Ever decreasing circles in the Middle East?

By Harry Hagopian
9 Jun 2010

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” said Martin Luther King, Jr - Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.

Is it my political cynicism that is increasing with age, or is politics itself becoming increasingly more cynical these days?

This is the kind of question my late dad and I used to bat back and forth in Jerusalem twenty odd years ago, when he fulfilled the role of a jaded political observer while I was full of the youthful sort of young idealism which fuels an unwavering belief that things should improve in the world - somehow. Now, with more experience under my belt, and perhaps even a tiny bit of tired wisdom to boot, I know better. Perhaps.

Trying to call the politics of the Middle East provides plenty of fuel for the idealist, the cynic and the pragmatist in all of us. At present most media eyes are focused on Gaza, and the question of whether developments there will redraw the political conflict in Israel-Palestine once more. Let me leave that one aside for further reflection and turn elsewhere for this periodic regional survey.

Let us consider Yemen, or Arabia Felix, that often neglected, poor - almost-failed - state allegedly spawning al-Qa’eda-type terrorism and trading in all sorts of illicit drugs through its Red Sea ports and via the Bab al-Mandeb strait. Yemen, let us not forget, is also a battlefield between Arab regimes with differing political hues, Iran with regional designs and ‘the West’.

As I write this, Yemenis living in the war-torn Sa’ada and Amran governorates in the north of the country, are still trying to rebuild their lives that have been disrupted by months of intense fighting. Since the ceasefire of 11 February 2010, many internally-displaced people have indeed returned home after having spent several months with host families, friends or fellow tribesmen. But the last round of fighting exacted a heavy toll in terms of lost lives, injuries, displacement, loss of livelihood, and the destruction of civilian housing, farms and vital public facilities such as health clinics and water wells.

Major web portals such as International Crisis Group or Reuters Alert carry ample information about the consequences of the war between the Zeidi branch of Shi’i Islam and the Shafei legal school of Sunni Islam, let alone about the six refugee camps that are struggling to cope with the awful human overspill in battered districts like Harf Sufyan. Moreover, a recent report by the International Committee of the Red Cross tabulates the essential work it has been doing alongside the Yemen Red Crescent in the fields of food and other essential items, clean water and health care.

In Iraq, following the legislative elections of 7 March, the different political parties are squabbling fiercely over the formation of a new government and the choice of prime minister. The two key players are the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki and his main challenger Ayad Allawi, in addition to the Kurdish parties and the deputies from the myriad smaller communities.

Broadly speaking, Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is supported by a Shi’i majority whilst Ayad Allawi’s Al-Iraqiya coalition also embraces Sunnis and smaller communities. The Kurds were also fragmented into three parts during the elections, but there are now concerted efforts to reach an agreement that extricates the country from its alarming impasse and addresses some of the pending issues - such as the future of Kirkuk, an Oil Law or the overall absence of security in Iraq.

While we in the West are much more riveted these days with the developments in Afghanistan, let alone with the nuclear stand-off with Iran or even the disruption to our lives due to the volcanic ash from Iceland, Iraq is still prey to almost daily violence that is resulting in deaths, casualties, mayhem and uncertainty over its future - and therefore over the whole region.

In Lebanon, a country close to my heart due to its distinctive Mediterranean intimacy, the two main issues bedevilling its realities today are the hotly-contested municipal elections country-wide on the one hand, and the political rudder of the country on the other. A lot of attention, for instance, focused a few weeks ago on the Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s visit to Washington for a meeting with President Obama that was - tellingly - preceded by brief stopovers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Turkey.

If I scan the internal structures of Lebanon, two things become clear. On the one hand, sectarianism is still an impermeable component of Lebanese political thought. Any election - presidential, legislative or municipal - is almost invariably viewed through the prism of allegiances whose permutations range from Shi’i or Sunni to Christian or Druze - with their own internal animosities.

Christians are cleaved between the proponents of General Michel Aoun and those of Dr Samir Geagea; the Druze often stretch out between Walid Jumblatt and the less popular Talal Arslan, whereas the Shi’i community is not self-evidently monolithic either - as their choices transcend Hizbullah and Amal toward those independent but disempowered Shi’i citizens. This is a political jigsaw that requires careful handling - as President Michel Suleiman knows quite well.

Those choices about personalities also translate into political choices that take Lebanon in different directions, not only domestically but also in the proxy diplomacy or proxy wars being fought out on its land by its neighbours. The players are multiple, but the two key protagonists remain Syria and Israel. And whilst these two countries are foes, there is much more that unites them over Lebanon than meets the eye, since the country serves as their buffer zone or even of combat operations.

In Israel-Palestine, assuming that this hyphenated political compound could last much longer, an amorphous peace process was re-launched a few weeks ago by Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the genial and shuttle-friendly auspices of US special peace envoy George Mitchell. The start-up of those proximity talks - proximate geographically between Jerusalem and Ramallah - occurred following an almost eighteen-month hiatus during which new governments took office in both the USA and Israel, and predated the latest international shockwaves produced by the attack on the activists' aid flotilla to blockaded Gaza.

Arguably the most remarkable feature of such a long-awaited resumption of talks at the time, was the absence not only of any fanfare but also of almost any credible expectation that these talks might produce concrete and final-status results.

The talks that are finite - and therefore self-defining in their own failure - should in essence address bedrock principles such as the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, the illegality of settlement in all occupied territories and the legally invalid nature of “actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem” [in the words of UNSCR 476 (1980)].

But would they achieve any real breakthrough, or would they just provide the Netanyahu government with tactical cover at a time when it has encountered mild US irritation? In fact, are we even able to talk of a two-state solution anymore, or is time seriously running out for this option in favour of a bi-national one, despite the multiple efforts of churches, organisations and even states, for peace, security and justice?

Today, a “White Intifada” has begun to take hold in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as Palestinian peace activists, accompanied by members of the Israeli Shalom Akhshav (Peace Now) movement and B’Tselem, as well as international supporters, gather on Thursdays and Fridays to demonstrate against what they describe as Israel’s Apartheid Wall as well as land and home confiscations in the villages of Bil’in, Na’alin and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood (of East Jerusalem).

Yet recently, the Israeli Interior Ministry refused to let the linguist Noam Chomsky into Israel and the West Bank from Jordan. Chomsky, who aligns himself with the radical left, had been scheduled to lecture at Bir Zeit University, and later [to] visit Bil’in and Hebron, as well as meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and various other Palestinians.

As Palestinians commemorated Nakba (Catastrophe) Day on 15 May - when many native Palestinians were 'depopulated' (removed from their homes and lands) upon the creation of the State of Israel - can the institution-building Salam Fayyad, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Ben Gurion, according to Israeli president Shimon Peres, succeed in his high-risk gamble to induce labour that would deliver the birth of a Palestinian state in August 2011 as he proclaimed on 25 August 2009 in Palestine: Ending Occupation and Establishing the State? If so, would the new formula be any different from the Camp David proposals whereby Palestinians will be given 58 per cent of the West Bank? And will Israel accept what Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, described as the "sugar-coated poison pill" of the Israeli status quo?

Regarding Jordan, a plan has been circulating in some Israeli political circles that revives the idea of the kingdom becoming an alternative homeland for the Palestinians and for settling refugees - something that would threaten the Hashemite dynasty. No wonder there is so much political concern within the country itself - with statements issued by the likes of the National Committee for Retired Servicemen or the Jordanian Economic and Social Organisation for Retired Servicemen - calling upon the government to take dissuasive action against such sinister plans. Former prime ministers like Ahmad Obeidat and Faisal Fayez have also entered the fray to safeguard the sovereignty and independence of Jordan as a state that remains distinct from an emerging Palestinian entity and to debar it from becoming an Israeli-bred resettlement camp for refugees.

I seriously doubt this plan could ever become viable irrespective of Israeli iniquitous designs. If nothing else, Palestinians themselves oppose such a deal since it would dispossess them of Jerusalem and the West Bank and obviate a cause they have been struggling for well over forty years. But in order not to fall into a nasty trap, I would suggest the best antidote to such designs would be a further consolidation of Jordanian-Palestinian ties - not their dilution, separation or dismemberment.

Across the region, ill winds bring ever-decreasing circles of hope. Yet, the bleeding irony is that most indigenous peoples want a decent peace along with their daily bread - aspire and pray for it - but the political power plays or vested interests of the few in the region and across the world are heaping despair upon the hopes of the many. So, tell me Dad, could Middle Eastern diplomacy shift sufficiently so that a more ethical corrective of politics becomes its future driving policy?

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a black hole that swallows up goodwill ambassadors through the ages.” - Yossi Sarid, Ha’aretz, 25 April 2010.

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© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/) and has also written extensively on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23. His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/) and his regular contributions to Ekklesia - including five recent Easter podcasts on Christians in the Middle East - are aggregated here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian

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