Archive for January 5, 2021

The Arab-Israeli conflict may finally be over

January 5, 2021

The dawn of the new year is rising on a world that would have been unrecognisable 12 months ago. The scourge of Covid, the fall of Trump, the resolution of Brexit; all have carved history in unpredictable ways. But nowhere has seen greater changes than the Middle East, where, for the first time, people are daring to believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over.

In January 2020, Israel was as isolated as ever in the region. Its ‘cold peace’ agreements with Egypt and Jordan, which were not matched by affection on the street, were as good as it got. The Arab League’s notorious threefold rejectionism — no to peace, no to recognition, no to negotiation — seemed unmovable.

Trump’s peace plan was dismissed out of hand by the Palestinians in February, and things hit a new low in May. When a new Knesset considered annexing parts of the West Bank, an impotent Palestinian Authority suspended all security co-operation. Then, with unprecedented masochism, it refused to accept more than half a billion pounds of Israeli tax revenues. Overnight, the Palestinian Authority deprived itself of 60 per cent of its budget, setting it on a course for self-imposed bankruptcy and impoverishing tens of thousands of its own citizens.

The act of self-harm brought to mind Mohamed Bouazizi, the despairing Tunisian street vendor who burned himself to death on the streets of Sidi Bouzid as a desperate act of protest [there was a bit more to it than that, and it involved a woman and dishonour…]. But the Palestinian Authority’s immolation did not trigger an Arab Spring. Instead, a different kind of regional revolution was already underway, one that would put the Palestinians and Israel in closer proximity to reconciliation than they had been for a quarter-century. For years, the Palestinians had held an effective veto on Arab relations with Israel.

For years, Benjamin Netanyahu — that caricatured bogeyman of the western left — had been quietly pursuing an ‘outside in’ strategy for peace. The first stage was to build bilateral links with countries outside the region, like India, Brazil and Japan. The second was to achieve normalisation with the Arab world. Finally, the theory went, with the Palestinians boxed in on all sides by cordiality, the last piece of the puzzle would slot into place.

The strategy dovetailed with the Arab Spring, which sounded the death knell for regional Arab unity. The uprisings were rooted in rage at the corrupt, inept leaders who had left the youthful population of the Middle East impoverished and with little hope. The ensuing crisis of the Levant — Syria a human abattoir, Lebanon collapsed under insoluble financial woes, Iraq riven by bloodshed and factional conflict — erased the last allegiances to the old pan-Arabism. The dream of Arab nationalists building successful, modern and cohesive states across the region had failed, and spectacularly at that. New answers were needed for new problems.

Slowly, Arab rulers became more open about the fact that it wasn’t Israel that was keeping them awake at night. Instead, it was the meddling of Iran and its proxies, the rise of a neo-Ottoman Turkey, the spread of ultra-Islamism and myriad economic woes. Normalising relations with the Jewish state would naturally ease these problems. Not only would they gain a powerful military and intelligence ally against a common enemy, but there would be significant economic advantages — Israeli tourists for Dubai, Israeli agricultural experts for Sudan — and enhanced ties with the United States.

For years, the Palestinians had held an effective veto on Arab relations with Israel. But where had it got them? Israel’s economy has boomed while the corrupt and incompetent Palestinian leadership, a victim of its own disunity and intransigence, had become a black hole for international aid dollars. Arab leaders had no wish to abandon the Palestinians, but they were no longer prepared to have them to dictate policy. The time was ripe for a new approach — one that would benefit the Palestinians as much as the rest of the Arab world.

Fast forward to the dawn of 2021, and the Abraham Accords have changed the face of the Middle East. The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are on board. Arab League states like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritania, Djibouti and the Comoros are poised to make the jump, as is Somaliland. There is even talk that Qatar, despite its links to Turkey and fondness for Hamas, may eventually join the accords rather than be left isolated in the Gulf.

There are signs that the Palestinians may come to accept this new reality [I doubt that!]. The protests and burning of UAE flags that accompanied the signing of the Abraham Accords were brought to a sudden halt, I understand, by a telephone call from Saudi Arabia. After that, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned on a sixpence. In November, he offered to reinstate the ambassadors he had withdrawn from UAE and Bahrain. Abandoning his policy of self-harm, he agreed to accept his half a billion pounds of tax receipts and resumed security co-operation with Israel. All of a sudden, the mood music was much improved.

The most stunning development has been the change of feeling on the Arab street. Traditionally, levels of anti-Semitism have soared across the Middle East, with a seminal 2014 study finding that 74 per cent of adults across the region harboured anti-Semitic beliefs. But as country after country has made peace with Israel, these attitudes have softened significantly. Recent polls report that about 80 per cent of Saudis are now in favour of normalisation, and 40 per cent of citizens across a range of Arab countries (excluding the Palestinian territories) want their leaders to take an active role in encouraging peace. This is a remarkable and rapid cultural shift.

Significant obstacles remain, of course. Foremost of these is Gaza, where Hamas continue to run the enclave as a belligerent outpost of Islamist extremism. There is also uncertainty over whether the incoming Biden team will build on Trump’s successes, or revert to the old model exemplified by John Kerry, who insisted on scotching regional peace unless a Palestinian state existed first.

But there are greater reasons for hope. With even the Palestinians showing less venomous opposition to the Abraham Accords, it would be very difficult for Biden to eschew them. Moreover, in some ways the normalisation deals have put the Palestinians in a stronger position [what?]. It is true that their concerns may become irrelevant as peace continues to break out around them. But at the same time, Netanyahu has effectively removed the most aggressive Israeli policies from the table himself; he will be unable to pursue annexation, or major settlement expansion, without risking the relationships with his new Arab allies. This time, the Palestinians may have a decent chance of a deal.

When the beleaguered Palestinian leadership sees the economic benefits enjoyed by other Arab states through co-operation with Israel and absorbs the idea that it now has friends as well as foes sitting across the negotiating table, the incentives will be hard to resist. The Emiratis and Bahrainis will make the point emphatically. And now that Israel has been elided into regional Sunni Arab interests, there can surely be no doubt that Jerusalem is a serious partner for peace.

As Iran eyes Biden, could conflict still erupt with Trump?

January 5, 2021

Iranians apply pressure by breaking nuclear deal with higher uranium enrichment, but experts say US president is becoming more unpredictable as he rages over election loss

By AP and TOI STAFFToday, 9:18 am  0

US President Donald Trump dances after speaking during a campaign rally for a Republican senator at Dalton Regional Airport, in Dalton, Georgia, January 4, 2021,  (Evan Vucci/AP)

US President Donald Trump dances after speaking during a campaign rally for a Republican senator at Dalton Regional Airport, in Dalton, Georgia, January 4, 2021, (Evan Vucci/AP)

Iran has opened the new year with a gambit to pressure US President-elect Joe Biden, but fears are rising that conflict could erupt instead with Donald Trump, who still commands US military might in his chaotic final stretch.

Iran announced Monday it was stepping up uranium enrichment well beyond the limits in a 2015 nuclear accord negotiated with former president Barack Obama — and indicated it would reverse course if Biden lifts Trump’s crippling sanctions after taking over on January 20.

Tensions have soared since Trump walked out of the accord in 2018, and have escalated further in recent days, with the United States flying B-52 bombers over the Gulf and abruptly reversing a decision to bring home an aircraft carrier.

In an unusual statement that sounded more like the White House than the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said late Sunday he was keeping the USS Nimitz in the Gulf due to Iranian threats against US officials including Trump personally.

“We have a new form of deterrence now — schizophrenic deterrence. We don’t know what we’re doing,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Instead of looking tough by reversing the Nimitz’s return, “it may send the wrong signal — which is that it’s total chaos in Washington right now and if you’re going to take a shot, maybe this is the time you want to do it.”

Narang said the risk of the United States initiating military action remained low but warned that Trump was becoming more unpredictable as he rages and seeks to overturn his election loss.

“If I were Iran right now, I would actually be thinking that it’s possible that Trump is so unhinged and so angry about the election that he may overreact to any slight provocation,” Narang said.US President-elect Joe Biden waves from the stage as he campaigns for for Georgia Democratic candidates in Atlanta, January 4, 2021. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Trump had warned that he would hold Iran accountable for the killings of any Americans after the US embassy in Baghdad was hit a week ago by rockets blamed on Shiite paramilitaries allied with the clerical state.

But Sunday’s anniversary of the US drone attack in Baghdad that killed Iran’s best-known general Qassem Soleimani passed without violence, despite angry demonstrations and Tehran’s calls for vengeance.

Pressure through enrichment

Iran said it would enrich uranium at 20 percent purity, far above the 3.67% allowed under the nuclear accord.

Some experts noted that the step was quickly reversible and that higher enrichment does not in itself bring Iran much closer to building a nuclear bomb, a goal that Tehran denies. Others warn that enrichment at 20% is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Corey Hinderstein, who focused on implementation of the 2015 deal while at the US Energy Department, said that Iran likely wanted to keep the focus squarely on its nuclear program and discourage Biden from broadening diplomacy.

Jake Sullivan, who is set to be Biden’s national security advisor, said in a CNN interview Sunday that the incoming administration eventually wanted to secure limits on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities.Screen capture from video of nuclear weapons expert Corey Hinderstein. (YouTube)

“I think that Iran in taking this step is both signaling that they are in a position to quickly ramp up their nuclear activities, and I think they believe they’re creating space to limit the negotiation once the new administration comes in,” said Hinderstein, now a vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a very clear understanding of what is driving decision-making for the remainder of the Trump administration. If they so choose, they could see this as a significant escalation.”

Previous standoffs

Despite hawkish threats and the imposition of sweeping sanctions on Iran, Trump had boasted in his unsuccessful campaign of starting no new wars and, in a break with top aides, called off a planned attack on Iran in 2019.

Israel has fewer qualms about the use of force on Iran, which it sees as its main enemy, and was widely suspected in a brazen November attack on Tehran’s outskirts that killed top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Israeli media have reported that one of its submarines has headed to the Gulf and Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently warned of the possibility of unspecified “events.”

But even Trump’s allies see Iran as looking ahead to Biden.

Jack Keane, a retired general whose Fox News appearances are frequently watched by Trump, said in a segment Monday that the recent deployments showed “the huge capability that the US military has.”

“But I don’t believe the Iranians are going to do anything,” he said.

“They don’t want to do anything to interfere with the potential to have a negotiation with president Biden, who they are hoping will remove the sanctions.”

Gantz: World must unite to prevent Iran from getting nuclear arms

January 5, 2021

Defense chief says Tehran ‘continuing to ignite the region with instability,’ as it ramps up uranium enrichment in breach of nuclear deal


Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Atlit naval base in northern Israel on January 5, 2021. (Screen capture)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Atlit naval base in northern Israel on January 5, 2021. (Screen capture)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday urged greater international efforts to counter Iran, after the Islamic Republic ramped up uranium enrichment to levels that breach curbs on its nuclear program.

“We know that Iran is continuing to ignite the region with instability and chose to raise enrichment to 20 percent. Iran is a global and regional challenge and we too have our eyes open,” Gantz said in a video statement.

He added: “Everyone needs to join together in the fight against Iran, its regional terror activities and the threat of its nuclear armament.”

Gantz spoke as he toured the training base of the navy’s elite Shayetet 13 commando unit in northern Israel.

“Today I’m visiting the navy and its elite units… which operate in every space, close or far, above the water or below it,” he said, praising the “great work” of the soldiers.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Gantz issued a similar appeal on Monday, vowing that Israel would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“The entire world must step up its pressure, and we must ensure that the defense establishment has the resources needed so that we can be prepared to deal with Iran as necessary on all fronts. We are working with many partners on all fronts and we must continue this trend,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likewise said Israel wouldn’t allow Iran to develop nuclear arms and said its decision to increase uranium enrichment to 20 percent proves Tehran is seeking an atomic bomb.

Earlier Tuesday, Iran confirmed it was enriching uranium to 20% at the underground Fordo facility, well beyond the threshold set by its 2015 nuclear deal with major powers.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified the move.A satellite image from September 15, 2017, of the Fordo nuclear facility in Iran. (Google Earth)

It was the most striking violation yet of Iranian commitments under the landmark deal, a process it started in 2019 in response to US President Donald Trump’s dramatic withdrawal from the accord the previous year.

Announcing the move on Monday, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said President Hassan Rouhani had ordered the enrichment “in recent days” in line with a law passed last month by the conservative-dominated parliament.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “we resumed 20% enrichment as legislated by our parliament,” adding that the IAEA had been “duly notified.”

He stressed that Tehran took the step “after years of non-compliance” by other parties and that “our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL.”

The step comes less than three weeks before the end of the presidency of Trump, who has sought to economically punish and diplomatically isolate Iran with a “maximum pressure” campaign, including tough sanctions.

In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark “National Nuclear Day,” in Tehran, Iran.(Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

The outgoing US administration deplored Iran’s plan to step up uranium enrichment, while the European Union said it marked a “considerable departure” from the deal.

Uranium enriched to 20% is far below the 90% needed to construct nuclear bombs, but the jump from 20% to 90% is rather quick compared to the work needed to move from 4% to 20%.

Since the assassination in late November of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran has blamed on Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and parliament passed a controversial law calling for the production and storage of “at least 120 kilograms per year of 20% enriched uranium” and to “put an end” to the IAEA inspections intended to check that the country is not developing an atomic bomb.

The Iranian government opposed the initiative, which was also condemned by the other signatories to the accord who called on Tehran not to “compromise the future.”

Quoted by the government’s website, Iranian government spokesman Rabiei said that the administration’s stance toward the law is clear, “but the government considers itself bound to carry out the law.”

Agencies contributed to this report.