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White House eager to save Middle East peace process

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] O [/yt_dropcap]bviously, Israel has tasted its first ever bitter pill from UNSC when it voted on December 23 to end the illegally built settlements, meant to oust the Palestinians and confiscate their lands. With the vote, time is indeed running out for Israeli regime to mend ways and try to become a normal nation by allowing the much delayed Palestine state to come into being. Israel needs to shed provocative terror schemes targeting Palestine and other Arab nations, and eventually become a democracy.

The US’ shocking and momentous abstention during a vote at the UN Security Council on Friday enabled the adoption of the first UN resolution 2334 on the December 23 since 1979 to condemn Israel over its settlement policy by a 14-0 vote. Israel has accused the Obama government of playing a part in formulating and pushing through the landmark measure.

Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu have played out their games but ultimately the former has the final say. Both have, since 2009, contributed to a chronic deterioration in US-Israel relations and the wider Middle East meltdown and Israel’s usual stubbornness has let to USA refusing to use its veto to shield their crimes this time. The process of polarization and mutual alienation culminated last Friday with Obama’s active connivance in the passing of a landmark UN Security Council resolution. The resolution condemned all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory as a flagrant violation of international law that imperiled a future two-state peace.

US-Israeli relations have reached their lowest point in decades. The government of the Israeli and PM Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Washington of conspiring against it when the UN Security Council vote on Friday the 23rd December demanded an end to settlement building in the West Bank.

USA pushes ahead with the resolution vote

The landmark vote came despite intense lobbying efforts by Israel and calls from US President-elect Donald Trump to block the text. Unhappy with Obama, Netanyahu is believed to be attempting to “recruit” to the incoming Trump team but the brakes on an attempted bid by the outgoing government to have the Security Council approve principles for a Palestinian state.. “They are spitting at us,” Netanyahu told colleagues, according to Channel 2. “We will respond forcefully.”

Netanyahu rejected the UNSC resolution as a “shameful blow against Israel,” repeated the Israeli claim that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were behind the resolution. Netanyahu told the media that Israel has “ironclad information” of the US government’s involvement in the resolution and even Trump is behind it. .

Clearly, America is struggling to reset its Israeli policy which has hitherto been decided by Israeli government. Possibly encouraged by President elect Trumps’ assertion for a new approach to resolve the Israeli-Palestine conflict and achieve two state solution by establishing the much delayed Palestine state to exist side by side with Israel as a legal entity, President Obama, by asking the US ambassador to UNSC to abstain from voting, supported the UNSC resolution to end illegal settlements inside Palestine.

Apparently, US Secretary of State John Kerry, following the UNSC vote, is preparing a document which will form the basis for final negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians to be presented next month before President Barack Obama leaves office on 20th January. John Kerry is laying out a US framework for an Palestinian-Israeli agreement as the Obama government and its international allies scramble to protect what is left of the peace process before Donald Trump takes office. The document will outline the establishment of a future Palestinian state according to the internationally recognized 1967 borders (Arab Peace pan 2002) , with land-swaps leaving approximately 75 to 80 percent of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank under the sovereignty of Israel- a proposition that won’t be accepted by the Palestinians. The principles will probably set out requirements for US recognition of Palestine and Israeli recognition of Palestine and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, and Israel’s required recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Kerry speech at the state department is expected to restate the Obama government’s continued faith in a two-state solution to the chronic impasse. It is a parting shot after eight years in office, during which there has been a dearth of diplomatic progress. It is not expected to lead to any new initiative but rather lay down a marker on a longstanding US and international approach to the region before the US president-elect, whose commitment to such a solution is in doubt, assumes office. “What secretary Kerry will be doing is he will give a speech in which he lays out a comprehensive vision for how we see the conflict being resolved – where we see things in 2016 as we unfortunately conclude our term in office without there being significant progress toward peace, the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told Israel’s Channel 2 television. On the same day as the Kerry speech, Jerusalem authorities are expected to discuss the issue of more than 600 building permits for settlements in historically Palestinian east Jerusalem and have raised the possibility of issuing about 5,000 more.

The parameters outlined by Kerry are expected to draw international endorsement at a meeting of foreign ministers on 15 January, just five days before Trump moves into the White House. The meeting is supposed to reinforce a strategy of isolating Netanyahu in the hope it will push him towards reviving stalled negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has said his government will not attend.

Israel responded furiously to the UN Security Council resolution passed on Friday that demanded an end to settlement building, threatening diplomatic reprisals against the countries that voted in favor. Israel feels now fully exposed and isolated internationally. The Israeli government is reportedly fearful that any guidelines agreed in Paris would be turned into another UN resolution before Trump’s inauguration, and it has ratcheted up its rhetoric, presenting itself as the victim of an international conspiracy. Meanwhile, Israel’s military minister, a prominent illegal settler leader in the government Avigdor Lieberman, portrayed the Paris conference as a new “Dreyfus trial”, referring to an outburst of French anti-Semitism more than a century ago, and urged French Jews to move to Israel.

A French official denied there was any intention to pass a new Security Council resolution on the basis of the Paris conference. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the meeting would “give the participants an opportunity to present a comprehensive incentive package to encourage the resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Only they will be able to conclude a peace deal directly.”

In excessive expectation of a more supportive government in Washington next month, Netanyahu has reacted to the diplomatic maneuvering in the last weeks of Obama’s term with defiance. Netanyahu has vowed to resist a peace framework imposed on his government, and observers warn that a threatened Israeli backlash in the form of thousands of new settler homes in east Jerusalem, combined with Trump’s plan to move the US embassy to the disputed city, could trigger a fresh wave of violence.

Netanyahu claimed to have “ironclad evidence” that the Obama government had plotted behind the scenes to promote the UN resolution. Israel has said it will present evidence against the Obama government to the incoming Trump team and ask Trump to just abide by the mutual understanding in terror operations and help Israel retain all illegal settlements in Palestine.

Egyptian media published a document purporting to be a transcript of a meeting in which Kerry and the US national security adviser, Susan Rice, discussed the UN resolution and US proposals with Palestinian officials, who agreed to give the Kerry framework immediate support.

In order to appease the Jewish community in USA and Israel, Trump criticised Friday’s UN resolution, saying it would make it harder to negotiate a peace agreement. He described the UN as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” but has not dwelt about how the UN as well as US veto has been misused by USA and Israel all these years. Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, his own bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, has actively supported settlement building.

If the highly emotive issue of Jerusalem’s status became the focal point of Israeli-Palestinian friction once more, then the prospects for a serious, significant confrontation are high. Trump knows it.

The US withdrawal from Iraq left a political vacuum in Baghdad that Iran and its Shia allies filled. Then, in partial reaction, came the Sunni jihadists of Islamic State which ensured the US support . The Arab spring revolts of 2011 left Washington nonplussed. In Egypt it fretted over the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and welcomed his eventual replacement by another pro-American military dictator. In Syria, Obama prematurely anticipated the demise of Bashar al-Assad, only to back away when the going got tough, letting in the Russians and the Iranians (again) and squandering US leverage.

The UN resolution could save the government from itself by bringing closer an end to forceful and illegal settlement construction inside Palestine. The passage of the resolution won’t result in the immediate dismantling of any West Bank settlements, but the world is beginning to come to the rescue and try to save Palestinians from Israel military and Israel from itself.

What makes this particular resolution important?

Palestinian leaders hope the UN resolution 2334 and the Paris conference will offer some degree of international protection against the encroachment of settlements in the Trump era. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said he hoped the Paris meeting would establish an international mechanism to end Israeli settlement building once for all and start the work on the promised Palestine state.

It is the first decisive and clear condemnation of Israel by the UN Security Council in nearly eight years — almost the entirety of President Barack Obama’s terms in office. The vote was cast despite extraordinary Israeli pressure on the current US administration, on the forthcoming administration of Donald Trump and successful pressure on Egyptian President Abdul Fatah Al Sisi.

For the first time in history, the USA neither vetoed the resolution nor threatened to use its veto power; nor did it even seriously lobby among the world powers, big and small, as it often does, to defeat the resolution. In fact, Egypt delayed the vote, which was scheduled a day earlier, so New Zealand, Senegal, Malaysia and Venezuela stepped up and put the resolution to a vote, a day later.

Though the UN resolution remains rather symbolic as long as there are no practical mechanisms to ensure the enforcement of international law, the vote is historic and a major step towards the freedom and independent state.

Not only Israel does not respect the United Nations’ will, it is, in fact, already accelerating its settlement activities in the Jerusalem area, in defiance of that will. The Jerusalem Municipality announced that 300 housing units will be built in the illegal settlements of Ramat Shlomo, Ramot and Bit Hanina, while the Security Council members were preparing for the vote on the “legal invalidity” of the Jewish settlements. Obviously for the Palestine, the vote is a major achievement

The UN resolution was, indeed, keen on ensuring that the Palestine state comes into being as part of the two-state illusion is further perpetuated, which is all that the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas needs to continue to push for an unattainable mirage. With all this in mind, there is a lesson, and a valuable one, that must be registered at this moment: without US backing, Israel, with all its might, is quite vulnerable and isolated in the international arena.

The outcome of the vote was quite telling: 14 Security Council members voted yes, while the US abstained, making vote possible. The vote was followed by a rare scene at such meetings: sustained applause, with countries that hardly agree on much agreeing wholeheartedly with the justness of Palestinian aspirations and the rejection of Israeli practices.

The relentless efforts by Israel and the US to intimidate coerce and as usual bribe UN members, so as to sideline the international community from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has failed utterly. All it took was a mere US abstention from the vote to expose the still solid international consensus regarding Israel’s illegal actions in Palestine.

In an emblematic sign of hope, the vote brings to a close the year 2016, which has been harsh for Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians, mainly civilians and children, were killed during this year in clashes in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza; hundreds of houses were partly or wholly demolished and damaged; thousands of hectares of land were confiscated by Israel, and countless olive trees cut.

The next year could promise the Palestinians new horizons in their struggle for freedom and sovereignty, depending on humanitarian concerns of the new US administration under Trump though his language is confused to suggest that the US support of Israel will remain steadfast. The appointment of pro-settlement hardliner David Friedman as the new US ambassador to Israel carries with it terrifying prospects. One is not sure if Trump is indeed an insane Zionist like Madam Hillary Clinton has been. Friedman and his ilk have no regard for international law and no respect for US current foreign policy regarding the Israeli occupation and the illegality of the settlements (considered an “obstacle to peace” under various administrations), and is eager to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

All of this is quite ominous, and the freshly passed resolution should not advance the illusion that things are changing. Of course things can change only if follow-up actions are forthcoming form UNSC and ICC. Criminals cannot be given choices to change the world, they should only be punished for their crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, there is hope. The resolution is a further affirmation that the international community is unconditionally on the side of Palestinians and, despite all the failures of the past, still advocates respect for international law. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is moving from strength to strength, galvanizing civil societies, campuses and trade unions all over the world to take a stance against the Israeli occupation.

In 2009, Netanyahu, newly re-elected, described his “vision” of a historic peace, “of two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence”. Although he appeared to renege during last year’s election campaign, Netanyahu still claims to support a two-state solution. Now the international community’s message is unequivocal: you were right in 2009. So stop undermining the prospect of peace. Honor your promise.

Palestinians, now unite!

As the UNSC is making strenuous efforts to punish Israel for its crimes against humanity and for the proliferation of illegal settlements in Palestine, there has been world cry requesting US President Obama to recognize Palestine before he goes out of office. For different but related reasons, Jimmy Carter made a similar plea last month.

Israel can be blamed for much of problems the Palestinians face, but Palestinians deserve much of the blame, too, for their disunity, infighting and corruption. They must not expect their efforts, however sincere, to yield freedom and liberation when they are incapable of forming a united front. This should be done by overhauling the Palestine Liberation Organization and bringing all Palestinian factions under one single platform that caters to the aspirations of all Palestinians, at home and in Diaspora.

The Palestinian leadership needs to understand that the age of ineffectual American leadership is over. No more lip service to peace and handouts to the PA, while bankrolling the Israeli military and backing Israel politically. The next administration is pro-Israel, absolutely. This may be the clarity Palestinians need to understand that pleading for American compassion will not suffice. If a united Palestinian leadership does not seize the opportunity and regain the initiative in 2017, all Palestinians will suffer. It is time to move away from Washington and embrace the rest of the world.

One of the arguments often heard is that Israel cannot survive as a Jewish state if it annexes all of the West Bank, since it will ultimately acquire 4 million Palestinians (West Bank & Gaza residents) as citizens in that case.

Israel does not have a Jewish majority even by accelerated births as Hindus in India have been busy doing.

The USA in 1789 was mostly British and had a population of 4 million. Now it is 8 times as big, and has large Italian, Latino, German, African, Muslims three million Jewish and Irish populations. All those groups have brought gifts to enrich the nation. In an age of globalization, trying artificially to maintain one ethnic group as a majority is probably a fool’s errand, anyway. Israel is importing Thai agricultural workers and initially was welcoming African refugees..

So what is called a “one-state” solution is a farce but as long as all the citizens of that one state has equal rights and it was a genuine democracy people would be happy. .

It would be fairly easy to set up two states, Palestine and Israel, since the basic framework of the two states already exists. It is entirely possible that the Israeli squatters on Palestinian land, as their usual practice in the West Bank will at some point engineer a civil war, and try to expel the Palestinians, making them stateless refugees all over again.

What is wrong with the present arrangement is that the Palestinians do not have citizenship in a real state. Israel state controls the water, air and land of Palestine territory. The Palestine Authority controls none of those things. In fact nothing, not even the taxes. A state needs a judicial system that can protect the basic property and human rights of a citizen. Palestine has none of those things. Important cases are kicked to the Israeli judiciary, which, like police stations and military units, tends to rule in favor of Israelis. And, a lot of decisions are made for Palestinians by the Israeli army or by colonial administrators.

People, who are stateless, in the phrase of Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, do not have the right to have rights. It is unacceptable that millions of Palestinians should be kept stateless at the insistence of Israel. PM B. Netanyahu has even vowed that he will not allow a Palestinian state as long as he is in power or alive (a violation of the Oslo Peace Accords).

The reason that all these decades of negotiations have proved fruitless is that the Palestinians, as stateless, don’t really have standing to negotiate. You can renege on agreements with stateless people at will, as Netanyahu has repeatedly done, without fearing any consequences and without the stateless having recourse. So you can’t start with negotiations. You have to start by addressing Palestinians’ lack of citizenship.

The government in Germany stripped the Jews of their citizenship, in preparation for committing a Holocaust against them or driving them out of their homes as refugees. Jews are doing the same with Palestinians now. The Nazis understood very well that you can do with Stateless people what you will, and that no one will effectively so much as object. For the Zionist right wing, Israel comes as a solution to the problem that Jews are always in danger of losing their citizenship rights when they are citizens of other states. Moreover, in a nuclear-armed world, the idea that a state can protect you from another holocaust is a false messiah; ask the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In any case, solving the artificially created problem of Jewish statelessness cannot come at the price of creating Palestinian statelessness.

The chair of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, said that the Palestinian leadership was invigorated by the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. As a result, it would redouble its efforts to achieve full membership in the UN for the State of Palestine. The Palestinians would take their case to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, charging Israeli officials with various crimes against the international law of occupation, chief among them flooding their own citizens as colonizers into the Occupied Territory. Erekat recognizes that the Palestinian cause will go nowhere until Palestine has some of the perquisites of a state, such as UN membership and ability to take cases to the International Criminal Court.

Just as he established diplomatic relations with Cuba, so President Obama could do the same with regard to Palestine. It would be one step toward resolving the decades-old problem of Palestinian statelessness.

Observation: welcome sovereign Palestine!

The historic US abstention from voting on ending illegal settlements from Palestine territories and UN vote are not lacking in significance. But Netanyahu’s smug suggestion that he need only wait for the advent of a Donald Trump presidency is misleading. It is likely Trump may give him a sympathetic hearing. But he already committed himself to peaceful solution to the vexed issue in and establishes Palestine state to exist along with Israel. He may not even move the US embassy to Jerusalem as that would be a gratuitously inflammatory gesture. US Jews still hopes they can arm-twist Trump as well.

This was the world telling Netanyahu, with one voice, that the expanded settlement policy he has encouraged and justified is wrong – wrong legally, wrong morally, wrong politically, and wrong in terms of Israel’s future peace and security. The odd thing is, he knows this.

There is no doubt that the UN Security Council condemnation of Israel on December 23 was an important and noteworthy event as it readily paved the way for the creation of Palestine after a long struggle. True, the United Nations’ main chambers (the Security Council and the General Assembly) and its various institutions, ranging from the International Court of Justice to the UN cultural agency UNESCO, have repeatedly condemned the Israeli occupation, illegal Jewish settlements and mistreatment of Palestinians.

Today there are at least 430,000 Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank or the 200,000 in east Jerusalem which would be the capital of Palestine. .But Israel feels upbeat that Resolution 2334 is unenforceable and cannot dismantle the structures or evict the criminal Jews form Palestine territories and this can be done only with NATO help. Israel says nobody can force Israel to embrace John Kerry’s recycled ideas about a two-state solution, although the US secretary of state is expected to spell them out one more time before he leaves office next month.

Resolution 2334 joins UN resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) in the theoretical, consistently bypassed legal canon of the Israel-Palestine issue. It says what should happen. It does not say how.

There are up to 196 illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, in addition to hundreds of settler outposts. These settlements house up to 600,000 Jewish settlers who were moved there in violation of international law and, in particular, the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel must respect the opinion of international community in favor of establishing the much delayed Palestine state as they voted to end the settlements in Palestine. Israel needs to accept the pro-peace option now available for it to save its spoiled face and come forward for final peace talks and accept the Arab Peace plan to resolve the conflict once for all.

Unlike the December 23 UNSC Resolution 2334, past UN condemnations were far stronger; some resolutions did not ask just for an immediate halt of illegal settlement construction, but for the removal of existing settlements as well.

Arabs will assure Israel of not attack Israel or force Jews to resettle themselves in Europe or convert to Islam or Christianity for that matter. Palestinians will ensure that no more toy missiles would be fired into vacant spaces in Israel.

Israel now being isolated by its close ally USA, must recognize International Law and dismantle all illegal structures inside Palestine.

Although insecurity, aggression and paranoia are their shared characteristic, Trump would like to make decisions independent of Israel or US Jewish community that hitherto decided the policies of USA. Moreover, Trump administration cannot simply reverse the stated will of the UN Security Council – backed in this case by permanent members China, Russia, France and Britain; not will unilaterally scrap last year’s multinational nuclear deal with Iran. These are policy decisions of USA and not Israel

The resolution 2334 will accelerate existing moves to prosecute Israel at the international criminal court. The UN vote has highlighted the extraordinary extent of Israel’s international isolation under Netanyahu. Even he cannot persuasively dismiss the unanimous opinion of countries as diverse as Japan, Ukraine, Malaysia, Venezuela, Angola and Spain. It takes a lot to make an enemy of New Zealand, but Netanyahu has managed it.

Obama has not been much help. He, too, made a big speech in 2009, shortly after taking office, pledging a “new beginning” for the Middle East. But he could not do anything as his foreign minister Hillary Clinton supported Israeli regime and its criminal operations and his actions led to ME regional disintegration and growing American detachment.

Israel is annoyed, nervous and feels isolated for its arrogant posture on Palestine. But as usual Israeli leadership wants to put up a brave face. “We will do all it takes so Israel emerges unscathed from this shameful decision,” Netanyahu said. Now many in Israel also talk about “betrayal” by USA and many Jews feel USA should not have propped up a fascist regime in the first place with full military backing from the Western powers. Interestingly, Israel receives huge sums from abroad as aid but now it cuts aid to small countries. Not only Israel barked at USA, but Israel has also withdrawn its ambassadors from two of the countries that supported the resolution, New Zealand and Senegal, and cut aid assistance to the latter. Planned diplomatic exchanges have been cancelled, future Israeli cooperation with UN agencies placed under urgent review, and civilian coordination with the Palestinian Authority suspended.

Obama realized that pressurizing the risk-averse Netanyahu into peace talks with the Palestinians is useless, especially when Israel’s Arab neighbors fell prey to civil disorder and Islamist insurrection supported by USA, Israel and EU. Obama did not push nearly hard enough for peace in both terms when the regional climate might have allowed it. In 2011, he vetoed a similar UN resolution, arguing US-brokered talks would find a way forward. Cautious to the end, even Obama’s UN demarche on Friday was half-hearted. If he really believes settlements are undermining peace, why abstain? Why not go the whole hog and vote to condemn them?

Obama’s Middle East legacy is not one to be proud of. But his final axe on ending Israeli illegal settlements at UNSC has earned him the name he missed for 2 terms. Only now Obama knew how criminal minded Israeli leadership is and the defeat of his Democratic candidate Hillary has eye opened him to realize his presidential duties towards humanity. .

Future of Palestinians looks promising as the UNSC can impose sanctions on Israel if it refuses to respect the resolutions to end Israeli expanding settlements on occupied land and possibly annexations, as mooted by Netanyahu’s rightwing allies.

President Obama has to make all recent decisions on Palestine tenable in future so that the Neocons and other promoters of Israeli fanatic fascism won’t be able to arm-twist politically novice Trump.

While the rights of Palestinians do not register in the slightest in the radar of US foreign policy interest (which sees its alliance with strong Israel as far more important than the needs of disjointed and confused capitalist Arab countries), Palestinians can still forge a new strategy that is predicated.

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Middle East

Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: Wikimedia Commons

A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.

The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.

It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunistic reasons or as in the case of Turkey in a bid to establish state-controlled Turkish Islam as a global force.

Ultra-conservatism’s increasing attractiveness is magnified by the inability of governments to comprehensively police alternative expressions of religion on the Internet and social media as well as halt the popping up of unlicensed mosques and informal study groups.

As a result, Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative as well as militant strands of Islam emerge as the only alternative release valve, particularly in countries that restrict freedom of expression, the media and religion and have failed in their delivery of public goods and services

“Whatever the state does to control the religious realm, it cannot oblige or guarantee that people will rely on official bodies and individuals for their religious guidance. In fact, Algerian youths in particular are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions. As such, they may be attracted to other religious voices, especially those offering ‘grab and go’ solutions to complex issues or a Manichean view of the world,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The controversy in Algeria further raises questions about definitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s declared effort to return the kingdom to what he termed ‘moderate Islam’ given that Saudi Arabia played a key role in globally promoting Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for almost half a century.

In Saudi Arabia, the jury is still out on Prince Mohammed’s approach to moderation. In an ultra-conservative country in which religious leaders were not only popular, but government employees who shared power with the ruling Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and kowtowing to his reforms with little indication that they have had a true change of heart.

Algeria has long seen Saudi-inspired quietist strands of Salafism that preach unreserved obedience to a Muslim ruler as a way of countering expressions of popular discontent and more militant strands of Islam.

“The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings only increased the utility of quietist Salafists to the state. All the main quietist figures issued calls for Algerians to resist the wave of political contestation rocking the Arab world… This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption,” said international relations scholar Anouar Boukhars.

A recent study showed that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.

Some Saudi scholars like Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, a controversial ultra-conservative, known for his misogynist and anti-Shiite tirades, who ranks among the top 100 global and top 10 Arab social media personalities with 21.6 million followers on Twitter and 24.3 million on Facebook boast a larger following in Algeria than in the kingdom itself.

The study concluded that Mr. Al-Arefe had two million Algerian followers as opposed to 1.3 million Saudis.

Algerian media reports, echoing secular concerns, detailed earlier this year Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Islam in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of what French Islam scholar Stephane Lacroix terms a loyalist strand of Salafism that projects the kingdom as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

“Madkhalism…(is) perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse,” quipped North Africa scholar George Joffe. “State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs,” Mr. Joffe added.

The mixed results of the Algerian government’s effort to control and use religion are replicated across the Muslim world.

Pakistan, a country in which ultra-conservatism and militancy has over decades been woven into the fabric of the state and society and that is struggling with political violence against the state as well as minorities, serves as an example of the risks involved in playing politics with religion and state support for non-pluralistic, intolerant and supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Attempting to rollback the fallout of such policies is proving to be a gargantuan task. The Pakistani government earlier this year launched a pilot project in Islamabad to regulate Friday prayer sermons. The problem is that it controls a mere 86 of the city’s 1,003 mosques.

Some critics warn that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be taking his country down a road like that of Pakistan. They compare the Turkish leader to former Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq who in the 1980s accelerated Islamization of Pakistani society.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and director of South and Central Asia for the Washington-based Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani asserted that Mr. Erdogan was adopting the “Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity” and pouring money into Islamic schools.

“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity. Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey,” Mr. Haqqani told journalist and columnist Eli Lake.

Mr. Lake argued that Turkey, despite having tacitly supported the Islamic State at one point during the Syrian civil war, Turkey had not yet “sunk” to Pakistan’s level of cooperation with Islamic militants in its dispute with India and manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

However, suggesting that Turkey risked becoming another Pakistan, Mr. Lake quoted former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as saying: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”

At the other extreme, Chinese authorities in the north-western province of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, were several months ago shutting down some 100 illegal, underground religious seminaries a month despite creating in the region the world’s most repressive surveillance state, according to a Chinese communist party official.

The crackdown involves the banning of religious practices and the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools and the detention of thousands in political re-education camps.

The controversy in Algeria, Mr. Erdogan’s embrace of Islam, Pakistan’s struggle to come to grips with the fallout of ultra-conservatism, China’s efforts to crackdown on religion, anti-government and anti-clergy protests in Iran earlier this year, and examples of societies elsewhere in Asia turning towards intolerance and conservatism as governments employ or repress religion for opportunistic political purposes, suggest that political leaders have learnt little, if anything.

Yet, the lesson is that government control and/or playing with religion seldom produces sustainable results. The lesson is also that repression, including restricting freedoms of expression, media and religion, aggravates problems and benefits ultra-conservatives and militants.

Finally, the lesson is that the solution likely lies in inclusive rather than exclusionary policies and transparent and accountable governments capable of delivering pubic goods and services that ensure that all segments of the population have a stake in society. That lesson is one that governments in Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China seemingly prefer to overlook.

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Middle East

A Mohammedan Game of Thrones: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Fight for Regional Hegemony

James J. Rooney, Jr.

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Authors: James J. Rooney, Jr. & Dr. Matthew Crosston*

The people in the United States didn’t think well of those living in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There was a basic mistrust and a lack of kind words on both sides. But what you didn’t hear was anyone excitedly talking about wanting to completely annihilate the other side despite both having the capacity to do just that. Fast forward to 2018: to Saudi Arabia and Iran and a new regional Middle East version of Mutually Assured Destruction, where it takes on a whole new meaning. Both of these nations maintain terrible images of each and neither would probably shed a tear if the Earth suddenly opened up and swallowed the other. Forgive the propensity to reach hyperbole, but in truth this rivalry goes back 1,385 years when, just after the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, there arose among the faithful a disagreement concerning the issue of succession. Mohammed drafted a Last Will & Testament and set up an ancient version of a Trust Fund for the kids’ college/ lifeneeds, but never said a word about succession. In hindsight we now know what colossally poor planning this was as it led to a split between two key factions that would come to be known as the Sunni (who favored a vote for succession) and the Shi’a (who favored keeping it in Mohammed’s bloodline). “The Sunnis prevailed and chose a successor to be the first caliph.” (Shuster, 2017, 1) What followed was a swinging pendulum of tension with hundreds of years of both war and peace interspersed between the two sides. Today, it looks like they’re heading back to war in some form. But the real question is, are they heading back to war because of a 1,000+ year old religious grudge match? Many experts think not. Some say that the bad blood that has been forming between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not about religion, but something else: competing and hostile legitimizing myths. “With the aim of uniting peoples behind their leaders in distinction to ‘the other’, as it is so often the case, religion is misused as a dividing tool in order to enforce a political agenda.” (Reimann, 2016, 3) Not surprisingly, there are religious overtones embedded within these regional hegemonic politics pushing both sides continuously to greater episodes of dangerous tension.

The House of Al Saud, the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia, is composed of the descendants of Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the Emirate of Diriyah, which was known as the First Saudi state (1744–1818), and his brothers. The ruling faction of the family, however, is primarily led by the descendants of Ibn Saud, the modern founder of Saudi Arabia. The government of Iran is a modern Shia theocracy that was forged in part by the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, in 1979. Today, “Iran is considered a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house. The country’s 1979 constitution put into place a mixed system of government, in which the executive, parliament, and judiciary are overseen by several bodies dominated by the clergy. At the head of both the state and oversight institutions is a ranking cleric known as the rahbar, or leader, whose duties and authority are those usually equated with a head of state.” (Editorial Staff, 2017. 1) Ironically, many have argued that Iran has one of the most democratically structured Constitutions in the world, if not for these extra-constitutional religious oversight bodies that sit over all of the constitutional structures. Even putting the religious affiliations and religio-political structures aside, these two countries are as different as Persian night and Saudi day.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran view themselves through the legitimizing myth of being the purer form of Islam and true holder of Mohammed’s legacy. As if that wasn’t conflictual enough, to make matters worse, the Wahhabist theocratic leadership in Riyadh sees the government and family of Saud as secular barbarians that strategically use their Sunni Wahhabist religious connections as a hedge to maintain power. The royal family of Saudi Arabia, for its part, views the theocracy of Iran as a bastardized form of Islam led by illegitimate Imams that hold a potentially progressive nation hostage to outdated religious edicts that have no relevance in the modern Islamic world. Even more dismissively, the Saudi royal family sneer at how this ‘Iranian backwardness’ has led directly to decades of crippling American sanctions against the people. Of course, the theocracy in Iran sees the cozy relationship between the Saudis and Americans as proof of the infidel fall of the keepers of the Prophet’s two great cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are in bed with the Great Satan.

These underlying myths that debate ancient religious legitimacy may be fueling the hatred and Muslim-on-Muslim discrimination found on both sides. But disturbingly, there is one more legitimizing myth that might actually rule over all the others and it’s tied to the massive political power and influence greased by black crude. Saudi Arabia comes in as number 2 in terms of the world’s known oil reserves. Iran sits at number 4. That oil, and the wealth and political power it translates to, is not lost on either side. Oil is easily the top revenue-producing commodity in both countries. While ups and downs in the global market can have serious consequences for both countries, it means more damage for Iran than Saudi Arabia. The royal Saudi family has wisely/secretly over the past half century stashed away over half a trillion dollars to uniformly smooth out the revenue curves that are innate to the natural resource market in a volatile global economy. Since Tehran has been the subject of severe sanctions, due to its association with Islamic extremism and terrorism, it simply has not been able to create the same safety net/golden pillow of economic protection. Consequently, Iran has not been able to capitalize on its vast reserves of oil, selling much of it on the black market for rock bottom prices to less-than-ideal market consumers. This disparity in oil wealth, the freedom of action within the world market, and the subsequent ability to wield enhanced political power in the region is the real legitimizing myth that acts as a true political hammer separating the two and concretizing their strife with one another.

Iran’s political and military expansion into Syria, and its alliance with Russia, is another facet of its hegemonic intentions and desire to unseat Saudi Arabia as the real regional power broker. Iran appears willing to become a client or “dependent” ally of Russia, much as Saudi Arabia has a similar arrangement with the United States. Obviously, this is a dangerous recipe: regional power pretenses, advanced weapons from larger global powers, divergent religious positions, and political gamesmanship operating in the middle of another country’s civil war. Both Russia and the United States have cautiously moved their respective chess pieces as events develop in Syria, but unfortunately this caution does not exhibit the press for peace: rather, the American-Russian chess game in Syria only seems to exacerbate the animosity between the Saudis and Iranians. The alleged chemical weapon attacks on rebel positions inside Damascus by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian forces, caused a direct but limited military response by Washington. American cruise missile attacks on Syrian chemical weapons plants, though marginally effective, nevertheless was a message to Russia and Iran that the U.S. would defend its interests in the region. Those interests are decidedly in favor of a Saudi regional hegemonic leadership. Thus, what we have are cross-competing and hostile legitimizing myths being created in real time about what the future role of each of these players is going to be, America supporting the Saudi myth and Russia supporting the Iranian one.

Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to remain deeply entrenched in hostile efforts for political and military dominance in the region. Though ancient religious strife seems like a convenient excuse for continued bad feelings between the two powers – and is focused on to a heavy extent by world media – modern strategic reasons are more dangerous and multi-layered. What we can recognize is an old fashion game of power politics in which both sides have aligned themselves with powerful and protective allies. This game is being made manifest in a critical region of the world where resources are converted to global wealth and power. The parties should remember that oil is combustible. Politics built on oil even more so. But politics built on oil, doused in religious fervor, and shaken vigorously by outside players with their own agendas is the most combustible of all. For the time being, this Mohammedan Game of Thrones seems to have a plotline that will be as deadly and bloody as its more famous Hollywood moniker.

*Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu. He is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at:  https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Middle East

Might Trump Ask Israel to Fund America’s Invasion-Occupation of Syria?

Eric Zuesse

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On 16 April 2018, the internationally respected analyst of Middle-Eastern affairs, Abdel Bari Atwan, headlined about Trump’s increasingly overt plan to break Syria up and to establish permanent U.S. control over the parts it wants, “Attempting the Unachievable”. He stated that “The coming few months are likely to prove very difficult for the Americans, and very costly, not just in Syria but also in Iraq.” He closed: “Who will cover the costs of this American move? There are no prizes for guessing the answer: it has already been spelled out.” The only country that his article mentioned was Israel: “It would not be surprising if Israel and the various lobbies that support were behind this American strategic volte-face. For Israel is in a state of panic.”

The U.S. already donates $3.8 billion per year to Israel’s military, in order for Israel to purchase U.S.-made weapons. However, Atwan argues that the costs of this invasion-occupation of Syria are likely to run into the trillions of dollars. The Gross Domestic Product of Israel is only $318.7 billion as of 2016. So, America now already donates a bit more than 1% to that amount, and Atwan’s thesis is that Israel will now become instead a net donor to America’s international corporations (funding some of the Pentagon, which then will pay that money to America’s weapons-firms), in order to avoid adding the enormous costs of this increasing invasion-occupation of Syria, onto America’s taxpayers, fighting forces, etc.

I do not consider this enormous reversal of Israel — from recipient to donor — to be likely. Far likelier, in my view, is Saudi Arabia, to finance the invasion.

The GDP of Saudi Arabia is $646.4 billion as of 2016, more than twice Israel’s — and the Saud family, who own that country, are accustomed to paying for the services they buy, not having them donated (unless by their fellow fundamentalist Sunnis, to spread the faith). Furthermore, the royal family, the Sauds, are extremely close to America’s leading oil families, who also donate heavily to Republican politicians. Ever since at least 2012, the Sauds have been the U.S. Government’s main partner in the long campaign to overthrow and replace Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, by a Sharia-law, fundamentalist-Sunni, regime, which will do what the Sauds want.

America’s oil companies and pipeline companies, and military contractors such as Lockheed Martin, profit from America’s invasion-occupation of Syria, but U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t doing it only with their welfare in mind; he has an international campaign to press America’s allies to foot a larger percentage of the cost to U.S. taxpayers for America’s military. He wants America’s allies to pay much more, in order for them to be able to enjoy the privileges of staying in America’s alliance against Russia, China, and other countries whose economies threaten to continue growing faster than America’s. U.S. aristocrats fear that such challengers could replace them as the global hegemon or Empire, the über-aristocracy. Empire is expensive, and the general public pay for it, but Trump wants foreign taxpayers to pay a bigger share of these costs in order to relieve part of the burden on U.S. taxpayers. His famous comment about the invasion-occupation of Iraq, “We should have taken the oil”, is now being put into practice by him in Syria. However, that money goes only to corporations, not to the U.S. Treasury.

Which allies could finance escalated war against Syria?

On 24 September 2017, the Wall Street Journal bannered, “U.S.-Backed Forces Seize Syrian Gas Plant From Islamic State”, and reported: “U.S.-backed forces said Sunday they were advancing through eastern Syria after seizing a gas plant there from Islamic State, striking a blow to the terror group’s dwindling finances, which rely heavily on its control of Syria’s oil and gas fields. The plant, one of the most important in the country, is capable of producing nearly 450 tons of gas a day.”

Trump wants the profits from that to go to American companies, not to Syrian ones. That’s the type of arrangement Trump has been favoring when he says “We should have taken the oil.” Syria is allied with Russia, and with Iran. The U.S. is allied with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are the two countries that call Iran an “existential threat” — and which have been urging a U.S. invasion to overthrow Assad.

The Sauds and their allied fundamentalist Sunni Arab royal families are considering to finance an American-led invasion of Syria. Turkey’s newspaper Yeni Safak headlined on 15 June 2017, “Partitioning 2.5M barrels of Syria’s oil”, and reported:

A meeting was held on June 10 for the future of Syrian oil on the premise of the intelligence of Saudi Arabia and the US in Syria’s northeastern city of Qamishli, which borders with Turkey. One of the US officers who visited terrorist organizations in the Sinjar-Karachok region after Turkey’s anti-terror operation in northern Syria and spokesman for the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh, Colonel John Dorrian, attended the meeting. Representatives from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, as well as some tribal leaders from Syria and senior Democratic Union Party (PYD) members attended the meeting. The delegation gathered for the purpose of determining a common strategy for the future of Syrian oil, and decided to act jointly after Daesh. Former President of the National Coalition of the Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, Ahmed Carba, determined the tribal and group representatives from Syria, and Mohammed Dahlan determined which foreign representatives would attend the meeting. Representatives agreed on a pipeline route. Radical decisions were made regarding the extraction, processing and marketing of the underground wealth of the Haseke, Raqqah and Deir ez Zor regions, which hold 95 percent of Syrian oil and natural gas’ potential.

That’s “taking the oil.” There could be lots of it.

This article also reported that, “Syria produced 34,828,000 barrels of crude oil in the first quarter of 2011 and reached 387,000 barrels per day during the same period” and that, “there are 2.5 billion barrels of oil reserves in Syria.”

On 16 April 2018, Whitney Webb at Mint Press bannered “How the US Occupied the 30% of Syria Containing Most of its Oil, Water and Gas”, and reported that, “Though the U.S. currently has between 2,000 to 4,000 troops stationed in Syria, it announced the training of a 30,000-person-strong ‘border force’ composed of U.S.-allied Kurds and Arabs in the area, which would be used to prevent northeastern Syria from coming under the control of Syria’s legitimate government.”

She noted, regarding the area in Syria’s northeast, where U.S.-armed, Saudi-funded, Syrian Kurds are in control: “those resources – particularly water and the flow of the Euphrates – gives the U.S. a key advantage it could use to destabilize Syria. For example, the U.S. could easily cut off water and electricity to government-held parts of Syria by shutting down or diverting power and water from dams in order to place pressure on the Syrian government and Syrian civilians. Though such actions target civilians and constitute a war crime, the U.S. has used such tactics in Syria before.”

She says: “Given the alliance between Syria and Iran, as well as their mutual defense accord, the occupation is necessary in order to weaken both nations and a key precursor to Trump administration plans to isolate and wage war against Iran.”

That type of plan could be worth a lot to Israel, but Yeni Safak headlined on 18 April 2018, “US to build Arab force in NE Syria as part of new ploy: The US is seeking to amass an Arab force in northeastern Syria comprised of funding and troops from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.” This report said:

The Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom is willing to send troops to Syria in a press conference on Tuesday. The minister noted that discussions on sending troops to Syria were underway. “With regards to what is going on now, there are discussions regarding what kind of force needs to remain in eastern Syria and where that force would come from. And those discussions are ongoing,” said al-Jubeir. He stressed that troop deployment in Syria will be done within the framework of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition and also suggested Saudi Arabia would provide financial support to the U.S.

How likely is it that Israel would be funding this huge escalation in The West’s invasion-occupation of Syria — an escalation in which fundamentalist-Sunni armies would then be serving Israeli masters? Though Arab royals might find it acceptable, their soldiers would not.

The Sauds are the world’s wealthiest family, and they can and do use the state that they own, Saudi Arabia, as their investment asset, which they aim to maximize. This war will be a great investment for them, and for their allies, in U.S., UK, Israel, and elsewhere. Israel can’t take the lead in such a matter. But the Sauds and their friends could.

Funding by the Sauds would be the likeliest way. On 21 May 2017, I headlined “U.S. $350 Billion Arms-Sale to Sauds Cements U.S.-Jihadist Alliance” and reported that the day before, “U.S. President Donald Trump and the Saud family inked an all-time record-high $350 billion ten-year arms-deal that not only will cement-in the Saud family’s position as the world’s largest foreign purchasers of U.S.-produced weaponry, but will make the Saud family, and America’s ruling families, become, in effect, one aristocracy over both nations, because neither side will be able to violate the will of the other. As the years roll on, their mutual dependency will deepen, each and every year.” That turned out to be true — and not only regarding America’s carrying the Sauds’ water (doing their bidding) in both Yemen and Syria, but in other ways as well. Now the Sauds will pitch in to pay tens of thousands of troops in order to dominate over Iran and Shiites, whom the Sauds hate (and have hated since 1744).

On 21 March 2018, CNBC bannered “Trump wants Saudi Arabia to buy more American-made weapons. Here are the ones the Saudis want”, and reported what Trump had just negotiated with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, which was a step-up in that $350 billion sale, to $400 billion. So: Trump is working on the Sauds in order to get them to take over some of the leadership here — with American weapons. It’s a business-partnership.

On 16 April 2018, which was the same day that Atwan suggested Israel would take the lead here, the Wall Street Journal bannered “U.S. Seeks Arab Force and Funding for Syria: Under plan, troops would replace American military contingent after ISIS defeat and help secure country’s north; proposal faces challenges,” and reported that:

The Trump administration is seeking to assemble an Arab force to replace the U.S. military contingent in Syria and help stabilize the northeastern part of the country after the defeat of Islamic State, U.S. officials said. John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, recently called Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s acting intelligence chief, to see if Cairo would contribute to the effort, officials said. The initiative comes as the administration has asked Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to contribute billions of dollars to help restore northern Syria. It wants Arab nations to send troops as well, officials said.

If the U.S. will invade, Israel will participate in this invasion-occupation, but the Sauds will lead it — with U.S.-made weapons. And taxpayers everywhere will lose from it, because invasions just get added to the federal debt. The invading nation goes into debt, which that nation’s public will pay. The invaded nation gets its wealth extracted and sold by the invading aristocracy. It’s happened for thousands of years.

first published at strategic-culture.org

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