Israel-Palestine: Forget the peace talks, follow the rail tracks

While the Israeli government's plans for a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza may bring a slight improvement in living standards, it also has the potential to erase Palestinian opportunities for independent economic development and perm

Anyone wishing to read the omens for John Kerry's latest bid at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking need look no further than last month's Israeli government announcement to proceed with the construction of a rail network linking Israel to the West Bank and Gaza.

Ignore the diplomatic statements issuing from Ramallah and Jerusalem, this rail project visibly demonstrates how Israel sees the future of the West Bank. It is not as an independent sovereign Palestine. 

At 473km long and encompassing 11 lines and some 30 stations this new plan will complete the work of colonising Palestine, integrating its geography and economy into Israel. West Bank cities as far apart as Hebron, Jericho and Tulkarem, along with the illegal settlements of Ariel, Kiryat Arba and Ma'ale Adumim will all be connected to Israel proper, finally erasing the already punctured and porous Green Line. 

Of course, as Rachel Neeman points out in Haaretz the plan could conceivably point the way to the realisation of a binational state, or alternatively could be a decoy to keep Naftali Bennet and the settlers on board whilst Netanyahu pursues a peace strategy.  Unfortunately both interpretations are likely to be much too optimistic.

From 1967 until the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987, Israel pursued a policy of integrating the Palestinian population into its economy.  Under Oslo it abandoned this policy and decided instead on closure and then disengagement, a policy that reached its peak under Sharon and Olmert. Now this rail plan suggests a further reconfiguration of Israel's strategy regarding keeping the West Bank territory and managing its population. 

Netanyahu, despite his famous Bar-Ilan speech of June 2009 when he supposedly embraced the concept of two states for two peoples, has never favoured that outcome.  The West Bank, or Judea and Samaria as he prefers to call it, remains "the land of our forefathers," and any idea that he would willingly cede the ninety percent plus necessary for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is fanciful to all except it seems Saeb Erekat and John Kerry. 

This rail plan then should rather be understood in terms of Netanyahu's "economic peace". Speaking in 2008 he dismissed peace talks as "based only on one thing, only on peace talks," and declared, "It makes no sense at this point to talk about the most contractible issue... That has led to failure and is likely to lead to failure again."  Instead he recommended "weaving an economic peace alongside a political process. That means that we have to strengthen the moderate parts of the Palestinian economy by handing rapid growth in those areas, rapid economic growth that gives a stake for peace for the ordinary Palestinians." 

This rail plan should be understood in these terms. While the tracks will undoubtedly increase the potential for Israeli economic exploitation of the underemployed Palestinian population - unemployment in the West Bank stands at 20.3 per cent - and so may lead to some measure of improved personal living standards, they will also erase the Palestinian potential for independent economic development and permanently embed the occupation both politically and economically.

Indeed, this rail plan reveals that Israel is not concerned with ending the occupation but merely reconfiguring it.  Under it Israel will keep the territory and resources of the West Bank, harness its population for labour, yet leave their management to the Palestinian Authority.  In short, it marks an end to the Oslo concept of land for peace and a return to the first decades of the occupation with the exception that it now embraces Moshe Dayan's injunction: "Don’t rule them, let them lead their own lives."

The Palestinian Authority understands this and so has refused to co-operate with the plan, however, through re-engaging in the negotiation process and thereby adding "the political process" dimension Netanyahu envisioned as a twin prop to his economic peace, it is in fact becoming complict with this final colonisation plan. The man who announced the plan, Irsaeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz recently said, “a Palestinian state is unacceptable, mainly because of our right to this land.” It is time the Palestinian Authority and the international community acknowledged this is Israel's reality and so ceased being accomplices to its realisation.

Jewish settlers waving an Israeli flag. Photo: Getty
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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.