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

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.

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.

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.