Part I: A Geo-Political Frame for Iran

Europe, the U.S., Israel/Palestine and the Gulf States

This blog is truly a synthesis of much reading and of two excellent webinars I listened to just before Christmas. One featured Anders Persson, a political scientist from Linnaeus University in Sweden who is an expert on the relationship of the EU to the Middle East. (He just published The EU and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1971-2013: In Pursuit of a Just Peace.). The other, Hussein Ibish, is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Though a more thorough analysis would include Turkey and Russia and even China, I could not reproduce the diagram of the geo-political frame that I want to discuss which connected the following by arrows:

                                                                                                Palestine-

                   EU                                                                             Israel

                                                          Iran

                   U.S.                                                                      Gulf States

I will primarily focus on the EU and weave the others in from that angle. The EU, which excludes Norway, is an economic giant with a GDP as large as that of the U.S., fifty times larger than Israel’s and 1000 times the size of Palestine’s. However, it is a political and military pygmy and a lightweight when it comes to diplomacy. The EU designates itself and is recognized as a “normative power” which relies primarily on “soft power” largely hinged on a reference to human rights and international law, a celebration of diversity and women’s rights, with a focus more on preventing rather than ending conflict. It diffuses those norms by example, through contagion, education, procedural diffusion and direct transfer via conditional clauses in its agreements with various countries.

Though power is the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes, ‘soft power’ is the ability to reach this effect through mutual cooperation rather than forceful coercion primarily because of the attractiveness of a nation’s political and economic model. Its diplomatic infrastructure is employed to peacefully cooperate with rival nations in order to build or maintain national interests and universal values.

Except for this relatively narrow concern, the EU has largely been out of the picture when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further, both polities have diverted more from these norms, the Palestinians much more than the Israelis, but Palestine was never designated as the only real democracy in the Middle East. Neither were Egypt and Jordan and, to the degree their regimes were democratic, that democracy declined in the aftermath of the peace agreements they signed with Israel. Peace does not ensure rights and the progress of democracy. In the case of Israel, there has also been an increasing democratic deficit with the occupation following the Six Day War.

A small part of the explanation is the failure of the EU to use its leverage. But perhaps a more important part is that the EU is no longer as strong an exemplar itself as it used to be. Member countries, led by Viktor Orban of Hungary and President Andrzej Duda of Poland, seem to deviate from those norms with impunity. Domestically, there has also been a rise in the Right domestically in various European states. Finally, there are external inhibitions. The EU does not want to be complicit in the horrors of further state implosions as witnessed in Libya, Syria and Yemen. After all, the EU was a strong supporter of Arab Spring and of the resumption of elections in Palestine which led to the Hamas takeover and the resulting most authoritarian polity in the world. With one exception, Tunisia, the Arab Spring came to nothing, even less than nothing, though some observers claim a recent revival of those ideals in some Middle Eastern states.

The EU does have its historical role defined, beginning in 1973 with its declaration legitimizing Palestinian rights and recognizing Palestinians as a people with a need to have a homeland and to exercise their right of self-determination. In 1999, the EU recognized Palestine as a state in the Berlin Declaration. It has continually poured considerable aid money into Palestine, supporting the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) development, most recently through the 2007 Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PROP). In 2013, the EU passed a directive that excluded Israeli settlements in the West Bank from any European-Israeli agreements. Thus, the EU has been a consistent supporter of the two-state solution and has defined settlements, not as merely inappropriate or even illegitimate as President Obama had done, but as illegal according to international law. This is a position with which all countries, but the U.S. and Israel, have adopted. But it is not a position which has helped move the conflict closer to resolution.

However, the EU banned contact between its member states and Hamas in 2007 when it took over Gaza and in 2013 classified Hamas as a terrorist organization, thus removing any leverage it might have had over Gaza and the efforts to reunite it with the West Bank. On the other hand, the EU has been a mainstay of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, but the EU has been unable to prevent Iran’s moves away from the provisions after the U.S. withdrew from the accords. Last week, EU foreign ministers agreed not to set preconditions on a revival of the Iran nuclear deal in the conviction that Iran will return to compliance when the US under Joe Biden lifts its sanctions and rejoins the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and the EU as signatories to the agreement.

Setting fresh conditions would thus await the US rejoining the agreement. This is the position Biden himself had taken and signalled to the EU with which he intends to restore their previous cooperative practices. This was a sign that under the new American administration in 2021, the EU and American positions would be more congruent in contrast to the wild ride during the unpredictable Trump presidency. The Biden administration is sure to embrace the Abraham Accords and the formal reconciliation of both the UAE and Bahrain with Israel as well as the lady-in-waiting self-defined role of Saudi Arabia. However, though the EU applauded the agreements, it was not solidly behind them as it also sympathized with the Palestinian sense of betrayal and its bitterness at the loss of leverage over Israel.

One paradox is revealing. In spite of the ambivalence of the EU, BDS has almost no presence in Europe. It is most active in America, Israel’s strongest supporter under both Republicans and Democrats, though none went nearly as far as Donald Trump in supporting Israel. Similarly, though the debate over IHRA, the definition of antisemitism, has caught fire in Britain, the definition is widely accepted in the rest of Europe without significant further debate – another paradox confounding the ability of the EU to forge a coherent and effective policy towards the peace process.

The internal incongruence in the EU mindset is the biggest crippler preventing the EU from becoming a more important facilitator for peace in the Middle East. And the resort to lawfare only alienates Israel from permitting the EU to play a bigger role. One has the impression that Israel would welcome Putin more than the EU, especially since Putin has recently offered to play a more active part in mediation. Yet it was the EU that was behind the new definition of antisemitism that the supporters of Palestine so deeply resent, both because of its potential and actual weaponization and because they refuse to face the fact that a new form of antisemitism may be at the core of those who have defined Zionism and Israel as an apartheid racist colonizing regime.

This past year, Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, the daughter of Irwin Cotler, a former Minister of Justice in Canada, was the keynote speaker at the Israel Allies Foundation (IAF) and European Christian Political Movement (ECPM) online conference titled “Peace for Peace: The Implications of the Abraham Accords” which was a continuity and expansion of the annual EU conference on EU policy related to Israel.  The EU formally greeted the Accords as an exciting diplomatic opening to enhance collaboration and peace in the Middle East with the EU offering to play the role of a conciliator and facilitator. But, as MEP Russen, Chair of the EU Parliamentary Israel Allies Caucus, noted, this would entail the EU adopting a more even-handed approach to Israel that was much less critical of the Jewish state.

As MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh stated in her keynote address and in many other fora, “The Abraham Accords signify a potential paradigm shift taking place, as seen in the monumental pivot away from the three no’s of the 1967 Khartoum conference and towards the 3 yeses – yes to recognition, yes to negotiation, and yes to peace.” This is the new mantra, one that endorses the end run around the Palestinians while giving them an opportunity to climb aboard or be left with another hundred years of struggle.

Putting it in a broader geo-political context, Israeli CEO Brigadier General (Res) Amir Aviv noted that, “A new Israeli-Sunni coalition is emerging in the Middle East, amidst the growing existential threats and the projected change in the US Policy in the Middle East. This coalition’s objective is to encourage the superpowers to align with it and oppose the Iranian-Shiite coalition from one side, and the Turkish-Sunni extreme coalition from the other.” 

At the same time, foreign policy issues between America and the EU that pre-dated Trump will continue with the Joe Biden administration:

  • The domestic discord within the U.S. over the Paris Climate Accord that culminated in Trump’s withdrawal
  • The debates over the Iran nuclear deal that culminated in Trump’s withdrawal
  • The fights between the disproportionate contributions of the U.S. to NATO
  • American criticism of EU cooperation with China on technology and infrastructure cooperation.

These were all exacerbated by Trump’s unilateral moves and its oscillating policies.

In the meanwhile, the U.S. and Israel have forged the strongest political, military, economic and diplomatic alliance in the world, one that predated Trump and will persist after him, though without the explosive moves out of the coffin in which the peace-keeping process and the two-state solution had been kept awaiting burial. The problem, as everyone recognizes, is the extreme asymmetry between Israel and Palestine. The former is the strongest military and economic power in the region and the best institutionalized democracy as well, even though there has been slippage in recent years.

On the other hand, Palestine, economically, politically and militarily, is an ant compared to the elephant, Israel. It has also been diplomatically weak. Abbas has been frozen and unable to take the risks required of a statesman. The Palestinians failed to foresee Israel’s diplomatic breakthrough in the Gulf and then, when it happened, its response was not a result of rational calculation but of bitterness, rage and a sense of deep betrayal. However, in spite of all these weaknesses, Palestine remains an albatross around the neck of Israel. The Palestinians dedicated to “steadfastness” are not going anywhere. As the COVID-19 virus demonstrated, very tiny things can cause enormous disruption.

However, the Palestinians, so absorbed with their own sense of loss and disillusion with their leadership, failed to take into consideration the national interests of the Gulf states, particularly in confronting the expansion of Iran militarily and diplomatically. This was of a piece with past major errors, as when the Palestinians sided with Saddam Hussein in the attempted seizure of Kuwait. The diplomatic end run did undermine the entire Palestinian strategy, but, in the end, could possibly strengthen it if Palestinians cease outsourcing the resolution of their problems to other states and international bodies. They have to develop their own strategy and tactics that do not rely on international actors who can only play a role in shaming Israel but none in substantively advancing the Palestinian cause. For that to take place, Palestine will have to make public the concessions it has already made in talks with Israel, such as the compromises on the right of refugee return that I personally witnessed.

How can they? Would the leadership not risk being flayed alive for compromising and betraying the Palestinian cause? Especially if there is no comprehensive agreement! Each day that passes may strengthen their moral position but weaken their economic and security position as Palestine becomes more and more dependent on Israel, its sworn enemy. Admittedly, the concessions the Palestinians have advanced thus far in the recognition of Israel have not been met by Israel that has thus far only recognized Palestinians as negotiating, administrative and, in part, security partners.

Abbas has since backed off the strident opposition to the Abraham Accords and has agreed to peace negotiations resuming without preconditions. This may appear promising, but I am doubtful. Like very many Palestinians, I do not believe he has the leadership qualities to take strong and perhaps highly risky initiatives in the effort to advance the cause of peace. But he is 85 and soon will be replaced. Then, who knows, especially since Netanyahu is also probably near the end of his tether, something we will have after a better idea of after the March Israeli elections. If only Palestinian leaders could, to their own advantage, use their dependence on Israel collecting their tariffs, the main source of revenues for the government, and assisting in the security of the PA to prevent Hamas from taking over in the West Bank.

Hope is a poor substitute for strategy and policy. The pillars above may offer a stronger foundation for a peace agreement.

In the next decade, we will witness the last chance for a born-again two-state solution. As each year passes the prospective size of an independent Palestinian state shrinks. If the Palestinians are to succeed, they must forge allies within Israel. Initially, Biden will be too preoccupied with other matters, including Iran, to be of much help. Ironically, I suspect that a peace agreement will be based on a modification of the Kushner plan without all the concessions for Israeli islets in the midst of Palestinian territory, but with the main Israeli population centres in Area C traded to Israel for land elsewhere.

It is really not that difficult to envision how the pieces will fit together. It is very difficult to forge the means to accomplish resolving the puzzle of two peoples each insisting justifiably on self-determination, but on the same land with a need to divide that land in recognition not only of rights but also of realities. But not only rights and realities. Responsibility and sensibility are required as well. The only other choice is a festering cancer that will be to the detriment of both peoples.

To Follow:

Part II: Israel and America versus Iran

Part III: The Collapse of the Iran Deal

Part IV: Revising the Iran Deal

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