IS is developing into an existential threat to the Jewish state.

A video statement, issued only a few days ago from IS’s Aleppo stronghold in Syria and directed at the Hamas leadership, was unequivocally antagonistic not only towards Israel, but towards the two Palestinian camps, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA).  "We will uproot the state of the Jews and you (Hamas) and Fatah… The rule of sharia will be implemented in Gaza, in spite of you. We swear that what is happening in the Levant today… will happen in Gaza," said one of the three masked and armed spokesmen.

The vehemence towards Hamas, referred to in the video as “tyrants”, reflects IS’s fury at the crackdown on ultra-extremist elements inside Gaza who fire unauthorized rockets into Israel,  endangering the fragile truce agreement which it suits Hamas at the moment to observe.  As far as IS is concerned, Hamas has its priorities all wrong. “The point of jihad is not to liberate land,” one AK47-armed spokesman says in the video, “But to fight for and implement the law of God.” In short, Hamas is not extreme enough for IS.  

IS’s priorities were forged back in 2003, in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which became a major force in the insurgency, was formed by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But after his death in 2006 AQI created an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which failed to make much of an impact. Four years later Baghdadi, a former US detainee, became its leader, and set about re-energizing it. By early 2013, it was carrying out dozens of attacks a month in Iraq, and had also joined the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as part of the al-Nusra Front.

In April 2013, Baghdadi felt himself strong enough to stand alone. In a spectacularly bold move, and in the teeth of al-Nusra’s and al-Qaeda’s opposition, he merged his forces in Iraq and Syria to create the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

In a succession of stunning victories, Baghdadi took control of the central city of Falluja, overran the northern city of Mosul, and then advanced southwards towards Baghdad, massacring his opponents as he went. In June 2014 Baghdadi changed the name of his organization to Islamic State, declared the whole Muslim world a caliphate, anointed himself caliph of all Muslims, and called on all Muslim states to facilitate IS’s advance and expansion.

Although IS’s fortunes have subsequently fluctuated, especially in encounters with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the loss of perhaps 10,000 fighters from intensive air strikes provided by the US and other Western forces, the attraction of the IS message to young Muslims across the world has brought hundreds flocking to fight under its banner.  It has also resulted in extremist groups across the Middle East and beyond declaring allegiance to it Pakistan’s Taliban signed up as early as October 2014; Nigeria’s Boko Haram last March; while jihadist organizations pledging allegiance to IS are active in Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon and even Jordan.

Now IS has established a foothold on Israel’s very borders in Gaza, in the Sinai peninsula, on the Golan Heights.  The threat is real.  Israel has to take steps to counter it.  But IS represents just as much, if not more, of a threat to the established Muslim states it is dedicated to overthrowing and absorbing into its own caliphate.  The result is that Israel finds itself remarkably close to those who have previously regarded it with suspicion, if not outright enmity Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even (tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon), Hamas.

On July 3 IS was reported to be approaching the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, advancing from the Druze Mountains along the Jordanian border.  The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have apparently promised Israeli Druze representatives that they would intervene if Druze on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights were attacked by IS.

Meanwhile IS in Gaza, which calls itself the Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade, declared it would attack Israel with rockets if Hamas did not halt its crackdown on IS supporters. The group, which was responsible for assassinating a senior Hamas commander in June, is closely linked with the IS group in the Sinai peninsula, now dubbing itself the Sinai Province.

        Yet so convoluted are Middle East politics that in Sinai, which has developed into a hotbed of lawlessness and violence, Hamas is in cahoots with IS in its efforts to overthrow the Egyptian government.  On July 7 Israel accused Hamas of supporting assaults by IS on Egyptian forces in the Sinai. In simultaneous assaults against military checkpoints around the North Sinai towns of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, 17 Egyptian soldiers and more than 1200 insurgents were killed.  Sinai Province took credit for the attacks.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyadh al-Maliki recently referred to the collaboration of Hamas and IS in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Muslim Brotherhood's war against the regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  Which explains why military co-operation between Egypt and Israel in Sinai has recently reached unprecedented levels.

“We have an urgent interest in seeing the Egyptians win the war,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “They must win the war. It’s in the interest of Israel.”

He could well have expanded his advice to encompass the fight against Islamic State worldwide.  That war must indeed be won.  It’s in the interest of the entire world.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 July 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Blogs/A-Mid-East-Journal/Israel-and-Islamic-State-409652  

Published in Eurasia Review, 13 July 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/13072015-israel-and-islamic-state-oped/


Published in MPC Journal, 16 July 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/07/16/israel-islamic-state/

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Palestinian politics

Who would want to be Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas? On top of the complex international struggle he is masterminding in an attempt to achieve Palestinian statehood without the inconvenience of actually negotiating with Israel, the embattled 80-year-old is engaged in two vicious intra-Palestinian conflicts much closer to home.  Abbas could, with much validity, claim to be surrounded by enemies – most of them fellow Palestinians.

Most obvious of these, to the outside world at least, is Hamas, an extreme Islamist body, categorized as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the United States and a clutch of other countries.  Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza strip, is contemptuous of the other main Palestinian political party, Fatah, led by Abbas, for its flirtation with the idea of making peace with Israel. 

Rejecting Fatah’s strategy of ousting Israel step-by-step from the Middle East – a strategy formulated by the late PA president, Yasser Arafat – Hamas has consistently refused to recognize Israel at all, much less engage in direct negotiations with it or contemplate the idea of a two-state solution.  Hamas has said it would never acknowledge Israel’s right to exist on a single inch of sacred Palestinian soil.

  This is why, in 2008, Hamas took the first opportunity it could to split away from any formal union with Fatah, and why every attempt at reconciliation – and there have been many over the years – has failed.  Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in August 2005 was intended as a positive step towards resolving the perennial Israel-Palestinian dispute.  The idea was for the PA to hold democratic elections across the whole of the Palestinian population, after which a national unity government could be formed with which Israel might finally achieve a peace accord.

In the event, and perhaps not surprisingly, Hamas – champions of the armed struggle against Israel – won a majority within the Gaza strip.  Mahmoud Abbas’s subsequent attempt to form a government was scuppered when Hamas refused to serve in it, but used the election results as an excuse to turn on its Fatah compatriots and, in a bloody coup d’état, seize control of the Gaza strip. Since then every effort to unify the Palestinian body politic has failed, even Abbas’s new “unity” government of June 2014, which attempted to square a stubbornly round circle by including no Hamas politicians, only so-called “technocrats”. 

Welcomed by the UN and the EU, among others, this façade provided Abbas with the  illusion of speaking on behalf of the whole Palestinian population.  It has lasted no longer than other such efforts. It was dissolved on June 17, on the legitimate grounds that the unity government was being prevented from operating in the Gaza Strip.

The plain fact of the matter is that Hamas is intent on overthrowing the Fatah-controlled PA, and with it Mahmoud Abbas, whom they have ceased to acknowledge as its legitimate leader.  And indeed they have a point,

Abbas was elected on 9 January 2005 as President of the PA for a four-year term. Hamas maintained that from the moment Abbas’s mandate expired on 9 January 2009, Aziz al-Dewik, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council should have become interim president until new elections could be held. They never happened. Meanwhile, Abbas sails serenely on, acknowledged on all sides as President of the PA, or President of the State of Palestine, depending on preference. 

Aware of his democratic deficit, Abbas is determined to quash Hamas’s continuous efforts to overturn Fatah control of the PA.  In overnight raids on July 2 the PA arrested more than 120 Hamas members, including senior Hamas officials, for planning attacks in the West Bank. Adnan al Dmairi, spokesperson for the PA security services, vowed : “We will use all legal means to stop Hamas from plunging the West Bank into anarchy and bloodshed.”

The raids were carried out a day after Israel announced that some 40 Hamas members had been arrested over the past few months for plotting attacks. Inevitably Hamas claimed that the PA and Israel were in cahoots.

Hassan Yousef, a prominent Hamas representative said the arrests showed that the PA security forces were being used as “tools to serve Israeli security,” adding that they were operating on instructions from Israel following the recent spate of terror attacks against Israelis.

Meanwhile, so rife are the suspicions within the Palestinian body politic, that the same charge is being levelled by the PA against Hamas. 

Alec Fishman, a political journalist working for the Israel-based 24-hour news channel, i24 news, reported in April that for several weeks official representatives of the Israeli government had been liaising with Hamas in a bid to reach a long-term quietus between the sides.  He claimed that this dialog is in response to a concrete and detailed proposal from Hamas, received at the start of 2015, for an agreement on a period of calm of five to 10 years.

The report was apparently substantiated by Hamas leader Ahmad Yousef, who told Maan News that there were "chats" taking place between the Islamist movement and Israel under European mediation.

“The PA,” claimed Fishman, “is fuming with anger. The media in Ramallah are accusing Israel of helping Hamas in Gaza establish itself as a rival leadership.”

Talking of leadership, this is where Abbas is being challenged from within.  Three individuals have been bugging him Abed Rabbo, a veteran PLO official and former information minister; former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad; and ousted Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan.  On July 1 it was announced that Abed Rabbo had been removed as PLO secretary general.  Four days later Abbas appointed Saeb Erekat to the post. Erekat, who has served, on and off, as chief PLO negotiator for the past two decades, has accordingly been considerably strengthened in his chances of eventually becoming head of the PA. 

Rabbo was fired on the grounds that he had plotted with Salam Fayyad and Muhammad Dahlan to oust Abbas. It was claimed that Rabbo recently visited the United Arab Emirates, where he held secret talks with Dahlan, who has been living there ever since Abbas expelled him from Fatah four years ago. Then Abbas accused Dahlan of conspiring against the PA leadership, of murder and of financial corruption – charges Dahlan strongly denied.

And so it goes within Palestinian political circles – attempts by one political faction to gain power at the expense of the other; treacherous plots against the leader; and charge and counter-charge of conspiring with the universal enemy, Israel.  Is a negotiated peace ever likely to emerge from this maelstrom?


Published in the Jerusalem Post, 14 July 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Palestinian-politics-408849

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 July 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/12072015-palestinian-politics-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 8 July 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/07/08/palestinian-politics/

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

This Islamic State madness has gone on long enough

Friday, June 26, 2015 was a day of horror.   In the seaside resort of Sousse in Tunisia nearly 40 sunbathing tourists were mown down by gunfire; earlier that morning a decapitated head was found at the scene of a terrorist attack near Lyon, France; around noon, a suicide bomber in Kuwait killed at least 25 people worshipping at a Shia mosque. Meanwhile Islamic State (IS) fighters slaughtered at least 200 people during an attack on the Syrian town of Kobane an attack that was mercifully repelled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. 

Were the incidents of June 26 intended as a grotesque commemoration of the first anniversary of IS, which self-proclaimed itself on June 29, 2014?  They were certainly in the same order of bloodthirsty barbarity as the succession of inhumane and philistine IS acts that have dominated the world’s media, and shocked and sickened decent people everywhere, for the past twelve months.   

What is IS, and what does it seek?  IS claims to be re-establishing the caliphate of the early days of Islam, and declares its intention first to entrench its rule over Iraq and Syria, then to extend its sway over the Middle East as a whole, and finally to impose its version of sharia law on the entire world.  Mainstream Muslim opinion rejects IS’s pretension to represent a worldwide caliphate, and refuses to acknowledge its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph over all Muslims.  It refutes his assertion that "the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organisations, becomes null by the expansion of the caliphate's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas".  There is a general consensus in the Muslim world, Sunni and Shia constituents alike, that Baghdadi’s pretensions are absurd, and that the ruthless and vicious savagery of IS’s terrorist activities against communities and individuals represents a perversion of Islam.  

So far the world’s response to the global jihad waged, sponsored and fed by IS, has been woefully deficient.  Politically hampered by the unhappy results of its incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, the West has taken half-hearted action against IS in Iraq and Syria under the less-than-inspiring banner of “No boots on the ground”.  Personnel sent in to train local forces, allied to air support for local military offensives, have produced little by way of positive results, and IS continues to go from strength to strength.

But IS’s bloodthirsty onslaught on the civilized world - its strategy in its preposterous struggle to dominate the globe - simply cannot be allowed to continue, and at last influential voices in the West are beginning to proclaim the obvious:  Islamic State can and must be defeated militarily.  Only when it is totally vanquished, and the areas in Iraq and Syria that it has occupied are liberated, will the baleful influence that IS exercises over so many vulnerable young Muslim people be exorcised.  And of course, if a West-led coalition can muster the will, it certainly possesses the military might to overwhelm, crush and annihilate IS. Israel’s former prime minister, Ehud Barak, may be a tad optimistic in asserting that it could be defeated in a matter of days, but that it could be defeated reasonably speedily is certain.

In the US a pair of Senators – one Democrat, the other Republican – have just launched an attempt to force Congress to provide the administration with specific authority for the fight. Democrat Timothy Kaine and Republican Jeff Flake have introduced a Bill that would authorize military force for three years against Islamic State and “associated forces”.  President Obama appears to favour the initiative.

In the UK, Lord Dannatt, former head of Britain’s armed forces, has called for British troops to be deployed on the ground to fight IS in Iraq and Syria.

Even the Vatican, appalled by the beheading by IS of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, has declared that the jihadists must be stopped. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's top diplomat at the UN in Geneva, said: "What's needed is a co-ordinated and well-thought-out coalition to do everything possible to achieve a political settlement without violence.  But if that's not possible, then the use of force will be necessary."

How right he is – though the idea of reaching “a political settlement without violence” with IS is clearly a pipe dream.  But “a co-ordinated and well-thought-out coalition”, especially if led by the US, certainly would be a desirable basis for a massive onslaught against the forces of IS.

The template for such a strategy has thoughtfully been supplied to the world by the proactive new monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Salman.  Faced by the militant Iranian-backed rebel organization, the Houthis, rampaging through Yemen – his country’s backyard – he put aside any past disagreements with Muslim states and quickly assembled a coalition of no less than twelve of them, not only in the Middle East but including Malaysia and Senegal.  He then led an air-backed military strike against the rebels, forcing them very quickly to a truce.

Most of the countries in Salman’s coalition would be prepared to join a new US-led alliance dedicated to destroying IS in Iraq and Syria, for most are as opposed to IS as to Iran. Both the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic have pretensions to sweep away existing “emirates, groups, states, and organisations,” (in the words of IS’s founding charter), to be replaced by their own version of Islam.  No Muslim nation would wish to see self-proclaimed Caliph Baghdadi lording it over their territory, or even stirring up supporters within their borders.

Turkey would have its own, additional, reasons for participating, for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already reported to be preparing to send a force of perhaps 18,000 troops into Syria.  It would have twin objectives:  to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border to accommodate refugees on Syrian rather than Turkish soil (Turkey has accepted some two million since the start of the Syrian civil war), and to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep by blocking the two current zones of Kurdish control from joining up. “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south,” said Erdogan recently.

Turkey is not alone in actively considering armed intervention against IS. Jordan – another member of Salman’s anti-Houthi coalition – is also reported to be drawing up plans to establish a safe zone in southern Syria, following concerns that IS could take over territory close to its border if President Assad's forces were to withdraw from the city of Deraa. 

        The mood music is changing.  The accepted Western view that putting Western boots on the ground of Iraq or Syria would be seen as “an army of occupation” is being challenged on all sides.  The time for indecisiveness is over.  If the world is to be freed from the madness of IS, the time for positive action is now.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 July 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/This-Islamic-State-madness-has-gone-on-long-enough-407672

Published in the MPC Journal, 1 July 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/07/01/islamic-state-madness-gone-long-enough/

Published in the Eurasia Review, 3 July 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/03072015-this-islamic-state-madness-has-gone-on-long-enough-oped/

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Israel-Palestine: French recipe lacks ingredients

        As a former colonial power, France retains considerable influence in the Middle East.  France was, of course, one of the two principals (the other was Great Britain) responsible for dismembering the Ottoman empire. The division of Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine into various French- and British-administered areas flowed directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement, a secret understanding concluded during World War One, between Britain (represented by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes), and France (represented by diplomat François Georges-Picot), with the assent of Russia. The agreement's principal terms were reaffirmed by the inter-Allied San Remo Conference in 1920 and then ratified by the Council of the League of Nations in 1922.

France’s direct participation in the creation of the modern Middle East has meant that for the last hundred years it has involved itself in the politics of the region.  As regards the Israeli-Palestinian situation, France has consistently defended Israel’s right to exist in security, while long advocating the creation of a Palestinian state.  Any possible incompatibility between these two positions has never been acknowledged.  It was certainly not referred to by former French president, François Mitterand, when he addressed Israel’s parliament in 1982.

Given France’s track record in the region, it is not surprising that it sees itself as a possible facilitator of an Israeli-Palestinan peace accord.  Back in August 2009, when it was clear that newly-elected US President Obama was eager to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered to host an international conference to facilitate the peace process. The event would, of course, be held in Paris.  He went so far as to issue invitations to leaders from concerned countries, including Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.

In January 2010, as Obama’s efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table were inching their painful way forward, Sarkozy repeated his offer. Resumption of the peace process was dubbed a French “priority”, and a Paris-located international conference was perceived as a positive path towards achieving it.

This prescription – obsession would be too harsh a designation – persists in French thinking.  It reappeared last December, when France took the lead in drafting a Security Council resolution outlining proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal.  The formula incorporated a two-year timetable for completing negotiations and – one is tempted to remark “ça va sans dire” – an international peace conference to take place in Paris. Should  the initiative fail, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

Fabius played the same tune, with minor variations, in his recent visit to the Middle East on June 20-22, to meet Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

His aim was to sell the idea of a French-led initiative to reboot the peace process, with backing from an “international support group” formed by the European Union, Arab nations and UN Security Council members. The draft resolution France is considering submitting to the UN Security Council calls for peace talks to start immediately, and specifies that negotiations on future borders should be based on the 1967 armistice lines with mutually agreed land swaps. It sets a deadline of two years for the process to be completed.  If that is not met, then wholesale recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state would follow.

In a joint press conference with Fabius, Netanyahu was far from enthusiastic, largely because, in his words, the French initiative makes “no real reference to Israel’s security needs. They are trying to push us to borders that aren’t subject to protection, while completely ignoring what will be on the other side of the border.”

He was referring to Israel’s assessment that if it were to withdraw from the West Bank, the Islamist terrorist movement Hamas would soon take control, placing Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s major north-south road network within easy reach of rocket attack.

“Peace will only come from direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions,” said Netanyahu. “It will not come from UN resolutions that are sought to be imposed from the outside.”

At a separate news conference before leaving Jerusalem, Fabius asserted that France would submit a resolution to the UN Security Council only if it would pass, and denied that he was trying to elbow the Americans away from the peace table. His aides said that Fabius was working with his counterparts to craft language that could be supported — or at least not vetoed — by the United States and that could garner Arab backing as well.

Asked how his talks with Netanyahu went, Fabius said: “Prime Minister Netanyahu told me he wants negotiations. And no, this is not a joke.”

Nor is it, for only the give and take of genuine face-to-face negotiations between the two principals could provide Israel with the cast-iron security arrangements it deems essential as part of a final settlement.  France’s initiative on its own would fall far short.  For example, the French position on the status of Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian refugees remains undisclosed.  Nor does it delineate the Palestinian state that France threatens to recognize.  Would it include Gaza, home to over a million Palestinians? There is no acknowledgement that the de facto rulers of Gaza – the Islamist movement Hamas –reject the whole concept of a two-state solution, since one of the two states would be Israel to whose destruction it is dedicated.  France turns a blind eye also to the fact that Hamas is equally determined on overthrowing the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) and take control of the West Bank. Or indeed that in any future democratic Palestinian election, Hamas would in all likelihood emerge as the winners, resulting in exactly the security nightmare that Netanyahu foresees.

Perhaps most fundamental of all, France takes no account of the failure of the PA to generate a desire for peace among the Palestinian man or woman in the street.  Possibly fearful of the growing influence of Hamas, the PA continues to promulgate hatred of Israel and to laud the “martyrs” who commit acts of terror against Israeli citizens.  France fails to recognize that this policy is a two-edged sword, for one consequence is that no Palestinian leader dare reach an accommodation with Israel for fear of the backlash from the extremists on his own side – which explains the failure of each and every attempt at a final settlement over the past half-century.

Unfortunately France’s initiative, well-meaning as it undoubtedly is, is a recipe for continued conflict far into an impenetrable future.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 24 June 2015:
http://www.jpost.com/Experts/Israel-Palestine-French-recipe-lacks-ingredients-407015

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 June 2015:
http://www.eurasiareview.com/25062015-israel-palestine-french-recipe-lacks-ingredients-oped/

Published in the MPC Journal, 26 June 2015:
http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2015/06/26/israel-palestine-french-recipe-lacks-ingredients/