The Middle East: A Look at the Recent Past

The Middle East: A Look at the Recent Past

The Middle East: A Look at the Recent Past

The following are two posts from nearly three years ago. Both draw attention to the pattern of regional conflict. Where the war in Gaza might lead remains to be seen.

Gaza Violence, May 13, 2021

Palestinians remain more than frustrated with the status quo and in the absence of any progress towards the two-state solution their discontent usually hits the surface in the form of some violence.  And whenever there is violence, Israel says that it will not tolerate incitement, terrorism and reacts with disproportional force; Palestinian leadership calls for an end to subjugation and occupation; UN Secretary General urges calm; Arab governments express indignation; they remember the Arab League; the Quartet issues a statement advising restraint; the EU expresses concern: finally, either the US Secretary of State or some other high official travels to the region to find a way out because such violence always puts Washington on the spot by its unique relationship with Israel. And a roller-coaster pattern of violence goes on.

By and large, the latest round of violence fits the pattern, perhaps with three differences.

Firstly, Mr. Netanyahu has been in power for twelve years making him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. However, President Rivlin has given the mandate to Mr. Lapid after Mr. Netanyahu failed to form a new government. Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu is faced with corruption charges. So, Israel either finds a successor or the country heads towards another election. Thus, in domestic politics, Israel finds itself at a critical point.

Secondly, a wave of violence between Jews and Arabs has spread across several Israeli cities.

Thirdly, during the four years of the Trump administration, the ground has steadily shifted in Israel’s favor. This was after two episodes of violence which resulted in great loss of life.

On December 27, 2008, Israel reacting to violence, launched a major military campaign, “Operation Cast Lead”, against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and approximately 1,440 Palestinians died. At least half of the dead were civilians, compared with 13 dead including four civilians on the Israeli side.

In the 50-day war between 8 July and 27 August 2014, more than 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, along with 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel. The number of civilians killed during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” offensive led to international condemnation.

Then the picture started to change.

On February 15, 2017 PM Netanyahu was the fourth foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. During the joint press conference with his host, he rejected the “unfair and one-sided actions at the United Nations” that target Israel. He was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016.

Through this Resolution adopted in the final days of the Obama administration, the Security Council reaffirmed that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders. 14 Delegations voted in favor of the Resolution and this time the US chose to abstain.

During that same press conference, President Trump said:

“As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.  We’ll work something out.  But I would like to see a deal be made.  I think a deal will be made…” Without specifics, he was alluding to the “deal of the century” being prepared by his son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Mr. Netanyahu had only words of support for the President and spoke of the Netanyahus and the Trumps as one big family. And indeed, he held back on settlements “for a little bit”, not more no less.

The atmospherics of President Trump’s visit to Jerusalem on May 22 were no different. Every step was a display of the very special relationship between the two leaders, two families, and the two countries.

Shortly after Air Force One touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, President Rivlin delivered the first welcoming remarks. Perhaps prophesying the change at the White House four years later, he said: “We are happy to see America is back in the area, America is back again.”

This was a reference to Israel’s perception of the “absence of American leadership” during the Obama years at the end of which it was agreed, nonetheless, that Israel would receive 38 billion dollars worth of American military assistance over the next decade, the largest such aid package in US history.

On December 6, 2017, President Trump signed the Act which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

On December 18, 2017, the US had to veto a draft UN Security Council resolution tabled by Egypt which would have affirmed that any decisions, and actions that purport to have altered, the character, status, or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council.

Only days later, the UN General Assembly expressing its deep regret at “recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem” affirmed, with an overwhelming majority, that any decisions and actions that purport to have altered, the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded.

On January 28, 2020, President Trump together with PM Netanyahu unveiled the “deal of the century”, officially called “Peace to Prosperity”. Mr. Netanyahu called President Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House”.

On August 13, 2020, the UAE became the third Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia announced that it would allow flights from “all countries” to cross over its airspace on flights to or from the United Arab Emirates. Thus, El Al was able to fly a joint US-Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi, through Saudi airspace.

At the White House on September 4, 2020, Kosovo and Israel agreed to recognize each other and Serbia agreed to move its embassy to from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

On September 15, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House. President Trump said the Accords would “change the course of history”, and “mark the dawn of a new Middle East”.

In October, Israel and Sudan decided to normalize their relations. Morocco followed suit in December.

In the former case, President Donald Trump removed Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, unblocking economic aid and investment. In the latter, the US agreed to recognize Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara region marking a turnabout ending more than 40 years of official neutrality.

In brief, the past four years have been a period of remarkable diplomatic success for Mr. Netanyahu. However, while he steadily guided the Trump administration and Gulf states along the path of his choice, he completely ignored the international objections to his settlement policy and appeals for the two-state solution. These were only “business as usual” type of statements anyway. But the pending eviction of Arab families from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where they have lived for decades became the last straw.

On the one hand, Israel’s democratic elections, the fact that Mr. Netanyahu is before the court on corruption charges, and the fact that his predecessor Ehud Olmert served a prison sentence for fraud shows that Israel is a democracy upholding the rule of law and independence of the judiciary.

On the other hand, in early March, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. The probe followed the February 5 decision by ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber I that the Court may exercise its criminal jurisdiction in Palestine and that the territorial scope of this jurisdiction extends to Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. This and the recent Human Rights Watch report which argues that Israel pursues a policy of ethnic supremacy that favors Israeli Jews over Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories more than blur Israel’s democratic image.

During times when democracy’s decline has become a current topic, those aspiring to respect for human rights, freedom of speech, separation of powers, expect Israel to project democratic values to a broad region where authoritarianism reigns supreme, not the opposite.

His diplomatic achievements offered Mr. Netanyahu a golden opportunity to take steps toward a settlement of the Palestinian problem and make history but he seems to have squandered it. Maybe, with the vanishing of the “Peace for Prosperity” into thin air he just did not care. Yesterday, he reportedly said that the government will use “an iron fist if needed” to end protests by Israel’s Arab citizens and that is a bad omen.

With the eruption of Gaza violence Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel must be praying that this would not turn into an embarrassment for them.

Turkey established official relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1975 and was one of the first countries to recognize the Palestinian State established in exile in November 1988. For years, long before the coming to power of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP), Turkey steadfastly underlined the importance of resolving the Palestinian issue in open forums and in diplomatic exchanges including talks with Israel.

In recent years Turkey has been more vocal than any other country in speaking out for the Palestinians and its support of Hamas. Thus, our relations not only with Israel but also with Arab countries suffered major setbacks. This time, Ankara might tread a more careful line in its response to the Gaza violence because taking the lead may put us at odds yet again not only with Israel but also with Arab countries. Latter’s reaction to further escalation can be a yardstick for ours.


Gaza Violence (2), May 17, 2021

In my last post, I tried to highlight the roller-coaster pattern of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

In his New York Times article of May 14, titled “Arab World Condemns Israeli Violence but Takes Little Action”, Eric Erlanger started off with the following:

“The Arab world is unified in condemning Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and the way the Israeli police invaded Jerusalem’s Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Governments have spoken out, protests have taken place, and social media is aflame.

“But by and large the condemnation is only words, not actions — at least so far.”

As expected, Iran’s and Turkey’s public reaction went a step further, but only in words.

In brief, condemnations also conform to the pattern.

What underlies this pattern? Broadly speaking, an uneven distribution of power.

On the one hand, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation represents the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, but it exists only on paper. The so-called Arab League is no different. Moslem countries say that Jerusalem is a question of faith but are engaged more than anything else, in their own confrontations, disputes, and proxy wars. They cannot match Israel’s hard and soft power.

Israel, a nation of 9 million, represents power in its multiple dimensions.

•     According to the 2020 Human Development Report, Israel’s HDI (Human Development Index) value for 2019 is 0.919— which puts the country in the very high human development category— positioning it at 19 out of 189 countries and territories. The HDI is a summary measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

•     Israel’s agricultural sector has produced miracles. Thus, many countries have turned to Israel to improve their agricultural performance.

•      Beyond the defense, Israel’s technological achievements cover multiple sectors. High technology and technology-rich products account for more than 70% of its exports. In 2018, Israel spent 4.95% of GDP on research and development, according to the World Bank.

•       The contribution of Jews to world culture is impressive.

•    Israel is a democracy. Acting Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu is before the court on corruption charges. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has served a prison sentence for fraud.

The only problem is that Israel’s democracy does not embrace the country’s Palestinians. This is why Human Rights Watch has accused Israeli officials of committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution. As usual, Israel has reacted to Gaza violence with disproportionate force and this is why there have been protest rallies in some Western capitals to the joy of Middle East leaders. Moreover, Israel’s foreign policy defies the globally endorsed two-state solution.

But there is the other side of the coin.

•     Do Middle East regimes deserve passing grades for their democratic performance, their respect for the rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, transparency, accountability, and fair and equal opportunity? No, they show all the symptoms of authoritarianism, to say the least.

•    Do they provide their people with fair and equal opportunity? No, on the contrary, they are characterized by nepotism and corruption.

•      What rights do foreign workers enjoy in the region’s rich countries? None.

•      Do these foreign workers fare any better than the Palestinians? Hardly.

•     Bernard Lewis had written that in the Muslim tradition, justice was the standard of good government. Do Middle East regimes uphold justice if not democracy? No.

•      Can the Middle East match Israel’s military, economic, and diplomatic power? No.

•     Had several, if not all, Middle Eastern countries achieved higher political, economic, social, and cultural standards, better governance, and more status on the international scene, could Israel still dare bomb Gaza with impunity? Probably not.

The sad truth is that since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East has produced only one leader with an enlightened vision for his country, Ataturk. Had his example been followed, the Middle East could have been a different place today.

The Palestinian problem will never be settled on the battlefield. It will not be settled by inconsequential rhetoric. If ever, it would be settled through negotiations. And having a decent balcony seat, if not a seat at the negotiation table, would depend on political, economic, social, and cultural progress by respectable international standards. 

The first step of such an endeavor would be a look in the mirror.