Regional Politics

There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.

The recent interim agreement in Geneva between the world’s major powers and Iran over its nuclear programme is a bitter pill that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has spent much of the past week choking on. After initial outrage, the indications are that Netanyahu is softening his tone towards Washington. An official close to Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post newspaper bluntly: “Israel intends to be a player.” A leading Israeli columnist has termed the period before negotiations begin again for a permanent agreement Israel’s “six-month war”.

The furore over the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria has overshadowed disturbing events to the south, as Egypt’s generals wage a quiet war of attrition against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. A recent cartoon in a Hamas newspaper showed Gaza squeezed between pincers – one arm Israel, the other Egypt. A Hamas spokesperson was recently quoted saying Egypt was “trying to outmatch the Israelis in tormenting and starving our people”.

Far from ambivalent

27 September 2013

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, warned during an interview on the US channel NBC that Israel had “brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies”. Destabilizing its enemies has long been Israel’s main strategy. Now its challenge is to persuade Obama that war, not diplomacy, is in Washington’s best interests in both Syria and Iran.

Israeli officials are reported to be increasingly nervous that international efforts to destroy of Syria’s chemical weapons might serve as a prelude to demands on Israel to eliminate its own, undeclared weapons of mass destruction. Concerns about Israel’s possible chemical weapons arsenal intensified following the disclosure this month of a confidential CIA report suggesting Israel had created a significant stockpile of such weapons by the early 1980s.

The new US-Russian deal to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons can probably be turned to Israel’s advantage. Syria will be hosting international inspectors searching for WMD, not unlike the situation in Iraq shortly before the US-led invasion of 2003. Israel, it can safely be assumed, will quietly meddle, trying to persuade the West that Assad is not cooperating and that Hizbullah and Iran are implicated.

The Holy Land may be the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the three Abrahamic faiths that share much in common – but Israel has preferred to draw on a tradition that imagines the region in terms of a clash of civilisations. This is the context for understanding the announcement this month of a “forum” between the government and Israel’s Christian Palestinians designed to push them into serving in the Israeli military.

Cafes have always been integral components of Arab culture, making room for cultural and political syntheses. With the gradual increase in the complexities of contemporary issues facing the Arab societies, cafes have developed into safe havens for different local communities to think openly, be different and exist in a free environment in the face of repressive and inhospitable surroundings. They have become active ingredients in the change the Arab world is witnessing.

The tiny village of Al-Aqaba in the West Bank is a model of access for the disabled. Its mayor, Hajj Sami Sadeq, has been using a wheelchair since the age of 14, when a bullet from an Israeli soldier lodged in his spine. His case typifies the especially ambiguous aura around disability among Palestinians. The view of disability shifted dramatically during the two intifadas, when tens of thousands of men, women and children were left with permanent injuries from Israeli military operations.

In recent weeks, Israel has moved from relative inaction to a deepening involvement in Syrian affairs: it launched two air strikes last month, and at the same time fomented claims that Damascus had used chemical weapons. Meanwhile, statements from Israeli officials have tacked wildly between threats to oust Assad one moment and denials that Israel has any interest in his departure the next. Is Israel sending out contradictory signals to sow confusion, or is it simply confused itself?

Faced with years of diplomatic impasse between Israel and the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, seized his chance to resurrect the peace process earlier this month. He extracted from the Arab League an agreement to dust off a decade-old regional plan, the Arab Peace Initiative, declaring the move “a very big step forward”.

In 2007 Tony Blair assumed the position of Quartet Representative. Against the background of mounting criticism at home over his role in the 2003 Iraq War, this profile examines the record of Blair’s activities in the Middle East over the past five years. The picture that emerges is one of rapid self-enrichment through murky consultancies and opaque business deals with Middle East dictators, and an official role whose main results appear to be an unhappy Palestinian Authority and the perpetuation of the status quo.

For Palestinian leaders, waiting anxiously in the hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry unveils a peace plan when he visits this week, the need to secure East Jerusalem’s future has come sharply into relief. The reason is simple: there can be no viable Palestinian state without Jerusalem as its capital. This was the background to a March 26 pledge by the Arab League to establish a $1 billion fund to protect East Jerusalem’s Arab and Islamic characters.

In the shadow of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s theatrics at the United Nations last week, armed with his cartoon Iranian bomb, Israeli officials launched a quieter, but equally combative, initiative to extinguish whatever hopes have survived of reviving the peace process. For the first time in its history, Israel is seeking to equate millions of Palestinians in refugee camps across the Middle East with millions of Israeli citizens descended from Jews who, before Israel’s establishment in 1948, lived in Arab countries.

Politicians may prefer to express admiration of Israel, and hand over billions of dollars in aid, but the US security establishment has – at least in private – always regarded Israel as an untrustworthy partner. The distrust has been particularly hard to hide in relation to Iran. Mounting pressure from Israel appears to be designed to manoeuvre Washington into supporting an attack on Tehran to stop it supposedly developing a nuclear weapon.

Those Israelis baying for a military strike on Iran – led, it is said, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak – appeared last week to have received a timely fillip. The Israeli media claimed that last-minute changes to the US intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate report showed Tehran was reviving its efforts to develop a military nuclear programme. US officials quickly denied Israeli claims. But the leak suggested the lengths to which Israeli officials are prepared to go to ratchet up the pressure on President Barack Obama.

In poll after poll Israel ranks as one of the countries with the most negative influence on international affairs. And yet, the lower Israel sinks in public estimation, the more generous western leaders are in handing out aid and special favours to their wayward ally. The past few days have been particularly shameless. It was revealed last week that the European Union had approved a massive upgrade in Israel’s special trading status, strengthening economic ties in dozens of different fields. The decision was a reversal of a freeze imposed in the wake of the Gaza attack of winter 2008.

Few can doubt that Syria is next on the West’s hit list. And this time, the script-writers in Washington seem to believe that the task of turning a functioning, if highly repressive, state into a basket case can be achieved without the West’s hand being visible at all. This time the white hat has been assigned to our allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who, according to the latest reports, are stoking an incipient civil war not only by arming some among the rebels but also by preparing to pay them salaries too, in petro-dollars.

Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.

If there was a moment defining the shift in Israel’s strategic position over the past year, it occurred in September when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was overrun by hundreds of Egyptian protesters, some armed with sledgehammers. It was not quite the fall of Saigon. But it indicated how in a few months Israel had gone from a state adept at shaping its regional environment to one increasingly buffeted by forces beyond its control.

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