Stretching My Gambes

Peace between Israel and Syria? They’re returning Golden Delicious, not the Golan.

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Along with settlements and the right of return, the status of the Golan has proved to be one of the most intractable and long-running points of dispute in the Arab-Israeli conflict, drawing the Oxford historian Avi Shlaim to claim that Israel’s occupation of the region is “. . . one of the most successful of Zionist myths”.

This week, a shipment of Golden Delicious and Star King apples crossed between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan. The transfer represents a rare exchange across an otherwise closely guarded border — exceptions are occasionally made for Syrian brides. While the movement of apples is not a significant event in its own right, it has brought the status of the Golan back to the attention of the Israeli media.

One of the more interesting pieces to emerge was today’s article from Gideon Levy. The editor of Haaretz argues:

Israel does not want peace with Syria. Let’s take off all the masks we’ve been hiding behind and tell the truth for a change. Let’s admit that there’s no formula that suits us, except the ludicrous “peace for peace”. Let’s admit it to ourselves, at least, that we do not want to leave the Golan Heights, no matter what.

I visited al-Quneitra in September 2009. The desolate town, once a regional trading hub, is now largely rubble in the UN-occupied zone between the Golan and Syria. The pockmarked hospital, which the Israel Defence Forces previously used as a training facility, serves as a vantage point for surveying the surrounding region.

From the roof, you can see that the UN Disengagement Observer Force zone occupies the immediate foreground. But looking further afield, the lushness of the Golan becomes apparent — it’s green and extensively farmed. An about-turn, and all you see is the aridity and barrenness of the land left for Syria. Why Israel stopped where it did becomes immediately apparent.

As Levy asks his readers: “. . . you know how much we love the place, its mineral waters, its wines — so who needs all the commotion of demonstrations and evacuating settlements, just for peace?”

Game of strategy

Why take Levy’s word? How about a former Israeli defence minister?

Moshe Dayan said (while in office): “There was really no pressing reason to go to war with Syria . . . The kibbutz residents who pressed the government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland.”

Israel does not want to lose the Golan. That no Israeli prime minister has committed to returning the Golan is indicative of Israel’s stance. The region has fertile volcanic soils, and it is also a perfect spot for tourism.

Moreover, it is of real strategic significance — the Golan is the only area of the Middle East that provides access to Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. It is ideally situated to become a regional centre for trade and infrastructure. It could also be used as a conduit for military exchanges between Iran and various Lebanese and Palestinian groups.

During my visit, Muhammad Ali, Syria’s public relations director for the Golan, said to me: “Peace can only be achieved when what is rightfully yours is returned.” This summarises Syria’s position quite neatly — Syrian policy towards Israel cannot be detached from return of the Golan.

Although the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, outlined a phased return in his interview with Gabrielle Rifkind in the Guardian on 26 February, it was apparent that the full return of the region remains a precondition to negotiations.

But until Israel displays real commitment, Syria’s links to the Golan will only be through apples and brides.

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Written by Henry Smith

18/03/2010 at 00:09

Posted in Uncategorized

ElBaradei the nucleus

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Published on the newstatesman.com (25/02/2010)

The Muslim Brotherhood has historically provided the main opposition to Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. But as April’s parliamentary elections approach, their internal struggles and the return to Cairo of a key reformist figure suggest that the colour of Egypt’s opposition is changing.

The return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased speculation that he will challenge Mubarak in the 2011 presidential elections. Mubarak has yet to announce whether he will run and commentators have suggested he is grooming his son Gamal Mubarak — head of the ruling National Party’s policy committee — to succeed him.

That ElBaradei has not been associated with corruption and comes with a good international reputation makes him a popular contender. Further, as Magdi Abdelhadi, the BBC’s Arab affairs analyst, notes, ElBaradei’s appeal lies in being a civilian. Egypt has been controlled by the military since 1952.

Although he has suggested he would stand if the election could be guaranteed to be fair, or if he could run as an independent, amendments to the Egyptian constitution in 2005 make ElBaradei’s challenge ineligible.

Candidates must be members of political parties that have been in existence for at least five years. Alternatively, they must be independents, endorsed by parliament and the local councils. As both forums are dominated by Mubarak’s ruling party, an endorsement for ElBaradei seems somewhat unlikely.

Yet while it may be difficult for the ex-IAEA chief himself to stand, and even though he has been somewhat noncommittal about his plans, he has offered encouraging signals to Egypt’s reform movement. This week he met with various opposition groups to form the National Front for Change and has opened membership to anyone demanding an alternative to the National Party.

Reports indicate that the meeting, which took place at ElBaradei’s house, was attended by a mix of prominent Egyptian activists, intellectuals and politicians: leaders of the Democratic Front, the liberal Constitutional Party, the Ghad party, a faction of the Wafd party, as well as representatives of the Kefaya movement and the Sixth of April Youth. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are rumoured to have attended the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, their dominance in Egypt’s opposition would appear to be waning as the focus shifts to the new man.

This is certainly not helped by divisions within the Brotherhood. The party leadership elections in late 2009 demonstrated the split between the party’s older conservative elements, who invest their energy in religious and social programmes, and the largely reform-minded younger members. While the conservatives won, the reformists continue to advocate engagement with other democratic, secular opposition movements. The reform faction is preparing candidates for the April elections.

It would be foolish to expect one man to lead the charge against Mubarak and the presumed succession by Gamal. However, ElBaradei has galvanised the opposition and given it fresh momentum in the lead-up to the elections. It will be interesting to see if the presence of this new focal point for the opposition helps it shed its familiar Islamist guise.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:54

Kurds fractured before Iraq elections

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Published on the newstatesman.com (12/02/2010)

Since 2003 the Kurdish region has been a bastion of stability amid the turmoil of Iraq. Foreign companies have put down roots there, the Lebanese pop star Elissa will sing there, and Turkey got over its fear of Kurdish nationalism to trade there — to the tune of $10bn.

However, stability and security are being undone as the dominance of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s PUK and the Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani’s KDP is threatened by the emergence of the Goran (or “change”) party.

The strength of the alliance between the KDP and the PUK had previously given the Kurds the confidence to negotiate oil contracts without Baghdad’s agreement, and to push for increased regional autonomy. However, in July last year, Goran campaigned in the northern regional elections on an anti-corruption ticket against the Kurdish Alliance and won 23.6 per cent of the vote.

Goran will compete against the PUK and the KDP in national elections in March, the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that the Kurdish vote will be split. This development has rocked the Kurdish establishment and damaged the region’s stability — when a Goran meeting was attacked this week, the finger was pointed at Talabani’s PUK.

The vice-president of Goran’s bloc in the Kurdistan parliament, Shaho Saaed, said: “A PUK militia disturbed a meeting of our electoral list before opening fire and wounding three people.”

As recriminations fly and the region’s reputation for security is dented, the worst effects could be on the Kurds’ bargaining power in post-election negotiations. With the status of Kirkuk, regional division of oil revenues and the integration of the various armed forces all crucial matters requiring attention in post-election bargaining, any lack of Kurdish unity will hamper the region’s ability to reassert itself in post-Saddam Iraq.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:49

Iran: the failed protests

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Published on the newstatesman.com (11/02/2010).

The Islamic Republic’s 31st anniversary was unlikely to pass without incident. However, reformist and opposition figures have been left disappointed with their achievements.

Mass celebrations at Azadi Square, in central Tehran, were greeted by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president appeared to make good his promise to deliver a “telling blow” to the west: he declared that Iran was now a nuclear state, with the capacity to enrich uranium to 20 per cent.

One day they said we cannot enrich uranium, but with the resistance of our leader, nation . . . and with the help of God, the Iranian nation has become nuclear.

The reformist “Green Movement” had planned demonstrations to express popular discontent with the lack of democratic accountability and representation in Iran. However their attempts were quashed by a security apparatus clearly prepared for them. The movement had declared that “each Iranian is a media outlet”, but their attempts to use technology to co-ordinate their protests were disrupted by blocks on Gmail and weak internet connections.

Demonstrators were met by the Basiji and Revolutionary Guard, who ensured that large groups of oppositionists could not congregate. The tactics appear to have been effective, leaving a representative of the National Iranian American Council to conclude on its live blog:

One thing I’m struck by is just how much the government has been in control today. Sure, they chartered busses and lured tens of thousands to the official government rally with free food, but they have also managed to keep the opposition activities largely on their terms today.

Despite the government’s tight management of the main scene in Tehran, there have been reports of clashes with notable political figures.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s granddaughter has reportedly been arrested, along with her husband, a brother of Mohammed Khatami.

Mehdi Karroubi’s car was attacked and a number of his followers were arrested, including his youngest son, Ali. Karroubi himself suffered pepper spray and tear gas burns. You can read an interview with one of his sons here.

Reports from later in the day have claimed that Mir Hossein Moussavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was attacked by plain-clothed militia forces. It is said that postings on Moussavi’s website corroborate these claims.

Attacks on high-profile reformist individuals are likely to add weight to calls for accountability and justice, fuelling the demonstrations against the government. Events may have been state-managed well today but the reformists’ message remains the same. Although the government isn’t teetering towards revolution as some commentators may claim, tensions continue to fester and seem unlikely to disappear.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:36

Freedom unfulfilled for Iranians

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Published on the newstatesman.com (11/02/2010)

The anniversary of the Islamic revolution has traditionally been greeted with mass celebrations by Iranians congregating around the Azadi or Freedom Tower in Tehran. However, the government’s celebrations are set to be marred by protesters calling for increased accountability and representation.

While the government attempts to demonstrate its strength to the outside world in light of pressure over its nuclear program, principally through rocket launches and enhancing uranium enrichment – ostensibly for the production of medical isotopes – they face a renewed bout of domestic dissent.

The trajectory of the revolution has been fiercely contested since power was initially seized from the Shah by a heterogeneous mix of Marxist, nationalist, religious and secular movements but the months following the disputed elections in June 2009 have arguably produced the most severe and violent clashes witnessed since 1979.

There have been moments of unrest from marginalised ethnic groups and student movements in Iran, but they lacked the broad support base that the “Green movement” appears to generate. The movement’s followers come from a mix of social and ethnic strata and resultantly is not restricted to rich, Westernised northern Tehranis. Moreover, they are increasingly hard for the regime to handle with their use of digital media. While the mix of individuals is perhaps a new challenge to the Islamic Republic, their message is not.

Iran has arguably fulfilled two thirds of its revolutionary demands: “Independence, Freedom and the Islamic Republic”, however the call for freedom remains unfulfilled and it is this that maintains the demonstrations. Hamid Dabashi makes a similar point:

The history and the political culture of revolt against tyranny actually predate the Islamic revolution of 1977-1979. The young Iranians pouring into the streets of their homeland in recent months to demand their civil liberties are nourished and inspired by the same fountain of liberty that moved their parents in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. …What we are witnessing in the streets of Iran and among Iranians around the globe is the resurgence of a vibrant political culture that gave rise to the 1979 revolution.

The majority of demonstrators will not be calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic but for the accountability and representation they have been denied through electoral irregularities and the government’s brute displays of force. Even those who have chanted “Death to Khamenei” are not calling for a revolution but wish to display their dismay at the violence they have observed.

Yasaman Baji, an Iranian reporter based in Iran, details a conversation she had with one such supporter:

“I don’t agree with this slogan but I shouted it along with the crowd,” he said. “We were angry. How else can empty-handed people respond to the violence that is directed at them?”

The nominal leaders of the Green Movement have called for non-violent demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the revolution but have also emphasised that the struggle is with despotism, not the Islamic Republic. Amidst rumours of conciliatory gestures between leaders of competing factions, Mr. Moussavi said in an interview on his website Kaleme.org: “Dictatorship in the name of religion is the worst kind. The most evident manifestation of a continued tyrannical attitude is the abuse of parliament and the judiciary. We have completely lost hope in the judiciary.”

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:27

Iraq election reprieve fails to hide sectarian tensions

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Published on the newstatesman.com (04/02/2010).

Last month, 511 candidates were barred from participating in the 7 March Iraqi elections, ostensibly due to their links with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. While this applied to a mix of Sunni, Shia and secular candidates, the lack of transparency and accountability ensured that the step was widely regarded as a measure to marginalise the Sunni community.

Despite a history of co-operation and peaceful coexistence, sectarian identities were politicised in Iraq by Saddam’s extensive use of patronage networks. The security vacuum and insecurities that have plagued the country post-occupation have exacerbated these tensions. So has the use of proxies by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The boycott by Sunni parties undermined the legitimacy of the 2005 election and a similar scenario was feared again this year. The decision by the Independent High Electoral Commission to allow the barred candidates to run, although not to hold office until they are cleared of Ba’athist links, should restore some credibility to the process.

The decision appears to have been pushed through in part by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who visited Baghdad late last month. As such, the move has been dismissed by some as an attempt to ensure “smooth sailing” until the US withdrawal.

Meanwhile, there are visible signs that the problems are far more ingrained in Iraqi society.

Since Monday there have been five reported bombings in Baghdad, Karbala and Hilla. Wednesday’s attacks in Karbala came two days after a woman disguised as a Shia pilgrim struck a procession in north Baghdad, killing at least 38 people.

The targets are Shias travelling to Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s death. The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam and has routinely attracted violence since it started again in 2004.

Although the violence is undermining Prime Minister al-Maliki’s election platform of improving security for Iraqis, it is arguably doing more to halt attempts at reconciling existing sectarian tensions. While the perpetrators clearly have an interest in preventing the latter, it is surely in the interests of Iraqis and regional security.

Written by Henry Smith

04/02/2010 at 20:08

China in their hands

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Published in the New Statesman as an accompaniment to a piece by Anthony Giddens (08/02/2010) and the newstatesman.com (04/02/2010)

Shortly after entering office in 2009, Barack Obama tried to show his commitment to tackling climate change by appointing Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese-American scientist, as energy secretary.

Clearly any agreement on a global framework hinged on Sino-US relations. In this regard, the year started well, with Hillary Clinton’s visit to China in February. She sought to incorporate climate change into talks about trade relations. This effort was reinforced by Todd Stern, the leading US climate-change negotiator, who travelled to Beijing in June to push for China’s participation in a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

However, climate change was pushed down the agenda at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July, as each party sought reassurances regarding the other’s economic policies. With momentum gathering for the Copenhagen talks, both countries used September’s G20 summit and UN General Assembly to stress their commitment to combating climate change.

Expectations of a deal were raised further after Obama’s visit to China in November, despite a lack of firm pledges from either side. But in the blame game that followed Copenhagen, Washington and Beijing questioned each other’s dedication to finding an answer to climate change.

Written by Henry Smith

04/02/2010 at 16:37