Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Egypt & Gaza: A Troubled History

By Mariam Ghorbannejad

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza on January 18th could not have come a day too soon. A 22-day campaign has witnessed the death of 1,250 Palestinians, an injury count reaching 5,500 and the killing of 13 Israelis. A humanitarian catastrophe has been halted.

In his address, Olmert said that Israel had achieved its targets; namely that Hamas’ military capabilities and infrastructure had been reduced and many of the tunnels used to transfer weapons into the coastal area had been destroyed.

A matter that in all probability helped bring about an end to the fighting was an agreement signed between Israel and its greatest ally, the United States the previous day. In the Memorandum of Understanding the American government pledged to take the necessary steps, alongside other members of the international community, to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Without such an assurance, the Israeli operation could have continued into a fourth week.

The role of the Egyptians in securing peace in Gaza should not, however, be overlooked. An international conference on Gaza co-chaired by President Hosni Mubarak and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh pressed parties concerned to consolidate the fragile ceasefire.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in attendance, as was Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Earlier on Sunday, Hamas had agreed to a week-long ceasefire with Israel to allow it to withdraw its troops from Gaza. Telling, exiled deputy chief of the Islamic Resistance Movement Moussa Abou Marzouk had declared that the Palestinians: “are ready to cooperate with any efforts, especially those of the Egyptians, Turks, Syrians and Qataris, to reach an agreement that meets our known demands, which are a permanent lift of the blockade and the opening of all the crossing points, including the Rafah crossing.”

Egypt’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often been at odds with other Arab countries. President Hosni Mubarak had claimed that Hamas invited attacks from Israel on the Gaza Strip when they failed to renew the six-month long ceasefire (brokered by Egypt) that expired in December 2008. This remark did not go down well with Arab leaders like President Bashar Assad of Syria who is staunchly against the Israeli military campaign. Another point of contention is Egypt’s support for Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has also angered its own population.

Gaza provides a policy challenge for the Egyptians. Geographically, it is the only Middle East country besides Israel to share a border with the Gaza Strip, to the north-east. Its history of control of the Palestinian enclave, which it seized after Israel declared independence in 1948, staying until 1967, means that it is reluctant to be seen to be interfering in Palestinian affairs.

The signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in exchange for Israeli forces withdrawing from Sinai drew widespread criticism in the Arab world. Relations have therefore been strained with Arab countries on the Palestinian issue ever since.

It could be argued that Egypt’s role in bringing about the ceasefire in the latest Gaza offensive has been pivotal. Israel is unwilling for direct talks with Hamas and the US Department of State has already branded the organisation ‘terrorist’ so a go-between who could engage with all parties was needed. Enter Egypt; one of the only Arab nations who are on friendly terms with Israel (next to Jordan), and a solution to end the fighting was forthcoming. Whether this ceasefire holds is yet to be determined.

What does Egypt have to gain by adhering to the Israeli blockade of Gaza?

Firstly and perhaps most importantly for the government, allowing Rafah to comply with the blockade effectively forces Israel into assuming humanitarian responsibility for the people of Gaza.

If Rafah were to be opened, Egypt would be burdened with an influx of Palestinians seeking work and needing housing, putting a strain on Egyptian finances. Israel could hold Egypt to account for any rocket attacks from Gaza. This would push the country into policing the porous border, a task fraught with difficulty. Stability in the region could be threatened by such a move.

One of the biggest fears of the Egyptian government is the close link that Hamas has with its own Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic Resistance Movement look to the banned but tolerated opposition group in Cairo as their mentor. Similarly, the institutions of the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, are based on those of the Egyptian government. A caveat for the reopening of the crossing is that Hamas recognize the authority of the Palestinian Authority. Internal security threats in Egypt could be heightened if Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood collaborate.

Should the blockade be lifted, the Egyptian state risks the $1.4 billion-a-year aid package it receives from America. The US has put pressure on Egypt to maintain the blockade in the hope of causing submission of Hamas.

Gaza and Egypt’s history is intertwined and their future is likely to be shared. Palestinians, who come together in a unity government, will ultimately be in the strongest position to negotiate with Israel in realising a viable Palestinian state. Should this occur, Egypt’s role in patrolling the Gaza border will diminish along with the need for Palestinian resistance.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No more ‘internal issues’

The vitriolic reaction in India to David Miliband’s comments in a recent Guardian article arguing that a political solution to the stalemate in Kashmir might be helpful in the fight against terrorism would suggest that the Foreign Secretary has touched a nerve. Some of the hysterical quotes in the Indian press accused Miliband of ‘appeasement of terrorism’ and playing ‘into the hands of those who are in denial and rationalise violent extremism by finding 'just' causes for it’, with a dig at ‘Whitehall's marginal status in international politics’ thrown in for good measure. Whether the Foreign Secretary’s intervention was wise or not given Britain’s colonial history in India remains to be seen; however what is immediately clear was that his analysis is broadly correct. To pretend that terrorism, particularly the traditional national state terrorism of territorial dispute and national identity focused on by Miliband’s article, can only be solved by military and paramilitary responses is the true exercise in denial.

India faces both a real and significant terrorist threat and a grave problem of Hindu nationalism which polarises relations with its own large Muslim minority and hampers efforts to find a solution to the challenges that have bedevilled Kashmir since partition. Similarly Pakistan’s decades long involvement with proxy organisations fighting for its ambitions in Kashmir that matched its behaviour towards groups in Afghanistan have helped make it the epicentre of the strategic crisis formerly known as the ‘war on terror’. Yet whatever can be said about the conflict in Kashmir is that its ripples have been felt well beyond the subcontinent, it is an internal issue that impacts from Srinagar to Salford.

The recent crisis in Gaza is a ready reminder that over many years we have seen similarly robust responses given by Israeli commentators to international discussion and criticism of its approach to Palestinian terrorism: ‘you don’t understand the situation’ and ‘this a fight for the security of our people’. Irrespective of rights and wrongs of the Israeli approach or the criticisms levelled against it, a decision taken in Jerusalem about how to deal with rockets from Gaza clearly impacts on security on the streets of London and of people across the world.

While anger and disaffection on the ground can be channelled locally into the mechanisms of nation state terrorism by any group of any faith with a grievance, we know that ‘internal issues’ across the world are banging the recruiting drum for transnational market state terrorism, as publically typified by Al-Qaeda and at present predominately amongst the Muslim community. It is clear that what happens in the hillsides of Kashmir and Helmand or the streets of Gaza and Baghdad does not only affect the combatants and those with the misfortune of living nearby, but that it can impact on us all. This is not to argue that conflicts across the globe cause terrorism in third countries but merely that it makes it easier for pre-existing networks to signup and mould already radicalised young men and sometimes women. The appropriate response combines the transformation of policing and military priorities of recent years and marries it to the political engagement and the common values articulated in Miliband’s article. There also must be a recognition from our own recent experience of terrorism at 7/7 that although the radicalisation of small sections of Britain’s Muslim youth began long before Afghanistan and Iraq, participation particularly in the latter has acted to widen the pool of young people receptive to co-option by extremists. This recognition must inform but not necessarily restrict our action at home or abroad, however it must ensure we redouble our efforts to find political solutions to challenges across the globe.

The Foreign Secretary has made an important attempt to remind people of the national roots of much of today’s terrorism and that this fact has been distorted by some of the rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’, however we must resist the temptation flowing from this analysis towards parochial responses typified by the Indian media. David Miliband is right to raise the need to resolve the political disputes that encourage those on the ground to seek to resolve them through terrorism, however this not only for the sake of those directly involved but for us all. For while it is right to move beyond some of the language and methods of the War on Terror we must not forget that some of the terrorist threat across the world, particularly facing the West, is not drawn directly from nation state terrorism but that which feeds upon it and other conflict across the globe, from other countries ‘internal issues’.

Friday, January 9, 2009

When the dust settles in Gaza

By Stephen Twigg and Adam Hug

With an aerial bombardment, Israeli troops on the streets of Gaza, a humanitarian crisis and frustrated diplomats, the parallels between the current crisis and the events of summer 2006 are pretty clear. That history has repeated itself with added ferocity and loss of life is testament to the diplomatic and political failure to which Israel, the Palestinians, the US, EU and neighbouring states have all been party. The bitter cycle of rocket attacks and economic blockade set against a backdrop of warring factions and glacial progress towards a final status agreement gives little credit all round.

The pressure from within the Israeli Government for mission creep to achieve the complete obliteration of Hamas appears to be subsiding as Egyptian and French diplomacy begins to make some progress, the scale of the humanitarian crisis and its global political impact becomes clearer to the Israelis and the task of finding suitable Hamas targets becomes progressively more difficult. As hopes of a possible resolution begin to flicker into view, thoughts are turning to what must be done to prevent this happening again.

Central to improving the situation in Gaza and across Palestine is the need for an agreement that enables Fatah and Hamas to find a working relationship. For while undoubtedly Hamas has been damaged as a military force in this operation, it remains a political organisation with the support of a significant minority of the Palestinian people with a legacy of its 2006 parliamentary election victory. An agreement would not only bring greater stability to Palestinian society, it would provide the basis for a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, an essential requirement for long-term peace and security between Israel and the strip. The bitter infighting in the wake of Hamas’ 2006 victory that lead to the schism between Gaza and the West Bank in 2007 was not only the result of inflexible positions of Hamas, Israel and Fatah combined with the clumsy nature of international community’s response which damaged Palestinians economically without undermining Hamas politically, it was also the result of a wider systemic problem within the Palestinian Authority. The PA’s strongly presidential system created for President Arafat, watered down at the height of Second Intifada under intense international pressure to enable Mahmoud Abbas to take up the newly created post of Prime Minister, which in turn provided a platform for Hamas to form a government lacks the necessary separation of powers to operate with competing parties controlling differing institutions. The situation is further complicated by the international negotiating role on behalf of the Palestinian people everywhere being operated through the PLO.

There is a pressing need to come up with a successor to the Mecca Agreement that briefly offered hope of reconciliation between the two parties in 2007. The agreement called for the creation of a national unity government and would have allowed Hamas to join the PLO while allowing President Abbas, as Chairman of the PLO to continue negotiating a long-term settlement with Israel on the basis of previous agreements. A new deal might enable fresh presidential and parliamentary elections to be held, a significant bone of contention between the two parties, with Hamas arguing that President Abbas’s term expires at the end of January. It may ultimately lead to Hamas being able to join the PLO, enabling final status negotiations to move forward on behalf of a unified Palestinian platform. An agreement could also limit the level of friction in future situations where the presidency and legislative council are split between the parties.

Not only is a new deal an important step to enable an eventual final status agreement, progress is needed now to enable the PA’s return to Gaza in some form which may well be a requirement of any ceasefire agreement. PA control of the border crossings, potentially alongside the return of EU monitors or a new international force if Egyptian and Hamas objections can be somehow be over come, is seen as an essential step to enable the regular opening of Gaza’s borders in the long-term. Furthermore as Israel understandably will not tolerate continued weapons smuggling at Rafah so the PA or international force in coordination with Egypt must have the necessary power to identify and destroy tunnels, which may only achievable in the context of a wider agreement.

There is an element of wishful thinking that the incoming Obama administration will completely transform US Middle East policy from its current chilling detachment. However expectations are high that the new administration will be significantly more engaged in pushing for a peace agreement and ensuring Israel pays greater attention to the humanitarian situation facing the Palestinians over the longer-term. Increased diplomatic pressure will be required to shape a political environment where the Israeli public is willing to accept the necessary steps on settlements and Jerusalem.

Until the recent conflict Israel seemed destined to elect a hard-line rejectionist block in elections due on February 10th headed by a rejuvenated Likud Party, led by former PM Benyamin Netanyahu one of the key contributors to the failure of the Oslo Process. The current conflict has boosted the chances of the Kadima-Labor coalition although a Likud victory remains the most likely outcome given the continued strength of the religious and ultra-nationalist parties.

Obama’s team will have to move hard and fast to make clear that the US will not welcome an Israeli Government that rejects or seeks to indefinitely postpone the creation of a Palestinian State. It must make clear it will not placidly accept further delay in reaching a final status agreement based on the ‘Clinton Parameters’ established in the final days of the last Democratic administration.

Although the Israeli public does not take direction from the White House it would help shape the political environment in the 21 days from the inauguration to the Israeli elections. While a fresh Kadima-Labor victory would give the new administration hope that progress could be made on final status issues, a hard-right coalition would require a more radical shift in US policy to achieve any discernible progress in the coming years. Whether the Obama administration would be willing to use US economic and military assistance as leverage to bring a rejectionist Israeli government to the table, a tactic last used meaningfully by George Bush senior in 1991, may prove one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing the new administration come February.

Britain and the Euro: Time to revisit the debate?

By Niall Ahern.

As we approach the end of 2008, it appears that the 'global credit crisis' may well continue to be a permanent feature in news headlines throughout 2009. The banking and credit crisis has proven that every country in the world is vulnerable to the effects of the downturn. The past year has been characterised by bank collapses, a sharp decline in house prices, credit drying up and unprecedented moves by governments to offer multi-billion dollar/pound bail-outs to banks and other businesses. As such, one is led to question whether there will be much to celebrate when the clock strikes midnight to see in the new year.

Looking specifically at the European Union, the economic crisis has led to a much sharper analysis of the economic and political policies being undertaken within EU member states. As EU heads of government and foreign ministers met in Brussels on 11 and 12 December for a two-day summit, there was undoubtedly another factor that was almost certainly in the minds of some of the attendees. This was the continuing decline of sterling which, at the time of the summit, had reached a low of 89 pence to the euro, the lowest since the single currency came into existence a decade ago. However, by 18 December, this had dropped even further as sterling reached an all-time low of 95.5 pence to the euro. Many analysts predict that it is only a matter of time before parity is met and at the rate it has been dropping, this could be reached well before the year is out. Gone are the days of Brits taking advantage of cheap weekend breaks to the continent, where three years ago a euro was worth as little as 69 pence. Britons flying to Eurozone countries over the holiday period and into next year will quickly come to realise that it may have been better value for money to holiday at home.

Worries about the demise of sterling have been coupled with recent debates within Denmark and Sweden - the only other 'old EU' economies that still remain outside the Eurozone - about proposing referendums on euro membership within the next year. In addition, Iceland, which isn't even an EU member state, has been suggested as being the possible 29th member of the EU, because, had it been a member, many of its recent economic troubles would have been avoided. All this leads back to the one country where the euro debate has been remarkably silent until now. In Britain there has been very little debate since Tony Blair and Gordon Brown rejected the idea of British membership of the euro in 2003 when the five economic tests were not met. However, as the events described above indicate, the suggestion that British politicians seem so reluctant to talk about – Britain adopting the euro – will surely have to be re-examined.
In fact, someone has already started the debate for them. Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission, stated at the beginning of December that 'the UK was closer to joining the euro than ever before.' Although he admitted that the vast majority of British people are opposed to the idea, he went on to argue that 'those that matter in Britain' had been discussing it. One person rumoured to have been involved in such discussions is Lord Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary and a staunch pro-euro supporter, but he claims that he cannot recall any such conversation. During the past few weeks, this suggestion has also been picked up by George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, although he, when speaking to business leaders in the north east, said that in the current economic climate, abandoning the pound would be the wrong thing to do. That said, Caroline Flint, the Minister for Europe, maintained the Government's status quo by stating that the British position on the euro has not changed. However, if sterling's decline continues, and if the euro does continue to become a stronger and more stable currency than the pound, then surely it is only a matter of time before more involved debates about possible British membership of the euro become more widespread.

It is important to remember however, that there are many obstacles that still stand in the way of British membership. And before any serious debates on the possibility of joining are even entered into, many other factors also need to be considered. First, this is the first real test for the euro, and how it reacts and deals with the worsening economic picture will be seen by many as a test of its credibility. Although membership of the euro has eliminated the possibility of currency crises for countries such as Ireland and Spain, it does not mean that they are completely immune to shocks resulting from the global crisis. External threats could still harm their economies and that is why the events which unfold over the next few months will provide a real test for the currency and the eurozone as a whole.

Other obstacles to British membership are based on Britain's very nature and relationship with the EU itself. The Government's 'five economic tests' would have to be re-examined and each would have to be met before membership is even properly considered. However, even if these tests were met, the rest of Europe would then have to accept Britain's bid to join. Following that, Britain would then have to undergo a transitional period of membership of the single currency exchange rate mechanism before qualifying for full membership, which would take some years anyway.

Finally and most importantly, the largest problem is political. There is currently a complete lack of balanced debate on the euro issue within Britain, with it tending to get left to bashing at the hands of the tabloid press and euro-sceptics. This means that the vast majority of the British public are unenthusiastic about the project. Study after study has revealed that if a referendum on membership were to be held, it would be easily lost. In addition, the 'Europe/euro debate' has never been a vote-winner in Britain and it is an issue that is likely to lead to further splits within political parties. As Labour closes down the gap which the Conservatives had managed to open up between the two parties in the polls, is Gordon Brown really likely to take Britain into a referendum on an issue that many predict the Government could never win? In addition, this also seems especially unlikely given that a general election must be called by the spring of 2010. Finally, it is important to note that even if the idea had crossed the minds of ministers over the past few weeks, aside from Lord Mandelson, no other politician has publically put forward a positive case for Europe which will be essential to lay the groundwork for the euro. If British politicians cannot even manage this, there is little chance of euro membership any time in the near future.

As economic events over the past year have demonstrated, nothing can be ruled out or predicted. But, for the moment, serious debate on the issue of British membership of the euro remains premature. The Government is playing safe by declaring that the policy hasn't changed and that they will focus on other economic issues first. It is too early to tell whether the decline of sterling will continue along with that of the British economy. That is because speculative report after speculative report differs on just how bad the recession will be both for Britain and the Eurozone. If sterling does come out of the economic crisis worse off, then surely Britain should seriously start to consider membership - even if this is only a consideration.

Finally, it is important to remember that throughout 2008, Gordon Brown has said repeatedly to the public that he will do 'everything in his power to protect the British economy'. Perhaps British membership of the euro may be just the thing to protect it. 2009 may indeed be one of the most interesting years for European Monetary Union, since it's introduction to the markets ten years ago. It may prove to be a very interesting year indeed.