Lumper or splitter?

Marc Lynch, of the Carnegie Endowment, has written an essay in which he divides analysts of Islamist movements between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Lumpers, he writes, lump all Islamist movements into the same basket, and think the West is at war against them all. Splitters, on the other hand, analyse the many differences between movements, and see some (non-violent) Islamist groups as potential allies. Lumpers are wrong and splitters are right, according to Lynch.

On the face of it, I’m a lumper. I write often of a Sunni Islamist continuum. However, I think Lynch is too clumsy in his analysis; there are benefits to both approaches (it is important to know the differences between factions, even if you think they are all the enemy). Further, by lumping all lumpers into the same basket, Lynch does his analysis no favours.

Lynch appears to believe that lumpers see all Islamist movements as a coherent whole. This indicates he thinks lumpers think that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State, for instance, are in a grand, cooperative coalition—perhaps a Muslim variant of the Elders of Zion! While some might think that’s the case, I disagree. For a start, there is a difference between Muslim groups (i.e. Political groups that have Islam as part of their identity) and Islamist groups (i.e. Political groups whose objectives are defined by their interpretation of Islam). Membership of my Sunni Islamist continuum is determined by objectives: it consists only of groups that have the objective of establishing a Sunni caliphate. All Islamist groups that desire this goal, whether now or in 50 yeas, and whether violently or non-violently, are on the continuum and, despite the many differences between them, they are all the enemies of the West. This does not indicate that these groups are in cahoots, but merely they share a desired outcome. In that regard, I am a lumper, but that doesn’t mean I lump all Muslim groups into the one basket (and, certainly, Shi’ite groups or states like Hezbollah and Iran are in their own basket—what this blog and others label the Resistance Bloc).

(Further, Hamas has been wavering between membership of the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum for years, as covered in other pages of this blog.)

But, of course, it is important to know the differences between the groups. Islamic State, for instance, can only be beaten with violence (although effective governance will help prevent the emergence of a similar group in the future). But the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will be defeated through effective governance, secular education and increased civil rights. The tactics required to defeat each actor on the continuum are different, but the strategy is the same, to not only show everyone that being on the continuum leads to failure, but also that there are better options to secure health, wealth and safety for one’s country, community and family. Obviously, devining successful tactics and implementing them is hard, if not currently impossible, so the status quo will likely contnue for some time. But before we launch into implementing tactics—any tactics—we need to know what our strategy is. Does the West have a strategy? 

Hamas elections: Manoeuvring within the Big Picture


Way back in October 2014, in my first post, I laid out the Middle East’s big picture – how the rise of a nascent Sunni Islamist bloc was wedging the long-established Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, which adequately explained both the political dynamics of and violence in the Middle East.

In the tail end of that first post I wrote a little bit about the dilemmas facing hamas, which had a foot in more than one camp. A new article in the Cypher Brief (I didn’t come up with the name!) describes the next stage of this dilemma, but with the added description of the tensions within hamas.

In short, the article confirms the assessment at the heart of that first post (and this entire blog), but it’s a worth a read because it shows how movements within the Middle East are attempting to navigate its choppy waters.

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran

Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.

Is the House of Saud a house of sand?

house2bof2bsand

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.

Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.

The message the Iranians are selling is:

  • Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:

  • We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.

To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.

There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.

The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.

The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders).  That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.

Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.

The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).

The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.

We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).

The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.

I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.

In and out: Hamas and the Resistance Bloc

hamas_logo_by_juba_paldfIn 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.

Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.

Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.

It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn’t like Shi’ites.

The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.

Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.

It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.

The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn’t work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.

Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn’t so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.

What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis – won’t have been resolved. It’s not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).

In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn’t have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.

The path to radicalisation

1512_lindt_spA spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).

Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.

The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.

These steps are:

  • Radicalisation
  • Learning how to attack (online)
  • Learning how to attack (physical training)
  • Preparing for the attack
  • Carrying out the attack

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.

Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.

They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.

Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.

These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.

These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.

These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.

This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.

What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.

The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.

The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.

It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.

There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”

In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.1512_lindt_sp

Advice for the incoming president

is-barrack-obama-a-bad-presidentA new US president is two years away. The current president’s Middle East policy is significant for its repeated failures. Here, I offer advice for the next president. Before doing so, I would point out that globalisation has impacted on the Middle East, too, and few problems there can be analysed or resolved in isolation from broader Middle Eastern and external actors and influences. Second, the basic wants and needs of major players in the region will remain as they are now. This lets us plot a Middle East strategy for an incoming president.

America’s strategic interests
American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

These interests have not changed in decades. What has changed over time is the priority placed on these interests by different administrations and circumstance, and the consequent willingness and ability to pursue these interests. In recent decades, Iran and those parties it sponsors have become the principal challenge to US interests. The US should challenge Iran on as many fronts as possible. Russia has also re-emerged as a challenge to US interests in the region.

I would argue that a new president (either Republican or Democrat), together with a Republican-heavy Congress, will face the right strategic circumstances to stitch together a grand bargain.

Over a period of 12 to 18 months, quiet but intensive diplomacy and action should send strong messages to key regional players. America will demand concrete actions from friendly parties (and tie these demands to implied or stated threats of withheld American financial or military assistance), but will also make numerous promises to key parties.

What do the major players want?
Israel

  • Security, with or without the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza

The Status Quo Bloc (in particular, Egypt and Saudi Arabia)

  • No threats to their internal stability
  • To see Iran weak and contained
  • A reversal of fortunes for organised Islamist groups, including Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State
  • No independence or autonomy for non-Arab Sunni religious or ethnic minorities anywhere in Middle East (e.g. Kurds)

Iran

  • No threats to its internal stability
  • To be the regional hegemon
  • To export its revolution to Shi’ite majority countries / areas
  • To see Israel weakened and destroyed
  • To see America exit the Middle East
  • To see organised Sunni Islamist groups emboldened in or adjacent to countries at odds with Iran (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
  • A reversal of fortunes for Islamic State

Kurds (noting they are divided)

  • Independence or autonomy in areas where they are the majority (e.g. Parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria)

Palestinians – Fatah

  • Political survival, maintenance of control of Palestinian Authority
  • Re-establishment of authority over Gaza / weakening of Hamas
  • Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza regardless of concessions made, though with an eye on political survival (which requires no concessions)

Palestinians – Hamas

  • Expanded unrest in West Bank, Jerusalem and rest of Israel
  • Weakening of Fatah

Islamic State

  • Expansion and consolidation of its control
  • Recognition by increasing number of jihadi groups

Muslim Brotherhood

  • Popular dissatisfaction of rulers in Sunni countries

What America should demand from each party
Israel

  • Act forcefully to stop settler ‘price tag’ attacks
  • Free, without pre-conditions, a few dozen Fatah prisoners
  • Announce that it will only allow building in areas it believes it will retain in a final status agreement with the Palestinians, forcefully prevent building in all other settlement areas
  • Transfer some parts of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control (Area C) to Area B (i.e. to Palestinian administrative control)
  • More building approvals for East Jerusalem Arabs
  • A publicly expressed willingness to meet with Arab officials or leaders to discuss the Saudi peace initiative
  • An expressed willingness to recognise the ‘State of Palestine’ in a reciprocal arrangement for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the ‘Jewish state’

The idea is to provide Fatah with some victories as a result of diplomacy, not violence

Fatah

  • No more incitement or implied encouragement of violence in Government-owned media
  • No more implied encouragement of lone wolf or any other attacks against civilians (including settlers) or soldiers by anyone paid a wage for or by Fatah
  • No more unilateral actions vis-a-vis the UN and other multilateral organisations
  • Renewed attempts to fight corruption, including within Fatah
  • A positive reply to the Israeli suggestion of mutual recognition

The idea is to provide certainty to Israel that the Palestinian leadership has reconciled itself to Israel’s ongoing existence

Saudi Arabia

  • An announcement that it (preferably under a Gulf Cooperation Council or Arab League label) will open a trade office in (East) Jerusalem, to deal with the Palestinian Authority and Israel
  • A (secret) commitment to keep down oil prices

The idea is to provide a diplomatic umbrella under which the Palestinians can make concessions, and to place economic pressure on Iran and Russia

Egypt

  • A commitment that it is willing to transfer a small part of northern Sinai to Gaza to help over-crowding, but only as part of a final status Israel-Palestinian agreement

The idea is to hold out the promise of a viable Gaza Strip 

Status Quo Bloc generally

  • Statements welcoming a long-term US military presence in the Middle East as a guarantee against those parties that attempt to undermine sovereignty
  • Noticeably fewer anti-Israel resolutions in UN bodies, particularly the General Assembly and Human Rights Council

The idea is that in exchange for renewed American security commitment to the Middle East, Middle Eastern countries will not pretend to their publics that they do not want the US there, and to give Israel assurances of Arab acceptance of Israel’s permanency

Iraq

  • Constitutional reform to allow greater rights and influence of Sunni tribes in their regions
  • Removal of Iranian financial and military assistance, with the threat that all US assistance will be removed otherwise
  • Iraqi cooperation can also be obtained with an American threat to aid in secessionist movements (e.g. Kurds) if Iraqi cooperation is not forthcoming

The idea is remove Iraq from Iran’s sphere of influence and help prevent internal conditions that make it susceptible to internal or external undermining

What America should promise, either publicly or privately, as necessary

  • A renewed and forceful commitment that it will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or ‘breakout capacity’, and that sanctions relief will come as a result of good Iranian behaviour, not as an attempt to elicit good behaviour
  • Renewed funding and training for Iranian human rights and democratic agitators
  • Diplomatic and military assistance for parties fighting Iranian-backed terrorist groups and militias
  • A willingness to look the other way (within limits) as Status Quo countries shore up internal stability by preventing organised Islamist groups (such as Muslim Brotherhood) from gaining ground
  • A renewed promise to Israel not to allow the UN Security Council and other UN bodies (the latter through threats to funding) to hurt Israel if Israel responds to attacks by Hamas or Hezbollah
  • A renewed commitment that America will prevent creeping recognition of Hamas’s permanency, with concomitant commitment that if Hamas accepts Quartet demands (recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, recognition of past Israel-PLO agreements), US and Israel will accept it, trade with Gaza, etc
  • A renewed willingness to use American military power (including boots on the ground) to preserve or re-instate sovereignty of the region’s countries, but only in active (i.e. boots on the ground) cooperation with relevant militaries
  • An understanding with Russia to allow eastern Ukraine to secede from Kiev in exchange for cancellation of contracts with Iran in regards to the Bushehr nuclear reactor and air defence weaponry. NATO will cease expanding eastwards. Russian involvement with Syria, especially including its military presence at Lartaka, will no longer be challenged. A commitment that, once Iran is properly contained, the US will work with Saudi Arabia to raise oil prices

The idea is to weaken and contain Iran, to convince America’s friends that it will protect them while making clear it’s a two-way relationship, to allow Russia a renewed ‘privileged sphere of influence’ (à la the Cold War) while making clear the US sees the Middle East as its own privileged sphere of influence

Postscript – there is almost no mention in here of Syria. This is not an oversight. There is currently no party aligned with US interests that has a chance of winning. The US should only involve itself militarily to pursue its own interests, and should do so where the outcome and exit strategy is certain. Serious, boots-on-the-ground involvement should only occur in active cooperation with Arab states and, again, only when the outcome and exit strategy are clear and align with American interests.

Islamic State, the US intervention and Australia

Bill Leak - The Australian

The Royal Australian Air Force and Special Air Service are involved in a US-led coalition that is seeking to ‘disrupt and degrade’, in US President Obama’s words, the Islamic State (IS). Australia’s commitment is fairly minimal. The air force is bombing targets in Iraq and the SAS—not yet deployed—will train and assist Iraqi forces, but not actually fight. While this blogger isn’t particularly opposed to military interventions that either advance or defend the national interest, I would argue that this particular intervention does neither, beyond alliance maintenance. As such, I think it is a waste of time, money and, possibly, lives.

Before I get to the wisdom of the Australian commitment, I will discuss the threat posed by IS and the reason for American intervention.

What is IS?
IS used to be known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and, before that, as Islamic State in Iraq (before it joined the Syrian civil war). It was al-qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (and, later, Syria), but ideological and personal differences between the ISIL and al-qaeda leadership saw the former ejected from the latter.

In June this year, ISIL announced the formation of a new Islamic caliphate in areas under its control, which span the Iraq–Syria border. It shortened its name to Islamic State, in part because the border between Syria and Iraq (and even the name Syria) is a colonial imposition.

Why won’t it last?
Notwithstanding its military successes and slick media presence (the reason, in part, so many people know about it, despite it being only one of over 1500 militias active in Syria), IS does not pose the long-term threat that media suggest; its (lack of) longevity is tied to its recruitment methods and fighting ability, and its lack of constituency.

Most IS fighters are not from the areas that IS controls. Indeed, many IS fighters are from other countries, including Australia. However, Australian and other international jihadis have fought with plenty of different groups in Syria; they flock to who they think is winning. Moreover, IS is able to pay its fighters because of all the gold and money it obtained when it overran Iraqi banks earlier this year. Jihadi doctrine aside, being able to pay one’s fighters is an important recruiting agent among Syrian-based militias. If and when Islamic State starts to lose (or lose the ability to pay its fighters), its fighters will desert.

Although IS has scored some impressive military victories, including against the Iraqi army, it remains that most of the people it fights are poorly disciplined, poorly trained and poorly armed. The Iraqi army fits two of these categories. If IS were to come up against a well-trained army, it would not win. That is why it is having trouble overcoming Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq), as these forces are highly disciplined and motivated.

Most importantly, IS lacks constituency. It has imposed its rule on its subjects, and kills or enslaves anyone who outwardly disagrees with it, or who is not a Sunni Arab. And while it is attempting to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs in the short term (such as by supplying law and order, reconstruction of infrastructure, education (according to its strict Islamist interpretation) and social services, IS offers nothing in the long term. Crushing restrictions on the way of life lead to economic and social ruin. If IS manages to hold its territory for a couple of years, it will turn it into Afghanistan under the Taliban. IS’s constituents will eventually get sick of IS control, and will either rise against it, or back a party that looks like it could defeat it.
Indeed, one of the reasons IS has short-term support (from Sunni Arabs) in areas under its control is because people in these situations tend to back the winners. You’re not going to back a losing militia (even if you’d like it to win) if, because you backed that party, you will be killed, or have your land taken from you. IS will have surface-level support from locals for as long as it is winning. As soon as a different group with the will and capability to defeat IS comes against it—whether it be a secular Syrian militia, a foreign army or another Islamist militia—popular support (and fighters) will leave IS. This lack of natural constituency (and the fact that its severe form of ruling will breed resentment) is the biggest weakness of IS, which is why it will not last.

Why is the US intervening?
IS is not on the cusp of over-running the Iraqi capital or winning the Syrian civil war. And it had scored impressive military victories in both countries long before the US decision to intervene. Moreover, the US knows degrading and destroying IS will not end the Syrian civil war; if and when IS is defeated, other jihadi groups will fill the vacuum. Indeed, it’s not even about IS victories in Iraq—IS’s successes in Iraq is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a very badly-managed central government that alienated many Iraqis. Getting rid of IS will not solve Iraq’s problems.

Bill Leak - The Australian

So, what prompted the US decision? There are two reasons. The first, and the one that actually sparked the intervention, is because IS starting chopping off American heads.

The second relates to the bigger picture. The members of the Status Quo Bloc have been extraordinarily upset with US Middle East policy over the last couple of years, because of softening policies in regards to the Resistance Bloc and hardening policies in regards to the Status Quo Bloc. (A proper examination would take an entire post, not one paragraph, but quick examples are the perceived ignoring of the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, attempts at reconciliation with Iran since that time, turning away from Egypt’s Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution and the harsh response to the counter-revolution that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and its dropping of red lines in regards to the Syrian Government’s actions in that country’s civil war.) I would note that the Status Quo Bloc consists of the US’s friends in the Middle East, who look to Washington to guarantee their security, and have been increasingly concerned about the future. Read this post to understand the Middle East’s big picture.

And while the members of the Status Quo Bloc still rate Iran’s march toward nuclear capability as their biggest threat, they have been frightened by IS successes due to the popularity of Islamism throughout much of the Sunni Middle East. If IS kept on growing, it could destabilise Jordan, and it might earn the loyalty of more and more Arabs, thus potentially threatening some of the Status Quo monarchies/dictatorships with internal Islamist rumblings. (As in support for hamas, popularity for the group tends to be higher among those people that don’t have to live under its yoke.)

By taking action against IS, and by strong-arming the Arab states into officially and (in some cases actually) taking part of this coalition, the US is shoring up its support among the members of the Status Quo Bloc. The US is saying, ‘we are still the guarantor Middle East security, and you Arab states still need us.’ The Status Quo states have been pleading with the US to deal with IS, and now the US has listened to them.

Should Australia be participating?
But why is Australia participating? IS does not threaten Australia. Yes, Australian jihadis fighting with IS might return to Australia, further radicalised and up-skilled. But if IS wasn’t there, Australian jihadis could (and do) join other groups. It is in Australia’s interests to maintain our alliance with the US, and this is why Australia is involved. That said, I believe Australia could have gotten out of this war. Unlike a Labor government, which may feel it would have to prove its loyalty to the alliance with the US, a Liberal government does not have to. It could have been argued relatively easily that we’ve done our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it’s time to consolidate the budget, etc. Moreover, unlike other US interventions—such as 2003—the US is not struggling for credibility this time. In 2003, not many Western countries wanted to be part of the US invasion of Iraq, and it was important to the US that Australia was involved. That is not the case this time. Australia could have sent over a few dozen advisers and left it at that, but sending over warplanes is a rather large budgetary commitment. I believe that in weighing up the pros and cons of Australia’s involvement, the cons easily outweigh the pros.

Talking Turkey

Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now called the Middle East for about 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. However, in the wake of the Ottoman’s dramatic loss of land in the First World War, leaving it with what is today Turkey, the Empire was abolished, leaving a republic in its wake. The republic’s founder, Ataturk, made the country entirely secular, and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. So dramatically did Turkey want to shake off its religious, Middle Eastern background, that its leaders adopted (and encouraged Turks to adopt) Western-style dress. It no longer used Arabic script in its writing, but adopted Latin script to transliterate Turkish. It looked to Europe, not the Middle East for partnerships, joining NATO and wanting to join the EU. The latter quest was never going to be successful, because of Turkey’s shaky democratic traditions (three coups between 1960 and 1980), its human rights record (for instance, it ranks 154 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index) and, though it isn’t spoken of in polite circles, the fact that Turkey is Muslim and Europe is not.

In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.

In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East’s two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.

Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.

Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.

But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.

The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.

Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.

The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.

To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.

But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.

Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.

Why does Israel have such a bad image in the West?

old2bcityPeople like to categorise information into dichotomies—good vs bad, justified vs unjustified, etc. And for the first decades of its existence, Israel was ‘good’ in the popular imagination of the West, and Israel’s enemies ‘bad’. This was because Israel’s enemies openly declared their desire to destroy Israel, which the West perceived as unjustified.

But since 1967 (when Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War), Israel’s image has steadily worsened. The reasons are complex but, broadly, it’s because in the years after 1967, the Palestinians and the Arab world changed their rhetoric on Israel. Increasingly, the language used was about national self-determination—to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not instead of it.

This message worked and, in the West, the Arab–Israel conflict morphed from being about Arabs trying to destroy Israel (unjustified) to Palestinians trying to gain independence (justified). The title of the conflict also changed; the Arab–Israel conflict became the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Just as they came to perceive that the post-1967 Palestinian goal was to establish a state in Israeli-occupied land, Western observers increasingly perceived Israel’s refusal to cede that land as the reason for continued conflict. Israel gradually moved from being good to being bad.

(I would note two things. First, stated Palestinian objectives did not change overnight, but evolved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as did Western perceptions of Israel. Second, many friends of Israel are concerned that stated Palestinian goals mask a desire to destroy the Jewish state. This post does not enter that debate; it’s about perceptions.)

Israel justifies its refusal to cede land by citing security concerns. However, this is not accepted in the West, which believes that ceding land would resolve the conflict, ending Israeli security concerns.

To the West, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are further proof that Israel is not interested in peace. And, indeed, Israel has never made a convincing argument justifying the settlements.

Filtering facts to prevent cognitive dissonance
Because Western individuals, media and officials perceive the conflict through the ‘Israel is the reason for the lack of peace’ prism, they interpret some facts and disregard others in a way that confirms their assumptions (we all do this—ask any psychologist!)

Thus, that terrorism increased in the years after the peace process began is not interpreted that Palestinians used their newfound autonomy (and the arms and money that came with it) to increase attacks on Israel. Nor is it interpreted that Palestinian rulers could not control their own population, which included extremists wanting to attack Israel (both interpretations would have suggested slowing down the rate of Palestinian autonomy until it had proved itself capable of ruling). Instead, the increase in attacks was interpreted as Israel not giving up land fast enough. The answer was to pressure Israel to give up more land quicker.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The immediate result was that, for the first time in history, Palestinians gained sovereignty over land they claimed. Within a year, hamas took over, killed its internal rivals, established an Islamist dictatorship and increased its attacks on Israel, resulting in three wars in six years (2009, 2012, 2014). The Western interpretation was not that withdrawing from land before Palestinians are ready to rule it results in more violence, but that Israel provokes hamas due to its policy (along with Egypt) of placing Gaza under embargo.

If this is perception, what is reality?
If the Western perception that ‘Israel is bad because it is the reason for the ongoing conflict because it doesn’t give up land’ is incorrect (or too simplistic), what is the real reason for the ongoing conflict?

The goal of the Arabs in the first decades of the conflict was to end Israel’s existence. In the years after 1967, some Arab parties changed their goals to establishing a Palestinian state alongside (not instead of) Israel. However, other Arab parties continued the goal of wanting to destroy Israel. Thus, Israel’s security fears of people wanting to destroy Israel (no matter how much land it cedes) are valid. But so is the West’s view that Israel not giving up land is an obstacle to peace.

Just as the fight to eradicate the Jewish state continues, the Israeli settlement movement is pursued by Israelis that don’t want a non-Jewish state anywhere in what they call the Land of Israel (which includes the West Bank). The Israeli government allows the settlements to increase in population. However, this is more a function of it pandering to powerful factions in Israeli domestic politics, than a sign the Israeli government wants to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel would have the political ability to remove the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank if the majority of Israelis and the Israeli government became convinced a Palestinian state would not endanger Israel. This won’t happen by badgering Israel into making more concessions (although that is also necessary), but by ensuring the Palestinian government is able to rule. This means the Palestinian government needs to end corruption within its ranks (for two reasons: a major source of hamas’s popularity is the Palestinian government’s corruption; and corruption deters would-be foreign investors, which are necessary to enable an economically viable Palestinian state). Also, the West needs to encourage the Palestinian government to defeat hamas and all other Palestinian factions that want to destroy Israel.

However, for the Palestinian government to wholly sign on to peace with Israel, and to embark on a process of destroying hamas et al for that reason, the principle of making peace with Israel needs to be accepted. Currently it is not. Anyone in the Arab world that encourages ‘normalisation’ with Israel is ostracised. This policy is encouraged by Arab governments. While this might be a popular choice, it doesn’t give the Palestinian government the political umbrella it needs to take the courageous actions required to make itself viable, encourage Israel to withdraw from land and defeat its enemies. Thus, the Arab states need to change their approach to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.

This is not to say that Israel has no role to play. Just as the Arab world needs to give the Palestinian government political cover to take pro-peace actions, and just as the Palestinian government needs to take those actions, Israel must provide rewards to the Palestinian government for doing so. Currently, most achievements by Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel (and there are few) are perceived as coming as a result of violence against Israel. This encourages more violence, and creates popularity for those groups participating in violence. If rewards come to those groups that advocate peaceful action, and more rewards come when peaceful actions are taken, it creates legitimacy for peaceful parties.

The international community can encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to take pro-peace actions. But most Western actions do the opposite. The West sees Palestinians as justified, and so offers Palestinians rewards—recognition at the UN, millions in aid, etc. These rewards do not stop when Palestinians take anti-peace actions (such as celebrating violence against Israel, ruling out future negotiations or ignoring corruption). Indeed, such anti-peace actions are blamed on Israel for not being quicker to withdraw from land, thus encouraging Palestinians to take more anti-peace actions. Rewarding bad behaviour will only encourage more bad behaviour.

Israel is seen as unjustified because it refuses to cede land, and is routinely criticised by the UN and others. But Israel is not withdrawing from land because it is genuinely scared of what will happen if it does. In order to overcome its fear, it needs to know the international community has its back. Unremitting condemnation from the West has convinced Israel that everyone (except America) is against it. This has made Israel less willing to withdraw from land.

In the coming months, Palestinians will likely seek a Security Council resolution instead of negotiations with Israel. If the Security Council (or General Assembly) says yes, this will reward Palestinian intransigence, which will encourage more intransigence, which will breed more Israeli stubbornness. Serious carrots and sticks need to be applied to both parties to force them back to the negotiating table and for both sides to enact policies that enable peace to be possible. This is the only way peace will be engendered.