Mitt Romney's Palin-esque ignorance of Middle East politics

Suggests that Palestinians are the aggressors and Israel is a state desiring no more than its own security.

In yesterday’s leaked video Mitt Romney gave two reasons for his view that the Israeli-Palestinian situation should be left unresolved indefinitely. First, the Palestinians reject peace and are committed to the destruction of Israel. Second, the Palestinians will never agree to the Israeli military presence that will be required in their future state to prevent Iranian infiltration via, for example, the Palestine-Jordan or Palestine-Syria borders.

What will hurt Romney in electoral terms is his Palin-esque ignorance of the basics. The West Bank does not share a border with Syria, and the Palestine-Jordan border seems an unlikely site of Iranian infiltration given that Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and has neither an alliance nor warm relations with Tehran. Expect Romney’s opponents to feed this into the wider case that he is “not ready for prime time”.

What should hurt Romney - but is unlikely to given the way discussion of this topic is framed in US politics - is his attempt to portray the Palestinians as the aggressors and Israel as a state desiring no more than its own security. The core of the issue, in reality, is the Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land in flagrant violation of international law, and Israel’s denial, for decades, of the Palestinians’ right to democratic independence in a fully autonomous state.

The illegality of Israel’s settlement of Palestinian land – already widely understood in any event - was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in 2004. In 2002, the Arab League offered Israel full recognition in exchange for its withdrawing from the occupied territories so that the Palestinians could establish their state there. The formula was agreed by the Palestinians, but rejected by Israel. Even Hamas, while formally opposed to such a settlement, has indicated (pdf) that it would accept it if ratified by the Palestinian people, who continue to favour the two-state solution. In any event, no one is stopping Israel from simply relinquishing the stolen land and withdrawing to its legal borders of its own accord.

Romney’s remarks have been portrayed as a departure from the established consensus that the US must work towards a two-state settlement. But it’s unlikely that the Palestinians would perceive much difference between a Romney presidency and the last several administrations. Since the Oslo accords of the early-nineties, Israeli colonisation has grown significantly, while US policy has oscillated between placing no and not very much pressure on Israel to make marginal “concessions” on land. Putting rhetoric aside, the reality of the US position has been that Israel can take most or all of the territory it wants, and the Palestinians can have strictly limited autonomy on the remaining isolated patches. The only exception was a brief moment at the Taba talks in January 2001, when a more viable solution appeared possible, before Israel walked away.

Romney says that "the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world". However, at issue is not the Palestinians failure “to act” but Washington’s failure to “push on the Israelis to give something up” – specifically, the land it is illegally colonising. The so-called “peace process” has been moribund for a decade because neither George Bush nor Barack Obama were willing to challenge Israeli intransigence. In that context, Romney’s advocacy of “kicking the ball down the field” is no more than an endorsement of the current approach. Israel of course will be delighted with this. The Palestinians, less so.

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing.

Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside Jerusalem's Old City. Photograph: Getty Images
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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