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Middle East Press ( 19 Sept 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Middle East Press on Netanyahu, Lebanon, Bollywood and Arab World: New Age Islam's Selection, 19 September 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Bureau

19 September 2020


• Netanyahu, Peacemaker or Troublemaker?

By Ben Caspit

• Alarm Bells In Arab World

By Nagehan Alçi

• Troubled Lebanon Prey to Foreign Actors Once Again

By Zaid M. Belbagi

• Why Is Turkey Acquiescing to Egypt’s Role in Libya?

By Fehim Tastekin

• Some Call for Federalist System in Lebanon, But Such A System Would Fail

By Rami Rayess

• This Is the Kushner I Met — And Why Abraham Accords Is A Win for Multilateralism

By Ibrahim Shukralla

• Bollywood Makes Me Smile Amid the Lebanese Crisis

By Christiane Waked

• A First Lady Who Speaks of Peace but Prefers War: Anna Hakobyan

By Nur Özkan Erbay



Netanyahu, Peacemaker or Troublemaker?

By Ben Caspit

Sep 18, 2020

The historic normalization agreements that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed in Washington Sept. 15 bring up again a question that has been asked by many throughout his entire era in power. Is the real Netanyahu a peacemaker or troublemaker? Is Netanyahu a pragmatic, visionary leader striving for peace or the exact opposite — a nationalist, right-wing ideologue determined to block what he views as a dangerous peace process with the Palestinians, constantly circumventing the issue and perpetuating the status quo under which Israel continues to control the territories and sweeps the Palestinian problem under the carpet?

The answer is complex. Since Netanyahu is one of the most perplexing figures in Israeli history, the answer would probably be “both.” If you ask Bill and Hillary Clinton, for example, they would choose the latter option. Netanyahu frustrated President Clinton’s efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace in the 1990s, and did the same to the secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) over a decade later. He holds a world record for going around in circles, covering the same ground, with the clear goal of wasting time, exhausting opponents and getting nowhere.

Put the same question to Netanyahu’s supporters in the political center-right or his opponents on the radical right, and you will hear a completely different answer. Netanyahu is not a true ideologue, he is not bound heart and soul to the land of his biblical forefather, he has never built a settlement and he has no qualms about making concessions and signing agreements if he is convinced, they are politically advantageous. In fact, they would tell you that Netanyahu talks out of the right side of his mouth and acts to the left, adopts nationalist rhetoric but implements pragmatic policy, and that Netanyahu’s sole ideology is Netanyahu himself.

The facts in themselves support the contention that Netanyahu is a man of peace. During his first term (1996-99), he recognized the Oslo Accord his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin made with the Palestinians, restored the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian control, signed the Wye River Memorandum with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and conducted serious negotiations with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on peace with Syria and withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

When he returned to power in 2009, Netanyahu picked up where he left off. He delivered a landmark speech at Bar-Ilan University, recognizing the two-state vision, suspended construction in West Bank settlements and conducted renewed negotiations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He twice conducted complex, advanced talks with the Palestinians — the first known as the “London channel,” conducted secretly by envoys from both sides, and the second by Secretary of State John Kerry and US envoy Martin Indyk in 2013 and 2014.

Also, Netanyahu did not go to war. He did not make good on his promise to invade the Gaza Strip and bring down Hamas, he did not engage with Hezbollah in Lebanon — unlike his predecessor Ehud Olmert — and practiced military restraint. Netanyahu is not adventurous and he fears military entanglements, which makes him one of the most defense-oriented prime ministers in Israeli history. He approves far fewer operations across enemy lines than did Olmert and avoids unnecessary risks, especially after the fiasco of the attempted assassination in Jordan of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal 13 years ago. Mossad chiefs and special ops commanders know how hard they have to work to convince Netanyahu to sign off on a complex or risky operation. It is not a matter of his being less courageous than Olmert and his predecessor, the late Ariel Sharon; he is simply less willing to gamble on his future. In Israel, military entanglement is a sure-fire way to political exile or a commission of inquiry. Netanyahu has reduced the chances of such outcomes to a minimum.

On his worldview, Netanyahu’s is a complex personality. As the son of a staunch Zionist revisionist — historian Benzion Netanyahu — he was weaned on right-wing ideology. Over time, his thinking became more nuanced. His current ideology is personal: He truly believes that he must continue to serve as Israel’s prime minister in order to ensure the survival of the Jewish state. Netanyahu is convinced that only he can lead Israel to a safe harbor. His wife Sara Netanyahu said as much, quite clearly and often, including in taped remarks she made 20 years ago. His belief and that of his associates and voters that he is a version of a modern-day Messiah allows him to mould his ideology according to his political needs. When he needs support from the political right, he breaks to the right. When he finds himself corralled by circumstances that require concessions and agreements, he veers to the left, and so on.

A 2001 event provides a glimpse of his true beliefs. At the time, Netanyahu was “between jobs,” after being defeated in the 1999 elections and bowing out of politics. He went to the West Bank settlement of Ofra to visit Geula Hershkovitz, who had lost her husband and son in a terror attack during the second intifada. He arrived with a single aide and asked that the cameras be turned off. His fascinating conversation with the widow and her family, which was taped unbeknownst to him (available on YouTube), was enlightening.

Netanyahu started out talking about international support for Israel, including American support. “I know what America is. America is something that can easily be moved. Moved to the right direction. They say they are for us, but, it’s like … They won’t get into our way. On the other hand, if we do something, they say something. Eighty percent of the Americans support us, it’s absurd. … That administration [Clinton’s] was extremely pro-Palestinian, I was not afraid to manoeuvre there, I was not afraid to clash with Clinton, I was not afraid to clash with the UN. I was paying the price anyway, I preferred to receive the value. Value for the price.”

Netanyahu was then asked why he had not abrogated the Oslo Accord when he took office in 1996. His explanation was illuminating. He could not have abrogated the agreement, he explained, but he interpreted it in a way that allowed him to stop the withdrawals from West Bank territory and the gallop toward the 1967 borderlines. He interpreted the “military sites” from which Israel would not withdraw as “security zones," thereby greatly expanding the areas over which Israel could maintain control under terms of the agreement. The Jordan Valley in its entirety, for example, was declared a “security zone.” In other words, Netanyahu did not rescind the Oslo Accord, he simply left it up in the air, waiting for it to dry up and collapse. And that was what happened, indeed. He managed to hold onto the stick at both ends — to avoid risking his political and international standing by abrogating an agreement Israel had signed, but to block its progress and starve it of oxygen until it expired.

Netanyahu once explained that Israel could be generous in making longitudinal concessions, but it must not withdraw sideways. In other words, giving up the Sinai Peninsula was possible; conceding the Golan Heights could be possible, too; but any concession of lands in the West Bank (sideways) given Israel’s geographic narrowness is a distinct threat to national security. He will therefore conduct eternal negotiations, exhaust his rivals, maneuver endlessly and eventually ink only what he absolutely must, or whatever he gets free, without giving much in return.

That is what occurred in Washington this week. Netanyahu signed an agreement that does not end war, but also does not entail territorial concessions, maintaining his peacemaker image without undermining the right-wing rhetoric that keeps his electoral base loyal. Netanyahu, unlike most people, manages to have a cake and eat it, too.


Alarm Bells in Arab World

By Nagehan Alçi

SEP 19, 2020

Alarm bells have started ringing since deals signed between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel to normalize relations have highlighted the divide between Gulf state rulers and the Arab public.

The agreements were inked at the White House under the umbrella of U.S. President Donald Trump, who trumpeted them as steps toward the end of division and conflict.

Of course, normalizing relations is – in theory – a good step in achieving peace. But if this is at the expense of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians, it brings nothing but chaos.

Coming closer to Israel without protecting the rights of the Palestinians will only deepen divisions in the region. As is the case in Trump's Jerusalem move, the deals will only accelerate the split and increase anger, since the agreements – dubbed the "Abraham Accords" – don’t even mention a two-state solution.

Bahrain and the UAE are not the only ones. The U.S.’ faithful ally Saudi Arabia is probably up next. Egypt has already expressed its support, so the region is very clearly divided between those who align with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people’s suffering and those who oppose it.

Turkey is a key country here, given its relations with both the U.S. and Israel while representing the strongest supporter of the Palestinians.

Ankara has condemned the agreement and said that the deal contradicts the commitments made under the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The Turkish Foreign Ministry believes that the deal will encourage Israel to continue illegitimate activities and violations towards Palestinians.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a strong supporter of a just deal between Israel and Palestine and believes that the only way to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East is through a fair solution to the issue within the framework of U.N. resolutions and international law.

However, with this deal, the Middle East seems to be more divided than ever.

Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, backed by the U.S., are on the one side, while Turkey, Iran, Qatar and all the Arab people in this region are on the other.

This agreement will for sure make Erdogan the leader of the Arab streets.

On the other hand, this agreement should also be seen as an alignment against the common enemy Iran. It enhances polarization and builds fronts in the Middle East that I think are quite dangerous. This move will encourage Israel to continue its illegitimate practices against Palestinians.

It is hard for Turkey to balance tensions. It has remained as the sole actor to call for peace on the side of the Palestinians but also part of international bodies.

Erdogan's expectations are high. But it is a tough job. Dialogue should be maintained, but the Palestinians should not be thrown under the bus.


Troubled Lebanon Prey to Foreign Actors Once Again

By Zaid M. Belbagi

September 18, 2020

The explosion that tore apart the port of Beirut and its surrounding areas last month has not only left Lebanon’s capital crippled, but it has also made the country more vulnerable than ever. The story of post-colonial Lebanon has not been one of independence, but rather of interference by international and regional powers. Whether it was US marines and Israeli tanks in the 1980s or an Iranian-backed militia and Syrian assassinations in more recent times, Lebanon has been the stage for repeated efforts by outsiders to extend their influence. With the French and Turkish presidents now speaking in paternal terms over their former colony, many wonders whether Lebanon has room for another foreign power.

Given the economic and political quagmire that Lebanon already found itself in, the explosion brought a country that was already failing to its knees. The subsequent clambering of both France and Turkey into the Lebanese political fray has highlighted not only the country’s susceptibility to such efforts, but also marked an important watershed in what could be a significant complication of the existing proxy conflicts the country hosts.

Lebanon’s neighbourhoods has never been an easy one. Following turbulence elsewhere and the historical role of Lebanon as an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the last two decades the country has seen itself at the centre of efforts by regional hegemons as they seek to extend their writ over the wider region.

The country’s issues are often misunderstood as being the result of its cross-confessional fault lines, but the reality is that regional political agendas have actually done more to exacerbate the country’s religious differences. The roles of, first, America and then Israel in the 1980s, followed by the efforts of Syria and Iran to derail Lebanon’s prospects for building itself into a confident and stable state, have all contributed to the current malaise. Recent events have provided the spectre of yet more foreign intervention.

Two weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Beirut to mark the centenary of the creation of the modern state of Lebanon. This visit — his second since the explosion — showed all the signs of colonial re-engagement. One hundred years after French officials sat inside Beirut’s beautiful Residence des Pins to conjure Lebanon from what had been Greater Syria, the visit was an interesting if not complicated development. Macron, as president of the former colonial power, is clearly seeking to influence events following the recent explosion.

Since it was first invited to join the UN Security Council (after having capitulated to Nazi Germany), France has had an issue displaying its relevance on the international stage. It has always been a central pillar of French foreign policy to use problems in weak states as an opportunity to embellish its great power status. Racing to the scene of the Beirut explosion within 24 hours of it happening, Macron exposed Lebanese President Michel Aoun as being incompetent and lacking the political courage to support his people in their hour of need.

Macron was almost speaking for the many when calling for a change to Lebanon’s corrupt practices and the clique of kleptocratic politicians who have enriched themselves at the expense of the Lebanese citizenry. His efforts were greatly lauded and 70,000 Lebanese signed a petition remarkably calling for a return to a French mandate. The entire episode highlighted how, given the challenging economic situation, especially for the hydrocarbon sector, the traditional influence of Iran has been curtailed, providing an opening for the likes of France and Turkey.

The entrance of yet another colonial power in the shape of Turkey, whose Ottoman ancestors ruled over the territory for centuries, has been an incredibly interesting development. Though this development is indeed interesting, it concerns many within Lebanon. It will do little to reassure weary Lebanese who have grown tired of the machinations of foreigners on their soil.

Though Turkey’s efforts have concentrated on providing much-needed aid and France’s efforts have been focused on reconstruction and ensuring that aid is not funneled into corrupt schemes, the re-emergence of Lebanon’s two colonial powers is concerning. However, because the situation in which Lebanon finds itself is also a worry, it cannot solve its challenges without foreign assistance. There is also the argument that, had Turkey and France been able to provide the assistance that colonial powers owe the countries they have exited, Lebanon may never have become the playground of less responsible regional powers. How the two will re-engage in Lebanon will be interesting, especially in regard to the new donor conference the French president is planning.

Though both countries have been keen to show they are not interfering in a region that has seen successive weak states at the mercy of foreign interests, they will have to go to great lengths to ensure their influence is administered carefully. They would do well to focus on reconstruction and allow Lebanon to enjoy the development that will make it the confident state it was intended to be, rather than allow the current crisis to be an opportunity to settle their political scores in the wider Mediterranean.


Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council.


Why Is Turkey Acquiescing to Egypt’s Role in Libya?

By Fehim Tastekin

Sep 18, 2020

Turkey appears increasingly pressed to downscale its goals in the conflict in Libya, which has become closely intertwined with its gas exploration rows in the eastern Mediterranean. The course of developments in the region dictates a more realistic attitude from Ankara, including acceptance of Egypt’s role in Libya, provided that certain Turkish expectations are met, and even laying the ground for normalizing ties with Cairo.

With settlement efforts gaining pace, Egypt has proved capable of mediating between the opposing sides in Libya, though it had thrown its weight behind the eastern forces fighting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and its Misratan allies, which Turkey has backed with military, intelligence and militia support. Ankara’s rigid attitude in the conflict has reduced its clout to influence over only its allies. And the infighting in the GNA presents a further risk to Turkish interests in the upcoming settlement process.

In other words, Turkey has failed to preserve the advantage it gained through its scale-tipping military intervention since the rival parties called for a cease-fire last month, opening the door to negotiations. The arm-wrestling between GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj and his interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, has made Ankara realize that it cannot control everything in Tripoli by deploying soldiers and militia. Certainly, those setbacks do not mean that Turkey will bow out and let others run the show.

The parties in Libya were forced into talks by a stalemate on the battlefield after Egypt drew a red line at the strategically significant Sirte and al-Jufra and Russia reinforced the region in response to Turkey’s military intervention, which had set Sirte, al-Jufra and the Oil Crescent as its next targets after securing Tripoli. An Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire proposal by the eastern forces — represented by Khalifa Hifter, commander of the Libyan National Army, and Aguila Saleh, head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives — in early June was followed by simultaneous cease-fire calls from Saleh and Sarraj on Aug. 21.

Ensuing street protests across Libya over economic grievances further pushed the parties toward negotiations as the rivalry between Sarraj and Bashagha boiled over in late August. Sarraj suspended Bashagha who, many believed, was eyeing the premier’s post with Turkey’s support, and replaced other key officials in Tripoli. In the east, the popular anger forced the resignation of the government allied with the House of Representatives.

Amid the fast-moving events, Turkey focused on keeping the GNA from unraveling. As a result, Bashagha, whose influence draws on the Misratan forces, was reinstated. Yet Sarraj irritated Ankara by moving to diversify his foreign ties, while reinforcing his position at home. Having already replaced the chief of general staff, Sarraj sought to tighten his grip over security, intelligence and media bodies, promoting figures who irked the Muslim Brotherhood and Misratan groups and even triggered calls for civil disobedience.

Since the Sarraj-Bashagha showdown, many have tended to see an anti-Turkish move in any step Sarraj takes. He seemed to back off from a meeting in Paris, to which Saleh and Hifter were invited as well, after his apparent willingness to attend sparked questioning of his loyalty to Ankara. But Bashagha, too, has been courting France and Egypt, despite leaning on Turkey.

Either way, both actors remain in need of Turkey’s support at present, as evidenced by Sarraj’s Sept. 6 visit to Ankara, shortly after Bashagha’s trip to Turkey that had coincided with his suspension. Sarraj was the one to sign the maritime demarcation deal with Ankara in November 2019, reportedly under Turkish pressure and fears of Tripoli falling to Hifter. The accord, which became a mainstay of Turkey’s gas exploration claims in the eastern Mediterranean, remains without a parliamentary ratification and its survival depends on the survival of the GNA.

On top of all those controversies, Sarraj announced Sept. 16 a desire “to hand over [his] duties to the next executive authority no later than the end of October.” Referring to the settlement efforts, he expressed hope that “the dialogue committee will complete its work and choose a new presidential council and prime minister.”

By speaking of stepping down while trying to consolidate power, Sarraj is believed to be trying to get rid of pressures ahead of prospective peace talks in Geneva. For Ankara, his announcement resonates as a warning: “If I’m gone, the maritime accord is gone as well.” The move, however, might stoke the infighting in Tripoli.

In sum, the balance among its Libyan allies is too fragile to allow Ankara to steer them as it wishes. This, in turn, makes it all the more difficult for Ankara to steer the dialogue between its allies and their eastern opponents.

Delegations from the House of Representatives and Tripoli’s High State Council held five-day talks in Morocco last week, reaching some understandings on power-sharing. The talks sparked objections from several dozen members of both bodies, who complained about the composition of their respective delegations. Khaled Mishri, head of the High State Council who is close to Turkey, said the talks were of consultative nature and not binding for the council.

Also last week, representatives of Sarraj and Saleh held talks in Cairo, agreeing to set a date for elections no later than October 2021, restructure the GNA’s Presidential Council on the basis of a 3+1 formula — one president and two deputies and an independent prime minister — and address economic issues such as wealth management and equitable distribution of resources.

The Cairo meeting followed Sarraj’s latest visit to Ankara, where the mood was far from upbeat. Cairo’s emergence as a platform for reconciliation is not something that Ankara prefers, but also not something that it is seeking to prevent. Turkey’s flexibility can be attributed to several reasons. Above all, Ankara realizes that Libya’s main oil fields have gone beyond its reach after the Russian buildup in Sirte and al-Jufra and that it will now remain stuck in the Tripoli-Misrata enclave. And with the fragile coalition in Tripoli creaking, Ankara has no option but to give way to negotiations.

In return for acquiescing to Egypt’s role, Turkey hopes to make certain gains, namely the sidelining of Hifter as a solution partner and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) exclusion from the settlement process.

The talks in Cairo were limited to representatives of Saleh and Sarraj, thus meeting Ankara’s reservation on Hifter. And if Egypt’s mediation would push back the role of the UAE, the chief sponsor of the 14-month siege on Tripoli, that would be a lesser evil for Ankara, which sees Emirate interference in its areas of interest as more dangerous.

Another factor compelling Turkey to acquiesce to Egypt’s role is Russia’s influential posture on the ground. It was Russia’s delicate engineering that raised Saleh’s profile on the eastern camp at the expense of Hifter. Hence, Russia is Turkey’s only channel to exert influence on the eastern forces.

Last but not least, breaking the ice with Egypt in Libya might give Turkey room to maneuver to pull Egypt away from Greece, its chief adversary in the eastern Mediterranean. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed ongoing contacts with Egypt on the level of intelligence officials amid growing calls in Turkey, led by influential retired generals, to mend fences with Egypt and Israel to break Turkey’s isolation in the eastern Mediterranean. While Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood — Cairo’s archenemy — remains a fundamental stumbling block, Turkey’s allies in Libya, too, acknowledge that Egypt is a crucial neighbor and has legitimate security concerns.


Some Call for Federalist System in Lebanon, But Such A System Would Fail

By Rami Rayess

18 September 2020

Calls for federalism in Lebanon have flourished recently as certain pockets within Lebanese society are fed up the current political system that is based on sectarianism, nepotism and clientelism.

But new calls for a new federalist system in Lebanon are unlikely to succeed because it would simply produce a set of mini states that would not be viable, would likely have contradictory agendas, and would indulge in endless conflicts.

Calls for partition and federalism also flourished during the civil war, especially in the 1980s when militants from various sects succeeded in drawing demarcating lines between the different Lebanese regions along confessional lines. Even the capital Beirut was divided into two parts: east Beirut, mainly inhabited by Christians, and west Beirut, by Muslims.

At the war’s close, when the time came for an internationally sponsored political compromise, all parties – except Hezbollah – handed in their weapons, and the temporary borders that had for years separated areas in Lebanon opened up and citizens moved about freely once again. Life returned to normal sooner than anyone had expected at the time.

And, more importantly, this de facto partition was never institutionalized and formalized in a de jure arrangement.

Today, political arrangements that were set in the Taif Accord of 1989 that ended 15 years of civil war no longer seem viable either as the balance of power has tremendously tilted in the favor of some parties, namely Hezbollah and its allies, at the expense of others.

In the past, this intricate and delicate balance of power has helped maintain relatively adequate processes of decision-making that have kept the country running in one way or another. With the new imbalance, the country has descended into the abyss. Where Lebanon was once famous for its freedom and openness in the region, those freedoms are now diminishing.

Old calls for partition

Even when the regions were divided, calls for formalizing partition of the country were minimal, and those calls rarely had an actual political weight or effect. What mattered were the military operations on the ground carried out by various militant factions and that later all paramilitary groups were dissolved or became part of the state. Militias became part of the state apparatus, and they retained their original roles as political parties.

Where federalism requires national consensus on foreign policy options, in Lebanon, differences over foreign policy have been present since independence in 1943. In fact, the National Pact, which was a verbal compromise between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, was based on a “no East, no West” foreign policy, a policy designed for neutrality. Mutual fears were the reason behind this understanding. Muslims would refrain from calling on Lebanon to be part of Arab unity; in return, Christians would refrain from seeking protection from France and the West.

Though this formula worked for a while, it was not successfully functional on a regular basis. Lebanon has for years been the battleground for regional conflicts because it failed to build local consensus on foreign policy matters.

Does federalism have a chance?

With such deep divisions that led to armed conflicts, will federalism ever have a real chance in Lebanon?

Recent calls for neutrality ignited heated discussions as Hezbollah and its allies rejected those calls. And with neutrality refused, federalism will be even harder to accept.

If foreign policy gives an example on how complicated installing a federal system in Lebanon would be, other areas of consideration are likely to complicate matters further.

How would the federal districts be divided? Would they be along sectarian lines? What happens to the mixed areas that include Christian and Muslim inhabitants? How would the newly demarcated states coexist? If the current central state has tense relations with external players and a state of war with others, would the same relations apply to the different federal state or a state might get to choose to normalize ties with Israel for example, while the other will throw rockets on it and call for the liberation of Palestine?

At the economic level, will those federal states be viable? Do some of them have privileged advantages like a port and airport and the others do not? What about industry, tourism and agriculture?

There are many questions that would have to be addressed should a federalist system be pursued, questions that will not be easy to answer. Federalism would be a recipe for chaos in Lebanon and would further deepen divisions that will pave the way for additional external intervention within these new federal states that would have their own conflicting affiliations. And there would always be a chance that those new states would turn the new federal Lebanon once again into the battlefield of regional proxy wars.

Lebanon is in the midst of unprecedented economic and social difficulties. But those difficulties can be an incentive to reform the current political system, but under a central unified modern state. This state would not differentiate between its citizens according to sectarian affiliations and would introduce civil status laws that give an option for citizens to organize their lives outside the circles of their sects – as many in the street have called for. This state would seek to monopolize power and defend its sovereignty, like any other state.

Lebanon’s collapsing economy must be an incentive for Lebanese citizens to push toward reforms and unity, rather than encourage political divorce. Lebanon’s diversity is to be cherished and strengthened instead of being cursed and weakened.


This Is The Kushner I Met — And Why Abraham Accords Is A Win For Multilateralism

By Ibrahim Shukralla

September 19, 2020

It felt strangely relieving, the moment the UAE and Israel signed on the peace treaty Tuesday afternoon at the White House.

It took 49 years for the Arab Gulf country to finally decide to normalise ties with Israel, becoming the third Arab state after Egypt and Jordan to do so. It is definitely a triumph for the UAE and Israel, as these ties will open up enormous economic, defence, cultural, tourism, technological and even sporting opportunities. Israeli Intelligence Minister, Eli Cohen, predicted an annual bilateral trade of $4 billion “within three to five years,” in his statements to Reshet Bet radio station this month.

That is a lot of money that both countries need as the world economy is struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no better time to uphold multilateralism than today, and this is what this US-brokered UAE-Israel peace accord is all about.

I remember in June reading a timely statement by UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which he gave at the Belt and Road Initiative videoconference, saying: “COVID-19 has strengthened rather than undermined the benefits of multilateralism. It highlighted the vital need for all countries to avoid pursuing particularistic and narrow interests.”

The world is facing a crisis worse than 2008’s financial crisis. The IMF predicted a 4.9 per cent shrink to the global economy this year, and the unemployment in the OECD’s 37 countries is expected to increase to 9.4 per cent year-on-year. UAE and Israel’s pragmatism amid this chaotic economic situation is an example of what the world, and the Middle East, in particular, needs right now. It needs virtual, direct benefits to the people. Not popularise, not nationalism, and not propaganda rhetoric.

The peace accord is also a significant achievement for the Trump administration, which also brokered the Bahrain-Israel normalisation deal. Apart from the president himself, it was his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner’s starring moment too. Amid all the coronavirus “mismanagement” criticism, blaming him and other key figures at the White House, including the president, this peace accord was indeed a sigh of relief, just two months before the presidential election.

I had met Kushner in Abu Dhabi on September 1 for a one-on-one exclusive interview, just a day after the arrival of the first-ever direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv. He was over the moon with this milestone step. He even told me that it would be “logical” to him that all the 22 Arab states normalise ties with Israel one day, because he is an “optimist” and because “there are a thousand reasons why it should happen, and a very few reasons why it should not happen.”

Alongside the will and courage of the leaders of the UAE and Israel to achieve what they have already achieved; you definitely need people like Kushner when you are trying to broker the first peace treaty for an Arab state with Israel in 26 years. Before interviewing him, I had read dozens and dozens of articles about the 39-year-old Harvard-graduate in the US media. There was a quite negative and cynical labels about almost everything pertains to him, be it his competence, skills or even personal traits. There is a prejudgment that evidently turned into a bias against him.

“Thank you for the opportunity Mr. senior adviser,” I told him just before my interview started on September 1. “Please call me Jared,” the 1.91cm tall Hollywood-styled man in his dark blue suit, with a Capri blue colour tie, answered in a gentle tone.

“I have been begging your people to give me 10 minutes with you, I hope you would approve that,” I told him, as he had a flight to catch to Bahrain and I was not getting anywhere towards getting what I wanted, so I decided to ask the boss himself. “Sure, that is fine,” he comfortably replied as the room went quiet.

As the interview was approaching the end, I was getting waves asking me to end it before my 10 minutes, so I had to repeat the trick. I looked at him in the eye and went for it again. “Can I ask you the last question?” I said. “Yes, we can do one more question,” Kushner told his team in a firm, yet humble tone. When the interview ended, I asked him if I could take a picture with him. “I would be honoured,” the US President’s son-in-law said.

I sat in the same room with him for 30 minutes and watched him closely as he spoke to other colleagues from the press, including myself, separately. I was also at the Bateen Executive Airport, the day before, when he landed with a top-level US-Israeli delegation and gave his statements at the media briefing. “I was the first to ask you yesterday at the briefing, hope you remember me,” I told him at the very beginning. “Oh yes, I do,” he nodded.

When it all ended, I remembered what the then UAE Ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash, said in 2016 about how some “very important individuals” in Russia he would often meet and spend time with are portrayed in the press, versus how they actually are. “They would be described as a ‘tough leader’ or who have some awful syndicate. They are very normal people with parents, children and friends. They are living normal lives,” he told the Arab Media Forum in Dubai. “I began to become aware of the way actually there are certain very powerful biases within the media.”

My impressions of Kushner that I had met were kind, humble, soft-spoken and certainly a pragmatic. Having met several heads of state, top-level officials and many celebrities from different industries throughout my humble career, I can say his composure and emotional intelligence are distinctive. His ability to understand, give and take, turn old foes into brand-new friends, and embark on missions to resolve, what many previous American leaders and top officials could not, are evident through many outcomes, lately in his role in Israel’s peace accords with the UAE and Bahrain.

It is a breath of fresh air in the Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Tel Aviv today as a chapter of the old Middle East has ended and a new one has started. There is finally good news coming out of the region thanks to superb leadership skills in the three countries that do not fear change; as a matter of fact, transformational change. Two of the most advanced economies in the region have come together during an era of uncertainty, exemplifying to the rest of the region and the world how much work can be done for peace even during the worst of times.


Ibrahim Shukralla is an award-winning Emirati journalist. He holds an MA in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University, US.


Bollywood Makes Me Smile Amid the Lebanese Crisis

By Christiane Waked

September 18, 2020

After the Beirut blast on August 4, caused by an explosion of a large stockpile of 2,750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was stocked for six years in a warehouse at the port leaving 300,000 homeless, injuring around 6,000 and killing 190 people, the Lebanese feel more depressed.

The country was already sinking with high level of debt and hyperinflation reaching 629 per cent (80 per cent of the country's food is imported). The NGO, Save the Children, has found that over half a million Lebanese children are going hungry in Beirut. Long and frequent power cuts have become common, people are rummaging through garbage for food, and some are driven to even commit suicides. Living in such an environment amid an economic crisis and constant toxic political scenario, mental breakdown and severe depression are common among people.

Fear alone is enough to drive anyone crazy and how can you not live in fear in a country like Lebanon where everyday has become a challenge to survive not only from Covid-19 but also from hunger, piled up bills, a potential civil war, etc.

One day, I felt like I was hitting rock bottom. I had a severe panic attack and felt like I couldn't breath anymore, my heart was beating so fast, my hands felt numbed, and I thought to myself if I don't do anything to save myself from this situation, I will become crazy.

I started to work on my breathing techniques and after managing to calm myself down, I took the advice of a dear friend who nagged me to watch Bollywood movies even if I am not in a good mood. He actually emphasised that because my mood is so low and bad, I need to watch Indian movies. He 'guaranteed' that something will change in me. So that day, when luckily there was electricity, I put the fan on and started to watch the movies sent by my friend and I was instantly hooked.

There is something about Indian movies that make you fly away from your problems - the catchy music, the choreography that makes you want to jump from your seat and start to dance, the feast of colours, the flamboyant scenery, the charming actors, the sweetness of the scenario, and most importantly, India the country itself.

Watching these movies was such an immersive experience that I momentarily  forgot that I was in Lebanon, surrounded by endless problems, corrupted politicians, desperate people. Bollywood helped me escape for a couple of hours the roughness of my life and travel in my imagination to India.

I started to imagine myself wearing a traditional sari, walking in New Delhi, eating delicious street food, smelling the various spices, and enjoying kids laughing.

During the movie, I started to think why can't everything be like a musical Bollywood movie, easy, light, colourful, and fun? Why life imposes upon us such heaviness?

I advise all my friends who are going through rough moments to put their worries aside and  watch Indian movies.

I am sure people in India also have their fair share of problems and struggles and their life is not a Bollywood movie but all the Indians I have met in my life especially when I used to live in the UAE carried joy and positivity in their hearts, and it was contagious.

It is okay to cheat on life and find moments to escape the misery through different means, Bollywood being one of them.


Christiane Waked is a political analyst based in Beirut


A First Lady Who Speaks of Peace but Prefers War: Anna Hakobyan

By Nur Özkan Erbay

SEP 19, 2020

The wife of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Anna Hakobyan, recently posed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle in her hands during a military drill with the Armenian army in occupied Nagorno-Karabakh at a time when tensions and conflicts are increasing.

Hakobyan, who in 2018 allegedly acted as a peace envoy with her call to Azerbaijani women for the “Women for Peace” campaign, showed how much she really supports peace with photos of a gun in her hands two years later.

The escalating tension on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in July once again turned the eyes of the world to the region. The two countries were at the brink of war when Armenia attacked Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region.

Twenty soldiers from both sides lost their lives in mutual artillery fire in Tovuz.

The Armenian army violated a cease-fire on July 12 and attacked Azerbaijani border positions in the northwestern Tovuz district with artillery fire, later withdrawing after suffering heavy losses following retaliation from the Azerbaijani army.

While these conflicts continued, the 42-year-old first lady on Aug. 25 appeared at a drill of the Armenian army in the region. In these photos, which caught the attention of the Armenian press, Hakobyan posed with a gun in her hands, taking aim with 10-15 female Armenian soldiers in military uniforms.

Footage showing Hakobyan at the front while turning her barrel toward Azerbaijan, despite demanding Azerbaijani women make efforts for peace two years ago, has caused astonishment.

The stance of Hakobyan, who already stoked the existing conflict simply by visiting Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, is clearly far from giving a message of peace.

What is more surprising is that Hakobyan participated in these military drills within the scope of her Women for Peace campaign.

As a first in the world, Armenia’s first lady delivers her “peace” campaign with women in military uniforms.

The woman in military uniform said on Facebook on July 13 that the Women For Peace campaign aimed at "uniting women against war, creating a favorable environment for the leaders of the conflicting countries to seek solutions to the conflicts at the negotiating table." Participation in military training also followed recent remarks by Hakobyan that "war must always be avoided, there is always an alternative."

Hakobyan’s poses in military attire with Armenian soldiers, while saying these words on one hand and demanding Azerbaijani women and mothers to take initiatives for peace on the other, are virtually like saying, “fight for peace.”

On the other side, Azerbaijan preserves its moderate stance toward these messages. Vice President and spouse of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Mehriban Aliyeva, told Azerbaijan’s state news agency: “In everyday activities, one should not forget about philanthropy, mercy, mutual respect and kindness. On the contrary, guided precisely by these spiritual values, one can achieve the highest victories and rise to the highest peaks.”

Actively promoting Azerbaijan in the international arena and enriching politics, Aliyeva serves the progress of the Azerbaijani motherland, strives to develop culture, education, health care and sports in her country, and cares about its future.

Aliyeva in 2004 was chosen as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and in 2006 as the Islamic World Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ICESCO) Goodwill Ambassador, which was hailed as a historic achievement opening new horizons for the promotion of Azerbaijan’s rich cultural heritage to the world in Azerbaijani media.

In implementing significant projects within the scope of UNESCO, Aliyeva also keen to promote universal values such as peace, stability, the dialogue of civilizations, multiculturalism in the civilized world and consolidation of efforts in these areas.

Aliyeva has been awarded prizes related to the work she has conducted as UNESCO and ICESCO goodwill ambassador as well as many other international prizes for her contributions to the promotion of culture and international cultural exchange, preservation of global cultural heritage and because of her commitment to the principles of social justice and humanism.

Thus, the attitude of the Vice President of Azerbaijan Mehriban Aliyeva, who is trying to build peace despite all this, must be noticed in the face of the actions of the First Lady of Armenia fueling this war. Aliyeva could have responded to Hakobyan as wife of the President of the country but prefered the lean on strong statemanship role for herself and her country as the Vice President of Azerbaijan. In fact, she could opt to act instinctly and reflexlvey like Armenian first lady, whose country actually occupied the territory of Azerbaijan.

However, the fact that Aliyeva did not choose this must be a strong test of patience that should be appreciated not only for the Azerbaijani people but for the whole world, in the name of peace.


Nur Özkan Erbay is Daily Sabah Ankara Bureau Chief




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