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The Two-State Delusion

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Two decades after the signing of the declaration of principles (DOP) by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the White House lawn, there is something unreasonable in the world’s continued adherence to the Oslo paradigm, tattered and battered as it is by years of a bloody fiasco.

The Palestinian Arab leadership has consistently and adamantly rejected the two-state solution since its first articulation in 1937 by the British Peel commission[1] and has, as consistently, advocated the destruction of the Jewish state. Still, it undertook a successful public relations campaign in the 1980s promoting the notion of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—”the occupied territories.”

Over the years and especially in the wake of the DOP, the Palestinian demand for statehood has gained rapid political momentum and international acceptance. A succession of Israeli prime ministers—from Shimon Peres, to Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Binyamin Netanyahu—embraced the idea, as did U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The paradigm for a final peace includes among its primary components Israeli territorial withdrawal and Palestinian sovereignty, political separation with reconciliation, compromise, and coexistence.

Yet twenty years on, the two parties find themselves further apart despite years of diplomatic wrangling. It is thus past time to examine and invalidate the paradigm that has taken hold in the hope that a new and less sanguinary one will take root.

A History of Failure

The concept of a Palestinian state appears just and reasonable. It evolves from the notion of a right to national self-determination for the stateless Palestinian people and their demand to end an Israeli presence in the territories captured in 1967. The terminology of decolonization regarding Jews who have settled in those territories fits this narrative of thwarted native Palestinian rights; ending the “illegality” of Israeli rule over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem is a global political stipulation for conflict-resolution. From the November 1988 resolution in Algiers that called for Palestinian independence to the extensive diplomatic campaign of September 2011 to promote Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, the PLO dramatically altered the political parameters of the conflict and its resolution. In sketching the two-state solution of Israel and Palestine as representing complementary rather than contradictory elements in the puzzle of peace-making, values of equality and freedom radiated from both sides.

The Palestinian state idea had been proposed repeatedly in the post-1967 era,[2] and its feasibility, viability, and desirability were analyzed and advocated again and again. The idea was central to the Arab-originated Fahd plan of 1981 and the Fez plan of 1982 and was reintroduced two decades later in 2002 by the Saudis as the Beirut peace plan. On the Jewish side, the nongovernmental Council for Peace and Security founded in 1988 was book-ended by the so-called Geneva initiative of 2003—headed by two failed politicians, Yossi Beilin and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak—with centrist Labor and leftist political parties contributing their own details along the way, all promoting a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The two-state solution emerged within PLO circles in 1988 when Bassam Abu Sharif, a political advisor to Arafat, presented a position paper on the theme.[3]

However, when the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO were signed in September 1993, there was no explicit mention that the peace process would culminate in a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had in 1974 rejected the notion of a “third state” between Israel and Jordan,[4] had reiterated this position in an autobiographical work in 1979, contending that a Palestinian “mini-state” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would serve as a stage toward the “secular, democratic state of Palestine” that would rise “on the ruins of the state of Israel.”[5] Four years before concluding the historic agreement with Arafat at the White House, Rabin asserted that a Palestinian state would be a time-bomb for chaos and warfare,[6] and even with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, it remained Rabin’s belief that the final version of the Palestinian entity must be less than a sovereign state.[7]

With that said, Palestinian sovereignty was, nevertheless, anticipated as the end-product of the Oslo process. Israel had acknowledged Palestinian peoplehood and rights in the 1978 Camp David-negotiated framework agreement for Middle East peace. It then recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993, agreed to the founding of the PA and its police force in 1994, and implemented territorial withdrawals from towns and rural areas in Judea-Samaria and Gaza in 1994-97. The International Donors’ Committee provided billions of dollars in aid to the PA, which established institutions for what could be termed a state in formation. Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party in 1993, said he would abrogate the Oslo accords, but as prime minister in 1996, he failed to do so.[8] The Hebron protocol of January 1997 and the Wye River memorandum of October 1998 demonstrated that Netanyahu operated within the Oslo paradigm for peace by relinquishing Israeli control over land, which was linked to explicit Palestinian obligations such as combating terrorist organizations and preventing incitement. Soon afterward, the Israeli government cancelled additional withdrawals because the PLO did not fulfill its commitments but not because Jerusalem dispensed with the Oslo idea.

Faith in Oslo did not dissolve even when failure struck over and over again. In July 2000 at the Camp David summit, Ehud Barak offered Arafat Palestinian statehood with control over approximately 92 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a political capital in the vicinity of Jerusalem. But Arafat spurned the offer, and a reign of terror and suicide-bombing ensued.

Despite the basic breakdown of diplomacy and although U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross admitted that Oslo had failed, he remained convinced—having written eight hundred pages of close text detailing the intricacies, efforts, obstacles, formulae, and setbacks regarding “the missing peace”—that “there is room for creative diplomacy.”[9] Should failure not have brought about a reevaluation and some change in policy orientation?

In January 2002, President Bush called for an “end to occupation and [for] a peaceful democratic Palestinian state” as the prescription for peace, a formula endorsed a year later by the international “Quartet” (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations). Another year later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also hitched onto the Palestinian state bandwagon as did his successors in Jerusalem—Olmert and Netanyahu—a few years hence. Yet negotiations, such as those between Olmert and PA president Mahmoud Abbas in the latter part of 2007, dragged on without results. The plethora of issues—from settlements and prisoners, to Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, to the Fatah/Hamas split—preoccupied and confounded the Israeli-Palestinian discussions without any satisfactory conclusion.[10]

On May 19, 2011, President Barack Obama affixed his name to the distinguished roster of supporters of a Palestinian state by advocating that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”[11] Netanyahu reacted sharply that the Palestinian state could not come at the “expense of Israeli existence,” affirming that the 1967 borders were “indefensible.”[12] This set the political stage for a dispute between Washington and Jerusalem and assured that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were not likely to renew soon. The Oslo paradigm was frozen: There were to be no negotiations, no Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, and no peace in the offing. The three “nos” on Israel formulated at the 1967 Khartoum Arab summit—no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace—had been transformed and reformulated with their political core unchanged.[13]

Twenty years of the Oslo process filled with optimism and enthusiasm, adorned with Nobel prizes, grand summitry, and historic declarations that peace was “just around the corner” have delivered no peace. Firmly entrenched in its place, however, is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance written on a grand political scale. A final status agreement should have been consummated by 1999, five years following the “Gaza-Jericho First” stage in 1994, but neither Rabin’s assassination in 1995 nor the murder of 1,084 Israelis from September 2000 to October 2010 (along with 250 from 1993 until July 2000)[14] could quash efforts at advancing the process. True believers continue to argue that once a Palestinian state in the territories is established, the Oslo paradigm will be validated. For those afflicted with “Osloitis,” when the evidence counters their utopian paradigm, the bearer of bad news is defamed rather than commended for contributing to an alternative conceptual construct.

Oslo’s Unaddressed Fallacies

At the heart of the failed Oslo paradigm are a core group of fallacies that have been promoted as truths: that the land can sustain two opposing population groups; that the Arab goal of destroying Israel can be appeased through “painful concessions” (rather than defeated by an Israeli victory); and that this is not a conflict based on something as elemental and incendiary as religion. Not one can withstand close scrutiny.

Geopolitical conflict is frequently a function of a dearth of resources and cannot be resolved by a mere wish for human harmony. In this case, both land and water are scarce, and the less than 40-mile width of the land from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River is insufficient to accommodate two rival states with expanding populations and vibrant national ambitions. While there are a few small states living cheek by jowl like the Netherlands and Luxembourg that are not at each others throats, they do not face the other factors that have contributed to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

There is, moreover, a great likelihood that a Palestinian state ensconced in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would evoke a powerful zeal for further land concessions, not only from the Arabs of Ramallah or Nablus, but also among many Israeli Arabs in the Galilee, for example, of whom opinion surveys indicate their belief that Jews are foreigners in the Middle East.[15] Such a state could easily foment an insurgency within Israel, bringing along further disruptions and destruction in its wake. Indeed, the Palestinian belief that Tiberias, Haifa, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa are lost cities of Arab Palestine fuels a deep-seated rejectionism, which is manifested in the leadership’s adamant refusal to recognize Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state.[16]

Finally, the war against Israel is little more than a modern application of Qur’anic hostility toward Jews, expressing the ethos of jihad and the religious definition of Palestine as a sacred waqf (Islamic religious endowment). Buoyed with this faith and ideology, Iran and Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Muslim elements dedicate themselves to destroying Israel once and for all. In this, they are only more obvious than the so-called moderate Fatah leadership, which makes use of religious imagery and imperatives whenever it suits its purpose. A two-state solution is, in essence, a betrayal of Islam although a Palestinian state could become the springboard for the ongoing campaign to undermine, overrun, and eradicate the Jewish state—fi Sabil Allah (in the path of God). All this is so because, as article 15 of the Hamas covenant declares, “the Palestinian problem is a religious problem.”[17]

The irrefutable conclusion is that the Oslo process brought no discernible change in the Palestinian attitude toward Israel. It remains a state that has to be eliminated. In May 2013, Mahmoud Abbas repeated the PLO’s position that the Palestinians would refuse, as they indeed have, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.[18] Jibril Rajoub, Fatah Central Committee member, declared soon thereafter that the Palestinians were the enemies of Israel, adding that if the Palestinians had nuclear weapons they would use them.[19] No less acerbic was a remark by Jamal Zahalka, Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, who on July 31, 2013, railed against his fellow-citizens and parliamentarians: “We [the Arabs] were here before you [the Jews], and we’ll be here after you’re gone.”[20]

In addition, the Oslo paradigm founders on the twin rocks of Palestinian factionalism and extremism as Palestinian society is hopelessly fissured by traditional identities and loyalties with extended family and tribal ties enduring despite a narrative of nationalism. The rural-urban split, the settled-refugee dichotomy, and the Muslim-Christian differentiation all confound integral social cohesion. Such a political tapestry, barely holding together despite decades of trying, baffles national unity, complicating the viability of any Palestinian state project becoming sturdy or stable.

 

These divisions have become further concretized by geopolitical partition. In 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza after Israel’s disengagement-withdrawal from the strip two years earlier and the Islamists’ electoral victory over Fatah in 2006. The 40-kilometer geographic separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, alongside the ideological and political enmity between Fatah-PA and Hamas, is a powerful obstacle to generating Palestinian unity. The conventional two-state proposal is a misnomer inasmuch as Gaza already constitutes a Palestinian “statelet,” so that another Palestinian state based in the West Bank would actualize a three-state solution. The fathers of the Oslo accords could not imagine in their wildest dream such a bizarre turn of events.

 

Lastly, an ethic of extremism has been embedded in the culture of Palestinian politics for the last one hundred years, beginning with Hajj Amin Husseini (1897-1974) and continuing through the tenure of Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), with a slew of other noteworthy firebrands such as Izz al-Din al-Qassam (1882-1935) and Ahmad Yassin (1937-2004) throwing fuel on the blaze in between. Five days before the Oslo signing, Arafat told an Israeli journalist that one day there would be “a united state in which Israelis and Palestinians will live together” (without Israel)[21] while in 1996, after Oslo, he forecast Israel’s collapse under the weight of an Arab return to the West Bank and Jerusalem, linked to psychological warfare that would convince the Israelis to emigrate.[22] The Arabs of Palestine have every reason to believe that the country is theirs alone because their leaders have been telling them that from the very beginnings of their own self-awareness as a people. For them, extremism is justified although this mental universe of self-delusion and fanaticism has not led them to a political victory.

 

Four Insurmountable Oslo Issues

 

Early in 1993, the Oslo negotiators concluded that a full and immediate resolution of the conflict was an impossible task, preferring instead to conceive of peace-making as a staged process rather than a single, decisive event. The major points of contention would be left to a later phase following the initial and practical launching of the accord. In the final status negotiations, peace would be achieved when the outstanding issues could be settled to the satisfaction of the Israelis and Palestinians alike.[23]

 

The religious-cum-political issue of the holy city of Jerusalem represented perhaps the most intractable problem to be resolved. Despite the Jewish people’s millennial connections to Zion, Israel’s June 1967 decision to apply its law and administration over the entire united city as its capital was rejected by the Palestinians and their abettors in the international community. At Camp David in July 2000, contorted and repeated efforts were made to formulate an agreement that would accord Palestinians sovereignty over the Arab-inhabited peripheral areas of Jerusalem, jurisdiction over the inner neighborhoods, and Palestinian governance over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. In these plans, the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, would be handed over to a Palestinian administration that claimed it as the al-Haram al-Sharif (sacred precinct). Prime Minister Barak’s negotiating position, although it seemed to waver over the summit days, demanded Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem and the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods around the city but also over the inner Arab-inhabited Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Wadi Joz. He firmly rejected Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount while Arafat apparently called for Palestinian sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.[24] In the end, Arafat spurned the deal, and the world will never know if further Israeli concessions, like recognizing absolute Muslim control and Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, would have perhaps elicited Arafat’s agreement. Palestinian militancy regarding Jerusalem has continued over the years, leading to assaults upon Jews in the Old City area and stoning attacks on the Temple Mount. These attacks have occurred despite an Israeli policy to limit and sometimes prohibit Jewish prayer on the mount. Self-imposed Israeli renunciation of Jewish religious rights merges with and perhaps evokes Palestinian violence.

 

An even greater sticking point is the final status of the so-called Palestinian refugees. The unyielding Palestinian demand that the “right of return” be acknowledged and implemented is a call for Palestinian “justice” that carries within it the seed for Israel’s destruction. The “right of return” has become sacred dogma for Palestinians. Perhaps equally fixed is the Israeli rejection of the idea as suicidal for the Jewish state. A growing constituency of Arabs in Israel echoes the “return” theme.[25]

 

This Palestinian position, sustained by a contrived memory of forced dispossession and nurtured by political rigidity, has been met with an equally steadfast Israeli rejection although Barak was willing to concede a symbolic number of returning refugees in July 2000.[26] The refugee issue proves clearly that the Palestinian intent is to Arabize Israel and obliterate the Zionist enterprise. These are not the building blocks for the two-state solution envisaged by the Oslo negotiators.

 

Of late, the issue of the “settlements”—Jewish communities—has become the international community’s bête noire. The Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, numbering more than 120 localities with more than 330,000 people, may have begun in part as a perceived security imperative, but early on, it also expressed the immutable right of the Jewish people to live in and control the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River. For the Palestinians however, these communities were concrete evidence of Zionist expansionism and colonial occupation. The Palestinian position has become monolithic, demanding a dismantling of all Israeli communities and the expulsion of all their residents.

 

Meanwhile, Israeli governments forged a public consensus around those population blocks to be retained in any future agreement, a position endorsed by President Bush in 2004.[27] The Palestinian position hardened further in 2010 when Abbas, encouraged by President Obama, demanded a complete cessation of all construction activity, not only in the territories but also in post-1967 Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Ramat Shlomo, which are on the eastern side of the city.[28] In short, the settlement issue brought the sides to political wrangling that froze the already-stalled Oslo process. A Judenrein West Bank, recalling what Menachem Begin did in expelling Jews when handing over the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982, and what Ariel Sharon similarly did in the Gaza Strip in 2005, was not the future that many Israelis had in mind when imagining the contours of peace.

 

The fourth intractable issue is one of borders. A final political map delineating the outline of a Palestinian state is tied to the Arab demand that Israel withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines. No Israeli government ever agreed to such a total retreat, which runs counter to U.N. resolution 242, which established the land for peace formula in the wake of the 1967 war: Barak wavered between 88-93 percent of the West Barak while Sharon and Netanyahu considered withdrawal from perhaps 50 percent of the area.[29] Military control of the Jordan Valley remains of particular importance for Israel to prevent both future smuggling of weapons and terrorists through Jordan into Palestine and to constitute a defensive line for Israel’s eastern front facing the Arab states across the river. Israel would have to evacuate 100,000 residents in the unlikely event that final borders would exclude many smaller Jewish localities dispersed throughout Judea and Samaria beyond the larger population centers such as Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, and the Etzion block.[30] This grim scenario alone would be sufficiently critical to hamper an agreement, considering the national trauma that resulted from the expulsion of 8,000 Gush Katif residents from Gaza in August 2005. This is not the kind of public atmosphere that would generate Israeli support, let alone enthusiasm, for any peace based on the Oslo parameters.

 

Conclusion

 

While Israelis consistently poll in support of a Palestinian state, the reasons for abandoning the idea have multiplied over time. Palestinian nationalism with its malignant and rogue features remains committed to destroying Zionism. The Fatah media and school curricula indoctrinate the Palestinian people and youth to disparage Jews as “evil” and Israel as a “cancer.”[31] Palestinian military forces train for the possibility of future fighting with Israeli military forces,[32] and Palestinian diplomacy, like the recent failed attempt to get the U.N. to grant it unconditional statehood, remains the stuff of wily bazaar bargaining in a diplomatic war of attrition. It is clear that the Palestinian public has never really accepted the two-state solution as a final end to the conflict.[33] This was given vivid expression in the last interview by the late Faisal Husseini, the prominent PLO leader, who infamously compared the Oslo process to a Trojan horse that would bring about Israel’s demise.[34] More recently, Abbas Zaki, Fatah Central Committee member, confessed that “it’s not acceptable to say we want to wipe Israel out … It’s not [acceptable] policy to say so. Don’t say these things to the world. Keep it to yourself.”[35]

 

Obstacles also exist in addressing the practical aspects and nitty-gritty details of a Palestinian state centered in the West Bank. Israel’s security-related conditions regarding demilitarization and control of airspace and military monitoring stations on West Bank hilltops meet with unwavering Palestinian opposition on all counts.[36] A state of Palestine, founded in a moment of desperation and born in bitter acrimony, will lack the space to absorb millions of refugees should the expatriate Palestinian community opt for emigration and be fated for economic impoverishment (discounting the billions of dollars donated to the PA by the international community since 1994). Based on everything a dispassionate observer can testify to since the 1994 establishment of the Palestinian Authority, this Palestinian state, awkwardly sandwiched between Israel and Jordan, has all the likelihood of becoming a failed state—fragile, mismanaged, tending to disorder and civil war.[37]

 

As such, the two-state paradigm trumpeted by Oslo has been invalidated with the growth of the magnitude of dissonance. There is just no sound political basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. All basic final status issues escape resolution. Yet, there has never been an admission of error, let alone an apology by Peres or Bill Clinton, Bush, Sharon, Olmert, Obama, or Netanyahu in their advocacy of a two-state solution. Speaking of the predominant role played by Peres in the Oslo saga, the contemporary grand master of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger, once remarked that Peres had “the trait of French academics who tend to believe that the formulation of an idea is equivalent to its realization.”[38] The same could be said of all those well-intentioned diplomats and politicians who have followed in Peres’s footsteps. Small wonder that, notwithstanding the plan’s abysmal failure and likely calamitous future, the intellectual brainwashing exercised by the Oslo paradigm has not yet loosened its grip over people’s minds as evidenced most recently by John Kerry’s heroic, but ultimately doomed, attempt to resuscitate the “peace process.”[39]

 

Mordechai Nisan is a retired lecturer in Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at other academic institutions in Israel. His most recent book is Only Israel West of the River (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).

 

[1] The Peel commission recommended the incorporation of the Arab part of western Palestine into Transjordan, ruled by Emir Abdullah ibn Hussein, rather than its constitution as an independent state.
[2] For example, Richard J. Ward, Don Peretz, and Evan M. Wilson, The Palestine State: A Rational Approach (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977); Mark A. Heller, A Palestinian State: The Implications for Israel (Cambridge.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
[3] Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 2nd ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009), pp. 535-8, 711-29.
[4] Yediot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), July 26, 1974.
[5] Yitzhak Rabin, Pinkas Sherut, vol. II (Tel Aviv: Ma’ariv, 1979), p. 583.
[6] Ma’ariv (Tel Aviv), Feb. 10, 1989.
[7] David Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO: The Rabin Government’s Road to the Oslo Accord (Washington and Boulder: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Westview Press, 1996), p. 123.
[8] Yossi Beilin, “Oslo Kvar Betocheinu,” Yisrael Hayom (Tel Aviv), July 27, 2011.
[9] Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 800.
[10] “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Annapolis and After,” Middle East Briefing, no. 22, International Crisis Group, Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, Nov. 20, 2007.
[11] Barack Obama, remarks on the Middle East and North Africa, State Department, Washington, D.C., May 19, 2011.
[12] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), May 19, 2011.
[13] “The Khartoum Resolutions,” Sept. 1, 1967, The Jewish Virtual Library.
[14] Ross, The Missing Peace, p. 782.
[15] The Jerusalem Post, May 19, 2011.
[16] “My Country Palestine,” Fatah PA TV, July 13, 2011, in MEMRI Bulletin, Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington, D.C., July 26, 2011; YNet News (Tel Aviv), Aug. 28, 2011.
[17]Hamas Covenant 1988,” Yale Law School Avalon Project, accessed Oct. 29, 2013.
[18] Al-Hayat al-Jadida (Ramallah), May 4, 2013, quoted by Palestinian Media Watch, Jerusalem.
[19] Al-Mayadeen TV (Beirut), in Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin, May 8, 2013.
[20] Israel Hayom, Aug. 1, 2013.
[21] Efraim Karsh, Arafat’s War: The Man and His Battle for Israeli Conquest (New York: Grove Press, 2003), pp. 59-60; idem, “Arafat Lives,” Commentary, Jan. 2005.
[22] The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 23, 1996; Yedidya Atlas, “Stockholm Revisited,” Israel radio 7, May 10, 1996.
[23] Makovsky, Making Peace with the PLO, chap. 2-3.
[24] Shlomo Ben-Ami, Hazit Le’lo O’ref: Masa el Gvulot Tahalich Hashalom (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, 2004), pp. 165-95; Ross, The Missing Peace, pp. 686-7.
[25] L. Barkan, “Israeli Arab Leadership Jockeys for Central Role in Palestinian Leadership,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Inquiry & Analysis Series Report, no.721, Aug. 11, 2011.
[26] Ron Pundak, “From Oslo to Taba: What Went Wrong?” Survival, Autumn 2001, pp. 31-45.
[27] The Washington Post, Apr. 15, 2004.
[28] YNet News, Nov. 10, 2010.
[29] Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Nov. 4, 2006; The Times of Israel (Jerusalem), Feb. 19, 2013; “Peace Negotiations in Name Only,” DebkaFile (Jerusalem), Sept. 23, 2013.
[30] Giora Island, “The Future of the Two-State Solution,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Feb. 8, 17, 2009.
[31] Al-Aqsa TV (Gaza), July 13, 2008;Religious War,” Palestinian Media Watch, Jerusalem, July 3, 2013.
[32] Gal Luft, “The Palestinian Security Forces: Capabilities and Effects on the Arab-Israeli Military Balance,” Ariel Center for Policy Research, Shaarei Tikva, Oct. 2001; CNS News, July 7, 2008.
[33] Benny Morris, “Eliminating Israel,” The National Interest, July 19, 2011.
[34] Al-Arabi (Cairo), June 6, 2001.
[35] The Blaze (New York and Dallas), Oct. 3, 2011.
[36] Dore Gold, “Banging Square Pegs into Round Holes,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Dec. 2008.
[37] Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 7th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999), p. 372.
[38] Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p. 376.
[39] The New York Times, July 19, 2013.

 

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Middle East

MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Jamal Khashoggi rejiggers the Middle East at potentially horrible cost

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assuming that his disappearance was the work of Saudi security and military officials, threatens to upend the fundaments of fault lines in the Middle East.

At stake is not only the fate of a widely respected journalist and the future of Turkish-Saudi relations.

Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, whether he was kidnapped by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of his divorce or murdered on its premises, threatens to severely disrupt the US-Saudi alliance that underwrites much of the Middle East’s fault lines.

A US investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate mandated by members of the US Congress and an expected meeting between President Donald J. Trump, and the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could result in a US and European embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impact the kingdom’s brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

It also would project Saudi Arabia as a rogue state and call into question US and Saudi allegations that Iran is the Middle East’s main state supporter of terrorism.

The allegations formed a key reason for the United States’ withdrawal with Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Israeli backing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions.

They also would undermine Saudi and UAE justification of their 15-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that the two Gulf states, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, accuse of supporting terrorism.

Condemnation and sanctioning of Saudi Arabia by the international community would complicate Chinese and Russian efforts to walk a fine line in their attempts to ensure that they are not sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Russia and China would be at a crossroads if Saudi Arabia were proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and the issue of sanctions would be brought to the United Nations Security Council.

Both Russia and China have so far been able to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia despite their efforts to defeat US sanctions against Iran and Russia’s alliance with the Islamic republic in their support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A significantly weakened Saudi Arabia would furthermore undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favour Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Finally, a conclusive determination that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s fate would likely spark renewed debate about the wisdom of the international community’s support for Arab autocracy that has proven to be unashamedly brutal in its violation of human rights and disregard for international law and conventions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally and stability in the kingdom, a key tenant of US, Chinese and Russian Middle East policy, were to be at risk.

The reputational damage suffered by Prince Mohammed embarrasses UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who together with his aides and representatives in world capitals, worked hard to project his Saudi counterpart as the kingdom’s future.

Saudi Arabia has so far done itself few favours by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance with no evidence that the journalist left the consulate at his own volition; asserting that claims that it was involved were fabrications by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; seeking to defame Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancé and supporters; and refusing to fully cooperate with Turkish investigators.

Saudi reluctance to cooperate as well as the US investigation and Ms. Cengiz’s expected meeting with Mr. Trump complicate apparent Turkish efforts to find a resolution of the escalating crisis that would allow Saudi Arabia to save face and salvage Turkey’s economic relationship with the kingdom.

Turkey, despite deep policy differences with Saudi Arabia over Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refrained from statements that go beyond demanding that Saudi Arabia prove its assertion that Mr. Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate at his own volition and fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation.

Reports by anonymous Turkish officials detailing gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder by Saudi agents appear designed to pressure Saudi Arabia to comply with the Turkish demands and efforts to manage the crisis.

Widely acclaimed, Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, irrespective of whether he as yet emerges alive or is proven to have been brutally murdered, is reshaping the political map of the Middle East. The possibility, if not likelihood is that he paid a horrendous price for sparking the earthquake that is already rumbling across the region.

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