Truce for now: Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmed celebrates with Hamas's PM in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya in Gaza City. 23 April. Photo: Getty
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Israel-Palestine: this is the anti-peace process

If the Israeli government was at all committed to a two-state solution, it would have welcomed the agreement between the PLO and Hamas.

If you were in Israel over the past week or so you could be forgiven for thinking a war had broken out, rather than a reconciliation agreement. The Israeli government was outraged at the announcement on 23 April of the deal between the Palestinian rival organisations Fatah and Hamas. It formally withdrew from peace negotiations and issued an array of sanctions. Yet, despite its professed anger, Israel will benefit, regardless of whether the Palestinian pact fails or thrives.

The accord will open the way for the formation of a unity government in Palestine; elections are now scheduled for later this year. For the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is 79, this is a last chance to salvage his legitimacy. He is long past the end date of his elected term, and the most visible legacy of his flagship policy – the peace process – has been an increase in Israeli settlements.

Hamas, the militant Islamist faction governing the Gaza Strip, is in an even weaker position. The Syrian civil war and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have deprived it of international allies, and inside Gaza weariness with Hamas rule grows. Reconciling with Fatah and joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) brings Hamas back into the diplomatic game.

Israel, meanwhile, is in the unusual position of gaining from the agreement regardless of whether the deal unravels or not. If it succeeds, Israel will have a more representative partner to deal with. If it fails, Israel will reap what it can from Palestinian disunity.

If the Israeli government was at all committed to a two-state solution, it would have welcomed the agreement: for years, it has complained that Abbas has not been a credible partner because he represents “less than half of his people”. Moreover, Hamas’s unconditional accession to the PLO signals a quiet acceptance of the PLO’s old commitments, including recognition of Israel’s 1967 borders.

Despite consistently painting the Islamist movement as the devil incarnate, Israel has co-operated with Hamas in the past: for instance, when making prisoner exchanges, and when reaching a ceasefire at the end of 2012 in which Hamas cracked down hard on rival militant groups in Gaza.

For now, Israel is using the agreement as an excuse to shift the full blame for the failure of peace talks on to the Palestinians. Although it has reacted similarly to reconciliation attempts in the past, this time it is spurred on by tensions inside its own governing coalition. The uneasy alliance between the Israeli hard right and centrists gained stability through the abortive peace talks: they gave right-wingers something to rally against without challenging Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu directly, and they legitimised the centre’s participation in the hard-right government. At the same time, centrists agreed to turn a blind eye to construction of settlements in exchange for the right’s support for reforms to limit the special privileges granted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

The Hamas-Fatah deal has helped the Israeli government maintain its unity: the centre is now absolved from pressure to push for peace talks, and the right will gain greater support for settlement-building.

Israel would rather see a fractured Palestinian Authority that is just functional enough to manage the occupation on its behalf. It will therefore do everything it can to make the pact fail. It’s up to Fatah and Hamas to prove it wrong.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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