Israel trumps Arab and Muslim world’s influence on US presidential candidates

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 10 October 2016

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greet one another as they take the stage for their first debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, US September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

image from the Middle East Monitor showing Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, the two US presidential candidates.

As the United States’ presidential race enters its final stage, with elections due on 8 November, the two candidates have been making their final pitches to woo the voters in their direction. There is general agreement that the two candidates, US businessman and billionaire Donald Trump for the Republicans and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for the Democrats, are two of the least popular candidates ever to stand for this great office. A focus on personal rather than policy issues characterised the first two debates, leaving US voters and observers around the world perplexed at the prospect of either candidate becoming the next president.

Donald Trump

Trump, a candidate with no political experience, astonishingly won the GOP nomination on a platform of wanting to “make America great again”. His policies include building a wall along the border with Mexico and a promise that Mexico would pay for it, bringing jobs back to the US, particularly from Mexico and China and renegotiating trade deals that he thinks do not favour American workers. His appeal to African American voters was simply that there situation is so terrible “what do you have to lose” by voting for him.

When it comes to the Arab world, Trump is for crushing Daesh claiming he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS”, using another acronym for Daesh, and enhancing security through “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.  He recently revised this to “extreme vetting” for migrants to ensure the US only accept immigrants who “share our values and respect our people”. Trump’s proposal for stemming the tide of refugees from Syria is to keep them in Syria stating “what I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier”. He would expect the Gulf states to pay for this even though he is “not a big fan” of Saudi Arabia, and that America had paid too much to “back them up”.

His stance on Iraq has been that he opposed the war on Iraq but thinks the US should have seized Iraq’s oil.

On Libya, Trump reversed his stance on US military intervention from: “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi would be in charge right now,” to “I didn’t mind surgical. And I said surgical. You do a surgical shot and you take him out.” Trump has been vocal in his criticism of his Democratic rival’s policy in Libya while she was secretary of state.

Under his administration, Trump promised Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that “the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.”

Hilary Clinton

Unlike her Republican counterpart, Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Middle East is well known to the regional players from her days as secretary of state under the first Obama administration. Her deep knowledge of the region and generally warm relations with key regional players could help deliver greater American influence than has occurred under President Obama since she left office. However, strictly on policy issues there is unlikely to be a major shift to either a more hawkish or softer position on the key challenges.

Palestine and Israel

Support for and commitment to Israel, and particularly its security, have featured prominently in all recent US presidential elections and the current one has been no exception. The now mandatory “pilgrimage” to the main lobby group AIPAC’s conference to praise Israel and to reaffirm the US’ “unshakeable” commitment to it again featured in candidates’ campaign. Of all the candidates still standing at the time, only Democratic candidate Bernie Saunders missed the opportunity to state his position in person. The candidates effectively competed, at least in rhetoric to demonstrate their commitment to Israel, never once robustly criticising anything it does. Anyone listening would have thought Israel was not illegally occupying another people or in breach of countless UN Security Council resolutions or imposing an inhumane siege on Gaza.

Clinton sought to sway AIPAC’s audience by criticising Trump’s prior stance insisting “we need steady hands”, referring to the business mogul but not naming him. “Not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday because everything is negotiable.” She nailed her colours to the mast insisting: “Well, my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable!”

Trump, who initially committed to being “neutral” on negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, causing a stir with Israel’s supporters at the time, changed his tune at AIPAC, unusually reading form a teleprompter. He said that he was “very pro-Israel”, touting the “many awards” he’s won, even claiming “there’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am”. Going on to emphasise America’s need to protect it. He reserved his criticisms for the Palestinians insisting they would have to end terror. “They have to stop with the terror because what they’re doing with the missiles and with the stabbings and with all of the other things that they do, it’s horrible and it’s gotta end.”

It is notable that Trump’s most recent “policy” related to the conflict is to “recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel”. This he stated at an hour long meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower during his visit to the US to make his annual speech to the UN General Assembly. This would have been music to Netanyahu’s ears, since the longstanding policy of successive US administrations has been to avoid this recognition, leaving it for the negotiations to determine the future of the holy city.

Both the Democratic and Republican party platforms saw a move in favour of Israel this year. TheRepublican platform reinstated a reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital, and removed a reference to Palestine, while the Democratic party rejected an amendment to its platform “rebuking Israel”.

Trump’s dangerous promise to Netanyahu on Jerusalem suggests a wider problem for Arab and Muslim nations. While Israel works tirelessly to influence policy in its favour, Arab and Muslim nations sit on their hands and simply complain and occasionally express their disappointment at the lack of sympathy for their issues, particularly from the US. Their judgement has perhaps been that Trump will not win the race and therefore efforts to influence him were not productive. Well, there is still a slim chance that he may win and they will be left at the back of the queue when arguing for a more favourable approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Hilary Clinton wins, why would she be more sympathetic than she has been to Arab and Muslim issues when there has not been an attempt to move her thinking during the election campaign?

The Palestinians may be too weak to influence either Trump or Clinton on their own, but how can the collective economic power of the Arab and Muslim world not only fail to make gains in their favour but to even lose ground?

It seems Israel has “trumped” the Arab and Muslim world through tireless and effective work and the next president of the US will be kinder to it than his or her predecessors.

Abbas commits to more negotiations while violence escalates

The Middle East Monitor publiched my article on 15/1/2016

Abbas commits to more negotiations while violence escalates

  
Image from the Middle East Monitor
In his first speech of 2016, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas reviewed the situation facing the Palestinians and set out his approach for the forthcoming year. He started with the major achievement of 2015, the formal recognition of Palestine by the Vatican. He noted that the Pope had surprised the PA delegation by ordering the raising of the Palestinian flag during his last trip to Rome. He looked forward to further recognitions in the near future.

He did not refer to any other major achievements in 2015. However despite characterising the PA in the past as an “Authority without authority”, due to Israeli actions, this time he referred to its shear existence as a “major achievement for the Palestinian people”. He committed to not allowing it to collapse. He also committed to ending the “leaking” of Palestinian land to anyone else. He was referring to the ongoing campaign by Zionist individuals and organisations to purchase land from Palestinians through shady deals with owners. He was also possibly referring to the Greek Orthodox Church which had sold land to Israel.

As to the current situation, Abbas claimed that all Palestinian protests are peaceful but are met with brutal force. He elaborated that “a stone thrower is shot from a distance of 100 metres even if the stone only travels 10 metres, therefore not reaching the occupation’s soldiers”. This has resulted in the number of prisoners reaching 7,000, including many children some as young as ten. He warned: “It is dangerous for the young people to feel that the only option open to him is violence.”

Abbas claimed that he “will not allow the status quo to continue”. He wanted a halt to the “cancerous settlements” and reaffirmed that all settlements are illegal, including the so called large settlement blocks. He said “the settlers must leave as they did from Gaza”. He argued that that the Israelis continue to suffocate the Palestinians. “Leave us alone”, he said in desperation. His message to the Israelis was: “We are here and will not leave. We will not allow an Apartheid state. We want a fully sovereign Palestinian state.”

The PA President expressed his view that solving the conflict would end extremism and terror in the region, though he was not forthcoming with how he would change the status quo. “The Palestinians fulfil their obligations while the Israelis don’t,” he argued.

Despite all this, Abbas extended the hand of peace to the Israelis and committed the Palestinians to achieving this through “peaceful negotiations”. It is worth pausing for a moment to absorb this new term. Have the negotiations with Israel that have lasted over twenty years been anything but peaceful? Were the Israelis dragged to the negotiating table under threat of, or exercise of violence? Clearly this has not been the case; otherwise far fewer violations of international law would have been committed by Israel, including the growth of the “cancerous settlements”.

Negotiations with Israel over the past twenty two years have not only failed, they have been catastrophic. They have allowed Israel to expand settlements and to increase the number of settlers to over 600,000 in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. PLO Executive Secretary and the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat admitted this in interview withAljazeera in October 2015. He confirmed that he had given up on negotiations with Netanyahu, calling them “a waste of time”. He predicted that a decision about disbanding the PA would be made by the end of 2015. This contrasts Abbas’ promise in his recent speech not to allow the PA to collapse.

An attempt by Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to restart talks was flatly rejected by his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, following meetings in Amman and Cairo in July and August last year. Erekat told an IPSI dialogue audience that he warned Shalom that there would be a “sea of blood” if the current impasse continued but his warning fell on deaf ears. In November 2015, US President Barack Obama concluded: “Right now, barring a major shift, the parties are not going to be in the position to negotiate a final status agreement.” With the US effectively declaring an end to its engagement, at least until the end of Obama’s reign and with most US Presidential candidates declaring that they side with Israel, the status quo, which everyone claims to be unsustainable, is set to continue for years.

In his recent speech, Abbas reminded the audience that the Arab Initiative was still on the table. That once Israel ended its occupation of Arab land and the two-state solution was implemented, 57 Arab and Muslim states would normalise relations with Israel but that “Israel refuses to consider it seriously, therefore, what do they want”?

He called for an international conference that widens the group involved in seeking a solution, particularly since the Middle East Quartet had failed. He suggested that this conference should then set up a committee to find a solution, similar to that which oversaw the Iran deal.

However, with the world’s attention currently consumed by the threat of Daesh and how it can be defeated, and President Obama seeing his second term out, prospects for an international conference are negligible. No one, apart from Abbas, talks about it.

Meanwhile, the current escalation of violence continues. The PA is helpless to stop it. It has also failed or chosen not to nurture the escalations in-order for them to become a strong, peaceful intifada that is costly to the occupier. The PA’s repeated threats to re-evaluate its relationships with Israel, including the Oslo Accords and in particular the infamous security cooperation have to this date remained threats, further eroding the credibility of the PA with the Palestinian people. The PA supports a boycott of settlement goods. However, it does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. This should be revisited as it is another peaceful and effective way of exerting pressure on Israel.

There are also no prospects of the US or bodies such as the UN, the Arab League or the Quartet intervening with an initiative unless Israel begins to feel the cost of the occupation. The Palestinians may feel that an investigation of Israeli crimes by the International Criminal Court in 2016 and joining more international bodies could pressure Israel. However, those steps are unlikely to be sufficiently costly on their own for Israel to change its ways.

RAF jets launch attacks within hours of Parliament’s vote for air strikes on Syria

  
It was no surprise to anyone that RAF jets left Cyprus within hours of Parliament voting at solow air strikes on Syria. 

I had made the case in my recent article in the Middle East Monitor for a more comprehensive strategy both for eradicating IS and bringing peace to Syria because I was not convinced by the British Prime Minister’s case. 

I thought the great veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman captured the PM’s plan very succinctly as can be seen below.

  

There will undoubtedly be Syrian civilian casualties despite assurances by the Government that what the RAF will bring are precision weapons that can almost distinguish between an IS person and a Syrian civilian. 

I simply do not believe this.

I also do not believe the claim that there are tens of thousands of ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition fighters  just waiting for Britain’s signal to take swathes of land vacated by beleaguered IS fighters running away from Britush bombs.

The fact is that most, if not all, MPs gave never experienced being on the receiving end of a bombing campaign, day after day. 

The Syrian people have, the Iraqis have and before them, the Palestinians in Gaza have over many years of Israrli bombing raids.

Thousands have been killed, tens of thousands have been injured and hundreds of thousands of homes have been demolished. Children have been traumatised got life and have lost out in education and a normal life.

I found it interesting to read today that the first target of British bombs in Suria was an oil field that supplies almost 10% of the oil revenues for IS/Daesh.

I tweeted this

  
It is only day one of the U.K.’ ‘Extension’ of raids from Iraqyo Syria but I doubt if the  IS leadership watched the debate in Parliament last night and when the vote was announced packed their bags and dispersed.

I want to see IS destroyed and its ideology consigned to the dustbin of history but there is a better way to achieve this than simply dropping ‘smart’ bombs on Riqqa. 

I hope and pray the UK will be safer as a result of last night’s decision.

Britain’s security dilemma: to bomb or not to bomb?

My latest column for the Middle East Monitor

Britain’s security dilemma: to bomb or not to bomb?

30 November 2015

The issue of whether Britain should join the multitude of nations already bombing Syria is one of the most important questions facing parliament for some time. Prime Minister David Cameron made the case for bombing last week and hopes to have convinced MPs of all parties to back him.

The argument is that Daesh is a major security threat to Britain and if proof is needed then the recent Paris atrocities should provide it. Cameron insisted that there is almost an obligation on Britain to support allies already bombing the group in Syria, including France. 

The Royal Air Force is already bombing Daesh in Iraq, of course, and the territory under its control includes swathes of both Iraq and Syria; the group does not recognise the international border between the two UN member states.

Britain wants President Bashar Al-Assad to step down and believes that the Syrian army is responsible for over 200,000 deaths since the uprising — now a civil war with international involvement — started in 2011. However, Cameron is clear that the air strikes he proposes would only target Daesh and not the Assad regime. He is also adamant that he will not put British Army boots on the ground.

The issue is in danger of splitting the already troubled Labour Party. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has a long-standing history of opposing war. The record shows that he was right to oppose the Iraq invasion and war which brought devastation to the country and a rise in terrorism, with groups like Al-Qaeda flourishing.

Now we have a plethora of armed groups, a “Free Syrian Army” and many states bombing Daesh in Iraq or Syria, or both. And then there is Russia, a recent entry onto the scene under the pretence of attacking Daesh but, according to other states involved in Syria, actually attacking anti-Assad groups.

The world faces a hugely complicated situation requiring both a diplomatic and military plan. In addition, if we have learnt anything at all from the disaster in Iraq, then a post-war plan is a must if the same mistakes are not to be repeated.

Will RAF air strikes make us safer in Britain? 

I think not, and it is illogical that the government’s answer to this question is “Yes”, not least because it is now very apparent that the Paris atrocities were planned in Europe and not in Syria or Iraq. The answer for me lies in better intelligence gathering. There is a need for greater emphasis on national intelligence gathering and stronger transnational coordination, particularly in Europe.

Britain enjoys far stricter border controls which the Schengen Area countries lack. As such, the chances of terrorist cells entering the UK from Europe are more unlikely. It is also much more difficult — as far as I am aware — for anyone to purchase clandestine weapons in Britain than it is in the rest of the EU.

We are told that the British security services have successfully foiled a number of terrorist attacks this year. My conclusion, therefore, is that air strikes on their own are futile in reducing the risk of terrorist attacks against Britain, but greater and coordinated intelligence can be much more effective.

Should Britain do nothing in Syria? 

I believe that Britain and all the other states involved in Syria need a plan and suggest that it needs to have the following elements:

  • Establish no fly zones and safe havens inside Syria to stem the tide of refugees leaving the country.
  • Curb sources of funding and arms for Daesh and continue to degrade its ability to sell oil.
  • Work with Turkey to stem the tide of fighters wanting to join the group from outside Syria.
  • Accept that the Syrian regime is there to stay and engage with it, bringing it back into the fold of the international community (see below).
  • Broker a ceasefire between the Syrian regime and the opposition groups as it requires the focus of both to defeat Daesh.
  • Support the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces.
  • Build a coalition against Daesh to include all of the states currently engaged in Syria, but with the Syrian army and opposition groups playing a central role.
  • Use this improved situation to develop a long-term political solution for Syria. This will include a reconciliation process.
  • Begin the process of an accelerated reconstruction of Syria working with the Syrian government.

I accept that, for many, bringing the Syrian regime back into the fold is a step too far, especially with regards to Bashar Al-Assad, but it is in my view the only entity that could eradicate Daesh on the ground. It does, however, need to shift the focus of its army to fighting the group after having established a ceasefire with the opposition.

The time for war crimes trials can come once Syria and Iraq are stabilised. Until then, the destruction of Daesh as an entity on the ground and as an ideology is of paramount importance.