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The Arab League and peace, after 68 years

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The disconnect between the past and the present in the Middle East is growing fast. Consider the anachronism called the Arab League.

In December, after an “emergency meeting” called by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby declared that “not one” Israeli soldier could remain in the territory of Palestine. An Arab League report condemning American support for “Israeli security expansionist demands” was also cited in Middle Eastern news sources but made little impression in the West.

The statement made little impression on US Secretary of State John Kerry who was “grateful that the Arab League as a whole and Saudi Arabia individually will be significantly involved in helping build support for this effort.” He also promised to update “our Arab League partners.”

The very idea that the Arab League is a ‘partner,’ and the League’s recent pronouncements, are reminders of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it once was; an era when furious expressions of “unity” over Palestine were taken seriously, and which mostly excluded the Palestinians.

The Arab League was formed in March 1945, its charter filled with boilerplate about the strengthening, safeguarding and coordinating of between member states. But the founding treaty’s annex stated while that Palestine’s “international existence and independence in the legal sense cannot, therefore, be questioned,” “outward manifestations of this independence have remained obscured for reasons beyond her control” and that “until that country can effectively exercise its independence, the Council of the League should take charge of the selection of an Arab representative from Palestine to take part in its work.” The League’s raison d’être was control of the Palestine question.

The pan-Arab takeover had actually begun earlier, with the Bludan conference of 1937 “to study the duties of the Arabs in their respective countries and to agree on effective measures to resist the dangers posed by the Zionists.” There the Peel Commission’s recommendations on partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states were rejected and a boycott of “all Jewish goods and activities” was proposed.

But Palestinians and certain Syrians were unsatisfied since, as a British report put it, “They had hoped, it appears, so far to stir up public opinion as to obtain from an excited mob a declaration of the Jihad.” Existential fear and loathing of Jews – not Zionists – in Islamic terms was pronounced even then.

After World War II the Arab League’s contradictions became more pronounced. At the Inshas conference of 1946 Arab rulers declared “Palestine is Arab and cannot be separated from the rest of the Arab states, for it is the center of the great Arab nation and its destiny rests with that of the Arab states.” But the next year in London Arab League delegates accepted the idea of a unitary Palestinian state in which Jews would be a recognized minority with representation. The Palestinians under Haj Amin al-Husseini, the “Grand Mufti” and leader of the Palestinian nationalist Arab Higher Committee, refused to even participate.

The Mufti’s aspirations to rule Arab Palestine also clashed with those of Abdullah of Transjordan, who sought to annex it to Transjordan. In 1947 the League formed the “Arab Liberation Army” that invaded Israel upon independence, while keeping Husseini and his military force in marginal roles. Abdullah’s Arab Legion operated independently, while he met secretly with Zionist representations. Upon defeat the League authorized a provisional government for Gaza, which was barely symbolic before being dissolved by Egypt.

The League’s most notable achievement was the boycott against Israel. This prohibited direct economic relations, as well as with countries and firms that did business with Israel. Though the boycott limited investment and economic relations, it hardly achieved its goals of bringing about “the eventual collapse of the State of Israel.” The boycott may have hurt Arab countries more than Israel, scaring off investors from the Middle East and damaging regional economies. The 1966 decision to kick Ford Motors out of Arab countries following a trade agreement with Israel cost 6000 jobs in Lebanon alone.

On the issue of Palestine the League has always taken extreme stances. It suspended Egypt in 1979 after the Camp David Accords and rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to lessen trade restrictions on Israel in 1994. Even the League’s endorsement of the much-vaunted Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was predicated on reading UN Resolution 194 to mean the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

Only in fostering creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 1964 did the Arab League inadvertently advanced the Palestinian cause, albeit through an irredentist entity dedicated to violent “resistance” that preyed on Arab states almost as much as Israel. The PLO and its culture have reliably enforced extremism ever since.

The Arab League’s other activities have been incoherent and hopelessly divided. It did not defuse the 1958 Lebanon crisis, although it played a larger role in the Yemen civil war from 1962 to 1970, in effect a proxy war between member states Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It supported Iraq against Iran but was split over the first Gulf War, and its solution to the Lebanese Civil War was to license the Syrian takeover and almost three decades of occupation. The list of failure goes on until today’s Syrian crisis.

The Arab League’s usurpation of Palestine served higher purposes, Arab national integration around the twinned themes of protecting Palestine and hating the Jews. Palestine was a fetish but this was never the same as advancing the Palestinian national project. As with all fetishes it became a trap. Shared outrage helped generate a common sense of ‘Arabness’ as well as distinctive Syrian, Iraqi and other national identities but contributed little positive except to continually focus attention outward from corrupt, repressive regimes. But once ignited, the flame could not be ignored lest outrage be redirected inward towards regimes whose obsession wavered.

The Arab League’s routine continues but the Palestinian fetish has been taken over by UN and EU apparatchiks and US diplomats. With more than a little antisemitism (on the UN and European sides), they have institutionalized Palestinianism and the “peace process” in ways the Arab League, forever banging the tables at “emergency meetings” or even at the UN, could only have dreamed. Perhaps the Arab League succeeded after all.

But ceding control of their national fate is now also part of Palestinian culture. Sometimes Palestinians genuinely think they are the paramount pan-Arab or pan-Islamic cause. Other times it just gives Palestinians cover for being indecisive, divided, or merely to go about business as usual.

This is immensely profitable for Palestinian elites who make money from legal and illegal business deals, who skim or divert Western aid, less so for the enormous Palestinian public and NGO sectors. The status quo and “occupation” rhetoric keep money flowing and postpones hard-decisions about self-governance and self-responsibility. The Arab League gives the Palestinians rejectionism plausible deniability, and helps put peace impossibly, but profitably, out of reach.

But state failure, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and now the Shia-Sunni civil war, have disrupted the cycle, at least for now. And in a supreme irony, the Jews are temporarily more useful as Sunni allies than cosmic enemies, while the Palestinians are neither especially relevant nor interesting.

The sooner everyone, including the US and especially the Palestinians themselves, admit that the Arab League is an impediment the sooner a negotiated peace with Israel may actually arrive.

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya

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With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday. 

Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December. 

They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year. 

At the crossroads 

“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš.  “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.” 

He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.  

Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation. 

Foreign fighter threat 

The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline. 

“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.  

“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.” 

Young voters eager 

The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results. 

He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country. 

So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women.  Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots. 

“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš. 

He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.  

“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned.  “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”

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