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The Middle East after ‘Eid el Fitr?
Three weeks ago, during Ramadan, I shared with my readers an assessment on Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine...

27 September   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... And with the Muslim world having now welcomed ‘Eid el Fitr, I simply wonder today whether any of the messages of this holy month - including salaam (peace), khair (goodness), yumn (prosperity) and barakat (blessings) - will have come nearer to fruition in a region so riven that it often appears ready to explode - and perhaps even implode - without much warning.

But let me first stray for one moment from my habitual political space to reflect upon the bitter fighting, enormous suffering and heightening humanitarian and refugee crises occurring in Yemen over the past few weeks. At the root of this problem, with its wars and insurgencies, lies a conflict that began in 2004 between the central Yemeni government in Sana’a and tribesmen led by members of the Houthi family seeking autonomy in the far northern Sa’ada and Amran provinces. The insurgents are largely Zayidis, an offshoot of Shi'i Islam, whose Imam ruled Yemen until the revolution of 1962. They often highlight their economic and religious woes, accusing the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh who is himself a Zayidi, of favouring the Salafi Sunnis and leaning towards Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam. However, the Yemeni government counterclaims those grievances by alleging that Iran supports the rebels and seeks to destabilise the country. Moreover, despite a Qatari-mediated peace deal in 2007 between the government and rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the fighting continues even more fiercely as the government pursues its Operation Scorched Earth and tensions remain perilously high. Moreover, tentative voices demanding to re-divide the country and re-claim Aden as the capital of a new southern Yemeni state are emerging in Lahaj or elsewhere, and Yemen runs the risk of ending up as another example of a failed state.

However, by gleaning Yemeni economic statistics, one can perhaps begin to appreciate some of the underlying problems. Oil production, the source of two-thirds of public revenue and 90% of export earnings, averaged 300,000 barrels per day last year, down from 410,000 in 2004. In fact, according to the Central Bank, government oil export revenue fell 75% in the first three months of 2009 compared to the same 2008 period. Gross Domestic Product grew about 4.4% in 2008, up from 4.2% in 2007 - which the World Bank called disappointing, given high world oil prices in the first nine months - and is slated to grow 7.7% this year because of the one-off impact of the start of liquefied natural gas (LNG) production since last August. Inflation is expected to decline below 10% this year after jumping to 19% last year from 8% in 2007. About 35% of Yemen's 23 million people live in poverty, and the population is set to double by 2035. The poor were hard hit by a 60% spike in world food prices in 2007-8. The World Bank says medium-term prospects beyond 2009 are poor due to declining oil output.

So this conflict needs close monitoring, perhaps by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and its array of analysts, to avoid further regional break-ups, but let me now go back to the critical hotspots of Lebanon and Israel-Palestine.

Lebanon: since my last article, the prime minister designate Sa’ad Hariri presented his first cabinet line-up to the president of the republic. However, what he described as a government of national unity brining together the different political parties and reflecting the results of the parliamentary elections was viewed by the 8th March ‘opposition’ coalition as inadequate. This led to Hariri’s resignation, followed by further consultations and his re-appointment to try once more and cobble together a government that is acceptable to all parties.

One political knot in Lebanon - causing untold suffering to the Lebanese people - lies in both its political and confessional makeup. On the domestic political level, as undergirded by the Taëf Accords of 1989, Lebanese politics distinguishes itself from most traditional democracies by incorporating both winners and losers of parliamentary elections into the same government, so much so that the context within which political decisions are made does not include “government” and “opposition” but rather assumes a consensus on any political agenda between all parties. On the confessional level, and parallel to this political one, there is also a tradition that all religious confessions should be duly represented in parliament and government, therefore substituting merit based on universal suffrage by domestic appeasement and bartering. Clearly, when both those natures converge in a tiny country, it becomes hard at times to reconcile diametrically opposing political views let alone confessional backgrounds, leading inexorably to an inability to rule, make decisions or legislate and implement laws. It also often leads to bilious tensions if not also to violent confrontations - as witnessed during the downtown sit-in of 2007, the closure of parliament during the same year and then the events of 7 May 2008. Yet, Lebanon is boxed into this consensual formula, incapable to move away from it, with parties blackmailing each other with their military prowess, different alliances with foreign powers or simply their thirst for personal power and influence.

Meanwhile, whilst Lebanese politicians, with their eighteen communities diffused between those supporting the 14th March or 8th March Coalitions squabble over sovereign ministries, state ministries or the appointment of their personal favourite choices, the Lebanese people themselves are left to cope with daily problems affecting their livelihoods, their power or water supplies, road works or telephone connections - let alone representation, arms, the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees (PLO Central Committee member Sultan Abul Aynain suggested only today that it is being used by Lebanese leaders as a political sword), domestic reforms or external relations. Indeed, one only need live in Lebanon awhile to get a first-hand taste of those power cuts, water cuts, telephone costs, price hikes or hyper-congested roads afflicting ordinary people, and it truly remains a credit to the enterprising spirit of all Lebanese men and women irrespective of their backgrounds that they constantly manage to challenge the odds and keep the whole country moving on - if not necessarily always forward and certainly not in the same direction.

But anyone who thinks that Lebanese political stagnation is simply brewed within the country does not fathom its nature. A main hurdle for any breakthrough - and therefore a main solution - comes from what is euphemistically labelled as the S-S formula. S-S stands for Syria-Saudi Arabia, and so long as there is no agreement and communication between those two important Arab countries, Lebanese politicians will be stymied and Lebanese politics will keep stumbling into difficulties, inertia and checkmating. I invite the reader to look at the past one year alone! Each time Syrian-Saudi Arabian politics have come together, Lebanese domestic politics have surged forward almost instinctively, whereas every time relations between those two countries have soured or turned frosty, Lebanese politics have become paralysed almost instantly once more.

But within this S-S context, there are also other players. Not least is Iran which plays a key role in the country and exerts considerable influence on the Hizbullah movement. It too can make or break deals in Lebanon, and no wonder then that the West is trying - awkwardly - to woo Syria away from Iran in order to create a dent in this axis and perhaps isolate Iran away from Lebanon. This strategy too will not succeed easily either, given how entrenched Iran has now become in the geopolitics of the whole region - from Lebanon to Iraq and Gaza - let alone the astuteness of Syrian politics at most times. It is therefore important for the West to keep open lines of communication with Iran rather than resort to the stick-minus-carrot political strategy of threats and sanctions that only succeed to fail in the end. This is also why I tend to disagree with President Michel Suleiman when he stated at the UN General Assembly conference earlier this week that Lebanese political obstruction has nothing to do with extrinsic forces but only with the distribution of ministerial portfolios. This is too prosaic an utterance, and one not entirely evidenced by facts, but what is resonant as a sub-text of his statement is that the Lebanese people can overcome external pressures only if they unite in their purpose and work together toward the well-being of their one state.

But if Syria and Iran are major external players, one wonders what their benefits are in playing out their strategies. My own assessment is that Iran is now using Lebanon (as much as other regional variants) as leverage in its negotiations with the G5+1 over its own nuclear programme. Syria, on the other hand, is in part bargaining its influence against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) over the murder of former prime minister Rafic Hariri and other prominent Lebanese individuals as well as the on-off negotiations with Israel about a return of the occupied Golan Heights. Moreover, other actors are also playing a role, notably Egypt and the USA / EU who are defending their geo-strategic interests and settling their scores. After all, Egypt is seemingly upset with Syrian alleged interference in the ongoing Palestinian negotiations in Cairo, and is therefore counter-acting any Syrian plan in Lebanon, whilst the USA / EU are trying to ensure their role - perhaps dominion - over the region. And this is not necessarily shocking, since politics revolved on interests, and we in the West have played this geo-tactical game only too often and are perhaps now getting a little taste of our own medicine.

In a nutshell, the external factors catalyse the internal squabbles, and given the rifts within the Lebanese political makeup, it is not surprising that half the Lebanese people, or at least those who are crudely perceived as pro-West, believe that the formation of a viable government can best be achieved if the ‘opposition’ drops its demands for an obstructing third, that Lebanon’s borders from North Lebanon to the Shaba’a Farms in the South are demarcated, the Lebanese Syrian Higher Council (SLHC) which involves treaties signed during Syria’s presence in Lebanon is eliminated, that the fate of all Lebanese detained or missing in Syrian prisons is revealed and Palestinian factions outside the camps are disarmed too. The other half of the population disagrees with those choices as priorities, and insists upon the right of resistance (haqq al-moukawama) as a national choice (khayar watani) and considers almost as crudely that the real problem lies solely in Israeli regional colonial designs - not with Syria or Iran. The standoff therefore is ideological, political, post-Taëf constitutional and also cultural, and one wonders how Lebanon can find a solution when it is buffeted by competing powers and interests.

However, two unpredictable national poles in the shifting scripts remain Walid Jumblatt and Nebih Berri, leaders of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party and of the Shi’i Amal Movement. Both give the impression that they are political mavericks, unpredictable in their positions, although I personally think they are willy-nilly two of the most veteran politicians in Lebanon today. As they alternate in their position-taking on the political chessboard, they try to play centrist or consensual roles, but remain nonetheless in a tug-of-war between political opinion and political reality. In fact, it seems that Berri has now re-aligned himself with the “opposition” in a way that veers the Shi’i community away from Hariri and his predominantly Sunni support base. Jumblatt is interested in maintaining quiet, but his ultimate decisions underline his overriding priority in the welfare of his own Druze community. In the final analysis, the overall future of Lebanon remains in the foreseeable future subject to the political winds and power-brokering in the whole region.

Israel-Palestine: I suppose that the recent tripartite meeting between the American, Israeli and Palestinians leaders at the United Nations in New York highlights the problems rather than defines the solutions of this conflict. Some pundits had described this political triangulation as a photo opportunity and a favour to Obama, but I believe it achieved a bit more than that. On the one hand, it highlighted Israeli intransigence and arrogance as much as Palestinian emasculation and powerlessness, but it also proved that the Obama strategy of incremental steps will not work out anymore. No wonder that the US Administration now seems to be considering a change in its language from a demand over the freezing of settlements to final status negotiations over all pending issues - including settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and final borders.

In this context, I would like to introduce to the reader the Goldstone Report, a 575-page report by a fact-finding mission organised by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, which found that both the Israeli army and Palestinian militants committed war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity, during the late December 2008-January 2009 Gaza war. The report concluded inter alia that there should be independent probes by establishing a committee of human rights experts to monitor any such proceedings in Israel and the Palestinian territories. If either Israel or the Palestinians fail to do so, then it added that the 15-nation council should refer the case to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Commending the Report, Amnesty International also urged the US government to examine the findings of Judge Richard Goldstone’s report on those violations of international law, and added that the findings echoed those of Amnesty International's fact-finding mission to Gaza in January 2009. This report is of persuasive value, as I think it will join many other reports on the dusty shelves of Israeli-Palestinian archives. However, it is perhaps one of the most serious reports to come out of an international forum that addresses both Israeli and Hamas-friendly Palestinian transgressions. The blanket refusal by both parties of its recommendations validates the authenticity of most of its findings and lends credence to them.

Another central point relates to the ongoing discussions over Israeli settlements versus Arab normalisation. What has happened in the past eight months, with the Obama Administration, is an unbridled media hype over the necessity for Israel to freeze the building of new settlements as well as cease the ‘natural growth’ of existing ones. Yet there is nothing new with this request, as it is not a novel pre-condition but is imbedded in the Roadmap that the Quartet and its itinerant envoy Tony Blair consider as their - rather yellowed - political bible. After all, just consider that there are 197 settlements built illegally on occupied territory today, with 18 of them surrounding Jerusalem. In the past few weeks alone, Israel has stated that it is building a further 486 new houses north of Jerusalem, at Mevaseret Adumim, in the disputed area (designated E1) between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, cutting ipso facto the West Bank into north and south. Between settlements and house demolitions in different districts of Jerusalem as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, Israel is confidently tightening its vice-grip on Palestinian geography, ridding itself of the demography and rendering a two-state solution more remote.

Yet, if I were an Israeli politician today, confident in my own power base and ambitious enough to dismiss my neighbours, would I not wonder why my government should not pursue its current policies? Would I care too fiercely whether part of the world comity labels my country as aggressive, unjust or expansionist? After all, in the midst of all those Israeli encroachments, the Arab World remains dormant and inactive except insofar as their own interests - not those of Palestinians - get in the way of their own political somnolence. Besides, is it not plainly anachronistic and counter-intuitive that the US is seeking further normalisation between Arab countries and Israel as a way of encouraging further Israel concessions?

Indeed, a well-argued diplomatic response was recently put forward by Prince Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, former director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and seasoned ambassador to the US and UK. His Royal Highness, whose country is decidedly an American ally, expounded in the New York Times how the Arab states took steps to improve their relationships with Israel after the Oslo accords of 1993, allowing for recognition in the form of trade and consular agreements. Israel, however, continued to construct settlements, making its neighbours understandably unwilling to give up more without a demonstration that they would be granted something in return. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, and the whole Arab League in a sense, has done so twice, namely the Fahd peace plan of 1982 and later the Abdullah peace initiative of 2002. Both were endorsed by the Arab world, and both were ignored by Israel. The Arab peace initiative, for instance, was endorsed by 22 countries in 2002, and re-booted in 2007, and has offered Israel peace and normalisation as a quid pro quo for Israeli withdrawal from all Arab territories including East Jerusalem - with the refugee issue to be solved later through mutual consent. Prince Turki added that “while Israel’s neighbours want peace, they cannot be expected to tolerate what amounts to theft, and certainly should not be pressured into rewarding Israel for the return of land that does not belong to it. Until Israel heeds President Obama’s call for the removal of all settlements, the world must be under no illusion that Saudi Arabia will offer what the Israelis most desire - regional recognition. We are willing to embrace the hands of any partner in peace, but only after they have released their grip on Arab lands.”

In one sense, the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was the first politician to refer publicly to the pan-Arab initiative during his months-long but unyielding negotiations with PA president Mahmoud Abbas. However, he was by then a lame duck decision-enforcer on his way out of office and the Palestinian leadership distrusted - (un)wisely - his motivations.

Alas, the Arab World - either individually or collectively through the Arab League - busy themselves gazing by and large at their political navels. For those of us working on the Middle East, the question is not one of settlements versus normalisation alone; rather, settlements are one part of a larger problem - occupation - and it is the dismantling of those settlements, withdrawal from occupied lands and land swaps, that should lie at the heart of the peace-making process in addition to the major issues of Jerusalem and refugees. It is therefore dangerous to translate the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict into one of illegal settlements versus normalisation since politics adopts the buzz words of the moment and turns them into truisms later.

But can we credibly expect any monumental shift in Israeli political thinking today? I believe this can only come as a result of direct political pressure upon Israel so that it complies with UN Resolutions, International law as well as international legality. Such pressure today can only be exercised by the Quartet. Yet this is not happening because the political will does not exist in the US and the EU, due to other international crises let alone lobbies and interests, but also because a majority of Arab states in the Middle Eastern and Gulf regions are much more concerned with the growth of Iranian - and Shi’i - influence in the region, which could destabilise their regimes and power-bases, than they are with a just resolution of the Palestinian conflict. As David Milliband, the British Foreign Minister put it aptly in the BBC Newsnight programme earlier this week, an independent Palestine remains a hope for Arab rulers whilst a strong Iran remains their concern.

In the midst of such uncertainties, could civil society also play a role? Here, it is relevant to point out that the Trade Union Congress in the UK and other associations in Norway are now actively boycotting Israeli products and investments as a form of protest against the continuing occupation. But other initiatives - with their strength lying in some measure in their naive but populist idealism - are also taking place locally. What comes to mind are the “peace meals” that frequently take place at the Talitha Kumi Lutheran school in Beit Jala near Bethlehem. They constitute what I would term the modern-day facebooks of peace encouraging dialogue, as do other initiatives the likes of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra by the renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim who explained sensibly in a recent interview that his orchestra was not the solution to the conflict but a force against ignorance so that both the Israeli and Palestinian sides could agree rather than resort to knives.

I began my article by invoking the three-day ‘Eid el Fitr that Muslims celebrated last week and wondered whether the messages of Ramadan had sunk any deeper into the political consciousness of the region. But I would also remind readers that Israeli Jews also mark today the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, symbolises the climax of an intense ten-day period of penitence, or the Days of Awe, which began with Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year. During this time, Jews seek reconciliation with people they have wronged over the past year, and rabbinical exegeses reveal that Jews must first seek to right the wrongs they have committed against others before asking God for forgiveness. To my mind, this clearly implies repentance, as well as putting an end to evil-doing, and I would suggest that occupying another people, despoiling their lands and crushing their rights as human beings fall under this bracket too.

In the final analysis, civil society initiatives or religious exhortations can only act as catalysts and facilitators, but for peace and conviviality to become twin realities, it is essential to achieve a radical change in the mindset of peoples. In other words, Israelis should let go of their fears and arrogance, Palestinians should heal their bitter internal schisms rather than consolidate them (perhaps in Cairo next month at long last), Arab rulers should show more synchronicity with the aspirations of their peoples by supporting a resolution of the conflict by their actual deeds, and the Quartet should show enough political resolve to make a solution not only a laudable probability they talk about in international arenas but an actual possibility.

A far cry, my readers might well smirk, and they would be fully spot-on, for neither the teachings of God nor the efforts of human beings seem capable to generate any good will in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Yemen or even most of the region to nudge us forward. No wonder the first timid signs of disappointment are already creeping into the post-Obama reality, and no wonder that frustration, despair and anger are again rearing their ugly - and menacing - regional heads. The recent incursion by Jewish zealots into the Noble Sanctuary of Islam in Jerusalem today is not only an appalling incident in and of itself, but becomes even more outrageous when one monitors the worldwide anaemic Arab and Muslim reactions to it.

Lebanon & Israel-Palestine: it is undeniable we are dealing with new geopolitical realities in the region today that are providing us with a new set of imponderables, but how will those uncertainties impact peace-making and common living? Will they allow the Lebanese to put their houses in order, catch their breaths and live in peace and prosperity in their country, or will they abide docile pawns of other actors? Will Palestinians ever witness the beginnings of a state, or would that state remain perpetually one in the making, on a virtual roadmap, with faulty external and internal mechanisms?

In a nutshell, are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we bold enough to endanger our own safety zones for the safety of the larger zones? Or will we remain cocooned in our porous bubbles, advocating peace but glibly acting against it?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   27 September


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