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.

Robert Halfon: There is no moral equivalance between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel

19 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

A cursory glance at mainstream social media platforms in recent days shows the prevalence of an alarming tendency by online campaigners to whitewash the actions of Hamas – an internationally proscribed terror group.

No amount of glossy, emotive viral memes about ‘freedom fighters’ should mislead the general public from the incontrovertible reality that Hamas is a genocidal extreme Islamist terror group with advanced military capabilities.

Israel finds itself in an unenviable position – locked in a sad cycle of inevitable, periodic violence with a  terror group embedded within a civilian population which actively seeks civilian deaths to harm Israel’s international standing. Burdened with these challenging circumstances, Israel has a right to self-defence, as reasserted by its Western allies, including the UK.

After all, Hamas rockets target Israelis of all ethnicities. Last weekend, one landed  in the Arab Israeli town of Tayibe, while another exploded in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. And yet, anytime violence escalates in the region the Jewish state is faced with a level of contempt unseen anywhere else in the world.

Just as no moral equivalence can be drawn between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel, nor must any equivalence be drawn between events in Israel and Gaza and the UK’s Jewish community.

As a British Jewish MP, it was very painful to have to secure an Urgent Question this week about a series of deplorable anti-semitic incidents last weekend which culminated in that vile car convoy which paraded through Jewish areas of London threatening sexual violence, and reportedly even telling Jewish residents to “Go back to Poland”.

The involvement of Iran – the world’s most prolific state sponsor or terrier – in the tragic scenes unfolding in Israel and Gaza cannot be overstated. Simply, they have provided the critical financial and material support necessary for Hamas to fight round after round of these bloody and devastating conflicts.

One need look no further than Hamas’s own leaders to substantiate the close links between Hamas and its Iranian paymasters. Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, boasted in 2019 that “If it wasn’t for Iran’s support we would not have had these capabilities”.

The former leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force ,Qasem Soleimani ,was a lynchpin of this support. In one particularly colourful incident, a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, vividly recalled being given nine suitcases filled with $22 million in 2006 during a trip to Tehran following a meeting with Soleimani. It is little surprise that ordinary Iranians have increasingly taken the brave decision to speak out against their morally and increasingly financially bankrupt fundamentalist regime.

With negotiations ongoing in Vienna over last-gasp efforts to resuscitate the failed JCPOA nuclear agreement, one might expect Iran would be minded to keep its head – and that of its terror proxies – down.

Under the nose of the international community, the armoury open to Hamas has advanced significantly in the intervening period. Collectively, Gaza-based terror groups are believed to be in possession of 30,000 rockets. What started as crude directionless mortar and homemade rockets – still deadly but with limited explosive potential and limited range – has morphed into advanced rockets with large warheads capable of travelling 100+ miles with a worrying degree of accuracy. None of this would have been possible without the extensive input of Iran.

For years, Hamas’s ever improving inventory (from rockets to armed drones and Russian made guided anti-tank missiles) would arrive in Gaza via a weapons smuggling route that led directly from Iran through to Yemen and then across the Red Sea to Sudan where they would then begin their journey northwards via Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula with the aid of Bedouin smugglers.

Once at the Gaza border, they would be spirited into Gaza by one of the thousands of smuggling tunnels that used to be so prolific before Egypt’s military launched a major clampdown in recent years. The destabilising consequences of these weapons are, of course, one of the many reasons why Egypt retains its own blockade of Gaza to this day.

To boost its chances of safely receiving its deadly payload, Iran also helps Hamas to operate an additional smuggling route via the water. The IRGC are known to send weapons via the Suez Canal and then into the Mediterranean Sea where Hamas naval ‘frogmen’ will transport the weapons into Gaza off the Egyptian coast under the cover of darkness. Several major interceptions have been made by Israel over the years, uncovering tonnes of weaponry destined for the Strip, but it is clear that a whole lot more is going undetected.

As a result of growing disruption to these smuggling routes as well as punishing U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities, Israel’s security officials believe that Tehran has adapted its strategy. An emphasis is now placed upon domestic production of rockets based upon Iranian missile designs. Hamas commanders are even understood to have visited Iran for fact finding missions alongside their IRGC overseers.

An Al Jazeera documentary about Hamas broadcast last year even showed its terrorists digging up old water pipes from Israeli settlements abandoned in 2005 for repurposing as rockets, and claiming to have sufficient material for another ten years of rocket production.

Hamas has shown itself capable in recent days of firing considerably greater numbers of rockets at any one time than it ever has before, and over a much greater distance. Its barrages have been intense, with 470 rockets fired in the first 24 hours, compared to a peak of 192 rockets fired in a single day in the last conflict in 2014. The tactic of firing 100 plus rockets from multiple directions in a single barrage in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system has proven surprisingly effective.

I have had the grim experience of holding the remains of some of these rockets in a visit to Israel’s southern town of Sderot: a town where the norm is to have as little as 10 seconds to find shelter in the event of a rocket or mortar attack. Little wonder that the town – which has a rocketproof train station and schools – is known as the bomb shelter capital of the world.

Ultimately, unless the international community belatedly wakes up to Iran and its involvement in Gaza then it will sadly doom yet more generations of Palestinians to ongoing conflict.

Israel wants peace. It has made past treaties with Jordan, Egypt and most recently, the United Arab Emirates. It’s worth remembering the Jewish state withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in August 2005. No peace will ever be achieved if the Iranian financed Hamas and Hezbollah continue with their all out war to try and throw Israel into the sea.