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.
Turkey and Iran find soft power more difficult than hard power
The times they are a changin’. Iranian leaders may not be Bob Dylan fans, but his words are likely to resonate as they contemplate their next steps in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan.
The same is true for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president’s shine as a fierce defender of Muslim causes, except for when there is an economic price tag attached as is the case of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims, has been dented by allegations of lax defences against money laundering and economic mismanagement.
The setbacks come at a time that Mr. Erdogan’s popularity is diving in opinion polls.
Turkey this weekend expelled the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden for calling for the release of philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala in line with a European Court of Human Rights decision.
Neither Turkey nor Iran can afford the setbacks that often are the result of hubris. Both have bigger geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic fish to fry and are competing with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama for religious soft power, if not leadership of the Muslim world.
That competition takes on added significance in a world in which Middle Eastern rivals seek to manage rather than resolve their differences by focusing on economics and trade and soft, rather than hard power and proxy battles.
In one recent incident Hidayat Nur Wahid, deputy speaker of the Indonesian parliament, opposed naming a street in Jakarta after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the general-turned-statemen who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mr. Wahid suggested that it would be more appropriate to commemorate Ottoman sultans Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificent or 14th-century Islamic scholar, Sufi mystic, and poet Jalaludin Rumi.
Mr. Wahid is a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a board member of the Saudi-run Muslim World League, one of the kingdom’s main promoters of religious soft power.
More importantly, Turkey’s integrity as a country that forcefully combats funding of political violence and money laundering has been called into question by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international watchdog, and a potential court case in the United States that could further tarnish Mr. Erdogan’s image.
A US appeals court ruled on Friday that state-owned Turkish lender Halkbank can be prosecuted over accusations it helped Iran evade American sanctions.
Prosecutors have accused Halkbank of converting oil revenue into gold and then cash to benefit Iranian interests and documenting fake food shipments to justify transfers of oil proceeds. They also said Halkbank helped Iran secretly transfer US$20 billion of restricted funds, with at least $1 billion laundered through the US financial system.
Halkbank has pleaded not guilty and argued that it is immune from prosecution under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because it was “synonymous” with Turkey, which has immunity under that law. The case has complicated US-Turkish relations, with Mr. Erdogan backing Halkbank’s innocence in a 2018 memo to then US President Donald Trump.
FATF placed Turkey on its grey list last week. It joins countries like Pakistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen that have failed to comply with the group’s standards. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned earlier this year that greylisting would affect a country’s ability to borrow on international markets, and cost it an equivalent of up to 3 per cent of gross domestic product as well as a drop in foreign direct investment.
Mr. Erdogan’s management of the economy has been troubled by the recent firing of three central bank policymakers, a bigger-than-expected interest rate cut that sent the Turkish lira tumbling, soaring prices, and an annual inflation rate that last month ran just shy of 20 per cent. Mr. Erdogan has regularly blamed high-interest rates for inflation.
A public opinion survey concluded in May that 56.9% of respondents would not vote for Mr. Erdogan and that the president would lose in a run-off against two of his rivals, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu.
In further bad news for the president, polling company Metropoll said its September survey showed that 69 per cent of respondents saw secularism as a necessity while 85.1 per cent objected to religion being used in election campaigning.
In Iran’s case, a combination of factors is changing the dynamics of Iran’s relations with some of its allied Arab militias, calling into question the domestic positioning of some of those militias, fueling concern in Tehran that its detractors are encircling it, and putting a dent in the way Iran would like to project itself.
A just-published report by the Combatting Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy West Point concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) faced “growing difficulties in controlling local militant cells. Hardline anti-US militias struggle with the contending needs to de-escalate US-Iran tensions, meet the demands of their base for anti-US operations, and simultaneously evolve non-kinetic political and social wings.”
Iranian de-escalation of tensions with the United States is a function of efforts to revive the defunct 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program and talks aimed at improving relations with Saudi Arabia even if they have yet to produce concrete results.
In addition, like in Lebanon, Iranian soft power in Iraq has been challenged by growing Iraqi public opposition to sectarianism and Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are at best only nominally controlled by the state.
Even worse, militias, including Hezbollah, the Arab world’s foremost Iranian-supported armed group, have been identified with corrupt elites in Lebanon and Iraq. Many in Lebanon oppose Hezbollah as part of an elite that has allowed the Lebanese state to collapse to protect its vested interests.
Hezbollah did little to counter those perceptions when the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, threatened Lebanese Christians after fighting erupted this month between the militia and the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite party, along the Green Line that separated Christian East and Muslim West Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war.
The two groups battled each other for hours as Hezbollah staged a demonstration to pressure the government to stymie an investigation into last year’s devastating explosion in the port of Beirut. Hezbollah fears that the inquiry could lay bare pursuit of the group’s interests at the expense of public safety.
“The biggest threat for the Christian presence in Lebanon is the Lebanese Forces party and its head,” Mr. Nasrallah warned, fuelling fears of a return to sectarian violence.
It’s a warning that puts a blot on Iran’s assertion that its Islam respects minority rights, witness the reserved seats in the country’s parliament for religious minorities. These include Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians.
Similarly, an alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite militias emerged as the biggest loser in this month’s Iraqi elections. The Fateh (Conquest) Alliance, previously the second-largest bloc in parliament, saw its number of seats drop from 48 to 17.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi brought forward the vote from 2022 to appease a youth-led protest movement that erupted two years ago against corruption, unemployment, crumbling public services, sectarianism, and Iranian influence in politics.
One bright light from Iran’s perspective is the fact that an attempt in September by activists in the United States to engineer support for Iraqi recognition of Israel backfired.
Iran last month targeted facilities in northern Iraq operated by Iranian opposition Kurdish groups. Teheran believes they are part of a tightening US-Israeli noose around the Islamic republic that involves proxies and covert operations on its Iraqi and Azerbaijani borders.
Efforts to reduce tension with Azerbaijan have failed. An end to a war of words that duelling military manoeuvres on both sides of the border proved short-lived. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, emboldened by Israeli and Turkish support in last year’s war against Armenia, appeared unwilling to dial down the rhetoric.
With a revival of the nuclear program in doubt, Iran fears that Azerbaijan could become a staging pad for US and Israeli covert operations. Those doubts were reinforced by calls for US backing of Azerbaijan by scholars in conservative Washington think tanks, including the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Eldar Mamedov, a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, warned that “the US government should resist calls from hawks to get embroiled in a conflict where it has no vital interest at stake, and much less on behalf of a regime that is so antithetical to US values and interests.”
He noted that Mr. Aliyev has forced major US NGOs to leave Azerbaijan, has trampled on human and political rights, and been anything but tolerant of the country’s Armenian heritage.
Process to draft Syria constitution begins this week
The process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin this week, the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday at a press conference in Geneva.
Mr. Pedersen was speaking following a meeting with the government and opposition co-chairs of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, who have agreed to start the process for constitutional reform.
The members of its so-called “small body”, tasked with preparing and drafting the Constitution, are in the Swiss city for their sixth round of talks in two years, which begin on Monday.
Their last meeting, held in January, ended without progress, and the UN envoy has been negotiating between the parties on a way forward.
“The two Co-Chairs now agree that we will not only prepare for constitutional reform, but we will prepare and start drafting for constitutional reform,” Mr. Pedersen told journalists.
“So, the new thing this week is that we will actually be starting a drafting process for constitutional reform in Syria.”
The UN continues to support efforts towards a Syrian-owned and led political solution to end more than a decade of war that has killed upwards of 350,000 people and left 13 million in need of humanitarian aid.
An important contribution
The Syrian Constitutional Committee was formed in 2019, comprising 150 men and women, with the Government, the opposition and civil society each nominating 50 people.
This larger group established the 45-member small body, which consists of 15 representatives from each of the three sectors.
For the first time ever, committee co-chairs Ahmad Kuzbari, the Syrian government representative, and Hadi al-Bahra, from the opposition side, met together with Mr. Pedersen on Sunday morning.
He described it as “a substantial and frank discussion on how we are to proceed with the constitutional reform and indeed in detail how we are planning for the week ahead of us.”
Mr. Pedersen told journalists that while the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process, “the committee in itself will not be able to solve the Syrian crisis, so we need to come together, with serious work, on the Constitutional Committee, but also address the other aspects of the Syrian crisis.”
North Africa: Is Algeria Weaponizing Airspace and Natural Gas?
In a series of shocking and unintelligible decisions, the Algerian Government closed its airspace to Moroccan military and civilian aircraft on September 22, 2021, banned French military planes from using its airspace on October 3rd, and decided not to renew the contract relative to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which goes through Morocco and has been up and running since 1996–a contract that comes to end on October 31.
In the case of Morocco, Algeria advanced ‘provocations and hostile’ actions as a reason to shut airspace and end the pipeline contract, a claim that has yet to be substantiated with evidence. Whereas in the case of France, Algeria got angry regarding visa restrictions and comments by French President Emmanuel Macron on the Algerian military grip on power and whether the North African country was a nation prior to French colonization in 1830.
Algeria has had continued tensions with Morocco for decades, over border issues and over the Western Sahara, a territory claimed by Morocco as part of its historical territorial unity, but contested by Algeria which supports an alleged liberation movement that desperately fights for independence since the 1970s.
With France, the relation is even more complex and plagued with memories of colonial exactions and liberation and post-colonial traumas, passions and injuries. France and Algeria have therefore developed, over the post-independence decades, a love-hate attitude that quite often mars otherwise strong economic and social relations.
Algeria has often reacted to the two countries’ alleged ‘misbehavior’ by closing borders –as is the case with Morocco since 1994—or calling its ambassadors for consultations, or even cutting diplomatic relations, as just happened in August when it cut ties with its western neighbor.
But it is the first-time Algeria resorts to the weaponization of energy and airspace. “Weaponization” is a term used in geostrategy to mean the use of goods and commodities, that are mainly destined for civilian use and are beneficial for international trade and the welfare of nations, for geostrategic, political and even military gains. As such “weaponization” is contrary to the spirit of free trade, open borders, and solidarity among nations, values that are at the core of common international action and positive globalization.
Some observers advance continued domestic political and social unrest in Algeria, whereby thousands of Algerians have been taking to the streets for years to demand regime-change and profound political and economic reforms. Instead of positively responding to the demands of Algerians, the government is probably looking for desperate ways to divert attention and cerate foreign enemies as sources of domestic woes. Morocco and France qualify perfectly for the role of national scapegoats.
It may be true also that in the case of Morocco, Algeria is getting nervous at its seeing its Western neighbor become a main trade and investment partner in Africa, a role it can levy to develop diplomatic clout regarding the Western Sahara issue. Algeria has been looking for ways to curb Morocco’s growing influence in Africa for years. A pro-Algerian German expert, by the name of Isabelle Werenfels, a senior fellow in the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, even recommended to the EU to put a halt to Morocco’s pace and economic clout so that Algeria could catch up. Weaponization may be a desperate attempt to hurt the Moroccan economy and curb its dynamism, especially in Africa.
The impact of Algeria’s weaponization of energy and airspace on the Moroccan economy is minimal and on French military presence in Mali is close to insignificant; however, it shows how far a country that has failed to administer the right reforms and to transfer power to democratically elected civilians can go.
In a region, that is beleaguered by threats and challenges of terrorism, organized crime, youth bulge, illegal migration and climate change, you would expect countries like Algeria, with its geographic extension and oil wealth, to be a beacon of peace and cooperation. Weaponization in international relations is inacceptable as it reminds us of an age when bullying and blackmail between nations, was the norm. The people of the two countries, which share the same history, language and ethnic fabric, will need natural gas and unrestricted travel to prosper and grow and overcome adversity; using energy and airspace as weapons is at odds with the dreams of millions of young people in Algeria and Morocco that aspire for a brighter future in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape. Please don’t shatter those dreams!
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