It is often said in the Western mainstream media that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a disrupting role around the world, including in the Middle East. However, such accusations remind of an old Soviet joke that made its rounds in the late 1980s and could certainly be applicable to the United States and other Western countries. The joke begins with a man walking into a Soviet hospital and asking the desk nurse if he can see the eye-ear doctor. “There is no such doctor,” she tells him, “Perhaps you would like to see someone else?” “No,” he replies, “I need to see an eye-ear doctor.” “But there is no such doctor,” she replies. “We have doctors for eyes and doctors for ears, nose and throat (ENT), but no eye-ear doctor.” “No help,” he repeats. “I want to see the eye-ear doctor.” They go around like this for a few minutes before the nurse interjects and says, “Sir, there is no eye-ear doctor, but if there was one, why would you want to see one?” “Because,” he replies, “I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”
This is exactly the sentiment that seems to be gripping the international community. It is stated as fact that President Putin is attempting to destabilize the Middle East and Europe quite like he ‘orchestrated’ in the American Presidential Elections in 2016. Leaving aside the lack of evidence for the latter two cases, Middle Eastern countries do not feel that Russia is trying to destabilize the region. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Israeli-Russian relations have never been better: Russia’s “frenemy,” Saudi Arabia turns to Russia for regional issues more so than to the US; and Turkey has improved its relations with Russia since the Turkish army shot down the Russian jet in Syria. Russia is in close contact and on good terms with all the key players and countries in the Middle East, and playing broker or interlocutor when a crisis arises.
Russia has been actively involved in the region to preserve its interests, namely ensuring stability in a region where jihadi terrorism has run rampant. That was the main reason it intervened in Syria in 2015, as Salafi jihadi forces such as Da’esh, Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Qaeda in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham, and others were almost certainly on their way to occupying Damascus, which constitutes a red line for Moscow. In nearly three years, Russia has almost removed all of the Salafi jihadi terrorists from Syria and is now focused on finding a negotiated solution to the seven-year civil war. While it is working on a peace agreement in Sochi and Astana, Russia still sees Syria as the front line to its war on terror and is closely working with the Syrian Army to ensure it can fend off terrorists and any destabilizing efforts from any regional and external players. At the same time, Russia is constantly working with all the necessary partners to ensure stability there.
However, some prominent Russian figures including Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, and scholar Vitaly Naumkin have suggested that Russia can play a crucial role in resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the prospect for a solution to this conflict seems bleak, having a new player that can help is a positive sign. In fact, Russia has unique credentials to kick-start peace talks, since it is a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council and a member of the Middle East Quartet. In both international bodies, Washington has been mingling with far right-wing elements in Israel and stonewalling any potential peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians by vetoing key United Nations Security Council resolutions. A more reliable player who is active in the region, like Russia, would serve well as a broker to help the necessary parties come to an agreement.
More importantly, Russia can play a constructive role and be a dependable broker because it has close ties with all the necessary parties needed for any agreement. It is more of an honest broker than Washington for a variety of reasons. Chiefly among them, if for no other reason, is the fact that Russia can play a fair interlocutor given its presence in the region. If we look at Donald Trump’s ill-advised decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it not only reignited violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians but it also revealed that Washington had never been an honest broker in resolving the age-old conflict.
This is not the first time that Moscow had offered to be a broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Kremlin had offered to host the two parties in Moscow as a venue for discussions in 2016. However, all hopes were dashed when two Israeli professors decided to reveal that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was a KGB Agent in the 1980s while pursuing his doctorate degree. It was later revealed that the two Israeli professors had leaked this document to the Israeli press because they had their own agenda and did not want negotiations to bear fruit under the auspices of the Russians.
It takes two to tango: Do the two states want it?
Current Coalition Government
The current Israeli government’s perspective on a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis is nearly nonexistent. This is Israel’s most far-right government coalition since it first became a state in 1948. Since becoming Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has always found an excuse to not seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moreover, Netanyahu has laid down the conditions to an agreement that no Palestinian leader can agree to. For instance, in 2013, he outlined his so-called “vision” for a future Palestinian state. He stated that there would be no agreement unless the Palestinian leadership recognizes Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” This is an ill-conceived approach as Israel’s concern should be about creating a two-state solution (and future narrative) for its national security rather than ensuring that its future neighbouring state recognizes the complexion of its statehood. Does the United States have to recognize Canada as a multicultural country? Or does Canada have to recognize the United States as a Christian state? No. The United States recognizes Canada as a state and vice versa. What each state does internally is its own business.
Under Netanyahu’s leadership, he has always suggested that the Palestinians are divided and when they did unite he suggested that they are aligning with Hamas—a “terrorist” organization—and, thus, Israel cannot negotiate with the Palestinians. In reality, Hamas conducted terrorist activities in the past, but today they are very popular with Gazans, East Jerusalemites, and West Bankers. If elections were held today in the Palestinian Territories, Hamas most likely would win in all three cities. For the last nine years, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition governments have accused the Palestinian leadership of incitement. However, the blame should really be put on Netanyahu’s government for their incitement in the Occupied Territories (East Jerusalem and the West Bank), as it condones the daily activities of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the settlers’ mistreatment of the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis. As the country has shifted further to the extreme right in recent years, it will take much skill to convince Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his far right-wing coalition to come to the table and, eventually, agree on a final two-state solution with Israel’s neighbours. If anyone other than Netanyahu’s “Likud” Party in this coalition (namely Naftali Bennett’s “HaBayit HaYehudi” Party, any of the religious parties, or, to a certain extent, Avigdor Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” Party, or any of their offshoots) wins the next general election, which is scheduled for 2019, then it will be increasingly difficult to reach a two-state solution agreement.
There is still some hope because there are a few party leaders that want to seek a two-state solution. However, the two main opposition leaders—Avi Gabay (“Labor” Party) and Yair Lapid (“Yesh Atid” Party) — do not seem to indicate that they are genuine in seeking a two-state solution. Their statements about Jerusalem, and other issues for a future agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, are disheartening. Both Gabay of the “Labor” Party (a central partner in the “Zionist Union” Party with Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnuah” Party) and Lapid of the “Yesh Atid” Party have shifted to the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Whether this is a tactic to attract right-wing voters or it is their fundamental belief remains to be seen. However, their statements signal trouble for the two-state solution if either of them were to become Prime Minister.
That leaves Israel with “Meretz” Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and “the Joint List” Chairman Ayman Odeh. Zandberg leads the progressive “Meretz” Party into the next election with only 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). She has tried to inject new life in the party and suggested that if she were to lead a government, or take part in a coalition government, she would enter with all progressive parties on the Israeli left and would not rule out right-wing politician and current Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, the Chairman of “Yisrael Beiteinu,” is a pragmatic leader who might be the only politician on the Israeli right that will change his view if he sees the security of his country at risk. That leaves the progressive with some hope that he would play it nice with Zandberg, but his negative comments about Arabs, Palestinians, and a future peace agreement makes one wonder if his views will actually change when faced with any potential agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Zandberg’s comments, however, could simply be a tactic for trying to lure more voters to her party, especially those on the right of the spectrum. It is still disheartening to hear the new “Meretz” Chairwoman make that promise to voters despite Lieberman’s rhetoric, which puts him in opposition to a fair peace treaty. Also, “Meretz’s” silence on Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, like other political parties on the left, with the exception of the “Joint List,” is also demoralizing to those struggling to bring peace.
Ehud Barak is a factor because he has wanted to return to the political scene since he resigned from his post as Defense Minister in a previous Netanyahu administration. He has been quite critical of the current Prime Minister over his several corruption scandals and his lackluster interest in seeking dialogue with the Palestinians. A former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and a protégé of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Barak has always sought a peace agreement with Israel’s neighbours and the Palestinians in particular. This is encouraging news, as Israel needs safe borders to ensure its stability and address its two national security priorities: ensuring the Jewish complexity of the state and reducing the violence within its borders. While it would be advisable to maintain a two-state solution, Barak’s strategy to ensure Israel’s national security concerns might be met with stumbling blocks. First, it is unclear if Barak is a strong contender, as many Israelis still remember his attempt at a peace agreement with the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Second, it is unclear what he will do should he negotiate with the Palestinians. In his last attempt, he refused to divide Jerusalem, rejected to return land to the Palestinians along the 1967 borders, and declined to dismantle settlements in those Occupied Territories. If he were to repeat this strategy, negotiations will almost certainly fail. In any case, Barak’s last attempt was Israel’s closest at reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. It abruptly ended when violence broke out between Palestinians and Israelis on Temple Mount, when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon decided to pay a visit to the holy site for Jews and Muslims, thus giving start to the second intifada. In the following elections, Ehud Barak lost to Ariel Sharon ending all hopes for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
While most would dismiss Ayman Odeh, it would be a mistake to do so. The “Joint List” is the third largest political party (13 seats) in the current Knesset behind the “Zionist Union” (24 seats) and the “Likud” (30 seats). Along with being the Chairman of the “Joint List” Party, a coalition of several Arab parties in the Knesset, Odeh is the leader of the “Hadash” Party. The young and energetic leader has consistently said that he supports a two-state solution, has consistently advocated for the rights of minorities living in Israel, and has challenged the current government’s policy on settlement building in the Occupied Territories (the West Bank and East Jerusalem), in Gaza, and how it has conducted itself in bordering countries—namely in Syria and Lebanon. More importantly, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can play a productive role in a coalition government. As previously mentioned, Odeh has consistently stated that he wants a two-state solution—something that Israel should be seeking to ensure its national security. More specifically, in a future coalition, he can make the government treat minorities with respect and dignity—something past government coalitions have not done. A high ministerial position in the government for Odeh would be a first step in demonstrating that Israel is serious about integrating the 20% of its population that feels neglected and alienated by Israeli society. At the time of publication, both Gabay and Lapid have ruled out giving the “Joint List” Party a place in their coalition government, but we have yet to hear from the other candidates on the Israeli left. It is unknown what “Meretz” Leader Zandberg would do. In any case, if not as Prime Minister, Odeh and his “Joint List” Party can inject some new blood into a two-state solution and implement some progressive policies within Israel.
Fatah (Harakat al-Tahrir al-Watani al-Filastini)
Fatah is one of the main factions in the Palestinian National Authority (PA) and the second largest faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The Chairman of the faction, Mahmoud Abbas, is also the President of the PA. He succeeded the PA’s late President, and Fatah founding member, Yasser Arafat in a contested election. There are many problems with Fatah. Much has changed since it was founded in 1959. Swamped with graft and corruption, the “Old Guard” is still in control, but it is a movement that is deeply divided. The main tribulation for the “Young Guard” is the amount of corruption and the fact that it governs with a vertical approach, both within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. While the “Young Guard” is demonstrating its frustrations about the movement, it remains largely dominated by aging cadres from the pre-Oslo era of Palestinian politics—most of them gaining prominence through their patronage to the late Yasser Arafat.
Most notable from the “Young Guard” is the popular Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti. The jailed politician left Fatah in 2005 to form his own “al-Mustaqbal” Party, which was mainly composed of the youth of Fatah. His main complaint was the faction’s lack of vision and exorbitant corruption. This struck a chord with many in the Occupied Territories. However, his party never came to fruition, as Fatah decided to present a unified list to voters in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections—with Barghouti campaigning for Fatah from his jail cell. After the election, Barghouti remained popular within Fatah regardless of being in jail. PA President, Mahmoud Abbas is aging, in poor health, completely disconnected with the Palestinian people, and utterly alienated and demonized by the Israelis (with support from the United States). Any future mediator must look to the “Young Guard” within Fatah for a negotiating partner for a two-state solution—and Barghouti is one of those leaders to keep an eye on.
Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah)
Hamas is another faction within the PA, and the largest faction within the PLC. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Mahmoud Zahar, and several others founded it in 1987, right after the beginning of the first intifada. Its current Chief of the Political Bureau is Ismail Haniyeh. He succeeded Khaled Mashal, who held on to the position from 1996 until 2017. Originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was hostile to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)—the predecessor to the PA—and Israel. However, it has since revoked most of its hostile rhetoric to the PA and Israel. Furthermore, it has revamped its hostile charter, which recognizes Israel as a state along the 1967 borders—indicating the land that Israel obtained in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel took ownership of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
This is not to mean that Hamas does not face challenges. It is in a quagmire of its own, as it struggles to maintain legitimacy in the Gaza Strip, where it has governed since the brutal power struggle between them and Fatah following the 2005 Disengagement. There have been some small murmurs of discontent of their leadership as it tries to balance between resisting the occupation, avoiding another war, and governing its people. As the economic situation has deteriorated over the years (mainly but not solely due to the Israeli blockade), it has led to small divisions within the rank-and-file, but nothing noteworthy of any type of threat to their leadership in the Gaza Strip. For all intents and purposes, Hamas is a necessary partner in a future peace agreement as it is still popular with the majority of Palestinians.
Suggesting that Hamas is solely a terrorist organization is a mistake. There are some elements within the organization that still seek a hard line with Israel and want to have the entire state of Israel. However, this is not the official position of Hamas. This is the main argument that comes from the Israeli right and the naysayers to openly negotiating with Hamas. To those that feel that Hamas should never be trusted and dialogue with the organization is a non-starter: would it not be wiser to engage with an organization that has extremist views, such as they do, and integrate them into the mainstream in the hopes of marginalizing those that want to make Palestine a cause while strengthening those that want to make Palestine a nation? The only way to change Hamas’ behaviour for the better is to engage them in the process, rather than leave them as an outlier where their mischievous behaviour will certainly continue. Engaging Hamas is necessary because without Hamas, there is no peace agreement.
The current regional players: How do they see it?
The PA and Saudi Arabia have had a longstanding relationship. They both sit in the Arab League and the Islamic Cooperation Council. For the longest time, the two countries have been allies and the perception had been that the Saudis have always defended the Palestinians. As a charter member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia has supported Palestinian rights to sovereignty and called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories since 1967. However, in recent years, this all changed. With the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman having won the power struggle to succeed King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, the policy and relations with the Palestinians have significantly shifted.
With the Crown Prince in full control, he “offered” a “deal” to the Palestinians that was almost immediately rejected by PA President Abbas because it made many guarantees to the Israelis, but offered the Palestinians nothing. This should not come as a surprise because, in one of the region’s worst kept secrets, Saudi Arabia and Israel have improved their relations significantly. This is a foreign policy that Bin Salman has carried out since solidifying his power. One has to wonder if this is a wise decision for Israel because the young Defense Minister has been highly sectarian in his wars with Yemen and the standoff with Qatar. What is more, he deems Iran as a greater threat than Israel, which is the main reason for his policy shift. For a country that is very weak, he is trying to hold on to power with an iron fist. This will not bode well for the Sheikhdom—a country composed of regions that differ in nature, which were united into a single political entity only by blending the Ibn Saud dynasty with Wahhabism. If left unchecked, Bin Salman’s iron fist mentality, will most certainly disintegrate Saudi Arabia into its historic components, as happened in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and potentially could happen in Syria. Furthermore, Bin Salman’s belligerent behaviour may lead to resistance from the Saudi elites who he is attempting to purge. Also, there is a considerable Shi‘i minority in the eastern part of the Sheikhdom, which will probably pursue a military or political sponsor for itself in Iran.
This type of aggressive activity at home and abroad has the very real possibility of creating a confrontation with Iran. Thus, Saudi Arabia can no longer be trusted as a key player in any political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, if not for its weakness and bellicosity, then for its lack of support within the Palestinian leadership as it’s seen as a guarantor for the Israeli side. This does not mean engagement should be shelved. On the contrary, a mediator should be in contact with the Sheikhdom in order to avoid rogue elements within the regime to sabotage an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Iran has been labeled as a menacing force by many Western countries, namely the United States and Israel. The argument is that Iran is a state that is sponsoring terrorism in the region and abroad. This is grossly exaggerated. While it might be on the same level as Saudi Arabia in “sponsoring terrorism,” where is this criticism of Saudi Arabia? It has funded numerous organizations that are in line with its Wahhabist vision. We see this in Iraq, Libya, and Syria where Daesh (the Islamic State or IS for short), and other similar organizations, have wreaked havoc after American covert or overt operations created a vacuum allowing these Salafi jihadi organizations to run amuck. These same organizations are still threatening others in the region. The Arab New Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia might have started in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution was successful in overthrowing the Shah, but the extremist ideological feud predated it with the Saudi Sheikhdom’s unholy alliance with Wahhabism and the exportation of its revolution into other countries in the Middle East. All this while cozying up to Western powers long before Iran had begun to export its revolution. What needs to be done with Hamas is exactly what needs to be done with Iran, and for the same reason. However, a similar approach also needs to be taken with Saudi Arabia because it is a country that has been allowed to act without consequence. The onus for the instability in the region and international terrorism should be placed on the Sheikhdom just as much as (if not more than) the Iranians.
Regarding Iran’s influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is limited. They do fund the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed responsibility for some of the rockets launched into Israel. However, their influence and power are limited. But, if a mediator wants to marginalize the extremists within the organization, it would be wise to engage with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is what Fmr. US President Obama began in 2015 with his “Iran Nuclear Deal.” The withdrawal from the deal by the United States by current US President Donald Trump is disheartening for the simple reason that Iran has no incentive for cooperating with the international community and, more specifically, revoking its funding to Shi‘i organizations in the region, such as the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
In recent years, Turkey has taken a major shift from what it used to be in the 20th century. Under current President and former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country has taken on a more traditionalist identity. When first elected as Prime Minister in 2003, Erdoğan was elected because the society was changing. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were military coups happening more often than one would change their underwear. Those that had become wealthier now wanted to be able to practice their religion freely. Many people also felt disenfranchised for a variety of reasons. Whether it was for religious, economic, or social reasons, the people wanted a change from a strict, secular country guided by the military. It would be a misnomer to suggest that Turks wanted (and still do not want) to be an Islamic fundamentalist state. Rather, they wanted to be free to pray or practice their religion without feeling threatened (a more traditionalist state, if you will). The Turks do not want an Islamic fundamentalist state and their Presidential elections have consistently shown that as Erdoğan or his presidential allies have usually received a little over than fifty percent of the vote while always maintaining power in the Turkish parliament. The message the voters are sending is that it likes the government’s economic policies and it wants the traditionalist element in Turkish daily life but it does not want to have a fundamentalist version of Islam guide its country.
At the beginning, Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), were the perfect fit. This is exactly what the party promised in their first election campaign and it has, more or less, implemented these laws throughout their time in power. However, as time went on, many rifts emerged within the AKP that eventually cost it seats in parliamentary elections. In fact, it received a minority government for a brief period before a snap election was called where the AKP regained its majority. Over the years, Erdoğan had gradually become weaker while pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” crusade in the region. We saw this in Libya during its civil war, in Syria during its civil war, and in his tough words and actions regarding Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Erdoğan remains weak and we know he is weak given the failed coup attempt back in 2016 and the countless arrests he has made ever since.
Today, Turkey has resumed ties with Moscow after Ankara shot down a Russian plane over Syrian skies. This is good news if Russia seeks to mediate a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Turkish-Israeli relations are “luke-cold” at best. They have diplomatic relations with each other. However, Turkey consistently criticizes Israel’s every move and consistently tries to defend the Palestinians. It is in close contact with Hamas, a vital partner for any agreement, and ties have been improving with Fatah. Turkey has consistently invited Hamas to Ankara and has defended them on many occasions. Any mediator needs to include Turkey, given their strong ties to Hamas, because leaving the country on the sidelines might have undesirable consequences that will not be in the international community’s best interest.
Long before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s failed blockade back in 2017, Qatar had been conducting a robust foreign policy. The tiny peninsular Arab country has sought ties with many different states within the region beyond its “base.” For instance, it has sought ties with Iran, which was at the heart of the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) led blockade. Since the Saudi-UAE led blockade, the Qataris also successfully reached out to improve diplomatic relations with Oman, Turkey, the United States, and Russia. Regarding the latter, in the waning years of the Soviet Union, Qatar established diplomatic relations and for three decades the two countries have had good diplomatic relations despite some minor tensions between them. In any case, economic ties between the two countries are strong and became even stronger after the failed Saudi-UAE blockade.
More importantly, Qatar is a crucial player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will play a critical role in its solution. For the longest time, Qatar has been an active supporter of Hamas. It housed Hamas’ former Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashal and has assisted the Palestinian organization financially. This has been another element in its robust foreign policy. For a small country, it is trying to gain clout in a region where countries are jockeying for a position of regional supremacy. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it very much has clout due to the fact that, like Turkey, it has very close ties to Hamas. Some might suggest that it has more pull than Ankara. In any case, like Turkey, it should not be left aside in a future peace agreement.
Two be or not two be: Can it be done?
The question remains: can this seven-decade-old conflict be resolved? The answer is yes, if there is the resolve. There are players in both camps that are willing to engage in resolving the conflict. It will be a tall order to accomplish, but all parties — both domestic and foreign — need to be on board and engaged. “Yisrael Beiteinu” Chairman and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman once said that there should be a regional agreement before a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He does have a point, but it is vital that the two sides come to an agreement first before a regional agreement is achieved for the very simple reason: it’s imperative Israel solve this issue for its own national security.
The United States and other Western countries have tried and failed to make the two sides come to an agreement. In the case of the former, it was never an honest broker in resolving the problem and usually took the side of the Israelis. Western players—namely, the European Union (EU) — never had the wherewithal and clout to resolve the conflict. With the exception of some breakthroughs, the Israelis and the Palestinians are far from coming to an agreement in which Israel will agree to give up the West Bank (in its entirety) along with East Jerusalem, and remove the blockade in the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that it still needs security guarantees that the latter will not lead to constant wars. However, if it doesn’t completely relinquish these areas, the one-state reality and the very real possibility of a civil war will be upon the Zionist entity sooner rather than later, which would surely spell the end of the Jewish identity of the country.
At the moment, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are keen on talking to one another—each accusing the other of incitement and blaming one another for the upsurge in violence. Where the United States and the EU have been unsuccessful, Russia has the potential of successfully bringing these two sides together. Why Russia? It has good ties with the Israelis and Palestinians as well as the key regional players that must sign off on the agreement. As much as it is in the Israelis’ national security interests to come to an agreement as soon as possible, so too is it an urgent national security issue for Russia. A civil war, which could explode in a region where extremism is rampant, is not only a threat to the Israelis, Palestinians, and the entire Middle East—but also to Russia and the entire international community.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russian-Jews left the Russian Federation, because under former President Boris Yeltsin, life was tough and Israel offered better opportunities. Today, Israel has a significant population of Russian-Jews as well as other Jewish people from other countries of the former Soviet Union. Since President Putin came to power, he has sought better relations with Israel. Over the years, there have been numerous state visits: many Israeli Prime Ministers visited Russia and President Putin and others have visited Israel on many occasions. Today, the two countries are cooperating very closely in Syria. Russia also has good ties with the Palestinians. This relationship predates the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union usually took the side of the Palestinians. Where Russia plays a unique role that others don’t is its presence and commitment to the region. It also has contacts with all the countries in the region and is, more or less, on good terms with them all. Russia genuinely wants to ensure stability in this region because of its fears that the extremism can spread to its backyard and, potentially, into its own country. It also has the experience and the relevant expertise to make the two-state solution a reality. More importantly, Russia has been in the region for centuries. So, trust and experience in a region full of skepticism can go a long way—and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no exception.
The Israelis and Palestinians have been in a stalemate for too long and something needs to change. The status quo is unsustainable, mainly for the Israelis but, to a certain extent, for the Palestinians as well. Both parties desperately need to return to the table if for no other reason than to ensure that their people live in peace, stability, and security. With the United States removing itself from the region over the last decade and a half coupled with the fact that it is a biased broker in this conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians should look to Russia if they want to resolve their age-old conflict. Russia seems to be a willing partner to broker a deal. Now, the warring parties must be ready to do the same rather than throw out useless accusations of incitement or “it is their fault, not mine.” For Israel, this is an existential moment, as the very identity of the country is at stake. If this opportunity is overlooked, Israel will only have itself to blame—and one would assume that the elite in Israel do not want that to happen to its people and to the Jewish diaspora who it claims to be protecting.
First published in our partner RIAC
Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?
For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.
Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.
Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.
Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.
The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.
In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.
With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.
By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.
China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.
Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.
To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.
Author’s note: first published in Firstpost
Ratcheting up tension: US designation of Revolutionary Guards risks escalation
The stakes in the Middle East couldn’t be higher.
Suspicion that the United States’ intent is to change the regime in Tehran rather than its officially stated goal of forcing Iran to curb its ballistic missile program and support for militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen was heightened with this week’s decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
It was the first time that the United States labelled a branch of a foreign government as a terrorist entity, particularly one that effects millions of Iranian citizens who get conscripted into the military and for whom the IRGC is an option.
“Today’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization demonstrates our commitment to maximize pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases using terrorism as tool of statecraft,” tweeted Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton..
The designation effectively blocks Mr. Trump’s potential successor from possibly returning to the 2015 international accord that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, complicates any diplomatic effort to resolve differences, and changes the rules of engagement in theatres like Syria where US and Iranian forces operate in close proximity to one another.
“Through this, some US allies are seeking to ensure a US-Iran war or to, at a minimum, trap them in a permanent state of enmity,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The designation was likely to embolden advocates in Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel of a more aggressive covert war against Iran that would seek to stoke unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities, including Baloch, Kurds and Iranians of Arab descent.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel were quick to applaud the US move. Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, on the eve of a hard-fought election, claimed credit for the suggestion to designate the IRGC. The official Saudi news agency asserted that the decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran.”
The risk of an accident or unplanned incident spiralling out of control and leading to military confrontation has also been heightened by Iran’s response, declaring the US military in the greater Middle East a terrorist entity.
The US move and the Iranian response potentially put US military personnel in the Gulf as well as elsewhere in the region in harm’s way.
The designation also ruled out potential tacit US-Iranian cooperation on the ground as occurred in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State and in Afghanistan. That cooperation inevitably involved the IRGC.
Beyond geopolitical and military risks, the designation increases economic pressure on Iran because the IRGC is not only an army but also a commercial conglomerate with vast interests in construction, engineering and manufacturing.
It remained however unclear to what degree the sanctions would affect the IRGC, which, already heavily sanctioned, does much of its business in cash and through front companies.
US policy, even before the IRGC designation, had already raised the spectre of a nuclear race in the Middle East. The designation increases the chances that Iran will walk away from the nuclear agreement.
Saudi Arabia has however already been putting in place the building blocks for its own nuclear program in anticipation of Iran abandoning the agreement and returning to its full-fledged, pre-2015 enrichment project.
The IRGC goes to the heart of the Iranian regime. It was formed to protect the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution at a time that Iran’s new rulers had reason to distrust the military of the toppled shah.
Some of the shah’s top military and security commanders discussed crushing the revolution at a dinner on new year’s eve 1978, some six weeks before the shah’s regime fell. It was the shah’s refusal to endorse their plan that foiled it. The shah feared that large-scale bloodshed would dim the chances of his exiled son ever returning to Iran as shah.
The IRGC has since developed into a key pillar of Iran’s defense strategy which seeks to counter perceived covert operations by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel by supporting proxies across the Middle East.
It is a strategy that has proven both effective and costly, Iran’s failure to address fears that the strategy is an effort to export its revolutions and topple the region’s conservative regimes, particularly in the Gulf, has raised the cost.
To be sure, the Iranian revolution constituted a serious threat to autocratic rulers. It was a popular revolt like those more than 30 years later in the Arab world. The Iranian revolt, however, toppled not only an icon of US power in the Middle East and a monarch, it also created an alternative form of Islamic governance that included a degree of popular sovereignty.
The revolution unleashed a vicious cycle that saw Gulf states fund the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s in which up to one million people died; Saudi Arabia wage a four-decade long US$100 billion campaign to globally propagate ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam; repeated attempts to stoke ethnic tensions among Iran’s disgruntled minorities, and Iranian counter measures including support for proxies across the Middle East and violent attacks against Americans, Israelis, Jews and regime opponents in various parts of the world.
“Given that the IRGC is already sanctioned by the US Treasury, this step is both gratuitous and provocative. It will also put countries such as Iraq and Lebanon in even more difficult situations as they have no alternative but to deal with the IRGC. It will strengthen calls by pro-Iran groups in Iraq to expel US troops,” said Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington’s Atlantic Council
Middle Eastern protests challenge debilitating Gulf counterrevolution
Much of the Middle East’s recent turmoil stems from internecine Middle Eastern rivalries spilling onto third country battlefields and Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led efforts to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts and pre-empt further uprisings.
This week’s successful toppling of ailing Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and months of anti-government demonstrations that have put Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir on the defensive suggest that the Saudi-UAE effort may be faltering.
So does the record of the past eight years. The counterrevolution’s one success, Egypt, has produced some of the harshest repression in the country’s history.
Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, tarnished the image of the two Gulf states, and provided opportunity to Iran to expand its network of regional proxies.
In a twist of irony, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, who justify the Yemen war by pointing to an invitation by the internationally recognized exile government of president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, support the rebel forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
Mr. Haftar’s forces are poised to march on Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations-recognized government of Libya, two weeks after the field marshal met with King Salman in Saudi Arabia. The fighting in Libya has turned into a proxy war between Gulf rivals with Qatar supporting the Islamist-dominated Tripoli government.
In Syria, rivals Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, who exasperated the country’s eight-year long devastating civil war by backing rival rebel forces, are back to square one: the man they wanted to remove from office, president Bashar al-Assad, has gained the upper hand with the support of Russia and Iran.
The protests in Algeria and Sudan suggest that the social, economic and political grievances that fuelled the 2011 protests continue to hover just below the surface in a swath of land that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf.
Like in 2011, protests in the Middle East are not isolated incidents but the most dramatic part of a more global wave prompted by a loss of public confidence in leaders and political systems that has sparked anti-government demonstrations in countries as far flung as Zimbabwe and Haiti.
The Algerian and Sudanese protests come on the back of a wave of smaller, political and socio- economic protests since 2011 that suggested that the Middle Eastern counterrevolution amounted to putting a lid on a pot that could boil over at any moment. Protests have erupted in recent years in a host of countries, including Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.
The protests also suggest the fragility of hopes of Middle Eastern autocrats that China’s model of successfully growing the economy, creating jobs and opportunity, and delivering public goods coupled with increased political control and suppression of rights would prove to be a sustainable model in their own backyard.
The fragility of the model is enhanced by the tendency of autocrats to overreach in ways that either distract from their core goals or pursue objectives like the creation of a ‘new man’ that ultimately have failed in countries like Turkey.
Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for the better part of two decades. Its success suggests that the effort to create a secular New Turk by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire almost a century ago, has stumbled.
Egyptian general-turned president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have taken control and civilisationalism to new extremes by seeking not only absolute political power but also the ability to shape culture and dictate personal behaviour.
Mr. Al-Sisi recently ordered his officials to dictate the themes and scripts of Egyptian soap operas, a popular regional staple, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. A military-linked production company has taken charge of some of Egypt’s biggest and most successful shows.
Film directors have been instructed to focus on shows that praise the military and law enforcement and demonize the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has been brutally targeted by Mr. Al-Sisi as well as the UAE that together with Saudi Arabia backed his 2013 military coup. The coup toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.
Mr. Xi’s hopes to promote ‘core socialist values’ such as patriotism, harmony and civility amounts to an effort to counter individualism, materialism and hedonism. The campaign involves blurring piercings and jewellery worn by male pop stars during performances on television and the Internet, obliging soccer players to wear long sleeves to cover their tattoos, and ensuring that women conference hosts raise their necklines and rappers restrict their lyrics to promotion of peace and harmony.
Saudi Arabia has argued that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul six months ago by rogue government operatives who are currently standing trial in a process that lacks transparency and has called into question the kingdom’s version of events.
The overreach suggests that Middle Eastern autocrats are unlikely to respond to the protests in Algeria and Sudan any differently than they did in 2011.
Analyst Giorgio Cafiero predicts that in the wake of Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation, Saudi Arabia is likely to support efforts to maintain control by what Algerians call Le Pouvoir (The Power) or the deep state, a cabal of military and security officials and business tycoons, The same is likely to be true for the UAE.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE alongside Egypt continue to back Mr. Al-Bashir although he is on the defensive after months of protests that have rocked the East African state.
Whether Algeria’s ancien regime backed by Gulf states is able to retain power may well be dependent on what conclusions protesters draw from the experience of the 2011 revolts.
Like the protesters than, Algerian demonstrators need to decide whether Mr. Bouteflika’s resignation is a sufficient enough success to justify surrender of their street power and return to a structured political process.
Indications are that the protesters have learnt their lesson.
“Algerians are very realistic. This is a beautiful victory, a tangible first step but they know that more has to be done. They are not satisfied entirely … they want all of them to be gone,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem.
“Algerians are calling for radical change, a change in leadership. They didn’t want Bouteflika, they don’t want Bouteflika’s family, or Bouteflika’s clan — and they don’t want the old guard to stay in power,” Ms. Ghanem added.
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