Category Archives: Middle Eastern Politics

Israel’s Creative Strategic Depth

While the capabilities Israel employs vary and evolve, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.

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Israeli Air Force Kfir Reconnaissance combat

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The question of Israel’s strategic depth as a significant element of its decision making process has long been prominent among Middle-East strategists and researchers. Being of a land mass so small it can be easily overlooked in its entirety on a map, Israel’s leaders continuously envision themselves as surrounded by arrayed enemy forces on several fronts. Among Israel’s security-conscious crowd, it has become commonplace to hear that ‘Israel can never afford to lose any of its wars’. This is for the exact same reasoning, as even the most seemingly insignificant loss of territory might put enemy forces within a bullet’s distance of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv or any other major population centre.

In order to deal with this unfortunate reality, Israeli strategists have – at times – attempted to expand its strategic depth to include an adversary’s territory. Truly, a linchpin of any military campaign is to “take the action to the enemy”, often meaning across the border. While arguably this can be applied to many modern militaries, it holds especially true for a country with a small stretch of land between its borders and its cities. This strategy was tested several times in the past, and can in part explain why the Israeli Defense Forces places such an emphasis on maintaining a superior and costly air force, or allegedly maintains a substantial array of ballistic missiles.

Additionally, this can also explain why Israel is one of the only nations to actively pursue open military operations on foreign soil outside the scope of full-fledged war. While espionage and subterfuge are often cited as a mainstay of any nation, most nations choose to exercise such actions with extreme caution rather than flare. Why is it then that we hear so often of acts of aggression attributed directly to Israel?

Several notable examples come to mind. The bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 pushed the Israeli’s air force’s operational range to its extreme limit. A second such strike was reported in 2007 against the Dir-a-Zur nuclear reactor undergoing construction in Syria, again signalling that Israel’s strategic reach is much farther than its size. Multiple reported strikes against targets in Sudan further underlined Israel’s willingness to operate against its foes in different theatres. Even covert actions, such as the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai in 2010 allegedly performed by Israeli operatives once again expanded the field of engagement.

Israel’s opponents often portray it as the aggressor due to sheer malice or due to it having dark designs on the Middle-East. Conversely, these acts are potentially carried out to prevent its enemies from attempting to encroach on its physical strategic depth in a creative brand of active deterrence, thus avoiding bloody wars for survival that may or may not drag actual strategic military assets into play. While this is a highly contested statement debated in many circles, one can reason that a possible motivation behind risky actions that attempt to cement Israel’s strategic depth is to deter its foes from triggering actual war or substantially altering the unique regional balance.

Interestingly, perhaps we can now see this mode of operation as spilling into cyberspace. Substantial activities in this field have recently been attributed to Israel and the United States, notably the aggressive malware known as Duqu, Stuxnet and Flame. Although it is doubtful that the original intent behind these cyber-operations was to have them exposed as they eventually were, perhaps such future deliberate endeavours are worthwhile to consider. While deterrence in cyberspace is a concept still very much up for contemporary debate, many argue that at least some degree of conflict between aggressors can and will take place there.

So perhaps an interesting twist on an existing strategic formula would be to attempt and extend Israel’s strategic sphere of influence into cyberspace. Already we are seeing the first signs of escalation that will likely continue in the near future. With fresh cyber-attacks against Saudi and Qatari oil interests alongside American banks attributed to Iranian hackers – potentially with state sponsorship – it is becoming increasingly clear that Stuxnet served as a catalyst for future online engagements. It would be curious to see an Israeli joint cyber command (not unlike the United States’ relatively new CYBERCOM) issuing a declaration – as the air force has done before – claiming that it can strike wherever and whenever it is required. However, this will need to be occasionally corroborated with actual, relatively high-profile operations.

The essential drawback to such a strategy is that cyber weapons are sometimes portrayed as effective for precisely one deployment. There is some degree of logic in that; when a cyber weapon is employed, the vulnerability that had allowed it to operate will likely get immediately shut down in upon identification of the attack (e.g the Stuxnet 0-day vulnerabilities). However, as hackers today are still commonly attacking high-profile targets using relatively simple hacking tools, it is not inconceivable to draw a strategic line in the sand with relative ease.

To conclude, while the capabilities employed vary and evolve with time as do the threats, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts involving Israel. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.

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Photo Credit: Flavio~

Withdrawal Lessons From Iraq

The United States should think twice about how to withdraw while protecting Afghan democracy at the same time.

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Us soldier Afghanistan children

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On January 11 President Barack Obama declared that the United States is, after 12 years of conflict, moving towards a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan. His meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai marks an emotional turning point in the conflict. The joint agreement to accelerate the military transition to Afghan forces is a step in the right direction, but it is important not to be carried away. The American fighting role in Afghanistan should end. Yet it is crucial to withdraw responsibly, to avoid the mistakes made when leaving Iraq.

Similar to the choices facing leaders in Afghanistan today, the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in December 2011 was a difficult one, commensurate with the conflict’s complexity. Yet, despite its merits (which were considerable), the exit underscored the low priority the Obama Administration placed on Iraq; in the rush to leave a draining war, the Administration left a country unready to support itself. The effects of the premature drawdown are being felt across the Iraqi political landscape today, as Nouri al-Maliki continues to move menacingly towards authoritarianism and fissures open between the country’s disparate factions.

The US military withdrawal created a vacuum in which Maliki has been able to abuse the stillborn democratic political system left behind. The leverage that the military presence afforded US diplomats has evaporated, leaving American ambassadors woefully unable to prevent Maliki from abusing government. Instead, he is reinforcing his grip on the military chain of command, using arrests to intimidate dissenters, and ensuring loyalty from his intelligence and judicial services.

These actions, amongst others, are deeply subversive of the envisaged democratic state for which much blood and money were expended. The Iraqi opposition, wary of engaging in the political process, has looked to regional neighbors for support. The protests across Iraq over the past two weeks further underscore this outward search for allies. The opposition leadership is turning to foreign allies among the Sunni Arab states, mostly in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

This situation was not predestined for Iraq, nor is it for Afghanistan if the right lessons are learned. Between 2008 and 2010, Iraq made stunning progress that surprised even the staunchest cynics. Democratic incentives began to influence the Parliament in Baghdad and politicians across the country. Iraqis were pushed to conduct politics in ways that, as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described, “were uncomfortable and alien for them. Yet they were having to do it, they were all learning democratic processes.”

Yet US leaders did not wait for this fledgling democracy to take root. Their departure just as these processes were beginning to transform Iraq’s political landscape opened the gates for the traditional political culture to reassert itself. American soldiers were, for better or worse, a barrier to the fear that had defined Iraqi politics for decades. Once they were gone, the country reverted to what it once knew: A political system in which a deep distrust of government defined a populace reliant on its own wit to protect itself.

Afghanistan could face a similar fate if American leaders do not understand the lessons from Iraq. Progress in Afghanistan during recent months is worthy of praise, but should be greeted by cautious optimism.

Most importantly, both Obama and Karzai have affirmed their support for negotiations with the Taliban, which has expressed a tentative desire to come back into Afghanistan’s political fold. Each party supports the establishment of an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks, and although all sides have a ways to go before they understand the others’ “red lines,” analysts are hopeful that negotiations are near.

There are, of course, challenges. How much faith can western and Afghan leaders have in their Taliban interlocutors? What role will third party actors like Pakistan can play, in the coming months? Many senior Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate until the Afghan Constitution is amended and Karzai is gone. But within these parameters progress is possible. And if Karzai follows through on his promise to step down next year, a successful start of this conversation will become even more likely.

Negotiations with the Taliban hinge on a synthesis of military and diplomatic lines of operation. The Obama Administration needs to combine military security with increased pressure on politicians to open negotiations. Yet the time to make such a calculation is fast ending. Distressingly, it seems the current administration is sliding towards withdrawal without any attempt to pursue diplomatic options. Obama and Karzai have jointly adopted the transition narrative, emphasizing the transferal of security and administrative responsibility to the Afghan government. Just how ready Kabul is to take over these challenges is uncertain. For Washington, though, this narrative is ideal, as it allows policymakers to hand their problems to the Afghans, without paying a high political price of pursuing negotiations.

Afghanistan stands a great chance of being ripped apart from within and without. Heading a state with no precedent of unity, Afghan leaders must reconstruct a country from political zero. Pakistani, Iranian, and even Indian, Chinese, and Russian influence could further weaken Kabul’s ability to exercise authority over border regions. If conversations with the Taliban break down, internecine conflict could add to these woes.

In this volatile environment, Afghanistan will presumably face a turnover of its government in 2014. Without proper safeguards, Karzai could go the route of Maliki. Like in Iraq, without the leverage provided by a strong military presence, there will be little barrier to such a reversal of democratic progress. The US should think twice about how to withdraw and protect Afghan democracy at the same time. It is a step in the right direction that Karzai agreed to grant US soldiers legal immunity — which Maliki denied — but whether this promise holds is another question.

In Iraq, a good-intentioned but ill-timed withdrawal of American soldiers left a country still finding its political feet without ground on which to stand. The promising developments in the last years of the occupation were largely lost as Maliki reverted to authoritarian practices, the political factions reverted to divisive diplomacy, and the population reverted to the politics of fear. It is yet to be seen whether Afghanistan will follow the same trajectory. The war has cost over 3,000 coalition and countless Afghan lives, and needs to end. But it leaders should examine their own history to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

Nouri al-Maliki: Iraq’s Newest Dictator?

The comparisons to the Hussein regime should not be over-stretched. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Nouri al-Maliki’s power compared to his predecessor, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

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For Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s recent political history remains a specter haunting his regime. Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian rule left little precedent for national, democratic reconstruction according to what external and domestic policymakers had hoped. It is thus unsurprising that the current ruling party has enacted policies that resemble those from a far more sinister past, and Maliki’s practices have been compared to Saddam’s; most importantly, he has arrested political dissenters and established central government control over the security forces. His recent response to the protests sweeping Iraq this past week have raised afresh these analyses. Yet the comparisons to Saddam’s regime should not be stretched too far. The deep emotional significance of drawing such a parallel, and the limits of Maliki’s power compared to Saddam’s, should give those espousing such a view serious pause.

Maliki has certainly exhibited tendencies that spark fear amongst Iraqis. In a September editorial, The Guardian argued that “Nouri al-Maliki’s has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein’s terror – but the charge sheet is growing.” For example, as US combat forces departed the country in December 2011, Maliki issued the notorious arrest warrant for his vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Soldiers and tanks led by Maliki’s son surrounded Hashimi’s house, detaining several bodyguards who later, after torture, confessed that the vice president had organized illegal death squads against his political rivals. He was soon sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged crimes. The Guardian concluded by bluntly noting that “Iraqiyya [Hashimi’s party]…is not the first victim of Maliki’s power grab.”

Maliki has reinforced his grip through the Iraqi military, reshaping the chain of command so that his office has full control over personnel placement and field strategy. The Iraqi Special Forces have become a personal guard for the Prime Minister, as has the intelligence and judiciary branches. Having confronted the Sunni opposition, many fear that his next targets will be the Sadrists and eventually the Kurds using his strengthened psuedo-legal military options.

Yet there are several key differences between his and Saddam’s regime that must not be ignored. Above all, Maliki simply wields far less power than did his despotic counterpart. The Prime Minister’s inability to coerce the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani into turning over Hashimi in 2011, for instance, underscores this reality. Unlike Saddam, Maliki has nearly no influence or control in Iraqi Kurdistan. Supported by Turkey, Iran, and the United States, Kurdistan is essentially off-limits to Baghdad, lest Maliki violently exacerbate tensions with his regional neighbors.

The Sunni political bloc to which Hashimi belongs, albeit battered, has its foreign allies too. As much as he tries, Maliki cannot eliminate the Sunni opposition, as its leadership would immediately turn to Saudi Arabia if seriously threatened. And he does not have the influence to prevent such links. He can only intimidate and isolate the Sunnis — which he continues to do with limited success — but can never silence their voice.

Even amongst the Shia faction, deep divisions undermine Maliki’s ability to meaningfully consolidate his power. Moqtada al-Sadr, the indefatigable leader of the Sadrist movement, has repeatedly spoken against the ruling party. For all his maneuvering, Maliki has relatively little opportunity to significantly damage or silence the Sadrist minority; Sadr, a “black sheep” in Iraqi politics, needs only align with Iraq’s other opposition leaders to pose a serious threat to Maliki’s grasp on Baghdad, a move he is willing to make if Maliki further strips his political options.

These empirical differences between Maliki and Saddam must be viewed alongside a far less exact, emotional element. Comparisons between the two leaders often ignore the serious and painful realities of the terror with which Saddam Hussein ruled. It is neither accurate nor fair to make such offhand comparisons when the reality does not match. There is little doubt that Maliki’s actions are authoritarian, harsh, and legally questionable, but it is also important to remember that Saddam’s true cruelty, paranoia, and unfeeling political calculations with the lives of his citizens tore far deeper wounds across Iraq. In many respects, Maliki’s ruling style is a product of the stillborn democracy left in the wake of the American departure. His rule will never conform to the ideals of egalitarian and representative government that US leaders espoused. But to compare it to Saddam’s merely exacerbates the situation by pushing the current regime to adopt more insular policies, while at the same time ignores the problem’s roots.

To be sure, the trend towards authoritarianism that Maliki’s government is following does not inspire optimism, nor should it be encouraged. But it should be recognized for what it is, and not compared to a regime it will never truly resemble. How can foreigners understand Maliki? If they look past the Saddam era for answers, the results will be far more enlightening.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Iran Sanctions: Effective But Unsuccessful In 2012

Sanctions were effective in 2012 if we measure losses in revenue and exports. However there remains little reason to believe Iran will change its nuclear course soon.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ran has endured sanctions for decades but 2012 was different. Patience in Washington and Europe was largely spent by the end of 2011, with Israel threatening war, Russia and China resisting new sanctions, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publishing an alarming report in November. Meanwhile, Iran’s controversial nuclear program steadily advanced. Under these circumstances and in spite of a tight oil market, the U.S. and European Union took aim at Iran’s 2.2 million barrels a day (b/d) of crude oil exports. At least 50 percent of the Iranian government’s revenues thus became vulnerable.

On the last day of 2011, President Obama signed new sanctions into law blacklisting any company that purchased Iranian crude without a waiver after June 28; in effect, exiling them and the banks they relied on from the American financial system. In order to qualify for a waiver, Iran’s customers had to reduce imports every 180 days or be granted an exception directly from the White House.

Unlike the U.S., which stopped importing crude from Iran after the Shah fell, the EU purchased about 450,000 b/d from Iran in 2011. But in January 2012, the EU announced that it would boycott Iranian oil completely as of July 1—thus displacing about 20 percent of Iran’s exports. EU members also agreed to cut off insurance for all tankers that carried Iranian crude or petrochemicals. In doing so, the EU denied insurance to 95 percent of the world’s commercial fleet, severely limiting Iran’s options.

Sanctions locked in this summer. Together, these measures crippled Iranian oil exports in July, driving down volumes to lows not seen since the Iran-Iraq War. Exports fell to 930,000 b/d before customers smoothed out new but less than optimal shipping and insurance schemes. Volumes have since settled above one million b/d, still well short of 2011 levels.

It would be a mistake to assume Iran’s most vital industry should have been sanctioned sooner. Any such argument would overlook the incredible risk assumed by the U.S. and EU when pressuring what was—before 2012—the number two producer in OPEC. (Iran now ranks fourth, behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait.)

It was the EU’s economic ministries that pushed back against calls for an oil boycott leading up to this year. Many felt that crises in the Middle East and supply disruptions elsewhere had already upset oil markets. And given Europe’s dependence on Iranian crude, politicizing the market could backfire—sending prices skyward and European economies into the abyss. Other critics believed sanctions would simply fail: according to this logic, oil once destined for Europe would be sold to Asia instead.

Few realized that American and European sanctions were designed to complement each another and avoid this outcome. New measures were also calculated to gradually reduce Iran’s exports so that world markets could adjust without driving up prices. The EU’s oil boycott displaced nearly a half million barrels every day. The devastating insurance measure, however, prevented other customers from buying up additional cargoes, unless they assumed the risk of coverage offered by unproven Iranian insurers (China and South Korea did so) or sovereign guarantees were offered by importing governments (like Japan). Strengthening this effort, American sanctions made it almost impossible for Asian customers to buy more oil from Iran. Doing so would sever companies and banks from the U.S.

All the while, Europe held out hope that recovering producers like Iraq and Libya, as well as increased output from Saudi Arabia, would keep oil markets well-supplied. To the surprise of many, Libyan oil (1.6 million b/d) returned quickly one year after a revolution halted exports. Iraqi production also increased by 650,000 b/d in 2012. Saudi Arabia, the world’s only market-moving “swing producer,” pumped nearly 10 million b/d for most of 2012—1.5 million b/d more than it averaged in 2011. Oil prices this year only rose when the threat of an Israeli attack introduced a premium to the market. But even that didn’t last long.

Iran’s response was and remains mixed. Oil ministry officials dismiss sanctions, claiming, despite all evidence, that Iran pumps and sells with no problem. Others, however, have been more candid. On December 17, Iran’s Economic Minister, Shamseddin Hosseini, was quoted saying that oil income had been cut in half by sanctions. Speaking to reporters on December 19, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the government was “moving to decrease the share of oil revenues to the minimum as much as possible,” while lawmakers suggested this month that Iran’s budget should assume the country will export only one million b/d in 2013-14.

Sanctions were effective in 2012 if we measure losses in revenue ($3-5 billion every month) and exports (down roughly one million b/d). That much is beyond dispute. Perhaps most surprisingly, the assumptions built into this year’s sanctions proved durable: the market remained well-supplied and prices stabilized just above $100 for most of this year, despite the absence of Iranian crude. Some of Iran’s top customers—like China—may reject sanctions but every one of them reduced crude imports in 2012 and received a waiver from the U.S.

And yet there remains little reason to believe Iran will change its nuclear course soon. More officials might admit that sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy but meetings with the IAEA and negotiations with the P5+1 produced nothing this year. 2013 could still be worse. Iran’s customers in India and Japan are already signaling their willingness to cut imports. U.S. sanctions are set to tighten again in February, exacerbating Iran’s trade deficit by forcing banks to withhold revenues. And most market forecasts hold that rising oil production beyond OPEC will keep pace with the global economy’s modest recovery. Iranian oil will be less essential as a result. Other sectors as well as the country’s currency will suffer accordingly.

Will 2013 be the year of reckoning for the U.S. and Iran? No one knows for sure. But it will certainly be another brutal year for Iran’s economy unless a diplomatic breakthrough is reached.

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Photo Credit: David Holt London

The Perils of International Recognition

The road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.

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The past two weeks have seen two significant developments in terms internationally recognized national legitimacy in the Middle East. On November 29, the United Nations General Assembly approved Palestine’s upgrade to non-member observer-state status, and on December 12, the United States and a number of other countries recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After 65 years of statelessness, the Palestinian people have inched closer than ever before to a juridical homeland, and after two years of increasingly brutal civil war, the international community has acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite regime no longer holds a mandate representative of the Syrian populace. In the West Bank and in northern Syria, however, things continue much as they have, despite what Barack Obama and Ban Ki Moon might say.

The past two weeks have also seen increased belligerence (political or otherwise) by the entrenched regimes that those actions were directed against; Israel and Syria’s Assad-controlled military. Israel’s parliament responded to Palestine’s nascent statehood by approving 2,000 new Israeli settlements in the A-1 zone of the West Bank, which not only drew the rancor of the international community, but also makes a contiguous Palestinian West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, geographically unfeasible.  While the Israeli action seems a direct tit-for-tat (unilateral UN statehood-bid, unilateral annexation of previously untouchable territory) with significant political and diplomatic ramifications, any settlement construction would not begin for about two years, thus leaving the A-1 as a bargaining chip for the time being. The increased violence in Syria in the hours following the announcement of support by the US et al. for the SOC is a far direr situation. The Assad regime, perhaps sensing its back against a wall, reportedly began launching Scud missiles at rebel targets in the north of the country. And why shouldn’t they, given their most ardent supporter’s recent acknowledgement that there soon may be a Syria without Assad.

In addition to giving pause to rebel forces, should short-range ballistic missile use continue, Turkey, who also acknowledged the SOC as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people and shares a long border with Syria, has also expressed their concern with regards to this development. NATO has responded in-kind, deploying 400 American troops and US-made Patriot missile batteries to southern Turkey.

Both of these developments came at something of an impasse. Mahmoud Abbas’ UN vote was a response to more than 20 years of failed peace talks with the Israelis, and a firm statement that the Palestinian cause no longer believed that the Israeli government, under Binyamin Netanyahu, was any longer pursuing a two-state solution in earnest. The US support of the SOC follows two years of escalating violence and civil war in Syria and only after it became apparent that Assad’s regime might not actually win. Protracted situations beg for drastic solutions, but in both of these instances, international recognition of ‘change’ may not simply be enough – correlated or no, Palestine’s observer status and the SOC’s recognition have only caused Israel and Assad to dig their heels in deeper.

What is clear is that international opinion does not factor much into the (perceived-to-be domestic) policy calculus of entrenched regimes, particularly in these circumstances. Assad did not respond to the SOC’s elevated status by buying an apartment in Paris, he increased his aggression. Netanyahu did not grudgingly acknowledge the “sovereignty” of the West Bank, he simply doubled down on his illegal settlement building and refocused his attention on Gaza and Cairo, where suddenly conversation seems a bit more productive.

Acknowledged, both of these situations are wildly disparate. A very hot civil war, versus a mostly cold secessionist conflict, call for different foreign policy prescriptions for every state or actor directly or peripherally involved. In both cases, international recognition may be a critical step on the path to juridical and empirical sovereignty. For the time being, however, the road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.

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Photo Credit: lilivanili

A Palestinian State…In New York

Statehood was granted to Abu Mazen, but what exactly is his state? 

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Mahmoud Abbas’ successful upgrade to Vatican-status in the UN should be seen as a Palestinian victory, in diplomatic terms. Cynics who predicted that Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” was a ploy to highlight the fact that rockets seem to freely launch over walls, thus highlighting Palestinian anathema towards a peaceful coexistence with Israel and thus preventing a UN affirmation of Palestine’s statehood bid were proven wrong. The overwhelming majority of “yes” votes in the UNGA would seem to be an international mandate for rule for Mahmoud Abbas, in the same way that the overwhelming “yes” vote for the partition of the Holy Land seemed to be an international mandate for David Ben-Gurion 65 years ago. November 29, 2012 will be remembered as an historic day for the Palestinian national identity, and rightly so. The international community has taken its most meaningful step towards the creation of a Palestinian state since the dissolution of British Palestine.

This will, in functional terms, accomplish very little in terms of moving towards a viable Palestinian nation-state on two levels. First, Mahmoud Abbas long-sought-after victory at the UNGA is overshadowed by the lack of faith he has from the Palestinian people. At a victory speech in Ramallah, Abbas promised to restore the “unity of the Palestinians and their lands and institutions.” This promise, of course, comes on the heels of Israel’s assault of the Gaza Strip, through which a ceasefire was negotiated between Israel and Hamas, the Islamists who run Gaza, in Cairo – notably without representatives of Fatah at the table. Elliot Abrams notes that Fatah has been in a steady decline since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, with Hamas being the more popular, and more powerful, of the Palestinian political entities. After all, it was Hamas’ (and Islamic Jihad’s) continued belligerence that sparked the most significant military exchange between Israel and the Palestinians in four years, and it was Hamas who brokered a ceasefire, in which Israel was forced to give significant concessions. All the while, Mahmoud Abbas was readying for his speech to the UN.

More importantly, it is clear that Israel neither takes Abbas seriously nor sees him as a legitimate broker of a comprehensive peace agreement. Talks broke down as recently as 2010 between Israel and Fatah, largely because of Abbas’ inability to cope (this is not a normative assessment of Israel’s settlement policy; this is a criticism of Abbas’ ability to operate politically from the lesser side of a power dynamic) with Israeli intransigence over settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel does not have this problem with Hamas in Gaza, where they have not had settlements since 2006. Israel also greeted the Abbas successful non-member observer statehood bid with plans to build 3,000 new housing units in strategically important territory in the West Bank, which would significantly obstruct Abbas’ vision of a geographically united West Bank, let alone a geographically united Palestine. For better or for worse, and Israel’s new settlement plans have been roundly criticized even by states historically friendly to the Jewish State, this indicates that Israel simply does not accept Abbas’ political will as a political reality. While Fatah should not follow Hamas’ lead and start lobbing Fajr-5’s into Old Jerusalem in order to indicate to Bibi Netanyahu that they are a force to be reckoned with, a near-absolute majority in the UNGA clearly sends a weaker message. Israel recognizes not only that Hamas poses a threat to Israeli citizens in the south, but also that they have a legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people, and that Abbas and Fatah do not.

I have written and published in the past that I believe that de jure partition – partition resulting in the creation of separate states – is the only method in which prolonged, ethnic civil wars can result in lasting peace between the rival populations, and that this is the only solution for peace in the Holy Land. I believe this continues to be the case, although with some doubts as to what this partition might look like. Substantive efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians (UNSCOP, Oslo, Camp David) have all pushed for a two-state solution, albeit with slightly different terms. Mahmoud Abbas’ victory at the UN would seem to be a further step in this direction, but is just another episode in the saga of failed peace talks. While international recognition of a Palestinian state is, again, something to be celebrated, the truth of the matter is that none of the central players in this drama, the United States, Bibi and his Likudniks, and the Palestinian populace, gave their vote to Abu Mazen on November 29. Increasingly, at two-state solution seems farther and farther away. Functionally, at least, three sovereign nations west of the Jordan River seem more likely than two.

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Photo Credit:  Neubie

Making The US A True Partner

The complexity of the Arab-Israeli environment demands that the US accepts a role as a cooperative member of an international community seeking equitable peace, not as the sole leader. Only by shifting this reality can a solution amenable to both parties’ goals work.

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Shimon Peres and Leon Panetta

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[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he United States’ role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the source of widespread debate, most of it centered on the extent to which Washington can pressure the Palestinians towards a resolution. Yet, these arguments skirt around a crucial element of the continuing imbroglio: America is and will never be the idealized arbiter of Mideast peace. The sooner Washington understands this reality, or at least publicly admits it, the closer a sustainable resolution will become.

The United States is a staunch ally of Israel. This friendship is an inescapable fact. Total bilateral aid from Washington to Jerusalem has increased throughout the Obama Presidency, rising from $2,423 million in 2008 to a projected $3,115 million in 2013. Nearly all these funds are for Israeli military development, and nearly 50% of Obama’s 2010 budget for foreign military assistance — $2.8 billion — was appropriated to Israel. This level of funding has been maintained, if not enlarged. In contrast, US aid to the West Bank and Gaza has averaged just over $600 million since 2008.

These illustrative numbers underscore a far deeper, almost spiritual friendship between the Israel and the US, forged in the years after the Second World War and since fueled by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. The character of this alliance is unique, and has shaped the region. Israeli policy is founded on the recognition of US support, which is nearly unconditional, and Jerusalem would not be capable of its military operations in Gaza or Lebanon, for example, without American aid.

Of course, this friendship has been the source of much criticism from across the political spectrum. How, many ask, can anyone expect the US to be an honest broker of peace, as it proposes to be?

The answer to this question is: they cannot. It is fully within Washington’s purview to foster a powerful alliance with Israel. Such a friendship is not wholly unprecedented, as similar aid was provided to Great Britain in the 1930s. From a strictly political standpoint, sovereign nations are perfectly justified in seeking and maintaining strong defensive relationships against perceived threats. It is the implications of this aid on the peace process that worries those advocating a bilateral, egalitarian resolution.

Yet, rather than embarking on the Sisyphean task of restructuring the deeply entrenched US-Israeli relationship, the far more constructive solution would be to recognize the reality for what it is. By considering the United States as another partisan actor in the Arab-Israeli matrix, the international community might be better able to understand the true avenues and barriers to peace. As long as Washington occupies the dual role of negotiator and unwavering ally, Israel will not budge from its present course. It is not Washington’s support putting the peace process on hold, but rather the way in which this process is defined by it.

The US need not cut its bonds to Israel, but it must not disguise them. If Washington could enter into a truly multilateral negotiating body — one in which both the Israelis and the Palestinians are equally represented and considered — it could contribute to a far more sustainable solution: International, not unilateral, peace. Both the US and Israel have a real chance to achieve such a solution, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes his case for Palestinian independence at the United Nations. For a peace process founded nearly entirely on US government opinion, the likely American and Israeli opposition to statehood would deal a crippling to Abbas’ chances. Within these parameters, the framework for reconciliation simply does not exist.

Only by shifting this reality can the two-state solution — or any solution amenable to both parties’ goals — work. The complexity of the Arab-Israeli environment demands that the US accepts a role as a cooperative member of an international community seeking equitable peace, not as the sole leader.

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Photo Credit: Secretary of Defense

Israel’s Deadly Game of Politics

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature.

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On Wednesday 14th November Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with a passenger after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile. Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blames him for a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. The Israeli military says its assassination of the Hamas military commander marks the beginning of an operation against Gaza militants.

The consequences of Israel’s actions were already noticeable just a few hours after the announcement as immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio and smaller groups also warned of retaliation: “”Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.” There is now a real chance that this event can lead to another full-blown conflict similar to the three week conflict in 2008 and 2009.

However perhaps a full blown conflict in the region is exactly what Israel wanted. On the 29th of November, Palestine will put in a resolution to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer state in the organization. Unsurprisingly Israel with the support of the United States have opposed this move arguing that it will hinder real negotiations, despite the fact that the majority of UN members believe Palestine should be granted a full state membership at the international organisation. Israel has bluntly said that they will consider partial or full cancellation of the Oslo Accords if the United Nations General Assembly adopts the resolution. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry sent an urgent cable to all Israeli representatives around the world, asking ambassadors to deliver a number of messages to senior officials in those countries as soon as possible. “You are asked immediately at the beginning of the work week to contact the foreign ministry, prime minister’s office, national security adviser or president’s office and request to do all possible to halt the Palestinian initiative because of its far-reaching consequences,” the cable to the ambassadors said. As opposed to the decisions of the UN Security Council, General Assembly decisions cannot be vetoed, therefore the USA cannot play its ace card to prevent Palestine achieving its objective. Despite strong pressure from Israel, the Palestinian President has defiantly said he will not back out from his plan to table the resolution at the United Nations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature. Hamas have always argued that asking the UN to grant Palestine a member status would be purely symbolic and would not achieve anything on the ground. For this reason, it is likely that Hamas will retaliate against Israel after the death of Al-Jabari, which is exactly what Israel wants them to do. Abbas is likely to plead to Hamas not to seek revenge at such a crucial time for the Palestinian state, but Hamas (who are already on cold terms with Abbas) are unlikely to listen, giving Israel more ammunition to claim that Palestine is a divided nation and thus do not deserve a place at the United Nations.

While many claim that it would be purely a symbolic matter if Palestine were to become an observer non-member state, the consequences are far greater than that. Netanyahu is fully aware of the fact that the new status as a non-member state would allow Palestine to be accepted as a member of the International Criminal Court of the UN in The Hague and demand Israel and its leaders be tried for war crimes. This is a very serious threat to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land and teh Israeli officials will not take this lightly.

One may argue that the two events (UN resolution vote on the 29th November and Wednesday’s assassination of the Hamas militant) are purely coincidental in their close timing. But as Roosevelt said: “In politics nothing happens by accident”. Not much else needs to be said.

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Photo Credit: Lilachd

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part Two)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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This is the second of a two part series. You can read the first half here.

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Yesh Atid: New Kids on the Block

Perhaps the most unpredictable ‘wild card’ in the 2013 Israeli elections is Yesh Atid, a new party chasing the oft-cherished chalice of Israel’s ‘secular middle-class’. Led by the charismatic journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, polls suggest the party will garner between 11 and 18 seats.

The party’s policy platform is deliberately vague, flitting from left to right with each of Lapid’s daily pronouncements. Yesh Atid is something of a populist ‘anti party’; Lapid frames his near-total lack of foreign policy, security or parliamentary experience as an asset, by labeling himself as ‘the outsider’.

Yesh Atid has successfully wooed pan-demographic, cross-party notables: Lapid made a national-religious rabbi his right hand man, whilst also co-opting popular mayors from as far afield as Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu.

Whilst ‘Yesh Atid’ translates from Hebrew to the optimistic assertion that ‘There is a Future’, questions persist as to the long-term survivability of the party, which is something of a one-man show. Does anyone remember Shinui, a secular, liberal middle-class party that disappeared from the electoral map just as quickly as it had risen? In case you were wondering (which you weren’t) it was headed by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid. Thus, the barometer of Yesh Atid’s durability is not this election, but whether it still exists by the next one.

Wildcard #2: Shas

Shas are anything but newcomers: the party has maintained a near-constant presence in governments of both right and left since its appearance in 1984. Despite representing ‘traditional’ (orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi voters, a cursory glance at Shas’ higher echelons betrays Charedi hegemony; its leaders are beholden to a ‘spiritual’ guide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The party is ‘flexible’ on the peace process, instead prioritising its domestic agenda: an unholy alliance of religious intolerance and welfare capitalism. Under leader Eli Yishai who recently claimed that ‘this country belongs to us, the white man’, the party has outshone even its own outstanding roll-call of bigotry.

Before the dawn of ‘Bieberman’, Shas’ continuation in government was almost a certainty, despite polls suggesting the party would continue to hover at around ten seats. However, Lieberman legitimised the merger through a call to limit the size of ‘small parties’, a thinly-veiled reference to the disproportionate power wielded by Shas, throwing the party’s future role into doubt.

Yishai’s authority now hangs in the balance due to the re-admittance of Aryeh Deri, a former party leader and convicted criminal. Deri is far more prone to working with the left and prioritising socio-economic concerns; expect an interesting and increasingly ugly power struggle to unfold.

The Zionist Fringe: The Far-Right and Meretz

Recent elections have not been kind to Meretz. The green/socialist/secular ingathering of the leftists has consistently staked its position as the most radical of all the Zionist parties and has languished in opposition since 2001, barely surviving the 2009 elections with just three seats.

However, thanks to Kadima’s downward spiral and Labor’s abandonment of the peace process, the party may double its representation to six seats. Whilst Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On is busy creating clear red water between the party and Labor, she has also ruled out sitting in government with Likud. Resultantly, Meretz is likely to remain in opposition, arguably its natural home as the party of the non-conformist left.

By contrast, the fate of the far-right is anyone’s guess. Exemplified by the fringe religious Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union parties, talk is afoot of a merger between the two groups.

Throwing a spanner in the works, the National Union’s Michael Ben-Ari has called for the formation of a new party– inspired by the deceased racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Because Ben-Ari openly admires a leader who spawned a proscribed terrorist organisation, all signs point to a life sentence in opposition and a splintered radical right; the least explicitly racist elements of which may wrangle their way into government if Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu can’t cobble a coalition together that is spared the demands of fringe parties.

Left/right in the Cold? United Torah Judaism and the Arab Parties

Whilst Shas may stand to gain Likudnik Mizrahi voters who object to Yisrael Beitenu’s secularism, the same cannot be said for United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ’s electorate is almost entirely Charedi; the party doesn’t try and ‘reach out’ to other demographics, instead relying on staking a place in multi-party coalition governments to retain its authority.

Followers of Israeli politics will remember party leader Yaakov Litzman attempted to make Swine Flu ‘Kosher’ (renaming it from to Mexican Flu, causing a diplomatic spat), and refused to shake the hand of the Belgian Health Minister, on account of her being a woman.

UTJ approach the election from their most disadvantageous position in years: if the newly-formed Likud-Beitenu alliance wins enough seats, narrow religious interest parties, traditional ‘king makers’ of coalition governments, may find themselves out in the cold.

Whilst the fate of the Jewish parties is anyone’s guess, the chances of the ‘Arab parties’ gaining a seat at the cabinet table are negligible. Of the four parties currently representing Israel’s Arab population in the Knesset, none have ever entered government. This is the result of a bizarre unspoken status-quo agreement: the Arab parties generally refuse to ‘prop up’ Zionist governments, whilst being perceived as reliant on the non-Zionist Arab parties would be the kiss of death for any Israeli administration.

Until the Arab parties learn to emulate Shas and UTJ and serve as kingmakers and powerful community representatives, voter turnout amongst Arab communities will remain low, whilst representatives’ influence will be negligible.

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Photo credit: dmitrysumin

The Race Has Begun For The 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections

The confirmation that the Afghan presidential elections will be held, as per the Constitution, on 5 April 2014 will intensify the already febrile political atmosphere in Afghanistan.

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Marjah elders schedule regular meetings, offer bridge to community

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The decision of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) underlines recent statements, including from Karzai himself, that the Constitution will be respected and should help to (somewhat) ease suspicions as to the real intentions of the current administration. It also partly addresses a recommendation recently made by the International Crisis Group (ICG) but the IEC must now follow up – quickly and convincingly – with a timetable and practical measures for a new voter registry.

An April election is the best option in that i/ it should calm opposition fears that the Executive will bypass the Constitution and ii/ ISAF will still have sufficient boots on the ground to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in carrying out their duties.

On the latter point, ISAF personnel will limit their role to strategic support, as per the process of security transition which will have reached its final stages by April 2014. The Afghan Police and Army will take the lead in ensuring both physical security and electoral security (e.g. chain-of-custody of ballot boxes). Again, this is consistent with the security transition but more importantly means that the elections of the sovereign Afghan State will be conducted by their own people.

The widespread fraud and vote-rigging that marred the 2009 presidential elections cannot be repeated in 2014. While impossible to fully eradicate, electoral fraud must be significantly reduced if the legitimacy of the next president is not to be undermined. Thus the already complex practicalities of voter registration have become highly politicised, as demonstrated by the recent statement from the Coordination Council of Political Parties (CCPP), a loose umbrella organisation for the political opposition.

Moreover, the opposition have predictably rejected the Palace’s statement that the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) must be solely composed of Afghans [NB: In the past, two of the five Commissioners have been foreigners]. In the short-term, the elections will be fought on these technical issues: nobody is ready yet to identify candidates.

At this stage, it is extremely difficult to predict who will run. According to the Constitution, Hamid Karzai must step down in 2014 after serving two full terms but, according to the ICG, “[t]here are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy.”

This is almost certain but, as yet, nobody stands out as an obvious choice. Arguably, any such individual would not only be Karzai’s straw man but rather that of his current entourage. For example, some believe that Farooq Wardak, the influential Minister for Education, will stand in 2014 but it is equally possible that he will bide his time until 2019, when the conditions for his candidacy may be more favourable, but still maintain considerable influence until then through a proxy.

In truth, there is no certainty whatsoever as to the identity of the Executive’s favoured candidate or even that of his potential opponents, despite ongoing opposition activity.

That said, however Karzai stacks the deck, any candidate supported by the current Executive would almost certainly win anyway as no single political party has their means to reach the majority of the population. The real concern is that if Karzai over-reaches (as in 2009) the fundamental legitimacy of the result will be undermined and that would be highly dangerous in the context of 2014.

An important point to note is that Afghan voters will elect a president but also his running mates on a single ticket. Afghanistan has two Vice-Presidents – currently Fahim Khan, a Panjshiri affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami, and Karim Khalil, a Hazara from a minority faction of Hezb-e Wahdat. That being the case, whichever individual Karzai and his entourage put foward will need to form some sort of coalition with influential blocs in order to ensure a manageable political equilibrium

To put it crudely, enough powerful people must be given their piece of the pie, as always. However, in the current political climate it is crucial that the Afghan people believe – at last – that their elected representatives have been legitimately elected and are genuinely representative.

This is an absolute minimum if the Afghan body politic is not to explode in 2014. The stakes are now much higher than in 2009 so all concerned must i/ ensure that the technical aspects of the elections are conducted properly and, ii/ beginning now, there must be real political dialogue so that, when Karzai steps down, the winner is accepted as legitimate and the losers believe they can best advance their interests through democratic means and not through violence.

This is a very tall order but the Afghans must deliver – for their own sake.

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Photo credit: isafmedia

Karzai & His Talib ‘Brothers’

Karzai’s desire to secure his legacy as the father of a modern Afghan nation is behind his public olive branches to the Taliban. However, Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions toward the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others.

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Last week, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar once again referred to President Karzai and his administration as “stooges” and “puppets” and rejected any notion of negotiation between them. On the other side, Karzai has on numerous occasions referred to the Taliban as “brothers”, including in a graveside oration for his slain [NB: not by the Taliban] brother Ahmed Wali – and has been heavily criticised for doing so.

The relationship between Hamid Karzai and the Taliban is clearly complex, which will pose problems in whatever political dialogue will take place up to and beyond 2014, but it is not as paradoxical as it would seem.

While doubtless very amusing to Americans who have dealt with the Afghan President, the Taliban’s repeated dismissal of Karzai as a US stooge is actually quite rational. From their perspective, the legitimate government of Afghanistan is that of the Islamic Emirate and its legitimate leader is Mullah Omar. To negotiate with Karzai on equal terms is to surrender that legitimacy.

In addition to this question of legitimacy, there are other factors in the Taliban’s relationship with Karzai which are often overlooked by, or simply not known to, western observers. Indeed, there is a history stretching back to the mid-1990s and the very creation of the Taliban – which the young Karzai initially welcomed.

This soon changed and Karzai, in exile in Pakistan, began to work against them. In July 1999, Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad, was assassinated by the Taliban and his son led a massive funeral procession into Kandahar province in open defiance of the Taliban regime.

Over the past ten years, the manner in which Karzai has built his power base (which was non-existent in 2001) has only deepened the enmity of the Taliban. Beginning with his late brother, Ahmed Wali, key Karzai allies in southern Afghanistan are figures of detestation to the Taliban (and many others besides).

Matiullah Khan and Abdul Raziq, the current police chiefs of Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces respectively, are notorious for their brutality towards Taliban fighters. Another hated individual is Asadullah Khalid on the basis of his actions while Provincial Governor of Kandahar and later as overall security coordinator for southern Afghanistan. Khalid was recently appointed Head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan internal intelligence agency, and as such will play a central role in any sort of reconciliation process.

In short, while there are rational political reasons for the Taliban’s public stance towards Karzai, there is also a deep visceral hatred of the President and his allies in the south. This combination must seriously call into question any possibility of meaningful negotiation.

As for Karzai himself, his stance towards the Taliban may appear irrational given all of the above and given the heavy criticism he has received when he has referred to them as “brothers” [NB: On occasion Karzai has even threatened to join the Taliban, although he was not thought to have been serious]. They may not be immediately apparent but Karzai does have his reasons nonetheless.

Karzai’s survival – political and actual – depends in large part on bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan by the end of 2014 when he leaves (or is supposed to leave) office. His desire to secure his legacy as the father of the modern Afghan nation – an Afghan Ataturk, if you will – is a significant factor behind his very public olive branches to the Taliban. The problem there is that Afghan internal politics are increasingly becoming a zero-sum game and Karzai’s actions towards the Taliban provoke hostile reactions from others, for example key power brokers and politicians affiliated to Jamiat-e Islami and Shura-ye Nazar.

Northern suspicions as to Karzai’s agenda of ‘reconciliation’ with the Taliban also stem from the fact that the President’s inner circle has, in recent years, become increasingly dominated by Pashtun nationalists whose politics closely resemble those of the Taliban, at least to northern eyes. This is in stark contrast to the early years of the Karzai administration, during which the Interim President’s massive reliance upon northern powerbrokers (usually Panjshiris) within his Cabinet, such as current Vice-President Fahim Khan, allowed them to effectively run the government.

Today, Pashtuns affiliated to Hezb-e Islami occupy a number of key positions in the administration (e.g. Karim Khurram, his Chief-of-Staff, and Farooq Wardak, Minister for Education) and it is reasonable to suppose that Karzai’s policy towards the Taliban is, in part, a result of their influence.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, a formerly high-ranking Talib, presciently wrote that Karzai is imprisoned within a circle of people who keep him from the truth, adding that:

Karzai is between the tiger and the precipice and he wakes up every day unsure which way to go. He cannot differentiate between friend and enemy.

In the context of a peace process and a nationwide political dialogue, that could spell real danger.

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Photo Credit: isafmedia

Recognizing A Palestinian State Would Be Disastrous

A hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the United Nations no matter what – and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient.

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A view of Jerusalem

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This is a response to  ‘Blocking Palestine: America’s Big Mistake

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Many groups have seen hope for a solution to the Middle East conflict in the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, the thinking being that international pressure will exert  pressure on Israel. Following this logic, American opposition to the move is regarded as a diplomatic mistake given a growing consent among the UN member states for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) request for statehood. Americans, the argument goes, are opposed to it out of concerns that the Palestinian state could then file a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel for illegal occupation of its territories. This stance takes root in its loyalty to a close ally despite the fact that such policy goes against its principles and values and undermines its influence across the Arab World. American behavior with regards to the PA is even more perplexing when one takes a look at its efforts to support democratic changes in North Africa.

I would like to counter that argument. Accepting a Palestinian bid for statehood would be a dangerous development, not only for the US and Israel, but first and foremost for Palestinians and the wider region. Americans oppose Palestinian statehood out of security concerns rather than a morally dubious attachment to its ally. At this moment in history Palestine is by no means ready to become a state, and the blatant international disregard for the Israeli input in the matter could have dire consequences, including an all-out conflict across the region.

The first and most important risk originates in the fact that the PA does not exercise full control over its territories, even in Zone A, and cannot guarantee the rule of law over all of its lands and stability at its borders – the Gaza Strip and Hamas, for example. Let’s imagine the PA finally gets the statehood it wanted – how is it supposed to oust Hamas from Gaza and reinstate itself as the ruling power? What do Abbas’s assertions on peaceful cooperation with Israel mean if once Palestine becomes independent Hamas will continue to dictate its own policies, fire missiles at Israel and recruit Bedouins to attack from Sinai? Palestine can only become a state if it has all the features of a state – territory and population are not enough.

Let us imagine the newly independent Palestine files a lawsuit against Israel at the ICC, the ICC finds Israel guilty and demands its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Then what? No state in history will voluntarily abandon strategic positions without being fully confident that its withdrawal will not be instantaneously used against it. Palestinian state apparatus and security forces are too weak to deal with rioting and protests, let alone successfully fight domestic terrorist groups. Can Abbas really guarantee that no missiles will be launched on Ben Gurion Airport from the West Bank hills? That he will make sure nobody smuggles firearms from Jordan into Ramallah? That Hezbollah operatives would not enter Palestine to train and recruit new terrorists?

The risk is just too big to take, especially now with sectarian conflicts raging all over the region. The PA does not wield enough power – state institutions are weak and security forces are ill-trained and corrupt. Israel contains the terrorist threat coming from the Occupied Territories at the disgraceful costs of humanitarian abuse and violence, but its tactics and strategy are successful. Can Israelis gamble put their safety and security in the hands of weak and semi-failed institutions out of a moral imperative? It would be against common sense to claim they should.

The first condition for the PA is to exercise the full rule of law, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, when it will be able to contain terrorism on its own territory before it hits Israel. Secondly, Israel cannot be forced into an internationally orchestrated Palestinian statehood. Israelis would not yield to such pressure, whereas encouraged Palestinians would interpret such move as a green light for staging a Third Intifada. The consequences would be more bloodshed, more violence and a greater Israeli military presence in the Occupied Territories. Such a move would delay any chance for a comprehensive solution for another couple of decades.

The peace process must be negotiated with the involvement of the great powers. The counter-argument is irrelevant as all the parameters for a peace solution have been set and defined as far back as Taba Summit in 2001. The problem lies in the lack of good will between the two sides; if the solution was mutually desired, Palestine could become an independent state over one night. Any international solution without the Israelis on board would deteriorate the situation, enhance the risk of violence, and fuel hawkish moods both in Israel and in Palestine.

Lastly, statehood would be disastrous for the PLO and its legitimacy. If the PLO could not gain any substantial improvement in the Palestinian situation following recognition, Palestinian society would question the PA’s ability to deliver, thus further undermining its already weak support. It is not hard to imagine a wave of social protests bolstering radicals’ support base, who could build their popularity on harsh critique of the PLO’s inertia and passiveness, calling for the people to forcefully take what has been promised by the UN itself. If another intifada were to break out, the PLO would have no chance of controlling the uprising, nor would it be able to compete with the militant and populist Hamas in rallying the support of the society to lead the fight. If Arafat could not control the Second Intifada, it is beyond the realms of possibility that someone as uncharismatic as Abbas will do better.

I do not intend to defend Israeli policies; I am no fan of Bibi and his politics. But a hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the UN no matter what – and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient and appreciate the current situation, as irrespective of what we think, Israeli-Palestinian relations, both on official and social levels, haven’t been as peaceful as they are now for some time.

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Photo credit: Adam Biggs / theriskyshift.com

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part One)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.

With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.

Likud Squared

‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.

The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.

By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.

At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.

Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting. 

Yalla (Bye?) Kadima

Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.

Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.

Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’.  Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist partyjoin Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.

The Redemption of Labor

Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its  lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.

Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement.  With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.

Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.

This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.

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 Photo credit: dmitrysumin

Afghanistan Part 2: The Rise Of ‘Green On Blue’ Attacks

The recent surge of ‘green on blue’ attacks in Afghanistan may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East.

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Afghan policeman helping American soldier

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This is the second part of a two part series on Afghanistan. View the first part here.

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By 2014 the ISAF may well have succeeded in creating an Afghanistan which can be secured by the government, supported by the significant infrastructure and well-trained military developed in the latter half of the conflict. In-fighting between Taliban moderates and extremists and the many groups in the Pakistan federal regions may prevent them developing the strength to challenge government forces. The departure of Western forces may kill off the Taliban’s chief propaganda engine and cut their recruits. The ISAF/UN efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan locals, already having shown some signs of success before the recent resurgence of extremist attacks in the wake of the rise of Pakistan-based groups over the increasingly moderate Afghan Taliban, may yet develop hostility towards yet more violence after the war involving the West is over.

What may result after 2014 is an unknown to even the most knowledgeable military thinkers and strategists. However what the withdrawal itself will show is more solid. What began with the retreat from Mogadishu in 1993 will be completed with that from Kabul in two years time. Western inability to stomach the sacrifice of lives necessary to win such long and non-traditional “bleeding” conflicts may prove the defining element of Western militaries in many conflicts to come. There is no lingering over the death of ever Kenyan to die in the fight of Al-Shabaab nor every Columbian kidnapped and executed by the FARC. Extremist knowledge and use of the strategy, outlined and shown at its most crippling by bin Laden, of goading the west with brutal terrorist attacks into wars which will eventually be defeated by their own public may well be the most devastating development since the advent of nationwide guerrilla warfare in 1800s Spain.

The Taliban will continue to fight to break the hearts of the West to win the minds of their leaders. And they will do so by the use of horrifyingly brutal tactics, by sowing sorrow and despair in those populations least able to cope with them. That is what the ‘green on blue’ attacks symbolise, the massacre of happy Afghans whose only crime was to dance, the murder of raped women and accused homosexuals. This is what terror is, to not know whether the man you taught to bear arms for their own freedom will simply wait till your back is turned before aiming that weapon at your head. Hopelessness and terror is their weapon, and as the ISAF prepares to withdraw they may be giving up their fight against it.

Unfortunately bin Laden was right, and is still winning victories long after his death. The major NATO powers, having not experienced a single conflict on their own soil in over half a decade, have lost the tolerance to violence and death our species had developed over millennia of traumatic and brutal existences. By contrast populations of those states ravaged by war in the Middle East have experienced such constant and repeated violent trauma that death and violence have become normalised. The idea that ten fighters were killed in a raid has become a part of life. In comparison every individual death of ISAF forces is broadcast across world media with sorrowful regret and sentimental remembrance of their life.

I in no way intend to criticise the way the West deals with death. I believe the increasing value placed on lives is a great testament to the culture of individuals rights and the freedom from violence and persecution the West continues to develop. However, it does not lend itself well to war. With every death the Taliban suffers, another willing recruit takes their place. Driven by the trauma of a country which has known no peace, to seek the community, purpose and order of extreme Islamism and with no sense of the sanctity of their own lives, only of that of their purpose. By contrast every ISAF death saps the will to fight of western forces and drives domestic populations away from the idea of a war which is worth fighting.

The recent surge of ‘Green on Blue’ attacks may be the most successful tactic in the history of this conflict towards this aim, the aim of breaking the will of domestic populations to support the wars for stability and security in the Middle East. This colloquial term for the attacks by newly trained Afghan forces on their ISAF allies covers the sudden growth of a new tactic to win the hearts and minds of western audiences. To convince them the war in Afghanistan, possibly a vital one for the fight against Islamist terrorism and regional stability, is both unwinnable and unjust. Why, when ISAF deaths are still so high (despite being nearer half of the losses suffered in the Iraq war), should we believe after a decade that Afghanistan can still be saved? Why, when we dedicate so many of our sons and brothers to the conflict, only to have them killed by those they are trying to help, should we believe the Afghans are deserving of our help?

This has even begun to seep into the highest ranking generals in ISAF forces, commanders vocalising their anger, frustration and sadness at the campaign which continues to drag on with no end in sight. This is no Iraq. The enemy are not collapsing, casualties have not been dramatically reduced by a troop surge, the government is not increasingly powerful or secure. In Iraq both military and civilian casualties dived from their peak after a troop surge which broke the back of extremist elements. In Afghanistan the continuous stream of combatants and extremist preachers from neighbouring Pakistan, outside the reach of the ISAF, is instead breaking the back of western morale. The battle for hearts and minds is one we are losing, it is the strength of religious extremists and their brutal tactics. No where is that more evident than when our hearts fall and minds recoil every time Green turns on Blue.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army

Afghanistan Part 1: The Failure Of ‘Hearts and Minds’

That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

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This is the first part of a two part series on Afghanistan.

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The war for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan may be the most important propaganda campaign to the West since its long and bitter fight against Communism over two decades ago. However, unlike the Cold War, it is not a fight between two powers stuck in a precarious balance of equal and all-powerful military might. This is a war of power so disproportionate that it has made the battle of ideals so much more vital, not less so. In a conflict where the military balance is so one-sided, it is the hearts and minds of those both abroad and at home which have become the battlefield for both sides.

The Taliban could never hope to inflict any defeat on ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) forces large enough to swing the conflict in their favour. To do so would have required numbers, equipment and organisation beyond which the organisation was capable of even at its most powerful. Even the rise of new powerful groups such as the Haqqani network poses no real threat to ISAF forces as a whole. Even a total of three thousand casualties over the last decade is a relatively small loss in real terms against a total strength of over one hundred thousand and very little in comparison to the over twenty thousand Taliban and affiliated fighters killed in the conflict. The worst ever single loss of life for ISAF forces was a helicopter shot down, killing 38.

38 simply isn’t a large loss of life. Six harriers destroyed in the attack on Camp Bastion last month may be a the most serious aircraft loss for the US since Vietnam, but is a drop in the ocean to the US defence budget. With their capability to cause any form of military defeat significant enough to cripple with ISAF forces almost completely out of reach, and the continuing losses to their own more limited forces a constant of their campaign, how is it so many are saying the Taliban is winning the war, and why is NATO drawing out so soon from an unfinished conflict?

The truth lies not in military might and casualty figures but with hearts and minds, and not those of the population of Afghanistan. That ISAF/UN attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Afghanistan has not been a great success, but the campaign by the Taliban to win over those of the domestic populations of the West has been a victory beyond their wildest expectations.

By this I do not mean that the Taliban have succeeded in turning western populations to violent Islamist extremism and a fundamental interpretation of Sharia law. Instead they succeeded in doing exactly what Osama bin Laden set out to do in 2001. Even before the war was launched, Bin Laden stated his aim as to “provoke and bait” the United States into “bleeding wars” on Muslim lands, claiming: “since Americans […] do not have the stomach for a long and bloody fight, they will eventually give up and leave the Middle East to its fate.”

When the US and UK forces withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 their greatest defeat will not be military, it will be psychological. They will withdraw with heads hung and eyes lowered. They will return to countries where their home populations have long seen their mission as pointless, unjust or an inevitable failure. Too many have tied the UN-sanctioned, internationally supported mission with the illegal invasion of Iraq which followed.

If ISAF forces retreat from Afghanistan, and it proves too early, before the Afghan government can itself secure the mountainous country and so releasing Afghanistan into a chasm of extremist violence and chaos, it will prove the most significant defeat in NATO history. It will prove the strategic brilliance of Osama Bin Laden and the success of the brutally unjust tactics of friendly fire in the Green-on-Blue attacks. If the Taliban manage to break the Afghan government they will not inherit Afghanistan. After a decade of war they are too weak to consolidate control that they were not even capable of before the 2001 invasion. Instead Afghanistan will collapse in the face of waves of combatants from the Pakistan federal regions and the battle between Iranian Shia and Pakistani Sunnis which will follow. Afghanistan will become a pump for terrorist attacks far greater than anything seen in a decade.

Read the second part of this series here.

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Photo credit: The U.S. Army