Diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: old hostilities and new dangers

 

One month after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and in the wake of Qatar’s rejection of Saudi demands, it is more than ever imperative to understand the relations that have been historically linking the Peninsula’s countries one with the other and one against the other

 

One month ago, just a few days after Trump’s visit to the Middle East reconsolidated the Washington-Riyadh relationship, several Arab countries severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar; closed all maritime, land and sea links with Doha; and expelled all Qataris residing within their borders. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt stand particularly out – both for their geopolitical importance and for the major role they have been playing in pulling the strings that have led to the crisis that is currently paralyzing the Gulf.

Riyadh and the Arab countries that followed its steps motivated their move through a series of accusation against Doha according to which the latter would have supported groups such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while also maintaining cooperative and cordial ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.

Faced with the rejection of all accusations on part of Doha and with the support it found in Turkey, Iran and –though with more softer tones- Kuwait and Oman, the “group of four” has proceeded two weeks later to present to Qatar a series of 13 measures with which it was expected to comply within 10 days in order to end the crisis and its isolation within the GCC.

As of today, with Monday’s deadline now passed, Doha has denounced the Saudi requests (that go from the interruption of all links with those groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Riyadh labels as terrorist, to the cessation of any cordial relation with Iran, to the shutting down of the network al Jazeera, to the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar) as unacceptable and a threat to Qatar’s sovereignty. This refusal on part of Doha seems thus to disappoint the hopes of those who had believed in the possibility of a swift end to what has emerged as the worst diplomatic crisis ever in the Gulf region.

On the background of a crisis of such seriousness that not only has no precedents but that also has the potential to change drastically the balances within the GCC and the Arab-Sunni sphere, it becomes fundamental to understand the relationships that have historically defined friendships and hostilities in the Arabic Peninsula and how they are now reflecting on the current events.

Historically, Qatar has characterized itself as the Gulf country with the most autonomous foreign policy with respect to the general line traced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and followed by the other members of the Council. Indeed, it has always maintained cordial relations with Iran; it has hosted members of the Brotherhood when they were expelled from Sisi’s Egypt, as well as leader of Hamas and representatives of those fringe of the Afghan Taliban open to dialogue with Kabul; it has supported Hamas and its government over Gaza; it has let Al Jazeera become in 2011 a channel of support for the values and the demands that were igniting the Arab Spring and that many fears were causing instead in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

It thus emerges how Qatar, with respect to the other Arab-Sunni countries of the peninsula, is a sui generis actor. Interestingly, despite Qatar’s attempts to conjugate its autonomous choices of foreign policy with the necessity to conform with the line dominating within the GCC, this has not been enough to placate the hostility towards Doha on part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that has indeed translated into diplomatic tensions more than once.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is the Iran factor to be crucial. Since 2011, with the collapse of traditional regimes in the Middle East and the breaking out of brutal civil wars that have exacerbated the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, Iran has found room –in Syria, Yemen and Iraq- to assert itself as major regional actor with whom nor its Sunni rivals nor the west could refrain from dealing. This ascent on part of Iran has caused several worries in Riyadh, that has had to cope both with the economic difficulties caused by the drop in the global price of oil and with the threats to security caused by the war in Yemen, by a Shiite population calling for ever more rights, and from a weakening of the ties with Washington under Obama. In this context, it has become crucial for Riyadh to maintain its credibility as major power by asserting its role as regional hegemon vis-à-vis Iran, and it is in the optic of this tough rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the isolation imposed by the latter against Qatar needs to be read.

On their part, the UAE seem to be less obsessed with the Iranian nightmare that bothers Riyadh’s sleep and seem rather to put more emphasis on the necessity for Qatar to cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other Islamist groups of the region. Abu Dhabi, in fact, sees those groups as a dangerous destabilizing force and as a serious threat to the sustainability of the regional and peninsular status quo on which its foreign policy and its alliances rest. To this, it is then to be added how the UAE hope that the isolation –and therefore the diplomatic weakening- of Qatar can induce the US to transfer to its country the military base it actually has in Qatar.

The UAE’s fears regarding the support provided by Doha to Islamist groups active in the region is also shared by Bahrain and Egypt. Since February 2011, when the Arab spring’s protests engulfed the streets of Manama and threatened the stability of the al-Khalifa family, Bahrain is a strenuous defender of the status quo that the Islamist groups close to Doha seem willing to upset in the name of their political programs of reformism.

A similar concern is found in Cairo: here, since the coup that led Sisi to power in 2013, there has been a tough repression against the Brotherhood and any group connected to them and the government is engaged in a daily fight with Islamist-inspired groups that threaten the country’s security in less centralized areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, the tough financial difficulties of the past years have contributed to consolidating the ties between Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the gulf countries have provided Egypt with substantial financial aid.

Conversely, Oman and Kuwait have historically played the role of mediators between Qatar –with whom they maintain friendly relations- and the other members of the GCC. Like Qatar, in fact, they have maintained mostly cordial relations with Iran and they similarly believe in the importance of inserting the enhancement of the Gulf-Iran relations in the broader framework of the fight against terrorism and regional instability. Like Doha, then, they have deep ties with Teheran in the field of energy: Oman has been planning for some time to begin importing Iranian gas through a pipeline connecting the Iranian province of Hormuzgan with Sohar, and Kuwait also seems to have recently initiated negotiations with Iran to import its gas.

The crisis that is interesting the Gulf is thus taking place on the background of pre-existing tensions and rivalries that the latest events have not but exacerbated. Because of the longtime nature of these tensions, making predications on what might be the consequences if Qatar and its four neighbors did not find a common line of agreement is extremely difficult. The only assertion that can be made with certainty –and with preoccupation- is that, if an agreement is not reached, the dynamics that have existed in the region until now would be upset and the regional security further compromised.

The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia’s hazard, Qatar’s isolation and Iran’s potential win

 

Where does the diplomatic crisis that has been unfolding in the Gulf in the past couple of days stems from and where does it risk leading the region

 

In what to many has been a familiar déjà-vu, a diplomatic crisis with Qatar at the centre of it has been unfolding in the past couple of days in the Gulf. However, despite not being anything new to the region’s inner actors and outside experts, this time the diplomatic rift has assumed more dramatic tones: unlike what happened in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and the Maldives did not limit to sever diplomatic ties with Doha but also severed all sea, land and air ties; issued expulsion orders to Qataris residing in their countries; and expelled Qatar from the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.

According to what reported by Saudi news agencies on Monday 5th of May, the reasons that led Riyadh to adopt such tough measures against Qatar and that led the other countries mentioned above to follow suit are to be found in Doha’s financial and material support to terrorist and extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and to its excessively close ties to Shia Iran.

As a matter of fact, Qatar has historically characterized itself for a somewhat independent foreign policy that has at times created rifts and tensions between the Emirate and the other GCC countries: it has always maintained cordial ties to Iran, with which it manages gas exploitation in South Pars, the world’s largest gas reserve that lies in the Gulf’s waters between Iran and Qatar; it has traditionally sponsored and provided a safe haven to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; it has maintained close and cooperative links with PA’s rival Hamas; and in 2011 its news outlet Al Jazeera largely supported the Arab Spring that was conversely arousing the fears of GCC countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.

Nevertheless, Qatar has always tried to balance its quite independent foreign and regional policy with substantive alignment with the GCC, as its involvement in the war in Yemen to restore President Hadi and its participation in the fight against ISIS proves. Therefore, the decision of Saudi Arabia to cut all sort of ties with Doha, without even clarifying which steps should Qatar take to step out of its current isolation, needs to be explained in light of other and deeper considerations than mere accusations of links with terrorism (from which not even Saudi Arabia itself is exempted) and with Iran (a country with which also Oman has pretty cordial relations).

The tough moves embraced by Saudi Arabia against Qatar are taking place just a couple of weeks after President Trump made of Riyadh the first destination of its first Presidential trip abroad. There, the American President’s words and acts (among which the signature of a new arms deal worth 110 billion $ stands out) revealed an American Middle Eastern policy that sees in Saudi Arabia a major strategic partner with whom to fight terrorism and curb Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, but perhaps more quickly and more dramatically than expected, this new attitude of Washington towards Riyadh has made the kingdom more self-confident in its self-entrusted role as Sunni leader and has encouraged its already assertive posture vis-à-vis Iran. Thus, emboldened by a retrieved friendship with the US that the years of the Obama administration had seemed to cool, Saudi Arabia has decided to act promptly and to assert its prominence as Sunni anti-Iranian leader by cutting ties with a Qatari neighbour judged not belligerent enough against Teheran.

In doing so, though, Riyadh is playing with fire and it is risking unleashing further tensions in an already troubled region.

As Qatar sees itself isolated in the Gulf peninsula and with no reliable friends in the GCC, its only hopes of re-inclusion rest with the mediating role that Turkey and the US might play. However, until now neither Ankara nor Washington has clearly intervened in the diplomatic rift on Qatar’s behalf: the former seems reticent to openly criticize Riyadh’s assertiveness and seems to be considering the UAE as a possible country where to transfer its military base currently installed in Qatar; the latter, on its part, is too absorbed by the fight against the PKK and the dynamics of the Syrian war to search another confrontation.

In this context of deep isolation, in which old enemies resurface and old friends shied away, Qatar might thus find itself in a situation in which strengthening its ties with Teheran becomes the best and only path out of the solitude. If this did occur, the shift of a Sunni major strategic and economic power like Qatar to Iran’s camp would risk exacerbating further the dangerous confrontation between Riyadh and Teheran, with unpredictable –but surely destructive- effects on the entire region.

Saudi Arabia should therefore remember that by playing with fire you risk sparking flames that you cannot control -and getting burnt yourself.

Rising tensions across the Levant

 

The last week has witnessed a heightening of tensions between Syria and Israel. Far from being a two-actor tale, this escalation is expression of the delicate balances of power and axes of alliance involving all the actors of the Syrian war

 

In the Middle East’s complex and ever-evolving arena, the past days have been marked by a worrying escalation of tensions between Syria and Israel. This escalation, that is now adding to the troubles the Levant is already facing, is taking place after a series of incidents that have occurred over the last week and that are the most serious cases of direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

It all began last Friday when Israeli warplanes conducted a series of air raids near Palmyra against convoys suspected of transferring weapons to Hezbollah. As a response, the Syrian government fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets and -according to Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese reports- an Israeli drone was even shot down on Monday by Syrian aerial defense systems. Since then, tensions between the two countries have been worsening, with each side warning the other against the risks of retaliation and claiming its resoluteness not to leave attacks un-responded.

 

As these worrisome events unfold in the Levant, understanding the strategic considerations lying behind them, their significance as eventual “game changers”, and their likely future impact on the regional post-war settlement, requires to look at the broader set of actors involved in the Syrian conflict, at the specific regional and national interests motivating each of them, and at the peculiarities of the alliances of which they are part.

 

Of the many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, a major role –both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table- is that played by Russia since its direct intervention in September 2015.  Committed to guaranteeing the survival of its Alawite friend, and allied in its military activities and political moves to Iran and Hezbollah, Moscow is nonetheless determined to oppose any military strategy against Israel that its allies might want to pursue. In particular, it wants to avoid any destabilization on part of its war allies of the border along the Golan Heights (an area bitterly disputed since 1967) since a similar course of action might end up dragging Russia in an unwanted confrontation with Israel. For Russia, indeed, cooperating in the Syrian conflict with Iran and Hezbollah but keeping itself at a distance from their regional ambitions against Israel is the win-win strategy par excellence.

It is this position endorsed by Russia that has led Netanyahu to Moscow more than once (the latest on March 9th), as he sees in Putin an important partner to deter Iran and Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s interests. However, as political analysts and policymakers begin to see an end to the Syrian conflict, the weight of Iran and Hezbollah in negotiating a post-war settlement is something that Russia cannot ignore if it wants to play the role of mediator and peace-broker to which it aspires. In other words, if until now Russia has been able to find a balance between avoiding tensions with Israel over crucial (and to Israel indeed vital) issues such as the Golan border and preserving a united front with its war allies Iran and Hezbollah, continuing to do so is becoming ever more difficult for Moscow.

For its part, Damascus is similarly interested in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from turning the border region along the Golan into a future battlefield that would risk seeing Syria involved in another regional conflict that the country cannot afford (economically, militarily, demographically). However, the Syrian government has become ever more self-confident over the past months and last week’s counter-strikes against Israel not only strengthen the credibility of the regime’s image but also stand as real “game-changers” in the regional balance of power. Indeed, if Israel’s attacks against arms shipments to Hezbollah are nothing new, Syrian assertive response is instead a new factor that has to be dealt with.

On the contrary, Iran and Hezbollah are united in their aspiration to exploit the context of the Syrian civil war, the regional instability triggered by it, and the questionability of the regional borders that it has brought about, to revive the dispute over the Golan area and reignite direct confrontation with Israel. Strong of the successes that they have been achieving during the years of war, Hezbollah and Iran see now themselves in the right military position and with the right diplomatic leverage to destabilize at their advantage the Golan area – an area which is geo-strategically crucial for the pursuit of their security interests in the context of their historical hostility with Israel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, then, there is Israel, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war responds to considerations of national security and, in particular, to the need of preventing any meaningful success for Iran and Hezbollah that might turn them into major and powerful regional actors.  For Tel Aviv, a non-questionable tenet of its security policy is the preservation of the Golan border as defined unilaterally by itself in 1967. Therefore, it perceives as especially worrying the threats posed to the stability of the area by Iran and Hezbollah, and it is to the perception of these threats that one has to look to explain last week’s air raids against weapons convoys headed to Hezbollah.

In addition, Israel aspires to have a say in the post-war regional settlement in order to protect its interests and avert the creation of non-favourable centres of powers along its borders. In this light, last week’s attacks stand thus as Israel’s reminders of its weight and “voice” in the definition of regional balances.

 

In conclusion, as each actor pursues its own interests as peculiarly defined against the prospect of an end of the Syrian war, the escalation between Syria and Israel and the possibility of a post-war confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran over the Golan have the potential to become the most serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium in the upcoming future.

Interestingly enough, the resolution of these challenges will largely depend on Russia’s capacity to maintain even in a post-war context its crucial balancing role and to adapt it to the changing circumstances on the ground.

 

[Picture rights: Israeli Defense Ministry]

 

Towards a real and lasting Palestinian unity?

 

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have reached a deal to form a national unity government that might finally pave the way to end intra-Palestinian divisions and feuds

 

After three days of dialogue held in Moscow under Russia’s auspices, last Tuesday the representatives of the main Palestinian political groups –the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad- announced the reaching of a deal to form a national unity government.

According to the deal, the various groups involved in it will now join Palestinian institutions, will form a new Palestinian National Council (PNC), and will hold long-awaited elections. The last time in which credible and inclusive elections were held, in fact, was more than ten years ago –in 2006- when Hamas’ victory and the subsequent fractions emerged within the Palestinian front led to the rupture Hamas-Fatah and to the de facto division of Palestine between Gaza, since 2007 under Hamas’ rule, and the West Bank, under the control of Abbas and the PA.

Since then, Palestinian politics has deeply suffered due to this internal division that has weakened the credibility of Palestine as a cohesive and credible actor on the international stage, and has compromised any possibility of reaching a two-state solution. The dialogues held last week, if actually turned into the concrete  measures they promise, could thus be the first step toward the resolution of this decade-old fragmentation and a new beginning for Palestinian politics.

 

Over the past years, attempts were made to bring unity within the Palestinian government. However, no initiative for a long-lasting reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah proved successful and internal divisions have continued to prevail, up to the point that last September the Palestinian High Court decided that municipal elections should be held in the West Bank only and then suspended the entire electoral process.

Despite this, though, efforts at reconciliation have now been retrieved and the explanation is to to be found looking at both the international and the intra-Palestinian level.

 

Over the past months, the ascent of Donald Trump and his pro-Israeli rhetoric; the appointment of Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel; the Amona case; and the continuous construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have brought once again the Palestinian issue and the two-state solution to the attention of the international community – that over the past years had been mostly focused on other Middle Eastern problems. In the context of this renewed attention given to the Palestinian issue, important episodes were the adoption on part of the UN Security Council of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and the international conference on peace in the Middle East held in France and attended by representatives of 70 countries. Though the impact these initiatives will have is likely to be extremely limited, they are nonetheless important steps that reveal the general pro-Palestinian attitude of the international community and the growing isolation of Israel.

It is thus on the background of these developments on the international stage that it is possible to explain Abbas’ decision to take advantage of this mood of general support by reaching a Palestinian political unity. Indeed, only by overcoming internal divisions and by giving to Palestine a unitary government, can Abbas present the Palestinian state as a cohesive, credible, and reliable actor and encourage further the backing of the international community – a goal particularly important in a moment in which Trump’s advent to the White House rises uncertainties and concerns among the Palestinians.

 

To these considerations we should then add the Palestinian internal dimension, so as to give a more comprehensive explanation of the reasons that have led now the various Palestinian groups to renew attempts at unity.

As far as Abbas is concerned, despite his leadership being confirmed last November at the Congress of Fatah, the Palestinian leader has seen his popularity decrease diminish over the years. The achievement of a lasting national unity would thus represent for Abbas and his future political legacy an extremely important success capable of ameliorating his image to the eyes of a Palestinian people tired of divisions and feuds. Moreover, Fatah has been since 2007 in a situation in which its legitimacy as guide of the Palestinians is continuously challenged and questioned by the presence of Hamas’ government in Gaza and by the frictions existing with the other groups of the Palestinian political mosaic. The only solution for Fatah to solve this legitimacy problem is through the calling of and the participation in truly inclusive elections.

On its part, Hamas is experiencing difficulties at governing over Gaza. At this respect, the most recent example is represented by the difficulties that the group is having in providing constant energy to the Gazans and that, last week, ultimately sparked a wave of protests. As these protests have revealed, Hamas’ difficulties at governing risk deteriorating the popular support which the group traditionally enjoys in Gaza and this makes it reasonable for Hamas to pursue a reconciliation with Fatah and to join a national unity government that can ameliorate governability in the Strip and thus save the group’s image and credibility.

Finally, as far as the smaller groups such as PIJ are concerned, to them the formation of a government of national unity as first step towards elections is functional to increase their capacity of influence and expand their basin of supporters beyond their traditional areas.

 

In conclusion, both considerations linked to the international realm and considerations linked to the Palestinian one have contributed to encouraging the main Palestinian actors to renew attempts at reconciliation. It is now to be seen if these attempts will be translated into concrete actions capable of giving to Palestine the cohesion it needs.

Bibi’s great refusal

 

The proposal of dialogue coming from Paris has revealed all the difficulties inherent in an effective revival of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, with the Israeli front led by an extreme-Right coalition not interested in dialogue and a Palestinian front that claims to be disposed to talk but which is actually too weak to

 

The last attempt made by third parties to encourage a revival of the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians was made in 2014 by a then hopeful –but soon disillusioned- John Kerry, and collapsed a few months later after the reconciliation agreement reached by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA) and a Hamas that the international community has always resented to regard as legitimate and reliable partner in attempts at dialogue and peace-building.

Two years after the failure of the Obama administration, it was France who proposed over the last months to promote a new Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, but once again hope has soon been replaced by resignation. Last Monday, in fact, during the visit in Israel by France’s envoy Pierre Vemont, Netanyahu voices his neat and irrevocable refusal to take part in any such dialogue as proposed by Paris and the PM’s “no” seems to have curbed the French proposal for good.

 

On the background of a Middle Eastern scenario ever more dispiriting –with Yemen and Syria doomed to an endless civil war, and an Iraq over which the threat of ethnic and religious sectarianism is looming again as the battle for Mosul goes on- Netanyahu’s “no” becomes the last piece of a bleak puzzle and the latest proof of how any prospect of an open, sincere and credible dialogue within the Israeli-Palestinian context is ever more utopic.

 

In particular, Netanyahu’s refusal reveals in an undeniable and worrying way how the Israeli government is dominated by an extreme-right coalition that conceals its extremism behind weak justifications and pretexts. Despite Netanyahu’s government justifying his stance with respect to the French proposal saying it is open only to initiatives coming directly from the Palestinians and only to proposals for a bilateral dialogue, Tel Aviv’s refusal is nothing but a clear closure to any possibility of dialogue. The refusal to convene in Paris, in fact, cannot be seen as an incentive to encourage the Palestinians to direct and bilateral dialogues with Israel (despite this being the Israeli government’s rhetoric) but only as a rejection of any initiative that aspires to promote negotiation and to address the demands of Palestinian nationalism.

 

To counterbalance Netanyahu’s refusal came instead the acceptance of the French proposal on part of Abbas and Erekat, who declared their openness to a multilateral dialogue encouraged by a third party.

Clearly, Abbas’ “yes ” is ot enough to make of the Palestinian front the ideal partner in a dialogue as complex as the one between Tel Aviv and Ramallah.  Indeed, within the Palestinian political picture there continue to exist deep divisions between the PA and Hamas (with a series of minor parties and groups to complicate internal factionalism) and this rises doubts on the Palestinians’ capacity to select for the process of dialogue figures truly capable to represent the whole Palestinian people and all the colours that make up its social and political reality.

 

Paris’ proposal, thus, failed in changing the stalemate in which the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue has been for the past two years, but it has nonetheless contributed to make light on the difficulties that continue to obstruct dialogue and on the subsequent steps that the international community should take. From this point of view, as far as the Israeli front is concerned, USA and EU should use their diplomatic and economic leverage to induce the Israeli Right that is currently ruling the country to moderate its stance and its most controversial policies (above all that of settlements in the occupied territories). On the other hand, as far as the Palestinian front is concerned, it would be necessary to encourage truly inclusive elections, capable of giving to the Palestinian people that undivided and legitimate voice that is essential for dialogue to start.

 

Until this is done, the Israeli “no” will remain an immovable obstacle and the Palestinian “yes” an empty assent.

 

 

[Picture rights: Atef Safadi/Reuters]

The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]

The threat of “making Israel and America safe again”

On Wednesday 26th October, in Jerusalem’s Old City (a place born to be the world’s most peaceful but too often turned into the region’s most turbulent) about 250 Israeli-Americans gathered to voice their support for Donald Trump as future US President.

Most of those who gathered there were from the community of 200,000 Israeli-Americans who currently live in Israel and especially from among the 60,000 Americans who live in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

 

The event, organized by Republicans Overseas in Israel, was named “Jerusalem forever” so as to voice the group’s condemnation of the latest resolution adopted by UNESCO that came to condemn Israeli policies with respect to the al-Aqsa compound, and in which reference to the holy place is made exclusively with their Muslim/Arabic names. This made of the event not only a rally in support for the Republican Presidential candidate but a rally in support of an ever more radical Israeli Right.

 

Although attended by merely 250 people, the rally was important because it came to represent a radicalization of views, opinions and rhetoric on part of both Trump and Israeli right-wingers.

 

At the beginning of his Presidential race some months ago, Trump decided to avoid strong and well-defined opinions regarding his eventual Israeli policy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the question of whether the US should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

More recently, though, he has changed his attitude and in recent speeches Mr Trump has presented himself as the one who, if elected President, will revive the US-Israeli historical friendship. Particularly, he has stressed the interests that Washington and Tel Aviv share when it comes to regional threats and regional security, saying that the US and Israel will stand together to enemies like Iran so as to “make Israel and American safe again”.

In addition, he also came to adopt more outspoken and clear positions on delicate issues such as settlements (that his advisor on Israel David Friedman defined at Wednesday’s rally as being “not illegal”) and the status of Jerusalem, which he recognizes as the indisputably legitimate capital of the state of Israel where the American Embassy should be.

 

Such a rhetorical shift on part of Mr Trump goes along well with the increasing radicalism of Israel’s right-wingers, who are eager to support any candidate with pro-settlement stances such as Mr Trump is showing.

Even if the vote of Israeli-Americans will not have much of an impact on the US elections, still it proves how central the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is in defining future US-Israeli relationship. Moreover, it also shows how the influential community of Israeli settlers approaches any political issue through the prism of “land acquisition/expropriation” in the attempt of legitimizing a situation which remains one of the greatest failures of our times in the application of International Law.

 

 

[Picture rights: Shaina Shealy/Al Jazeera]

Palestine’s lost elections

 

The Palestinian Authority’s decision to postpone the municipal elections in Palestine reveals how deep the fracture between Hamas and Fatah is and warns about its dangerousness for the future developments of Palestinian politics

 

Until 1987, talking of Palestinian politics essentially meant talking of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), of Fatah (the prevailing party within the PLO), and of Yasser Arafat (founder of Fatah and leader of the Palestinian cause). In 1987, though, the sparks of the continuous fights with Israel ignited the First Intifada and the Palestinian political theatre was made more complex by the appearance of a new actor – Hamas.

Founded in Gaza as local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas opposes to the nationalist and secular ideology of Fatah a nationalist and Islamist one; it reacts to Fatah’s claimed abandonment of political violence in 1988 with a Charter that praises armed struggle as sole means for the liberation of Palestine; and it competes with Fatah for the support of the Palestinian people.

Remained in a somewhat marginal position until Arafat’s death in 2004, in 2006 Hamas takes part in the Palestinian legislative elections and obtains a victory that changes in a crucial way the Palestinian political environment and the balances of power within it. Indeed, Fatah’s hegemony is for the first time seriously put into question and the Hamas-Fatah competition becomes so deep that it leads to war and, in June 2007, to an executive duplicity whereby Gaza goes under the control of Hamas while the West Bank remains under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Since that moment on, talking of Palestinian politics means essentially talking of the contraposition between Fatah and Hamas and of the challenges that it poses to the socio-political dynamics of Palestine.

 

 

The irreconcilability of the two groups emerged clearly in 2012, with Hamas’ decision to boycott the local elections by refusing to taking part into them, and again in 2014 with the failure of the attempts aimed at creating a unitary government.

On the background of these dispiriting precedents, a new gleam of hope with respect to the possibility of healing the division seemed to emerge with the prospect of the municipal elections that should have taken place in 416 cities of Gaza and the West Bank on October 8 and to which both Hamas and Fatah should have participated.

However, once again, what was a hope remained such and what was a division deemed by many as irresolvable was confirmed as such. On October 8, in fact, the Palestinian High Court decreed that the elections would take place in the West Bank only, accusing Hamas of attempting to boycott the electoral process by using Gaza’s local courts to cancel nine members of Fatah from the lists.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling of the High Court was met with harsh accusations of partiality on part of Hamas, that refused to consider the ruling legitimate and underlined how its nature was political rather than judicial. Indeed, the ruling of the High Court seems to stem from the fear of Fatah about experiencing again a defeat such as that of 2006; from the PA’s convenience to postpone the elections in a moment in which its popularity is extremely low; and from Abbas’ worry that the elections (seen in the West Bank as a referendum on his person) might lead to his definitive political defeat.

New complexities emerged then on October 4, when the PA replied to the High Court’s decision declaring that there would be no elections without the participation of Gaza, but that –to make such participation possible- Hamas should “neutralize” its position. For the moment, being Hamas and Fatah incapable of finding an agreement that could restart the electoral process, the elections have been postponed for four months.

 

The ruling of the High Court came thus to disappoint the Palestinians’ hope in a future national unity, since it revealed the merely rhetoric value of Hamas’ and Fatah’s declarations in support of reconciliation and confirmed instead the permanence of an intra-Palestinian division which is territorial, demographic, and political.

The consequence of this division is that the two parties –each busy trying to affirm its superiority over the other- are actually weakening the Palestinian political front and the feasibility of the Palestinians’ aspiration to a nation state. Indeed, incapable of healing their divergences and of confronting each other in a legitimate and democratic electoral process, Fatah and Hamas are depriving their people of the right to express their voice through the vote and are obstructing the elaboration of a Palestinian political position which is representative of the popular will, cohesive, coherent, legitimate, and credible.

In front of the current situation, two paths are thus possible. In the best possible scenario (that though the latest events make now look somewhat utopic) the hope is that Hamas and Fatah succeed in addressing the problems that have led to the current stalemate; in retrieving the electoral process by participating both into it; and in cancelling that dangerous separation between Hamas-Gaza and Fatah-West Bank that is endangering the realization of the Palestinian cause. Conversely, if this is not done and Hamas and Fatah maintain their irreconcilability, the current division would transform into a real fracture, with the social and political system of Palestine torn between Gaza and the West Bank and the prospect of a state unity ever more faltering and ever farther.

 

 

[Picture rights:Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

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The US-Israel friendship between military agreements and the American elections

The military agreement signed by the US and Israel reinforces not only the military partnership between the two allies but also the tacit support given by Bibi to Trump’s eventual victory

 

Last week, after months of long negotiations and tiring compromises, the US and Israel signed a new military agreement that strengthens their bilateral cooperation in the sector.

 

According to the agreement, which will enter into force in 2019 and will last for a decade, the US will give Israel 3.8 billion $ per year in military support, for a total of 38 billion $ – of which 33 billion devoted to the purchase of armies and munitions and 5 billion destined to missile defense. The agreement implies thus an important increase in terms of financial support, if compared with the 30 billion foreseen in the current agreement and due to expire soon. The latest agreement between the US and Israel –known as Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)- is indeed the biggest military support ever approved by Washington towards an allied country.

Nevertheless, the agreement did not come without a cost for Israel and Netanyahu’s government, that had not only to renounce the initial request of 45 billion $ in ten years but also had to bend to some provisions that raised voices of criticism in Tel Aviv. In the specific of these provisions, Israel accepted not to seek further financial aid on part of the American Congress over the next ten years and to limit expenditures in the Israeli military industry to give precedence to the American one.

 

The just-signed MOU represents thus an important milestone in the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, but it is also a useful lens through which to read the approach of both Obama and Bibi to the upcoming American Presidential elections.

 

On Obama’s side, many analysts and experts have underlined how the American President invested the last months in reaching an agreement with Israel in order to conclude with a diplomatic victory his political legacy – especially in fields in which he has been widely criticized such as of foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the agreement can be read as the fruit of Obama’s attempt to strengthen the image of the Democratic Party in the eyes of two influence groups of traditional Republican leaning – the arms lobby and the American Jewry. Indeed, the agreement contains provisions that (as seen above) ensure economic advnategs for the American military industry and, being an unprecedented agreement in terms of numbers, it hails the relationship between the Obama administration and those pro-Israel American Jews who have in the past denounced as too cold the President’s approach to Israel.

Specular is then the attempt to delegitimize those voices within the Republican Party that criticize Obama for the tensions that during the years of his mandate have risked damaging the traditional friendship between the US and Israel – a country that large part of the American electorate still regards as Washington’s only reliable ally in the Middle East and as only reliable bulwark against the threat posed by terrorism and radical Islamism.

 

On Netanyahu’s side, instead, the agreement was sought because seen as crucial to preserve the qualitative military superiority of Israel vis-à-vis its neighbors and thus ensure the Jewish state’s security and deterrence capacity.

In terms of the next American Presidential elections, then, the decision of signing the agreement before Obama goes home rises from the uncertainties that surround the choice of the next American President. At this respect, Netanyahu has thus far refused to take an explicit position (contrary to what he did in 2012 when he was a professed supporter of Romney). Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume that in Tel Aviv the ascent of Trump to the White House is seen more favorably than that of Clinton, whose stance on Israel is deemed by Bibi as not sufficiently different from Obama’s and excessively centered on the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority and the condemnation of Israel’s settlements.

Now, the recent military agreement goes to reinforce such assumption.

 

Indeed, as far as Middle Eastern politics and Middle Eastern security dynamics are concerned, Netanyahu and Trump have over the past months revealed to share not few opinions. Just like Bibi, Trump has more than once criticized last year’s nuclear agreement with Iran and he too reads Iran’s economic and political ascent as a major threat to the region’s stability and security. In addition, unlike Clinton, Trump has not made the US-Israel friendship conditional upon Israel retrieveing dialogue with the Palestinians in the framework of a “two-state solution”. Rather, he has even supported Israel’s claim to build further settlements in the West Bank, and scored in this way an important point last week, when Netanyahu to both the Israeli and American public presented the opposition to settlements as a policy of “ethnic cleansing”. As said above, this similarity of positions on part of Netanyahu and Trump is now reinforced by last week’s military agreement. Trump, in fact, has always promoted in his political rhetoric an American foreign policy made of non-intervention and isolationism, and this approach of his goes well with the increased capacity of self-defense that the new agreement gives to Israel and that was largely praised by the head of Israel’s National Security Council. Moreover, the agreement contains provisions that force Israel to buy weapons and munitions from the American military industry. These provisions could thus favor the Trump-Netanyahu relationship if the latter’s desire of securing the best munitions and the best contracts possible led him to seek closer ties with a Republican candidate who is strong of the historical bound between his Party and the arms lobby.

 

Therefore, the military agreement signed last week by Washington and Tel Aviv not only strengthens the US-Israel relationship that in the past few years was more than once questioned, but it also influences Netanyahu’s approach to the American elections.

The two dangerous faces of Bibi’s politics

The increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses and the increase in the number of Israeli settlements reveal a dangerous politics embraced by Tel Aviv that the international community should try to counter

 

 

A recent report published by OCHA (the UN agency that deals with the coordination of humanitarian affairs) on the conditions of the Palestinian population in the Palestinian Occupied Territories shed light on some worrying data that deserve attention and require an immediate political response.

According to the data released by the report, in fact, since the beginning of 2016 there has been an increase in the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses perpetrated by the Israeli State. In particular, OCHA reports 684 building as having been demolished since January 2016 – a figure which implies an increase by 25% with respect to the previous year.

 

These demolitions –though harmful for the Palestinian population as a whole- interest in particular East Jerusalem and Area C (a territory corresponding to 60% of the West Bank that according to the Oslo Agreements of 1993 is under Israeli administration), which since the Six-Day War of 1967 have been one of the most delicate issues in the territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine.

The reported demolitions -that mostly involve private houses but also public buildings such as schools and health centres- are justified by Israel either as punitive measures carried out against families whose members have attempted the security of the Israeli state or on the basis of questionably legal pretexts, chief among them the claim that the demolished houses had been built without the required permits.

 

Regarding this last point, however, it is necessary to underline the difficulties encountered by Palestinians when they wish to build houses and need to submit the requests of the relevant permits to Tel Aviv: according to OCHA’s data, in fact, between 2010 and 2014 Palestinian citizens submitted 2,020 requests of which Israel only approved 33. Moreover, according to the agency WAFA, a Palestinian family may be forced to wait up to 12 years and pay up to 70,000 $ in order to obtain the necessary permits.

In front of such state of things, thus, it is not surprising that most Palestinian families proceed with the construction of their houses without waiting for the compulsory but unobtainable permits.

 

The rise in the demolition of Palestinian houses, then, is accompanied by another policy in worrying ascent: the construction of Israeli settlements in those same areas (especially around Hebron and Nablus) where the Palestinian houses have been demolished and where Palestinians are prevented from building.

According to OCHA, today 600,00 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a number which has more than doubled since the Oslo Agreement and which is in continuous rise: as reported by the watchdog Peace Now, in fact, only last Tuesday the Israeli government approved the construction of 285 new settlements in the West Bank.

 

The reasons for this double-faced Israeli action (now on the rise with the government in the hands of politicians such as Netanyahu, Liberman and Bennett) are of political nature and find their roots in the political calculations of the current establishment.

 

As far as East Jerusalem is concerned, the growing demolition of Palestinian houses is part of the broader politics embraced by the current government and aimed at removing Palestinians from the city by forcing them to build somewhere else, and cancelling any physical, historical and socio-cultural link between the Palestinian population and Jerusalem in order to make of the city an undisputed Jewish urban centre.

As far as the West Bank is concerned, the coordinated policies of demolition and settlement clearly aim to grab as much land as possible and increase the number of Israeli-Jewish inhabitants.

 

By so doing, the same prospect of having in future a Palestinian state is put into question and the legitimacy of the Palestinian national vindications is badly weakened. If the Palestinian population has no land nor houses in East Jerusalem and in the Area C of the West Bank, in fact, how can it justify in the eyes of the international community its quest for a national state comprising the whole of the West Bank and having East Jerusalem as its capital?

Moreover, by so doing, the credibility of the Palestinian leadership (both before the international community and before the Palestinians themselves) is questioned – and this is an aspect of the story in which Israel is particularly interested. Indeed, the more the Palestinian leadership has a faltering credibility and a disputable internal legitimacy, the more it will struggle to elaborate a clear political line and coherent demands, thus making Bibi’s game.

 

From what said thus far, it emerges how the main consequence of Israel’s politics is the weakening of any realistic prospect of a two-state solution. Indeed, with the constant demolition of Palestinian houses, the expulsion of their inhabitants from ever wider areas, and the construction in their place of Israeli settlements where Tel Aviv incentivizes as many Jewish Israelis as possible to settle, the possibility of having a Palestinian state comprising the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the whole of the West Bank becomes ever more difficult to be demographically justified.

In other words, the more Israel drives the Palestinians away the more the two-state solution itself is pushed away.

 

Among the other consequences of Israel’s politics, we should then consider the embittering of the political-diplomatic relations between Israel and a Palestinian Authority that finds it (reasonably) difficult to see in the Jewish state a partner sincerely committed to a bilateral solution; and the weakening within the Palestinian political realm of the more moderate factions to the advantage of the more radical fringes opposed to any negotiation and compromise.

 

The data released by OCHA shed thus light on a worrying reality, behind which it is possible to see what is Israel’s de facto policy of annexation.

Nevertheless, these data have received little attention: the international community, and in particular actors close to Israel such as the USA and the EU, are in fact focused on other and more pressing issues in the Middle East –namely, the war in Syria, the deterioration of the security scenario in Lybia, and the threat of the jihadist terrorism embodied by the so-called Islamic State.

Yet, Washington and Brussels, when approaching the Middle Eastern political reality, should remember that what happens in Israel-Palestine has inevitable consequences on the balances of the whole region and therefore deserves constant attention. Acknowledging this, the USA and the EU should exploit the diplomatic influence and the economic and commercial leverages they have with respect to Israel, so as to prevent dangerous dynamics that might not only exasperate the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but also come to involve in a spiral of insecurity other actors (state and non-state alike) that are active in the region.

 

[In the picture, Ariel, one of Israel’s settlements in the West bank]