The endless conflicts of the Middle East

How the Middle Eastern region continues – and will continue – to be a hotbed of instability.

 

On the 14th of May 2018 Israel celebrated its 70th anniversary, reaching a goal that in 1948 seemed impossible to most, given the tense Middle Eastern cotext in which the Jewish State came to light. And indeed, even to this date the Middle East continues to be a region of deep tensions, in which the passing of time produces ever more crises and never significant distensions.

Taking the anniversary of Israel’s independence as useful pretext to raise the question of where the Levant stands today, the first element to be noticed cannot bu be the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to the expectations of all those who 25 years ago – when Arafat and Rabin famously shook their hands on the lawn of the White House after signing the Oslo Accords – thought to be witnessing the beginning of a new era of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the conflict between the two peoples has actually never ceased. At most, it has changed form –conventional war, peaceful resistance, guerrilla war, terrorism – in order to respond to the circumstances and the requirements of each specific moment.

Over the past year, a dangerous combination of factors has inevitably led to an increase in hostility: the ascent to the White House of Donald Trump, most-openly pro-Israeli American president to date; the strengthening in Israel of the ultra-right front that has been leading the country since 2015; the lack of a coherent and credible Palestinian political leadership able to address the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and to advance the national interest of the Palestinians.

Elected President in January 2017, as early as last December Trump announced the moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Recognizing the latter as capital of the Jewish State and modifying in this way the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question that had been maintained by any previous administration, Trump has compromised the credibility of the United States as arbiter super partes in the dialogue between Jews and Palestinians – a dialogue that consequently has now become ever more doomed to stalemate. Furthermore, Trump’s decision has not only made any prospect of future negotiations more difficult, but it has also changed its terms significantly: recognizing Jerusalem as Jewsih capital, it has canceled the possibility of a two-state solution leading to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

A decision of this kind, with the implications that it has on the bilateral dialogue, could not but ignite the Palestinians’ anger and embolden Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition. The latter, indeed, strong of the new Israeli-American friendship that has been restored under Trump, has rapidly exploited the momentum to take steps that seek to change the demographic balance in Israel/Palestine to its sole advantage: it has proceeded at a fastened pace with the Jewish occupation of the West Bank by means of new construction permits and the retroactive legalization of illegal settlements and it has passed a new law that gives to the Interior Minister the power of outstripping Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship if their “loyalty” to the Jewish State is doubtful.

On this background, on the 30th of March the Palestinian people of Gaza launched the “March of Return” to protest the isolation enforced by Israel against the Strip and to claim their right to retunr to their ancestral land. The protests, held for six consecutive Fridays, have seen thousands of youths (some affiliated with Hamas, others with no political affiliation and others critical of the group that has been ruling Gaza since 2007) march towards the border with Israel to be met with gunfire and tear-gas by the Israeli Defense Forces. Until mid May, the victim toll was of 49 but the apex was reached on the 14th of May, a symbolic date that not only marks the anniversary of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba but that this year also coincided with the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. On that single day, 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 injured. A dramatic confirmation that even if 70 years have passed tensions between the two peoples still run high.

Alongside the perennial Palestinian question, the Middle East today is the theatre of further tensions that are contributing to defyining new regional dynamics and new axes of alliances and rivalries.

In Syria, the victory of Assad is by now undeniable and the war has entered a new phase in which the civil conflict is leaving the place to an open competition between external powers – regional and non regional – interested in carving out for themselves convenient areas of influence upon the Syrian territory. Thus, while the opposition to Assad is seeing itself forced to leave the areas that it still controls in exchange for guarantees of survival, and while the Kurds seek desperately to defend their aspirations to statehood, Russia, Iran and Turkey have made of the negotiation table of Astana (where the U.S. does not participate) the place where to define the future status quo of Syria.

Here, an important role is played by Iran. In fact, if Turkey uses Astana to make sure that the national aspirations of the Kurds in Syria do not achieve successes that might embolden the Kurds of Anatolia and to carve out for itself a role of primacy in the Middle East at a time in which its relations with the West are at their lowest, and if Russia uses Astana to defend its startegic interests through a Syrian firendly regime that leaves in place Moscow’s air and naval bases in the Mediterannean, Iran is using Astana to accomplish its hegemonic ambitions. In the specific, it is exploiting its involvement in Syria on Assad’s side (supported via the Revolutionary Guarda and the proxy Hezbollah) to create a corridor of influence that stretches form Iran to the Mediterannean going through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The presence in Syria of Iranian military bases and pro-Iranian forces is a first-hand threat to Israel, that has in Iran its nemesis and that sees the vicinity of Iran to its borders as a red line that, if crossed, jutifies any response.

To worsen the tensions triggered between Israel and Iran by the latter’s ascent in Syria, last week came Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 by the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. The American withdrawal – strongly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Israel – risks strengthening within Iran those hardliners who criticized Rouhani’s opening to the West and who might now call for a more assertive foreing policy and a full recovery of the nuclear program. Unsuprisingly, the hours after the US decision saw Israel and Iran firing missiles over the Syrian sky, thus seeming to be ever closer to an open confrontation that might lead the entire region to chaos. The evolution of these tensions will largely depend on the role that Russia – a precious ally of both – will want to play and on Europe’s capacity to ensure the survival of the JCPOA.

For Israel, the Iranian threat is accentuated by the ascent of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that Teheran has been nurturing since the ‘80s in open anti-Israeli function. Since the outset of the Syrian war in 2011, Hezbollah has obatined two important victories that make Israel particularly worried. Firstly, is the military victory that the group has obtained thanks to its beloning to the pro-Assad axis and that is made by a combination of: increase of the group’s military (especially milistic) arsenal thanks to the arms transfers by Iran; access to sophisticated war material capable of posing a direct and serious threat to Israel’s security; conslidation of the group’s presence in the Syrian-Lebanese area that borders Israel. Besides this military victory, there is the political victory that the group has obtained last week at the polls and that confirms the wide support it enjoys among the Lebanese people – even beyond its traditional Shia powerbase.

Having at its borders an historical enemy like Hezbollah that is now more preapred militarily, more favoured strategically and more credible politically represents a primary threat in the eyes of Israel. From the perspctive of the Jewish State, in fact, hezbollah could use Syria as a strategic platform from where to launch attacks against Israel without openly compromising Lebanon and from where to upset the existing sttaus quo.

In this cotnext, the Middle East has become today the theatre where two blocs of triple alliances are in competition: the “status quo bloc” formed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S; and the “resistance bloc” formed by Iran, Turkey and Russia. Contravening past rhetorics and ethnic-religious divergencies, these systems of alliance are born to respond to immediate needs but, whatever their length will be, they are producing dynamics whose effects are likely to be felt in the region in the medium to long term.

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In death of the nuclear deal

All the (worrying) consequences that the American withdrawal from the deal is likely to have.

 

Yesterday, the fear that many around the world – in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the US itself – became concrete as President Trump annouced his decision to rescind from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by his predecessor with China, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Iran.

Withdrawing from the deal, Trump fulfilled – once again – one of the many promises that he had made to his domestic electorate, made of Christian conservatives nostalgic of a past time in which America was “great” and did not sign deal with obscure Islamic Republics run by alledged “fanatics with beards”. Thus, just as he did last year with TPP and the Paris climate agreement, Trump abandoned also the JCPOA. However, while the previous “divorces” led by Trump have not brought about – or at least not yet – dramatic consequences, the same might not be said this time.

Withdrawing from the deal without consideration for the many voices that have come from Western Europe calling for the maintenance of the JCPOA as best safeguard against Iran’s nuclearization inevitably widens the gap between the United States and Europe. After Trump’s abandonment of the Paris agreement and his decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (a city as holy as contested), the unilateral withdrawal from a deal that represented a supreme example of concerted Euro-American diplomacy is thus the latest example of how the traditional allies are behaving ever more differently on an increasing number of issues.

Since 1945 and the emergence of the post-World War II order, the American-Western European friendship has been one of the certainties of international dynmics. Yet, sventy years later, trans-relations appear characterized by many frictures.

Besides complicating Euro-American relations, Washington’s withdrawal risks isolating the United States on the international stage. If the withdrawal from the Paris climater agreement, the withdrawal from the TPP and the contested decision on the status of Jeruslam had already displayed the image of the US as a super-power thinking and acting solo, the abandonment of the JCPOA leaves the United States with only two foreign friends: Israel and Saudi Arabia – two far-from-easy friends to have, surrounded by innumerate controversies and with a troublesome standing in the international arena.

In terms of alliances, another effect of Trump’s latest move is the consolidation of relations of Iran with Russia and China – two signatories of the JCPOA that have promptly reacted to Trump’s annoucement by remarking their intention to stay in the deal and to keep it alive. The consolidation of the entente between Russia and Iran, in particular, is something that should have made Trump – and his loyal allies Pomepeo and Bannon – more cautious about stepping out from the deal: at a delicate juncture of the Syrian conflict as the current one, in which Turkey, Russia and Iran are successfully using the Astana forum to divide among the three of them highly-stretegic areas of influence in Syria without Washington having a strong part to play, the departure of the United States from the JCPOA will make its position over the arrangement of future Syria even weaker vis-à-vis the Russian-Iranian duo.

Within Iran, the United States’ departure from the deal is likely to embolden the conservatives who since the beginning of the negotiations had criticized the deal. In the current intra-Iranian context – that already sees the support for the moderates weakened by a difficult economic situation which the lifitng of sanctions after the JCPOA has only partially improved – a similar strengthening of the hardliners will easily translate into a renewal of the nuclear program and a much more assertive foreign policy in the Levant.

With Iran back on the path to nuclearization and ever more assertive in the region, new and deep tensions risk emerging in the Middle East. Here, of the two battlegrounds where Iran is currently involved – Yemen and Syria – it is Syria the theatre where the situation would escalate the most. In fact, while the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is not to be downplayed, neither Teheran nor Riayd are interesting in escalating the conflict there: for Teheran,Yemen is too far from its area of immediate strategic interest to find it convenient to divert financial and manpower resources there; for Ryadh, Yemen is at its doorstep but the country does not have the military strength to sustain a conflict that it has largely regretted initating.

Conversely, Syria is a battleground of major importance for both Iran and Israel: Iran is seeking through its involevemnt to create a corridor of influence stretching from the Islamic Repubblic to the Mediterranen; Israel sees Iran’s presence in Syria and the military empowerment of its proxy Hezbollah as an existenctial threat and is ready to respond to it with all means available. Thus, now that the US has withdrawn form the deal, the confrontation between Iran and Israel might reach the point of no-return.

This is particularly worrisome considering the attitude Netanyahu: threatened by a series of scandals that are compromising his political credibility in the eyes of many Israelis, he has been relentlessly emphasized the security threat represented by Iran and presented himself as the only leader who can guarantee Israel’s security thanks to his special relationship with Trump and his resolute approach. Far from saying that Netanyahu is seeking a full-fledged war to save himself, it is nonetheless true that recently the attention of Israel’s media has turned from Netanyahu’s judicial saga to the existential menace allegedly posed by Iran in Syria.

Finally, leaving the deal has consequences that go beyond the Middle East and touch upon other regions, actors and agendas. Of particular concern, is the fact that withdrawing from the JCPOA damages the credibility of the United States as reliable signatory of international agreements and the attractivity of non-proliferation agreements. This becomes worrying if the consideration is extended to the current attempts to initiate a negotiation process that leads Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear ambitions: if a deal signed by an American president can be so easily discarded by his predecessor and if accepting to curb nuclear amibitions is not an assurance that previous sanctions will not be reinstated, why should North Korea abandon its nuclerization and sign its own JCPOA?

These are considerations that show that even if the JCPOA was far from being a perfect deal it was nonetheless the best we could aspire to.

 

(Photo credits: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The demography of the Israeli-Palestinian tensions

 

Statistics speaks of an equal Jewish and Palestinian presence from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river. A parity that is only numerical and not political. 

Last Monday, the vice commander of Israel’s Civil Administration – Col. Haim Mendes – presented to the Knesset the latest data on demography in the West Bank, that point to a presence of 5 million Palestinians there. To this figure, it is then to be added the 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza and the 1.8 million living within Israel.

According to this data, there are 7,8 million Palestinians between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river, vis-à-vis a Jewish population that the Israeli Bureau of Statistics put to 6,5 million last September.

Unsurprisingly, these data have immediately sparked debates within the Knesset. Demography, in fact, has always been a highly sensitive topic in this area of the world, where it is called into question by both sides to justify their rivendications: the Jews refer to it to justify the existence and the expansion of the State of Israel; the Palestinians to legitimze their claim to a Palestinian State.

Thus, while right-wing politicians promptly moved to condemn the inaccuracy of data that Mendes seemingly retrieved from the Palestinian Bureau of statitics and would therefore be of dubious objectivity, the exponents of the Joint List have argued that such data do not rveeal anything new if not the undeniable presence of a Palestinian population that resides from the Mediterranean shores to the banks of the Jordan river that it is not possible to ignore further.

On the background of these lates figures, the debate that emerges on both fronts concerns the future of the State of Israel and its survivability as “Jewish” and “democratic” entity if it continues to occupy Palestinian territories. A debate that came back to the fore last month with further steps taken towards the inclusion in the State’s Basic Law of a bill that defines Israel as “State for the Jewish people”. Something that triggers not a few doubts and fears on the space that would be reserved to Israel’s non-Jewish population and its civil rights.

With the prospect of reaching a two-State solution ever more remote under the joint moves of Bibi’s far-right coalition ad Trump’s pro-Israel administration, the question of how Israel will resolve in future its inherent contradiction between “Jewishness” and “democracy” appeares increasingly pressing.

To date, the path along which the country seems to be moving looks more like that of a unitary State in which – besides statistical data – a group dominates heavily over the other.


Published in Italian for Limes http://www.limesonline.com/numero-di-palestinesi-in-cisgiordania-israele-gaza-sopasso-demografia/105707

The forgotten side of the Strip

The attack perpetrated yesterday morning against the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah while he was heading to Beit Hanun to inaugurate a sewage treatment plant comes as a reminder that no matter how small the Strip is, the array of actors acting there – and around there – is bigger and more complex than we might want to admit.

In the aftermath of the attack, that luckily (or perhaps purposely) left no one severely injured, everyone began to question who might be behind it.

Hamas, understandably, does not have any interest in such an attack being carried out on its territory. The group, in fact, is still trying to present itself as an entity with effective ruling capacity and is trying to sell the agreement reached last October with the Palestinian Authority not as an unescapable necessity imposed upon it by its governing failures but rather as a responsible decision that the group took on the behalf of the broader Palestinian national interest. In this context, having failed to prevent the attack against Hamdallah is a serious wound to Hamas’ image and – more importantly – one that weakens its negotiating position vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.

The most radical and less pragmatic faction within Hamas – made of those who have always rejected any opening to Fatah and have always supported the “strong line” – is more interested in an attack that could threaten the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and its weakening of Hamas’ decade-long grip on Gaza. However, this faction is not made by leaders devoid of any political understandings or sensitivity (in Hamas the line separating politics and military action is often blurred) but rather of experienced militants who know when to use politics and when to use force. Therefore, they must be aware that a similar attack on Gaza’s soil cannot but affect negatively the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Gazans and strengthen the conviction of those who see in a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority the only way forward.

Proceeding in the account of the interested parties, the turn of the Palestinian Authority comes next. For the Ramallah-based government, an attack against its Prime Minister on his first visit to Gaza (and the latter’s decision to proceed nonetheless his trip to the sewage treatment plan) brings a series of welcome consequences: it weakens Hamas’ credibility as security provider; it improves in the eyes of the people of Gaza the image of a Palestinian Authority who has long been seen in the Strip as a distant and hostile party; it strengthens the stance of Abbas in negotiations. Yet, not even these beneficial consequences are enough to seriously think that the Palestinian Authority could have simulated an attack of this kind. If not for moral reasons, just because the consequences are never too easy to predict and an artificial ignition of the situation in Gaza could always get out of control and trigger a chaos capable of ending Hamas’ opening.

Finally, there are the Strip’s Salafi groups – those that have never embraced politics and have made of indiscriminate violence their preferred modus operandi. The aim is to liberate the Palestinian territories from the Israeli occupier and Palestinian “apostate” organizations and ultimately establish a sharia-run Islamic State. In pursuing their goal, these actors have traditionally rejected any compromise and have always tried to boycott the others’ periodical non-violent modes. For instance, at the time of the truces reached by Israel and Hamas that saw the latter restrain form launching rockets against Israeli cities, the Strip’s Salafi organizations refrained from joining the truce and rather increased their attacks against both Israel and Hamas. Thus, they have always been engaged in fight on a double front. In this perspective, yesterday’s attack against Hamdallah could be seen as the latest opening on part of Salafists of their fight against Hamas and its pragmatism.

As of now, these remain nothing but speculations. However, what can be said with certainty is that reducing the reality of the Strip to the simple dichotomy Hamas-Fatah fails to account for the Salafi organizations that operate there. And that always find violent ways to remind us of their existence.

Dealing with them, should be made a priority by both Fatah and Hamas in their reconciliation progress.

When the road to “security” goes through injustice

In its last controversial move, the Knesset has approved a law that seeks to alter the demography of the Holy City. Expect security problems to increase – and don’t get surprised about it.

Three days ago, the Knesset passed a law that allows the Minister of Interior – in the specific of the current governing coalition, Shas’ Ariyeh Deri – to strip of their resident permit in Jerusalem those Palestinian citizens who are judged “not loyal” to the State of Israel; who have obtained their residence permit on the basis of false information; and who are accused of criminal behavior.

As if in Jerusalem the situation was not already marked by an horrendous discrimination between Jewish and Palestinian citizens – Jewish people born in Jerusalem are Israeli citizens, while Palestinians born in Jerusalem can only get blue ID cards that give them the right to reside in the city but that de facto keeps them in a condition of second-class citizenship – the new law makes reality in the Holy City even more unjust for the 420,000 Palestinians who are there, as it breaches the rights that they should enjoy under international humanitarian law (IHL) as “occupied people”. According to IHL, in fact, Jerusalem is “occupied territory” and the occupying power (i.e. Israel) cannot revoke the permit of residency to the occupied people (i.e. the Palestinians) nor impose loyalty requirements upon them.

After the new piece of law was approved, Deri promptly proceeded to defend it saying that it will allow him to protect the security of the citizens of Israel. Yet, what the new law actually does is to progressively remove any physical connection between Palestinians and so as to ultimately change the demographics of the city in favor its Jewish population.

By referring to security concerns, Deri retrieved the old security dogma that Israel has constantly used and abused over its 70 years of existence to justify its worse violations of international law: the demolition of Palestinian houses allegedly built without the necessary permits; the relentless construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank; the imposition of a blockade on Gaza that keeps its residents in an open-air prison from which there is no way out; the construction of a 470-km long concrete walls that has illegally included in the Israeli territory portions of land that go beyond the Green Line and has severely limited the freedom of movement of the Palestinians; the imposition of checkpoints through which most Palestinians have to pass daily to go to work; the recent decision to expel to Uganda and Rwanda hundreds of thousands of refugees who came to Israel as they fled wars, famines and poverty; and now the law to revoke residence permits.

The list of violations is long and what is most worrying is that it grows longer every year, as the Knesset proposes and approves laws that make life for Palestinians a daily struggle. This has been particularly been the case over the past year, when the victory of Donald Trump in the United States has emboldened the extremist right-wing coalition that is currently in charge of writing the history of the Jewish State. To quote the most blatant example of this dynamic, the decision of President Trump to recognize Jerusalem – the disputed city that all claim as religious point of reference and all seek as political capital – as Israeli and the decision to cut aid to the Palestinians has de facto given to the Likud-led coalition the green light that it needed to push its discriminatory policies further. All in the name of security for the Jewish citizens of Israel.

However, similar measures do little to increase security. On the contrary, they seed resentment, anger and despair among the Palestinians – three sentiments typically linked with political violence. In this way, that vicious cycle that has so often marked the past seventy years is protracted endlessly: more discriminatory policies on part of Israel generate anger; anger finds its way of expression in violence, being impossible and credible any other alternative; violence triggers more discriminatory laws and measures justified on ground of security. And the story repeats itself endless times.

Therefore, in embracing an Israeli policy strikingly in favor of its current right-wing government, the Trump administration has taken on its shoulders a great responsibility: it has become complicit in the breaches of international law that Israel is increasingly enacting and therefore responsible for the security problems that in the long term all this will inevitably generate on that piece of land. However, something that both the Knesset and Trump seem to be ignoring is that there can be no security in the continuous violation of international humanitarian law.

The coalition-rift that benefits the coalition leader

While the parties of the ruling coalition are fighting between them, the one who might take advantage of the situation is Bibi.

As the Netanyahu judiciary saga unfolds, with ever more details and ever more protagonists emerging every week, another drama is developing in Israel these days: the infighting within the coalition that has been governing the country since 2015.

The rift in the ruling coalition has seemingly reached the point of no-return this past week, but its roots go back before the coalition even existed. It all began in 2014, when the then Knesset voted in favor of penalties to be imposed again yeshiva students who evade military conscription. In response, in 2015, an amendment to the conscription law removed all criminal consequences for yeshiva students evading their military duties. In the latest episode of this never-ending contestation, last September the Supreme Court struck down the 2015 amendment, arguing that it deprived the Defense Minister of his right to decide the quota of ultra-Orthodox youths who must be enlisted in the army every year. The Court deliberated that the Knesset had 365 days to pass an alternative law.

After the deadline for the new conscription law to be drafted and adopted was set by the Court for September 2018, the issue waned in the public debate. Or at least it did until now, when it is making the headlines once again. In fact, as Netanyahu’s power becomes less steady and the option of a future government in which ultra-orthodox forces are excluded or marginalized becomes less improbable, Shas and the other religious parties have been pushing for the adoption of a law that would exempt religious students from being called to the arms. Their proposed bill, though, has been opposed staunchly by the party Ysrael Beitenu and by its leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has argued that as Defense Minister he will never compromise on the duty for all Israeli citizens to serve in the army. In response, religious parties have threatened to block the 2019 budget, which Finance Minister Kahlon and his Kulanu party want to be approved by the end of the current Knesset session on the 18th of March. If that deadline expires without the budget having been approved, a non-confidence vote against the government will be cast.

On the background of this infighting among the various parties of the ruling coalition, two scenarios are possible. In the first scenario, the rift sparked by the debate on the conscription law cannot be solved and early elections are called. If this was the case, Netanyahu would likely benefit from it because running in early elections would delay the legal proceedings against him. Furthermore, if elections were anticipated, Netanyahu would be the likely winner. In fact, the most recent polls – conducted at a time when the involvement of the Prime Minister in Cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 is becoming clearer – show a small but steady increase in public support for Netanyahu and his Likud party. Apparently, Netanyahu’s strategy of responding to the allegations by labelling his opponents “anti-Israel operatives” and by denouncing the accusations as a “witch-hunt” has been successful in convincing many Israelis that he is not the culprit but the victim of a political persecution. To make Netanyahu’s popularity even more relevant in view of early elections, then, is the deep unpopularity of the Left: over the past years, left-wing parties have failed to advance political programs capable of rallying mass support and their main leaders – Gabbay and Lapid – lack Netanyahu’s charisma and political acumen. Finally, polls reveal that the other coalition parties in the Right camp do not enjoy the sway necessary to subtract voters to the Likud, which would thus be the party winning most seats. Such a victory on part of Netanyahu would not make the accusations filed against him disappear, but it would nonetheless send a strong signal that the Israeli people are with him – something that would make Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s work more difficult to be brought on as smoothly, rapidly and undisturbed as it should.

It is in light of these considerations that many have pointed to the possibility that the current coalition crisis is actually being masterminded by Netanyahu himself, who is seeking a subtle way to call early elections without being accused of manipulating the electoral process to make his interest and save his skin.

In the second scenario, the rift currently experienced by the ruling coalition is solved by Netanyahu before the closure of the parliamentary session on March 18th. If this happened – an outcome that an experienced politician such as Netanyahu could presumably reach with an adequate scheme of compensations for each of his quarrelling partners – Netanyahu would not reap the benefits that an early election could bring, but he would succeed in presenting himself in the eyes of the Israeli public as the leader that the country needs to solve stalemates and balance its different political forces. To this, it is then to add the success with which Netanyahu is using his current five-days visit to the United States where he addressed the AIPAC on the Iranian threat, his friendship with Trump and Friedman, and the American decisions to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem and cut aid to the Palestinians to present himself to his domestic constituency as the sole leader who can influence the United States and secure Israel’s interests. The cunning way in which Netanyahu is boosting his image as the irreplaceable leader without whom Israel cannot survive its inner contradictions nor have a say on the international arena is likely to counterbalance the negative effect of the judicial investigations and to pay off when elections will be held in 2019.

Be it actual or premeditated, end it with elections or with reconciliation, the current rift within the ruling coalition is nothing but positive for its leader. A further confirmation that Bibi is not leaving anytime soon.

A door to Kabul opens for the Taliban

Ashraf Ghani has made to the Taliban an offer they cannot refuse. If they want to be part of the Afghan game.

Last Wednesday, during the latest international conference to achieve peace in Afghanistan that is usually characterized by many expressions of concern but no changes in political thinking, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani broke with the tradition and offered to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political organization that can take part in the country’s political life. In turn, he asked for the Taliban to recognize the government and to accept and respect the Afghan constitution.

After a military confrontation that has seen Kabul fight against the Taliban for more than sixteen years, Ghani’s announcement on Wednesday marked a remarkable new approach on part of the Afghan government. But why did Ghani shift his attitude and why did he do it now?

Firstly, to achieve a fair degree of security in a country where the dramatically high number of terrorist attacks and violent casualties registered over the past year is frustrating the generosity of donor countries and driving away aid workers. Secondly, to retrieve some legitimacy in the eyes of an ever more disaffected and disillusioned Afghan people in view of the parliamentary elections to be held this year and the presidential elections due next year, in which the Pashtun élite close to Ghani is likely to fare badly and abstention is expected to be high. Thirdly, to ensure stability at a time in which the construction plan of the TAPI (the pipeline that should bring gas from Turkmenistan to India passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan) is making important advancements that can bring needed economic benefits to Afghanistan.

As of now, the Taliban have not replied to Ghani’s offering and have just recognized the mounting pressure put on them on part of countries throughout the region (most likely, a reference to their bakers in Islamabad). Nonetheless, the ball is now in their field and they should better not scrap the game. Just as the government in Kabul has recognized that a definitive military victory is no longer (if it ever was) a credible option and that a shift of attitude was necessary to get out of the stalemate and hopefully end the confrontation, the Taliban leadership should examine rationally the cards on the table and recognize that:

  • A military victory against Kabul and its Western allies (whose forces on the ground were incremented by President Trump last August for an indeterminate period) is impossible to achieve;
  • Pakistan is under constant pressure to cease its decade-long support for the Taliban insurgency;
  • Turning to legitimate and peacefully-competitive politics and acting within the framework of the constitution is the only way to reach their ultimate goal of reviving a Taliban-led government.

In this sense, the Taliban leadership should undergo the same process of re-think and re-invention experienced by the FARC in Colombia when they agreed to end the military confrontation with the government in Bogotá and to transform into a legitimate political party. Having abandoned violence and having entered the political realm, the FARC have gained the right to run in the country’s electoral competition and have acquired the chance to influence policy-making in a way that would have been impossible for them through weapons.

Now that Kabul has acted rationally and pragmatically, it is time for the Taliban to accept that they have nor the watches nor the time – to paraphrase their old saying – and that they must rethink themselves if they are to exert any long-term political influence on Afghanistan.

 

[Photo credits: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images]