On May 19, Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), declared an end to all agreements, including security agreements, with Israel and the United States. On May 22, Palestinian security forces withdrew from the East Jerusalem area.
The reason for this decision was Israel’s claims to annex about 30 per cent of the territories in the West Bank, also known as Judea and Samaria. This was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 10 during the presentation of his government to the Knesset. According to him, the time has come to apply Israeli law to these territories and “write another glorified chapter in the history of Zionism.”
It should be noted that the territories mentioned are the Palestinian territories in West Bank captured by Israel during the six-day war of 1967. The United Nations defines these territories as occupied. According to UN General Assembly Resolution No. 181, they are “the area of the proposed Arab State.”
Israel considers these territories disputed. In violation of the Geneva Conventions, banning to move the civilian population into the occupied territory, to date, Israel has created about 140 settlements in West Bank with approximately 500,000 people living there. From the point of view of international law, they are not part of Israel. Another 200,000 Israelis moved to the occupied East Jerusalem.
The vote on extending Israeli sovereignty to the occupied Palestinian territories may take place on July 1. In this effort, Israel is actively supported by the United States, as the annexation of territories in West Bank is part of the so-called “deal of the century” formally unveiled by Donald Trump on January 28, 2020. He is convinced that the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over territories in West Bank is fully consistent with his personal peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that annexing territories in West Bank is “ultimately Israel’s decision to make,” and the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the main supporter of Israeli settlements, is confident that Washington will recognize this move.
Netanyahu’s plan is not widely supported by the Israeli society. If the majority of Israeli Knesset members are ready to support it, a rather significant group of former senior military and special services officers are against it. For instance, 220 retired Israeli generals and admirals (including Gadi Shamni, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces; Tamir Pardo, former Director of the Mossad; and Ami Ayalon, former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service) made a collective statement, warning that the annexation would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, anger allies in the Gulf and undermine the Palestinian authorities collaborating with Israel on important security issues. The generals were supported by 149 prominent American-Jewish leaders and 11 members of the U.S. Congress.
Judging by opinion polls, a significant part of Israeli society is of the same opinion. Many Israeli human rights organizations, including such respectable ones as B’Tselem and Yesh Din, have spoken out against the proposed annexation.
Egypt, a major regional player and mediator between Israel and Hamas, is coordinating with Israel in its fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Sinai. The annexation of the West Bank can spark negative reactions from the Egyptian population, which will force President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to reconsider relations with Israel.
The situation with Jordan is more complicated, with a significant number of Palestinians living there. They will get involved if Israel begins to implement its plans. This will lead to even greater radicalization and will inevitably provoke mass protests. The Kingdom of Jordan, facing difficult economic problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, will be confronted with enormous challenges. Amman is well aware of this.
For many years, the Jordan-Israel border was the safest border for Tel Aviv. The situation may change after July 1, as warned of by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On May 15, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Abdullah II warned that if Israel really does move to change the borders, it would set off a massive conflict with Jordan.
It is unlikely that this time the Gulf monarchies, collaborating with Israel against Iran in recent years, won’t get involved (for example, Saudi Arabia, exchanging intelligence with Israeli intelligence services). They have known about Netanyahu’s plans for West Bank for a long time, now the public in these countries will probably have a negative reaction to the annexation and require actions from the authorities.
The United Nations and the European Union cautioned against the West Bank annexation. Their representatives, in particular, Nickolay Mladenov, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, warned that this would be a devastating blow to the two-State solution for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, would slam the door on fresh negotiations and threaten efforts to advance regional and international peace.
According to Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union, Brussels does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank. However, this is his personal opinion and not the official position of the EU. The Union does not have a single position on what needs to be done now. Some EU member states, such as Hungary and Austria, believe that this is not the right time for such statements. Ireland, Norway, and Luxembourg, on the contrary, believe that it is necessary to make a statement and take measures against Israel if it does not abandon its plans.
France and Germany expressed their disagreement with Netanyahu’s intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in West Bank. They called on the Israeli authorities to refrain from any unilateral measures that would lead to the annexation of all or part of the Palestinian territories. Given that Borrell’s statement is personal, and the demarches by Paris and Berlin are more like wasting breath, it is unlikely that the EU will move from words to some decisive action against Israel, like imposing sanctions. Moreover, the United States will not allow this.
Turkey, as expected, harshly criticized Netanyahu’s intentions. Ankara warned that the country would always stand by the brotherly Palestinian people.
The Church expressed its utmost concern. On May 7, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Holy Land Churches published a statement on Israeli unilateral annexation plans, “which would bring about the loss of any remaining hope for the success of the peace process.” Church leaders urged the Palestine Liberation Organization, which they called “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” to resolve all internal and factional conflicts so it could present a united front “dedicated to achieving peace and the building of a viable state that is founded upon pluralism and democratic values.” They also called on the UN, the United States, Russia, and the European Union to respond to annexation plans.
The League of Arab States is also making attempts to increase the efforts to oppose Netanyahu’s plans. The Arab League condemned Israel, saying that the implementation of plans to annex any part of the Palestinian territories would “represent a new war crime” against the Palestinians. In late April, in the Arab League Council online extraordinary meeting at the ministerial level, under the chairmanship of Egypt, a joint statement was made to support the Palestinians and Jordan, rejecting the Israeli unilateral moves.
An ambiguous position was taken by Canada. When the people of Crimea decided to join the Russian Federation following to the results of the referendum, official Ottawa was restless about the alleged Russian annexation and not only joined the economic and political sanctions of the West against Moscow and certain Russian politicians and entrepreneurs, but also sent its military instructors and started to provide material and technical support to the Ukrainian army. The country, thus, became directly involved in the civil war in Donbass. Now the Canadian government is abstaining from making public statements condemning Netanyahu’s intentions, let alone imposing practical sanctions.
There is little time left until the moment of truth on July 1. Much depends on how the international community and the Arab world behave. The complicit silence in the face of the situation, as was the case with Israel’s recent annexation of the Golan Heights, might bring about unexpected consequences for the entire Middle East. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki cautioned against the annexation, saying it would “end the two-state solution” and will “turn the battle from a political one to an endless religious war.”
Judging by the statement of Mahmoud Abbas, there is still hope. According to him, Palestinians are ready to return to the negotiating table with Israel, but with the mediation of a third party.
Some experts believe that under the prevailing conditions, the Middle East Quartet – the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union, could serve as a mediator. However, there are some factors that can obstruct such work.
The European Union is divided at this point. Its members should first decide what they want to achieve and develop an action strategy.
Prior to the U.S. presidential election, the current administration will not refuse the well-publicized “deal of the century.” It is part of the election campaign of Donald Trump, who is extremely interested in the lack of international consensus on measures to influence Israel. In addition, the American President probably takes into account the fact that the Arab world is now focused on internal problems and paralyzed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia emphasized its willingness, together with other participants of the Middle East Quartet, to encourage talks between Israel and Palestine and “to continue to facilitate the resumption of the peace process via direct dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians within a generally recognized international legal framework.” On May 22, by the initiative of the Palestinian side, Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, had a telephone conversation with Hussein al-Sheikh, Fatah Central Committee member, who informed Mr Bogdanov about the latest decisions by the Palestinian leadership regarding relations with Israel. Russia reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to supporting the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the establishment of an independent state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem, living peacefully and maintaining neighborly relations with Israel. The Special Presidential Representative of the Russian Federation pointed out that the proposal by Russia’s leadership to hold a face-to-face meeting between President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow without any preconditions remained on the table.
At the same time, If Palestine is ready for negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu might not be. In Israel, many of his political opponents believe that discussions around the annexation of part of the West Bank and COVID-19 are the only way for him to stay in politics and evade prosecution for corruption and breach of trust, at least for the next few months. And the Prime Minister is unlikely to refuse it.
From our partner RIAC
Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran
Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.
An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.
By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.
US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.
The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.
No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.
To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.
That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.
The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.
“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.
US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.
However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.
This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.
Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.
Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.
Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.
Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.
“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.
For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.
Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.
By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.
“It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.
Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.
Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.
Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.
Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.
Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC
Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month.
In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.
“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”.
Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.
The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process.
New Special Adviser
To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.
Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.
Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe.
“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council.
The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key.
“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.
On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.
Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.
Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.
While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli.
It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added.
Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes.
Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January.
To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.
At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities.
Human rights concerns
“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections.
“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.
Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses.
The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.
“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.
Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”.
“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured.
To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries.
She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.
Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward.
Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future
On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.
Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.
The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.
This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.
The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.
These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.
With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.
Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.
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