Israel & Palestine – The Economist got it wrong again


    Anyone who closely follows the conflicts in the Middle East in more than one medium, realizes that is that too often when covered by the mainstream Western media, a wrong  “Western filter” is applied. Unfortunately The Economist is guilty of making that presumption yet again, as well as slightly misrepresenting a few points to give a notion different from reality.

    When reading this Economist article (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21582562-will-palestinian-rulers-gaza-strip-join-talks-their-enemies-not), one would think that the US got the timing for pushing the peace negotiations just right and this is a genuine opportunity for a reform in the Hamas and achieve a long-lasting peace, however the facts on the ground are showing a much different story.

    The first misrepresentation is the sentence “The group said more recently that it would abide by a referendum on a peace deal suggested by Mr Abbas”. As someone that researches and reads every article about Hamas in multiple languages on an almost daily basis, this has come as news to me. I am sure that a reputable publication such as The Economist wouldn’t simply make up this fact, but perhaps it has taken a quote said for a certain audience at a certain time and chose to give it more weight than it should, while ignoring regular contradicting messages. It is not unusual for Hamas or other groups to have one set of response in English for one crowd and another internally, even if this quote has been genuinely said as reported, the overall messages from Hamas have certainly not been those of accepting any deal and looking to change within, rather quite the opposite, blaming Abbas for committing a crime by collaborating with the Israelis by entering into talks.

    The second fact that has been glossed over by The Economist has been Hamas’ charter, which still calls to take over the entire land of Israel (from the River to the Sea, i.e. Tel Aviv and all other Israeli cities included) and to kill all the Jews. Of course this could be changed at any point in time, however the fact is that it has not been changed and it sits quite comfortably with the only agreement Hamas has ever been willing to genuinely accept, which is  a 10 year cease-fire, as opposed to any permanent agreement. Therefore, to ignore these facts and extract from messages coming out of Hamas a sense of a change and a willingness to move forward towards peace is extremely far-fetched and misleading.

    The Western filter which is applied, and in this case skews reality, is the notion that logic and self-preservation would prevail. This filter is what caused the world to think that the Oslo Accords would finally resolve the conflict. After all, it makes a lot more sense to accept a deal that would better your economic situation tenfold and would still allow you access to the holy sites for the price of lands, which you don’t currently inhabit anyway, rather than continuing to sink even deeper into economic dire and have your movement restricted as well as be under foreign rule. Another example would be the surprise around the election of the extremist Hamas by the people of Gaza in 2006, knowing that electing a party that calls for an uncompromizing confrontation with Israel would severely damage their quality of living and future (a fact that should have trumped the concern of the corruption of Fatah party).

    The “Western filter” could be observed regularly by both politicians and journalists when covering other cultures. For example, the inexplicable behavior of North Korea or Iran to the sanctions, which in N. Korea’s case has apparently already caused the death of millions and in the latter case, is bringing a country, which is sitting on a treasure in the form of oil down rapidly, causing some of its civilians t literally starve.

    The media’s rule is to bring the truth and apply balanced and credible interpretations to the events taking place. Unfortunately, these days in the US for example Fox and NBC have clear agendas, which clearly depicts a case of cherry picking quotes and information to support the already existing narrative.

    It is not until every claim for a change of policy would be backed up by multiple quotes to multiple audiences or facts from the ground that show a real change in policy. It is not until every interpretation of actions wouldn’t be done by the “local reporter”, rather than by an academia Subject Matter Expert. It is not until the Media regains its credibility by reporting facts in a balanced way, that we could go back to believing what we see and read. until then we would still be manipulated to think what the editors of the network think or are paid to push and it would be up to us to do the necessary research.

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Israel-Palestine peace talks, this time it’s (not) different


    One would consider it a very peculiar time to try to re-ignite the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since not only is the issue so complex and there are some irreconcilable differences, but there is also turmoil in the region, which makes things even more complicated. So why is Obama pushing this now?

    In the relatively short span of time the conflict in Syria, it has accumulated more deaths than the entire Israeli Palestinian conflict, compared with the tactics, duration versus body count and likelihood to continue there should be no doubt, which of the two conflicts should be dealt with first. Also, not too far from there Egypt, a country of approximately 80 million people, is facing bankruptcy and instability, there are already deaths in the streets as they struggle for some form of democracy and there is no sign of a slow down, if anything, the animosity is growing and the Islamists fighting in the Sinai peninsula is increasing. If those conflicts are not dealt with, it will continue to spill to neighbouring countries and many Muslims will die as well as suffer poverty and displacement. Yet if you try to find the official American policy on these conflicts, you would struggle, as there is very little said and even less done (at least publicly).

    Many Americans welcome a president that is not keen to jump into another foreign war, which would no doubt cost billions of dollars, result in American casualties and may damage further the American reputation around the world. However, a lack of an American response leaves the space open for intervention by other players, which is why  Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Russia and even China getting involved in the Syrian conflict. The involvement of foreign powers and lack of the US’s participation, is undoubtedly damaging the American reputation, since they are seen as a weak country that has abandoned its policy of supporting democracy around the world. Another damage to the reputation was no doubt a rookie mistake of defining a red line for the intervention in Syria, i.e. use of chemical weapons, and then not following through it. It is already bad practice to publicly define a red line, since essentially you are revealing your position as well as committing yourself to an action determined by the other side, but to then falter and find excuses is a much worse outcome then keeping quiet all along

    Yet with all that going on in the Middle East, Obama has decided to get his Secretary of State to concentrate his efforts on trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by getting the sides to sit down at the table again.

    One of the reasons for the timing could be the assumption that because of the Syrian war, which has caused a disconnect between Hamas and  Iran and Syria and following the fall of Morsi, which to an extent supported Hamas, the organization is at its lowest point and this could be the best time to reach an agreement and drive Hamas out of the picture.

    It is true that this is a good reason and the timing is crucial, however, the external circumstances bring with them more complications than opportunity. For example one of the burning topics, which is the right for Palestinian refugees and their offsprings to return to the land. Until the situation in Syria stabilizes, there is little chance that anyone would agree their fate. There is no guarantee that Assad’s regime wouldn’t simply commit massacres in the refugee camps (as have been reported to be done already) or for the Sunnis to fully accept them. Until their situation is resolved, the conflict cannot be truly resolved, as until they are accepted as full-fledged citizens in the different countries there would always be a yearning to return (or in most cases move) to the land. 

    The other issues is the security of Israel, while Islamists are taking positions in both Egypt and Syria there is no guarantee for Israel’s security. Defining the borders and letting the Palestinians guard them is not an acceptable option for Israel. Israel is already dealing with a situation in Gaza, in which, even if Hamas tries to avoid conflict, it claims it cannot control the rogue groups who continue firing rockets. Learning from that dynamics between small groups and government, means that allowing the replication of this situation on the 67 borders is not something Israel could ever accept.

    The instability in the area is also a factor in the sense that whatever agreement is reached it would have to be backed by the neighbouring states. They would have to first accept the deal and then guarantee that they would not act against it. For example it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Egypt, Jordan and Syria would agree to any movement of people into or out of their territory as a result of sorting out the refugee problem. Nor should it be assumed that the resource allocation such as water and land is automatically accepted either. The question of Jerusalem is also an issue that needs to be approached carefully with the neighbours, who consider it a holy Muslim site and may worry how their consent to an agreement determining its fate, might be perceived in the Arab world.

    One of the other external influences is the intervention of the EU, which was extremely unwelcome by Israel. The new EU policy was an attempt to push Israel into the negotiations, by trying to wither any attempt to grow a business outside of the 67 borders. On the face of it, it looks like a reasonable demand, however, when one looks carefully one would understand the irrelevance and damage this policy is doing. The irrelevance is because the borders have not been determined yet, so they would potentially be boycotting and therefore destroying businesses, which might sit in legitimate future Israeli land. The damaging effect is even greater, since while the owners of these places are Israeli, the workers tend to be Palestinians, so as these factories close more Palestinians would go unemployed and it was done in such a way that Israel is not obliged in any way to increase the working visas of Palestinians inside of Israel, therefore leaving Palestinians worse off. The other damage this policy is doing is destroying the only islands of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no love between the two groups, but a shared goal and reliance on each other does contribute to stability.

    One more factor which has been pushed a side for now in both initiating the talks and unfortunately by the mainstream media is the strong opposition of Hamas to any talks. Hamas is still in control in Gaza and gaining popularity in the West Bank. It is true that it is going through a difficult financial crisis, but it is not down yet and reports have already come out of Hamas is reconciling with Iran, which would mean more financial support and no agreement to any deal reached unless Iran agrees to it too (not very likely prospect under any condition). It must also be remembered that the Fatah leadership involved in the talks are mainly old men in their 70’s and do not necessarily represent the entire Palestinian people, certainly not the more religious groups.

    So, while the motives to kickstart the peace talks are dubious, the timing is difficult and there is really no breakthrough in any of the core issues that have caused the failure of all other talks, it is still a positive move to get the sides talking, which would hopefully get both sides one step closer towards a future agreement. One notable difference this time though is that these talks are not taking center stage, in the news broadcasts around the Western world for example, this hardly made it into the headlines, whereas a decade ago, not a single reputable broadcasting company would have dared not start the news with such developments possibly overshadowed only by a local disaster.

    It will be interesting to see what the news will bring 9 months from now, however, I don’t think that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians believe that the conflict is really going to be resolved that quickly

2 Years on and what about Israel


    It has been years that things looked very bleak for Israel in the Middle East. Hamas was gaining power, Hezbollah has engaged in conflict and was since training and  re-arming for the next one, Syria supporting movement of weapons to Hezbollah, Egypt not doing much to stop the weapons into Gaza and Jordan slaying its policies at every turn. At the same time in the outer ring, Iran was continuing its nuclear weapon program and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, Turkey was becoming more religious and alienating itself from Israel, while supporting Hamas and finally the negotiations with Fatah were at a deadlock.

    However, then something unexpected happened and parts of the Middle East started burning. Changing the game completely.

    Looking back 2 years many things have happened that despite the chaos make more sense. For example, there has always been a tear between Shia and Sunni Muslims. This difference, which  is religious based, goes back many years and a great deal of blood has been spilled over it. However, it was always odd to see the cooperation between Sunni and Shia when it came to fighting Israel. As ambivalent as they made themselves seem, the Palestinians have always been a majority of Sunnis and therefore for Shia Iran to support them was unusual to say the least. Like gravity versus inertia, there was always a force pulling them down, however, it was almost invisible once the much stronger force pushing them together was at play.

    Another odd example was the rule of the minority of Alawaites in Syria, which was secular, yet supporting Hezbolla and at the same time hosting the Hamas leadership, both ultra religious groups of Shia and Sunni respectively. What is still peculiar in respect to the Syrian-Iranian relationship is that Alalwaite and Shia have very little in common, apart from the fact that they are grossly outnumbered by Sunnis in the world. In fact, many of the Alwaites traditions would seem foreign as well as sinful to Shia, who choose to look beyond the differences as well as Iran an ultra religious regime allied with a secular state.

    However, as they say a leopard cannot change its spots and it was only a matter of time until a catalyst ended this pretence.

    Since the uprising two very important things happened. The first one was the pressure that was created with the fierce fighting and extremely high number of casualties, which forced all groups to declare their allies. While the Palestinians would have liked to stay on the fence in regards to the conflict, they could not ignore the harassment and number of dead Palestinians at the hand of the Assad regime and as a result chose their natural Sunni side. On the other hand, Hezbollah has stayed loyal to its Iranian patron and has since openly declared its involvement in the fighting.

    The second byproduct was the pushing the Palestinian issue off the table. As far as the Arab world was concerned, once the glue that kept them all together was no longer effective, there was no reason to continue to support it. The Palestinian have been sidelined, as the regimes fight to keep control and stabilize their countries. Who still cares about the descendants of the 300,000  refugees that fled Israel over 60 years ago and  are now settled in neighbouring countries, when there are now over a million displaced Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan? Or When a country as big as Egypt is on the brink of bankruptcy and the streets are still riddled with anti government demonstrations. This change in attitude has manifested itself in many forms, for example Egypt, run by the Hamas’ mother group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is currently imposing more restrictions on Hamas than Mubarak ever did. Destroying the smuggling tunnels, stopping weapon shipments, restricting border movement and applying pressure for them to avoid a conflict with Israel. The Syrians on the other hand have expelled Hamas’ headquarters from Damascus and Iran just recently stop supporting Hamas with weapons and reduced their financially aid.

    As far as the Western media, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will probably always gain some media attention, especially by the professionals dedicated to keep it in the headlines, in comparison in scale to what is happening around, it has shrunk and in some ways almost disappeared. Not only is it hard for the media outlets to favor such a relatively tiny and controlled conflict in comparison to the turmoil around, but the politics have blatantly conflicted with the usual narrative, making it a very long stretch to relate the events from the surrounding countries back to Israel. For example, Assad complaining that it is Israeli intervention that is pushing the rebels doesn’t sit well with the fact that Hamas, Israel’s sworn enemy has chosen the rebels side. There are other inconsistencies such as the Iranian role and change of heart about Hamas, which all point back to the same conclusion that it is a Muslim sectarian war.

    A new villain that has not come well from local uprisings has been Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey. On a few occasion he has already exposed his propensity for drama and uncontrolled anger, which is not necessarily followed through, like in the case of the Flotilla, after which he exclaimed that every flotilla travelling to Gaza would be escorted by Turkish war vessels, which never took place. While this was easy for the media to ignore, it was less easy for people to question the toughness towards Israel killing the 7 people onboard the flotilla in to say the least dubious circumstances, as opposed to the acceptance of Syria shooting down a Turkish plane killing two fighter pilots or regularly shooting into Turkish border towns. However, the recent events have landed him in the most negative exposure after his bad handling of the demonstration in Gezi park for the people opposing turning the public green space into a shopping mall. The casualties and evidence of police brutality against the Turkish people have earned him some very bad publicity.

    So while the region is burning and some taboos have been broken, such as rockets fired on Israeli territory from the Syrian side for the first time in decades and Egypt seriously considering renegotiating the peace treaty terms, the threats on Israel have reduced. While the terror attacks might grow and Israeli lives might be disrupted, apart from the Iranian nuclear program, Israel has little threat to its existence by its crumbling neighbours. In fact in the latest developments, the rebels have managed to injure Hezbollah in a way that Israel never could and Hamas’ weapon arsenal and money stocks are depleting, which would ultimately make it more focussed internally and less of a trouble for Israel.

    However, one must remember that this is the Middle East and not only is nothing forever, but things don’t necessarily have to make sense either.

Not The Usual Mess In The Middle East


    The recent events in the Middle East at a glance looks like one big mess. One could think that not much in the region  makes any sense anymore. It seems that everyone is fighting everyone and historic alliances have suddenly been broken. Moreover any involvement or prediction by the West, such as the positive effects on Arab countries establishing free democractic regimes have proved to be completely wrong.

    However, if one looks at the events and the background, one could see that it was up until now that things did not make sense and now there is finally a more logical explanation to some of the oddities that were prevalent before.

    The most extreme example would be the alliance between Sunni Hamas, Shia Hezbollah, Shia Iran and Alawaite Syria. The alliance that makes sense is Shia Iran with the Shia group Hezbollah, they share the same values and sect of Islam and Iran has helped set up Hezbollah and has been its main sponsor ever since. It is perhaps slightly less obvious that the Syrian Alawaite regime is also part of this alliance. However, despite the different roots and other fundamental differences the Shias consider that sect to belong to the same stream and therefore sees it as an ally opposing the Sunni sect.

    While those alliances, even if not perfectly, could somehow be explained, what really hasn’t made sense so far has been the alliance between the Sunni group Hamas and the other Shia players. Despite the media’s obsession with the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is naive to think that the animosity towards Israel surpasses the age-long Shia-Sunni divide. Considering the longevity (since ancient times), number of people(1.5 billion Muslims with 10%-20% being Shia) and the religious background (fundamental difference in belief). One could be forgiven for thinking that hating Israel is no more than an excuse to rally the Muslim world around a common cause. After all, before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Shias saw themselves as a natural ally to the Jewish state of Israel, in its struggle against the threat of Sunni Muslims.

    In order to understand how this “small-scale” conflict could bring together two major players, it is important to look at the relations between countries in the Middle East leading up to the time.

    Before the Western intervention in the Middle East, the region was divided to tribes.There was no division of “countries”, rather everyone was Arab and there was a belonging to a tribe and/or a group of people. For example the Hashemite’s, which make up Jordan today, the Assyrians, which make up Syria…etc. After World War I, the Western intervention divided the region up and created the basis of the countries today. However, while creating countries, they bundled together some of the groups (Druze, Sunnis, Shia, Kurdish, Christian…etc.) and they did not create democracies. The intervention has left the region with countries with dictators. Over the years there have been “free elections”, however, they have not been real, as control was passed down in the family and even in cases, n which the countries went through the motions of “voting”, it cannot be considered a democracy without the other institutions such as freedom of speech, free press, separation of law and government…etc. .

    While in the West dictators are viewed as a wholly negative feature, in the Middle East there was one noticeable benefit. Since the countries that were formed were not always homogenous, the dictator had the job of keeping the people united. This of course was done via oppression of the masses, however it provided stability to those countries (many would argue it still not worth the price of oppression, however one might look at Iraq and Syria and perhaps not feel quite as strongly about it anymore).

    In many ways the “Arab Spring”  has let the cat out of the bag. The wall of fear between the rulers and the people has been broken, which made the dictators’ job of keeping the stability nearly impossible. The individuals have realized their power and conditions have been so bad that they often feel like they have nothing else to lose and are now couragously fighting for what they believe (in some cases the fighting has been kidnapped by Jihhadist groups, but this is again a matter of convinient alliances to reach a goal). A catalyst for the uprisings has of course been social media and other technical advances, which have contributed to the exposure of the masses to the outside world as well as provided a safer platform to organize and communicate.

    The tensions between the sects have been felt and somewhat exposed in the wikileaks reports. While the authenticity and sincerity in the cables should always be questioned, it was surprising to read statements such as Asad calling Hamas an unwanted guest in his country, or the eagerness the Sunni Arab nations showed in wanting the Iranian nuclear facilities to be bombed. However the events in the Arab world, namely the Arab uprisings since then have confirmed these reports, as Hamas is no longer wanted in Syria and the Sunni countries have increased their oil production to allow the West to execute the sanctions on Iran.

    In the last couple of years the situation in the Middle East changed so much that the false pretence has been broken down and the real dirty politics have come out. The Shia – Sunni conflict is in full swing and  affecting many countries. Ironically all the ethnic groups that were able to play nicely for all these years under an oppressive dictator and sympathize with, what they called, human rights violations of the Palestinians, are now mercilessly slaughtering each other not sparing women and children and seeing millions being displaced. Even Turkey that once declared a zero conflict policy is now bombing Syria as well as trying to manage the internal Kurdish conflict, involving also occasionally bombing areas in North Iraq.

    The group probably worse off from this turn of events is the Palestinians. On the one hand their plight has been pushed aside as a minor issue in light of everything else that is taking place. On the other hand, while the more pragmatic Fatah is losing its place at the top*, Hamas is gaining prestige. The visit to Gaza by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thaniof, the Emir of Qatar just shows how little the Arab countries are interested in a long viable solution in the Middle East and how much this is about alliances and politics (It is almost laughable how a minute after Syria and Iran favour the more radical groups in Gaza over Hamas, Qatar moves in and offers Hamas money and support).

    With the re-election of president Obama it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold. Whereas in his first term Obama was testing the waters and making some junior mistakes as to how to handle Iran and the various revolutions, this time around things might look a little different and every foreign policy decision would no doubt, ripple across the Middle East changing the dynamics between countries and temporary allies.

    It has been said before never to attempt to predict the future in the Middle East. That statement is perhaps more true now than ever.

 

 

 

* Fatah losing its place is one of the worst things for the Palestinians as it seems that as an act of desperation Abbas will be insisting on getting a UN General Assembly recognition for a Palestinian state, probably in order to leave his mark on history, before he is ousted. While a recognition will do nothing for the Palestinians, other than give them the ability to fight Israel legally in various UN organizations. It will mean an immediate economic collapse as the US will cease any aid and banish their representatives from Washington, as well as Israel potentially withdrawing the Oslo agreements, in which they collect tax money for them, as well allow workers into Israel.

The Heart of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


There is a conception amongst people, who learn about the Israeli Palestinian conflict from the media, that the negotiations are not going on because the Palestinians have set a condition to stop the expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and Israel would not or is unable to comply. This statement is partially true, however, anyone thinking that this is the heart of the conflict or that the ongoing settlement is the issue that needs to be tackled is missing the most important point altogether.

The conflict started well before the Second World War, when Jews started arriving to Israel from Europe. It is important to mention that there were already Jews in the land, however they were a minority at the time (The fact they were a minority was a result multiple expulsions from foreign rulers such Shalmaneser V,  Nebuchadnezzar II, the Greeks, the Romans, etc). Since historically there has always been  friction between Jews and Arabs,  due to the different faiths, manifesting itself in the violence and discrimination in the Arab lands where Jews lived, the Arabs were already wary of the immigration and the prospect of becoming a minority in the future.

Due to the Arab’s fear, in the beginning of the 1900’s the local Arabs fought both on the ground and politically trying to restrict the arrival of Jews to the land. Following the Balfour declaration of making the land the home of the Jews, they put great pressure on the British mandated ruler to stop the Jewish population growth by restricting Jewish immigration.

The British realising that this is a problem set up the Peel Commission to find ways to settle the dispute. The gist of the commission’s conclusions, after conducting a thorough investigation including interviewing leading figures on both sides, was that it is not likely that Jews and local Arabs would be able to live side by side. There is an animosity between them and as Arabs would not be happy living under a Jewish rule, the Jews would not be happy living under an Arab rule (the Zionist movement’s aim was to establish a Jewish leadership rather than returning to being a minority under a foreign rule). Therefore the most conceivable conclusion would be to divide the land to Jewish and Arab.

It would be unfair to history to claim that the Jews happily accepted the Peel Commission’s conclusions. It is reported that some of the Jewish leaders who came had big plans to turn the entire land to be their own. Backed up by European consent and their biblical and historical ties to the land, they believed that it was their  right to live on the land and turn it completely to a Jewish state, where Jews could return and be free. According to historians such as Ben Morris, it was the start of  WW II and other practical reasons that made the Jewish leadership realise that the ambition of owning the whole state is unachievable and therefore agree to a territorial division.

On the Palestinian side things were viewed quite differently. They did not want a Jewish state on the land. The Palestinian leadership wanted to maintain the Arab majority, which rules over the Jews, who were present prior to the European immigration. When Britain suggested the division, the Jews accepted it, while the Palestinians refused. When the UN voted on the partition plan in 29 of November 1947, the Jewish representatives accepted it and curbed the “Revisionists” groups, who claimed that land compromises should not be made. The Palestinians on the other hand rejected the vote and declared a war, described by some of their leaders as a war of extermination. Ultimately and possibly against all odds the Arab nations lost the war and Israel was founded.

Since the founding of Israel the Palestinians have rejected the idea of a Jewish rule. Even after their big defeat in the six days war in 1967 they were adamant to rule the whole land and accordingly they replied to peace talks with the conclusion of their conference in Khartoum in Sudan with the famous 3 no’s (No to peace, no to negotiation and no to recognition  of Israel).

The fear Israeli rulers have always had is that the Palestinians are adhering to what has become known as the “Phased Plan”. This plan is claimed to be the Palestinian pragmatic strategy, which is attributed by some historians to the “moderate” Palestinian leaders. This approach, as stated in the PLO resolution in 1974, involves accepting a settlement to establish a Palestinian Statehood, however then to continue an armed struggle, until the entire land is liberated. This resolution has been talked about and agreements have been made to change it (during the Oslo Accords), however it has never been modified.

The fear of Israel that making concessions would not lead to peace, rather give the Palestinians a better grounding to continue their struggle has dominated  several negotiations and peace conferences between Israel and Palestinians. In some of these talks some breakthroughs have been made, resulting in Israel handing over control over land and cooperation, however they always side-stepped two main issues: Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

Jerusalem is a complex issue as a holy place to three religions, neither party wants to hand over control, there have already been suggestions on how to resolve it (for example an international rule or division of the city to East and West sections), however, no one has had the courage or deemed it is the right time to take this big step.

The second point about the refugees goes straight into the heart of the issue and is possibly never properly explained in the mainstream media. The Palestinians demand justice for their people by allowing them to return to their houses, which they fled as part of the conflict. Even though many of the people are already dead, they deem their descendants have the right to return. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable request, which would help the Palestinian feel that justice has been done and therefore accept a long-term settlement. However in reality this issue causes great concern to Israel and is much more complex.

In 1948 there were an estimated 7000,000 refugees that fled the land. In 2012 their descendants are estimated to be just under 5 million. If those 5 million return to Israel and therefore become citizens, the Arabs would immediately  become a political majority and Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish State. Therefore this request, which is often presented as a minor dispute over territory, in its current capacity trumps any talks, as land division would be meaningless, if Israel loses its Jewish majority and hence Jewish rule.

Once the Jews become a minority two scenarios are likely to occur. In the first scenario, the Arab rule will preside and Israel will become a country made of two major ethnic groups. Judging on the treatment of other religions such as Christianity in the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries such as Egypt as well as the experience of the jews who have fled from Arab countries,  the future is looking very bleak. Especially with the recent re-birth of Islamic rule as a result of the Arab uprisings, which is sweeping the region.

The second scenario is that the Jews would maintain their rule and preserve their values. However, preserving their values and rules is compatible with being a minority in this situation, as one of the main values of Israel is a free democracy. In order for the Jews to preserve control, they would have to employ tactics of an Apartheid country, something which would find many opposers both internationally and at home.

The repercussions of the demographics on Israel may at times sound like a conspiracy theory, as there are some assumptions made such as all refugees would choose to return, all Arabs will vote the same…etc. However considering the military balance, whichgives Israel the upper hand inthe region, it is the Palestinians’ best prospect to regain control of the whole land. It is then no surprise that many of Israel’s harshest critics such as Norman Finkelstein, George Galloway and other Palestinian figures have abandoned the two state solution and are calling for a one state.

Since the Palestinian refugees right to return issue is far from being resolved, the prospect for an imminent peace is minimal if not non-existent. So, it is unlikely to be any progress, before the Palestinian leadership and the international community would address specifically what rights the Palestinian refugees should get, using as a basis the other refugees in the world, who have been settled after a conflict, possibly starting with the Jews who fled Arab countries.

Arab Spring Turning into a Bitingly Cold Winter


 

    As the winter months are upon us and in the Northern Hemisphere we feel the cold weather, so do we start to realize the true error of what we called the “Arab Spring”. The term Arab Spring is based on the “Spring of the Nations”, which took place in 1848. It was in fact a series of revolutions which took place in the world, without any apparent central coordination and opposed the multi-national empires. The revolutions extended achievements are somewhat debated, but it was certainly a big step towards giving every country more power to rule itself.

    The Arab Spring started in a somewhat similar way, while there was no apparent central coordination; people in the street rose against their absolute leader and demanded more control. However, unfortunately, this is where most of the similarities end. Unlike Europe and the world at the time, the Middle East did not have a limited number of empires that ruled the region. In fact it was quite the opposite, each country in the Middle East has/had its own ruler and the revolution was never about breaking the rulings into smaller chunks, so that the leader truly represents the local interests.

     In the Middle East the countries already have local rulers, who were supposed to look after the local interests. The real dispute is whether they were actually doing it, as well as the fact that they could not be replaced by a democratic procedure, if they weren’t.

    When the Egyptians started gathering in Tahrir Square, many people criticized Obama for not responding quickly enough to the government crackdown. The “common wisdom” accused him for not doing so, because of Mubarak’s positive attitude towards the West. However, while that might be partly true, there is another bigger issue. Like many others, Obama didn’t know who would come next. While accepting that democracy is a positive process as a whole, Obama like many other leaders appreciated that true democracy is not something achieved overnight.

    Many people consider democracy the act of the people putting ballots into voting boxes and then giving the power to he/she with the most votes, however, this is where most people are mistaken. The action of voting is merely allowing people to participate, however democracy cannot exist without other institutions to support it. For example, how could people form their opinion with the absence of freedom of press? If no mass medium is reporting objectively on what is really happening how could people judge the candidates or their policy? Or even be aware that things could be different?

    Another institution, whose presence is essential, is the Court of Law. How could anyone seek justice or expect the country to be run fairly, when there isn’t a truly independent body that serves as a judge on matters that might be uncomfortable for the government to bear? In a way an objective media can exist only in a country where the law enforcement and courts are fair and independent and therefore can protect it from unfair censorship or retribution.

    While some institutions are missing from democracy, there are some whose presence is a hindrance, for example religion. When religion becomes a political power, democracy is damaged, since in some cases people are made to vote as religion dictates rather than what they truly believe in. Having religious involvement in politics is an issue that can be seen in Western democracies as well. In the Middle East for example, it is said that Israel is getting to a dangerous point, where the religious population is inclined to vote in accordance with the religious leaders, which is hampering the democratic process. It could be argued that it is the people’s choice to become religious, however there are plenty of examples to refute that and argue against its participation in the process of democratic elections. Another worrying example would be the US, which also has a large element of religious votes, however there it is also based on values and there is a true separation between religion and state.

    Returning to the concept of the 1848 Spring of Nations, while in 1848 the countries fought a separate local rule in the Arab Spring, it seems that the end result is turning out to be quite the opposite. In the Arab world, it seems that the religious parties are gaining more power and it is actually more likely that the Muslim Brotherhood movement would have a continuum of control across borders, as they win the majority in every country. Bizarrely this is very reminiscent of the Al-Qaeda goal to have a single Muslim Caliphate rule for region. So in some ways, the partial democracy taking place in the Middle East is pushing the region further away from the West in terms of ideology and consequently commerce and culture.

    However, while the revolutions are taking place and governments are changing, one must remember that in the Middle East many things are in play and therefore do not always seem logical to a Western eye.  As the US is ramping up its pressure on Iran, putting it under more economic constraint and possibly stopping its nuclear power, the result might invoke a regime change and possibly a decline as a key player for the foreseeable future. In the same breath it could be argued that despite the militant stance the Al-Nour  (Al Qaeda inspired Salafi party in Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, have declared in their election campaign, once they start to govern they will find it difficult to give up the US financial aid ($1.5 billon a year according to Forbes magazine), as well as see tourism dithers as a result of their Muslim stance and Westen-phobia, so will become less radical.  Syria has not yet collapsed and the recent talk of a Hamas “kiss and make-up” deal, may harm Hamas and Hezbollah more than they think as Asad loses more legitimacy and sees his army taking more beatings from the rebel army.  This will no doubt have a ripple effect on Lebanon and the Israel/Palestine conflict, which may have a ripple effect on other aspects as well.

 

    So predicting which player will rise, which player will fall and what will the reality look like, once the dust has settled, is currently anyone’s guess.

Shalit’s Release and Other Symptoms


    When astrophysicists investigate the stars they rarely get to witness an event. Sometimes the events are too slow or two fast, but often they do not possess the right tools to give them a clear vision of the object. Despite the limitations, the worlds’ scientists have still made far reaching discoveries. The method they employ is looking at the effect on the other objects. For example by investigating the path of visible surrounding stars they can estimate where gravity is applied and therefore can determine whether there is  star hidden from view or an event such as a supernova has taken place that distorted the expected alignment.

    The Middle East is not so different in this respect. Many of the events are not witnessed, since there is no free press and certainly no access to private meetings between the leaders. Therefore, to decipher what is going on behind the false facade, one must look at the events around and extrapolate the root cause.

    Perhaps the most significant event to take place this week was the agreement of Hamas to release the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the release of some 1000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Shalit has been in Hamas’ custody for over five years and talks have never progressed to the stage of release. There have been many reports about the negotiations and the involved parties, such as the German negotiator, however always resulting in a breakdown and both sides blaming the other.

    So what has changed this time? Certainly not the negotiation terms, but it seems that everything else that is happening around. Israel published a strong stance on not releasing any prisoners who have been convicted for murder of Israelis. This was most likely a negotiation tactic, as Hamas would not be able to politically afford releasing Shalit without getting in return some of their prisoners, who have been convicted for life, however Israel did not release prominent figures such as Baragouti and Saadat, who could become key people back in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas, no doubt, was pushing very hard to release those prisoners, but decided to give up this claim. There has also been a dispute on how many prisoners would be banished from the Palestinian territories, reportedly this was a major dispute in the last round of talks, it is apparent now that Israel conceded slightly, but not gave away that demand.

    The events of the negotiation are directly related to Asad’s rule. Since the Arab Spring reached Syria, Asad’s status has been grossly undermined. The two major factors that are contributing to him staying in power are the fact that most of his generals are still in support of him, unlike in Egypt or Libya, where the close generals turned on their leader, which marked the end, and that Russia and China have been protecting him from any veto in the UN, which would result in a possible NATO attack or more likely sanctions imposed on the regime globally (rather than just US and EU currently).

    Asad’s undermining has consequently damaged Hamas’ status, which he supports heavily. Hamas’ leadership sits in Syria and enjoys freedom of movement as well as an open route used to coordinate support from Iran. The price Hamas pays for Asad’s patronage is unequivocally supporting his regime. This support has already backfired, when Hamas organized for Palestinian refugees to flood the Israeli border in order to create a distraction from the internal Syrian conflict. This unfortunately for Hamas and Asad led to many Palestinian deaths, which in return caused an uprising and subsequently violence between Syria’s army and the Palestinians. So much so, that Hamas in Gaza openly criticized Asad, a gesture that was not well received by its strategic ally Iran.

    Had things stayed as they are Hamas would have probably still been playing the stalling game in regards to Shalit’s release, since time actually was on their side. In Israel the government was under increasing pressure to release Shalit with various gestures aimed to remind the politicians that he is still in captivity. This pressure played straight into Hamas’ hands, who were seen by the Arab world as defiant to Israel, while playing psychological warfare on the Israeli public, by publicizing paintings of Shalit in captivity and often making reference to the government’s reluctance to progress the deal. However, this week Hamas has decided to end this episode and play their most powerful card in the pack. A very likely reason could be that Hamas is seeing the end of their operation in Damascus and are now seeking to boost their support and legitimacy before they find a different regime that would allow them to operate from its territory. If this assumption turns out to be true, then it is definitely a sign of Asad’s regime volatility and vote of no confidence from the Hamas’s leadership.

    Although less in the limelight, but also significant was the reported tensions within the Lebanese coalition, mainly between Hezbollah and Jumblatt, as reported by local Lebanese newspapers. Jumblatt is the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which is secular and mainly representing the Druzes ethnicity in Lebanon. The party’s ideology is in great conflict with the religious Syrian supported party Hezbollah, which is why it was a shock to learn that Jumblatt lent his support to Hezbollah, when they voted Saad Hariri’s government out of power, after his insistence of supporting the UN’s investigation of the assassination of his father (STL).

    Jumblatt starting to make demands on Hezbollah is a clear indication of his belief that their position has been significantly damaged. Other than the pending UN investigation, which will no doubt have some consequences in the international community and internally, the most likely reason would be a weakening of the Syrian government, who currently supplies them with arms, which has made them effectively stronger than Lebanon’s national army.

    These symptoms both show a significant shift away from Asad’s rule and it is leaving less and less doubt that Asad’s time is limited. One of his officers, Colonel Riyad El-Asad, has already started an opposition army and it seems that it is only a matter time until senior officers would follow suit. What is not surprising is that Asad keeps fighting and will do so until the end. Considering he is of the Alawaite faction, which is a clear minority in a predominantly Sunni country, means that the Alawaites are likely to lose their status for a long period of time (nothing is forever in the Middle East) and the tactics used by his father, to violently crush down on any attempt of revolt, cannot be done internally and quietly as in the past, since now every person with a phone can easily upload uncensored images to the web.

    Perhaps only a frivolous man would put a timeline on Asad’s fate, but a reasonable one would predict his demise. The next steps to watch out for is for more allies distancing themselves from Asad and more army personnel defecting or turning against him, but until that happens, we will keep getting reports about tenths of opposition demonstrators being killed almost on a daily basis.