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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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

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Middle East

Why the West Want to Stop Iran Becoming a Nuclear Power?

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Iran is a regional powerhouse in the Middle East only rivals Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is centuries old in terms of sectarian differences of Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The thousand year of schism of Islam presents in the Middle East. Moreover, the Islamic Revolution made Iran a fundamentalist impulsive state hostile to the West and Sunni neighbors. Iran is trying to be a nuclear power since 2007 following the great powers and other nuclear states. Iran has always interpreted its nuclear ambition as only to acquire energy and always express against use it as weapon. But this is not true at all as it is going to acquire it to show power against the rival Saudi Arab, the West and USA. There are convictions that the Western Powers let India, Pakistan and Israel to be a nuclear power but they are now against Iran. But this is not the case as several Reasons are behind to stop Iran to be a nuclear power.

Firstly, if Iran becomes a nuclear power, it will simply emerge as the sole regional superpower in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the ally of the West will not be a match for Iran. The Middle Eastern ‘balance of power’ will not be maintained. This will lead to very severe repercussions and the chance of maintaining future ‘balance of power’ in the reason will be in disarray. As a result, Saudi Arabia will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Iran in the region. As Saudi Arabia has money, either it can acquire nuclear weapon by researching or to buy weapons or technology from Pakistan.

From 1990s, Pakistan is selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. As the economy of Pakistan is in great disarray, it might sell its nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia for billons of dollar. Turkey might try to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Saudi Arabia and the Egypt will want to acquire nuclear weapon to counter Turkey. It will start a sick competition in the Middle East to acquire the nuclear weapons which later may spread throughout the world. The efforts of Nuclear Proliferation will be null and void in a decade.

Another problem will arise if Iran becomes a nuclear power in terms of the failure of calculating nuclear deterrence. It is not unknown that USA acquired nuclear power first, then USSR acquired to counter or balance the power of USA, then it was the beginning of arms race. India acquired nuclear weapon to balance China in the region after the loss of 1962 war. Pakistan countered Indian nuclear power as it is unable to fight and win a war against a mighty power like India. Western powers primarily imposed sanctions on them but later withdrew. But if Iran acquired it, the nuclear deterrence or the calculation of nuclear war threats will be complicated. Who will counter who, who will attack who the probability or the calculation of the probability will be huge. There will be miscalculations and chances of total devastating war will be huge. Nuclear power Israel might attack Iran as preemptive action. In this indicating situation, Waltzs’ nuclear deterrence does not work.

Secondly, Iranian world view and ideology does not support the idea of Westphalia world order. The leaders of Iran and its revolution including Ayatollah Khomeini declared in 2013, they want to unite the believers (Muslim Ummah); they want to vanquish the dominance of the Western powers, USA and its allies. Iran is now influenced by Radical Islamist Syed Qutb according to Henry Kissinger, and working both with Shiite and Sunni Radical organization. According to Kissinger, Iran has connection to Al-Qaeda and Taliban as they armed them. Iranian leadership thinks that they are on a Holy War (Jihad) against the unbelievers and these ideas are making the nuclear program even threatening. If Iran has nuclear weapon, can be in the hands of terrorist organizations or the radical and impulsive leadership might be threat to the nearby states, US allies, Russia, China or Israel. Any impulsive leadership can use it to wipe out the unbelievers in fighting a Jihad. Even they can use the nuclear arms as bargaining chip with the West or neighboring countries as North Korea did.

Thirdly, Iran already has its own nuclear delivery system and missile technologies. This made Iran a more ready nuclear power than previous nuclear powers like India and Pakistan, have been. So the only way to inhibit the nuclear capability of Iran is to reduce its capability to enrich Uranium. Iran has thousands of Uranium centrifuges and they wanted to reduce capacity of the half of the centrifuge to only 5 percent Uranium. According to Iran they will not enrich Uranium to 20 percent. This 20 percent Uranium is not important as 5 percent Uranium as this 5 percent Uranium is the threshold from where in a few months Iran can produce weapon category Uranium which make Iran as more unreliable.

In 2015 Iran signed Joined Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a nuclear treaty with the five members of United Nations Security Council (P5) plus Germany which is called P5+1. As a result sanctions were withdrawn from Iran by the West. Ex-President Donald Trump declared withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and imposed the sections on Iran. Iran in 2019, Iran breached the limit set on the deal and IAEA confirmed it. After the Baghdad Airstrike killed Qasem Solaimani, Iran wanted to increase its nuclear capability. The good news is, in December 2020, America desired to rejoin the deal, and the new Biden administration is working on it.

Iran is a pivotal country in the Middle East. Anything Iran does may echo in the region. Middle East is already a complicated region with a lot of conflict and potential problematic issues. To sustain peace in the region including the balance of power, world powers are working on it. Time will tell how fruitful the initiatives are. The West must ensure that Iran respect and be a part of the Westphalia order which is a good start.

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Escalation of violence in Jerusalem

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Image source: protothema.gr

According to some analysts, a clause of the Emirates-Bahrain and Israel agreements opens the door to the prayers of Jews in the sacred place

On the afternoon of May 10, the Al-Qassem brigade in Gaza gave an ultimatum to the Israeli occupiers to leave the Al-Aqsa complex and release the prisoners. An hour later, missiles were fired from Gaza towards Jerusalem. An anti-tank missile was fired at an Israeli army jeep near the Gaza border. Subsequently, other volleys of missiles were fired by other resistance groups at targets near Gaza.

The Israeli military canceled the start of a large-scale maneuver it had planned to carry out over the next 30 days. That move was seen as a preparation for an all-out attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yesterday Hezbollah announced a general mobilization of its forces to deter a potential surprise attack. Israeli troops are now on alert for potential escalation within Israel and Gaza. After four elections, Israel still does not have a new government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is on trial for corruption. A broader war that can turn into a victory could help him avoid judgment and get votes in the next election. According to Jewish tradition, the ancient Jewish temple was located exactly where the Al-Aqsa mosque is now located. The Zionist movement aspires to rebuild the third temple, but in order to do so they must first remove the mosque.

According to an investigation by Terrestrial Jerusalem (TJ) an Israeli non-governmental organization, the claims contained in the normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel (known as the “Abraham Accords”) mark a “radical change in the status quo and have far-reaching and potentially explosive consequences ”. The violence that is taking place these days depends on those agreements.

According to the status quo established in 1967, only Muslims are allowed to pray on al-Haram al-Sharif [the Noble Shrine in Arabic, i.e. the Temple Mount], Temple Mount, according to the Jews, also known as the Al mosque complex Al-Aqsa. Non-Muslims can visit the site, but not pray. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed this status quo in a formal statement in 2015. However, a clause included in the recent agreements between Israel and the Gulf states indicates that this may no longer be the case. According to the joint statement between the US, Israel and the UAE issued on August 13, 2020, by US President Donald Trump: “As set forth in the Vision for Peace, all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshippers of all faiths”.

But Israel defines Al-Aqsa as a ‘mosque structure’, as in the statement, clarifies TJ’s report: “…according to Israel (and apparently to the United States), anything on the Mount that is not the structure of the mosque is defined as ‘one of Jerusalem’s other holy sites’, and open to prayer by all–including Jews”, says the statement.

Consequently, this choice of terminology is neither random nor a misstep, and cannot seen as anything but an intentional, albeit surreptitious attempt to leave the door wide open to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, thereby radically changing the status quo”.

The same statement was repeated in the agreement with Bahrain.Palestinians have long been concerned about possible attempts to partition the holy mosque, as happened with the Ibrahimi mosque [Tomb of the Patriarchs for Jews] in Hebron.

A Temple Movement has developed over the years, consisting largely of “far-right nationalist religious Jews seeking to change the status quo” reports TJ. Some ask for prayer for the Jews inside the sacred complex, while others aim to build the Third Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock which, according to Messianic prophecies, would announce the coming of the Messiah.

Over the years, the Israeli NGO Ir Amim has published numerous reports of this once marginal group, but which is now part of a dominant political and religious trend and enjoys close ties with the Israeli authorities.

These activists believe that allowing Jews to pray as a whole and divide the sacred site between Muslims and Jews is a step towards sovereignty, to one day achieve their ultimate goal, the construction of the temple.

A more brazen statement was included in the “deal of the century”, the plan for the Middle East unveiled in late January 2020 by Trump and Netanyahu in the White House.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, was the most prominent person working on the proposal, while Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, was credited with formulating the agreement.

The plan stipulates that “the status quo of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should remain unaffected”, but the next sentence also says that “people of all faiths can pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif”.

The clause caused controversy and prompted David Friedman, US Ambassador to Israel, to retrace his steps during his press meeting on January 28, 2020. “There is nothing in the plan that would impose any alteration of the status quo that is not subject to agreement of all the parties”, he said.

Friedman’s quick retraction of the sentence contained in Trump’s plan attests that Dermer probably inserted it and that Kushner did not understand it. The fact that it was Friedman who retracted and not the White House also means that the language of Trump’s plan is still official and decisive when it comes down to it.

The normalization agreements come after the Israeli authorities installed loudspeakers on the east and west sides of the Al-Aqsa complex without the permission of the Waqf (Islamic institution).

The sacred complex is administered by the Islamic Waqf based in Jordan. According to the status quo, Israel is only responsible for security outside the gates. In his report, TJ notes that the agreement does not mention the Waqf and its autonomous role.

Meanwhile, Israel has killed 20 Palestinians in Gaza and injured hundreds in Jerusalem as tensions in Al-Aqsa flare up.

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Middle East

Attack On Jerusalem – Where Is The International System?

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Since mid-20th century the conflict has been referred to as the ‘most intractable conflict’ in the world with the ongoing Israeli occupation. For more than about 54 years the international system has failed to settle this dispute and the two countries did not reach a peace agreement. In past, the Israeli Government had restricted the Palestinians and have been involved in many illicit activities violating human rights. Palestinians remain subject to Israeli military occupation and the recent attack on Masjid Al-Aqsa is strong evidence of this fact. Tensions in Jerusalem and West Bank accelerated during the Holy month of Ramadan including evictions of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem.  

The third holiest site for the Muslim community, Temple Mount also known as Masjid Al-Aqsa, located in the city of Jerusalem has been attacked by the Israel forces on the Holy night of Laylat al-Qadar and again after two days in the morning. The incident has been brought forward by the media in several ways calling it an attack conflict or clash. The Israeli police forces stormed hundreds of Palestinians during prayer time. The unrest resulted as cops entered the compound, creating an atmosphere of fear echoes of prayer together with the noise of stun grenades and fires. More than 200 Muslims offering prayer have been targeted and hit by rubber bullets and a score of attackers themselves were wounded. When the prayer zone was turned into a battlefield, the loudspeakers of the mosque called for peace and calm.

“Police must immediately stop firing stun grenades at worshippers, and the youth must calm down and be quiet!”

Violation of Human Rights pushed Palestine to demand a session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas “held (Israel) responsible for the dangerous developments and sinful attacks taking place in the holy city.” Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law have been violated many times and now the international community is no more silent about it. Whatever is happening in East Jerusalem its occupation,  has no legitimate claims. UNSC has asked Israel to withdraw many times and has passed a number of resolutions demanding this. The United Nations has asked Israel to cancel any forced evictions in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, warning that its activities could add up to “war crimes“. Moreover, Israel has no legal claim on the city but is still carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign in East Jerusalem. The most recent example includes the eviction of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah.

Once again many statements have been given by the international community condemning the actions not finding the solution to end this. Muslim countries united joining hands in hands with their Muslim brothers and sisters. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, UAE gave their stance against Israeli actions and made it crystal clear that such actions cannot be tolerated at any cost. Moreover, European Union (EU) and United States (US) also expressed their concerns about violence.

The atrocities of Israeli police forces have now met the definitions of apartheid and persecution as stated by the report of Human Rights Watch (HRW); “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” released in April. This includes the crime against humanity in the region of Ghaza Strip, West Bank, and Israel. This well-researched report however has very little impact on the bilateral relations between Palestine and Israel. It states that a system of systematic oppression and racial domination with a claim over land and demographics is what Israel intends to have. Israel’s foreign minister claimed it to be an ‘anti-Israel agenda’ being both false and preposterous.

Blockade of Ghaza strip and freedom movement limitations further poses a serious threat to the population during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it more vulnerable. The firing by Islamic Jihad and its counter-attack, airstrikes against Ghaza and Hisbullah, demolitions, forcible transfers, violation of international law, discrimination, and use of force are all factors that aided the current situation between the two countries. Lack of access to health care units, feeling of fear and terror everywhere, insecure atmosphere all poses a serious question; “Where does the international system stand?”

With each escalation, all that comes forward is another resolution by UNSC for Israel to withdraw, statements from various states condemning the situation, and wait for another incident. While considering the Israel-Palestine conflict one might comprehend this issue as a failure of the international system to maintain peace. Many predictions and solutions have been brought forward by analysts and researchers each with some evidence supporting their stance. However thinking about a solution and solving the problem in actual seem to be two opposite poles of a magnet, but definitely not attracting one another.

For negotiations and peace agreements, the two states need to share a common vision which seems to be very unlikely to happen. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories seems to end only by establishing a relationship between the two that involves a feeling of trust and security for other states. For this, the political arrangement should be right with adequate involvement of International Organizations such as the UN. Boarder modifications and acceptance for two-state solution tend to develop the ideal conditions for this relationship.

Thus reality points in a different direction and this raises a question to the international system. Where is the international law securing the lives and freedom of people in East Jerusalem? Where is the UN Charter providing education, health, and other facilities to the people of Gaza? Where are the efforts of great powers such US, China, Russia to safeguard and secure the local citizens and maintenance of peace? Where are the rights of citizens during occupation under Geneva Convention? Where is the role of International Organizations while considering this dispute? And last but not least where the answer to all these questions is.

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