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The War in Libya. Russia’s Time is Approaching

Ivan Bocharov

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On June 15, 2020, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu stated there are no disagreements between Russia and Turkey on the fundamental principles of the Libyan settlement. Moscow and Ankara are continuing negotiations at the technical level to develop a mechanism for establishing a ceasefire and start the process of political settlement of the Libyan conflict.

Who is Fighting in Libya?

In Libya over the past few years, two opposing authorities have existed in parallel, one of them is the Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli and led by Faiz Saraj. In the east, in the Tobruk, there is the Libyan House of Representatives, controlled by the commander in chief of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar. Since April 2019, the troops of H. Haftar besieged the Libyan capital. In November 2019, the Republic of Turkey and the government of F. Saraj signed a memorandum of understanding, which included the intensification of political and military-technical cooperation.

As a result of Turkish interference, the GNA forces managed to achieve significant military successes and go on the counterattack. The army of F. Saraj was able to lift the siege of Tripoli, which lasted 14 months and push the LNA from the Libyan capital. In April, the GNA troops established control over the coast in western Libya from Misrata to the border with Tunisia. Soon, the army of H. Haftar was forced to leave the capital airport, and Tarhuna, as well as al-Watiya airbase. Against the backdrop of the success of the government of F. Saraj, some Libyan Tuareg militias in southern Libya have expressed their support for Tripoli’s actions.

As a result of the GNA troops’ counterattack, the LNA supply system was violated, several key settlements of western Libya were captured, and the morale of H. Haftar was undermined. Now the fighting between the LNA and the army of F. Saraj is taking place on the approaches to the coastal Mediterranean city of Sirte, an important strategic point that is under the control of the LNA. The city is located on the way to oil fields in the east of the country, which are held by the army of H. Haftar, and if Sirte is taken from the GNA and their Turkish allies, the road is open for them.

What Role Does Turkey Play in the Libyan Conflict?

The situation at the front was changed thanks to large-scale intervention in the conflict by Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t hide that the victories over the troops of H. Haftar have achieved thanks to the Turkish soldiers and that the Turkish troops present in Libya are going along with the GNA to achieve common goals.

Ankara and Tripoli’s political and military-technical cooperation intensified after the signing of a memorandum of understanding in November 2019. The agreement between the GNA and Turkey defined the boundaries of Turkey’s exclusive economic zone in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, where there are large deposits of natural gas. Besides, the agreement implied the intensification of military cooperation. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the agreement between Ankara and Tripoli on security cooperation is an attempt to legalize military support that violates the arms embargo. The EU, Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus condemned the signing of a memorandum that violates international law, and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean claim gas production in this part of the sea. By contrast, Tripoli recognizes Turkey’s right to extract natural resources in the designated exclusive economic zone in exchange for support in the Libyan conflict. Indeed, Turkey has interests in Libya. Ankara declares that it intends to win contracts for the restoration of Libya, and in the future, it will participate in the production of Libyan oil.

Just a few days after the Berlin Conference on Libya in January 2020, the participants agreed to comply with the arms embargo on Libya, Turkey sent tanks, anti-aircraft guns Korkut, self-propelled howitzers T-155, cannons GDF, combat vehicles ACV-15 and jeeps with anti-tank guns to help Tripoli. The media report that the Republic of Turkey is also transporting Syrian militants to Libya, who are fighting on the side of the GNA.

It is known that Turkey plans to open two military bases in Libya. Ankara is planning to deploy air defense systems and drones at the recently captured al-Watiya airbase. Also, Turkish troops will be stationed at a military base near Misrata. Turkey has in Libya not only economic interests but also military-political ones. Firstly, the deployment of troops of the Republic of Turkey at Libyan bases will allow Ankara to make more influence on the political course of located in Tripoli government. Secondly, Turkey will create an additional factor holding back the hypothetical offensive of the army of H. Haftar. It is unlikely that the LNA leadership will be able to fight with the Republic of Turkey’s regular units. Thirdly, Turkey will deploy troops in a country neighboring Egypt, one of Ankara’s key foreign policy opponents.

How is Egypt Responding to Intensified Hostilities in Libya?

The offensive of the pro-Turkish GNA forces and Turkey excited the Egyptian military and political circles, who perceived the defeat of the LNA and the advance of the Tripoli army deep into the country as a threat to Egyptians national security. Egyptian Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal said that Egypt will not allow pro-Turkish terrorists to control Libya. Besides, he also accused Turkey of wanting to colonize parts of the Arab world.

Egypt deployed part of the troops on the Egyptian-Libyan border. The media reported that the border with Libya was crossed by Abrams tanks and Mi-24 combat helicopters. It is also worth remembering that in the province Matruh, near the border with Libya, there is a large Egyptian military base named after the first president of Egypt, Mohammed Nagib. On its territory there are more than a thousand structures, about 20 thousand soldiers, hundreds of tanks, helicopters, boats, and air defense systems can be deployed here. The base is located close to the border with Libya, which, if necessary, allows Egypt to respond quickly to threats from a neighboring country.

Why Did Turkey and the Government of the National Accord not Accept the Cairo Declaration?

June 6, 2020, a conference was held in Cairo, during which the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt (ARE) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came up with an initiative to overcome the Libyan crisis, the Cairo Declaration. The initiative provided for a complete ceasefire in Libya from June 8, the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of the country, and the dissolution of all armed groups except for the LNA, which should ensure security in Libya. The proposals included the conditions for a political settlement of the conflict, in particular, the unification of Libyan political institutions and the creation of a presidential council with representatives of all three regions. It was planned that one of the three representatives would become president, and the other two persons would become his deputies. Egypt also called for continued talks in Geneva on the Libyan joint military commission in the 5+5 format.

The conference was attended by Egyptian President A.F. al-Sisi, Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aquila Saleh, the meeting was also attended by representatives of the United States, Russia, France, and Italy. Russia, France, Germany, Great Britain, Cyprus, South Africa, the League of Arab States and its members (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Kuwait) have expressed support for the Cairo Declaration. The EU supported the initiative, drawing attention to the fact that nothing can replace the comprehensive world, an agreement on which was reached during the Berlin Conference. Cairo’s efforts have also been welcomed in the United States.

At the same time, there were no representatives of the GNA and the Turkish Republic at the Cairo conference. The terms of a political settlement proposed by the Egyptian president were not discussed with key participants in the conflict. Naturally, Ankara and Tripoli refused to accept the Cairo Declaration and hostilities continued. GNA troops continued the bombing of the city of Sirte: the last large settlement belonging to the western part of Libya and controlled by H. Haftar.

Even though Ankara and Tripoli did not participate in the discussion of the Cairo Declaration, the GNA is ready to take part in peace talks. At the same time, it is emphasized that negotiations are possible only after the troops of F. Saraj can capture Sirte and the military base Jufra. At the same time, the GNA announced that H. Haftar is a war criminal and that he cannot participate in any negotiations on the post-war structure of Libya, and the Minister of the Interior of the F. Saraj Government announced that Libya will not be able to end the war until it’s East is liberated from H. Haftar.

The GNA is ready to continue the attack on the position of the LNA. Turkish troops can play an important role in that, considering that Ankara doesn’t hide the presence of its troops in Libya. The escalation of hostilities in Libya is taking place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus didn’t become a deterrent to hostilities. On the contrary, the warring parties decided to take advantage of the involvement of the rest of the world in the fight against the epidemic. H. Haftar declared himself the sole Libyan ruler, and the GNA went on the offensive. Missile attacks on Libyan cities lead to interruptions in the supply of water and electricity, which impedes the fight against the virus. Solving the problems caused by the epidemic seems less important to the top military-political circles of the warring parties than a war with each other. All this can contribute to the spread of coronavirus infection.

Egypt and Turkey, perhaps the main players on the Libyan chessboard, are not interested in further escalating the conflict. In July 2020, Ethiopia plans to begin filling the reservoir of the Hidase hydropower plant, regardless of whether Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa manage to reach a compromise on the distribution of water resources of the Nile River. A potential blow to the irrigation system of Egypt is a threat no less significant than the civil war in Libya, so the Egyptian leadership will probably try to avoid the aggravation of the situation on several “fronts” at once. The Egyptian leadership has concerns that it is being dragged into the grueling Libyan war. Given the fact that the army of the Arab Republic has trouble in the fight against terrorists on the Sinai Peninsula, participation in a full-fledged military campaign may make Egypt boggle for a long time in Libya. Also, the Egyptian intervention would be negatively perceived by the world community, and this could lead to the introduction of economic sanctions against Egypt and hit the already fragile economy.

Turkey has announced the launch of the Claw-Eagle Operation. During it, the Turkish Air Force attacked the facilities of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which are located in northern Iraq. Another issue Turkey is forced to monitor is the actions of the Syrian Arab Republic army, which is fighting against terrorist groups in Idlib. The intensification of hostilities in Libya is also taking place against the backdrop of worsening relations between Turkey and Greece. This does not allow Ankara to be involved in the processes taking place in Libya as it would like.

H. Haftar will not give up without a fight. The LNA is going to restructure the main operational headquarters of the command for more effective interaction on the battlefield. Reinforcements are drawn to Sirt. However, in connection with the events of recent weeks, it has become more apparent that a military way to resolve the Libyan conflict is hardly possible. Egypt will not allow the complete defeat of the LNA, and Turkey will not allow the defeat of the GNA forces.

Understanding this forces the warring parties to discuss measures that can stop the bloodshed. The delegations of the GNA and LNA took part in the third round of talks on Libya in the format of a meeting of the joint military talks 5 + 5, during which the parties discussed a draft ceasefire agreement. Although the ceasefire was repeatedly broken, both H. Haftar and F. Saraj alternately refused to sign the ceasefire agreement, now there is a real possibility of a compromise. Turkey and the GNA are ready for negotiations, but they want to strengthen their position before them.

It is worth recognizing that the military solution to the Libyan issue has not justified itself. This means that if the warring parties cannot find a political solution to the conflict, Libya will remain a country divided into two parts for a very long time. Under these conditions, Russia can take the initiative. It can offer F. Saraj and H. Haftar to negotiate with the mediation of Russia and Turkey on the conditions for establishing a ceasefire. Then, when the shooting stops, initiate a discussion on the possibility of a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. Moscow and Ankara have extensive experience in finding a compromise on the most painful issues, and it is possible that the Libyan conflict is no exception.

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The new relationship between Israel and Bahrain

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanisigns sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The issue of the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain, following the agreement already signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is particularly interesting. It marks a realignment of the Sunni world with the Jewish State, clearly against Iran, and hence indirectly with the West.

 Israel, however, does not always think strategically like its Western allies. This is positive.

 The oil leverage between the Arab East and the Euro-American West is currently changing (although the EU has not yet realized it) given the rise of the U.S. oil power.

Nevertheless, there is a change also in what we could define as the military “protection level” between the Sunni Arab world and the Western defence system, between NATO and the U.S. or Atlantic Alliance specific agreements with Sunni Arab countries. Europe is obviously out of the game.

The primary aims pursued are the following: as to the Arabs, fully playing the Western card with regard to the Russian Federation and, in some ways, also to China; as to Westerners, the game No. 1 is to take back the Sunni world after the jihadist crisis and then to create a new market of crude oil prices just now that the U.S. shale oil is changing the whole price system. Ultimately, however, the United States wants to avoid Russia and China strategically “taking” the Sunni world.

 The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. It finally needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.

 Iran is an existential threat also to them. In the Middle East the areas of influence and contact between Iran and the Sunni world are such that they cannot be regulated by some kind of peace treaty. Yemen is a case in point. Every move in the Gulf is a zero-sum game.

 Now, however, we need to take a step back. The “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAEs) and then Bahrain is based on future “normal relations” between the Jewish State and the UAEs.

 An agreement drafted in mid-August 2020, but long prepared by the Intelligence Services and subsequently by both parties’ diplomacies, and also by some European Intelligence Services.

 These “normal relations” imply usual business relations, direct flights, tourism, scientific exchanges and full diplomatic recognition.

 It is obvious, however, that the Emirates will not send an Ambassador to Jerusalem.

 It is not envisaged in the agreements, but there is, however, a specific exchange of information between the Intelligence Services, as has long happened also between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 Again according to the Emirates -but the text is anyway clear in this regard – the Israeli-UAE agreement immediately stops any Israeli attempt of West Bank annexation, but it also envisages a renewal of the negotiations between the PNA and the Jewish State to “put an end to the conflict”.

Vaste programme, as De Gaulle would have said. The core of the issue is that now the Palestinians of the PNA – a badly conceived entity resulting from the end of the Cold War – are no longer of any use to anyone.

 Neither to the Soviet Union, which does no longer exist and no longer needs cumulative training camps for European terrorists or possibly pressure systems for their Arab allies, nor to the European left (and to the EU, although it is not aware of it) that knew nothing about foreign policy, but only wanted Israel’s “reduction”. Least of all to China, which does notknow what to do with them, nor even to the jihadist galaxy, which has scarcely used the old Palestinian guerrilla network.

Currently the prominent role played by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and also in the West Bank – a movement deriving from the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly accepts the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in its statutes and which, however, is notoriously now fully supported by Iran, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is a role that is certainly not interesting for the Gulf Sunni countries.

 Probably it is interesting only for Qatar and Turkey, which have much to do with the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, I do not think that Turkey and Qatar want to go all the way in this strategic game, with the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia and most of the Emirates.

However, no one wants to bear the high costs for managing the PNA any longer. They are strategically useless and most likely even dangerous.

 Israel and the UAEs already tried to normalise their relations years ago. In 2015, the Jewish State opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, in relation to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Later there were sports meetings and Israel had also been envisaged as a guest in the 2020 World EXPO, now postponed to October 2021, unless otherwise decided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The real sign that the agreement with the Emirates was very important for Israel was the decision taken by Netanyahu to postpone the annexation of the West Bank indefinitely.

 The Palestinians immediately recalled their Ambassador to the Emirates.

Israel cares little about the PNA, the relic of a Cold War that no longer has strategic significance, except for the pro-Iranian role played by Hamas and by a part of Fatah, the old political group of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is therefore interested only in the West Bank and, in full agreement with Egypt, in the anti-jihadist control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

Obviously, neither Saudi Arabia, nor the Emirates, nor Bahrain, nor other States in the Sunni area (even though Bahrain has a Shiite majority, but a Sunni ruling class), and even less Israel want to be associated with a corrupt and totally inefficient political class such as the PNA’s, which is now the glove within which the Iranian hand is extended – and Iran is the only power interested and willing to take the two political areas of the old PNA by the hand.

As mentioned above, the “Abraham Accord” has been accepted also by Bahrain and then by Jordan, which has an old peace treaty in place with Israel dating back to 1994, but burdened by the subsequent severe crisis of 2015-2016 with Israel, at the time of the annexation of East Jerusalem and hence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Aqsa means “the farthest”, a reference to the distance of Islam’s third holiest shrine from Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia).

The agreement has also been accepted by Egypt, which sees the jihadist tension in Sinai resolved, in perspective, with the Jewish State’s more direct and explicit collaboration. Finally, the “Abraham Accord” has been publicly praised by Oman, now that the new King,Hatham bin Tariq, wants to keep on modernizing the Kingdom of Oman and Muscat in the wake of the late Sultan Qaboos – whose Guards wore Scottish kilts and played bagpipes – and with greater strategic independence from the other Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

 Who is against the Accord? Obviously Iran, which sees a strategic correlation between Israel and the Sunni world looming large, with the very severe closure of the Emirates’ area to Iran – an area where it could have played the card of influence operations against Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Also Qatar is against it. The country is also militarily tied to Turkey and it is the financial and political base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is disliked by all the other Gulf Sunni States and, in some ways, is in a process of reconciliation even with the Iranian-Syrian and Lebanese Shiites.

Obviously also Turkey is against the agreement, not for the acceptance of the Jewish State in the framework of inter-Arab relations – a State with which Turkey has had diplomatic relations since 1949, although it has never recognised the UN Partition Plan from which the independence of the Jewish State itself originated.

Turkey has a cold attitude towards the “Abraham Accord” particularly because it will be isolated in the Emirates and in the Gulf area, since it is loosely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a project of Central Asian expansion that will not enable it to maintain the status quo currently favourable to it in the Gulf, nor – in perspective – the good relations with Qatar.

As stated above, Bahrain- and, if all goes well, it will be the turn of Sudan, Oman and Morocco – is accepting and, indeed, has already accepted the Abraham Accord.

 Morocco has already had Jewish Ministers in its governments, and the private affairs secretary of King Hassan II was an Italian, from Ferrara, who had also been the only one to show solidarity with him when the young Giorgio Bassani was expelled from high school due to infamous “racial laws” of 1938.

 King Hamad has already allowed Israeli leaders to participate – in the future – in a regional meeting on Gulf security, the Manama Security Dialogue 2020, scheduled in the capital of the Kingdom for December 4-6.

 Netanyahu already met the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2018.

 Why does Bahrain officially recognize Israel under the “Abraham Accord”?

First and foremost because the Jewish State is a brilliant success story.

 Because of its technology, its stability, its military strength, even its excellent intelligence, Israel allures many countries in the Arab world and in other world regions. Sultan bin Khalifa has always openly expressed his esteem for the Jewish State.

In 2018 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister twitted a message in favour of Israel in its war against the underground channels created by Hezbollah. Later he explicitly expressed his appreciation when he saw that also Australia had recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.

  The Sultan of Bahrain has openly put strong pressure on the Gulf Security Council for it to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.

Here we are not talking about traditional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but about a geopolitical and strategic choice: to make the Emirates and the whole Gulf a peaceful area, so as to start – as soon as possible – the energy and economic transition that will decide the future of the oil States in the region.

 The war freezes positions. It is expensive and does not allow the great economic transition that all the Gulf ruling classes, with the sole exception of Iran, intend to begin as soon as possible.

Obviously Iran does not play its cards so much on oil as on natural gas, which is not envisaged by the OPEC system.

It should also be recalled that Bahrain also hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshopin 2019. On that occasion as many as seven Israeli journalists were welcomed to the Kingdom.

 It should also be noted that Bahrain is closely connected to Saudi Arabia with specific reference to the economy and the selection of the ruling class.

Bahrain has a majority of Shiite population, with a Sunni royal House and a Sunni ruling class. Hence, more than for other Gulf countries, Iran, which is in front of its shores, is an existential threat.

The link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is increasingly strong, especially after 2018, when the small coastal kingdom had to repress – often harshly – the “Arab Springs” which, indeed, had many connections with Iran.

 The greatest mistake recently made by Westerners in the Middle East, the “Arab Spring”, after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, when France lost some of its power because the translator was Luis Massignon, with his very refined Arabic that the desert raiders did not understand, while the interpreter for Great Britain was Lawrence of Arabia, who was used to the Arab streets and plebs.

What about Palestine? On September 3 last, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the “Abraham Accord” by Donald J. Trump at the White House, a videoconference was held between the Lebanon and Palestine, with the participation of Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian factions. It should also be noted that the videoconference had been organised by both Fatah and Hamas- a unique rather than a rare case.

 Ismail Haniyeh, the Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, was in Beirut, together with Ziad Nadalia, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad, and all the leaders of the factions that are not allowed to operate within the Palestinian National Authority’s territories.

 Mohammed Barakeh, former member of the Israeli Parliament, was in Ramallah.

 For everyone, the strategic key to interpreting the “Abraham Accord” was the breaking of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudi Arabian initiative of 2002, then reaffirmed in 2007 and again in 2017 by all Arab League Summits.

 This “initiative” concerns, in nuce, Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied territories, as well as a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN Resolution No.194, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

What were the videoconference results? The clear and obvious perception of the isolation of the PNA, which no one now wants to maintain at full cost any longer, considering that it is a “strategic relic” of the past; the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a unique rather than a rare case; the inevitable opening of the PNA’s territories to the declared enemies of the Abraham Accord, i.e. Qatar, which will try to reach a strategic and military correlation between Libya-Tripoli and the Gaza Strip, as well as for the West Bank and then Turkey, with its Muslim Brothers, who are those who founded Hamas. But above all it will be a deal for Iran, which already supports the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions, obviously against Israel and waiting for Hezbollah to make again operations beyond the Litani River.

Hence “people’s struggle”, in the PLO and PNA jargon, but there is no reference to “armed struggle” in the final document of the videoconference, as well as the request for a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, and then the evident verification of the declining consensus for the Palestinian cause among the Sunni Arab States of the Gulf, from which a further restriction of economic aid to the PNA will result.

Nevertheless, the real danger, which should regard also Israel, is the PNA’s full implosion, which could cause global military, migration and economic phenomena.

 What about the Russian Federation? It must go back being essential in the Middle East. The “Abraham Accord” brokered and mediated by the United States and by some European intelligence services can put an end to the comparative and strategic advantage of Russia’s victory in Syria and the very careful management of military and intelligence relations with Israel.

 Not to mention the refined Russian containment of the Iranian pressure in Syria – one of the real goals of the Russian presence in Bashar el Assad’s republic.

 What cards could Russia play in the new Middle East that is currently being defined? Many cards.

As early as 2018, Russia has started to meet the Islamic Jihad again, while Abu Mazen also met Russian leaders in 2019 to create a new “format” of peace between Israel and the PNA mediated by the Russian Federation alone.

 Then there is the Lebanese card – Russia’s presence is increasingly visible in the Lebanon due to an obvious spillover from Syria.

Hence Russia’s number one game in the new Middle East is to maintain close relations with all the regional, State and non-State actors, so as to get to be the only supreme arbiter (also towards Israel) of the future and now inevitable Middle East peace.

What about China? It does not view the Abraham Accord favourably, considering that for China it is tantamount to an actual withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States –  and therefore an increase in the costs for the strategic control of the region – but also to the return of many important Sunni countries within a U.S. economic orbit, just when China was seducing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

 The “Abraham Accord” closes the Gulf’s doors to many countries that wanted to enter the region.

China, however, will put on a good face and make the best of a bad situation, by supporting an actual friendly country, Israel, and maintaining the usual excellent relations with the Sunni world, in the hope of soon replacing the United States as the political-military reference point for the region.

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Will They or Won’t They? Saudi Recognition of Israel is the $64,000 Question

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Will the Saudis formalize relations with Israel or will they not? That is the 64,000-dollar question.

The odds are that Saudi Arabia is not about to formalize relations with Israel. But the kingdom, its image tarnished by multiple missteps, is seeking to ensure that it is not perceived as the odd man out as smaller Gulf states establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Bahrain’s announcement that it would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates was as much a Bahraini move as it was a Saudi signal that it is not opposed to normalization with Israel.

Largely dependent on the kingdom since Saudi troops helped squash mass anti-government protests in 2011, Bahrain, a majority Shia Muslim nation, would not have agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without Saudi consent.

The Bahraini move followed several other Saudi gestures intended to signal the kingdom’s endorsement of Arab normalization of Israel even if it was not going to lead the pack.

The gestures included the opening of Saudi air space to Israeli commercial flights, and publication of a Saudi think tank report praising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship in modernizing the kingdom’s religious education system and encouraging the religious establishment to replace“extremist narratives” in school textbooks with “a moderate interpretation of Islamic rhetoric.”

They also involved a sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the world’s largest mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, that highlighted Prophet Mohammed’s friendly relations with Jews.

Mr. al-Sudais noted that the prophet had “performed ablution from a polytheistic water bottle and died while his shield was mortgaged to a Jew,” forged a peace agreement with Jewish inhabitants of the Khaybar region, and dealt so well with a Jewish neighbor that he eventually converted to Islam. 

The imam’s comments, a day before US President Donald J. Trump was believed to have failed to persuade King Salman to follow the UAE’s example, were widely seen as part of an effort to prepare Saudi public opinion for eventual recognition of Israel.

Criticism on social media of the comments constituted one indication that public opinion in Gulf states is divided.

Expression of Emirati dissent was restricted to Emirati exiles given that the UAE does not tolerate expression of dissenting views.

However, small scale protests erupted in Bahrain, another country that curtails freedom of expression and assembly. Bahraini political and civil society associations, including the Bahrain Bar Association, issued a statement rejecting the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

“What results from normalization will not enjoy popular backing, in line with what generations of Bahrainis have been brought up on in terms of adherence to the Palestinian cause,” the statement said.

Bahrain has long been home to a Jewish community and was the first and, so far, only Arab state to appoint a Jew as its ambassador to the United States.

The criticism echoes recent polls in various Gulf states that suggest that Palestine remains a major public foreign policy concern.

Polling by David Pollock of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that Palestine ranked second to Iran.

Earlier polls by James Zogby, a Washington-based pollster with a track record that goes back more than a decade, showed Palestine ranking in 2018 as the foremost foreign policy issue followed by Iran in Emirati and Saudi public opinion.

The same year’s Arab Opinion Index suggested that 80 percent of Saudis see Palestine as an Arab rather than a purely Palestinian issue.

Mr. Pollock said in an interview that with regard to Palestine, Saudi officials “believe that they have to be a little cautious. They want to move bit by bit in the direction of normalizing at least the existence of Israel or the discussion of Israel, the possibility of peace, but they don’t think that the public is ready for the full embrace or anything like that.”

Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted in a tweet that “Israel formalizing relations (with) unelected Arab (governments) is not the same as Israel making ‘peace’ (with) Arab people. Look at, for example, what Egypt’s citizenry thinks of Israel. Iran and Turkey will capitalize on this reality as more US-friendly Arab [governments] sign accords [with] Israel.”

This year’s Arab Opinion Index suggest that in Kuwait, the one country that has not engaged with Israel publicly, Turkey—the Muslim country that has taken a lead in supporting the Palestinians—ranked highest in public esteem compared to China, Russia, and Iran.

A rift in a UAE-backed Muslim group created to counter Qatari support of political Islam and promote a state-controlled version of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler serves as a further indication that Palestine remains an emotive public issue.

In Mr. Al-Sudais’ case, analysts suggest that the criticism is as much about Palestine as it is a signal that religious leaders who become subservient to the whims of government may be losing credibility.

Mr. Al-Sudais’ sermon contrasted starkly with past talks in which he described Jews as “killers of prophets and the scum of the earth” as well as “monkeys and pigs” and defended Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran as a war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The criticism coupled with indications earlier this year that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment was not happy with Prince Mohammed’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic may be one reason why Saudi Arabia is gesturing rather than formalizing already existing relations with Israel.

Authorities reportedly arrested in March Sheikh Abdullah al-Saad, an Islamic scholar, after he posted online an audio clip criticizing the government for banning Friday prayers. Mr. al-Saad argued that worshippers should be able to ask God for mercy.

An imam in Mecca was fired shortly after he expressed concern about the spread of the coronavirus in Saudi prisons.

Scholars Genevieve Abdo and Nourhan Elnahla reported that the kingdom’s Council of Senior Clerics had initially drafted a fatwa, or religious opinion, describing the closing of mosques as a violation of Islamic principles. They said that government pressure had persuaded the council not to issue the opinion.

Concern among the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious scholars that the ruling Al-Saud family may break the power-sharing agreement with the clergy, concluded at the birth of the kingdom, predates the rise of King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

Indeed, the clerics’ concern stretches back to the reign of King Abdullah and has focused on attitudes expressed both by senior members of the ruling family who have since been sidelined or detained by Prince Mohammed and princes that continue to wield influence.

The scholars feared that the ruling family contemplated separating state and religion. This is a concern that has likely been reinforced since Prince Mohammed whipped the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and downplayed religion by emphasizing nationalism.

Ultra-conservative Saudi religious scholars are also certain to have taken note of post-revolt Sudan’s recent decision to legally remove religion from the realm of the state.

Ultra-conservative sentiment does not pose an imminent threat to Prince Mohammed’s iron grip rule of a country in which many welcomed social reforms that have lifted some of the debilitating restrictions on women, liberalized gender segregation, and the as yet unfulfilled promise of greater opportunity for a majority youthful population.

It does however suggest one reason why Prince Mohammed, who is believed to favor formal relations with Israel, may want to tread carefully on an issue that potentially continues to evoke passions.

An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia

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Middle East

Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago

Shahzada Rahim

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Bethlehem: part of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Photo: UN News/Reem Abaza

I don’t understand why the majority of Muslims have reacted so furiously on UAE’s recognition of the State of Israel. Those who are criticizing Arabs are illiterate common people, who even don’t have a slight background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If we study deeply the nature of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the very conflict began as Arab-Israeli deadlock first, when the nationalist Arabs started the first War with Israel in 1948.

Similarly, the second war between Arabs and Israel began in 1969, when Israelis set Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire. Likewise, the third war began in 1973, which is often known as Yom-Kippur war in the history books and was the major development in the conflict. Unfortunately, the beginning of 1970s was the turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during which Arabs willfully abandoned the Palestinian cause for good.

A major turning point occurred when the Late President of Egypt Anwar Sadat visited Israeli Knesset and formally recognized the state of Israel. In response, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza strip back to Egypt, which were lost to Israel during the Yom-e-Kippur war. Perhaps, this was the very day, when the Arab leaders began reconsidering their foreign policy approach towards Israel.

Soon after the Egypt’s recognition of Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization became a sandwich between the Baathist regime of Iraq and Syria. The major animosity between PLO and Arab petro-monarchies began during the second Gulf War, when the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat visited Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then petro-monarchies began taking least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even the term Arab-Israeli conflict changed into Palestinian-Israeli conflict (please read late American President Jimmy Carter’s book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid” to understand this analogical transformation).

Another major reason behind Arab Monarchies least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Iran. Because, soon after the revolution, the Iranian theocratic regime has taken major interest in the Palestinian issue with metaphorical yet psychological slogan “Death to America and Death to Israel”. The Iranian regime began exporting the revolution to other countries in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon in particular. What Khomeini said on the wake of revolution during his first speech “Islam has no borders”. The message was clear, from now onwards Iran will be the champion of Palestinian cause, which has indeed infuriated Sunni Arabs. (To understand this please read Edward Said’s famous book “Covering Islam”).

Similarly, with Imam Khomeini’s declaration of himself as Vilayat-e-faqi, the Saudi Royal family declared themselves as Huremain-e-Sharifeen, which means the Custodians of two holy mosques. According to Lebanese philosopher and Political scientist Fawaz A Gerges; it was the CIA’s Idea to counter Shiite Iran in the Greater Middle East. Basically, since the revolution in Iran, the Iranian theocratic regime has used Palestinian cause as genuine platform to expand its influence across the Muslim world. (Please read Fawaz A Gerges famous book “America and Political Islam”).

Similarly, with the Iranian establishment of Hezbollah (The party of God) in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause, the situation turned worse. The Arab monarchies declared Hezbollah as Iranian proxy tool to export revolution across the Middle East rather a group fighting for the Palestinian cause. (To understand this please read Professor Noam Chomsky’s famous book “The Fateful Triangle“). Consequently, with the strange assassination of former Lebanese president Rafic Hariri in 2005, the tensions further escalated because he was close ally of Arab monarchies. The Arab leaders blamed Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon for the murder of Rafic Harari. 

Another major reason behind the Arabs losing interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the political and ideological presence of Hamas in Gaza, which is an offshoot of banned Muslim Brotherhood. Ideologically, Muslim Brotherhood headquartered in Egypt is a pan-Islamist party, which since its formation is struggling to establish an Islamic Empire in the Arab world by overthrowing monarchies. In this respect, Hamas as an ideological offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is threat to Arab Monarchies and hence, a major excuse for Arabs to abandon Palestinian cause.

In contrast, the recent tremendous changes in the foreign policy orientation towards Israel across the Arab world indicates the beginning of new regional peace process. As a matter fact, Israel as a nation state is a living reality, which cannot be ignored and the continuing Arab confrontation with Israel is not in the best interest of Palestinians. The recent diplomatic step taken by United Arab Emirates to normalize relationship with the state of Israel is a positive step towards new regional peace and security architecture.

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