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Middle East Press ( 21 Feb 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

France, Israel And Palestine: Same As It Ever Was?: New Age Islam's Selection, 22 February 2016

New Age Islam Edit Bureau

22 February 2016

France, Israel and Palestine: Same As It Ever Was?

By John Bell

How Putin Is Winning In Syria

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Saad Hariri versus the ‘Supreme Leader’

By Khairallah Khairallah

Syria between Two Theatres

By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau


France, Israel and Palestine: Same As It Ever Was?

By John Bell

21 Feb 2016

While Syria burns and great powers run towards collision there, the French government has formally put forward a new initiative for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The three-step process (consults with both sides, convene an international support group, and convene an international summit to restart talks) is the brainchild of now former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

Despite Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, the French government feels that this ageing conflict is central to the problems of the region and needs to be resolved. In this view, disenfranchised and occupied Palestinians remain at the heart of Arab grievance.

The proposed initiative follows a familiar pattern, and indeed some would say it is outdated. So far, there is no reason to believe it will go anywhere because the political stars are not aligned today in its favour.

Upfront - Does The Israeli Occupation Fuel 'Extremism'?

There is no real interest in it on the Israeli side, and Palestinian demands have not changed. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki has said that Palestinians will "never" return to direct talks with Israel; they naturally seek the multilateralism that France is proposing.

US Won't Give Up Primacy

The Americans are also not likely to give up their primacy in this process to the French. Instead, Washington promises future re-engagement, possibly, a la Clinton 2000, in the narrow and tricky window between the November elections and the January presidential inauguration.

Indeed, like the refrain from the Talking Heads song, the Israel-Palestine conflict remains "same as it ever was". The Obama Administration is busy elsewhere: the expanding troubles in Syria and a region upending itself in new troubles every day are rather all-consuming.

The French have added a twist to their proposal: if Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS movement.

The French have added a twist to their proposal: If Israel rejects it, they may recognise a Palestinian state adding to a growing international climate against occupation marked by the BDS movement.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the option of engaging France sufficiently, if only to buy time, until a new US president comes to office.

The Israeli prime minister may try to walk the tightrope between his right-wing base and international pressure until a president closer to his liking and inclinations enters the scene.

The deeper problem with this initiative is the gap between the salons and the situation on the ground. In Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, the situation remains perilous.

Lack of Political Horizon

The lack of political horizon is a breeding ground for violence, and despite illusions, the Israeli PM cannot keep the situation fully contained. This is why some Israeli officials, including some in the defence and security sectors, are encouraging a more serious engagement with the French.

The same gap between reality on the ground and talk tragically applies in Syria where the Geneva talks were abruptly interrupted by air strikes by one of its sponsors, alongside a bold military move by one of the protagonists.

Such interruptions are sadly reminiscent of destructive actions in Israel and Palestine in the 1990s that regularly upset the apple cart of negotiations and ultimately cast them into the dustbin.

Under such conditions, why would the French put it forward at this time? Some point to the ego of a departing foreign minister who wished to leave a legacy behind, or the vestigial legacy of a waning power pining to play a role.

Less cynically, it may simply be a real belief by the French government that the question of Israel and Palestine needs to be resolved.

However, if this wish cannot be translated into results or influence the grander scheme, it will deteriorate into yet another endless and fruitless process - and therein lies the rub.

The lessons from Syria abound. On that file, some have already stated that "diplomacy that perpetually and falsely holds out the prospect of imminent progress can end up providing cover and an excuse for inaction".

This may not be the French intention, but there may be plenty of diplomatic room for an Israeli prime minister to have yet another "excuse for inaction" towards a permanent solution.

Diplomacy can be a very attractive process. It has the virtue of being "jaw jaw" rather than "war war", and it is often seductive to those involved because if feels as if something exciting and high level is going on, even when nothing is. It can also always be excused by the compelling argument that it is always better to try rather than not.

Diplomacy Is Handmaiden of Policy

However, the gap between the lakesides in Geneva and the hells of Homs or the darkness in Hebron can be vast. A process that neither reflects realities nor connects to them risks consequential failure: After Camp David 2000, an Intifada broke out; after US Secretary of State John Kerry's recent attempt on Israel-Palestine, violence broke out, including in Jerusalem and Gaza.

After expectations are raised and unmet, even subtly, there are reactions; diplomacy is not without its consequences.

The reality is also that diplomacy is inevitably the handmaiden of policy. If there is no policy, as in the case of the US over Syria, then the implication is clear: Diplomacy is only a process that can be used or abused by those with clearer policies, for better or worse.

Traditional diplomacy (not the preventive variety) works when the situation on the ground is ripe enough for the sides to put aside war for politics, or when there is enough goodwill or political will in the highest circles to make the crucial difference.

Otherwise, diplomacy is often part and parcel of a larger strategy that includes changing conditions on the ground.

It is Russia and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the Israeli government in the West Bank and Jerusalem that have cynically but effectively used this approach. Settlements grow, Assad gains ground, while diplomats talk - even sometimes because diplomats talk instead of their countries taking action.

Whether the French have a clear and sustainable policy in this case remains to be seen. It may well be that the French are serious about recognition of a Palestinian state should their initiative be rejected by Israel.

That, at least would be a policy with some teeth. It may also be that the French initiative may co-opt the Israeli prime minister into a process where he has to make concessions that he was previously unwilling to consider. Or, more grandly, it is a step on the march towards summoning sufficient international pressure to resolve the problem.

The jury is out and the initiative may be worth a try. As some great and many trite philosophers have promised, process is a natural part of life. However, in a conflict that has gone on for over four generations, what Israelis and Palestinians need are results - and a sense of clear responsibility (and policy) by those pursuing diplomatic action.

John Bell is director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as a political adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.



How Putin Is Winning In Syria

By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

22 February 2016

When Vladimir Putin first committed himself to the Syrian conflict, many commentators, including myself, thought that he was taking a large and potentially very costly gamble: if he got bogged down in Syria like the Soviets did in Afghanistan, this could well be the end of his regime and that would have spelled trouble for the whole of Russia as well.

But it now seems safe to conclude that his gamble has paid off. Spectacularly so. There are three reasons why this worked out well for Putin: the Russian domestic economy, its regional influence in the Middle East, and its relationship with Europe.

Even as of now, Russia is not in a good place. It was widely reported last year that the Russian economy is in the doldrums. Both the real economy and the government’s revenues in the country are hugely over-reliant on oil and commodities more broadly. The prices of all those things are still at uncomfortably low levels.

And what is more, with the slowdown of China, and the expectation looming around the world that we are heading into a new global slowdown, the chance that oil and commodity prices will bounce back soon is virtually zero. Nor is there anything else in the economic forecasts to suggest that the Russian economy will be boosted by any other factors.

But this is no longer reported on – either in the international media or in Russia. There is precious little Putin can do about fixing the Russian economy in the short term, and he has squandered 15 years of being in government not restructuring the economy away from natural resources and towards high-value, high-growth sectors. But what he can do is distract attention from these facts. And with the intervention in Syria, he is doing that brilliantly.

Secondly, there is the key issue of influence in the Middle East. For decades, regional influence in the region was exercised both by the U.S. and by Russia in the form of backing competing strong-man regimes. With President Obama’s moves towards a more “ethical” foreign policy, and the backing we the West have given to the Arab Spring, many of our client dictators in the region have been toppled: most notably Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia.

There are three reasons why this worked out well for Putin: the Russian domestic economy, its regional influence in the Middle East, and its relationship with Europe

The others, such some Gulf states and the Israelis are shifting very uncomfortably in their seats, as the U.S. is not only failing to back them repeatedly, but has also gone out of its way to achieve a détente with their arch-enemy, Iran. There may be very many reasons why the deal with Iran was a good thing. But we must appreciate that many of our regional allies will not be very pleased about it.

By contrast, Russia is sticking by its clients in the region, and is taking significant risks to do so. The Assad regime has been Russian allies for over half a century. And when Syria was threatened, Putin backed them with money, weapons, intelligence, and ultimately, boots on the ground. Regimes in the region are watching very closely.

If Russia succeeds in keeping Assad in office, they will be seen as a much more reliable ally than the U.S. Fragile regimes who do not feel confident that the U.S. has their back may well start gravitating towards the Russian sphere of influence.

Europe’s Woes

Lastly, it has already been observed by some commentators that Syria is a huge problem for Europe. And Europe’s woes are Putin’s gain. Let us not forget that Russia is still stuck in a frozen war in Ukraine. Just as it has annexed Crimea, it also continues to wreak havoc on its former client through that war, but also through economic sanctions.

The Europeans have initially provided what for Putin was an unexpectedly robust response to that crisis, and it has led to a breakdown of relations between Putin and Merkel who had been on very good terms before. But the Syrian crisis has been the major factor behind the ongoing European migration crisis. And the migration crisis is tearing the EU and individual EU member states apart politically.

European governments have to contend with the rise of ultra-nationalist factions in their domestic politics, the Schengen agreement of open borders in Europe is teetering on the edge, and the financial burden of absorbing the migration is pushing states like Greece, already economically fragile, ever closer to the abyss. In these circumstances, Europe’s leaders no longer have the time or resources to engage with the Ukraine situation. They have far too many things on their plates just keeping everything together at home.

We are thus left on the defensive, on all these fronts, and Putin can just keep rubbing salt on our wounds, as the West is wobbling. It is hard to conceive how Putin could get more out of the Syrian war than he is already getting.

Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.



Saad Hariri versus the ‘Supreme Leader’

By Khairallah Khairallah

22 February 2016

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri touched upon several important issues in his speech delivered recently. The most important part of his speech was: “Lebanon will not be, under any circumstances, an Iranian province. We are Arabs, and Arabs we shall remain.” This goes on to show that there is awareness as far as the dangers of Iranian expansionism is concerned.

Hariri was speaking at an event marking the 11th anniversary of his father Rafiq Hariri's assassination. Throughout his speech, he referred to efforts being made to get rid of his father’s legacy. He said he was aware of the plots against Lebanon since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insisted on extending the term of former Lebanese president Emile Lahoud.

This was followed by a surge in assassinations, the 2006 war with Israel, an attempt to establish an Islamic emirate in northern Lebanon, and a sit-in in downtown Beirut intended to destroy the country’s economy and the city centre.

Connecting Links

All these events, followed by the invasion of Beirut and the Shouf Mountains by Hezbollah in May 2008, must be recalled. The party imposed itself on government formation by armed forces in order to humiliate the Sunnis and Christians, and to prepare for Hariri’s departure from Lebanon due to serious threats to his life.

 There is a “supreme leader” of Lebanon called Hassan Nasrallah who decides who will be president - Lebanese deputies are only required to validate what he decides

The link between these events appears today in the form of the presidential vacuum imposed by Hezbollah. It boycotted sessions to elect a president after it decided to participate in a sectarian conflict against the Syrian people by a ruling minority that has no legitimacy. Hezbollah will not elect a president unless its conditions are met - first and foremost, to have the final say in Lebanon, especially in presidential elections.

In his speech Hariri highlighted the risk of Hezbollah’s ambitions materializing. The danger lies in its desire to indirectly change the nature of the Lebanese system. There is a “supreme leader” of Lebanon called Hassan Nasrallah who decides who will be president - Lebanese deputies are only required to validate what he decides.

Hariri emphasized that Lebanon’s president is elected by parliament and will not be chosen by Nasrallah. He said he would give his blessing to whosoever is elected. There is resistance to the take-over of Lebanon.

Khairallah Khairallah is an Arab columnist who was formerly Annahar's foreign editor (1976-1988) and Al-Hayat's managing editor (1988-1998).



Syria between Two Theatres

By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

21 February 2016

“This is amazing. We now congratulate each other for being granted asylum status. We rejoice if one of us finds a shelter for himself and his family. We rejoice if a child is still alive after being found in the rubble. We sometimes just wish to find our children’s corpses so that we can bury them.”

This is how Syrian actress Yara Sabri summed up the current life of the Syrian people in a monodrama. She was playing the role of a Syrian woman fighting entrenched behind sandbags in a one-woman play called Under the Sky performed in the Dubai Community Theater & Arts Centre. Contrary to my expectations, the hall was packed with audience. I thought few people would want to watch a political play considering we have been watching political developments in Syria for five years now.

People of Syria are artistic and culturally inclined. Art remains part of their lives wherever they go and live. After the war, they took with them their society consisting of writers, actors, actresses, artists and painters wherever they went. Sabri’s play was very impressive. You can hear some of the audience interacting and even crying as the play reopened everyone’s wounds. The man who sat next to me has lost more than 16 members of his family in Syria. Most of those watching the play had lost near and dear ones. Tragedy has struck almost the entire Syrian population.

In the play Under the Sky – written by Fadia Dalla and directed by Maher Salibi – we do not see anything about ISIS and about sectarian battles. A woman sitting next to me said this is how Syria used to be for all the Syrian people before the regime ripped it apart and decided to destroy it and displace its people.

No War on Terror

The regime has tried and actually succeeded at picturing its confrontation with the majority of the Syrian people as war against terror and a struggle exported to Syria as a religious project. However, the story of the Syrian revolution is like the Libyan and the Yemeni revolutions. It’s the story of the people who could no longer tolerate a life under the rule of violent security and military regimes.

The play reminds us how, before the Syrian revolution, people rejoiced if the bread they received was not rotten. It shows how the regime kept people preoccupied with earning a living, putting food on the table and how it afflicted them with torment. This is why the Syrian people revolted. They did not revolt out of religious or ideological grudges.

We can see the difference between popular sympathy and international carelessness, which has allowed Syria to become the worst tragedy we’ve known since World War II

Do the people know the scale of the tragedy committed against millions of Syrian people? Dalla’s black comedy, with this funny yet painful script, gives us mixed emotions. In one of the scenes, Sabri grabs her phone and takes different pictures of herself while carrying a rifle. “Maybe someone will see this photo and like it (on Facebook),” she says. The scene is followed by moments of silence as she recalls others’ sufferings and says: “What about those drowning in the sea? How will they see how many likes they have on their photos?”

People in Arab countries and the rest of the world certainly sympathize a lot with the Syrian people. However, this sympathy is not being reflected on the ground due to the official opportunist stances by governments. Therefore we can see the difference between popular sympathy and international carelessness, which has allowed Syria to become the worst tragedy we’ve known since World War II.

As long as there is continuous rejection of the wrong status quo, the Syrian cause will not be buried despite the life of displacement and exile and the huge flow of refugees. This is why the war failed to impose what the regime wants.

Whenever we ask ourselves whether the Syrian people can resist and remain steadfast, we realize that with this spirit and persistence, they’re actually capable of overcoming their ordeal and that no matter how successful Assad is at displacing whoever is left of the Syrian people, he will not succeed at planting despair.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.