Tuesday 31 May 2011

Last Opportunity For a Negotiated Peace?

The events of the last week have proved to be significant in relation to the Middle East peace process. Their significance is more, however, about what has not been achieved rather than what has been. With the sounds of the standing ovations given him by both houses of congress on Capitol Hill earlier in the week still ringing in his ears, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be fooling himself into believing that he his trip to the USA has been a great success.

Although Bibi was well received and he was able to very clearly state what it is that Israel needs to protect her security, dignity and survival amongst the community of nations, I cannot help feeling that he has come home empty-handed. The train, which is speeding towards the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN in September, has not slowed or deviated one iota as a result of his US visit. There has been no renewed interest or initiative to bring the parties back to the negotiating table with a view to agreeing a way forward. The disputes over refugees, security, borders and the status of Jerusalem all remain unresolved, and there is no real prospect of even opening a new dialogue to discuss them anytime soon. The public relations battle may have been won, but the war is slipping away.

Time is really of the essence, and the UN vote in September is looking more and more ominous. The Arab League has unsurprisingly announced that it will support a vote for a Palestinian state, and numerous other countries have indicated the same. The problem for Israel is that there are countries which are regarded as friends and supporters of Israel, and which are nonetheless lining up to vote in favour of the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. The reason is quite simple. It is not because they are changing their support for the Jewish state. Rather, it is because the conflict has gone on too long without making any substantial progress. Countries and leaders around the world are tired of having this matter on the international agenda, and will do almost anything that is new in an attempt to get rid of the issue. The length of time that has passed has worn people down, even those who would wish to stand by Israel and support her efforts. These countries will be voting in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state, even on a unilateral basis, to change the current status quo.

The main risk for Israel in the establishment of a Palestinian state in this way, is that the resolution is likely to cede at least two of the outstanding negotiating points to the Palestinians without Israel receiving anything in return. In its current form, the resolution for the establishment of the Palestinian state talks about the 1967 borders, and about East Jerusalem as its capital. In one fell swoop, two of Israel's major objections in the peace talks will be enacted into international law by the UN. In return for the international community ceding these rights to the Palestinians, Israel will receive a bag of problems.

Assuming the UN does vote in favour of the Palestinian request for a state based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel will wake up the following morning in violation of yet another UN resolution. Israel will clearly not agree to withdraw to the 1967 borders, or relinquish its control over East Jerusalem simply because the UN General Assembly demands this. So, the Palestinians will use whatever they have, and will use every resource available to enforce the UN resolution. If things look messy for Israel now, the future prospects look even worse.

The only way for Israel to avoid this scenario is to somehow get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. As part of their agreement to continue negotiating, the Israelis should demand that the Palestinians rescind their intention of going to the UN General Assembly. They will only agree to this if the peace talks offer the prospect of delivering more than the UN will deliver. This essentially means that Israel will be forced to concede the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital just to get Abbas back to the table. Somehow, this prospect seems extremely remote.

For all his standing ovations in the congress, and the praise that he has earned back home from his own constituency, Netanyahu seems to have achieved very little where it counts. He will certainly be remembered as a prime minister who stood his ground in the Oval Office when challenged by the world's most powerful leader, but will this be enough to secure his legacy? I somehow feel that history will remember him better if he succeeds in coming to a negotiated settlement. He has already confirmed his agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the future, something that previous Israeli leaders had not necessarily conceded. Bibi's challenge is now to achieve this in a negotiated, rather than unilateral way. If he achieves this, his legacy will be difficult to surpass.

Sunday 22 May 2011

What Game is Obama is Playing?

US President Barack Obama chose to use the day before the visit to Washington by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make his long-awaited Middle East policy speech. The speech, delivered at the State Department on Thursday, has proved to be huge disappointment to all those involved in the ongoing conflicts and challenges in the region. The speech has left me quite confused about what this president is really trying to achieve in the Middle East. Judging by the reporting of his address in the press, I am not the only one who has been confused by the latest policy statements, or lack of them.

My assumption prior to the president's address was that one of Obama's main objectives in the Middle East is to prevent a vote on Palestinian statehood coming to the UN General Assembly in September, as is currently the plan. It is my expectation that such a vote, if held, would find a majority of countries supporting the declaration of unilateral statehood by the Palestinians. The Arab block would automatically support this vote, no matter what the consequences. In addition, there are many rogue states such as Venezuela and Iran which would not require much convincing to vote in favour of such a resultion. Perhaps more importantly, there are many reasonable countries around the world (including some in Europe) that have become tired of this issue on the agenda for so long. They feel that such a step would at least change the current situation which has prevailed for so long without significant progress. Many are even prepared to risk things turning worse, in the possibility that they may also improve. This is risk is preferable, in the eyes of some, rather than continue the current status quo, which has not produced anything positive until now. Ultimately, I believe that there is little prospect of a UN vote being rejected by a majority of those voting, in spite of the fact that the Palestinians are known not to support Israel's right to exist and are involved in acts of terror. The only way, therefore, to prevent a resolution from passing the vote is to prevent the vote from taking place at all. I believe that Obama is fully aware of this.

His speech at the State Department on Thursday, however, did not reveal anything which supports the idea of working to prevent a vote at the UN. The only way to achieve this is to get the peace talks back on the road, such that the Palestinians feel that they will have more to gain by reopening the peace talks than they would by unilaterally declaring statehood. In order to reopen the peace talks, the Israeli team also needs to be convinced of the vision behind the peace talks, and the fact that Israel's most pressing concerns will be taken care of under the negotitated settlement. In the event, the speech seems to have convinced neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis of the value in renewing the talks. It seems to me that there was no real attempt to try to convince either party by the statements that Obama made. Along with many others, I am searching for Obama's intentions and policy direction in his speech.

I am most amazed by Obama's reference to the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed swaps) as the basis for the Palestinian state. Not only does this contradict a letter written to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon made by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush that referred to the 1949 borders, it has also been made clear by successive Israeli prime ministers that the 1967 borders are indefensible. To expect Israel to agree to having the borders of a Palestinian state run a mere 18kms from Israel's most populous area, Tel Aviv, and to have the distance between the Palestinian state and the Mediterranean Sea being less than 10kms at its narrowest point is foolhardy. The lesson that we have learned from Gaza is that withdrawal from territory simply allows the rocket launchers to be located closer to the heart of the country. It should also be considered that substantial numbers of Israeli citizens will find themselves housed in the Palestinian state under these proposals, something that no Israeli government will agree to.

If Obama intended to make a speech about Middle East policy that was designed not to have any impact on the region at all, he has done a good job. It is not inconceivable that the president resigned himself to making a keynote speech to try to silence those who have criticised his lack of attention to this important issue, while realising that he can do little or nothing to change the current impasse. The fact that he has yet to make a visit to Israel or the Palestinian Authority area almost three years into his presidency, is a clear indication of where this matter falls on his list of priorities.

If, however, Obama does genuinely intend to bring American policy and power to stop the UN vote in September and force the parties to a negotiated agreement, he will have to do a great deal better than this. For starters, he will need to show a much greater grasp and sensitivity to the main issues and red lines held by each party. The fact that special Middle East envoy George Mitchell has quietly resigned and slipped away without a successor, will also need to be fixed quickly.

Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to observe Prime Minister Netanyahu's address to both houses of congress on Tuesday in Washington. Netanyahu has come out fighting vigorously against Obama's 1967 borders, much to the joy of most Israelis across the political spectrum. He has also tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism with Obama in order not to alienate him to completely. This balance will be difficult to continue to achieve in the future.

If Netanyahu came to Washington expecting to get help from Obama to prevent the UN vote, he will feel sorely let down. It is clear that, short of supportive statements, the Americans are either unwilling or unable to bring their influence to bear on Middle Eastern politics at the current time. This is a real shame because the parties have really been looking to the US to engineer the breakthrough that could bring peace to the region. Unfortunately, with the current policy and level of involvement of the USA government in Middle Eastern issues, a vote at the UN in September looks unavoidable.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Nakba Day - The Real Catastrophe

The Palestinians are preparing themselves today for the commemoration of the day in the Gregorian calendar on which the British Mandate in Palestine ended, and the State of Israel came into being in 1948. This is the day that they call the "nakba", which means the catastrophe. I find this day to be somewhat strange as far as commemoration days is concerned, and I believe that it is without parallel elsewhere in the world.

Over the 63 years of Israel's existence, the Palestinians have used this day as a rallying point to demonstrate against the existence of the State of Israel. There are some who claim that the commemoration is really against the expulsion of the Arabs from their homes, which became part of the new State of Israel. To me, however, the Nakba is mainly about commemorating and lamenting the existence of the Jewish state. I have always seen it as a way of focusing Arab attention on opposing the existence of Israel. There is, of course, a personal and human side to the event, with millions of Arabs choosing to go into exile and become refugees. The Arab world, however, has always seemed less concerned about the human element, and more intent upon using this issue to exploit the conscience of western countries who do genuinely care about the plight of individual people, even when their own leaders do not show the same level of concern.

The fact that so many "Palestinian" refugees were created in 1948, arose purely out of the actions and advice of the Arab leaders. Despite the fact that they would wish the world to believe that Israel created this problem, the facts do not support this assertion. It is on record that the leaders of the newly created State of Israel requested the Arab residents to remain in their homes, and invited them to live alongside the Jews in Israel. The Arab leaders, however, could not accept this invitation and instructed their people to leave their homes and properties. The reason for the instruction was because they knew that the wrath of the Arab world was about to descend on Israel in the form of attacks from all surrounding Arab countries. They believed that this war would simply destroy the new Jewish state, and would allow the Arabs to return to their homes within weeks or months. History shows that Israel succeeded in repelling the onslaught in the War of Independence, and left the Arabs with a problem regarding a strategy for reclaiming their properties.

If they allowed their people to return to their homes after the War of Independence, the Arab leaders realised that this would entail some level of recognition of Israel. Instead, they instructed their hapless people to remain in refugee camps in the countries surrounding Israel. This was designed to be a pressure point on the world community to somehow go back on its support for Israel's independence. Unfortunately for the millions of men, women and children who have been forced to live in refugee camps for the past 63 years, the plan backfired. Now, when there are few people around who remember the exact events at that time, it is convenient for the Palestinians to claim that they were expelled from their homes by the Jews. This story is one which is more likely to earn them the support and sympathy of the international community in their attempts to paint Israel in the darkest possible light, and do all that is possible to undermine her continued right to exist in peace and security. It is also supports their claim that Israel is an "apartheid state", something which cannot be further from the truth.

The real nakba in all of these events, is the failure by the Arab world to create an alternative solution for the people that are now called Palestinians. Because the Arabs were so focused on finding ways to destroy Israel, they had no time or inclination to consider how to take care of their own people. During the period from 1948 until 1967, the West Bank was under Jordanian rule and the Gaza Strip under Egyptian control. There was no attempt to create a Palestinian state at that time. In fact, there were not even Palestinian people as this identity was only adopted by the Arabs after the Six Day War in 1967. Efforts were focused on destroying Israel, and there was little time for anything else. When, after the 1967 war, they realised that they were losing ground rather than strengthening their position, the Arabs changed tactics to try to eat at the Jewish state little-by-little instead of hoping to destroy Israel all at once. It is for this reason that the concept of returning to the pre-1967 borders has gained popularity in recent years. It is for this same reason that many Israelis are opposed to the idea of the creation of a Palestinian state on Israel's borders, particularly one which openly refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. This looks very much a tactic to gain a foothold, from which a more serious attack on Israel can take place.

For many Arabs whose families were formerly residents of areas which are today part of Israel, the creation of Israel was indeed a nakba for them. But the source of their catastrophe was not the State of Israel. Instead, they should be looking to their leaders who created this nakba of their own doing. By choosing to focus their efforts on finding ways to destroy Israel, the Arab leaders have failed to fulfil their responsibilities to their own people. They have allowed them to live in abysmal conditions, and without any real hope of improving their circumstances. The time has now come to accept that Israel cannot, and will not be destroyed. The choices are clear - perpetuate the nakba, or begin the important task of building a future of hope and optimism for your children. If they choose the second option in good faith, they will find Israel to be a neighbour that will help and support these objectives. If, however, they continue to choose the option of firing missiles at civilians in a belief that this will weaken Israeli resolve, the future for their own people looks extremely bleak.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Celebrations Over Bin Laden's Death Are Overdone

The American people have spent the past few days celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. After 10 years of searching for him, and numerous promises to hunt him down on the part of successive administrations, US special forces finally succeeded in tracking him down in Pakistan and killed him.

I can certainly understand why Americans celebrated the death of Bin Laden. He was responsible for the first real act of war on American soil since Pearl Harbour. He humiliated American security by having his operatives work from within the USA, and by having them use US equipment to create one of the greatest losses of lives on US soil. Not only that, but he managed to expose a construction weakness in the most cruel way, to destroy one of the beacons of American entrepreneurial spirit and freedom in the centre of New York City, the city that never sleeps. Americans were never going to rest until revenge was exacted on this audacious man, if only for the Americans to reassert their supremacy. One has to give credit to all those involved that they were prepared to stay the distance, and to continue to track down their target despite the passage of 10 long years. This sends a message of determination, not only to the American people, but also to those terrorists who felt that they may have escaped the consequences of such a heinous act of terror. As far as I can tell, Barack Obama has managed to seal the legacy of his presidency by this one act. He will always go down in history as the man who hunted down Bin Laden. His very personal control and presence in the incident room watching on his video screen as the events were unfolding, will also do no harm to his image or legacy.

Obama has made every effort to maximise the publicity that he can achieve from this success. There is so much bad news that world leaders are forced to endure, and this president is no exception, that they go out of their way to make good news last as long as possible. In playing up the achievement of finally hunting down Osama, however, the president runs the risk of misleading citizens of the United States and the world. There are a few harsh realities that we as law-abiding citizens should bear in mind, despite the fact that Bin Laden is no longer a force to be reckoned with.

The first and most important reality is that the assassination of Bin Laden makes no real difference to terror activities around the world. The fact that he is no longer around does not make the world a safer place. On the contrary, his death may have stirred up a hornets' nest and may precipitate revenge violence against citizens of the free world. No matter whether the short-term outlook is better or worse, it is clear that the Al-Qaeda organisation and command-control infrastructure that has been put in place will continue to operate even without Osama at the helm. Bin Laden's death may create a martyr-figure in the eyes of many of the Muslim world, such that they may be convinced to join the activities of the terrorists. The most frightening reality of all, is the fact that the Muslim world is full of would-be Bin Ladens. There are thousands out there who would be delighted to take over where Osama has left off, and they enjoy huge support and substantial funding. State-sponsored organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah are ready and willing to work alongside Al-Qaeda and other organisations, with the intention of ridding the world of the "infidels".

Bin Laden succeeded in taking the Muslim extremist fight against the free world from the war-torn streets of Middle Eastern backwaters, to downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon. Like his arch-rival Obama, Osama's legacy is assured. He has made being a Muslim extremist "cool", and he has created a role model for future generations of Muslims wishing to oppose all that America and the free world stand for. Not only did he succeed in attacking America by using their own aircraft to bring down the bastion of freedom in New York City, he has successfully used the Internet and social media to taunt and tease those seeking him out. For 10 years, he managed to evade the world's best armies and intelligence agencies while continuing to direct further activities of terror and destruction.

As much as it was important to destroy this man in his role as the ultimate architect of terrorism, it is equally important not to allow the celebrations to continue too long. It is time to get back to work to destroy Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror organisations and cells. Unfortunately, Bin Laden was only the tip of this iceberg and the world really is not a safer place now that he has gone. If the indications prove to be correct, and Obama has succeeded in securing himself another presidential term on the back of the death of Bin Laden, he will need to move very quickly to reset the expectations of the American people. Failure to do this may risk his legacy in the future.

Sunday 1 May 2011

Palestinian Peace Perpetuates Regional Conflict

The two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, surprised the international community with an announcement during the past week that they have reached an interim agreement between themselves. This agreement is based upon five major points including the formation of an interim unity government, the combination of their security forces and the release of each other's prisoners. It was agreed that a general election for the West Bank and Gaza will be called in approximately 8 months' time.

Hamas and Fatah have been in a state of conflict with each other since Hamas mounted a military takeover of Gaza in June 2007, and expelled the Fatah representatives who had governed the strip until then. Despite numerous attempts to reconcile the warring factions during the intervening period, the Egyptian mediators were unable to broker an agreement that both parties would sign up to. The suddent announcement last week came without prior warning that an agreement was imminent, and has given rise to questions as to how come the parties were able to come to such a quick agreement when previous attempts had failed over a lengthy period of time.

According to the parties, the agreement at this time has been facilitated by a change in the Egyptian government which was also reflected in the approach of the mediators. It is claimed that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government was anti-Hamas. As such, Hamas was disadvantaged in the negotiation by virtue of the bias of the mediators. Now that the government has changed and the mediation team reflects this change, we are told that an agreement was reached quickly and easily. This explanation sounds a little too simplistic to me, and I believe that other forces are at play here.

The "Arab Spring", the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, will certainly have had some influence on Hamas and Fatah officials in their discussions to reach agreement. It is no secret that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas administration in Gaza have both felt threatened that the "Spring" may also reach their areas of control. The substantial corruption in evidence in both areas, as well as the autocratic nature of their rule look distinctly similar to other Arab governments which have been overthrown. There can be no doubt that the empowerment felt by the downtrodden masses in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria could easily find its way to the West Bank and Gaza, with similar political consequences. As much as Fatah and Hamas have conflicts with each other, somehow the threat of a popular uprising by their people represents more of a threat to each of their power bases than the threat that they present to each other.

Another issue that may have influenced the reaching of an agreement, is the rehabilitation of Fatah in the international community. This has reached the point that there has been serious discussion about a possible vote at the UN General Assembly in September for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. This is a surprising achievement for Fatah, especially when one considers the way in which its representatives have avoided making any substantive progress in peace talks with Israel. The proposed UN vote looks distinctly like a reward for negotiating in bad faith with Israel, but it has a good prospect of succeeding nonetheless. The Hamas leaders will, no doubt, have been watching these developments closely and with some degree of jealousy. Hamas is an organisation that is blacklisted as a sponsor of terror by the US and a number of other countries. It has a bad name in the international community following the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and after unceasingly firing missiles at civilians in the south of Israel. The Hamas leadership will view the agreement with Fatah as a possible route to gain some international credibility, by taking advantage of the progress that Fatah has made on the international stage.

Fatah has carefully avoided calling an election in the West Bank since 2006 when the last Palestinian legislative elections were held. On that occasion, the elections across both the West Bank and Gaza resulted in a resounding defeat for Fatah at the hands of Hamas. Abbas somehow managed to hang on to power after the international community rejected the possibility of a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority. Although the Hamas takeover of Gaza intervened thereby allowing Abbas the opportunity to continue his rule in the West Bank, he will remember clearly the rejection that he suffered at the hands of the electorate in the 2006 election. With increasing pressure coming from both inside and outside the Palestinian Authority area for an election to be held, an alliance with Hamas seems a good way for Abbas and his Fatah faction to guarantee themselves victory. Having to share the victory with Hamas still seems a better option than the possibility of another defeat.

The agreement between Fatah and Hamas brought a swift and unequivocal response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He stated that Fatah needs to choose between peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. He made it clear that, by choosing to enter into a peace agreement with Hamas, all bets for further negotiations with Israel are off. It is clear that Israel could not consider holding peace discussions with a Fatah-Hamas alliance while Gilad Shalit remains in captivity, and while bombs continue to rain down on civilians from Gaza. This alliance may also give Netanyahu ammunition in the international community. Having spent many months claiming that Fatah is not really interested in reaching a peace agreement with Israel, and having endured a great deal of criticism that he has been one of the impediments to progress towards peace, Netanyahu is now able to point to the new Fatah-Hamas agreement to justify his claims that the Palestinians are to blame for the lack of peace.

There was no mention of the relationship with Israel in the 5 point agreement reached between the Palestinian parties, nor of any possible peace. Hamas was quick to announce soon after reaching the agreement with Fatah, that it will never recognise Israel's right to exist. Fatah made no effort to counter this position, so this is what remains on the record at this time. This may work to Israel's advantage by serving to ambush Fatah's plans to bring a vote to the UN General Assembly on Palestinian statehood. I believe that it would be much more difficult for many countries, particular European countries, to support a UN vote on a Palestinian state if Hamas is a party to the declaration of statehood.

While the Palestinians have been talking for some time about unity between the factions, my impression is that this unity agreement may well work against their best interests in the international community. Each party has its own reason for agreeing to the peace deal at this time, but I believe that it ultimately serves to buy more time for Israel just in the nick of time. The UN General Assembly vote was beginning to look like an ominous omen on the horizon for Israel, and the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence was looking increasingly likely. The Palestinian unity agreement seems to me to be one of the only acts that could have torpedoed such a possibility, and seemed unlikely until the moment that it was announced.

This underlines the unpredictability of Middle Eastern politics. It also reinforces the fact that the Palestinians are really not serious about a peace with Israel, or the possibility of living alongside Israel as good neighbours. If this was a major consideration, it would surely have been one of the points in the agreement. For now, Israel will have to continue in the knowledge that the age-old intention of the Palestinians to rid Israel of the Jews has not changed in any way.