Multi-disciplinary lessons


I’m reading The Complete Secrets of Happy Children, by Steve Biddulph. What has this got to do with the Middle East, I feel you wonder. Not a lot, but it does remind me that my honours thesis—A Discussion of Pragmatic Implementation of Peace Agreements—was inspired by a conversation I was having in a pub in Jerusalem. My interlocutors and I were discussing the Israeli–Palestinian dispute and the bad behaviour of each side. ‘We should treat them like children’, I said. ‘Put the offending party in a corner until they are willing to behave themselves!’ 

While I’m happy to report the resultant thesis was a tad more nuanced than that, it’s motivating principle remained the same! The arrogance of youth…

The Accidental Strategist 


Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

A word to the wise


Israel should not let itself be carried away by having Trump in the White House. Four years of unrestricted settlement growth will only produce an eventual backlash. Rather, now is the time to build ‘economic peace’.

The recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements provoked critical comments from the Australian government (which isn’t on the Council). The peace conference in Paris (for which Israel wasn’t present) provoked critical comments from the British government. And with the Trump ascendancy, there is now a pro-Israel administration in the US (though Trump may well prove to be unpredictable). 

The alignment of conservative governments in these three English-speaking countries (especially since the UK will be increasingly independent of EU foreign policy) has the Israeli government salivating, given the sustained diplomatic pressure placed on Israel during the Obama years.

Indeed, a day after the Trump inauguration, Israel announced hundreds of apartments will be built in east Jerusalem, with Netanyahu boasting he will be ramping up construction in the settlements.

But Netanyahu ought to be cautious, for a couple of reasons.

Although a large segment of the American public love Trump, an equally large section loathes him, as does much of the media. Polite society around the world find him a caricature, at best. If Israel seeks to do whatever it wants, protected by Trump, the popular hatred of Trump will be extended to Israel by association. 

Further, after a couple of years of international diplomatic frustration, the next US administration will pile pressure on Israel as a way to expunge memory of the Trump era, in much the same way that Obama immediately put pressure on Israel, after eight years of American support under Bush. (And there is little doubt, given the depth of feeling about Bush, Obama and Trump, that Trump’s replacement will be an anti-Trump, in much the same way that Obama was an anti-Bush and Trump is an anti-Obama.)

However, the Trump presidency provides an opportunity for Israel. Many, including myself, argue that sustained international pressure on Israel is counter-productive, since it convinces Israel that the world will not have its back when it comes time to make potentially dangerous concessions. Well, now a supportive administration is in place. I’m not suggesting that Israel withdraw precipitously from the West Bank, as this will only encourage terrorism. But Netanyahu and others have spoken in the past of ‘economic peace’, and of building up the Palestinian Authority as a responsible economic actor ahead of, or hand-in-hand with, further withdrawals. This doesn’t mean merely pressure on the Palestinians to curb corruption (though that is vital). It means Israel putting in place measures that really help Palestinian individuals, businesses and government. With Trump in the White House, and conservative governments in London and Canberra, Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to have the international community offer the right balance of carrots and sticks to the Palestinians at the same time Israel does. Will Netanyahu recognise and grasp this opportunity, or will he bow to populist tendencies, and reap the whirlwind in four years time?

Hope Trumping Experience: A return to Obama politics?


The Washington Institute writes:

After numerous postponements, the upcoming Fatah General Cconference could inject energy into the aging movement and stabilize its ranks, but not if the internal elections exclude large constituencies or come across as rigged.

Bollocks. Fatah’s internal strife goes to the very core of its purpose. It doesn’t know whether it wants to achieve a Palestinian state alongside Israel or instead of Israel. Well, to clarify, it knows full-well that it wants the latter; the division arises because its ageing leadership knows the later option is impossible, but has never mustered the courage to state that publicly at the same time as putting polices in place to make it happen. In short, it has long played both hands, and lost badly. Fatah’s younge cadres haven’t yet realised they can’t destroy Israel—they’ll continue hurling themselves against that brick wall until they, too, grow old and a bit wiser.

The older, senior and ever-so-slightly wiser heads will continue losing ground for as long as they are two-faced. That’s bad for them, for the Palestinians, for Israel, for the wiser Middle East and for the West. If only the West had the strategic vision to use its considerable leverage to force their hand..!

Outward recognition is so yesterday


Michael Herzog writes

Arab steps toward normalization have become more meaningful to Israelis than anything they would expect from the Palestinians, allowing Israeli officials to present a paradigm shift: instead of obtaining Arab-Israeli normalization through Israeli-Palestinian peace, they could try to provide space and cover for peacemaking with the Palestinians through convergence with Arab states. 

But this was always the way! Notwithstanding all the other complications, no Palestinian leader could ever be expected to make peace with Israel outside an umbrella of significant Arab (read: Egypt and Saudi) support. For as long as the official Arab line is ‘no peace until Israel concedes everything’ continues, Palestinians daring to make peaceful noises (much less sign an agreement) would be left out in the cold.

I’ve long thought that Israeli-Palestinian peace requires the Arabs to extend an olive branch – perhaps opening a trade office with ‘Palestine’ (and through it, Israel) in East Jerusalem – so as to give Ramallah political cover to make the significant concessions peace will require. 

Herzog also writes

Conceptually, [France’s] efforts are informed by the classic, misguided view that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to regional stability

He’s bang on. France (and much of the rest of the West) has it backwards. 

An intractable conflict?

The Australian Jewish News ran an opinion piece I wrote today. It is on the same topic I will be discussing at Limmud Oz, this Monday. 

See you on Monday?

Earlier this month, foreign ministers convened in Paris in an attempt to kick-start the moribund Israeli–Palestinian peace process. And as the Obama presidency winds up, many predict the US President will outline parameters of a future peace agreement, possibly as part of a UN Security Council resolution.

Perhaps to ward off these events (and dispel signs of inaction), Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last week dragged up the ghost of the Arab Peace Initiative.

And so it goes. Despite the Middle East’s many pressing issues—turmoil in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the growing Saudi–Iranian sectarian cold war—Western powers return again and again to the prospect of Israeli–Palestinian peace.

Asking why is important. But we might also ask why the peace they so desperately crave eludes them. For almost a century the League of Nations, the United Nations, the British, the US, the Norwegians, the French, the Arab League and a host of Israelis and Palestinians have nominated themselves as having come up with a solution. None have worked.

It has been 23 years since the first Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. The Oslo process was supposed to usher in a ‘New Middle East’. Instead, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have since been killed. Indeed, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism during the seven years of the Oslo process than in any preceding seven-year period. (Though this number was dwarfed by the number of Israelis killed in the seven years from September 2000.)

Why is the Israeli–Palestinian dispute so resistant to resolution? The answer isn’t as simple as pointing to the traditional ‘obstacles to peace’, such as settlements or terrorism. These are but symptoms. To understand the problem, we need to take a step back—to look at the forest instead of focusing on the trees.

What is frequently called the ‘Israeli–Palestinian conflict’ actually consists of multiple, interwoven conflicts. To understand why the over-arching dispute hasn’t been resolved we need to identify these individual conflicts. This is accomplished by examining the objectives of all the parties involved. By doing so, we can distil two main types of conflict—territorial and existential.

Territorial conflicts are fought over land or resources. If two states or national movements claim the same territory, they are in a territorial conflict. Resolution comes when they agree to share or divide the land between them. Most people view the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a territorial conflict. But if this were the only conflict at play, there would have been peace decades ago.

The other type of conflict is existential. As the name suggests, this arises when at least one party is fighting to end the existence of the other. The Israeli–Palestinian dispute involves two distinct existential conflicts. The first is waged by Islamists such as Hamas. The second by activists within the religious settler movement. (I hasten to add that religious settlers are not seeking the death or enslavement of Palestinians. But there are a significant minority struggling against the establishment of any non-Jewish state in eretz yisrael. These activists will ‘win’ when the Palestinian national movement stops existing.)

Existential conflicts don’t necessary last forever—the wider Arab–Israel dispute was existential in nature until the Arab world and, later, the pragmatic Palestinian leadership, concluded they could not defeat Israel militarily and so softened their existential conflict into a territorial one. Realistically, though, there is little hope that Hamas and its ilk will give up their religiously-inspired existential conflict.

Since existential conflicts cannot be resolved, they must be won or managed. This means that before or during a territorialist peace process, observers and participants must be aware that existentialist parties exist, that the prospect of peace enrages them and that they will violently seek to undermine that peace (because the compromises associated with territorialist peace weaken their visions of total victory).

For a territorialist outcome to be possible, territorialist leaders must not only be aware of the existence of existentialists, but also willing and able to force existentialists to accept territorialist will. This is a politically-difficult and sometimes bloody path to tread.

A significant obstacle is that the Palestinian leadership and media apparatus continue using existentialist themes—‘all of Israel is Palestine’; ‘right of return’—in their messaging. This indicates either they remain existentialist or do not have the courage to change the minds of the Palestinian people, who have been fed a diet of existentialist promises since the beginning of the dispute.

If the West wants peace, it must insist that the Palestinian Authority not only tackles the existentialists in its midst, but also presents itself as a true, territorialist alternative.

Unfortunately, the requisite awareness, willingness and ability do not currently exist, either internationally or locally. Until this is reversed, peacemaking is destined to remain an exercise in futility.

Time as a factor affecting the big picture

timeWe often think of time as more than a commodity; time can be a threat. And in the Middle East, time is used as a weapon to the detriment of the West.

Time can be perceived in different ways—objectively (by measuring its passage with a clock) and subjectively, where time slows down or speeds up, is precious or cheap, depending on one’s outlook and personal situation. For instance, two hours with friends seems to fly by, but a two-hour meeting can feel like an eternity.

Just as time can fly or lag, depending on circumstances, so can the importance of time change. Put bluntly, in negotiations or conflict, if a party believes that time is on their side, there is less pressure on them to reach a conclusion than the party who believes that time is against them. A party that believes time is against them will be willing to make concessions to conclude the process they’re in, to ensure that the passage of time doesn’t make things worse.

It is therefore important to be the party with whom time rests. Put differently, it is important to make the other party believe that time is not on their side. In this way time can be weaponised. There are different ways to weaponise time. Broadly speaking, they fall to three categories: military, political/diplomatic and nature.

Military
While there are many variations of this theme, if you can make your enemy believe that your overwhelming military power will create a major problem for them if they do not do something (or do not desist from doing something) by a certain date, then you will have made your enemy aware that time is not on their side.

Political/Diplomatic
If you can make your enemy aware that increasing numbers of third parties are against them and, for as long as your enemy maintains its current course of action, this trend will continue, then your enemy will gain the impression that time is not on their side.

Nature
While it is difficult to categorise with one word, if you can make your enemy aware that nature – be it in the form of demographics or climate change or the rising tide – will make it worse for them as time goes on, then their perceptions of what their options are will be duly affected.

With these things in mind, we can turn to the Middle East. The three issues in the Middle East that are currently attracting media attention are: the perennial Israeli–Palestinian dispute; the Iran nuclear negotiations; and Islamic State (the actual Syrian civil war, of which Islamic State is only one party, has seemingly fallen off the radar, to be replaced by videos of Islamic State barbarity).

In regards to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that Israel is time-poor and that Palestinians have time on their side. This is for diplomatic and natural reasons. On diplomacy, the international community is increasingly critical of Israeli positions and increasingly accepting of Palestinian decisions. Opinion polls show the same trend among the general public in Western countries. These trends are reflected in growing diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’ and growing public support for boycotting Israel, despite the moral bankruptcy of doing so.

On nature, most Israelis and Palestinians believe that the ‘demographic threat’ of, within a few decades, there being more Arabs west of the Jordan River than Jews has the ability to considerably change the equation.

Because Israel believes that time is against it, it has made increasingly large offers to compromise in search of Israeli–Palestinian peace. Palestinians, on the other hand, have barely changed their negotiating positions since 1993. A long as everyone thinks time is against Israel, don’t expect the Palestinian position to change.

Israel’s friends should want to change this time perception equation. They could do so by making Palestinians aware that the generous international aid it receives without (enforced) conditions will end by a certain date if Palestinians don’t start acting responsibly in haste.

As to the Iran negotiations, the Islamic Republic is confident that time is on its side. Broadly speaking, it knows that the West (in particular, US President Obama) wants a negotiated outcome more than Iran does. So it can afford to wait, and obfuscate, and delay and otherwise keep on drawing out the negotiations so the Western offers come more and more palatable. The West occasionally rattles a sabre (‘no option is off the table’), but these are not considered credible by Iran. Were the West or Israel to make a credible military threat based on an unmovable deadline, Iran’s perception of the time up its sleeve might change dramatically. But this is unlikely to happen.

Countries like Saudi Arabia – which perceive Iran as a threat – also believe time is against them. That is why many are beginning their own nuclear programmes.

Islamic State is where one can see time on the side of the West (or, at least, against Islamic State). As I wrote previously, it is inevitable that Islamic State will recede with time. Indeed, these signs are already coming to pass. (That said, in Islamic State’s wake will be only chaos and ruin. This will likely be filled with another party or many parties squabbling over the right to rule—particularly the right to rule the oil fields in the areas Islamic State currently controls. Without a significant amount of money and US troops on the ground—neither of which will likely be made available—it is unlikely that conditions can be put in place that will allow for peace and security to be restored for the people of the area in the foreseeable future.)

As time goes on, things are becoming more difficult for the West’s Middle East allies. Time cannot be stopped, but perceptions of how much time one or the other side has can be changed. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Europeans have the will to slow down the Middle East’s current trajectory toward further instability and conflict. time

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

A third way?

bn-gf451_palun1_p_20141230190425Until recently, the Palestinians have had a binary choice in their path to statehood—negotiate with Israel or fight Israel. Neither have proven successful. The policies of the international community have opened Palestinian eyes to a third way, pursuing Israel in international organisations to embarrass and weaken the Jewish state.

On 30 December, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for a Palestinian state within two years. It fell one short of the required nine yes votes. Two countries—Australia and the US—voted no and four others abstained.

The Palestinian Authority was the driving force behind this initiative. I believe that not only did the Palestinians know the resolution wouldn’t pass (even if it had have received nine yes votes, the US would have vetoed it), they wanted the resolution to fail. It is worthwhile noting that France had been working with the Palestinian delegation on a less one-sided draft—in other words, one that might have passed. But the Palestinians rejected moderate language, insisting on a draft with fewer Palestinian concessions, and maximum Israeli concessions.

Why?

Why would Palestinians want to have a Security Council vote calling for a Palestinian state voted down? The Palestinian leadership has two main objectives: to attain statehood and to retain power. The second objective is much more important for the Palestinian leadership than the first. History has shown numerous times (most recently in 2000, 2001 and 2008) that, in any situation where the Palestinian leadership faces a choice between achieving statehood and retaining power, retaining power wins out.

The dilemma is caused because achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel will involve substantial concessions for both sides. These concessions are widely known and, for the Palestinians, will result in: having a Palestinian state in 22 per cent of what it considers ‘historic Palestine’ (i.e. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza); and no ‘right of return’.

The ‘Right of Return’

While most Palestinians have grudgingly accepted the first concession, few will concede the second. The Palestinian leadership has been promising a full right of return to Israel since the founding of the national movement in the 1960s. Any Palestinian leader that agrees to a state without the right of return will be seen to have betrayed the Palestinian cause, likely resulting in an assassin’s bullet.

(Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, cannot agree to this ‘right of return’, because it would result in Jews becoming a minority in Israel, thereby creating two Palestinian states and no Jewish state. It thus argues—reasonably, in my opinion—that, following a final status peace agreement, the world’s Palestinians can immigrate to the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and the world’s Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel.)

The refugee issue is, in my opinion, the principal reason the Palestinian leadership has rejected multiple Israeli offers of statehood.

For those who don’t know: What is the ‘right of return’?

In the 1947–49 Arab–Israel war, about 750,000 Palestinians Arabs became refugees. This mostly occurred in the first half of 1948. About half were kicked out by Jewish forces, and about half fled. The Palestinian leadership demands that these refugees and their descendants (today numbering in the millions) have the right to return to their former homes in what has become the State of Israel. This is not a right afforded any other refugee population.

Israel the Scapegoat

Notwithstanding the vexed question of refugees, the Palestinian leadership has long used the Israelis as scapegoats for everything wrong in Palestinian society. Crime, unemployment, corruption and lack of infrastructure are all blamed on the Israeli occupation. Were the occupation to end and a Palestinian state be established, the Palestinian leadership could no longer duck responsibility. Of all these failures, corruption will be the hardest to fix (and this is the problem for which Israel is the least responsible). For a Palestinian leadership historically reluctant to put its people’s future ahead of its own, this in and of itself is a reason not to achieve statehood and forms, in my opinion, the second most important reason the Palestinians have rejected statehood offers.

Role of the International Community

Given that the Palestinian leadership does not want to achieve statehood if doing so will threaten its rule, the international community could and should engineer a situation where the Palestinian leadership will not feel threatened by statehood. This could be done by implementing two policies. First, by tying future aid to Palestinian good governance, it could force the Palestinian leadership to rid its ranks of corruption (since the Palestinian economy is reliant on aid). The West has threatened such action in the past, but never delivered (which has taught the Palestinians that the West is a toothless tiger). If carried out, it would be a painful process, but ultimately be healthy for both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.

The refugee issue is far more problematic. However, the international community could provide political cover for the Palestinian leadership if the former were to: a) state quite plainly that the refugees and their descendants will definitely not be allowed to immigrate to Israel en masse as part of a peace agreement; and b) concurrently promise significant funds to integrate Palestinians into either their host populations, the new state of Palestine or third countries.

Although the above is possible, I don’t believe it is likely. As written about in far more detail in this post, the West blames Israel for the continuation of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. It thus places the onus on Israel to resolve problems and places diplomatic pressure on Israel to do so. And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, almost all Israeli and Palestinian actions, whether good or bad, are filtered by Western commentators through the prism of ‘Israel is to blame for the lack of peace’. Thus, Palestinian actions that undermine peace (such as corruption, violence, unachievable promises and more) are seen as unfortunate but excusable actions of an occupied people. This would be harmless except for that fact that by providing Palestinians with aid and recognition without holding Palestinians to account for bad behaviour, the West has effectively rewarded bad behaviour and thus encouraged more of it.

The Palestinian leadership largely (though incorrectly) sees the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a zero sum game. That is, it believes that whenever Israel loses, the Palestinians win. With increasing condemnation of and pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that it does not need to compromise with Israel. The world will continue pressuring Israel and will continue providing Palestinians with aid and recognition. And while the West will make statements about what it expects the Palestinians to do, it will not punish the Palestinians if they do not comply.

Palestinians Internationalise the Conflict

This leads us to the Palestinian objective in regards to the draft UN Security Council resolution.

Ahead of the vote, the Palestinians said that if the draft resolution were rejected, ‘Palestine’ would seek to join the International Criminal Court and other international organisations. Indeed, since the 30 December vote, the Palestinians have already signed the Rome Statute—the first step to acceding to the ICC.

As a member of the ICC, the Palestinians will seek to have Israel and individual Israelis prosecuted for war crimes committed on Palestinian territory. (The ICC only has jurisdiction in the territory of its members; it has no jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza until it accepts ‘Palestine’ as a member.)

Joining the ICC and other international bodies continues a trend that began a few years ago, and is the culmination of the trend cited in the opening paragraph of this post—that the Palestinian leadership has found a third way (the first being violence, the second being diplomacy—though at the cost of the leadership losing its rule) to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests without compromising.

And while this tactic has been and will continue to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests, it will not lead to a viable peace for two reasons. First, it further diminishes the little trust Israelis have that Palestinians want to live in peace with it. That doesn’t matter so much, since the Palestinians argue that the reason they are internationalising the conflict is because they have lost all trust in Israel. However, and second, pursuing Israel in the realm of ‘lawfare’ might well hurt Israel and provide the Palestinian leadership with a short-term bump in popularity (which the UN Security Council vote achieved), but it will do nothing to address the chronic obstacles blocking the path between the current reality and a viable Palestinian state. Some of these obstacles have nothing to do with Israel. Others are associated with the Israeli occupation, but will only be overcome when Israelis and Palestinians work together in good faith. (Which is not to say that Israelis are blameless—far from it. But this is clearly an example of Palestinians shooting themselves in the foot for short-term advantage.)

But let’s say I’m wrong. What if UN condemnations, ICC prosecutions and even sanctions by countries such as Australia (which is what some people are calling for) successfully pressure Israel into withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank (including those parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim)? The occupation will have ended.

But the Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. The majority of its exports and imports go to and come from Israel. Its electricity and much of its water is supplied by Israel. Many Palestinians find work in Israel or the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the West Bank has no airport and no access to the sea; it is reliant on Israel for all international imports and exports. If Israel is forced through condemnations, prosecutions and sanctions to withdraw from the West Bank, you can bet it will have nothing to do with the new State of Palestine. No goods or services will cross the Israel–Palestine border. Any product entering Gaza (which has a port on the Mediterranean) will likely not be allowed to cross into Israel and then into the West Bank. The Palestinian economy will crash. Violence and chaos will be the result. Terrorist groups will also turn their guns on Israel, which will be forced to intervene to protect its citizens.

And so on. If Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful future, they must cooperate. And while both sides continue to pursue unhelpful policies, trust (and, with it, good will) diminishes and the possibility for cooperation further evaporates. The Palestinian move to go to the Security Council, lose on purpose and then use it as a pretext to join the ICC and other international organisations is one of the most significant such unhelpful moves in the last 10 years.