Someone once said that, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the mark of insanity.” I would posit that U.S. policy in the Middle East, specifically that relating to the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement falls squarely into that category. For the last forty plus years, try as it may, the policy of the U.S. has failed, and failed miserably, to produce the desired results. The policy of the U.S. towards this issue must change radically if positive results are expected in the near-term.
Anyone contemplating creating an alternative policy that might change the performance dynamic of the principle parties borders on hubris. The literature on this subject is literally overwhelming. It is difficult to conceive that new ideas and alternative thinking on the subject is even possible; after all, the experts have spoken. But in the growing shadow of failure, something different must be tried. Peace between Israel and Palestine is possible. There are two potential paths forward: one with its roots in the past; and the other with its trajectory dependent on a radical new policy that will act as a non-voluntary force function on both sides.
Path 1:President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate that they are the right men at the right time in history and can successfully negotiate a lasting peace agreement between Palestine and Israel. History is not in their favor. Both leaders in the past have exhibited heightened levels of nationalism which could cognitively bias their ability to put aside political differences and focus on legitimate compromise that could benefit both sides and create a lasting peace. Of the two, Abbas actually seems the more pliable.
Path 2:The implementation of a U.S.-sponsored, United Nations-implemented policy that essentially removes the Palestinians and the Israelis from the decision-making process. Such a policy has never been successfully attempted on the international level and will require significant support from the U.N. Security Council and the general membership. Given the current state of affairs in the Middle East and the contempt that much of the Arab community feels towards Israel, this might not be as tough a sell as it sounds. After fifty years of intransigence, the world is ready to see this problem solved and therefore might be willing to consider strategies never before considered.
Israel, in an attempt to stay solvent and secure, has been seriously brokering deals with its neighbors since at least 1967 following its success on the battlefield against a formidable Arab alliance that included Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Some of these deals were successful, including the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty signed at Camp David in 1978 and the Israeli- Jordanian peace Treaty signed in the Arava valley of Israel in 1994.Unfortunately, dozens of other deals simply fell into the dustbin of history. Interestingly enough, the successful ones were a byproduct of the interaction between powerful and aggressive leaders on both sides that had the right combination of leadership attributes and communication skills to pull it off, namely Sadat and Begin (1978) and Rabin and King Hussein (1994). Personal chemistry between the parties didn’t hurt and often helped to get through the rough spots; minimal trust between individuals was essential to create a joint vision of a peaceful future that both sides could live with. They might not love each other, but at least they were able to see the advantage of respecting each other for a greater objective.
Key issues on the table:
Though there is a plethora of reasons for these two Semitic cultures to hate each other, there are just as many reasons why a negotiated settlement would benefit both sides. Figure 2 lists just some of the more important issues that need to get hammered out before any settlement agreement is possible. Many of these issues have been on the negotiating table before with little progress. There are two “hot button” issues in particular that can and usually have blown out any possible deal: namely, the status of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Any final settlement will have to solve this particular conflictual Rubik’s cube.
Over the years, the negotiating teams from both sides were stacked with “big guns” like Begin, Rabin, Peres, and Barak from Israel and Arafat and Abbas from Palestine. Certain personality combinations seemed to work better than others and it was often the case that failure to close the deal was caused by external forces as when Rabin was assassinated in ’95. His death stopped the forward progress. The ’96 election of the ultra-right-wing Netanyahu ultimately lobotomized that potential deal. Discussions between the two sides dried up for at least the next four years. But once again, in the case of Rabin, we can observe the impact that a strong leader, willing to take on the established and entrenched policies of their own government bureaucracy, can have on the dynamics of supposedly entrenched conflict.
Critique of current policy options:
Since the days of the Carter Administration, the policy of the United States towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been one of engagement from a safe distance. The policy constructs of every President from Carter to Obama has had a central tendency to allow, if not to outright push, the two parties to seek a mutually beneficial solution, i.e. “work this out on your own and we’ll be there to help out with the paperwork and take the credit.” When attacks by terrorists in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv happened, as they often did, or additional Israeli settlements were built on the West Bank, as they often were, the U.S. would cajole the offending side to alter its behavior and return to the negotiating table. U.S. dollars were often spread around the table as enticement.
On May 19, 2011 Obama gave a Middle East policy speech in which he described a “new approach” to the age-old issues plaguing the region. This new policy trajectory would focus on “promoting democratic reform, economic development, and peace and security across the region” (Cordesman, 2011, 3). This policy lacks specificity, a method for execution, and a fundamental understanding of the key issues. It also ignores the history of the conflict and the complex nature of relations in the region. This is a pie-in-the-sky policy statement with no teeth: very much the same old platitudes that have defined U.S. policy for the last fifty years toward the conflict.
Trump has seemingly broken with the policies of the last five administrations. He does not embrace the two-state solution, but he does have his favorite team. “Since taking office, US President Donald Trump has shown unfailing support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, distancing himself from the two-state solution and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital” (AFP, 2018, 3). Mahmoud Abbas wasted little time in responding and “accused the United States of ‘deplorable and unacceptable measures’ that ‘deliberately undermined all peace efforts” (AFP, 2018, 5). As of this writing, Trump’s regional policies, like his credibility, is crumbling fast throughout the Middle East. “Trump’s apparent intention to abandon the two-state framework, explicitly or implicitly by failing to exert pressure on both parties to accept it, will greatly increase the probability of conflict among Israel, Iran, and the US” (Buonomo, 2017, 2). A byproduct of these actions could involve a serious uptick in the levels of violence directed at both the U.S. and Israel. Thus, Trump’s attempt at new and innovative policies are not helping the situation and may be exacerbating the regional raw feelings that have always been there. With a politically wounded Donald Trump and U.S. involvement possibly marginalized in the process, it becomes even more paramount to understand the nature, character, and psychology of the two key figures at the center of the storm, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu.
A Leadership Profile Model was constructed using qualitative information provided in open sources. Based on the narratives and appraisals offered in the literature, qualitative judgments were made on a scale of 1 to 5 concerning Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s leadership profile. Such a model provides a very high-level view into the characteristics and abilities of both leaders to successfully meet and carry through on a negotiated settlement. From this high-level view, a limited perspective can be formulated.
The most striking differences between Netanyahu and Abbas is in the psychological profile. Netanyahu is clearly more egocentric, does not work that well with others, is somewhat Machiavellian in his approach to politics, is not very transparent, does not easily trust others, can be very aggressive when pursuing a goal, and, in fact, uses others to achieve his goals and then takes the credit for it.At first glance, when comparing the two leaders, this is not a marriage made in heaven. Further psychological studies are required in order to truly assess whether these two men can overcome their obvious differences and work together for the common good.
New policy resolutions or proposals for consideration:
If the overall results of the psychological study above is supremely negative, then the aforementioned extraordinary policy must be executed by the United Nations and supported materially, financially, and operationally by the United States. Such a policy must, by definition, include the fifteen points outlined in Figure 4below. This policy is designed to be equitable: neither side is going to get exactly what it wants, but both sides are going to get exactly what each needs to be sovereign, safe, and free.
It is recognized up front that this policy is extraordinarily harsh and gives the two parties very little wiggle room. But these same parties have had almost fifty years to work out their differences and have essentially achieved nothing in all that time. Some countries are using the dispute for their own leverage and own strategic agendas. This temptation must be permanently removed. Continuing to trust Israel and Palestine to get this done on their own is problematic unless Netanyahu and Abbas can figure a way out of this morass and passed their own negative psychological leadership proclivities. Sticking to old pathways will not achieve this. The need for radical new pathways must be recognized.
Saudi Arabia and Iran cold war
After almost seven decades, the cold war has reached the middle east, turning into a religious war of words and diplomacy. As Winston Churchill says that “diplomacy is an art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they ask for the direction”. So, both the regional powers are trying to pursue a policy of subduing the adversary in a diplomatic manner. The root of the conflict lies in the 1979, Iranian revolution, which saw the toppling of the pro-western monarch shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced by the so-called supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. From a Yemini missile attack to the assassination of the supreme commander QassimSoleimani, the political, ideological and religious differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia are taking the path of confrontation. The perennial rivalry between the two dominant Shiite and Sunni power house ins an ideological and religious one rather than being geo strategic or geo political. Back to the time when Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussain against the united states of Americathe decline of Saddam and his authoritarian regime was made inevitable and with this, Iran and Saudi Arabia rosed as the powerful, strategic and dominant political forces in the middle east.it was from here that the quest for supremacy to be the prepotent and commanding political powercommenced. The tensions escalated or in other words almost tended to turn into scuffles when in 2016, the Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy as a demonstration of the killing of a Shia cleric. The diplomatic ties were broken and chaos and uncertainty prevailed.
This cold war also resembles the original one., because it is also fueled by a blend of ideological conviction and brute power politics but at the same time unlike the original cold war, the middle eastern cold war is multi-dimensional and is more likely to escalate .it is more volatile and thus more prone to transformation. This followed by several incidents with each trying to isolate the other in international relations. The Saudis and Iranians have been waging proxy wars for regional dominance for decades. Yemen and Syria are the two battlegrounds, fueling the Iran-Saudi tensions. Iran has been accused of providing military assistance to the rebel Houthis, which targets the Saudi territory. It is also accused of attacking the world naval ships in the strait of Hormoz, something Iran strongly denies. This rivalry has dragged the region into chaos and ignited Shia-Sunni conflict across the middle east. The violence in the middle east due to this perennial hostility has also dire consequences for the economy of the war-torn nations. In the midst of the global pandemic, when all the economic activities are at halt, the tensions between the two arch rivals will prove hazardous and will yield catastrophic results. The blockade of the shipping and navigation in the Gulf, attacks on international ships, and the rising concerns of the western powers regarding this issue has left Iran as an isolated country with only Russia supporting her.
A direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have dire consequences for the neighboringcountries. A direct military confrontation might not be a planned one, but it will be fueled due to the intervention of the other key partners, who seek to sought and serve their personal and national intrigues. Most importantly middle east cannot afford a conflict as it is a commercial hub for the world. The recent skirmishes in Iraq sparked fears of wider war when Iraq retaliated for killings of QassimSoleimani. If the US president had not extended an olive branch, the situation might have worsened. The OIC, which is a coalition of 57 Muslim countries has also failed in bringing measures to deescalate the growing tensions. The OIC, where the Saudi Arabia enjoys an authoritarian style of dominance has always tried to empower her own ideology while rising the catch cry of being a sacred country to all the Muslims. Taking in account, the high tensions and ideological and the quest for religious dominance, the international communities such as UN and neighboring countries should play a positiveand vital role in deescalating these tensions. Bilateral trade, communications between the two adversaries with a regional power playing the role of mediator and extending an olive branch to each other will yield better results and will prove fruitful in mitigating the conflict if not totally subverting it.
First Aid: How Russia and the West Can Help Syrians in Idlib
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Julien Barnes-Dacey*
The next international showdown on Syria is quickly coming into view. After ten years of conflict, Bashar al-Assad may have won the war, but much is left to be done to win the peace. This is nowhere more so than in the province of Idlib, which is home to nearly 3 million people who now live under the control of extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) with external Turkish protection and humanitarian assistance from the United Nations.
The question of humanitarian access into Idlib is now emerging as a central focus of new international politicking. In so doing, this small province could be pivotal to the future of the larger stalemate that has left the United States, Europe, and Russia locked in an unwinnable status quo.
Russia has said that it plans to veto an extension of cross-border UN aid delivered from Turkey, authorised under UN Security Council resolution 2533, which is up for renewal in July, potentially depriving the population of a vital lifeline amid desperate conditions. Moscow says that all aid should be channelled from Damascus via three new government-controlled crossing points to the northern province. Western governments, to say nothing of the local population, are sceptical, given the Syrian government’s hostility towards the province’s inhabitants. For its part, the UN says that cross-lines aid cannot compensate for a closure of cross-border access.
As ever, the two dominant players—the US and Russia—are talking past each other and are focused on countering each other’s moves—to their mutual failure. It is evident that US condemnation and pressure on Russia will not deliver the necessary aid, and also evident that Russia will not get its wish for the international recognition of the legitimacy of the Syrian government by vetoing cross-border access. While these will only be diplomatic failures for the US and Russia, it is the Syrian people who will, as ever, pay the highest price.
But a mutually beneficial solution to Idlib is still possible. Russia and the US, backed by European states, should agree to a new formula whereby Moscow greenlights a final one-year extension of cross-border aid in exchange for a Western agreement to increase aid flows via Damascus, including through Russia’s proposed cross-lines channels into Idlib. This would meet the interests of both sides, allowing immediate humanitarian needs to be met on the ground as desired by the West, while also paving the way for a transition towards the Damascus-centred international aid operation sought by Moscow.
This imperfect but practical compromise would mean more than a positive change in the humanitarian situation in Idlib. It would demonstrate the ability of Russian and Western actors to work together to reach specific agreements in Syria even if their respective approaches to the wider conflict differ significantly. This could serve to reactivate the UN Security Council mechanism, which has been paralysed and absent from the Syrian track for too long.
To be sure the Syrian government will also need to be incentivised to comply. Western governments will need to be willing to increase humanitarian and early recovery support to other parts of government-controlled Syria even as they channel aid to Idlib. With the country now experiencing a dramatic economic implosion, this could serve as a welcome reprieve to Damascus. It would also meet Western interests in not seeing a full state collapse and worsening humanitarian tragedy.
The underlying condition for this increased aid will need to be transparency and access to ensure that assistance is actually delivered to those in need. The West and Russia will need to work on implementing a viable monitoring mechanism for aid flows channelled via Damascus. This will give Moscow an opportunity to push the Syrian regime harder on matters of corruption and mismanagement.
For its part, the West will need to work with Moscow to exercise pressure on Ankara to use its military presence in Idlib to more comprehensively confront radical Islamists and ensure that aid flows do not empower HTS. A ‘deradicalisation’ of Idlib will need to take the form of a detailed roadmap, including that HTS comply with specific behaviour related to humanitarian deliveries.
Ultimately this proposal will not be wholly satisfactory to either Moscow or the West. The West will not like that it is only a one-year extension and will not like the shift towards Damascus. Russia will not like that it is an extension at all. But for all sides the benefits should outweigh the downsides.
Russia will know that Western actors will respond to failure by unilaterally channelling non-UN legitimised aid into the country via Turkey. Russia will lose the opportunity to slowly move Idlib back into Damascus’s orbit and the country’s de facto partition will be entrenched. This outcome is also likely to lead to increased instability as aid flows decrease, with subsequent tensions between Moscow’s allies, Damascus and Ankara.
The West will need to acknowledge that this approach offers the best way of delivering ongoing aid into Idlib and securing greater transparency on wider support across Syria. The alternative—bilateral cross-border support—will not sufficiently meet needs on the ground, will place even greater responsibility on Turkey, and will increase the prospect of Western confrontation with Russia and the Syrian regime.
Importantly, this proposal could also create space for wider political talks on Idlib’s fate. It could lead to a renewed track between Russia, the US, Turkey and Europeans to address the province’s fate in a way that accounts for Syria’s territorial integrity and state sovereignty on the one hand and the needs and security of the local population on the other hand. After ten years of devastating conflict, a humanitarian compromise in Idlib will not represent a huge victory. But a limited agreement could still go a long way to positively changing the momentum in Syria and opening up a pathway for much-needed international cooperation.
* Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
From our partner RIAC
Iran’s Impunity Will Grow if Evidence of Past Crimes is Fully Destroyed
No reasonable person would deny the importance of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But that issue must not be allowed to continue overshadowing Iran’s responsibility for terrorism and systematic human rights violations. These matters represent a much more imminent threat to human life, as well as longstanding denials of justice for those who have suffered from the Iranian regime’s actions in the past.
The Iranian people have risen multiple times in recent years to call for democratic change. In 2017, major uprisings broke out against the regime’s disastrous policies. Although the ruling clerics suppressed those protests, public unrest soon resumed in November 2019. That uprising was even broader in scope and intensity. The regime responded by opening fire on crowds, murdering at least 1,500. Amnesty International has reported on the torture that is still being meted out to participants in the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and human rights organizations have continued to repeat longstanding calls for increased attention to some of the worst crimes perpetrated by the regime in previous years.
Last year, Amnesty International praised a “momentous breakthrough” when seven UN human rights experts demanded an end to the ongoing cover-up of a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.
The killings were ordered by the regime’s previous supreme leader Khomeini, who declared that opponents of the theocracy were “enemies of God” and thus subject to summary executions. In response, prisons throughout Iran convened “death commissions” that were tasked with interrogating political prisoners over their views. Those who rejected the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were hanged, often in groups, and their bodies were dumped mostly in mass graves, the locations of which were held secret.
In the end, at least 30,000 political prisoners were massacred. The regime has been trying hard to erase the record of its crimes, including the mass graves. Its cover-up has unfortunately been enabled to some degree by the persistent lack of a coordinated international response to the situation – a failure that was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter.
The letter noted that although the systematic executions had been referenced in a 1988 UN resolution on Iran’s human rights record, none of the relevant entities within that international body followed up on the case, and the massacre went unpunished and underreported.
For nearly three decades, the regime enforced silence regarding any public discussion of the killings, before this was challenged in 2016 by the leak of an audio recording that featured contemporary officials discussing the 1988 massacre. Regime officials, like then-Minister of Justice Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media that they were proud of committing the killings.
Today, the main victims of that massacre, the principal opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), are still targets of terrorist plots on Western soil, instigated by the Iranian regime. The most significant of these in recent years was the plot to bomb a gathering organized near Paris in 2018 by the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The Free Iran rally was attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political dignitaries, and if the attack had not been prevented by law enforcement, it would have no doubt been among the worst terrorist attacks in recent European history.
The mastermind of that attack was a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi. He was convicted in a Belgian court alongside three co-conspirators in February. But serious critics of the Iranian regime have insisted that accountability must not stop here.
If Tehran believes it has gotten away with the 1988 massacre, one of the worst crimes against humanity from the late 20th century, it can also get away with threatening the West and killing protesters by the hundreds. The ongoing destruction of mass graves demonstrates the regime’s understanding that it has not truly gotten away with the massacre as long as evidence remains to be exposed.
The evidence of mass graves has been tentatively identified in at least 36 different cities, but a number of those sites have since been covered by pavement and large structures. There are also signs that this development has accelerated in recent years as awareness of the massacre has gradually expanded. Unfortunately, the destruction currently threatens to outpace the campaign for accountability, and it is up to the United Nations and its leading member states to accelerate that campaign and halt the regime’s destruction of evidence.
If this does not happen and the 1988 massacre is consigned to history before anyone has been brought to justice, it will be difficult to compel Tehran into taking its critics seriously about anything, be it more recent human rights violations, ongoing terrorist threats, or even the nuclear program that authorities have been advancing in spite of the Western conciliation that underlay 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
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