Ben Roback: Peace in the Middle East. Biden is caught between his party’s historic position and its new left.

19 May

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is discovering what most US presidents find out at some point in their tenure: Middle East politics is hard. It is deep-rooted in decades of war, entrenched in centuries of difficult coexistence.

After years of getting better, it is getting worse again. Palestinian children born during the second intifada, which took place between 2000-2005, are now old enough to avenge for the death of a parent. Gilad Shalit, the former Hamas hostage, and his unit may be years past their military conscription, but as Israel calls up 9,000 reservists, they may need to dust off their uniform and hope one of their number is not kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists for five years again.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there simply is no simple solution.

So often in politics, the option set is binary. Remain or Leave. Trump or Biden. Free speech or cancel culture. The Middle East fails to fit the mould.  But it suits a world in which the happy median and polite disagreement are fading into extinction.

Both sides are capable of being right. In this case, one will tell you that Israel senselessly bombed a building that housed press outlets, including the Associated Press. The other will tell you if Israel laid down its weapons, the country would cease to exist: Hamas’ charter commits to the destruction of the State of Israel, for the avoidance of all doubt. Neither is wrong. ‘What about-ism’ too often plagues conversations about life in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Biden, Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, and Hady Amr, the State Department’s envoy, have their work cut out. Before them, Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to Donald Trump, made Middle East peace his top priority. But the events of the last fortnight prove that he made minimal progress.

The White House reportedly blocked three recent United Nations attempts at the Security Council to call for a ceasefire in order to protect its relationship with Israel for as long as possible – a critical ally and let us remember, the only democracy in the Middle East.

As the death toll grew, the White House could resist no longer. Biden has now “expressed support for a ceasefire” – short of calling for one outright – between Israel and Hamas in a call with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden and Netanyahu are awkward allies, at best. Netanyahu pitted himself firmly against the Obama-Biden administration in virulently opposing (unsuccessfully) the Iran nuclear deal that was eventually signed in 2015. They are unnatural bedfellows. But the US-Israel relationship dictates that they must see eye to eye.

As the situation in the Middle East worsens, Democrats are split between the establishment and progressives

Congress is beginning to flex its muscles. Let us start with the GOP.

Republicans are unfailingly behind Israel, another legacy of Donald Trump. The 45th President was almost embarrassingly pro-Israel in office, typified by his deeply personal relationship with Netanyahu, and the decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The legacy effect was that pro-Israel politics went from being a truly bipartisan issue on Capitol Hill to, essentially, a GOP foreign policy talking point. The running joke for decades on the Hill was that the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby could get a napkin circulated with 70 Senators’ signatures on it. After Trump, Democrats are proving harder to come by.

Biden has the current support of his party. It will not last long.

The Democratic establishment and leadership back Israel: the House of Representatives’ Speaker. Nancy Pelosi, did exactly that late last week during in a news conference. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, has an historically fierce pro-Israel voting record. (Pro-Israel politics has an outsized importance in his New York Senate seat.)

Left-wing Democrat Congress representatives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so often described as the ‘future of the party’, deviate from the leadership. And as a whole, the left of the party is not holding back.

Jon Osoff led a statement with 29 Democratic senators calling for such a ceasefire. Chris Murphy and Todd Young, the top Democrat and Republican on the Middle East subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Panel, led a bipartisan statement also calling for a ceasefire.

The centre of the party is wavering, too. Robert Menendez, the Democrat Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a fierce supporter of Israel on Capitol Hill, issued a statement over the weekend saying he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”

And Gregory Meeks, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Democrats that he would ask the Biden administration to delay a $735 million tranche of weapons to Israel that had been previously approved. (The administration has approved the sale regardless.)

Fading unity is not just prevalent in the Democratic Party. The red, white, green and black in the Palestinian flag are the same colours that run through flags across the Arab world. The plight of the Palestinians is shared amongst its allies. But what has changed in the Middle East’s political nexus since the last major round of tensions between Israel and Gaza is Israel’s diplomatic engagement with the Arab world.

Israel has signed trade and peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – which, to his credit, Trump was happy to facilitate. Israelis now freely travel to Dubai for beach holidays, an unimaginable prospect ten years ago. Israel is now less of a blanket enemy in the region than it once was.

The underlying tragedy of the events of the last fortnight is the human suffering. Neither side is blameless, and once again civilian deaths are the sad outcome of failed diplomacy. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, said during an interview on MSNBC: “talk to the mothers who put their children next to them because if they’re going to die, they want to die together.” What is most upsetting is that her statement applies no less to mothers in Gaza than it does to mothers in Israel.

Infrastructure, innovation and publicity – the key to Israel’s vaccine success

4 Jan

With the recent approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca Oxford vaccines, the race is on for countries around the world to inoculate their populations.

By far the fastest in this regard is Israel, whose health agencies started vaccinating people on December 19 and are now administering around 150,000 jabs a day.

It’s expected that two million of the country’s nine million population will have received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of January, and health workers and the over 60s will be covered first.

The speed at which Israel has administered vaccines has astonished the international community, with calls for other governments to learn from its approach. So how has Israel achieved this milestone? And how easy is it to emulate?

The first thing to say is that some of Israel’s success comes down to geographical advantages, which – for obvious reasons – cannot be copied by everyone. Its relatively small size gives it a headstart in getting a vaccine out against countries with more area and people to reach.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t some important steps that can be replicated. One big factor behind Israel’s success is that simply, like the UK, it was quick to get vaccine orders in, albeit originally signing up for Moderna and AstraZeneca’s, and willing to invest a lot in something that was initially a big gamble.

The government was flexible when it turned out that Pfizer would bring its vaccine to market first. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, helped to negotiate with Pfizer’s chief executive, and the government agreed “to pay a much higher price to ensure early shipments of four million doses”, according to reports

Once the orders were signed off, the government flew the vaccines in from Pfizer’s hub in Belgium back to Israel, where the army then moved it into refrigerated lorries to local centralised hubs, from which vaccines could be given out. As ConservativeHome has written about before, clearly decentralised approaches have worked well in managing the pandemic.

Part of Israel’s ability to administer the vaccine quickly comes down to the set up of its healthcare system, which is divided into four public health maintenance organisations (HMO). Although they are all free, they compete with each other for funding, and are thus constantly having to think about how to better their approach – which seems to have fed into the delivery of the vaccines.

So far the HMOs have set up vaccination centres in stadiums, parking lots, school playgrounds and even through a mobile clinic that drives to locations. The government has also approved a drive-in-clinic.

The healthcare system is also known for its digital capacities. Those who need the vaccine are alerted through text and voice messages, and they also have the opportunity to contact their HMO if they have forgotten their appointment for a new one.

Through this technology, the Israeli government has been able to reward people for getting their Coronavirus vaccine by way of a “green passport” via a phone app once they’ve had it. This will mean they don’t have to be isolated if they’ve been exposed to a person with the virus, or if they return from abroad.

Lastly, Netanyahu has gone to huge efforts to publicise vaccinations, visiting centres almost every day with TV crews. While it’s been said that some of this is to bolster his chances for the upcoming election, it’s clearly had an effect on public confidence and no doubt it will give other governments ideas for how to broadcast that the vaccine is safe.

Of course, some will question parts of this system – the idea of “freedom passports” have caused concern among civil liberty campaigners in the UK, and none of Israel’s vaccine efforts have stopped its hospitals being under immense pressure. Infections have surged as a third wave hits the country, so the world is now watching as to how quickly it works.

But there are still lessons that others can take from Israel’s programme, namely that it has been creative, above all else, in getting the vaccine out. This is perhaps the most important tip of all for UK government, which has the vaccine numbers (albeit with some manufacturing hiccups), but now needs to be as bold as possible in delivery and cutting the red tape.

It should be noted, however, that Israel is exceptional in its vaccine performance, and that the UK is at a very good starting point, with 944,539 vaccinated (France, for comparison, had done 351 on December 31). Even so, learning from others has been a vital part of this pandemic.

Garvan Walshe: This week’s Israel-Morocco deal. A consolation gift for Trump…and a strategic win for China.

17 Dec

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Since the Second World War, the revision of frontiers, overriding the wishes both of the people who lived in the territories adjusted and their officially recognised governments has been frowned upon, for obvious reasons – as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost in 1991 when he invaded Kuwait (and as he also found out to his cost in 2003 – because revision of leaders could still happen, as long as frontiers were not disturbed).

Like all international norms, this non-revision of borders wasn’t universally upheld. Yet even when Russia annexed parts of Georgia or Ukraine, it went through the motions of holding sham elections to legitimate its land grab. The Trump Administration doesn’t feel the need to be bound by such hypocrisy – which Benjamin Netanyahu has tried, but never quite managed, to exploit fully.

His latest qualified victory has come in the form of Israel’s normalisation this week of relations with Morocco. Morocco has great cities, a large diaspora, one of the world’s major Jewish communities; it also controls territory significantly beyond its internationally recognised borders, and protects itself from insurgents by means of an long separation barrier.

Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, has now won this land for himself – in exchange for the diplomatic gesture of recognising Israel, something he probably wanted to do anyway, so as not to be left behind by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The territory in question is Western Sahara. It had been a Spanish colony for almost 90 years until the decaying Franco regime (which owes its origins to a military putsch that began in Spanish Morocco) decided it could no longer hold on, and offered the Saharawis a plebiscite.

As Franco lay dying in hospital, the then King of Morocco, King Hassan II, forced a Spanish regime that was now confronting a succession crisis to hand the territory over. The last thing Francoists wanted was to have the best units of their army occupied fighting a colonial war to defend territory they wanted to leave anyway, when these troops might be needed to quell an uprising in Spain.

The insurgency in question is led by the Polisario movement, originally backed by Algeria, which operates from the inland desert. The separation barrier referred to above has been constructed to prevent them infiltrating guerillas into the territory Morocco controls.

Morocco and Israel have pulled off a notable diplomatic coup in the Trump Administration’s twilight. Israel gets diplomatic recognition from another Arab country, and access to an important destination for foreign investment. Morocco gets recognition of territory, and Israel’s support in seeking to prevent an future American administration from changing its mind. There are legal consequences too: it should be easier to have Saharawi insurgents designated as terrorists, making it harder for them to raise funds.

This mutual recognition comes, however, with wider diplomatic costs. The West is now divided on Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The EU and UK (not to mention the UN) are opposed. So it is not obvious that Morocco, for whom relations with the nearby EU are far more important than with Israel or the United States, has made the best use of its diplomatic capital. That the agreement was made with a lame duck Trump administration won’t help win over a Biden team bent on restoring the international order.

This trade gives off the whiff of a nineteenth century-style carve-up. Other territories denied international recognition will have been made distinctly more nervous. Perhaps the most important of these is Taiwan. Though Trump will have been booted out of office before he can trade away American protection of Taiwan, Taipei is now a little less secure than it was.

Morocco did extremely well out of this Mohammed-Trump-Netanyahu deal. And Israel got something out of it. But the biggest long term winner will be Beijing, whose diplomats are doubtless already working to turn this egregious lame-duckery into a precedent for the next stage in China’s “peaceful rise.”

James Gurd: So often, views of the Middle East are out of date. As this historic deal between Israel and the UEA shows.

19 Aug

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

The Covid-19 news cycle was interrupted briefly last week with a historic development from the Middle East: the announcement of intentions for full diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The agreement includes the key tenets of an unremarkable bilateral relationship – from the opening of embassies to passenger flights – but this was no ordinary announcement.

It represents the most significant development between Israel and its Arab neighbours since Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel in 1994 and, if fulfilled, it will become only the third Arab nation to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. While the agreements with Egypt and Jordan have largely brought a practical but crucial peace, this new relationship will be founded upon friendship and expanding mutual interests.

Unthinkable to many, the momentous announcement has in fact been in the offing for some time.

The rules of the ‘old Middle East’ have been changing for over a decade. The great Arab nations have seen an increasing number of high-profile Israeli delegations travelling through. Discreet at first, these visits have become increasingly regular and overt, with Benjamin Netanyahu officially visiting Oman in 2018, and Saudi news publishing an unprecedented 2017 interview with Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, in which he publicly offered to share intelligence on Iran.

In a sign of the changing times, extraordinary reports emerged a couple of years ago of tensions between two Gulf states (reportedly Bahrain and Oman) over who would first host a visit from Netanyahu.

Rightly, much of the focus behind last week’s announcements has centred upon the strategic alignment between Israel and the UAE (as well as its Gulf neighbours) over the threat posed by Iran. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions have long cast a shadow over the region, and Sunni Arab leaders now recognise that Iran’s nuclear programme and destabilisation of multiple countries via its terrorist proxies represent an existential threat to more than just Jerusalem.

Its reported firing of ballistic missiles (inexplicably omitted from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal) at a critical Saudi Arabian oil facility last year showed beyond doubt how far Tehran is prepared to go. Israel represents a crucial and dependable ally against Iran, especially at a time of shifting U.S. policy interests.

The resource-rich economies of the Middle East will also have their eyes on their economic futures. With finite supplies of fossil fuels, changing consumer habits likely accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and increased environmentalism, the leaders of these countries will be acutely aware of the need to diversify away from natural resource revenues. Israel’s remarkable success as a tech powerhouse offers a valuable blueprint.

The move towards peace can also be understood against the tumult of the ‘Arab Spring’. Throughout, many regional leaders desperately resorted to that old clarion call: ‘Your hardship is a consequence of the evil Zionist entity’.

But if that period taught us anything it was that the Arab people sought basic freedoms and personal securities, thereby conclusively putting to bed the misguided notion that regional stability hinged solely upon resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While this outdated world view continues to shape the thinking of some Western capitals, in reality the Israeli/Palestinian issue has been low on the agenda for Arab leaders and officials meeting with their Israeli counterparts in recent years.

The Israeli media is now awash with speculation over the possibility of further regional states moving towards formal ties with Israel. While Bahrain and Oman are presented as the prime candidates, Sudan is a possibility, and formal ties with Saudi Arabia are no longer unimaginable.

Crucially, a decisive movement away from historic Arab-Israeli enmity offers an opportunity to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While the Palestinian Authority was predictably quick to denounce last week’s announcement as a betrayal, many Arab capitals are understood to be growing weary of the intransigence that has seen off multiple viable peace deals. This perhaps explains their cautious welcoming of Donald Trump’s attempt to rethink the Oslo paradigm – held increasingly as a failed formula by politicians and commentators of all stripes.

While Arab leaders may not agree with every aspect of Trump’s proposal, by seriously engaging with the peace process and by actively encouraging the Palestinians to return to talks, the UAE and other Arab countries may finally help unlock that most elusive peace agreement.

The ramifications of these shifting sands extend far beyond the region. Under consecutive Conservative Governments, the UK has been deepening its own ties with Israel – with record trade, deep security links, and even historic first official visits to the Jewish State by the Duke of Cambridge and Prince of Wales. As Arab states move towards publicly recognising Israel as a valuable regional ally, and given our shared concerns over Iran and Islamist terrorism, the UK should use its historical links to encourage the change and maximise the ample opportunities for new regional trade and security initiatives.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister reflected Saturday that “clearly, 70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere”. It is a conclusion that will lead others to follow the UAE’s historic decision to move to a future of friendship, not one of hostility.