Signs of hope for Yemen?

Saudi readjustment suggests potential for a political solution

A Yemeni member of the southern separatist movement, allied to fugitive President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, carries ammunition on his shoulder and gestures at checkpoint in the southern city of Aden, on 21 April 2015. (AFP/Saleh al-Obeidi)

Skepticism is helpful. Cynicism isn’t. Skepticism allows that, in spite of the chorus of negativity surrounding them, recent events in Yemen should be properly seen as generally encouraging, although they also point to the difficulties that lie ahead. Cynicism stands off to the side, rolling its world-weary eyes and shaking its jaded head. But to what purpose?

The announcement by Saudi Arabia and its allies that the initial and major part of the aerial intervention in Yemen is over should be welcomed. The Saudis apparently believe that the goals of the air campaign have been largely met. Saudis say that enough of the Houthi militia’s command-and-control centers, ballistic missile launch vehicles and weapons caches have been destroyed to meet the aims of the first and decisive phase of Operation Decisive Storm.

At midnight on Tuesday, Decisive Storm gave way to a second phase of the operation, Restoring Hope. The Saudis say that the purpose of this second part of the intervention is to “protect civilians” and provide ongoing but less aggressive support for the military and other armed forces acting in the name and interests of the internationally-recognized government.

Skepticism prompts us to question the extent to which the largest goals set for Decisive Storm at its outset—the reversal of the Houthi ‘coup’ in early February and the restoration of the government of exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—have really been met. And, indeed, to ask if they were ever achievable aims, especially given the limitations of what can be accomplished through air power alone.

But only unwarranted cynicism would fail to register that the Saudi announcement of the end of Decisive Storm is a positive development, even if the broadest aims of the campaign remain unfulfilled. The move to scale back the intervention recognizes that a pattern of diminishing returns has set in and that it is wise now to move towards a series of agreements with the Houthis and others in Yemen leading to a managed political transition in the country.

Hopes for peace now focus on the emerging role of Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. He is widely seen as the national figure best placed to lead negotiations, as he is trusted, at least to some extent, by most factions in the country. Many observers believe that the fortunes of Bahah and those of a negotiated agreement to end the conflict are closely linked, if not interdependent. They will be viewing the level of his prominence and engagement at the center of national politics as a barometer for the likelihood of a workable deal to end the fighting.

Cynics, of course, were pointing to the resumption of airstrikes and fighting on Wednesday, immediately after the Saudi announcement that Decisive Storm had ended. Bombing raids were aimed at a meeting of Houthi militia leaders at a military headquarters near the old airport southeast of the city of Taiz—a meeting the Saudis claim was a violation of the agreement the two sides had just concluded. There were also raids in Aden, which was the scene of intense street fighting between Houthis and troops loyal to the government that left over a dozen killed.

As White House spokesman Jen Psaki dryly noted: “Obviously, the job is not done.” But neither is the continued bombing and fighting simply a bad sign. The ending of Decisive Storm strongly suggested that Saudi Arabia is aware of the possibility of being sucked into a quagmire in Yemen, but is determined not to allow that to happen. At the same time, the resumed attacks and continued fighting show that the Saudi side is not going to simply walk away or allow the Houthis or others to carry on as they please and that it reserves the right to act.

Instead, there is reason to be hopeful that what is being pursued is a sensible two-track approach that seeks, on the one hand, to pull back from the fighting and seriously pursue a political agreement with the Houthis and, on the other hand, to continue to be willing to ensure that the basic interests of the coalition and its Yemeni allies are maintained.

Some Saudi media are proclaiming Decisive Storm to have been an unqualified masterstroke, producing success after success, both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table. There is no basis for such triumphalism. But there is equally no basis for opposite claims in much Western and some Arab media that the intervention in Yemen was a blunder, a disaster for Saudi Arabia, or even a failure. It may one day become any or all of those, but is none of them yet by any means.

And, to the contrary, the apparent willingness of the Saudi-led coalition to restructure the goals and aims of the mission, to pull back from an intensive engagement that did threaten to become a pointless and damaging stalemate on the ground, and to leverage what had been achieved through the air campaign into progress at the negotiating table suggests a more thoughtful and potentially effective approach than many had been willing to concede was plausible.

Yes, there is “much to be done” in Yemen. Yes, there is still fighting and bombing taking place and that is deeply troubling. Yes, there is a long way to go before the Houthis come to a modus vivendi with the rest of Yemeni society and the common battle against Al Qaeda—which has inadvertently been the main beneficiary of the conflict thus far—can once again, and properly, be the focus of military action in the country.

Yet, in spite of all of that, today one can identify real reasons to hope that better judgment is starting to prevail. One can finally begin to discern flashes of light at the end of Yemen’s dark tunnel. Although a cynic can and will not, even the most experienced and committed skeptic can and should recognize hopeful signs when they occasionally begin to sprout.

Al Qaeda expands its toxic footprint in Yemen

Al Qaeda expands its toxic footprint in Yemen

As the war in Yemen intensifies, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the big beneficiary has been Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). None of the parties are attempting to strengthen the terrorist group. On the contrary, all of the other principal combatants are clearly concerned about the rising power of the extremists. However, with most other groups involved directly in the growing civil conflict, Aqap is expanding its footprint in parts of Yemen.

This is mainly taking place far away from the rest of the fighting, and in areas where Aqap was already present. The terrorist group overran the city of Al Mukalla, relieving the local bank of its cash and the local prison of its most important prisoners, including a senior Aqap leader. It also seized control of Riyan airport and the adjacent military base near Al Mukalla, which just happens to be the fifth largest in the country. In the process, and in other encounters with the fragmenting Yemeni army, Aqap has reportedly grabbed heavy weaponry including tanks, along with Katyusha rocket launchers and small arms. The cherry on top was a significant oil terminal.

All of this happened while Saudi-led air strikes were targeting the Houthi rebel militia in the country’s major cities including the capital Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, as well as the Houthi stronghold, Saada. After four weeks of bombing, the Arab air intervention does not yet appear to have significantly slowed the Houthi advance, let alone turned the table in favour of troops fighting in support of exiled president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. But it has inadvertently eased pressure on Aqap in Yemen and created space for the extremists to consolidate and expand their presence in the country.

More dangerous still, United Nations negotiator Jamal Benomar recently told The New York Times that Aqap is taking advantage of the conflict to also strengthen its political standing in Yemen and build alliances.

“For the first time, Al Qaeda is building a strategic alliance with the tribes,” he reportedly said. “It is a strengthened and dangerous Al Qaeda. This is what worries everybody.”

The conflict with the Houthis is being cast by some in sectarian terms, allowing Aqap to falsely pose as champions of the local Sunni Muslim population. The Houthis, for their part, claim that Aqap dominates the forces confronting them on the ground, further cementing a dangerous sectarian narrative which, though essentially false, can nonetheless become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The strengthened Aqap also appears to be using the conflict in Yemen to its advantage in its burgeoning rivalry with ISIL, a rival terrorist network. ISIL affiliates in Yemen claimed responsibility for the bombing of two Houthi-frequented mosques in Sanaa on March 20 that killed 137 worshippers. But the chaos in Yemen generally appears to be strengthening the hand of Aqap, which may be poised to regain dominance in the terrorist subculture as ISIL finds itself being rolled back territorially in Iraq, facing an increasingly united opposition from regional and international states, and increasingly unpopular in Arab public opinion due to its extreme brutality.

In Al Mukalla, the capital of the Yemeni province Hadramaut, Aqap has established what is generally regarded as the most effective Al Qaeda franchise currently extant in the Middle East, and the only one capable of attempting significant terrorist acts internationally and in the West. Indeed, Aqap claimed responsibility for the January 7 massacre of 11 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

As a consequence of this capability, the group has been a frequent target of American drone strikes. On April 14, the group said that one of its senior ideologues and spokespersons, Ibrahim Al Rubeish, a 35-year-old Saudi national who is a former detainee at the US military prison in Guantanamo was killed in a drone attack near Al Mukalla. At least six other senior Aqap figures have reportedly been killed by American drone attacks over the past year. In 2011, the American cleric and terrorist ideologue Anwar Al Awlaki, one of the most important figures produced by Aqap and the leading proponent of “lone wolf” or small-scale terrorist attacks in the West, was killed in a drone attack.

However, any notion that the terrorist group was effectively contained, let alone degraded, has clearly been dissipated given the advances it has made in the context of the expanding war and lawlessness in Yemen. Obviously this outcome is not acceptable, including to the Arab states currently intervening in the conflict.

Stopping the Houthi advance and creating conditions for the restoration of order and political legitimacy in Yemen, and a negotiated peace agreement in the country, are exceptionally important. But they cannot be pursued in a manner that ends up strengthening Aqap, particularly if that is because the approach is insufficient to resolve the conflict and instead creates a stalemate.

A settlement boycott is the least we can do

Everyone who cares about peace should boycott settlements

Israeli security forces hold a position during clashes with Palestinian youths from the Jalazoun refugee camp in the Beit El settlement, north of Ramallah, following a protest against Israeli settlements in the West Bank on 13 March 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

With Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, the peace process and the viability of the only workable formula for peace—a two-state solution—on life support following the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a platform of opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, the world cannot simply throw up its hands and walk away. The temptation may be overwhelming, but the irresponsibility of “benign neglect” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become painfully evident sooner rather than later. History shows that the issue does not remain quiet for long—it has an impeccable track record of erupting without warning in an extremely dangerous and destabilizing manner.

Among the numerous measures that ought to be employed by the international community to salvage the prospects for an eventual peace—without which the parties in the region are doomed to interminable conflict which will simply get more violent and intractable over time—one of the most obvious and indispensable is a thoroughgoing international economic boycott of Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlements are a direct violation of black letter international law, most notably Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are prohibited because they are a human rights violation against people living under occupation, who have a right not to be forcibly colonized by a foreign military power. This principle was not controversial in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when the Convention was drafted and approved.

Moreover, the settlements are by far the most damaging of all of the destabilizing elements that threaten short-term calm and long-term peace. They, alone, fundamentally alter the strategic landscape and basic reality that define relations between the occupying power, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian people. With every new settlement home, the Jewish Israeli constituency with a vested interest against making the compromises necessary for peace is enlarged and strengthened. From a Palestinian point of view, Israel’s aggressive settlement activity makes a mockery of negotiations by systematically prejudicing the future of key areas that are, or theoretically should be, the subject of peace talks, and would be indispensable parts of a future Palestinian state.

One obvious example of the kind of settlement activity that, even with a few structures, radically changes the political map in the occupied territories was announced on 30 March when Israel said it intends to build 143 new settlement housing units in an area it calls “Har Homa.” Building in this area has been strategically planned in order to create a ring of continuous Jewish Israeli settlements around the periphery of Israel’s definition of the municipal borders of Jerusalem, cutting the city off from the rest of the West Bank. The purpose is clear: to consolidate and perpetuate Israeli control over Jerusalem and undermine the prospects of a meaningful compromise on Jerusalem, which is an essential element of any peace agreement.

American opposition has frequently restrained Israel from completing plans in such sensitive areas, but it has also sometimes failed. And when that happens, there are no consequences. Under the current circumstances, it’s easy to imagine that Netanyahu and his colleagues decided to go ahead with this and other highly damaging settlement projects without being very concerned about the reaction of the Obama administration. A recent report by the European Union found that in addition to this kind of highly-provocative settlement activity, home demolitions, the evictions of Palestinian families, and other repressive Israeli actions have created a highly-volatile atmosphere in Jerusalem. The report says that Jerusalem has now reached a “boiling point of ‘polarization and violence’ not seen since the end of the second Intifada in 2005.”

In addition, a new report by Human Rights Watch, “Ripe for Abuse: Palestinian Child Labor in Israeli Agricultural Settlements in the West Bank,” outlines the exploitation of Palestinian child labor by Israeli settlements. It claims that Palestinian children are subjected to low wages and dangerous working conditions that violate international standards. The practices documented in the report would be illegal in Israel itself, but these child labor laws and other protections are not enforced against Israeli settlements.

A great deal of the agricultural produce grown in Israeli settlements, with or without the exploitation of Palestinian child labor, is slated for exportation, much of it to Europe. European states, though, are slowly but steadily moving towards a prohibition against the importation of Israeli settlement goods. Sixteen of the 28 European Union foreign ministers, including those of Britain and France, have recently signed a letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini asking her to coordinate policies insisting on the clear labeling of settlement goods.

The ministers said the measure was necessary “in relation to the preservation of the two-state solution” since “continued expansion of Israeli illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and other territories occupied by Israel since 1967, threatens the prospect of a just and final peace agreement.” Israel’s continued settlement activity is also reportedly threatening its long-standing efforts to join the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

The United States does not appear to oppose these European moves, but, unfortunately, shows no signs of following suit for now. On the contrary, the current interpretation of the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement in effect provides preferential treatment for Israeli settlement goods. But a settlement boycott—and not just a refusal to buy settlement-produced goods but a prohibition on investing or financially underwriting settlement activity and industries—are really the least that any state or society that sincerely believes in the need for an eventual two-state solution can and should do.

A settlement boycott isn’t going to transform the strategic landscape between Israel and the Palestinians. Even a full-scale boycott of Israel, reminiscent of that which was imposed on apartheid-era South Africa, wouldn’t do that (and it is almost certainly not achievable, particularly in the United States). But it would send a crucial signal to Israel that, because of its commitment to peace, the international community does not accept Israel’s settlements as legitimate. And because the settlements are illegitimate, their products are also illegitimate. As such, the respectable countries of the world decline to buy illegitimate products. It should be a small part of a whole string of actions designed to shore up the two-state solution and making sure Israelis understand there is a real cost to unacceptable policies such as aggressive settlement expansion.

It’s really not asking for much. And if we actually care about peace, it really is the very least we can do. But, under the present circumstances, it may not be achievable in the United States without considerable groundwork. This is why the European states need to be strongly encouraged to continue to develop these policies and blaze the trail for others to follow.

History teaches the perils of half measures in war

History teaches the perils of half measures in war


It’s premature to label, as some observers are, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen a “quagmire”, let alone that country’s “Vietnam”. But there is a danger that the Arab forces trying to restore order to Yemen could find themselves bogged down in a conflict that saps their strength without achieving their basic objectives.

The reasons for the Arab intervention are clear enough and rational. Saudi Arabia and its allies concluded that the Houthi takeover of Yemen was the last straw, both inside that country and in regional terms.

When it comes to the domestic Yemeni political scene, the Houthi advances threatened a wide range of undesirable outcomes. They spurred southern secessionist trends. They strengthened Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. They contributed to the growing humanitarian crisis, which involved economic collapse, drought, refugees and other factors of profound stress for Yemeni society. Above all, they made likely a free-for-all civil war resulting in total chaos on Saudi Arabia’s immediate borders.

Regionally, because the Houthis are seen as at least inspired and supported by Iran, if not its outright proxies, their advance in Yemen represented yet another extension of Iran’s regional sphere of influence. It’s a cliché to say that Iran added Sanaa to Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus as Arab capitals in which it holds historically unprecedented and politically unwarranted influence.

Therefore, it was easy to see why Riyadh and its allies concluded that enough was enough and that decisive intervention was essential. This sentiment was widespread enough to, in short order, create a sizeable coalition of countries actually taking part, as well as rhetorical and practical American support.

Yet, as with the unfolding campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, it’s highly questionable whether the resources currently committed to the campaign to roll back the Houthi advance in Yemen will be sufficient to achieve its declared goals. And it is from this questionable arithmetic that the prospect of a potential quagmire emerges as a danger to be carefully avoided.

In another unmistakable parallel to the conflict with ISIL, the campaign against the Houthis is largely an air campaign involving bombing and other air interventions. It is, however, an undisputed military maxim that little can be accomplished by air power alone. Territory can only be gained and held by ground forces, even though air power may be decisive in determining which forces on the ground prevail.

But in the campaigns against both ISIL and the Houthis, the principal ground force is not at all clear. Indeed, what ends up being supported is an opportunistic hodgepodge of different armed forces, militias, gangs and others who find themselves battling against ISIL and the Houthis, in various areas and for varying reasons.

The American head of the campaign against ISIL, retired Gen John Allen, never tires of pointing out that, particularly in Syria, the coalition will require a clearly defined and effective allied ground force in order to make real headway against the terrorists. The same applies to the struggle against Houthi expansion in Yemen. As long as the campaign is restricted to air power, and does not have a robust ground force dimension, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve long-lasting reversals and to restore order or stability to that country.

Therefore, as long as it’s restricted to an air war, the battle against Houthi domination in Yemen is likely to prove at least a kind of political quagmire involving considerable costs but with very limited gains that are stable and secure. Worse still, the introduction of a coherent and effective ground force, either from neighbouring states or from within Yemen, could still mean a protracted and indecisive conflict with the powerful Houthi militia that drags on interminably. After all, in a 2009 eruption of violence, Houthi forces entered parts of Saudi Arabia and killed over 100 Saudi troops.

Insofar as the intervention in Yemen is partly perceived as an effort to stop the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab world, it must be remembered that while a wide range of Arab forces, both Yemeni and otherwise, are already directly involved, Iranian forces are not. States risk little in having their proxies or clients become bogged down in stalemates, but they risk much if they find themselves in that position.

None of this is an argument against the regional intervention in Yemen. On the contrary, the stakes are so high that the intervention is widely supported both regionally and internationally, including by the United States. It is also readily defensible. Therefore, it’s essential that it is, sooner rather than later, successful.

The spectre of a quagmire like Vietnam immediately suggests what should be avoided: an open-ended conflict with unattainable goals, backed up by insufficient resources. Therefore, the keys to avoiding such a scenario are to define the aims of the conflict narrowly, and in achievable terms, and to commit the necessary resources and determination in order to secure those goals.

Half measures or insufficient steps won’t do. That is precisely how quagmires are produced. History teaches that such interventions must either be decisive and effective, or they are better not undertaken in the first place.

The tragedy in Yarmouk

The Syrian Palestinian refugee camp has become “hell on earth”

A man stands inside a demolished building in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on 6 April 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after ISIS seized large parts of it. (AFP/Youssef Karwashan)

Given their tragic modern history, Palestinians are used to being trapped between Scylla and Charybdis in one form or another. But rarely has the situation been as stark and alarming as has now befallen the 18,000 remaining Palestinians and Syrians in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus.

Much of Yarmouk has been overrun by the fanatical terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The group’s familiar campaign of repression, beheadings and vicious abuse have already been reported in parts of Yarmouk. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces loyal to the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad have been attacking the camp with the regime’s equally familiar deadly assortment of indiscriminate firepower, including the dreaded barrel bombs.

One resident reported that in Yarmouk, “people are trapped because of the clashes and the continuous and indiscriminate bombing. It’s hard to go out at all. But they can expect where the guerilla war will take place, but they can never predict where the barrel bombs will come. There is no water. People are running out of food.”

Christopher Gunness, of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), summed up the dire situation as “beyond inhumane.” He explained that “the camp has descended into levels of inhumanity which are unknown even in Yarmouk, and this was a society in which women died in childbirth for lack of medicine, and children died of malnutrition. Now ISIS have moved into the camp and people are cowering in their battered homes, too terrified to go outside. We in UNRWA have not had access since the fighting started, so there is no U.N. food, no U.N. water, no U.N. medicine. Electricity is in very, very short supply. It is astonishing that the civilized world can stand by while 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, can face potential imminent slaughter and do nothing.”

One child who fled the camp reported seeing “two members of ISIS playing with a severed head as if it was a football” on Yarmouk’s Palestine Street. Residents have reportedly been reduced to surviving on 400 calories a day. Those who have made it out are the lucky ones. Many are trapped and have nowhere to go.

It’s true that the humanitarian crisis in Syria is perhaps the worst since the Second World War, and that there are many millions of other refugees and displaced persons produced by this war. But the fate of the stateless Palestinian refugees has long and properly been considered to be a special international responsibility and concern, given the direct and proactive role of the League of Nations and the United Nations in producing the circumstances that led to their exile and dispossession. This is why it is particularly poignant when Palestinian refugees find themselves caught in tragic circumstances such as the Lebanese Civil War and now the catastrophic conflict in Syria.

Yarmouk is, therefore, a particular international responsibility. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on the crisis on Monday, but there is no indication that the international community intends to actually do anything about this calamity. Indeed, given the shameful “hands-off” approach to Syria that the West, and particularly the United States, has adopted, and the shameless support for the brutal Syrian regime by Russia and China, it’s not immediately clear what they could do about the tragedy in Yarmouk. This is what happens when options are intentionally foreclosed and responsibilities abandoned.

Beyond the humanitarian disaster that it entails, this development is politically catastrophic as well. It signals the arrival of ISIS in southern Syria and the direct environs of Damascus in a dramatic new level of engagement and strength. They are using the same methodology they did to rise in parts of the north and east of Syria two years ago. And there is no reason to think that, with determination and perseverance, they won’t be as effective in parts of the south as they have been in the other areas that have fallen under their control.

The attack on Yarmouk is part of a broader and alarming campaign by ISIS to establish a strong presence in the south of Syria. It is attempting, with considerable success thus far, to expand its footprint in Syria even as it is slowly rolled back in Iraq. It may have just lost control of Tikrit, but it has gained control of Yarmouk.

The Islamic State’s presence in the south gives it access to the slowly developing battle for Damascus and the ongoing fight over the strategically vital mountain region of Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border. There, Hezbollah has been one of the mainstays of regime power, and if ISIS supplants more moderate rebel groups in the south, we might see a protracted battle between the two groups over Qalamoun and other areas near the Lebanese border—possibly spilling over into northern Lebanon as well.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is trying to use the crisis to draw Palestinians into its orbit, offering them arms and “firepower” if they agree to take them in an effort to expel Islamic State fighters. That would obviously be a disastrous mistake, and one which Palestinians are unlikely, in the main, to make.

But that means that the Palestinian refugees in Syria will continue to find themselves trapped between the ruthless and brutal forces of a dictatorship that coldly and often remotely kills people indiscriminately with devices of mass murder like barrel bombs, and a monstrous terrorist organization that enjoys killing people up close and personally through a variety of antediluvian techniques of horror, from decapitation to burning people alive and flinging them from the tops of high buildings.

The situation in Yarmouk was tragic enough already, particularly given the siege imposed on the camp by the regime, but it has just gotten infinitely worse. Unfortunately, there is still the potential for an even further deterioration. “The worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.'”

The international community may be shirking its responsibility, but that doesn’t mean the responsibility goes away. On the contrary, an urgent moral responsibility that is ignored only becomes a greater ethical conundrum, and a deeper indictment.

Anxious Allies: The Iran Nuclear Framework in its Regional Context

John Kerry and Mohammad Zarif

The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program achieved by the American-led P5+1 international coalition in many ways goes further, and is significantly more detailed, than most observers had considered possible. However, even as it opens up additional possibilities regarding diplomacy with Iran and the potential for a long-term solution to the question of its nuclear agenda, it leaves significant questions unanswered and raises new concerns that must be urgently addressed. In particular, questions likely to arise in Congress and elsewhere about the specifics of the framework, and perhaps even more significantly among traditional American allies in the Middle East regarding the overall context of the agreement, will have to be effectively answered.

The diplomats are to be congratulated. They have achieved more than most experts had considered likely, and insofar as they are genuinely making progress towards a peaceful and effective resolution of the Iranian nuclear question, that is certainly to be welcomed. No responsible or rational power has any interest in a dangerous and destabilizing military confrontation between Iran and the United States over nuclear weapons. It is strongly in the interests of regional, and indeed global, stability and security that such issues are resolved at the negotiating table. However, it remains essential to unpack the strengths and weaknesses of the framework and to dispassionately evaluate its political, diplomatic and strategic implications.

The framework achieves a real reduction in the assets and capabilities of Iran’s nuclear program for the first time following a decade of numerous failed efforts. About two thirds of Iran’s centrifuges will be mothballed for at least 15 years. The country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be significantly reduced. Enrichment will be greatly restrained, and carried out far below weapons-grade status, no greater than 3.67 percent. For the next 15 years, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium will be limited to 300 kg. The Arak heavy-water reactor will also be effectively removed from weapons-grade fuel production, and its main reactor dismantled and replaced. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama’s assessment that the framework agreement will “cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon” seems optimistic, or at least premature.

Some of the concerns about the framework involve details that must be clarified in a broader agreement which is scheduled to be reached by June 30. Key aspects of the inspection and verification regime remain either unresolved or undisclosed. It’s not clear whether Iran and the P5+1 share a common understanding of how the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 1997 “Additional Protocol” for International Atomic Energy Agency inspections (which Iran has promised to re-affirm) might apply in this case, or how intrusive they can be. But clearly they fall far short of the “anywhere, anytime” regime of inspections and access to facilities and personnel that applied to Iraq during the 1990s, for example. For skeptics, details of the inspection, monitoring and verification protocol will be among the most important issues to be clarified in the broader agreement, or otherwise before June 30.

Other concerns, however, appear to be hardwired into the framework itself. The broadest of these is that the agreement does not appear to ensure that Iran will never become a nuclear power. Instead, key aspects of its program will be placed on hold for 10, or in some cases 15, years. After that, many of the most important of the restrictions will simply expire. The framework could therefore be viewed as postponing rather than resolving the largest of the big-picture issues. In the meanwhile, Iran will, in fact, continue to enrich uranium with at least 5,000 actively working centrifuges. None of its facilities, or its 19,000 existing centrifuges, will actually be dismantled. Reaching the agreement required significant adjustments in the Obama Administration’s earlier parameters for an acceptable deal. Nonetheless, the Administration probably did achieve most of what it was looking for, at least at this stage. Additional progress is to be encouraged, and the specifics of the framework potentially allow for that.

Perhaps the most significant questions, however, lie beyond the specifics of the framework, and even the nuclear negotiations as such. Rather, they involve growing concerns among traditional American allies in the Middle East about the potential for a broad restructuring of US policy in the region and/or the reordering of the balance of power, particularly in the Gulf. These concerns have arisen from both American words and deeds.

American policies, such as Washington’s unwillingness to maintain a strong or consistent stance regarding the future of the Iranian-allied dictatorship in Syria, have suggested to some observers an unwarranted deference to Iranian interests. Assuming that there is a link between US policy toward Syria and perceived Iranian sensitivities, they could be explained simply by according the nuclear negotiations primacy over all other concerns. However, they could also be understood as reflecting a desire for a far broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran that involves a new acquiescence to Iranian spheres of influence and regional hegemony at best, or at worst a strategic partnership between the two parties without a significant change in Iran’s regional attitudes.

Some Administration rhetoric has not helped. Comments by President Obama and other senior Administration officials, including suggestions that Iran might be a particularly “rational” Middle Eastern actor as opposed to other regional powers, particularly Sunni Arab societies, raised many eyebrows. Rightly or wrongly, concerns have spread that the Obama Administration is actively seeking to shift the American strategic alignment in the region towards Iran and its sectarian allies, or to create a new “balance” between what could crudely or reductively be described as either “Sunni vs. Shiite,” or even “Arab vs. Persian-led,” alliances.

These perceptions are stressors for US relations with traditional American allies in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region. The nuclear framework agreement is likely to strongly exacerbate these anxieties. Not only may several key players in the region feel ever-less inclined to rely on Washington’s assurances, damaging American interests and ability to successfully pursue its policy goals, if they perceive the nuclear agreement as insufficient, they may begin to consider their own need for strategic deterrence. Anxiety and uncertainty are surefire recipes for regional instability, tensions and an invigorated arms race with alarming added dimensions.

The timing of the framework agreement with Iran is particularly sensitive but not coincidental, especially given that a Saudi-led Arab coalition has recently launched a sustained intervention in Yemen against the pro-Iranian Houthi militia that has been making significant gains in its effort to seize power throughout the country. The intervention has involved the creation of a joint Arab military force, clearly prompted by the expansion of Iran’s influence and hegemony through allies, clients and proxies. The battle in Yemen is only the most dramatic and explicit manifestation of a growing direct military confrontation between Iranian-supported and Arab regional forces on numerous fronts throughout the region.

Progress in the negotiations with Iran and the growing confrontation between Tehran and a Saudi-led Arab coalition are strongly linked. Arab (and Israeli, and some extent Turkish, as well) anxieties about Iran’s regional role are exacerbated by the potential that successful nuclear negotiations have for easing economic pressure on Iran, enriching its coffers and strengthening its ability to bankroll its numerous and often effective clients. At least as alarming are fears that a nuclear accommodation could at last secure the reintegration of Iran into the international community as an empowered and respected actor, but crucially without any adjustment in Iran’s regional policies, merely a deal regarding its nuclear program. This prospect suggests a kind of quid pro quo in which many of Iran’s other ambitions would be accommodated as long as its nuclear program is put into a deep freeze over the next 10-15 years. Even if such fears are exaggerated or misplaced, significant effort will be required to dispel them.

President Obama implicitly acknowledged this delicate regional strategic context in his remarks announcing the Iran framework agreement, particularly through his commitment to invite the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to Camp David this spring to “further strengthen our security cooperation.” President Obama pointedly stated that he had already had a telephone conversation about the situation with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and would get around to consulting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sometime later in the day.

There is much the United States can and should do to assuage these concerns. Washington does not lack the means or opportunities to express, and, much more importantly, practically demonstrate, the strength of its commitment to long-standing alliances that are based on deep-seated shared interests and not caprice or tradition. The Camp David meeting is a welcome initiative, but it can and should be buttressed by other diplomatic, defense and intelligence cooperation.

The challenges are regional, and therefore the responses should be based on multilateral Middle Eastern strategic considerations. The GCC-US Strategic Cooperation Forum’s fourth ministerial meeting last September was based on but went beyond the common fight against ISIL terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Building on that meeting, and in the context of the present unease, much more progress on returning to earlier patterns of consistent consultation and coordination should be well within reach. The developing return of closer relations between the United States and Egypt, with the recent restoration of American military assistance, is a further example of the strengthening of ties with traditional Arab allies that is reassuring on a regional basis. The GCC in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are clearly going to be playing a more assertive regional role, and one that is presently characterized by rivalry with Iran.

In this context Egypt and Saudi Arabia have combined to lead the establishment by the Arab League of a joint Arab military force. At a minimum, this move underscores the emerging Saudi-Egyptian axis in the Middle East and reflects a new willingness on the part of Arab states to act militarily in their own interests rather than simply waiting for the United States to take the lead in every crisis. The ongoing Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Egyptian attacks against extremists in Libya, American-led attacks on ISIL in Iraq and Syria with Arab support and participation, and even the 2011 GCC action in Bahrain, all suggest a determination by pro-American Arab states to cooperate and act in their own interests, including to curb the expanding power of Iran and its clients. Both diplomatic and practical American support, within reason and in the American national interest, for this Arab assertiveness might well be the most effective and convincing means of communicating Washington’s determination to preserve and even strengthen its relations with its Arab allies as it simultaneously pursues an agreement with Iran on the nuclear file, and perhaps even a new relationship with Tehran altogether. This is a circle that — with sufficient resources, skill and determination, and with a reciprocal commitment from the Arab states — can indeed be squared.

Clarity on US policy toward Syria, and particularly the future of the Assad dictatorship, would not only strengthen the American position more broadly, it would be a crucial gesture in dispelling the notion that the United States is carefully crafting its policies to accommodate an expanded interpretation of Iran’s legitimate interests in the region. At a November 16 press conference President Obama was asked whether the Administration was considering ways of removing President Assad as part of a plan for political transition in Syria. He replied with a curt, “No.” Dispelling the impression that the US is no longer committed to the removal of the Assad dictatorship is not optional if strong relations with Arab allies are to be fully restored. It is essential. The struggle to “degrade” and ultimately “destroy” ISIL is similarly dependent on policy clarity on Syria that emphasizes American opposition to the continued rule of the Assad dictatorship, despite Iran’s interest in maintaining it.

It is essential that the United States act quickly to forestall any possibility that the nuclear framework adds to the impression that American policies tend to inexplicably comfort enemies and alarm friends. This is especially urgent since a successful negotiated resolution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program is in everybody’s interests, whereas a conflict over it serves no rational or responsible actor. But if such an agreement is to avoid creating new problems or exacerbating old ones, and potentially even doing more harm than good, it is essential that crucial, long-standing strategic alliances are protected and reinforced. Traditional American allies in the Middle East require and deserve persuasive reassurance that progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran will not come at their expense, and that, if a broader agreement with Iran is achieved, they, too, will be beneficiaries.

Jordan’s Divided Brotherhood


WASHINGTON — A dramatic split in the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan could be one of the most important developments in the recent evolution of Islamist movements. And a crucial experiment in developing a new modus vivendi between Arab states and moderate Islamist groups may well be unfolding in the process.

In the early and optimistic days of the Arab Spring, mainstream Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood garnered all the attention. Many assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that Brotherhood parties would be swept into power in country after country once Arabs were able to vote freely.

With their well-established brands, strong grass-roots organizations and lack of taint of association with former dictatorships, Brotherhood parties did indeed quickly come to power in Egypt and Tunisia. But it soon became apparent that the public did not care for their approach to governing. The July 2013 ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, by a military-led coalition responding to huge public protests signaled the beginning of the end for the Brotherhood’s hopes for regional hegemony.

Across the Middle East, Brotherhood parties found themselves facing both popular rejection and official repression. Throughout the Arab world, they collapsed into crisis or became politically marginalized. Perhaps the biggest blow was when the key Arab states — first, Egypt in 2013, and soon after, in 2014, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — designated the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization.” Indeed, Egypt’s campaign against its domestic party, the oldest and largest of them all (often referred to as the “mother party”), has had repercussions so profound that the Brotherhood movement everywhere now seems almost moribund.

Attention shifted instead to extremist groups like the Islamic State that are thriving in the context of civil wars and failing states. One of the most widespread criticisms of the crackdown against the Brotherhood led by Egypt and the two Persian Gulf states is that it pushed Islamists to the extreme. There’s no real basis for believing that the progress of the Islamic State would have been significantly altered if there had been no campaign against the Brotherhood — yet this criticism from both Western and Arab commentators persists regarding Jordan’s recent moves.

For more than a year, factional tensions have been intensifying in Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. The wing of the party rooted in that country’sPalestinian population tends to be more reactionary, and aligned with Hamas and other regional Brotherhood parties, while the traditionally Jordanian wing is politically less strident and emphasizes loyalty to the kingdom.

On Feb. 14, the party’s ruling Shura Council voted to expel a set of reform-minded Jordanians, most of whom had been part of what was called the “Zamzam Initiative,” which sought a break with the regional Brotherhood movement. The move backfired. The reformists founded their own group, which the Jordanian government formally recognized as the Brotherhood on March 3.

The status of the original Brotherhood group is unclear, and there may be a protracted legal and administrative battle over the organization’s considerable property and financial resources. Enraged old-guard members accused the government of staging a “coup.” But given the many months over which the fracture developed within the party, the government’s response looks more opportunistic than scheming.

The rise of the Islamic State may help to account for the Jordanian initiative. Faced with the threat of jihadist extremism, Jordan may be pioneering a policy of rehabilitating Brotherhood parties. This Jordanian model would show that Islamist parties could be reintegrated into national systems as long as they were neither seeking regime change at home nor part of a broader regional revolutionary Islamist movement.

Another component of such an accommodation might come from the détente between Egypt and Qatar. Until now, Doha was the main sponsor of Brotherhood parties in the region, and Cairo its chief antagonist. There are also signs of a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement. These countries have a clear interest in creating a path for the reintegration of moderate Islamists in national politics, especially given the regionwide defeat the Brotherhood movement has suffered. Qatar has already reduced its support for Brotherhood groups, including Hamas, leaving Turkey as the main sponsor of the movement.

I’ve long argued that nationalism is the Achilles’ heel of even the most mainstream Arab Islamist groups. The widespread perception is that, by embracing an agenda that is both regional and religious, parties like the Brotherhood are, at best, insufficiently patriotic and, at worst, outright treasonous. No surprise, then, that the Islamist parties that have fared least badly since the ouster of Mr. Morsi are Ennahda in Tunisia and Justice and Development in Morocco.

Both insist that they are not part of any regional coalition or affiliated with the broader Brotherhood movement. This also means that they have effectively signed up to operate within the constitutional norms of their national political systems. The approach has served them well.

The interest of Jordan and its allies in promoting the development of nonconfrontational and patriotic Muslim Brotherhood groupings is obvious. But the idea may go further than that. Ennahda, in particular, has demonstrated a pragmatism and a willingness to compromise that have enabled it to remain a viable player in Tunisian democracy despite recently losing both the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Arab societies have Islamist constituencies, and therefore will have Islamist parties and organizations. Ultimately, even those states most opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood must think about how to accommodate those supporters.

Much now depends on the outcome of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s split. It seems almost certain that one faction will come out on top and the party will reunify. If the moderates prevail, this could provide a new model — alongside Ennahda — for other Arab societies seeking to integrate Islamist constituencies into stable political systems.

Does the US have a Palestine policy?

Netanyahu has called the American bluff on the two-state solution

An olive tree burned by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, July 2013 (Ahmed Mazhar)

The recent Israeli election has presented a complex policy conundrum for the United States. It’s not just that the Obama administration will be faced with yet another term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What’s really at stake is whether the United States has a policy towards, and bilateral relations with, the Palestinians that are independent of the overall thrust of US-Israel relations.

Towards the end of the Israeli election campaign, Netanyahu bluntly stated that Israel cannot countenance the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even though he has been trying to backtrack from them, these remarks seem to resolve widespread doubts about his commitments. He had a long history of opposing the idea of a two-state solution until he seemed to embrace it in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University. But his ideological orientation, numerous caveats and reservations, and, above all, his policies—especially aggressive settlement activity—led many to question his sincerity.

President Barack Obama seems unimpressed with Netanyahu’s protestations that he didn’t really mean what he said. But the problem isn’t just Netanyahu. His comments came at the end of a hard-fought campaign that broke at the last minute heavily in favor of the incumbent.

Moreover, Netanyahu is still what he has long been: a supporter of the status quo. He doesn’t want to take any risks for peace—which he doesn’t believe in—but at the same time he doesn’t want to do anything radical, such as annexing parts of the occupied territories. Regarding the Palestinians and the occupation, Israeli society has been divided into two major competing camps for several decades. But the nature of that division has radically altered. It used to be that, as the leader of the pro-status quo forces, Netanyahu was fending off challenges from the pro-peace left. But in recent years, he has instead been fending off challenges from a new rising tide in Israeli society: the annexationist right.

Netanyahu is still where he has always been; in the pro-status quo center. But the Israeli political constellations swirling around him have moved dramatically to the hawkish right. Netanyahu knows this, which is why, faced with an unprecedented political crisis during the campaign, he pushed hard against Palestinian statehood and won big as a consequence.

It is this broader change in attitudes among Israelis that poses such a challenge to American policy. For many years, the consensus in Washington has been something of an oxymoron: “peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a vital American national interest, but we cannot want it more than the parties themselves.” This internally-contradictory formulation was unstable enough under the best of circumstances. But now that one of the two parties appears to be categorically, and perhaps irrevocably, rejecting a two-state solution that is the bedrock of American policy and international law on the question, our bluff has been called. Americans must now decide which of the two phrases in the policy consensus has primacy: the vital national interest part, or the caveat about the cooperation of the parties.

Some observers have argued that, from its outset, US diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and engagement with the peace process has been almost entirely a function and subset of the relationship with Israel. Even though President George HW Bush had to coerce Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir into attending the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, significant constituencies in Israel were already interested in pursuing an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PLO and Israel conducted secret negotiations in Norway, without the participation of the United States, leading to the Oslo Accords. This demonstrates that American pressure was not required during that era to push Israel into serious talks with the Palestinians.

There are numerous narratives regarding the subsequent American role in the peace process, but most serious accounts acknowledge that the United States tended to defer to Israeli concerns. If there is a consistent exception to this pattern, it is in the American insistence on a two-state solution. The most obvious distinction in the way which the United States dealt with the two parties in the peace process is that Palestinian non-cooperation, such as initiatives at the United Nations, has met with tangible, serious responses such as cuts in aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli intransigence, on the other hand, has prompted criticism at most.

Americans now face an unprecedented conundrum. Long-standing ally Israel, which also has considerable domestic political clout in the United States, opposes the consensus goal of a two-state solution. The PLO and the PA support it. Several administration officials are speaking about the need to “reassess” American relations with Israel, though it’s hard to imagine any significant readjustment of the sacrosanct “special relationship.”

Yet, like it or not, the United States will now have to decide whether our commitment to a two-state solution was an independent policy or always conditional on the understanding that it was also an Israeli aspiration. Alas, it’s all-too-easy to imagine an adjusted American position evolving over the next few years that at least de-prioritizes the US commitment to a Palestinian state. There are countless millions around the Middle East and the world whose investment in Palestinian rights and ending the occupation defines their worldview. What would be the effect on their perceptions if they came to believe—with good reason—that American rhetoric about supporting Palestinian statehood was always primarily contingent on Israel’s wishes and convenience, and might therefore be viewed as a cruel hoax?

The alternative would reassert American leadership in relations with both Israel and the Palestinians, and in the Middle East more broadly. Such options must include steps that clarify American expectations regarding a two-state outcome are non-negotiable, that are independent of Israel’s shifting positions and designed to send Israel and the world a clear message. And, at last, they must make it clear that Israel will pay a price for obstructing a two-state outcome.

Measures to penalize Israel for continued settlement activity in areas the United States believes must be part of a Palestinian state are politically difficult. However, if the United States is serious about salvaging a two-state solution, they will almost certainly be necessary and therefore possible. Measures such as support for UN Security Council resolutions reiterating the international demand for the creation of a Palestinian state or opposition to Israel’s illegal settlement activity—both of which the Obama administration has shied away from in the past—should be well within reach. There are many other ways in which the White House can act at once, even without Congressional support, to ensure that Israel feels the impact of American dismay.

This would also give the United States the opportunity to support, and politically and financially shore up, the PLO and the PA. That would send a clear message to both Israel and the Palestinian people about the American commitment to peace based on the creation of a Palestinian state, and strike a helpful political blow against Hamas and its patrons. The United States can also use that re-vamped relationship with Ramallah to press for Palestinian cooperation on peace and needed political and economic reforms by the PA. And it can help that process by increasing the US engagement with Palestinian small business and civil society, bypassing both Israeli obstacles and Palestinian red tape and potential corruption while strengthening the broader society in the West Bank.

The bottom line is that the Israelis, the Palestinians and the rest of the world will be waiting to see how the United States responds—practically, and not rhetorically—to Netanyahu’s rejection of the long-standing American policy goal. Our credibility is very much on the line. Netanyahu clearly did not mean it when he insisted he was for a two-state solution. Did we?

ISIL’s spread shows the power of its toxic brand

ISIL’s spread shows the power of its toxic brand


As it faces an increasing campaign by the international coalition assembled against it, ISIL is beginning to demonstrate a new means of menacing the region and the world. It is spreading its tentacles by winning pledges of allegiance from armed extremist groups far from its base of operations in Syria and Iraq.

In recent weeks, ISIL claimed responsibility for ghastly atrocities in far-flung areas. The massacre of at least 20 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis has been claimed by ISIL. Until now, the most dangerous group in Tunisia has been the Oqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, which operates in areas adjacent to the Algerian border. It is aligned with Al Qaeda, and has concentrated its attacks on Tunisian security services, the military and politicians.

The Chaambi Mountains attack, in July 2014, was the deadliest single incident in recent Tunisian history until the Bardo museum massacre. Sixty members of the Brigade ambushed two Tunisian military checkpoints, killing 15 soldiers.

The other major terrorist group operating in Tunisia in recent years has been Ansar Al Sharia. Increasingly radicalised since the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the group was finally labelled a terrorist organisation by the government in August 2013. It has been responsible for urban terrorism such as attacks on the US embassy and an art exhibit in 2012, and the assassinations of secular leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013, respectively.

Whoever was responsible for the massacre at the Bardo Museum, it seems unlikely that it was an expression of integrated ISIL command and control. Instead, it appears that the museum attack was conducted by an existing terrorist group in Tunisia, now operating under ISIL’s black banner.

The whole point of ISIL’s cynical manoeuvre of declaring itself to be a caliphate, and its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, to be the new caliph, was an attempt to assert authority. ISIL isn’t trying to win the hearts and minds of the general public. It knows it can’t do that. Instead, it is trying to win recruits and adherents among the radical fringe of violence extremists.

This is usually understood to involve recruiting foreign fighters. But as ISIL has come under increasing military, political and financial pressure from the coalition, the focus has begun to involve winning pledges of allegiance from existing violent radicals who “rebrand” themselves as ISIL.

This is meant to give the group the appearance of expansion, in order to offset the fact that it appears to be contained in Syria and slowly rolled back in Iraq. But it suddenly showed up in Libya, where last month it released a video purporting to show a gang of ISIL assassins beheading 21 Coptic Egyptian hostages on a Mediterranean beach.

ISIL has also claimed responsibility for two suicide bomb attacks at mosques used by Houthi militants during Friday prayers in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. They killed more than 140 people, including scores of children. The attack positions ISIL in Yemen, as it has tried to do in Syria and Iraq, to falsely pose as the defenders of the Sunni Muslim community against sectarian rivals.

The attack in Tunisia appears to be driven by local considerations, particularly insofar as it targeted foreign tourists and the economically crucial local tourism industry. The murder of the Egyptian hostages in Libya similarly seems to reflect, and have been inspired by, more local North African dynamics. Motivations appear unimportant. What counts is attaching the brand to spectacular acts of violence in new areas, and creating the impression that ISIL is an organisation on the move and on the rise.

It may be, at least in a certain level, a somewhat confused mess arising from the looseness of affiliations and lack of coherence regarding agendas, priorities and expectations. But it would appear that, increasingly, local fighters and militant organisations in many parts of the Arab world and beyond are finding irresistible the ISIL offer of instant rebranding by pledging allegiance.

The spectre of an organisation that could actually unite far-flung and disparate violent and radical extremists across the Muslim world constitutes an unprecedented potential new threat.

In that context, perhaps the most alarming of the recent new affiliates to ISIL is the reported pledge of allegiance supposedly issued by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in early March. To all appearances, Boko Haram has almost nothing in common with ISIL apart from violent and reductionist Sunni extremism. Indeed, its agenda appears deeply rooted in Nigeria’s complex colonial and postcolonial history. And, in the end, perhaps Shekau’s purported “bay’ah” to Al Baghdadi will prove purely rhetorical and practically meaningless.

But if, over time, ISIL could evolve from this kind of free-floating branding opportunity to a loose but structured system of affiliation drawing together many, if not most, radical and violent Islamists, that would be calamitous. Such an entity need not, and probably never could, become a centralised and integrated organisation.

But even a highly decentralised conglomeration would present a new set of security and political nightmares to the international community and, especially, mainstream Muslim societies.

Such a scenario is highly unlikely, of course. But it is the latest wrinkle in ISIL’s game plan against humanity.

The Specter of an Arab Israel

This week’s Israeli election was historic, but not for the reasons most pundits are saying. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party may have won the vote—and the headlines—but the real story was occuring beneath Netanyahu’s feet, where the political ground shifted dramatically.  It was no coincidence that at the eleventh hour Netanyahu warned his right-wing base that “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and that, in the final tally, Palestinian political power inside the Knesset surged to unprecedented levels. If political and demographic trends continue—and there is no separate Palestinian state, another Netanyahu pre-vote pledge—the 2015 election could well come to be seen as the moment that Israel began to confront the stark choice of becoming “either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy,” as Thomas L. Friedman put it on Wednesday.

It was, therefore, an election laden with ironies. At the same time as the vote tally all but ensured that a hard-line Zionist prime minister would continue his record-long tenure, a coalition of Palestinian-oriented parties became the third-largest bloc in Israel’s political landscape, with 14 seats in the new Knesset.

The coalition has been officially dubbed the “Joint List,” in order to emphasize that it is a forum for Jewish-Arab cooperation, rather than simply a vehicle for the political aspirations of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But, in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens are the primary constituency of the Joint List. Israel’s voters don’t vote directly for local candidates, as in the British parliamentary system. Instead, Israel employs a system of proportional representation in which the electorate votes for a grouping, usually of a party or set of parties, that has submitted a hierarchical list of members, beginning at number one and proceeding down the line.

Depending on how many votes a list receives, it is entitled to a proportionate number of seats in the Knesset, which are then assigned to the list according to the existing hierarchy. If a party earns nine seats, the first nine members on its list will become MKs, and so forth.

In January, the Hadash, United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al parties, along with the the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, merged their candidates into a single list under the Joint List rubric. Hadash, a far-left-wing grouping that includes Israel’s Communist Party members, goes furthest in representing the ideal of Jewish-Arab cooperation, and its leader, Ayman Odeh, has served as the overall head and chairman of the Joint List. Of the Joint List’s 14 seats, one will go to a Jewish MK: Dov Khenin, the leader of the communist members of Hadash. The rest will all be Palestinian citizens of Israel. In addition to four Arab MKs returned by “Zionist parties,” this means that 17 of the 120-member incoming Israeli Knesset will be Arab citizens of the state.

To be sure, the Joint List is a long way from representing real political power. The coalition attempts to unite leftists, Islamists, nationalists and others who share little in common apart from their ethnicity. The “Islamic Movement,” Israel’s Islamist party, is already divided between the southern branch that joined the List, and the northern branch that denounced the entire project. The incoming government represented by the powerful new right-wing Jewish majority under Netanyahu will undoubtedly have both a negative political and emotional impact on the List’s constituencies.

Still, the List has proven its ability to at least sustain the presence of Palestinians in the Knesset and, if it unites them, could strongly enhance their potential clout. Given the way political power is dispersed in Israel—where no party has ever actually won a majority of the Knesset and governments must always be based on coalitions—if the Arabs stick together and build on what they have already achieved, what has suddenly emerged as the third-largest bloc in Israel’s parliament won’t remain marginal or irrelevant into the future.

By playing their cards right, Israel’s Palestinian citizens can, at the very least, position themselves as potential kingmakers of the future of Israeli politics. This could happen sooner than people think, since the distribution of power in the Knesset has grown only more dispersed in recent elections, when the party or list that ended up forming a governing coalition won an average of only about 30 seats (the exact number that Likud won this time). If so, that makes it even more plausible that a Palestinian-joined coalition, representing a united front of Israel’s 18-percent Arab minority, could gain power and influence.

There was another irony of this election. Israel’s Arab citizens have struggled for decades as a political anomaly and under significant discriminatory and exclusionary measures. But it was precisely one of those recent initiatives from the ascendant Israeli right wing, a “Governance Bill,” passed in March, 2014, that gave rise to the Joint List. The law raised the threshold for Knesset membership from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of votes cast. It was widely perceived as primarily aimed at damaging, or even eliminating, Arab representation in the Knesset because Hadash and Balad would not have qualified under the new system. The response was for the Arab-oriented parties in Israel to band together in an unprecedented manner and actually strengthen their political profile.

All this represents an important reminder to Israelis about the contradictions inherent in a “democratic Jewish” state, given the presence of millions of disenfranchised non-citizens in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. If Israel’s Arab citizens can begin to mobilize political power through the ballot box, the long-term danger posed by an occupation that does not end is clarified. What if the Palestinians of the West Bank, and even Gaza, were to one day join the constituency for another version of a “Joint List”?

Perhaps that’s one reason that Netanyahu, by Thursday, already appeared to be walking back his election-eve pledge—which was plainly a sop to the extreme right wing— telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he’s still interested in “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”


Though they constitute about 18 percent of the Israeli public, Palestinian citizens of Israel are to be found throughout the country. They are primarily concentrated in the north, particularly the Galilee. These areas were either far from fighting in the 1947-48 war, or were not targets of concerted attacks by Jewish forces. Therefore, the Arabs in those areas did not flee and were not subjected to uprooting and expulsion.

The large majority of the 950,000 Arabs living in what became Israel in 1948 either fled or were displaced, but at the end of the war about 156,000 remained. They and their descendents are the Arab citizens of Israel. They lived under martial law until 1966, subject to a wide range of discriminatory laws and practices, including heavy travel restrictions, curfews, deportation and administrative detentions without due process. In the mid-60s, political and social space began to ease somewhat for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Martial law was lifted, although significant discrimination remained in certain sectors. Moreover, Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories in 1967 put this community in touch with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Before that, the Arabs of Israel had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the Arab world. Due to both Israeli and Arab restrictions, not only was travel restricted, but even basic mail between Israel and the Arab world was not available. Wealthier off families were able to meet in Europe and other third-party destinations, but for the most part the Arabs of Israel found themselves completely cut off from their brethren in the rest of the Arab world.

The late 1960s also saw the rise of Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinian community in Israel supplied the national movement with its iconic poet, in the late Mahmoud Darwish, but he had to live in exile in order to fulfill that role, until the Oslo agreements allowed him to return, at least to the West Bank. Much of Darwish’s literary, and all of his political, activity was in contravention of Israel’s laws, which have traditionally suppressed expressions of Palestinian nationalism.

In the 1970s and 80s, however, there were numerous efforts on the part of Israel’s Palestinian citizens to increase their participation in the Israeli political system and empower themselves. These ran parallel to, and often sat uneasily with, a simultaneously complementary and contradictory impulse to be drawn towards the broader Palestinian national movement. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began negotiating with Israel in the early 1990s, Chairman Yasser Arafat explicitly rejected the idea that issues involving Israel’s Palestinian citizens be drawn into the mix. He did not want to add further complications to the already difficult project of winning Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.

This meant that, from the outset, the Palestinian community in Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the peace process.

On the one hand it represented their best hope for developing entirely new relationship with Jewish Israelis. Because Israel is an ethno-nationalist state dedicated to serving the interests of its Jewish citizens above all others, peace would not resolve all problems of discrimination against non-Jews in Israel. But the most severe problems facing Israel’s Arab citizens had always arisen from the fact that Israelis saw them as a potential fifth column in a conflict with Palestinians and other Arabs. If that conflict were resolved through the creation of a Palestinian state the question of a fifth column would not arise. Indeed, Israel’s Arabs could hope to be the country’s emissaries to the broader Arab world, and an asset to both rather than a liability to either.

On the other hand, as the peace process dragged on without resolving the conflict, not only were Palestinian citizens of Israel disillusioned, like so many others. They were also increasingly troubled that the gains made by Palestinians at the negotiating table would not address any of their long-standing concerns, and primarily addressed the problem of those living under occupation.

They began to seriously embrace Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to a project of communal empowerment within Israel, after an atrocity in October 2000, during the early days of the second intifada, when Israeli police killed 12Palestinian citizens of Israel, along with a Palestinian from Gaza, during a protest in support of the intifada. There had never been a similar incident involving Jewish citizens of Israel, and the experience solidified anger against the Israeli state and identification with the Palestinians living under occupation.

Tellingly, the primary response by the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the killings was a boycott of the 2001 Israeli election that helped Ariel Sharon defeat Ehud Barak and initiate Israel’s ongoing shift to the hawkish right on matters regarding security and the Palestinians.

In many ways, those who are citizens of Israel are a highly privileged segment of the Palestinian people, with much greater rights than those who are stateless people living under occupation or refugees. Yet they still face highly significant, and internationally unusual, levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity.

Most of these discriminatory realities arise from two primary features of Israeli life. First, in Israel, Jews and Arabs tend to live in their own areas. Some of the separation is codified through policies of the Jewish National Fund and other entities that control land and that either formally or informally make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to move into “Jewish” towns or neighborhoods. Given that communities live separately, it has been easy for the state to discriminate in terms of social spending on infrastructure, health, education and so forth.

Second, Israeli law distinguishes between citizenship (“Israeli”) and nationality (“Jewish,” “Arab,” and so forth). Some discrimination is based on designated “nationality,” giving preference to Jewish Israelis. Some of it derives from of the duties reserved to those who have performed National Service, which is true of almost all Jewish Israelis who are required to serve and not true of almost all Arabs who are not required—and in many cases not allowed—to perform such service, such as in the military.

In addition, a whole panoply of discrimination exists in Israel against Palestinian citizens, both formal and informal, that derives from the sense that this community is fundamentally disloyal to the state and sympathetic to its Arab enemies. Restrictions on Palestinian political participation in Israel have been eased over the decades, but in recent years, particularly since the return of. Netanyahu as prime minister, the Jewish right has been attempting to create new obstacles.

The “governance law” was a case in point, but so are proposed measures such as loyalty oaths, laws asserting or defining the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, restrictions on the funding and activities of liberal or Arab NGOs, attempts to prohibit recognition of the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1947-48 or speech advocating boycotts against Israel or Israeli settlements. Among the most extraordinary restrictions is a law that prohibits Palestinians from the occupied territories or elsewhere who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel from moving to the country to live with their spouses.

All of these realities are manifestations of a deeper conundrum arising from the fact that this is a community of Arabs, most of whom identify as Palestinians, living in a “Jewish state” that has for most of its history been at war with most Palestinians and other Arabs. Israel’s Palestinians have, therefore, been viewed with suspicion by both sides, and not just Israelis. Arabs, too, have had a difficult time processing the reality of the Palestinian community of Israeli citizens.

Complicating the matter further is the growing phenomenon that further separates the question of Palestinian citizens’ rights in Israel from other aspects of the Palestinian cause and question. Some key right-wing figures in Israel, including current President Ruven Rivlin, and longtime right-wing activist Moshe Ahrens, are among the most outspoken Jewish Israeli proponents of equal rights for Palestinians, but are also categorically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Neither man has explained precisely what his vision is for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but both are on record as strong proponents of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

In reality, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is surely essential for the long-term well-being of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nothing else frees them from the stigma and suspicion that otherwise clouds the way in which they are regarded by their Jewish compatriots in Israel. And nothing can make them more useful or dynamic contributors to achieving a two-state solution, which remains the only identifiable means of practically and viably resolving the conflict, than for this community to empower themselves within the Israeli political system. Perhaps their strongest asset is the fact that they can vote in Israel, and therefore have a direct, rather than an indirect (as is the case with most Palestinians), means of impacting Israeli-decision-making.

As things stand there is an inherently self-defeating quality to this new, unified and more powerful political organization. Even when the Zionist Union and Likud were running neck and neck in the polls at 27 each and the Joint List was projected to come in third with 14 or 15 seats, no one had identified them as the logical kingmakers in the aftermath of the balloting. That role was always, and still is, assigned to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, which has a mere ten seats.

The simple fact is that an Arab political grouping like the Joint List would not be invited to join directly and formally with a ruling Israeli coalition government. Jewish Israelis would fear that the presence of a major Palestinian partner in a coalition government would undermine the credibility of that government. Israelis are simply not ready to accord their Arab citizens that much power. The Palestinian citizens of Israel, meanwhile, would almost certainly decline to join a coalition because of their objection to so much of Israel’s policies, particularly the occupation.

Even so, there have been countless Israeli politicians and parties that have categorically oppose the occupation and have nonetheless served in governments that persisted with it. They objected, but understood that they did not have the power, on their own, to end it. Arab parties in Israel are not yet ready to take that plunge. But if the List can sustain its coalition and continue to hold at least 14 seats or so in any given Knesset, over time its role will be difficult to ignore.

This is a new idea, one that everyone will have to get used to, especially as growth rates among Israeli citizens slightly favor Arab demographics over Jewish ones, 2.2 to 1.7 percent. Yet the deeper question is not the gradual development of a somewhat larger Arab minority within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel. That question is, what of the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule but without the right to vote? If Netanyahu is correct, and Israel cannot and will not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, how long can it continue to forbid those millions from the right to participate in forming the government that rules them? If there is already, as the statistics suggest, a majority of non-Jews in the territories under direct Israeli control, and most of that constituency is disenfranchised and stateless, how long will that remain plausibly viable?

It’s easy enough to argue that the existing de facto “greater Israel” is already neither “Jewish” nor “democratic.” It’s not Jewish because it doesn’t have a Jewish majority already. And it’s not democratic because it denies millions of its permanent residents and de facto citizens the right to vote.

The performance of the Joint List should already be focusing Jewish Israeli attention on these questions. Because it raises the prospect not only of increased political power for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also the long-term potential of political power of those currently denied access to the ballot box. If this is a sobering prospect for Jewish Israelis, and it should be, the emergence of the Joint List itself begins to offer a way out. The List favors a two-state solution. So do the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And so does a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories. For all of Netanyahu’s ill-conceived bluster, there is still a way out. But Israelis have just had a small preview of what’s possible if that prospect isn’t pursued with seriousness and vigor. Whether it is the gradual accumulation of power by the Palestinian citizens of Israel working together as a determined minority in the de jure Israel—or even the specter of the potential clout of an Arab majority in the de facto Israel—the Joint List is undoubtedly a harbinger of things to come.