July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.
Biggest reshuffle in seven years
The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.
A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.
Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.
Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.
On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.
Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.
The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.
Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.
The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.
Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.
Preparing for a new political era
On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.
However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.
The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.
The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.
By Mehari Taddele Maru
Last month, the twelfth US-Africa Business Summit, a high-level event attended by eleven African heads of state and government and some 1 000 business leaders, was held in Maputo, Mozambique. During the three-day event, US officials unveiled a $60bn investment agency that will seek to invest in low and middle-income countries, with a focus on Africa.
The announcement came six months after US president Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, presentedthe Trump administration’s ‘New Africa Strategy’. He asserts: ‘Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.’
Although both China and Russia are mentioned, the US has demonstrated over the past few months that it is mainly concerned about the former. In fact, it already appears that Africa is set to become yet another battleground for the escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington. With increasing foreign military presence and growing diplomatic tensions, the continent is already witnessing the first signs of an emerging new cold war. And just as the previous one devastated Africa, fuelling wars and forcing African governments to make economic choices not in their best interests, this one will also be detrimental to African development and peace.
China’s approach to Africa has always been trade oriented. The continent became one of the top destinations for Chinese investment after Beijing introduced its ‘Go Out’ policy in 1999, which encouraged private and state-owned business to seek economic opportunities abroad. As a result, Chinese trade with Africa has increased forty-fold over the past two decades; in 2017, it stood at $140bn. Between 2003 and 2017, Chinese foreign directed investment (FDI) flows have jumped close to sixty-fold to $4bn a year; FDI stocks stand at $43bn – a significant part of which has gone to infrastructure and energy projects.
China has significantly expanded African railways, investing in various projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Angola and Nigeria; it is currently building a massive hydropower plant in Angola, and has built Africa’s longest railway connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti. It also built the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, and that of the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, in Abuja.
By contrast, the USA has long viewed Africa as a battlefield where it can confront its enemies: the Soviets during the Cold War, ‘terrorists’ after 9/11, and now the Chinese. Washington has never really made a concerted effort to develop its economic relations with the continent. As a result, trade between the USA and Africa has decreased from $120bn in 2012 to just over $50bn today. US FDI flows have also slumped from $9.4bn in 2009 to around $330m in 2017. The new $60bn investment fund announced last month is a welcome initiative, but it will not be able to challenge Chinese economic presence on the continent. Just last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60bn dedicated solely to investment in Africa.
The US has repeatedly accused Chinaof using ‘debt to hold states in Africa captive to [its] wishes and demands’, and has warned African states to avoid Chinese ‘debt diplomacy’ that is supposedly incompatible with the independence of African nations and civil society, and poses ‘a significant threat to US national security interests’. Yet Africa is only the fourth-biggest recipient of Chinese FDI after Europe (mainly Germany, UK and Netherlands), the Americas (mainly the USA and Canada) and Asia. The USA has also borrowed heavily from China; its current debt to its rival stands at $1.12 trillion. By contrast, Africa owes China around $83bn.
Africans are fully aware of and concerned about high indebtedness, trade imbalances, the relatively poor quality of Chinese goods and services and Beijing’s application of lower standards of labour and environmental practices. But many do not share the American perspective that their economic relationship with China is detrimental to them, and rather see it as an opportunity that provides much-needed unconditional funding and that takes local priorities into account. As Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh argued, ‘The reality is that no one but the Chinese offers a long-term partnership.’
The pressure the USA is currently exerting on African countries to move away from partnerships with China could hurt African economies. It could force African countries into making choices that are not in their best economic interests, and could cause them to miss out on important development projects or funding. Meanwhile, the USA-China trade war is already affecting the continent. According to the African Development Bank, it could cause as much as a 2.5 per cent decrease in GDP for resource-intensive African economies, and a 1.9 per cent dip for oil-exporting countries.
The escalating tensions between the USA and China could also threaten the security of the continent since both countries are militarily involved in Africa. Over the past fifteen years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been engaged in a number of security missions across the continent, making modest auxiliary troop contributions to peacekeeping operations in Sudan, South Sudan, Liberia, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has also contributed millions of dollars of peacekeeping equipment to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and provided significant funding to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for its mediation efforts in South Sudan.
In 2017, the first Chinese overseas military base was opened in Djibouti. The facility, which hosts some 400 staff and troops, and has the capacity to accommodate 10 000, is officially supposed to provide support for the ongoing anti-piracy operations of the Chinese navy, but it also plays a role in securing maritime routes, part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. There has been speculation that this is the first of a number of planned bases meant to secure Chinese interests in Africa.
China’s military presence in Africa, however, pales in comparison to that of the USA. Over the past few years, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has run some thirty-six different military operations in thirteen African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia. It has more than 7 000 troops deployed on the continent. It maintains a massive military base in Djibouti – the biggest and only permanent US military base in Africa, but also runs at least thirty-four other military outposts scattered across the west, east and north of the continent where US troops are deployed and military operations (including drone attacks) are launched from. The US also directly supports the armies of Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and others, as well as the G5 Sahel force tasked with counterterrorism.
While a direct confrontation between US and Chinese forces in Africa is unlikely, their growing presence is becoming increasingly destabilising. Already, Washington’s strategy to contain Chinese influence over Africa is playing out at different conflict and social upheaval hotspots across the continent. The fallout of the US-Chinese competition is particularly apparent in the strategic Red Sea region, through which passes one of the most important maritime routes. Countries in the region are not only feeling growing US and Chinese pressure to take one side or the other, but are also increasingly exposed to outside interference by various regional powers.
Djibouti recently found itself at the centre of US-Chinese diplomatic confrontation. Being host to military bases of both superpowers, the small country has had to play a difficult balancing act. In 2018, Djibouti seized control of its Doraleh Container Terminal from the Emirati company DP World, claiming the company’s operation of the facility was threatening Djibouti’s sovereignty. The authorities had feared that the UAE’s investment in the nearby Port of Berbera in the autonomous Somali region of Somaliland could challenge its position as the main maritime hub for Ethiopia’s large economy. The decision to terminate the contract with DP World, however, triggered a sharp reaction from Washington, a close Emirati ally. The Trump administration fears that Djibouti could hand control of the terminal over to China.
Bolton warned: ‘Should this occur, the balance of power in the Horn of Africa – astride major arteries of maritime trade between Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia – would shift in favor of China. And, our U.S. military personnel at Camp Lemonnier could face even further challenges in their efforts to protect the American people.’
Djibouti was forced to publicly declare that it would not allow China to take control of the terminal, but that did not assuage US fears. Ever since, the USA has sought to secure a possible alternative location for its African military base: neighbouring Eritrea. It encouraged regional actors, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to pull Eritrea out of its decades-long isolation. In a matter of months, long-time enemies Ethiopia and Eritrea concluded a peace agreement to end their twenty-year-old cold conflict, while the UN lifted sanctions on Asmara. As a result, Eritrea was able to emerge as a strategic rival to Djibouti, offering its coast for foreign military and economic facilities. The UAE has already set up a military base near the Eritrean port of Assab.
Sudan, to the north, has also been a battleground of the ongoing superpower turf war. China had long been a supporter of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. Under his rule, Beijing came to dominate its oil industry, buying some eighty per cent of Sudanese oil, and thus providing Khartoum with much-needed cash to wage war against various rebel groups. It was also one of the few countries, along with Russia, that broke the UN arms embargo and sold weapons to Bashir’s regime. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, China continued to be a close partner of the Sudanese regime, remaining its main trading partner. Sudan, in fact, became the biggest beneficiary of the $60bn Africa investment package that China had pledged in 2018, having some $10bn in Chinese debt written off. The Chinese government also made plans to develop facilities in Port Sudan, where it already operates an oil terminal. Qatar and Turkey also signed deals with Bashir for various facilities in the port city. When mass protests erupted on the streets of Sudan in December 2018, Beijing stood by Bashir, who it saw as the main guarantor of stability in the country, which lies on strategic routes, inlcudes China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Meanwhile, the USA had repeatedly demonstrated that it did not want Bashir running for another term. His removal was approved in Washington, which has since appeared to back the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Sudan. The two Gulf states hope to install another strongman sympathetic to their regional politics, who would maintain Sudan’s participation in the war in Yemen and curb Turkish and Qatari influence. At this point, it seems China is at risk of being sidelined by the significant sway the UAE and Saudi Arabia have with Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC).
Apart from Djibouti and Sudan, various other countries in the region have also felt the consequences of the US bid to contain China. This political confrontation has added to the already-rising tensions between other players in the region, including Egypt, the Gulf countries, Iran and Turkey. The Trump administration has particularly favoured Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian interests, which have emboldened these three countries in their efforts to shape regional dynamics to their advantage.
Thus, in the long-term, given the pre-existing faultlines and conflicts in the region, the US-China cold war could have a detrimental effect, not only on its economy but also on its security. At this stage, to preserve its interests and its peace, Africa has only one option: to reject pressures for it to swear allegiance to either of the two powers. African countries should uphold their sovereignty in policy and decision making, and pursue the course that is in the best interests of their nations.
If the USA wants to compete with China on the continent, it should do so in good faith. It can gain a competitive advantage by offering African countries better, more credible and principled alternatives to those put forward by China. But that can only happen if the USA develops a strategy that focuses on Africa itself, not on containing and undermining the business of a third party.
• Mehari Taddele Maru is an independent consultant on matters of peace and security in Africa
• This article was first published by AlJazeera
Aisling Byrne interviews Abdel Bari Atwan
Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ (DoC) - whether in its actual or conceptual form - is ushering in a new strategic era, providing cover for an imposed strategic realignment that lays the foundations for the establishment of Greater Israel. The components already been implemented by the USA and Israel, plus those expected to be implemented (annexation and cancelling the right of return with settlement of refugees in neighbouring states), aim to create a new strategic reality that will fundamentally change the question of Palestine and the geostrategic politics of the region.
Strategically, the DoC amounts to the construction of a ‘neo Sykes-Picot’ redrawing of the Middle East according to the shared ‘Likud-Republican’ agenda that, with Greater Israel at its epicentre, could well be as destabilising as its original 1916 then-secret counterpart.
The core components of ‘Palestine’ have already been taken off the table, and what will be left for ‘New Palestine’ will be nothing more than a collection of semi-autonomous mini-states on about twelve per cent of historic Palestine. These will be connected by a land route, but will effectively be statelets with little more than the impotency of a bantustan. Demilitarised with only a lightly-armed police force, these statelets would have to pay Israel for providing military security. Lacking any aspect of sovereignty, this ‘New Palestine’ will be no more than an aid-dependent humanitarian macro-project couched in the framework of ‘better standards of living’ for Palestinians. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his colleagues have been explicit: the DoC addresses Israel’s security needs.
This new strategic architecture aims to strengthen the foundations of the Israel-Saudi Arabia-UAE axis. Largely paid for by the Gulf states (with the US and EU contributing), the UN would likely co-ordinate much of the funding (as it has done during the Oslo decades) – all of which will further cement Israel’s political control and its divide-and-rule objectives. The extent to which the DoC is actively resisted remains to be seen: Jordan, Hizbullah (Lebanon), Iran, Syria (to the extent it can) and Turkey will resist rhetorically; although Russia and China said they will not attend the upcoming Bahrain workshop, their position will likely be similar to their position on Oslo and the regime change interventions in the region since 2003 – strategic patience: waiting for these western-led initiatives to collapse.
Crucially, however, inthe wider context, regional strategic developments are not going Israel’s way, and it is likely that this macro-strategic context will determine the fate of the DoC more than the micro mini-wins. The Gulf states are weak; the northern tier in the region (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbullah) is strengthening and has greater missile capabilities. Across the northern front, air defences are slowly being put in place that reduce Israel’s air superiority and its ability to operate. Strategically, these countries - as well as Russia and China - can afford to wait. So, while we might see a ‘twilight decade’ for Palestinians (perhaps not that different to the twenty-five-year Oslo period) at the micro level, the political landscape is changing rapidly in the region more widely.
The DoC reflects the excessive confidence of Netanyahu and the Israeli right, but it also, to an extent, reflects an acknowledgment of Israel’s greater vulnerability; hence this push to strengthen Israel’s strategic depth. It remains to be seen, however, whether the DoC results in and is reflective of overreach.
If a wider regional conflict erupts, this too would change the strategic circumstances for Palestinians, most likely with them being involved in wider resistance against the key DoC states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE). A wider regional conflict may also change Israel’s circumstances dramatically in Galilee and the northern parts of historic Palestine; Hizbullah has warned that the next war will be fought inside Israel.
I asked leading Arab political commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, about the key strategic and geopolitical aspects and implications of the DoC.
The DoC appears to be more about cementing Israel into the regional polity and security architecture, and less about the micro context with the Palestinians. What are the key regional pillars underpinning this ‘Greater Israel’ project?
It remains unclear even to what extent the DoC will be officially unveiled as a coherent plan or to what extent it has even been formulated with any coherence. Nevertheless, the concept behind the DoC is to turn the Israeli status quo into a permanent fait accompli, and secure regional and international legitimacy and political acceptance of that reality, or at least resigned acquiescence. We have already seen the ground being prepared: with the US recognition of the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; with the financial pressure exerted on the Palestinians to force them – and bribes offered to induce them – to accept the DoC; and with the new Israeli nationality law that rules out any Palestinian state or right to return.
Even if the deal is officially presented, there are no guarantees that any of its clauses will be implemented, even those related to so-called ‘economic peace’. Oslo was not implemented, nor the decisions of the Gaza reconstruction conference, nor even the Paris economic protocol. At best, the implementation of these agreements was partial and selective. Nor will anyone believe any funding pledges made by the Gulf states in support of the DoC. They have a long and consistent record of making promises of aid and investment to various countries or multilateral bodies and then failing to deliver.
The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait – are supposed to fund the economic side of the DoC in exchange for guarantees of American protection and support for their regimes. There are reports that a total of $70 billion is to be pledged at the upcoming Bahrain workshop. This is a paltry price to pay for Palestine; Trump managed to get $450 billion out of Saudi Arabia in a single visit that lasted barely 24 hours. Today, the US is demanding the Gulf states pay more and more for American military protection, and tomorrow Israel will be demanding the same as the price for safeguarding them against Iran and other threats.
The DoC not only targets the Palestinians as a people – it is an updated version of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in conjunction with US policies elsewhere – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya etc. – aims at redrawing the geopolitical map of the region, eliminating anything called Arab nationalism, and establishing the foundations for a Greater Israel. The Palestinians are to be softened up by being starved into submission and denied funding, jut as Iraq was before it was invaded, and the PLO was before Oslo. The same scenario is being played out here.
This ‘deal’ will be the prelude to further chaos. The Gulf regimes it depends on – Saudi Arabia and UAE – rule states that are more fragile than they seem. The idea was to also co-opt Arab countries that host Palestinian refugees – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt – which are due to receive most of the funding to be pledged at the ‘prosperity workshop’ in Bahrain, in lieu of compensationfor Palestinian refugees and the complete renunciation of their right of return. It is noteworthy that all these countries are in severe financial difficulty and have astronomical levels of debt. Syria too – though out of the picture at present – is just emerging from a devastating civil war and has a massive job of reconstruction facing it.
A specific role is earmarked for Jordan: While Israel is to annex much of the West Bank, the perceived solution for the areas of high population density – Hebron, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, etc. – is to annex them to Jordan, either directly or by means of a nominal confederation. Palestinian security forces are to be replaced by Jordanian forces, and we will be given a new version of the Village Leagues in the guise of municipal councils with lightly-armed local police. Israel trusts no-one but the Jordanian army and security forces to do the job of policing the Palestinians, while Israel’s own forces will be responsible for the 600-kilometre border with Jordan.
Having worked with Israel on security co-ordination (crushing resistance) for twenty years, the PA and the Fatah elite now find themselves in financial crisis and bankrupt. Do you see this as part of an intentional process of weakening and getting rid of the PA as a national political body altogether?
If the DoC is applied, the PA will have outlived its usefulness to Israel and the US as a means of sustaining the status quo under the guise of a token national entity engaged in an illusory peace process. But irrespective of the DoC, the PA is approaching the end of its shelf life, and the PLO has become increasingly debilitated and is virtually moribund. I foresee a period of turmoil in the West Bank, which will, in turn, generate new forms of spontaneous and organised resistance, including armed resistance using home-made weapons as in the Gaza Strip, South Lebanon and Yemen. In Gaza, the resistance-based model espoused by Hamas has been more successful; the model has stood fast in the face of a suffocating blockade, every coercive and punitive measure imaginable, and four wars.
Under the DoC, Hamas will effectively govern a mini-state. They will have to disarm; if not, they will face a full Israeli invasion, most likely with full US and Gulf backing. They are already dependent on Egyptian mediation and Israeli security gestures and humanitarian sweeteners (salaries for 36 000 Hamas civil servants, for example, are dependent on Israeli approval, each month, once and if Gulf donors – currently Qatar – agree to provide funds). Hamas and Gaza’s other factions are resisting tactically. We’ve seen the Return Marches, balloons, even Hamas’s improved military capabilities; but to what end? These are little more than a pinprick of resistance against Israel’s strategic hegemony. Hamas recently signed a ceasefire agreement with Israel, cemented by Qatari funds. Given these strategic realities, is Hamas too compromised to resist? Or will the Hamas enclave eventually effectively become an Egyptian ‘province’?
I was myself born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. We were ten children and my father was ill, so we were dependent on UNRWA’s rations and went to its schools. Poverty and need did not diminish our commitment to our national aspirations for return and just peace at the time, and this has been demonstrated time and again by people in the Gaza Strip in the decades since then, including at present.
The West Bank-Gaza Strip separation and division is clear on the ground and appears intractable at present, but it could soon come to an end, even if geographical separation is maintained, especially with the impending collapse of the PA. There are simply no other national options or alternative solutions. That is the main reason for the policy of starving the Palestinian people into submission. But harsh and vicious as this starvation policy has been, it has not succeeded and has backfired in political terms: the besieged and bankrupt Hamas – for all its many faults and shortcomings – remains more popular than the donor- and aid-dependent PA.
Hamas will not abandon its weapons. It has developed an effective missile arsenal that gives it deterrent power, and it has learned from the mistakes of the PLO. The culture of resistance has deep roots, and Hamas has nurtured them. It has also created a generation of weapons-making experts. This know-how will survive. Gaza is different to the West Bank: eighty per cent of its inhabitants are refugees and only twenty per cent are Gazans – though all are equal in their crushing poverty, while the ratios are roughly reversed in the West Bank. But the direct reoccupation of either would generate fierce resistance. In both places the younger generation has shown that it has freed itself of fear of the occupying power.
How do you see the wider strategic context of an ascendant Resistance Axis impacting the DoC; this will presumably constitute the core of the strategic resistance to the DoC?Where do you think forceful resistance to the DoC will come from? Resistance from Iran and Hizbullah will be strong (perhaps this is one reason we are seeing the current US-Israeli offensive posturing towards Iran); Turkey and Jordan are clearly opposed; a much weakened and divided PA and Hamas are already skirmishing over who will lead the Palestinian opposition. Europe will likely be cautious in its response, unwilling to directly confront or contradict the US; it may highlight a few ‘positive aspects’ to the DoC, but coordinated collective opposition by the EU is unlikely (it has, after all, been the major funder of the outsourced occupation implemented during more than years of the Oslo period). Likewise, Russia and China will likely not intervene directly beyond reaffirmation of international law and existing UN resolutions. Ironically, some opposition is coming from a polarised US.
A key feature of this wider strategic context is the growing regional strength and influence of this Resistance Axis – thus far comprising Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Iraq and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The formidable military capability it has developed, especially in terms of missiles, has achieved a measure of strategic deterrence with Israel, and to a lesser extent the US, despite the latter’s hugely more sophisticated military hardware and prowess.
Gulf money destroyed the original Palestinian resistance. It came close to destroying the Hamas movement too. But the Saudi-UAE embrace of Israel will backfire; they are not capable of performing the task set for them. The interventions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Syria, Sudan, Libya and Yemen have united a large segment of the Arab public against them. You can see this everywhere in the Arab world, and this will negatively impact not only their regional and international image, but also their domestic security and stability.
Israel’s military and economic supremacy is being threatened. Its Gulf allies are in decline, both in terms of regional influence and domestic control, while the Resistance Axis is on the ascendance. This Axis has been bolstered by being joined by Iraq, by its deterrent missile capability, and by its military successes in Syria, Yemen and Gaza. All of this is relative, of course. But the resistance’s missile capacity – however ‘asymmetric’ – has overturned previous assumptions about air power being the decisive factor that Israel could rely on. Israel used to have military dominance both in the air and on land, but it has lost both. Its Iron Dome has proved to be a failure in facing Gaza’s rudimentary, but steadily improving, missiles, and the economies and cities of its allies in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become vulnerable to Houthi drones (costing only a few hundred dollars each), and more recently, Houthi cruise missiles.
Israel’s ally and protector, the United States, is no longer the sole superpower. China and Russia are there and India is on its way. All are being subjected to economic warfare by the US, which may well intensify. The Europeans are the main financial donors to the Palestinians. It is they who encouraged the PLO to sign the Oslo accords, renounce armed resistance and agree to the two-state solution, on the grounds that this would bring peace and justice. But now the two-state solution is unattainable and justice and peace have never been more elusive. Europe will be a major loser if the PA and the peace process collapse.
So, the strategic outlook is changing to the advantage of the Palestinians and the Resistance Axis in the near term. It is Israel that is afraid and fretting about the prospect of being bombarded with missiles from north, south and east. The DoC could cause significant disturbances in Jordan, which Israel currently counts on as a reliable neighbour. The DoC effectively posits Jordan as an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, and all Jordanians – regardless of their other divisions – are united in opposing this.
War on Iran would open the gates of hell to Israel and its Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It could be the last all-out war in the region, just as World War II was in Europe. Every last missile left in the arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iraq would be launched against Israel and these states. And if nuclear weapons were used, chemical weapons could be employed in retaliation, with Israel being the main target.
Trump’s team has been clear that this is a ‘take it or leave it deal’; if it is rejected, the US has said, it will ‘walk away’. Palestinian rejection of the deal is guaranteed, as is a tentative ‘Yes in principle, but…’ from Netanyahu. This will likely result in the selective unilateral implementation of aspects of the DoC by the US and Israel – as is currently happening – with little opposition other than rhetorical from Europe, Russia, China and others. In the event of the DoC’s ‘failure’ or its being ‘dead on arrival’, what do you see happening?
Israel cannot impose the DoC unilaterally. Its annexation of Palestinian and Arab land lacks any legal validity and does not strengthen its hand. Take the issue of the US endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. This favours the Palestinians because it closes down any prospect of negotiations between Israel and Syria, whatever the future may hold for that country, and ensures that Syria remains a confrontation state forever.
The death of the DoC would mean the termination of the last major US political venture in the Middle East, the final demise of the two-state solution, the burial of the Arab Peace initiative, and the region’s return to square one: the pre-Oslo and pre-Camp David stage of resistance against occupation. Israel and the US, and not the Arabs or Palestinians, would be held responsible for this, for violating signed agreements that were heavily loaded in favour of Israel, not to mention UN resolutions and international law. The biggest winners from the collapse of the DoC will be the culture and policies of the Resistance Axis, and the biggest losers will be Israel, its Arab allies and US policy in the region.
* Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of Al-Rai Al-Youm, former editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a leading Arab political commentator, and author of numerous books, including Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate(2015) and The Secret History of Al-Qa'ida(2006).
* Aisling Byrne is Director of Projects and Partnerships at Conflicts Forum. She was formerly a Social Policy Adviser with UNRWA in Syria, Jordan and the West Bank, and an organisational development consultant with a number of public bodies in the UK. She has degrees from Balliol College, University of Oxford, an MA from SOAS, University of London, and was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Touted by its architects as the ‘deal of the century’, US president Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and Israel has had to again be kept hidden as Israel heads back to elections after a failure by its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to form a government. The decision for new elections (in September) followed a vote by the newly-inaugurated 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament), hours after Netanyahu announced he could not form a coalition government, plunging Israel into political chaos. The news was hugely disappointing for Trump, who had been waiting for Netanyahu’s government to be appointed before unveiling his plan. Instead, it now sits in limbo as Netanyahu fights for his political survival and Palestinians reject the proposal outright, based on leaks about what it contains. Trump’s administration has resorted to revelations in small doses, evidenced by the announcement that the economic part of the deal will be unveiled at a 25-26 June summit in Bahrain. This strategy postpones the grand announcement while allowing Israeli occupation to continue unabated. Israel, meanwhile, is in political turmoil, with Netanyahu fighting corruption charges, and increasing tensions between right-wing Orthodox Jews and secular right-wing groups.
Failure forming government
The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, secured major gains in the April election. He was elected prime minister after securing sixty-five votes from the 120-member parliament. The bloc is comprised of Likud (thirty-five seats); Kulanu (four seats); the Union of Right-wing Parties (URP) (five seats) that includes the Kahanist Jewish supremacist Jewish Power Party and Yisrael Beitenu; the ultra-orthodox Shas (eight seats) and United Torah Judaism (eight seats). It had hoped to form a coalition government similar to the one in 2015. Netanyahu, however, failed to get his partners to agree on critical issues, and to break a stand-off between the religious ultra-orthodox parties on the one hand and the racist leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Lieberman’s disagreement with the religious parties rested mainly on his insistence on passing the Haredi draft law, a controversial document which seeks to conscript religious Jews into the army (orthodox Jews are currently largely exempt from conscription). The religious parties were unwilling to compromise on the exemption of their members from military service, despite Netanyahu’s efforts. And Lieberman refused to concede, eventually collapsing the coalition effort.
Lieberman has since used Netanyahu’s failure to form a government to garner support for his party, and lambasted the beleaguered prime minister for bowing to pressure from the religious parties. Lieberman hopes to win additional seats in the September elections, and thus wield more influence in coalition talks. If he succeeds, he could weaken Netanyahu by reducing the number of Likud seats. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also working tirelessly to shift the blame to Lieberman for forcing Israel into fresh elections. It seems, therefore, that Netanyahu’s biggest challenge for the September election will be from parties from his own right-wing bloc rather than from ‘centrist’ Blue and White party he battled against in April.
Despite the standoff between Lieberman and the religious parties, Netanyahu also faced several hurdles with other parties in his right-wing coalition. These included managing the demands of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon who insisted on being finance minister. URP leader Belazel Smotrich also demanded key portfolios for his members, specifically the justice and education ministries. The URP remained aggrieved even after the Knesset’s dissolution because Netanyahu appointed a senior Likud leader as justice minister. Smotrich has threatened to again push for that ministry, which is key for new legislation; he hopes to use it to introduce biblical laws in Israel. If this insistence persists, it would pose a major threat to Netanyahu if he wins the September election.
Bad timing for rerun election
The decision to hold new elections in September could not have come at a worse time for Trump’s long-awaited announcement of his ‘deal of the century’, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt. The deal’s unveiling was to be after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Trump and Kushner had hoped that by then a new Israeli government would be in place to receive a deal heavily biased towards Israel. With Israeli politics plunged into uncertainty, Kushner and Trump are concerned about their plan, which has already been rejected by the Palestinians.
On a recent visit to Israel, Kushner sought reassurance from Netanyahu. He had travelled to the region as preparation for the25-26 June Economic Summit in Bahrain, where he is expected to announce plans for economic incentives for the Palestinians. He will ask that the financial proposals, which are regarded as the economic part of Trump’s deal, be funded by the Gulf states that will attend the summit – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Kushner also met leaders in Morocco and Jordan, in an ultimately successful attempt to convince the two kingdoms to attend the summit.
Israel’s political chaos is now posing problems for Kushner, who had been looking forward to revealing the plan he and his father-in-law had been working on since 2017. Nevertheless, both of them will happily allow Israel to quietly continue expanding the occupation of Palestinian territory as contained in the deal. Leaks suggest the deal will allow Israel to build and expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank (including in Jerusalem), will entrench Israeli control of Palestinian air, land and sea borders, will subject certain Palestinians to military rule, and will deny the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the context of the current Israeli political reality, the new Kushner strategy is to release the plan in small doses starting with the economic plan to be announced in Bahrain. It will likely focus heavily on the besieged Gaza strip, and will involve economic incentives and plans for Gaza that will be operationalised by Egypt and Qatar. For the political part of the plan, Kushner’s recent comments that ‘Palestinians have no capacity to govern themselves’ hinted at what the spirit of the ‘deal’ might be. The plan will likely cement and legitimise the status quo of Israeli control of Palestinian lives, Israeli collection of Palestinian tax revenues and continued military rule for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, Netanyahu is on board with these aspects of the plan, but his current woes could mean he will be replaced by a prime minister who will not be as amenable to Trump and Kushner, thus raising questions about the plan’s future.
The April election provided an convincing victory for Netanyahu, who had hoped to form a strong right-wing government and to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His celebration halted abruptly after he failed to form a coalition government and was forced to announce new elections that will place on 17 September, two weeks before Netanyahu argues his case at a pre-trial hearing that seeks to indict him for bribery, corruption and fraud charges. These new political developments have thrown a spanner in the works and postponed the announcement of substantive parts of Trump’s plan for Israel and Palestine. A delay in announcing it, however, allows many aspects of the deal to be quietly implemented by the Israeli government anyway, with annexation of large portions of the West Bank and tying Gaza in economically to Arab governments already under way. This leaves the Palestinians with no real resolution in sight, and with no possibility, in the near future, of a Palestinian state.
With the US Republican Party having lost control of the House of Representatives, expectations are that the White House, under President Donald Trump, will have a difficult time meeting its domestic policy or legislative objectives. American presidents, in such circumstances, often focus their attention on foreign policy, attempting to achieve victories there rather than engaging the hopelessness of victories in domestic policy. In Trump’s case, one foreign policy issue that is closely linked to his retaining support within his electoral base is that of his full backing of Israel. It can be expected, then, that over the next few months Trump will focus on concluding what he calls his ‘deal of the century’, which aims to decisively establish Israel’s control of all Palestinian territory and end the Palestinian struggle.
The promise of an Israeli-Palestinian ‘deal’ featured prominently in Trump’s election campaign two years ago. Even then, it was clear that the deal he sought would guarantee Israel’s needs and would be imposed on Palestinians – whether they liked it or not. After assuming the presidency, Trump lobbied selected Arab leaders while virtually ignoring the Palestinian Authority (PA) or any other Palestinian interlocutor. It is accepted by many that his ‘deal of the century’ has largely been crafted already. Although its contents are yet to be made public, various leaks suggest it recycles Israeli demands that had previously been rejected by the Palestinians, and even by previous US administrations.
Ultimately, Trump’s ‘deal’ will likely enable Israel to continue illegal settlement building on Palestinian land; crush Palestinian ambitions of building a sovereign state with a capital in Jerusalem; subject West Bank Palestinians to continued military rule with a bantustan-type administration that controls none of its borders; ensure that there is no Palestinian-controlled airspace; and there will be no prospect of the realisation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Gaza will become a protectorate of Egypt, which will facilitate the Strip’s economic transformation, freeing Israel from the Gaza problem.
With Palestinians not being consulted, the PA has emphasised that it will have nothing to do with such a deal, and has rejected the USA as a mediator between it and Israel. The proposals, which are much worse for Palestinians than the disastrous Oslo Agreementsof the 1990s were, have seemingly, however, been supported by certain Arab leaders.
Since assuming office in January 2017, Trump has repeatedly mentioned his efforts to conclude his deal. He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his special adviser in January 2017, making him the lead person in the ‘deal of the century’ initiative. Kushner and his father-in-law both relate to the resolution of the Israeli occupation as a business arrangement where Israel is the client that needs to be satisfied and Palestinians (and their land) the real estate that has to be disposed of. Kushner, a businessperson like Trump, is part of a family empire that has been funding illegal settlement building in the West Bank. His family contributed $315 000to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF) between 2011 and 2013, and he served on the FIDF board until he joined the Trump administration. His father is also a close friendof Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Apart from Trump’s nepotistic streak, the other reason he appointed Kushner is because the latter ‘loves Israel’and is intimately connected to Netanyahu. These connections mean that any deal will be heavily influenced by Netanyahu, who will definitely be pleased with the outcomes.
Trump also appointed Jason Greenblatt– a Trump confidante and lawyer – as his special envoyto the Middle East. Kushner and Greenblatt undertook numerous trips to the Middle East, meeting various Arab leaders and Israeli officials, as well as PA president Mahmoud Abbas(in August 2017), but ceased engaging the PA when the PA announced it would boycott US involvementin the process. That announcement followed Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. In their many visits to the region, the pair met, on numerous occasions, with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MbS), Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Jordanian king, Abdullah. MbS has been most involved with Kushner and Greenblatt, and has seemingly promised to give up most of the rights that Palestinians have demanded, and to accept the Trump deal. In April, he toldheads of US-based Jewish groups, ‘Palestinians must accept the conditions that will be set up by this deal or shut up and stop complaining.’ He also attempted to bully the PA into accepting a US role and to accept US conditions. In December 2017, he even summoned Abbas to Riyadhto threaten him into acquiescing to the USA. However, MbS appears to differ on this matter with his father, Salman, who expressed support for the Palestiniansand said Saudi Arabia remained committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a Palestinian state along the 1967 armistice line, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Salman’s statement followed an MbS-Netanyahusecret meeting in Amman, facilitated by the Jordanian king, which signalled a strengthening public relations campaign for the acceptance of Trump’s conditions.
Trump regards Arab leaders’ support for his deal as critical for Israel’s pursuit of legitimacy, and the US goal of countering Iranian influence in the region. Abdullah played a key rolein crafting the deal, trying thereby to safeguard Amman’s interests, particularly its role as the custodian of the holy sitesin Jerusalem. Abdullah is also concerned about the potential implications of the deal’s announcement on Jordan, where a large number of Palestinian refugees reside. Jordan has thus served as a key meeting point for many Kushner-Greenblatt talks, signalling that Amman has been identified as a strategic partner in achieving their desired outcomes. The collaboration of Arab countries such as Egypt,Jordan and Saudi Arabia shows that Israel has made substantial headway in its relations in the region – with the support of the USA. Israel has been growing closer to Arab governments despite the latter’s proclaimed support for Palestinians.
On 15 August, Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel arrived in Tel Avivas his attempts to broker a ceasefire deal with Hamas and to implement economic reform in Gaza were under way. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, has relations with Israel, although it also claims to support the Palestinians. Its involvement seeks to rid Israel of the political nuisance that Gaza has become, especially with the intensifying peaceful Friday return marchesat the Israeli blockade fence.
The PA’s rejection of a US role in negotiations with Israel has not negatively affected the attitude of Arab leaders in Egypt and Jordan. This is despite Abbas’s efforts to forge a united Arab response in rejecting a US role, especially after Trump’s embassy move. With growing Palestinian disillusionment, and the worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza, Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to be warmly welcomed by Palestinians, especially considering that the deal proposes old conditions that have long been rejected by Palestinians, and new conditions that are unacceptable to Palestinians and in violation of international law.
Contents of the ‘deal’
Although no official announcement has yet been made about the contents of Trump’s proposal, a number of leaks and positions articulated by the US president, Kushner and Greenblatt, suggest the general direction of the proposal and even certain specific provisions. It is no secret that the Trump administration takes its cue on Middle East issues from the Israeli government. The ‘deal of the century’ will therefore represent and uphold Israeli interests over and above everything else. For Palestinians, the demands for a state, an end to illegal settlement building, and the return of all Palestinian refugees will be subjugated to Israeli interests.
When Trump met with Netanyahu in February 2017, in Washington, he said he supported what ‘both parties like’. ‘I’m looking at two-state and one-state,’ he said, ‘I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.’ What he understood by a two- or one-state solution remained unclear. What isevident is that Trump is determined that there will not be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. He sealed this matter, in his mind at least, by the US decision to recognise Jerusalemas Israel’s capital. US recognition, the US and Israel believe, legitimises Israeli ambitions to annex all of Jerusalem and to deny any Palestinian claim to it, a plan set in motion after the 1967 war. Clearly, the ‘deal of the century’ is unlikely to refer to a Palestinian state in the way that Palestinians envision it.
Instead, MbS attempted to persuade Abbas to accept Abu Disas the Palestinian capital in order to smooth the way for Trump’s proposal. A rural village that overlooks the old city of Jerusalem, Abu Dis was touted as the home for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1995, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The administration of then-US president Bill Clinton proposed renaming Abu Dis ‘Al-Quds’(the Arabic name for Jerusalem) in order to deceive Palestinians, but it was roundly rejected by Palestinians. With a population of just 12 000, Abu Dis lies in ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, meaning it is fully under Israeli control. Part of the massive illegal settlement of Maale Adumimlies in the Abu Dis district. Palestinians will certainly reject Trump’s proposal for Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital, as they had previously done, knowing that such an acceptance will mean the permanent loss of Jerusalem and access to it, its holy sites and its 300 000 Palestinian residents.
Jerusalem’s status is a major issue of contestation, and if the protests that marked Trump’s Jerusalem decision are any indication, Palestinians will not accept the usurpation of the city by Israel and the USA. It is noteworthy that the Second Intifada was sparked by a large Israeli military entry into the Al-Aqsa mosque; placing the entire old city of Jerusalem under permanent Israeli control could spark another intifada.
Airspace, resources, borders
With Jerusalem promised to Israel by the USA, Trump’s proposal looks to craft a fictitious Palestinian ‘state’ crammed into tiny pieces of West Bank land separated from each other and from Gaza, and having no control over its borders, natural resources or airspace. The Palestinian ‘state’ will also have no sovereignty. The USA and Israel will attempt to convince the world that the bantustan they create is a state, and will attempt to gain entry for that entity to international bodies such as the UN by providing it the trappings of an independent state, much like apartheid South Africa attempted with its bantustans.
The Israeli government currently controls the territorial borders of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Palestinian water sources and Palestinian airspace. Israel also collects Palestinian taxes on behalf of the PA, supplies electricity to Gaza (until last year when the PA refused to pay for Gaza’s electricity), and continues its military control of the West Bank. The Trumpian ‘state’ will maintain this reality. The Trump-Kushner proposal is being drafted based on the assumption that Palestinians will accept its conditions as long as a sufficiently large financial package incentivises it. Palestinians will almost definitely refuse this, and Palestinian airspace, resources and territorial borders will continue to be controlled by Israel.
Trump’s plan for Gaza consists mainly of an economic initiative, with control of the strip largely being handed over to Egypt. Trump seems to believe that easing Gaza’s economic strain will solve the political headache that the strip represents for Israel. He will thus propose a free-trade zone in El-Arish in the Egyptian Sinai desert bordering Gaza. This plan, its drafters hope, will alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which were created by an eleven-year land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt. The plan will propose that five industrial projects be established, which will be funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab states. This plan resembles Israel’s long-time ambition to move responsibility for Gaza to Egypt.
The economic initiative seems to be based on a proposal by Israeli general Yoav Mordechai, which he had submitted to the Trump team in a White House meeting in March. It includes the construction of air and sea ports, and the establishment of a trade zone and power station. Mordechai’s plans are premised on Egyptian cooperation and supervision of the implementation of the projects. Egyptian president el-Sisi discussed the plan with Kushner and Greenblatt, who encouraged Egyptian intelligence officials to present the proposal to Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza. The plan to relegate Gaza to a quasi-Egyptian province is not new, and has been an idea that Israel has pushed since it redeployed its soldiers out of Gaza in August 2005. Israel seeks to cement and formalise Gaza’s separation from the West Bank and, with US encouragement, Egypt is expected to come to the party.
The plan will, undoubtedly, be rejected by Palestinians, especially the political and civil society groups that have been participating in the Friday marches of return at the Gaza-Israel fence. Egypt has thus been working tirelessly to get Hamas on board, as Egypt faces stiff pressure from Trump and the Saudi-supporting Arab states. Hamas has engaged in several talks with Egypt in pursuit of humanitarian relief in Gaza and reconciliation with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The reconciliation project is in tatters because of non-cooperation from Fatah, but the Egyptians are keen to move ahead without the group, especially since most other Palestinian groups have accepted the Egyptian role. If implemented, the plan will alienate Hamas from the PA, which is facing an internal succession battle and declining Palestinian support. This week’s Israeli operation in Gaza, when a Hamas commander and seven other Palestinians were killed, might delay progress of the Egyptian initiative, but it is expected to resume soon with the next stage: negotiations around prisoner exchanges.
Return of refugees
Palestinians have always been very clear about the return of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in 1948 when Israel was created. The issue of refugees has thus been a huge sticking point in previous negotiations, with Israel refusing to recognise the right of return of the refugees, who now number around five million (about 700 000 were originally displaced) on the basis that they would be a ‘demographic threat’ to the ‘Jewish character’ of the Israeli state. The Kushner-Trump deal will certainly protect Israel on this issue. To lay the foundation for this protection, the USA has already cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Kushner said he wanted to expunge the refugee status of the five million Palestinians living in West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and other countries in the world. This plan has already been set in motion as Trump has started pressuring the Jordanian king, Abdullah, to strip Palestinians living there of their refugee status. This is consistent with Trump’s guarantee to secure and protect Israeli security. The attack against UNRWA is thus part of the US attempt at protecting Israeli interests by ensuring that Palestinian refugees lose their refugee status and can never return to their homes.
Trump hopes to end years of deadlock in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even though biased US support for Israel has already been demonstrated. Trump, his son-in-law Kushner and the Israelis want an Israeli state with all of Jerusalem as its capital, while maintaining the status quo of Israel building and expanding illegal settlements in Palestinian territories, controlling Palestinian borders, resources and airspace, while subjecting Palestinians to indefinite military control. Under this arrangement, Palestinians will be given limited control over small parts of the West bank, separated from Gaza and Jerusalem. Gaza will be handed over to Egypt with an economic aid package to solve the deteriorating economic conditions created by the Israeli- and Egyptian-imposed land and sea blockade.
Abbas’s PA has refused to engage with the USA on the crafting of this deal, giving Trump, Kushner and Israelis the opportunity to label Palestinians as being opposed to peace, even though any PA involvement would have been unlikely to significantly influence the shape of the final proposal. The ‘deal’ has thus been negotiated without Palestinian input and will certainly not protect any Palestinian interests. Trump and the Israelis hope for international applause when they announce their ‘deal’, despite knowing that Palestinians will reject it. With the proposal having received the support of certain Arab leaders, Palestinians are being set up to lose their land and rights in exchange for crumbs from the Trump and Israeli table. The deal will simply reproduce old proposals which have been rejected multiple times, now packaged under the Trumpian label.