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Reducing Middle East tensions? Saudi-UAE moves hint at willingness to engage with Iran

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Recent moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggest that the two Gulf states may be looking for ways to reduce tensions with Iran that permeate multiple conflicts wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

The moves, including a rapprochement with Iraq and a powerful Iraqi Shiite religious and political leader as well as prosecution of a militant Saudi cleric on charges of hate speech, and leaked emails, point towards a possible willingness to engage with Iran more constructively. A dialling down of Saudi-Iranian tensions could contribute to a reduction of tensions across the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, however, a series of statements and developments call into question how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be about a potential rapprochement with Iran. Further complicating matters, is the fact it is unclear who is driving a potential overture to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The UAE, although much smaller in size and population than Saudi Arabia, has been a, if not the driver, of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, including the ill-fated two-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and developments in the war in Yemen.

Leaked email traffic between the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, and three former US officials, Martin Indyk, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams who advised Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius lay bare the UAE strategy of working through Saudi Arabia to achieve its regional goals.

Mr. Abrams quipped about the UAE’s newly-found assertiveness in a mail to Mr. Al-Otaiba: “Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well if the US won’t do it, someone has to hold things together for a while.” Mr. Al-Otaiba responded: “Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down,” a reference to perceptions that President Barak Obama had been disengaging from the Middle East.

Discussing the UAE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Otaiba went on to tell Mr. Abrams that “I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), at least with certain people there. Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around.”

In his exchange with Mr. Indyk as well as Mr. Ignatius, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who had been promoting the Saudi prince in Washington for the past two years, was unequivocal about UAE backing of the likely future king as an agent of change who would adopt policies advocated by the UAE.

“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is Saudi public positions,” Mr. Al-Otaiba said in one of the mails, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.  I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi,” the ambassador said. “Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach,” Mr. Al-Otaiba wrote to Mr. Ignatius.

The exchanges gave credence to suggestions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be seeking a reduction of tension with Iran. Yet, they occurred before the Gulf crisis erupted in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE demanded, among other things, that Qatar reduce its relations with Iran.

Describing a meeting with Saudi Prince Mohammed in an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba dated April 20, Mr. Indyk recounted that the prince “was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he’s ok with the US engaging Iran as long as it’s coordinated in advance and the objectives are clear.”

At first glance, Prince Mohammed’s position, expressed prior to US President Donald J. Trump’s landmark visit to the kingdom in May and the Gulf crisis, clashes with Mr. Trump’s efforts to find a reason not to certify Iranian compliance with the two-year old nuclear agreement that led to the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Under the agreement, Mr. Trump must certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance every three months and is next due to do so in October.

The devil being in the details, the key phrase in Prince Mohammed’s remarks is the demand that “the objectives are clear.” The emails did not spell out what the prince met. Senior Saudi officials have repeatedly demanded that Iran halt its intervention in Syria and Iraq as well as its support for groups such as Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen – demands Iran is unlikely to accept.

Mr. Indyk’s description of Prince Mohammed’s endorsement of US engagement with Iran also contrasted with the Saudi official’s framing of his country’s rivalry with Iran in sectarian terms in an interview on Saudi television in May. Prince Mohammed asserted in the interview that there could be no dialogue with Iran because it was promoting messianic Shiite doctrine.

Alghadeer, an Iraqi Shiite satellite television station broadcasting from the holy city of Najaf, earlier this month added to the confusion about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s intentions with a report that the kingdom had asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to mediate between Iran and the kingdom. Alghadeer quoted Iraqi interior minister Qasim al-Araji as saying that Iran had responded positively.

Saudi Arabia’s official Saudi Press Agency denied the Alghadeer report and reiterated the kingdom’s hard line position that there could be no rapprochement with an Iran that propagates terrorism and extremism.

With the Islamic State on the ropes, Saudi Arabia’s reaching out to Iraqi and Iraqi Shiites amounted to a bid to counter Iranian influence and help Mr. Al-Abadi give the Sunni minority confidence that it has a place in a new Iraq.

The Saudi overtures also appeared designed to strengthen Shiite forces that seek to limit Iran’s influence. They also aimed to exploit the fact that a growing number of Shiite politicians and religious figures in Iraq were distancing themselves from Iran and could emerge strengthened from elections scheduled for next year.

The Saudi moves that also include the creation of a joint trade council and the opening of a border crossing that was closed for 27 years, could prove to be either a blessing or a curse for Iraq. They could turn Iraq into an area where Saudi Arabia and Iran find grounds for accommodation or they could exacerbate the situation with the rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers spilling more forcefully into Iraqi politics.

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shiite paramilitary commander and one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies who has been designated by the US Treasury as a terrorist, suggested recently that Iran intended to stand its ground in Iraq. Mr. Ibrahimi warned that Iranian-backed Shite militias would not simply vanish once the fight against the Islamic State was over, even if the government ordered them to disband.

In a further move that could cut both ways, Saudi Arabia has asked Iraq for permission to open a consulate in Najaf. The Saudi request as well as visits to the kingdom and the UAE by controversial Iraqi Shiite scholar and politician Muqtada al-Sadr for talks with the two countries crown princes signalled not only a willingness to forge relations with Iraqi Shiites but also a desire to play a role in Shiite politics.

Saudi Arabia would be opening its consulate at a time that Najaf’s foremost resident, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most prominent leaders and a proponent of an Iraqi civil rather than a religious state, is, like his counterpart in the Islamic republic, Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, growing in age. Najaf and Iran’s holy city of Qom compete as Shiite Islam’s two most important seats of learning.

Mr. Al-Sadr, long a critic of Saudi Arabia’s hard line towards its own Shiite minority, has also sought to counter the rise of sectarianism and criticized the Iranian-sponsored militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Al-Sadr’s insistence that his discussions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE focused on Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Syria rather than the plight of Saudi Shiites was validated by the fact that his visit coincided with a three months-long, brutal crackdown on Shiite insurgents in the town of Awamiyah in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and the razing of its 400-year old Musawara neighbourhood, a hotbed of anti-government protest. The visit also came as Saudi Arabia planned to execute 14 Shiites accused of attacking security forces in 2011 and 2012.

Saudi Arabia, in a further gesture to Shiites, referred a popular cleric, Ali Al Rabieei, to the copyright infractions committee for “violating the press and publications law” as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Mr. Al-Rabieei was summoned for describing Shiites as “rejectionists” because they allegedly reject the first three successors to the Prophet Mohammed, and denying that Shiites were Muslims – concepts that enjoy currency among Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives.

Amid the fog of contradictory moves, Iraq is emerging as a bell weather of the next phase in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has complicated, if not exacerbated, the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It could prove to be the chink in a covert and overt proxy war that has so far offered few, if any, openings for a reduction of tensions. By the same token, Iraq could emerge yet another battlefield that perpetuates debilitating sectarianism and seemingly endless bloodshed across the Middle East and North Africa.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The current economic crisis in Egypt and the attempts to drag the Egyptian army into a war against Iran

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The United States of America is trying to force Egypt to enter into a regional war against Iran for the benefit of the countries of the Arab Gulf region and Tel Aviv. Hence, the United States of America and its other partners in the international monetary and financial institutions are putting pressure on Cairo in this regard, through the arbitrary policies of the International Monetary Fund and its major shareholders.  And on top of them: the United States of America, Britain, France and Germany, as an attempt to oblige Cairo to agree with them to confront Iran, and with Egypt having to resort to the International Monetary Fund for the fourth time since 2016, after that game of American, Israeli and Western intelligence in confronting the Egyptian army to force it to confront Iran, after the game of withdrawing a number of major international investors from the country for purely intelligence, political and military reasons in favor of the goal of confrontation.  with the Tehran regime.  This coincided with the practice of Washington and the Western powers, through their arms in Cairo, of several artificial economic crises, such as the shortage of foreign currency in the Egyptian market, the weakness of the Egyptian pound, the rise in inflation rates, and others.

  For its part, the United States is trying to gather more allies in its war against Iran.  In this regard, it is trying to persuade the European Union to join its alliance in the war against Tehran.  Perhaps the big gap in the front of the United States of America remains the European Union, through which the Iranian regime wants to penetrate in order to weaken the American and Israeli position that is motivated and mobilized towards the danger of war.  Perhaps because of the refusal of the countries of the European Union and the countries of the NATO military alliance to bow to the American and Israeli demands to enter into direct military confrontations against Iran, it was the main direct reason for the threat of former US President “Trump” to expel the United States from NATO membership and to keep Europe alone in front of the Russian threat, which might force the countries of the European Union, from the point of view of “Trump”, at the time to modify the views of the countries of the European Union and the countries of the NATO military alliance.

  From my analytical point of view, what is happening in the region in terms of the American and Israeli attempt to mobilize against Iran with Gulf support, and the attempt to drag the Egyptian army to fight without its direct interest at the present time to confront mainly with Tehran, is a war with different faces and multiple players, but Iran remains the field.  The main conflict is in a war fueled by central banks, the economic structure, oil, banking and trade at all levels.

  On the other hand, the options available to Iran seem limited to confront the specter of the American-Israeli-Gulf war in confronting it, in addition to the ongoing economic war and the growing threats against it. The options against Tehran appear to be all accompanied by risks and risks.  Internally, Iran has to convince its people to bear the policy of austerity, and externally, the Iranian regime is counting on the support of China, Russia, and the armed militias that support it in the countries of the region, perhaps to threaten through it to ignite the situation throughout the region and hint at the danger of the straits and sea lanes in the Red Sea. On top of them are the Straits of Bab al-Mandab and Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden.  This may make the situation more complicated for America, Israel and their other allies in the event of entering into any uncalculated military confrontations with Iran, which Egypt and President El-Sisi are well aware of the enormity of engaging in any potential clashes with the Tehran regime.

  The point of view of Egyptian President “Abdel Fattah El-Sisi”, as a former military intelligence man, and the Egyptian army, and their response to any attempts to enter into military confrontations with Tehran and try to convince the Arab Gulf states of that, is (the cost of war), in the sense of what the countries of the entire Gulf region and the region will incur by waging a similar war.  guerrilla warfare and armed militias.  As the issue of establishing and supporting armed militias in the countries of the region has become something that everyone knows and does not need proof.  And the matter is not limited to Shiite militias backed by Iran, such as: (Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen), but Iran will also find, in the event that America, Israel and the Gulf enter military confrontations with it, great and direct support from Al-Qaeda and the nearby Taliban movement in Afghanistan.  Borders with Tehran, and there are reports indicating the Iranian regime’s complicity with the terrorist organization of “ISIS”, and all of these organizations will be used once in the event of a military confrontation with Iran, and Iran will inevitably resort to re-enriching uranium very quickly and developing ballistic weapons and missiles to confront the imminent war.  The entire Gulf and region will be destroyed, as well as the movement of the straits and sea lanes will be affected and the entire international trade movement will be paralyzed, and the security of Egypt, the region and the Suez Canal will be affected, which will disrupt the global trade movement.

 And in light of the outbreak of any war against Iran, the Iranian decision-maker will be forced here to resort to and use these militias and armed groups, as a pressure card on neighboring countries, the United States of America and the Gulf. Based on this option, it is likely that the pace of terrorist operations will increase in the countries of the region in the coming period of time. This is clearly understood by President El-Sisi and the Egyptian army, so he distances himself from entering into any confrontations or clashes with Iran, not to push for the complete destruction of the region in favor of Israel in the first place, as it is the only beneficiary of that war, to spread chaos and unrest throughout the region, including the Gulf countries and Arab supporter of the war against Iran.

 Perhaps that economic crisis fabricated by the West in the face of Egypt, its indirect result was that American and Western call through their monetary institutions, of the need to restore foreign direct investment as a real way out of the current crisis after the flight of investments estimated at about 20 billion dollars from investment in the Egyptian debt, according to intelligence reasons. Purely, as I mentioned in my analysis, because of the attempt of the extreme right and hardliners in Israel to enter into direct military confrontations with Iran with the generous support of the Gulf countries, and their attempt to drag the Egyptian army and involve it by force to defend Tel Aviv’s malicious dreams of bringing Cairo into serious military confrontations with the Tehran regime.  Perhaps this is what the International Monetary Fund declared explicitly in favor of Washington mainly and in support of Tel Aviv’s hard-right policies, by announcing that Egypt will be affected by the global repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with a funding gap of $17 billion over the coming years. This is the same as what “Ivana Hollar”, head of the International Monetary Fund’s mission to Egypt, declared:

 “The reform program of the authorities in Egypt must give a greater role to the private sector, which is urgent, and it is very important that the state ownership policy be approved at the highest levels,  including by the president”

  This is what Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi understood with the mentality of a military intelligence man, as a former head of the Military Intelligence Service in Egypt, by trying to exert maximum American and Israeli pressure on Cairo in order to enter into a confrontation with unsafe consequences to confront Iran, by giving “El-Sisi” his orders to form a “crisis committee”, to follow the situation on a weekly basis as soon as the Russian invasion of Ukraine begins, as well as current events. President El-Sisi also instructed the army to provide food commodities to citizens, after President Putin’s war against Ukraine caused the largest global food crisis, if we add to it those reprehensible American and Israeli attempts to force the Egyptian army to enter into direct military confrontations with Tehran. Perhaps this was one of the main reasons, from my analytical point of view and my reading of the general political and economic scene in Egypt, behind those tours that Egyptian President “El-Sisi” made in the Arab Gulf region, specifically those presidential tours to (Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar).

   Then, the Egyptian government, represented by the “Egyptian Council of Ministers”, issued an official report issued, based on directives and presidential orders from President El-Sisi to address the Egyptian people, in a framework of transparency to address in this report the most important issues related to the general economic situation in the Egyptian state during the year 2022. Specifically, and in the context of the official report issued by the Egyptian Council of Ministers, 17 main claims and allegations were answered, in terms of (the size of the external debt, the state’s general budget, the exchange rate, the state’s credit rating, as well as the feasibility of national projects, the terms of the Monetary Fund loan, and the rise in prices.  Crisis in the situation in banks), and other issues that occupied the Egyptian street during the last period.

 This brings us to the general political scene in Tel Aviv, and that successive Israeli pressure on the regimes of the Arab Gulf states for a possible and imminent attack on Iran, and perhaps that is the main reason for the use of an Israeli extreme right-wing government at the present time, which facilitated the Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu” to form an alliance that is the largest of its kind in the history of Tel Aviv is the far-right parties and the religious extremists, who are pushing for the inevitable confrontation with the Tehran regime to protect the interests of Tel Aviv.

 Where the Israeli hard-right, led by Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu”, raises many slogans in the direction of war against Iran, including: preserving the security of the region, assisting the Gulf countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel and others, such as the UAE and Bahrain, and indirect support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of  these multiple Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities, and the Iranian-backed Houthi militias targeting Saudi Aramco facilities in the Red Sea, which Iran denied, in addition to the “Netanyahu” government’s promotion in Israel towards war among most segments of Israeli society, under many and varied allegations, such as: stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and promoting that this has become one of Israel’s most important priorities in its foreign policy.

 In the event of a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, the turmoil emanating from Syria and the control of ISIS, which has swept the greater part of the region, will reach directly to the Egyptian border.  This particular development was raised by President El-Sisi in an official and popular public speech to him, emphasizing:

 “We do not need additional complications related to Iran and Hezbollah”, adding: “I am against war, as crises can be resolved through dialogue”

  This confirms the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s endeavor to avoid the region witnessing any tensions, especially between the Arab Gulf and Iran, or witnessing further escalation with the help of Washington and Tel Aviv. Egyptian President “Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi” left no doubts about his position, assuring that:

 “The Middle East does not need security in the Gulf, which constitutes a red line. We believe in Egypt that any threat to the Gulf states also affects our national security”, with President El-Sisi acknowledging in several official speeches to him, that:

“Security in the Gulf constitutes a red line, and we believe in Egypt that any threat to the Gulf states also affects our national security”

 Tel Aviv, along with Washington, has also become involved in promoting between the countries of the region and the Gulf, primarily about the feasibility of a military war against Iran, and exporting a file for Israel’s fear of Iran’s interference in countries close to its borders, with leaks that Tehran has supplied a group of ballistic missiles and precision ammunition to its proxies in “Hezbollah group” in Lebanon and in Syria as well. Therefore, Israel announces its fear of the nuclear agenda to produce nuclear weapons for Iran and the equipment that carries it as a threat to the security and safety of the entire region and the Gulf in particular as an ally of the Tel Aviv regime through normalization and peace agreements with it. Hence, the attempts of Israeli intelligence and its Mossad apparatus to strike a number of nuclear reactors in the Iranian city of Isfahan are attempts that the Israelis are promoting internally, regionally and internationally, as a “part of Israel’s attempts to strike Iranian capabilities and prevent them from supporting their proxy groups in the region”

 The fundamental question remains here, when talking about how all regional and international parties view the extent of support that China and Russia can provide to the Iranian regime in the event of war with Israel and the Gulf, with direct US-Western support?  The answer to this question will make us analyze the reasons for Washington’s efforts to curry favor with the political system in Egypt in the first place, through the visit of US Secretary of State “Anthony Blinken” to Cairo and then his departure to Tel Aviv as part of the American game of moves and probing the pulse of Egypt and the countries of the region.  Perhaps relying on Chinese and Russian support for Iran will be one of the strongest cards that the Iranians bet on, especially given the existence of vital and necessary Egyptian and Gulf interests with the Chinese and Russians in the first place. This is what China stated directly, that it is likely to continue buying Iranian oil after the conclusion of the second phase of sanctions against Tehran in November 2018.  “Mohsen Karimi”, as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Iran, confirmed in official statements published to him in the Persian media on Monday, January 30, 2023, that (Iran and Russia) have linked the communication and transfer systems of their banks to each other, to help promote commercial and financial transactions under the sway of  Tehran and Moscow to Western sanctions.

 This Russian financial and economic support for Iran has been mainly since the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran in 2018, after Washington withdrew from the nuclear agreement concluded between them in 2015, which was mainly between Tehran and the world powers, after which Iran was separated from the “Swift” financial network, as an International Bank Transfers, which is headquartered in Belgium. The similar restrictions have been imposed on a large number of Russian banks since Moscow’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022.  This is what was confirmed by “Mohsen Karimi”, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Iran, in a public challenge to Washington and the West with the help of China and Russia, by stressing that:

 “Iranian banks no longer need to use the Swift system for transfers and financial transactions with their Russian counterparts, which can all the parties may open letters of credit, transfers or joint guarantees between the two parties”

  This was confirmed by the Russian Central Bank, in agreement with the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, “Mohsen Karimi”, stressing that “about 700 Russian banks and 106 non-Russian banks from 13 different countries will be linked to a new credit and banking system.”  This is without going into details about the names of foreign banks that will accept such banking and financial trading away from the global financial system of “SWIFT” for financial and monetary trading, which is officially approved internationally.

 This is precisely understood from him, as the Chinese and Russians did not leave Iran alone in the midst of the danger or the wind of any imminent military war against them.  Perhaps, in this case, Russia will try to take revenge on Washington and Tel Aviv with generous military and economic support for Iran, especially in light of its facing sanctions by the United States of America and the European Union.

 This brings us to the political scene in Egypt in a more precise and objective manner, emphasizing the smooth and clear vision of the Egyptian approach in Cairo, and that Egypt actually does not share the concern of the Gulf countries about the West’s nuclear agreement with Iran, just as Egypt did not adopt the assessment expressed by the United States of America that Iran  It supports terrorism, in addition to the fact that Egypt plays a very conservative role in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, who are sympathetic to Iran.

  Hence, we conclude, based on our reading and analysis of the general scene, that this economic crisis in Egypt is fabricated by the Americans, Israelis, Westerners, and even the Gulf states, to push the Egyptian army, as the strongest armies in the region, to bear the cost and burden of the war, which is not fundamental to Egyptian interests on behalf of everyone.  precedent for Egypt, in addition to the withdrawal of a number of foreign investors, mainly, suddenly and at once, and at the same precise and sensitive time from the Egyptian financial market within the framework of “pressuring the Egyptian regime, in order to respond to the conditions of the International Monetary Fund, and those in charge of it politically and economically in the first place, who are Washington and its allies in the West,  As a part of a systematic campaign against Egypt and its army to bear the cost and burden of the war against Iran on behalf of Israel, the Gulf and everyone, and in favor of competition between Washington, Beijing and Moscow as allies of Iran in the Middle East.

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The Netanyahu’s return

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photo by Haim Zach, GPO source:.flickr /israelipm

A highly diverse company – Palestinians, Arab countries, retired military, the US, which has its own interests in the Middle East, and even the Israelis themselves, is opposing the most radical right-wing government in Israeli history.

General’s rebellion

The Israeli top brass is seriously concerned about what they see as a possible encroachment by the government of Binyamin Netanyahu into their area of responsibility by expanding the powers of a number of far-right ministers. The IDF believes this could adversely affect the armed forces and lead to chaos in strategic decision-making.

Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, resigning, told[1] Netanyahu that the situation in the army is intolerable – in fact, two ministers now head the Defense Ministry, and the military does not understand who to obey. The IDF leadership opposes the re-subordination of the civil administration and the Palestinian Territories Government Coordinator Office to the head of the Religious Zionism Party, Betsalel Smotrich, who claims to be an “additional” or “junior minister” in the Israel Ministry of Defense.

The army is also dissatisfied with the possible granting the right to command the Israel Border Police (Magav) to Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader of the Otzma Yehudit party and Minister of National Security. Such an innovation, according to the General Staff, not only disrupts the command chain, but also undermines the authority of the Central District generals.

Another feature by the far-right relats to the desire of the country’s Chief Rabbinate to grant itself the right to appoint the IDF rabbi, and this is supposedly dictated by the need to correct the “questionable moral situation within the army.” In a message to Netanyahu, General Kochavi urged the Prime Minister to first consult with professional military personnel before making a final decision. Netanyahu promised to look into it before making a decision.

The current military was supported[2] by some 1,197 retirees, including Dan Halutz, who served as Chief of Staff in 2005–2007, former commander of the Israeli Air Force Avihu Ben-Nun and former head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlin. In a letter to the Supreme Court, the Office of the State Attorney and other Israeli justice bodies, they asked to “stop the calamity that is engulfing the country”, referring to the far-right who won the elections.

A third intifada threat

But this is not the only and perhaps not the biggest problem caused by the return of the far-right to power. As we know, bloody clashes between the IDF and armed Palestinian militants have long been commonplace in the occupied Arab territories. But a third intifada is out of the question as long as Palestinian factions are divided. But that could all change if radical Israeli ministers deliberately provoke the Palestinians into action.

This is “outrageous” politicians especially true such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who forbid displaying the Palestinian flag in public places, or actually storm[3] the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which, we should remember, is Islam’s third most important holy place. As for Hamas, it has so far refrained from firing rockets at Israel, but this has not prevented it from organising Palestinian resistance. Therefore, the mobilisation of various Palestinian factions for the intifada cannot be ruled out, and this is a very dangerous moment.

According to the UN[4], last year was the deadliest since 2006, when more than 170 Palestinians were killed, including 30 children. By comparison, only 20 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Israel. The situation is standard: violence in response to violence. Besides, it is clear what can be expected if the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians under the new government has only got tougher.

Netanyahu’s allies claim that he is trying to avoid conflict as much as possible, but if events continue to unfold as they have recent weeks, it cannot be ruled out that the situation will get out of the Prime Minister’s control.

Judicial reform

Israeli indignation has also been sparked by the Netanyahu government’s intentions to encroach on the judiciary foundations. The plan of Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, a member of the right-wing Likud party, is to pass a law that would make it possible to set aside the Supreme Court decisions. Levin considers the present judicial system reform to be sound, for it would, in his view, give too many rights to judges and legal advisers, for whom no one voted.

The judiciary reform opponents, among them the former Minister of Justice, Gideon Sa’ar, believe that if the reform bill is passed by the Knesset, it will lead to a “regime change” in Israel: a partial democracy instead it will be an openly authoritarian government. Netanyahu’s enemies are certain that the new cabinet has deliberately opted for a judicial reform in order to protect the returning prime minister from prosecution.

As we know[5], power corruption and abuse several criminal cases were opened against Netanyahu even before his re-election.

Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid also criticized the judicial reforms, arguing [6]that “regime change” could lead to a civil war. Then the Ministry of Defense former head Benny Gantz, called[7] on Israelis to “march en masse and make the country tremble” – some ninety thousand people followed his call.

Political style

After Israel’s most right-wing government came to power, Washington has serious concerns about Tel Aviv’s plans to permanently annex the West Bank. The US administration is convinced that the legalisation of dozens of Israeli settlements in the occupied territory undermines hopes for an independent Palestinian state.

Recall: when Washington pushed the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan as well as the Saudis to normalise relations with Israel, it promised to give the Palestinians statehood in return. Now it turns out that Tel Aviv is not eager to facilitate the emergence of a Palestinian state, but will continue to try to expand ties with the Arabs — especially with the rich countries of the Persian Gulf.

However, these countries, too, are disappointed with the rise of right-wing politicians to power in Tel Aviv and openly declare that the normalisation of relations with Israel has been one-sided and extremely ugly. This is not what was expected when the Abraham Accords was signed. Perhaps this is why the Palestinians perceive the Agreement as a betrayal.

In any case, the hatred and contempt shown by the new Israeli government for the Palestinians is the reason why Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, refused to ratify the relations a law that will ban normalizing relations with Israel. Although until a couple of months ago, the Sultanate was considered next in line to sign Abraham Accords with Israel. The Israelis attribute this to a change in Oman’s political orientation in favour of Iran.

Between Kyiv and Moscow

After Netanyahu’s team won the elections, it was thought that Bibi would begin to mend relations with Moscow, which his predecessor Naftali Bennett had almost reduced to a plinth. Indeed, shortly after New Year’s Eve Foreign Minister Eli Cohen phoned[8] his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Their conversation was not made public and they do not say much about it in Moscow or Tel Aviv. Nevertheless, that telephone conversation very fact gave the reason for the foreign affairs Kyiv minister Dmitriy Kuleba to declare that Netanyahu’s cabinet was changing its foreign policy towards Russia.

Meanwhile, there has been no particular change, although Netanyahu did say after he was elected that Israel would limit its aid to Ukraine to humanitarian aid. In reality, mercenaries are still coming from Israel to Ukraine and Israeli specialists, together with Americans, are testing new weapons in the war zone, course, while they are in Ukrainian combat ranks.

It would not be a bad idea to deal with the Israeli “humanitarian aid”, which in addition to body armour and helmets, includes electronic anti-drone weapons and air-raid warning devices.

In short, what Netanyahu wants from Moscow is for the Kremlin not to react too painfully to Israeli strikes on Syria and the Iranian installations on its territory. However, such strikes may over time become more destructive and one day may even go nuclear.

This is not a silly joke. Tzachi Hanegbi spelt the head of the National Security Council this out Council, at the Chief of General Staff change ceremony (General Herzi Halevi was replacing Aviv Kochavi, who was retiring). He said that if everyone turns their backs on Israel and Israel is left alone, it will do everything to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, and therefore it will deal a crushing blow to its nuclear facilities.

Recall: Palestinians fire rockets into Israeli territory after an Israeli military operation. The Iron Dome went off. The Israeli army reports the interception of at least two rockets. The situation escalated after the Israelis carried out a surprise and swift operation in the West Bank. Backed by armoured vehicles, the military entered the town of Jenin and eliminated several members of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group.

Locals clashed with the Israelis but suffered casualties. Nine Arabs were killed and dozens wounded. The Palestinian Authority deemed the operation an illegal invasion of its territory and said it could no longer hold a political dialogue with Tel Aviv.

The Israeli Air Force struck Hamas training centres. Aircraft and drone strikes were carried out.

On Friday evening, Israeli police reported a terrorist attack on a synagogue in East Jerusalem. Local media reported that at least eight people were killed and 10 injured in the Neve Yaakov area. The police later specified that the victims were seven.

*It should be recalled that Israel has never officially announced that it has nuclear weapons.


[1] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230107-israel-kochavi-warns-of-two-heads-for-army/amp/

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/1000-ex-air-force-officers-ask-jurists-to-stop-new-government-from-razing-democracy/amp/

[3] https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/news/2023/1/3/in-provocation-israel-far-right-minister-enters-al-aqsa-compound

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/news/2023/1/26/why-israeli-raids-killed-many-palestinians-this-year-explainer

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/amp/gallery/2023/1/15/israelis-rally-against-netanyahu-government

[6] https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/lapid-says-judicial-reform-proposal-is-actually-extreme-regime-change/

[7] https://www.timesofisrael.com/gantz-urges-israelis-from-left-to-right-to-attend-anti-government-rallies-saturday/amp/

[8] https://www.timesofisrael.com/russias-lavrov-congratulates-new-israeli-fm-cohen-in-phone-call-that-may-anger-kyiv/amp/

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Middle East

Why and How the EU Should Take Command of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

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Gaza (file photo) UNOCHA/Samar Elouf

January has proved to be a bloody start to the year in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Israeli raid on January 26 in the West Bank left nine dead – the deadliest single day in more than a year – raising the January death toll to 30. A day later, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis and wounded three others outside a synagogue in Jerusalem. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has joined the clashes by launching rockets into Israeli territory. 

Meanwhile, the United States, seen as the international leader in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, called for the two sides to de-escalate the mounting tension. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has leveraged his pre-planned trip in the region to speak directly with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to prevent more bloodshed. Blinken’s visit with leaders might help ease the situation in the interim – but it is more akin to placing a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound. 

President Joe Biden has worked to highlight the American commitment to the two-state solution upon taking office in January 2021 and to distance himself from Donald Trump’s controversial approach to the region. But, besides reversing the diplomatic rhetoric, the Biden Administration has not veered far away Trump’s regional policies, nor has it made any groundbreaking advancements vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And it is not likely that Biden will seek to prop up negotiations any time soon, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently sits low on America’s foreign policy agenda.

However, the wound caused by the continuous cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine needs effective leadership to stitch it up and stop the bleeding. If the United States is no longer able or willing to serve as the bulwark of peace negotiations, it is time for a new leader to take the reins. One of America’s partners in the Quartet on the Middle East – the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and Russia – have the diplomatic history and power to help pave the road to new negotiations. 

Of the three, the EU is the most natural fit to replace the United States. The UN now finds itself unable to create any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, most often due to the United States vetoing any resolution it views as unfavorable to its ally Israel. Since it invaded Ukraine, Russia has become a pariah state in the international community and lacks the legitimacy to solve a dispute as high-profile as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Conversely, the EU has substantial diplomatic engagement with Israel and Palestine, has dedicated “considerable time and sources to address the conflict,” and has the necessary legitimacy to act as an international negotiator.

For the moment, the EU’s diplomatic corps is extensively focused on the outbreak of war on the continent, which could dilute its engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian theater. The war in Ukraine, however, should not distract diplomats from pursuing a resolution to what some argue is “one of the world’s most intractable and geopolitical conflicts.” For over two decades, analysts have consistently labeled Israel and Palestine as potential flashpoints for large-scale violence. The EU even communicated as recently as 2021 that the Union “should renew efforts to reach a settlement in the [Israeli-Palestinian] Peace Process.” While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be as geographically close to Europeans as the war in Ukraine, it should deserve equal weight in terms of diplomatic importance.

First and foremost, forging a peace plan will require the EU to balance its diplomatic capabilities to manage a solution for both the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Historically, the European community has successfully juggled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with other pressing subjects on its diplomatic agenda. During the Cold War, the European Community – the EU’s precursor – was busy grappling with how to handle relations with the Communist bloc. Still, the EC coordinated its efforts to release the 1971 Schumann Document, the 1977 London declaration, and the 1980 Venice Declaration. These documents and statements called for the Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, creating a Palestinian homeland, and establishing concrete parameters for solving regional disputes, respectively. While war raged on the European continent in the 1990s, the EU balanced its priorities effectively to seek a resolution to the Kosovo War while also working towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Berlin Declaration in March 1999. This EU declaration reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to recognizing Palestine as a state in due course.  

Second, the EU must establish deeper connections with civil society in Israel and Palestine. International legitimacy is necessary to solve disputes, but Israelis and Palestinians also need to have faith in who is leading the reconciliation effort. Israelis have, in recent years, viewed the EU with skepticism. Only 42 percent of Israelis in a 2021 EU poll stated they had a “positive view” of the organization. For Palestinians, there has been an increasing sense of feeling “abandoned” by Western governments in recent years. The EU does have an advantage in establishing closer ties with Palestinian society, as a reported 57 percent of respondents in another 2021 EU poll have a positive view of the Union. Direct engagement with civil society and increasing trust will help create fresh approaches to resolving the conflict and allow the EU to better understand the short- and long-term needs of individuals. 

Third, the EU must leverage regional partners to push for reconciliation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The 2007 split between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has become a considerable roadblock toward a two-state solution. Any path leading to Palestinian statehood must re-unite the Palestinian cause into one cohesive unit. Doing so will cross off a necessary pre-requisite to generate a new Israeli-Palestinian peace framework. Yet, the EU has listed Hamas as a terrorist organization and maintains a zero-contact policy with the entity. Working with regional actors, such as Egypt and Turkey, who have direct links to both Hamas and the PA, can help push the two parties to the negotiating table to work towards a political settlement.

These three steps are by no means revolutionary in the history of Middle East peace negotiations, but they are necessary given the current environment. By increasing the diplomatic importance of the crisis, creating deeper overtures into civil society, and leveraging partners to mend the Hamas-PA schism, the EU can help lay the preliminary foundations for a new peace plan. The vicious cycle of violence and status quo ceasefires between the two camps has gone on long enough. The time is now for the EU to flex its diplomatic muscles and be the capstone negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

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