The Middle East Quartet still includes the US, so can it still play a role in the peace process?

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 9/2/2018

President Donald Trump address to Congress in Washington, US on 30 January 2018 [Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency]

 

Since US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent decision to cut American funding to UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has announced formally and repeatedly that Washington cannot continue in its traditional role as the sole sponsor of the peace process. Speaking shortly after Trump’s announcement in December, Mahmoud Abbas said that the Palestinians have been engaged with the President’s advisors to achieve the “deal of the century” but “instead we got the slap of our times”. He concluded that, “The United States has chosen to lose its qualification as a mediator… We will no longer accept that it has a role in the political process.”

At that point, the PA President suggested that the UN should take over as mediator. However, since then, the PA has been searching for an alternative to the US sponsorship which has been based on bringing together a wider group of influential countries to oversee negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Israel has been silent on the matter, enjoying the complete US bias in its favour, whether from Trump’s advisors Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, the US Ambassador to Israel David Freidman or the US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley.

During his recent visit to Israel, US Vice President Mike Pence received a hero’s welcome as he committed to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of 2019. The Palestinians refused to meet him. Trump saw this as an act of disrespect to Pence and the US, and threatened the PA with further cuts in American aid unless they returned to the negotiating table.

The next port of call for the Palestinians for a sponsor of the peace talks was the European Union. Abbas visited the EU headquarters in Brussels recently an

Palestinian men carry food aid given by UNRWA in Gaza City, Gaza on 15 January 2018 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

d held talks with Federica Mogherini, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. If Abbas thought that the EU was ready to take a sole or significant role in the peace process, he was disappointed. Mogherini reiterated longstanding EU positions: “I want to, first of all, reassure President Abbas and his delegation of the firm commitment of the European Union to the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states… based on the Oslo Accords and the international consensus embodied in the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

Mogherini also reaffirmed the EU’s opposition to the “settlement activity that we consider illegal under international law.” She reminded Abbas that the EU has “already invested a great deal in the Palestinian state-building project” and vowed that EU financial support would continue, “Including to UNRWA.” She did not respond to Abbas’s call for the EU as a bloc to recognise the State of Palestine.

In a press conference a few days later, before an extraordinary meeting of the International Donor Group for Palestine at the EU headquarters, Mogherini told reporters that any framework for negotiations must involve “all partners”, sending a strong message that the US could not be excluded: “Nothing without the United States, nothing with the United States alone.”

This must have come as a blow to the Palestinian leadership, which had hoped that the Americans could be sidelined from the peace process.

There are few alternatives for the Palestinians to pursue. France’s attempts to secure a greater role in the peace process resulted in the Paris Conference which took place in much more favourable conditions at the end of the Obama Administration, but it tuned into a damp squib. The conference went ahead but little came out of it, and it has had no follow-up to speak of.

The Chinese, put forward their 4-point peace proposal last August:

  • Advancing the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state.
  • Upholding “the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” immediately ending Israeli settlement building, taking immediate measures to prevent violence against civilians, and calling for an early resumption of peace talks.
  • Coordinating international efforts to put forward “peace-promoting measures that entail joint participation at an early date.”
  • Promoting peace through development and cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel.

While little has been heard of the proposal’s potential since last year, the Chinese stepped up their efforts to play a greater role in the peace process following Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. However, responding to a question about China’s possible future role at a regular press briefing on 21 December, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “China’s position on the Palestine issue is consistent. We support and actively promote the Middle East peace process. We support the just cause of the Palestinian people to regain their legitimate national rights… We are willing to continue offering constructive assistance to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

The Chinese hosted a symposium last December bringing together Palestinians and Israelis in a bid to break the impasse. The session culminated with the production of a non-binding position paper known as the “Beijing Initiative”, which Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Zionist Union MK Hilk Bar said in a closing statement was intended to prove that “it is possible and necessary to break the political deadlock and encourage the two leaderships to return to the negotiating table.” A leading member of the Palestinian delegation added: “We have to search for another approach to the peace process… It must include the superpowers and China, maybe one of these parties who can play a major role.”

Attempts by Russia, another UN Security Council member to take a leading role in the peace process, go back many years but have not succeeded.

Palestinians have recently favoured an arrangement that mirrors the P5+1 which developed the Iran Nuclear Deal Agreement, which was concluded in 2015. The P5+1 refers to the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. A similar arrangement could still see the US involved but not monopolising the framework for negotiations.

A possible starting point here could be the Quartet, known formally as the Middle East Quartet, which consists of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN. It describes its mandate as “to help mediate Middle East peace negotiations and to support Palestinian economic development and institution-building in preparation for eventual statehood.”

On the face of it, the Quartet, with an upgrade of its senior team, could be the readymade answer to the Palestinian demand for a downgrading of the US role rather than Washington being excluded altogether. That may go some way towards meeting Israel’s insistence that the US has to be an important player in any future set of negotiations.

The Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at Brookings evaluated the Quartet’s performance in 2012 in its paper “The Middle East Quartet: A post-Mortem“. It concluded that, but for some early successes up to 2003, the Quartet has not provided any tangible benefits, except “ensuring American engagement in the peace process.”

The Palestinians could request that certain countries are added to the group to provide their role with some prominence. These could include Japan, Egypt and China, and perhaps Britain as it leaves the EU. In other words a Q4+ format could be developed, possibly under UN leadership.

The advantage of the above arrangement, which will be challenging to bring together, is that the basic structure already exists. It is likely that the Palestinians would agree to such a grouping, leaving the US and Israel almost certainly rejecting it. However, this would show Palestinian flexibility and confirm US and Israel rejectionism.

There is a need for an alternative framework for negotiations to resolve the conflict other than the 25 years of futile talks led by the Americans whose bias towards Israel is guaranteed and blatant. The longer the void left by the Palestinian rejection of a role for the US exists, the longer that the status quo will continue, allowing Israel to march ahead with its colonial project. A revamped Quartet plus-plus is well worth serious consideration.

Regeni murder: If only Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall had been Italian

Regeni murder: If only Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall had been Italian

First published by the Middle East Eye on 20/4/2016

Why did the UK and US not react firmly against Israel for the killing of Hurndall and Corrie the way Italy did with Egypt for the death of Regeni?

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The world was shocked at the discovery of the body of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in a ditch in Cairo on 9 February. His body showed signs of horrific torture which made it difficult even for his relatives to confirm his identity. The 28-year-old Cambridge University student had been kidnapped 10 days earlier while researching labour unrest and independent trade unions in Egypt.

Ironically, he went missing on 25 January, the fifth anniversary of the start of Egypt’s revolution. Egypt’s initial theories for the cause of his death ranged from being a casualty in a road traffic accident to being murdered by a criminal gang and even to being killed in a lover’s argument.  

The reaction of Italy was firm and robust. The Italian interior minister, Angelino Alfano who claimed that Regeni had been subjected to “inhuman, animal-like violence” announced that while Egypt appeared to be cooperating with a team of Italian investigators dispatched to Cairo, Italy wanted justice for Regeni. “We will not settle for alleged truths,” he said. “We want those really responsible identified and punished on the basis of law.” Rejecting suspicions of Egyptian security forces involvement in Regeni’s death, the Egyptian interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, called them “completely unacceptable”.

Not satisfied with Egypt’s response the Italian government recalled its ambassador on 8 April for “an urgent evaluation” of what steps to take to “ascertain the truth about the barbaric murder of Giulio Regeni”. In diplomatic norms, recalling an ambassador is a significant step in expressing displeasure at the behaviour of the host nation, in this case Egypt. States use this very sparingly as it can sometimes take months if not years for relations to return to normality, possibly impacting on other aspects of the relationship including trade cooperation. On this occasion Italy saw this move as an appropriate response.

Coverage of Regeni’s death rightly filled many column inches around the world with writers contrasting the significant coverage of his death with that of thousands of Egyptians who lost their lives since the start of the revolution five years ago.

The media also tends to give significant coverage to the death of peace or human rights activists around the world including when this happens in Israel. However, if one compares the action of Italy as a state to the killing of one of its citizens in Egypt to the lack of action by the UK and the US to the killing of their citizens by Israeli forces while protecting Palestinians from Israeli violence one finds a marked difference.

Corrie and Hurndall: A muted response

Take the case of Rachel Corrie, an American citizen from Olympia Washington who decided to spend her senior year at college in Rafah, Gaza to connect it to her home town through a sister cities project. She did not live to see this through as she was run down and killed by an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Caterpillar bulldozer as she tried to dissuade the driver from demolishing the home of a local Palestinian pharmacist. Her killing on 16 March 2003 did not draw a sharp response form the US government.

While US Representative Brian Bard introduced a resolution in the US Congress calling on the US government to “undertake a full, fair, and expeditious investigation” into Corrie’s death, the House of Representatives took no action on the resolution. It was left to Israeli military and legal processes to rule on the reasons for Rachel Corrie’s death.

The Israeli army’s investigation absolved the driver of any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming he could not see Corrie from his cab due to limited visibility. The investigation was criticised by a number of international and Israeli human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem. It took until 2012 for US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro to say that the Israeli investigation “was not satisfactory, and was not as thorough, credible or transparent as it should have been”.

Shapiro said further that the government of the United States is unsatisfied with the IDF’s closure of its official investigation into Corrie’s death. Those were empty words, similar in nature to condemnations or expressions of concern at a new settlement building announcement.

The Corrie family were left to their own devices filing an appeal against the army investigation and holding Israel liable for her death. In 2015, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the Corrie’s appeal. There were no howls of protest or a recall of the ambassador by Corrie’s home nation the USA despite its dissatisfaction with the original investigation.

The case of British photographic journalism student Tom Hurndall who died in January 2004 having been shot in the head by an IDF sniper on 11 April 2003 followed an eerily similar path to that of Corrie. Hurndall had only been in Gaza for five days when the IDF opened fire on Palestinian civilians near a checkpoint in Rafah. Tom managed to rescue one child from the line of fire but was shot in the head as he knelt down to pick up another child paralysed by fear.

The Israeli army claimed its checkpoint had come under fire from Palestinian militants and that it was responding to this when Tom was hit. The IDF’s initial “routine internal inquiry” concluded that Hurndall was “shot accidentally in the crossfire”, and suggested that his group’s members were essentially “functioning as human shields”. This was contradicted by witnesses at the demonstration asserted that he had been hit by a rifle bullet while trying to shield the children rather than having been merely hit in the crossfire.

There was no immediate outrage from the British government at this callous killing and, like the case of Corrie, it was left to the Hurndall family to pursue justice for their son. The British government did support the family through then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. This combination resulted in the Israeli advocate general ordering the IDF to open a further investigation in October 2003. This led to a military court finally sentencing Hurndall’s killer to 11 and a half years for manslaughter. He eventually served six and a half years. Once again though, a Western government was not so robust in the pursuit of the killers of one of its citizens to consider breaking ties with Israel over the matter or even to recall its ambassador to exert pressure from the outset.

Western supporters of justice for the Palestinian people therefore visit Palestine unsure of what their governments would do to help them if they were arrested, injured or even killed by Israeli security forces. There is little protest and no action by western governments when Israeli soldiers attack European or American citizens as they do here and here or even when settlers attacked US officials.

The only exception to this was Turkey’s reaction to Israel’s attack on the Gaza siege-breaking flotilla on 30 May 2013, in which 10 Turkish human rights activists on the lead ship the Mavi Marmara were killed by the Israeli military in international waters. Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Israel and to this day those relationships have not returned to the same level they were at before the attack.

Egypt and Israel are allies to the same Western governments but it seems that when it comes to bringing killers of their citizens to account, there is a differential to the way they deal with the two states. What this does is embolden Israel to act at will not only against the helpless Palestinians but also against citizens of its closest allies.

Kamel Hawwash is a British/Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at http://www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

From Bouazizi to Alkasasba, the Arab Uprising from Spring to Nightmare

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Mohammed Bouazizi

Four years after Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, triggering the Arab Spring, Islamic State set fire to Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba confirming that it had turned into the Arab nightmare.

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Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba
Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, took his own life on 17 December 2010 in in protest at confiscation of his wares and humiliation by municipal workers in Sidi Bouzid. The ensuing revolution brought down the then Tunisian President Ben Ali giving great hope to the Arab world that citizens could effect change and overthrow decades-long rule by dictators.

This was quickly followed by the removal of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. It also triggered what was seen as a revolution in Syria.

It seemed the democracy the West had been prescribing for the Middle East was on its way. Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt and TV cameras brought us images of debates in parliaments and elections that appeared to be fair and free.

Wind forward to 2015 and apart from Tunisia, the Arab Spring states are in turmoil. Libya is a complete basket case that is out of control. Yemen has just witnessed a coup. Egypt has still to heal after Morsi was deposed and Cairo witnessed horrific scenes in the lead up to the election of Sisi. The Sinai is witnessing terrible violence and has seen almost unprecedented cooperation between Egypt and Israel to eradicate extremism.

Iraq has lost swathes of territory to the new kid on the block, Islamic State and Syria’s regime is fighting a multitude of military groups, including the notorious Islamic State. Lebanon teeters on the brink and Palestine remains under military occupation by Israel.

But why is this happening? Why did the Arab Spring turn into the Arab nightmare? Are Arabs simply incapable of developing functioning democracies? Are Arab lives so cheap that the past four years have seen a few hundred thousand Arabs lose their lives?

The situation is of course very complicated and it is not feasible for one short blog to untangle it but I have some thoughts on this.

Democracy

I believe that Arabs who have endured non-democratic rule for decades and leaders that have suppressed the development of individuals and free thought need time to shed away fear from ‘the state’ and to develop infrastructure for free thought, free expression and acceptance of differing view points. We lack the patience to listen, to argue our point of view, to build support for it and then to win in a fair and open environment. We also allow individualism to trump collectivism. We invest so much and expect so much from a leader that sets him (normally) up for failure as he could never meet our expectations. We need to develop belief in roles rather than individuals.

Critics will say that the above generalisation is too crude and some may say it borders on racism. That is certainly not my intention but in this free space I feel able to express my views honestly.

Extremism

I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia. The curriculum up to and including secondary school included five separate subjects under the religious education part. This accounted for a third of the curriculum. I learnt to recite parts of the Quran from memory and learnt about the dos and don’ts. Jihad was explained as part of the curriculum including the various types. I was brought up in Riyadh, Najd, the heart of Wahbism. I have to say that I do not re ally at any point being introduced to what is now considered radical teaching. At no point was I or my friends encouraged to adopt a completely strict interpretation of Islamabad nad I am not aware that any of my fir ends form school every developed any such leanings.

Most of the friends I have kept in touch with have gone on to achieve a high level of education and have led normal ‘extremism-free’ lives.

This phenomena of extremism is a recent development. I believe that it originated in the fight to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan and that management of those that took part from various Arab countries upon their return failed. This also coincided with greater Western interference in the region which was seen as simply an attempt to exert control on sources of energy rather than to help with the de elopement of societies.

The double standards were also there for all to see. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was not allowed to stand and lots of feet on the ground were deployed to end it, but the longstanding Israeli military occupation of Palestine was not only tolerated but supported. In fact the Palestinians legitimate residence to it was labeled terrorism and the occupier’s right to self defence was supported without question.

Islamic State

Alqaeda, the original Islamist ideology (save perhaps for the Muslim Brotherhood) has created lots of off shoots but there is little doubt now that the most organised and most violent is Islamic State. Palestinain journalist Abdul Bari Atwan estimates that its fighters now number 70,000. They come from several countries, continents and backgrounds, drawn to a cause which non of us can understand. I wonder if they really know what the cause is?

It is truly astonishing that this group has grown so quickly and has taken on the army of Iraq and won. But most shocking of its short life have been the assassinations of western and then Japanese civilians. This has been done without mercy and their horrible deaths have been professionally stage managed for maximum impact.

It is of grave concern that there appears to be no real plan either by neighbouring countries or indeed the coalition to eradicate them as a force, even if their torrid ideology won’t be so easily defeated. Perhaps the lead Jordan is now taking to avenge the horrific murder of its pilot will bring some greater urgency to end IS’s growth before the rest of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

It seems the state that is currently safest from this evil is ironically Israel, the one state that normally unites the Arab street in wanting it. To be pressurised toned it’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

The Arab Spring has been unkind to Palestinians. Palestinian refugees in Syria have once again been dispossessed and displaced and many have faced starvation and siege in refugee camps. The degradation in the capability of of Arab armies in Iraq and Syria has removed the military deterrent to Israel, such as it existed. The changing political scene in Egypt has also hurt Palestinians, with Gaza scene as a problem and Hamas as terrorist organisation.

Looking ahead then, the nightmare continues and can only end in my view with some exceptional leadership both religious and political.

The Arab Spring which morphed into the Arab Nightmare needs to move quickly to an Arab awakening.