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Middle Eastern Tectonic Fault Lines!
Whilst having a chat with an Armenian British friend at Crush Juice last Sunday, I learnt that she had recently shifted her area of research to Sudan with its manifold issues such as Darfur, the forthcoming referendum, oil and refineries, as well as the outstanding ICC indictment against the Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir...

11 November   |   2010   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Although I agree that Sudan is a large country replete with equally large conflicts and therefore receptive to my friend's analytical skills, I was nonetheless surprised by her statement. After all, her focus to date had been on the Middle Eastern and Gulf regions. As I expressed my bafflement, she explained that the age-long issues of the Middle East are endemic and will not be resolved in her lifetime, whilst those of Sudan might just prove more 'manageable' or 'hopeful' and so she can perhaps be more proactive.

'Manageable' and 'hopeful' are terms we often use in the field of conflict resolution but is it true that the Middle East is almost a Sisyphean cause whereas Sudan remains so much more promising? I am not too sure that the answer is so clear-cut, but her opinion made me realise that the conflicts of the Middle East have indeed been unending, persistent, tenacious let alone unbending. This is a sad prognosis for such a geostrategic - and dynamic - region, but it is also depressingly quite true.

So today, I am not going to talk about lofty visions and irenic solutions but rather underline in as insider a manner as possible the latest crises and blockages that have affected the hot zones of Lebanon and Iraq as well as comment a little more probingly on the unchanging Israeli-Palestinian realities that are stoking the global fires of discord and radicalism.

Starting with Lebanon, it is clear that this defiantly resilient country is facing another major phase of mounting tensions. In fact, I would suggest that it is at its most tense since 2005. The symptoms are visible: the postponement of the weekly cabinet meetings of a teetering government, the inertia of the national dialogue process led by the president, the warnings and implicit threats made by this party or that person about another armed confrontation or takeover that is almost imminent, the denigration of the UNIFIL mandate in the south, the increasingly sulphurous and offensive-defensive language of the leadership of the powerful Hizbullah party, the palpable confessionalism that overrides the common national good and - tellingly - the fact that some Lebanese politicians have taken up again their passion for travelling abroad at critical times.

The common thread today that sews those tensions together is the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) and the way it has polarised the country into two equal halves. Rumours are buzzing in Lebanon that the tribunal might soon issue an indictment against a number of jihadi partisans or members of the Hizbullah Shi'i resistance movement (though not its leadership) for the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri and father of the incumbent Sa'ad Hariri. So for the past few months, the country has seemingly pitted those who are attempting to de-legitimise the tribunal by raising the issue of false witnesses against those who quixotically still cling to it as their angel of justice in a country bearing many injustices.

What makes matters more complex, and frankly also works against any legal instincts that would ordinarily seek due judicial process, is that it is not easy to de-seise a tribunal that was formed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in such a political - read whimsical - way and the only opt-out is through the UN Security Council. As the first International Media Forum held at The Hague last month pointed out, it takes time to amass the requisite concrete evidence for an indictment. Unlike journalism or politics, the wheels of justice turn much more solemnly and at a different pace let alone level. Besides, and as witnessed by the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), popular hostility does not hamper legal prosecution. This tribunal was set up by UNSCR 1757 and 'the levers of functionality' (as the late Lord Denning, a former Master of the Rolls once uttered in another obiter dictum) cannot be stopped easily. As such, the hostilities will not be harnessed easily either although it is my ardent hope that they will at least not spill beyond control or engulf Lebanon in its violent core again.

Perhaps Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of the Now Lebanon web agency, summed it well a few days ago when she quoted Sa'adallah Wannous, a Syrian intellectual and playwright, who said before his death in 1997 that, "We are dominated by hope. Perhaps Lebanon also has no choice but to stay hopeful, because if the Lebanese don't, they we will lose themselves."

In Iraq, one of the latest incidents that encapsulated the years-long violence gripping parts of the country and giving it linear definition is the horrific massacre at Sayedat al Nejat / Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad. Although this church was close to the [secure] Green Zone, a group believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organisation connected to al-Qa'eda in Mesopotamia, barged into this church during holy mass and held the faithful as hostages. According to the SITE monitoring group, they demanded the release of al-Qa'eda prisoners in Iraqi gaols as well as what they alleged are female captives held by the Coptic Church in Egypt. The rescue operation resulted in many deaths from all sides. No wonder one Iraqi demonstrator in front of the House of Commons here in London vented his exasperation by exclaiming, "We are here today to say we want the Iraqi Government to give us more protection. We want the coalition forces, who were there and acted as a catalyst for our exodus from Iraq, to do more to protect us because it is their responsibility." It is self-evident that such violence directed against Christians, much as all violence against other Iraqi minorities and Muslims, might go some way toward explaining why Iraqi Christians since 2004 have emigrated - fled - in droves whereby many of them today are either abroad, in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey or else internally displaced in the country itself - with many of them who hail from Baghdad, Mosul or Basra now living in the relatively safer Kurdish-controlled northern parts of the country.

Mind you, this phenomenon of death, violence, kidnappings, killings or ransoms spares no person, creed or sect and is directed against Muslims and non-Muslims alike - given the rife tensions. However, Christians and other minorities often feel more impacted and disempowered in the face of such adversities due to their numerical weaknesses and lack of adequate protection. Given that the treatment of smaller communities (the word 'minority' is not one I favour too readily) is at the very least a barometer of local tools of governance, it behoves well upon the Iraqi authorities to assume more confidently the protection of all Iraqi citizens against discrimination. But similarly, the western world should also wake up and realise the plight of ordinary Iraqis in the face of political and elitist oil-friendly intrigues being woven inside and outside the country.

I find it regrettable how politicians - and even members of parliament who in any democracy should be the mouthpieces par excellence of a populace - can trade the overarching general good for narrower vested interests. I hope the latest moves in Baghdad and Irbil leading to the formation of a national unity government after almost eight months of parliamentary elections and political wrangling will succeed to staunch at long last this dangerous sense of listlessness.

My third and final destination in this article focuses upon Israel-Palestine, the thorniest and longest of all three conflicts.

Here, fresh disappointment is once more setting in as people realise that the tentative resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is already proving its non-sustainability. The creaking door is swinging again, and with it not only the prospects for peace between those two peoples but also the concept of the two-state solution. But why is it so?

In essence, and at the risk of being a tad too simplistic in view of the complex history of this conflict, the immediate answer lies in the fact that the Israeli government, with its prime minister, are plainly resisting any serious extension to the moratorium on the building or expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands as called for by the USA, the Quartet and most of the international community. Israel now seeks compromise - a favourite word for political procrastination - and it does not seem bothered that a two-state solution will soon become well nigh impossible if the physical space for a putative Palestinian state keeps shrinking - day in day out, square mile by square mile, as a result of the colonial mutation of settlements. As the Israeli novelist David Grossman put it in The Yellow Wind, "I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched."

Parallel to the unremitting proliferation of illegal settlements in East (Arab) Jerusalem or the West Bank - from Ramot to Har Homa - the Israeli government recently also backed a bill requiring that a national referendum be held before any territory could be ceded in a peace deal. The bill stipulates that any land negotiated away, including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, would require approval by a parliamentary majority followed by a full popular referendum. If an absolute majority in the Knesset (Parliament) - 80 members - accepted the land deal, the referendum would become optional. Such a barrier reassures the Israeli right that no land concessions will be possible, and it comes almost at the same time as the approval of the loyalty oath for new citizens. Yet, requiring non-Jews to vow loyalty to a Jewish state and linking territorial withdrawal to a referendum could both damage the peace process further since the former would foment tensions whilst the latter would purposely submit unpopular decisions to a popular test in order to pre-empt the result. Moreover, defining Israel as a Jewish state acknowledges that Palestinian refugees would not be allowed back to their homes [in modern-day Israel], a concession Palestinians cannot make in advance and one that raises serious questions about the status of Arab Israelis.

Palestinian, Arab and international responses have - not unexpectedly - been disappointing in the face of such adamant Israeli positions. For one, rumours are now circulating that PA president Mahmoud Abbas has threatened once more to resign if this latest episode of negotiations stutters to a halt too. But what would resignation achieve save providing him with a quieter life? Quitting the negotiations per se is a sign of weakness since saying 'no' to an already negative situation does not produce a positive outcome. Rather, he should strive to enhance consensus among Palestinian factions and move forward on the basis of the Arab Summit peace plan of 2002. However, he clearly cannot pull it off alone either. So the Arab League should also motivate itself and act for peace rather than simply perorate about it from international podiums. Is the pan-Arab initiative of 2002 that is on the table still begging to be adopted by Israel not proof enough that the Arab World is ready to accept Israel into the region so long as Israel also agrees to comply with international legality and exhibit good will toward a resolution of this conflict? But peace will not descend manna-like from the heavens - no matter how religious the protagonists of this land are - if Israel chooses to remain intransigent, if the Arab countries maintain politically their resistance-unfriendly inertia, if the Quartet along with its perambulating envoy remain a costly side-show and if the Palestinians are busy scoring points off each other and competing for statuses! Peace will only become real when the USA - the sole judge and jury for peace - decides to coalesce those four divergent factors and push Israel to sue for peace with the Palestinians. But this will only become real if the US political establishment - on Capitol Hill much more than at the White House - realises that it is in its own [American] interest to back a just settlement of the conflict rather than continue its feudal oath of fealty to Israel. With the defeat of President Obama's party in the recent mid-term elections, is there an aperture for him to re-assert his vision more forthrightly and help the two parties address the key issues? Will he explain to his citizens that if Americans are determined to combat political radicalism, they should perhaps begin to question why such movements exist, prosper and enjoy wide massive popular support? It is not solely by invading Iraq and Afghanistan, nor by buying the good will of Arab political regimes or making oratorical speeches in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, that the West can secure those freedoms; rather, it is by engaging feverishly with the angry streets of those billions of Muslims and Arabs worldwide.

And as the opening for a two-state solution becomes increasingly narrower, Palestinians are now openly gauging two other options. The first one is to opt for the one-state (or bi-national) solution. The second is to ask the United Nations to recognise their independent state. After all, did the World Bank report of last September not aver that "If the Palestinian Authority maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future"? But both are perilous options that are being forced upon Palestinians by Israeli hard-line policies coupled with Arab internecine rivalries and international dormancy. A bi-national solution has even less chance of being acceptable to Israel, whereas a UDI-type declaration, even if endorsed by the UN, would not lead to a real sovereign state but merely exacerbate tensions since Israeli soldiers would still control the West Bank with its 120 Jewish settlements and roughly 500,000 settlers. Palestinians would not have free access to Jerusalem, let alone enjoy other fundamental freedoms, and the USA would - in all likelihood - side with Israeli against the declaration anyway.

Yet, despite the clear advantages of a solution that combines the Arab Initiative with the well-rehearsed Clinton parameters, Israel chafes against any necessary concessions that would lead toward peace. Instead, it prefers to prevaricate with different political artifices, maintains upon remaining a pariah state - at least with many Arabs and Muslims - and spends its time trying to pressure EU governments - including our own - to repeal any laws of 'universal jurisdiction' that would allow its politicians to be charged, detained and tried in an EU court even if the alleged crimes occurred in a third country and did not include EU citizens among the victims. In short, Israel sadly expends its political energies on warding off sanctions against it whilst at the same time refusing to come to terms with the national and territorial rights of the Palestinian people whom it largely dispossessed, ethnically cleansed, displaced and exiled in the process of creating the Jewish-majority state of Israel. If it is innocent of all the charges, what is it afraid of? And if it is guilty, then should the world community not demand reparation? I re-iterate most strongly that Israel has every right to exist in security and prosperity within its Green Line borders, but it does not have the right to continue trampling time and again over the hopes and aspirations of another people. Win-win models for international negotiations guide strong leaders whilst win-lose ones characterise weak ones.

The New York Times put it well in its recent editorial: it is high time for the Israeli prime minister to make the hard choices necessary for peace. Yet, Benyamin Netanyahu has decided that mugging for his hard-line coalition is more important than working with the USA to craft a peace deal. After all, a peace deal is not a gift to Palestinians, Arabs, Europeans or even Americans but is vital for the long-term security of Israel itself. If Netanyahu squanders this precious moment of opportunity as well, those celebrating his moral cowardice will be the extremists of all colours and persuasions across all communities.

Last week, I read an Op-Ed piece by President Bill Clinton in which he recalled in emotional terms the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin - - his yahrzeit. He urged the world to remember Rabin's vision - as he saw it - for freedom, tolerance, cooperation, security and peace. But much as this might be what Bill Clinton believes in, or at least wishes to believe in, those virtues of freedom, tolerance, cooperation, security and peace are not free assets. Rather, they have to be worked at and Israel seems in no political hurry to do so. And why should it anyway when it manages to ride the wave of every crisis with an exquisite sense of political obfuscation? Yet, this is the easy cop-out. When I grieved the murder of Rabin and spoke at his anniversary years ago in Kikar Rabin (Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv, I stressed that I was not so much mourning the politician as I was lamenting the gifts of justice, peace and reconciliation that died with him one more time.

Lebanon is in a fierce tug-of-war between two polarities that are at best wary of each other and think along different political ideologies. Iraq is buffeted by violence that pits citizen against citizen and system against system. And Israel-Palestine is a territory whose history is one of extinguished hopes and whose geography represents the global hub of avoidable despair.

My dictionary defines 'tectonic' as the force or condition within the earth that causes movements of the crust. So it is clear to me that tectonic fault lines are relentlessly destabilising the Middle East - and well beyond - but we seem to lack even the most primitive political imagination to understand those movements in order to correct them. Is it really any wonder that my friend has ditched the Middle East and turned her attentions toward Sudan instead?

What we resist, persists - Carl Jung

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2010   |   11 November


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