Business as Usual in the Kingdom of “Dave”

On Wednesday 12 March 2014, David Cameron made his first trip to Israel as British Prime Minister. The trip was relatively smooth despite a strike in the Israeli foreign ministry, and Cameron avoided any obvious damning faux pas. (Nothing beats German Chancellor Shröder’s mistake in 2000 when he accidentally extinguished the eternal flame at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial). What’s interesting, however, is that even though Cameron is only the fifth UK premier to make this trip while in office, British prime ministerial visits to Israel are following a remarkably similar pattern.

Cameron arrived at the Israeli Knesset on a tempestuous day (they had just passed a controversial bill drafting Haredi men into the military and were gearing up for another that increases the vote threshold for Knesset representation, an act that may exclude the small Arab parties in future). But apart from having to sit through the battling speeches of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, as well as a cacophony of hot-tempered heckling in Hebrew, “just call me Dave” stayed relatively aloof from regional politics.

Cameron simply recounted his “limited” Jewish heritage, expressed sympathy and outrage over the Holocaust and told the Knesset that Britain’s relationship with Israel is “rock solid”. He had to squeeze in something about the settlements, so he opposed them in the same breath as “Palestinian incitement” before turning to the crowd-pleasing topics – Iran and terrorism. The British PM also enjoyed a brief visit to the West Bank; though Palestinian President Abbas issued a bit of a complaint that Dave’s outing to Bethlehem was little more than a politically correct afterthought, and he was probably pretty accurate. Basically, this has been a polite trip, one aimed at fostering business ties and cooperation in the high-tech sector. And to be honest, that’s literally business as usual.

Back in May 1986, Margaret Thatcher was the first sitting UK prime minister to make this pilgrimage. It didn’t really matter what she said – there was no public address, only brief remarks at a state dinner – it was her presence that seemed really important at the time. Thatcher had already received Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres (is there an era or event in Israeli history without him?) in London that January, and the Iron Lady was pushing peace talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization pretty hard. Before boarding her flight to Tel Aviv, Thatcher told British press that if Israel wanted to champion its own human rights, “you also have to stand up for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. If you demand self-determination for yourself you cannot deny it for others.” And she hammered this point home during the trip. But the crucial common ground between Thatcher and Peres was an international fight against terrorism – a preoccupation reflected in all subsequent Anglo-Israeli rhetoric.

While John Major’s Levantine travels were somewhat more public and, therefore, a little braver, his addresses in Jerusalem marked the beginning of a real cookie-cutter approach to Anglo-Israeli oratory. Major’s visit in March 1995 included several public appearances and interviews as well as a full press conference where he addressed questions from British and Israeli journalists. Major referenced the Jews’ thousands of years of history, condemned the Holocaust, urged further breakthroughs in the peace process, noted how “the scourge of terrorism” was Britain and Israel’s “common enemy” and expressed concern over the threat from…ahem….Iraq. Then he added some praise for Anglo-Israeli economic ties. Stop me if this is starting to sound familiar.

It should. Tony Blair made his first official visit to Israel in April 1998 and didn’t hit it off with then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (Blair believed the Israelis had bugged his car). But of course their joint press conference was all sweetness and light. Blair urged a continuation of the peace process and spoke more as the European president than as a British prime minister – while avoiding stepping on Clinton or Madeline Albright’s toes regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Later, when Blair visited Israel in 2006, he did so as a chief architect of the Iraq war, after a million and one statements condemning Palestinian terrorism during the Second Intifada, and immediately following Israel’s Second Lebanon War – highlighting that mutual preoccupation with security from “extremists” who “believe in fundamentalist states” once more. And then there was the new buzzword to consider – Iran.

So when Tony Blair stepped aside into his new life as a multi-millionaire and elder statesman, Gordon Brown continued the rhetorical trend. Brown, of course, was the first British Prime Minister to actually address the Knesset in 2008. Under slightly calmer circumstances than those Blair had faced two years earlier, Brown started with his own connections to Judaism through the passions of his pastor father and praised the Jewish State for realising “the age-long dream” of finding “your way home to the fields and shorelines where your ancestors walked”. Assuring his audience that “Britain is your true friend” and “Britain will always stand firmly by Israel’s side”, Brown condemned boycotts on Israel as well as the Holocaust (an interesting structure), stressed Britain’s “determination to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons programme” and called for an end to terrorism – all delivered with a sprinkling of educational and business cooperation between the two states.

So what do we take from this? Well, obviously there is an easy formula for prime ministers delivering an address in Israel. Step One: Share a personal anecdote about your (often tenuous) connection to the state of Israel. Step Two: Acknowledge the Jews’ millennia of ties to Jerusalem. Step Three: Urge a solution to the ongoing peace process. Step Four: Condemn terrorism and stress your commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran (or insert name of future threatening state). Step Five: Adjourn the public appearance so your business delegation can get down to work.

While Cameron, therefore, stressed on Thursday that he’s not the “heir to Blair” (since the current British prime minister lacks Blair’s penchant for interventionism), Anglo-Israeli rhetoric hasn’t really changed since the Thatcher-to-Major days or even the Blair-to-Brown era. Cameron may be distancing himself from Blair’s legacy in the region, but he’s not exactly disagreeing. I’m not sure what this says about the nature of British foreign policy in the Middle East, about the ongoing cycle of threats to British security from that region, about the sudden institutionalisation of British prime ministerial jaunts to the Holy Land, but Israel advocacy groups in the UK can hardly call for much closer ties between our two nations. Staunch support for Israeli security combined with polite requests for an end to settlement activity, a criticism offset by growing economic links, really is just business as usual.

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Why a Jewish State?

International news junkies absorbed by the crisis in Ukraine might be forgiven this week for missing AIPAC’s annual love fest in Washington. Not to worry, nothing much happened (well, lots about Iran) – except that it served as the obvious venue for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to reiterate his key demand from Palestinian leaders during this current round of peace talks. The popular refrain seems to have become, “The Palestinians must be prepared to recognise the Jewish State.”

This isn’t particularly new of course; it’s been a sticking point on and off since the Annapolis summit in 2007, but it forms quite a convenient issue that Netanyahu and, to a much lesser extent, Abbas, can rally their respective bases around while they wait for John Kerry’s batteries (and patience) to finally run out. So why is this recognition soap opera suddenly on every channel?

Realistically, it’s difficult to deny Israel exists as a Jewish state. When the United Nations voted to partition British Palestine in 1947, they created both a Jewish and a Palestinian territory – there it is, on paper, Resolution 181. Also, although many Israelis are not practicing, they draw a sense of identity from their Jewishness, and the country revolves around Jewish holidays and halakha. Israel currently enjoys diplomatic relations with 160 full UN member states (the first to recognise Israel was the Soviet Union) and none of these have been asked formally to acknowledge Israel as Jewish – not even the U.S. So where has this demand come from?

Apart from a brief appearance at Annapolis, this issue really started to gain traction following Israel’s elections in 2009 and 2013. First, in 2009 the 18th Knesset witnessed a Likud Prime Minister in Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a coalition that was largely made up of what the press called his ‘natural partners’ These were: The right-wing Russian party, Yisrael Beitenu, which ran on a pledge to force Arab citizens of Israel to swear loyalty to the Jewish State; an Ultra-Orthodox party, Shas; United Torah Judaism (self explanatory); a sprinkling of Kadima members (a party of moderate former Likudniks founded by Ariel Sharon in 2005); a smattering of Labour party members and, later, a few from Haatzma’ut (the party for the advancement of Ehud Barak). This collection of parties ran on issues of security (Iran), loyalty to Israel, and the protection of Jewish identity and culture – priorities that were hardly amenable to Obama’s mediation efforts in 2010.

Interestingly, although the 19th Knesset seemed to change Israel’s government substantially in 2013, the same values are persisting if not growing stronger. Netanyahu returned to the position of Prime Minister at the head of an allied Likud-Beitenu list of candidates, whose focus remains the perceived threat from an Iranian nuclear program. The primarily religious parties do not currently hold cabinet positions, but their causes are not forgotten – Shas and United Torah Judaism were the king makers of Israeli coalition politics for decades and could be again in the future. Also, the new (or rather re-branded) Jewish Home party is a powerful player in Netanyahu’s coalition and one that actively opposes a two-state solution. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, has threatened to leave the government if negotiations produce any real tangible results. Kadima head, Tzipi Livni is conducting those negotiations in line with the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, although it’s not a deal-breaker for her party. And the surprise breakthrough of 2013 – Yesh Atid headed by Yair Lapid – will never grow if it becomes associated with religion-bashing policies, especially after spearheading controversial legislation to draft the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi community into the armed forces. So, while the perfectly coiffed Lapid has repeatedly stressed that he couldn’t give a damn about Netanyahu’s recognition demands, he’s not risking political capital by actively opposing them either.

So, while Obama and Kerry have been able to assert some influence over the Israeli Prime Minister at recent key moments (remember Bibi’s forced apology to Turkey for the Gaza Flotilla?) distractions and diplomatic failures – in Syria, Egypt and perhaps Ukraine, and the jury is still out on Iran – mean the Israeli stance has reverted to its factory settings: security (Iran), loyalty to Israel, and the protection of Jewish identity and culture (values, which, this week, have been decidedly reinforced by support from Obama’s domestic critics).

So when Netanyahu told his enraptured AIPAC audience that, “The Palestinians must be prepared to recognise the Jewish State”, he was reiterating a position backed by his previous government, upheld by his current government, and supported by political elites of the world’s only superpower – even though, as Nabil Shaath noted, the demand is tantamount to an “an official announcement of a unilateral end to negotiations”.

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Stuck in the Middle East with You: Obama, Syria, Iran and Israel

Recent deaths in Damascus have spurred a media frenzy over the use of chemical weapons. Obama has desperately tried to walk back from that red line he drew in the sand, but his weak response to earlier claims of Sarin deaths – and to the Egyptian coup in July – have left the US president open to criticism from both ends of the American political spectrum. Now we are hearing reports that military intervention in Syria is back on the table, despite Martin Dempsey’s warning that any forceful option would be “costly and uncertain”. Complicating this scenario is the “unknown unknowns” (to quote Donald Rumsfeld) of who, if anyone, deployed chemical agents in Syria, the relationship with Iran, Israeli security and even current peace talks with the Palestinians.

First, everyone needs to take a deep breath and step back from the issue of chemical weapons in Syria – intensely empathic humanitarians and security-crazed hawks alike. Recent reports highlight how thousands of Syrians have been exposed to the nerve agent Sarin gas in Damascus, with 355 dead and 3,600 injured. Was is Assad, the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra or simply an accident?

It is reasonably safe to assume that Obama issued his bold red-line-warning to Assad because CIA analysts briefed the US president that such a deployment was extremely unlikely. The Syrian dictator does not want to invite outside intervention and open up further fronts. For example, when Israeli forces hit weapons shipments in the Syrian port of Latakia in July, Assad remained quiet despite his threatening rhetoric over similar strikes in January. Having to deal with sustained Israeli air attacks or combat in the Golan Heights would make it more difficult to fight the rebels, as would international intervention. Even removing all moral constraints, using chemical weapons just would not be in Assad’s best interests, especially considering the progress he has made with the help of Hezbollah.

The Syrian dictator, therefore, has the access and means to deploy chemical weapons but he would seem unlikely to do so (though this sort of reasoning is hardly fool proof). If he did order the use of Sarin gas, then it is also surprising that the attack was relatively conservative. When Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, the assault killed between 3,000 and 5,000 people and injured more than 10,000. Hussein’s weapons were deployed as bombs dropped by Mirage and MiG aircraft and Assad has the ability to utilise the same mechanisms as well as using scud missiles, artillery shells or rockets.

Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate, has captured a supply of Assad’s rockets and missiles and is receiving foreign funding, but could they actually deploy chemical weapons? Syria’s store of Sarin is part of a binary weapons system. This means that the warheads are not simply full of Sarin (which the United States found were very leaky and dangerous in the 1970s). Instead, they are formed of two compartments that allow chemical agents to mix only when fired. The explosive firing and rotation of the missile creates a lethal Sarin cocktail in the air. Assad has the ability to deploy chemical weapons in this highly effective method, but a crude explosion could also trigger detonation.

The al-Nusra front shares an Al Qaeda ideology that specifically permits violence against Muslims in order to inspire uprising among the people (or provoke a western incursion that does the same thing). This group’s atrocities during the conflict may have been as heinous as those committed by the Assad regime, and it is possible that they have acquired chemical weapons through raids, looting or the intimidation of captured soldiers. Al-Nusra, therefore, would presumably have the inclination to use chemical weapons and blame the Assad regime and might have the means to do so, if only on a smaller scale than is possible with more sophisticated equipment. It is very difficult to discern where the Free Syrian Army would fit into this logic. The group is fractured, unreliable and somewhat mysterious to open source intelligence at this time.

Another possibility is that Sarin has been leaked rather than deployed. Binary warheads are not subject to the same deterioration as their simpler predecessors, but since the mixing matrix can be set off by only a crude explosion, the war torn city of Damascus would hardly be a safe place for storage. Chemical weapons may have been looted and then left in areas hit later by artillery fire or car bombings. The possibilities are real and somewhat endless. This means that although it looks really bad politically, Obama’s dithering on the issue is somewhat reassuring. He will face only further calls to act, however, since Iran entered the bargain.

Obama does not want to attack Syria. The American people are war weary after Afghanistan and Iraq, and the general consensus among average voters is “what happens in Syria stays in Syria”. If a military option succumbed to mission creep or failed to deliver a clear, quick victory, then this would place the Democratic Party in a very sticky situation for mid-terms in 2014 and the next presidential election in 2016. Military intervention is unlikely to yield a happy result, but isolationism would also lead to attacks from the left and right with equal fervour.

Going to the UN Security Council is also useless considering Russia’s veto power, and so any international effort would most likely appeal to NATO. However, since an Iranian army chief began this morning by threatening the United States over involvement in Syria, Obama risks the appearance of outsourcing American security.

To further complicate matters, an American failure to challenge Iranian threats directly will make everyone in Jerusalem feel a little less secure. Republicans will then reprise their earlier criticisms that Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus”. Indeed, how could the United States be trusted to intervene in preventing the fulfilment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions when the world’s only superpower cowers in the face of smaller, subsidiary threats? It does not matter that Iran possesses little capability to strike at the United States (or Israel for that matter since Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria and Hamas are in the dog house); the general, domestic and international political damage is already being done.

The final, silent casualty of this political explosion might be ongoing peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. A bombastic Iran is unlikely to inspire Israeli confidence or persuade the Netanyahu government to drop problematic demands like permanent troops based in the Jordan Valley. The explosive collapse of Syria also reinforces the Israeli belief in buffer territory and gives ammunition to those who oppose peace talks and the land-for-peace formula. At the very least, Syria will shift Washington and Jerusalem’s attention away from the latest attempt to establish a Palestinian state settlement. A weakened Obama will have little leverage to encourage concessions on the Israeli side and the nine-month deadline for a breakthrough will arrive suddenly while everyone is still discussing chemical weapons.

The American president, therefore, unhappily finds himself mired in foreign policy problems with no courses of action that could possibly turn out well. He is stuck in the Middle East, without all the facts, squeezed between domestic and international demands for humanitarian/security-driven intervention, increasingly embroiled in a civil war with no clear villain and bogged down in the conflicting national interests of Syria, Iran, Israel and the Gulf states while having to consider their potential impact on domestic politics.

John Kerry did a spectacular job of twisting Israeli and Palestinian arms back to the negotiating table, but as the international community goes into meltdown over the yet-proven use of chemical weapons, his efforts may have been wasted.

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Hope in the Hills? Palestine, International Aid and the Rawabi Housing Development

Many thanks to BICOM for arranging my recent visit to Rawabi that provided the inspiration for this post.

Peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are slated to recommence before the end of July. Imminently, Palestinian negotiators will arrive in Washington and attempt to draw the outlines of their state, one the United Nations General Assembly already voted into existence in 2012. While this focus on borders is both essential and suitably sexy to warrant international news media coverage, the success of any future independent Palestine also depends on how its government colours in the space between those border lines. International aid has flowed to the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords with a stated aim of transforming Palestine’s economy in preparation for this ascension to statehood, but the donor-recipient relationship has had unexpected consequences. While the PA is bogged down in short term governance at the expense of Palestine’s long term development, an optimistic vision for the future might be found in a new city on a hill: the building project of Rawabi.

It is widely understood that international aid serves as a carrot and a stick. It is an investment in the moderate Palestinian Authority’s ability to govern and also a punishment for misbehaviour. The United States Congress, for example, voted to suspend an $81 million aid package following the Palestinian UN bid for statehood. This duality is also true for donors other than the United States and European Union. Iran recently slashed its aid (and weapons) package to Gaza because Hamas refused to support the Assad regime in Syria. But as well as these relatively transparent functions, international aid to Palestine may have created a dependence mentality that has stifled growth.

The ‘donor culture’ is blamed in some quarters for squashing productivity and innovation and swelling the Palestinian bureaucracy. The PA currently employs approximately 150,000 people and has been criticized repeatedly for unnecessary construction of government office space while failing to invest adequately in people: in education, in housing and in jobs. Meanwhile, the budget deficit continues to grow, reaching approximately $1.4 billion in 2013. As dealing with the deficit would require austerity measures and the PA is already less than universally popular, this could be extremely dangerous politically. The PA’s refusal to implement austerity even forced Finance Minister Nabil Qassiss to resign earlier this year.

This has created an overall Palestinian economy that is far from viable – 40% reliant on donor aid and heavily dependent on the Israeli market. Economic development projects in the West Bank are largely parachuted in by the European Union, so the ‘development’ part is not real or sustainable. This becomes painfully evident whenever the Israeli authorities temporarily withhold tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestine Authority, which account for roughly 60% of PA revenues and are largely devoted to paying salaries. (This has included holding back $90 million following the short-lived Fateh-Hamas reconciliation in 2010-2011 and £75 million after Palestine’s successful bid for statehood at the UN in 2012, forcing the EU to step in and plug the fiscal hole).

The framework of the Oslo Accords has also created several obstacles to growth. Area C, for example, comprises 62% of the West Bank and remains under Israeli control. However, it contains most Palestinian agricultural land, water resources and underground reserves. Therefore, by tacitly supporting this allocation of territory in the Oslo agreements, donors are not able to facilitate growth in one of the most obvious areas where it is required. In addition, the limping Palestinian economy creates other more urgent problems of poverty and unrest that accompanies unemployment, which then eat into donor funds. While the occupation undoubtedly worsens these conditions and makes growth more complicated, it is difficult to approve of the PA’s allocation of resources when a new example of private enterprise in the West Bank sets a hopeful and stylish example:

Rawabi is a fascinating new housing development near Ramallah that aims to offer affordable homes for middle class Palestinian families – the brainchild of Palestinian-American businessman Bashar Masri. In a promotional film that is unashamedly secular, the sales pitch for tall, spacious apartment buildings, shops, cafes, public parks and even an amphitheater, is difficult to resist. Translating only as ‘hills’, Rawabi has deliberately avoided nationalistic slogans but its state-building aims are clear. Over the next 10 years, Palestine’s additional housing requirement is expected to exceed 400,000. Whereas Rawabi is only expected to create 10,000 new units, Masri hopes it will serve as an example for what can be done in Palestine – albeit with an efficient influx and allocation of foreign funds.

Masri is currently covering a third of the project with two-thirds Qatari investment and no assistance from the Palestinian Authority to create infrastructure for this new ‘city’. The Rawabi project was not initially intended to build public schools, sewage treatment facilities or municipal government buildings or to extend sanitation and electricity to poverty stricken local villages – all of which are now part of the overall plan. Masri did seek more outside help to deal with these new responsibilities at the Paris Donor Conference; out of the $150 million in expected investment, only the United States responded with $6 million.

This means that the Rawabi project serves as an even more interesting model for what might be achieved with only capital investment rather than extensive international aid (though Qatar undoubtedly has some political motives). Cost-saving exercises, such as reusing stone quarried on site, have become examples of sustainable construction. Likewise, investing in local businesses so they can supply Rawabi’s massive construction needs, as well as creating thousands of jobs to ensure the city remains viable, provides positive PR that the PA is sorely lacking – Rawabi can even boast advances in gender equality by employing female engineers in positions of authority.  Indeed, featured by Al Jazeera in a mini documentary, Time Magazine, The Independent, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, CNN and Fox News to name a few, the Rawabi development seems too good to be true. Of course, for some, it is also an abomination that normalizes the Israeli occupation.

The American-based website The Electronic Intifada has hit out against Rawabi, mostly for its use of Israeli parts and businesses – the project will pump approximately $85 million into the Israeli economy. By building beautiful homes in the West Bank, Rawabi could easily be seen as complicit in Israel’s occupation and aiding the normalization of that dominant-subordinate relationship. Building Rawabi runs counter to the political use of a ‘victimisation narrative’ and also undermines the Palestinian principle of sumud, or steadfastness, in the face of oppression. Even the architecture has been criticised as ‘alien’ and ‘wrong’ as though Rawabi represents an American or colonial outpost in the heart of a proto Palestinian state. Although Masri admits his preferred designs were inspired by Reston, Virginia and the planned suburbs of Cairo, the outraged insistence that clean streets and neatly trimmed hedges are somehow un-Palestinian is more than a little absurd. For his part, Masri admits that it is difficult to get the message right but the waiting list for apartments is rather vindicating. The reality of occupation is certainly not forgotten – Rawabi was denied an access road direct from Ramallah because its route traversed a small section of Area C and was refused by the Netanyahu government (despite Obama’s best efforts).

Although Rawabi is meant to serve as a precedent for real Palestinian development of infrastructure, jobs and housing, it is difficult to see how the example could be repeated without yet more foreign capital that inevitably arrives attached to a political goal. Aid money keeps the Palestine Authority afloat and is blamed for creating a donor culture, but investment in Palestine is a gamble and therefore an act of charity so long as a two-state solution remains elusive. How might foreign capital manipulate Palestinian politics? Also, investing in a profit-generating project like Rawabi might not be that attractive to donors because it cannot provide the political absolution normally associated with humanitarian giving.

Therefore, the fundamental problem of Palestine’s long term economic planning will remain a murky issue, even as Israelis and Palestinians meet to reprise conversations about borders and security. The reality is that even if and when a deal is struck, any real, viable and flourishing Palestinian state is going to need a massive influx of funds. Alternatively, if the international aim is to keep the moderate Palestinian Authority in power, then aid could remain a successful means of control. This may be why the Rawabi development failed to secure more international financial backing. Donors were asked to contribute to state-building by purchasing schools, electrical grids and water reservoirs when what they are used to buying is reassurance and political clout.

 

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The Usual Suspects? Responsibility for Sarin Deaths in Syria

Who is responsible for recent Sarin deaths in Syria? Israeli intelligence pinned blame on the Assad regime, but information released this morning (May 6th) also implicates the Syrian opposition. Such conflicting reports, combined with inconclusive tests on soil and blood samples, should be an important consideration for politicians and pundits on both sides of the intervention spectrum.

There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is currently waging a brutal campaign against his own citizens. The testimonial and photographic evidence of massacres targeting both fighters and civilians, including women and children, is overwhelming and horrific. The Assad regime’s blatant disregard for diplomatic overtures combined with this horrendous violence has lent instant credibility to recent claims that Assad is also using chemical weapons in defiance of President Obama’s “red line” for intervening in the conflict.

While the senior Israeli military intelligence analyst, Itai Brun, announced last week that Assad was using chemical weapons in Syria, there is still limited evidence (that is publicly available) to support this claim. Footage certainly seems to show civilians suffering from Sarin poisoning, and while soil and blood samples do currently indicate some Sarin exposure, there is no way to tell from laboratory analyses how the nerve agent was deployed or by whom. To further complicate matters, Reuters have released a story indicating that responsibility for the use of chemical weapons may rest with Syrian rebels rather than the Assad regime. Human rights investigators with the United Nations reportedly have testimony from victims, doctors and field hospitals implicating rebels fighters in the use of Sarin gas.

For those wanting a United States-led intervention in Syria, this is crucial new information. Those desiring strikes in order to shore up deterrence against Iran would find their cause severely undermined if the explicit moral and military foundation for intervening proved to be absent. Since the Islamic Republic has also condemned the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” and has denied their use by the Assad regime, the situation has embarrassing potential. In contrast, those advocating intervention on humanitarian grounds (achievable military goals aside) hardly need more reason than pictures of massacred children. In terms of purely ethical considerations, the chemical weapons story is slightly redundant.

On the other hand, those who favour non-intervention (most of the American tax-paying public) could fall back on the existence of conflicting reports as an excuse for isolationism. It is widely acknowledged that action in Syria would be a lot more complicated militarily and politically than in Libya, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as attacks in Benghazi in 2012, have hardly advertised the efficacy of American-led democracy-building or soft power across the region. Since securing chemical weapons would probably require ground forces, even in the event of irrefutable evidence that Assad was using Sarin, the American public would probably need a little extra persuading. Since the international community does not really want an indifferent superpower, it is in everyone’s best interests to keep investigating.

It is still possible of course, that neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian opposition technically “used” Sarin in a weaponized form, meaning the exposure could have been accidental, and it is also a possibility that one or both parties are guilty. The former scenario is probably more frightening since unsecured chemical weapons could be transferred to undesirable parties, an activity that would be much harder to track than the relatively noticeable transfers of weapons via convoy that were recently targeted by Israel. Again, counter-acting this threat – regardless of who is responsible for using or accidentally deploying Sarin – would probably require ground troops. What this means for attitudes towards the civil war in Syria, and how the issue of foreign intervention plays out, remains an ongoing source of debate and concern.

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Syrian Sarin and Iranian Uranium: Red Lines Between Obama and Israel

The Obama Administration has called the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” that presumably demands intervention when crossed. However, Israeli Military Intelligence and some blood and/or soil samples seem to indicate that the nerve agent Sarin gas has indeed been deployed in Syria, and this makes Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s rather hesitant responses to the revelations appear somewhat heartless. Why the Obama Administration is cautious about these claims of chemical weapons, and why it should be, is partly due to fear of chasing rumours into another Iraq-style conflict, as well as the politics of a testy relationship with Israel over Iran.

When Brigadier-General Itai Brun, Israel’s senior Military Intelligence Analyst, announced on April 23rd that Sarin gas had been used in Syria, it followed similar claims made by Britain and France as well as previous reports of Assad’s use of chlorine gas. Earlier in April, in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Britain and France alleged that chemical weapons had been used on the people of Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah near Damascus in March 2013, as well as in Homs in December 2012, and included soil samples as evidence. Thus far, the Syrian government has refused access to UN investigators. Non-compliance certainly suggests guilt, but of course it’s not that simple.

From Obama’s perspective, these reports are coming from foreign intelligence agencies, which cannot help but ring Iraq-shaped alarm bells. The intricate web of deceit and mistakes that led the United States into Iraq has largely been unearthed, and one element that contributed to arguments supporting the idea of an Iraqi WMD program was reports of Saddam Hussein trying to purchase yellow cake uranium from Niger. Provided by Italian intelligence and despite never being entirely confirmed by their British and American counterparts, the false Niger reports seemed entirely reasonable and compelling to many politicians who already supported intervention in Iraq. Naturally, the Obama Administration will want to make absolutely sure that the same thing cannot happen again, especially when prominent politicians like Senator John McCain have long advocated intervention in Syria.

Thus far, the evidence of Sarin poisoning in Syria is based on two sets of samples reportedly taken from victims of an attack in two separate locations on different days. One has been analysed by the United States and the other by British scientists, and both indicate the likelihood that Sarin has been used. However, this evidence comes with no chain of custody, meaning these results would be decidedly questionable in any court. The blood samples were taken by members of the Syrian opposition, no one knows who handled them afterwards, the exact locations and dates cannot be checked and this lack of a specific timeline may hinder calculations necessary to perform the testing process itself. It is also impossible to judge from the samples whether the Sarin involved was weaponized. There are even suggestions that the levels were so low in various soil samples that they could plausibly have come from a fertilizer.

Rather than a military unit or entire village being found dead, sources seem to indicate only one or two people in each reported incident became victims of the nerve agent. This suggests that perhaps they were subject to Sarin exposure rather than a purposeful Sarin attack. The Assad regime is well known to have stocks of chemical agents, and it is possible that canisters of the gas have been removed or damaged during the opposition’s capture and search of military targets.

If Sarin was not deployed intentionally, then the “red line” has not necessarily been crossed. If Assad is intentionally gassing his own people, however, this has serious implications for the United States’ humanitarian concerns and also for its policy of deterrence. If Syria – Iran’s key ally in the region – is allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity, then there is little hope for preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons program through diplomacy alone. This is where Obama’s relationship with Israel becomes a complicating factor.

Despite the recent agreement to sell a large consignment of military equipment to Israel, Brun’s announcement could be interpreted as a direct challenge to the United States’ President. Of course, the arms included in this package are mostly a gesture rather than a real attempt to keep the Israeli military cutting edge. Most of the aircraft models on offer are either old – from the US Airforce’s 1950s-60s surplus – or considered substandard for widespread use by the US military, such as the Osprey craft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane (performing the full functions of neither). Incidentally, the Israelis have not signed any agreement to purchase this equipment as yet.

On the surface, the desire to further arm Israel (and Saudi Arabia and the UAE) could be seen as an attempt to demonstrate American resolve in the face of a potential Iranian threat, but then why offer Israel only scraps? The more likely audience for this decision is domestic. As Washington begins to gear up for mid-term elections in 2014, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel is an easy target for Republicans due to the comments regarding Israeli influence in Washington that he made before joining the current administration.

This, of course, does nothing to assuage the fears of many within the Israeli political and military elite about Obama’s commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran – especially considering the opinion of former deputy director-general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Olli Heinonen, that Iran’s 20-percent drop in uranium enrichment last autumn means it may be concealing production rather than decreasing it. If true, this would likely mean that the other famous “red line” Netanyahu drew on a bomb at the United Nations General Assembly last year has already been crossed.

This Iran factor makes intervention in Syria more complicated. The President of the United States does not want to be pressured into an unnecessary conflict in Syria, especially if the real issue at hand is not Syrian Sarin but Iranian uranium. Of course, if this element of the decision were simple, there would still be many other dimensions to consider, not least the opinions of Russia and China. This is why when addressing the press regarding Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons, Hagel (rightly) admitted only a single responsibility at this time, that “the United States has an obligation to fully investigate”.

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Likud and the Iron Lady

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remains a divisive figure for British politics, even in death, and she enjoyed more popularity abroad than she ever received at home. A symbol of free-market capitalism and the golden Reagan era for Republicans in the United States, the Iron Lady – as she was pejoratively named by the Soviets – also remains popular in Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu is purportedly attending her funeral today, calling her “a woman of principles, possessing resolve, self-confidence, strength, a great leader”. On the surface this seems like a natural affinity between leaders of right-wing parties, especially considering the similarities in their socio-economic outlooks, but the Likud relationship with Thatcherite politics is one that glosses over some interesting ideological divisions on Ireland and the settlements.

Thatcher’s policies towards Ireland from 1979 to 1990 are often remembered as uncompromising. The best-known example is probably allowing Bobby Sands and the other nine Maze hunger strikers to die in 1981 – though her cabinet did appear to struggle with this issue. Gerry Adams has denounced her policies as causing more suffering and divisions in Northern Ireland, but Thatcher also contributed to the current peace by authorising communication with the IRA and signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, arguably laying the foundations for an IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, though her hard-line stance has also been blamed for the failure to reach such accords sooner. Thatcher’s distinctly realist approach to Ireland and Irish terrorism contrasts starkly with the Likud party’s traditional affiliation for the Irish struggle.

A rebellious outgrowth of the Revisionist Zionists, the party known today as Likud was born through the leadership of Menachem Begin following the creation of Israel in 1948. In its first incarnation as Herut (before enlarging to Gahal in 1965 and then amalgamating into Likud in 1973), this party was largely formed from the two organizations labelled “terrorist” by British officials – the Irgun and Lehi. Begin had been commander of the Irgun, was implicated in the infamous King David Hotel Bombing in 1946, and served as Israeli Prime Minister between 1977 and 1983. His successor, Yitzhak Shamir had been head of operations for Lehi, was wanted by the British for terrorist activities, and served as Israeli Prime Minister from 1983-84 and 1986-92. Both of these men and their organizations were fascinated by the heroism of Irish republicans.

Ireland’s struggle against the British, mirrored in attempts to drive the Empire out of Palestine in the late 1940s, provided the perfect model. It included terrible clashes with the Black and Tans, torture, executions, martyrdom, and served as an excellent tool for propaganda in the United States. The Irgun and Lehi adopted the identity of freedom fighters, and the deep sentiment, that these paramilitary groups and later Likud, were fighting against rather than for something is a thread that continues to permeate the party today. Begin’s famous version of solipsism was “we fight, therefore we are”.

Begin quoted the Irish example to defend this “military Zionism”, as had his predecessor, David Raziel. The Lehi commander, Avraham Stern, had translated The Victory of Sinn Fein into Hebrew in 1941, and Shamir’s underground alias with Lehi was “Michael”, referring to Michael Collins, the progenitor of the IRA. Members of both the Irgun and Lehi also spoke out for the Irish cause during their trials in the 1940s, quoting George Bernard Shaw.

This was a deep-routed ideological commitment, and both Begin and Shamir continued to project the fighting spirit, having their Irgun and Lehi ranks included in official introductions even after achieving high office. The focus of their outward fight had shifted from Britain to the Arab states and Palestinians by the time both men were dealing with Margaret Thatcher, but the ideological connection to Ireland was an interesting hurdle to have overcome – especially since Thatcher herself was targeted by the IRA in the Brighton Grand Hotel Bombing in 1984. Instead, a main source of friction between Thatcher and the Likud prime ministers was the issue of settlements.

Although Margaret Thatcher was possibly the most pro-Israel British politician of her day, this commitment perfectly illustrated the type of critical friendship that seems to have become impossible in Washington and increasingly difficult in London. The Iron Lady did seem to possess a deep affection for the Jewish people. Having raised money as a child to rescue her older sister’s Jewish pen pal out of Austria in 1938, Thatcher went on to represent the heavily Jewish constituency of Finchley and respected the community’s and Israel’s sense of self-reliance and self-preservation. She visited Israel in 1965 and then became the first sitting prime minister to do so in 1986. This did not mean, however, that Thatcher accepted Israeli policies without question.

Margaret Thatcher recognised the unstable nature of Israeli responses to threat. Recently declassified documents demonstrate that the British Embassy in Tel Aviv believed Begin’s government possessed a faith-based confidence in self-reliance, had nuclear weapons, would “go down fighting” if faced with destruction and could only afford to fight a short war before resorting to the nuclear option. Israeli policy towards the Palestinians required US assistance in arms, aid, and vetoes in the UN Security Council, which, according to the embassy’s report, “allow Israel […] to go on crushing the evidence of Palestinian despair whenever it erupts in the occupied territories. Israel will then be able to go on refusing self-determination for the Palestinians, which it sees as a mortal danger to its security”. Taking a pragmatic approach to Middle East politics, however, Thatcher recognised this cycle as dangerously inflammatory.

In 1980, the British prime minister told Yigael Yadin, the Israeli deputy prime minister, that there was no logic to settlement building. Yadin tried to quibble with her about “new” versus “existing” settlements, but Thatcher brushed him off, saying that Begin was aware of her views regarding “planting settlements in the occupied territories” and implored Israel to implement UN Resolution 242.

Begin had a religious attachment to the West Bank and the portions of “Eretz Israel” that the British and French had severed from Palestine to form the modern boundaries of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. This religious affection combined with Begin’s warrior persona meant Thatcher viewed the Israeli prime minister as someone who “could kill the whole process of the search for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East” and labelled him the “most difficult” man she had to deal with. Thatcher feared growing Soviet influence in the Middle East and saw the Arab-Israeli conflict as a running sore increasing instability in the region.

This meant she opposed the Lebanon War in 1982 and supported Palestinian self-determination as well as early talks between the US and the PLO in 1988. She also continued to refuse major arms and North Sea Oil sales to Israel to avoid angering Britain’s Arab allies, a policy in place since the October War in 1973. Thatcher also endorsed the European Economic Community’s Venice Declaration in June 1980, which demanded an end to Israel’s “territorial occupation”. The Iron Lady’s support for and criticism of Israel was always pragmatic. She favoured the moderates. Even when visiting Israel, Thatcher took care to ensure it was during Shimon Peres’ turn as rotating prime minister of Israel and not Shamir’s.

Considering this, on the surface it seems as though Likud should clash with the memory of Thatcher over her policies towards Northern Ireland and her outspoken criticism of settlement building. Instead, Netanyahu sees his mirror in the tough, uncompromising, and slightly mythical public persona of the Iron Lady. If encountered today, however, Thatcher’s forthright condemnation of Israel’s occupation would be neither appreciated nor heeded. She would be disregarded in much of the Israeli and American press as a traitor to the Jewish State. It is impossible to ignore, however, that her opinions in the 1980s were based on the recognition that continued settlement building in the Occupied Territories created a barrier to comprehensive peace. If Netanyahu seeks to emulate any example set by Margaret Thatcher in office, that is the wisdom to follow.

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Filed under British Foreign Policy, Israel, Middle East