Middle East Matters

Robert Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wait for photographers to depart before beginning their meeting at the Presidential Palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem
U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wait for photographers to depart before beginning their meeting at the Presidential Palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters).

Reading The Trump Administration in Ramallah

Does the United States seek relations with Hamas in Gaza and to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in the West Bank? Palestinians officials and insiders asked me this question repeatedly during a recent visit to Ramallah. At first, the question seems strange. How could well-informed insiders come to wonder if the United States prefers to deal with an Islamist terrorist organization to a leadership that avows non-violence and actively pursues security cooperation with Israel on a daily basis? Read More

Rushing Libya’s Elections Will Lead to Disaster
The following is a guest post by Alexander Decina, research associate for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. For more than two years, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has sat in Tripoli, making little if any progress toward resolving Libya’s political crisis and ongoing conflict. On May 29, however, amid stagnant UN efforts, French President Emmanuel Macron convened a summit in Paris with the leaders of rival Libyan factions, and the parties agreed, in principle, to presidential and parliamentary elections by December 10. Macron, and anyone else frustrated with Libya’s lack of progress, may want to view the Paris agreement as a step forward, but they should not celebrate too soon. At best, and most likely, the December elections will fall through, and international efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis will lose further credibility. At worst, Libyans and their backers will force elections in far too short a timeframe, resulting in considerable violence and perhaps a full-scale resumption of the country’s civil war. Should this happen, the problems Libya’s conflict poses to its neighbors and to Europe—namely the migrant crisis and radical transnational groups operating in the country’s ungoverned space—will not only intensify; they may indeed become permanent. With these risks in mind, Libyans and the UN should not rush to premature elections that will do more harm than good. Instead, efforts to forge genuine progress in Libya should focus on creating a durable constitution and balanced election laws before Libyans go to the polls. BACKGROUND The UN has been trying since fall 2014 to resolve Libya’s political impasse and resulting violent internal conflict. Though the UN’s efforts were not without controversy, they convinced the two rival governments—the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC)—to sign the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) in December 2015. The agreement was to form an interim Presidency Council and underneath it a GNA unity government to consolidate the rival parliaments. The HoR, however, refused to adopt the LPA it had signed and fold into the new government for fear it would diminish the standing of its main military ally, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Thus, the so-called unity government has foundered. In September 2017, the new UN Special Representative, Ghassan Salamé, announced an “Action Plan” to create some momentum. The plan urged Libya’s rival factions to amend and implement the LPA in order to finally legitimize the struggling GNA and unify rival factions, to pass the constitution by popular referendum, and, finally, to reach election laws to structure voting for presidential and parliamentary elections. Nine months later, the Action Plan has produced little progress. And so when Macron’s summit set deadlines—new election laws by September 16 and presidential and parliamentary elections by December 10, 2018—many welcomed it as an action-forcing mechanism to pressure Libyans into compromises. Necessary as additional pressure might be, the Paris timeframe does not provide sufficient time to implement crucial steps of the Action Plan. SKIPPING OVER THE LPA WOULD BE BAD Indeed, Libyans seem to have abandoned the amendment and full implementation of the 2015 LPA. If international efforts had been better consolidated, perhaps Libyans could have made more progress on this important step. Using the LPA to unify rival factions under the GNA would have made for a more productive transitional period and a more conducive environment for successful elections. Nonetheless, at this stage, Libyans, their international backers, and even the UN are hoping that holding new elections can paper over the failures of the LPA and the unity government by establishing a newly elected president and parliament. Whether the new government—should it come to fruition—can replace Libya’s existing parliaments as intended or simply creates a new rival body remains an open question. Despite it not being ratified and implemented, the UN and Libyans alike are using the LPA as the basis for procedures going forward—namely for legitimating the HoR’s role in the constitutional process and for setting the mechanism by which to come to electoral laws. Rival factions will have cause and justification in contesting elections and other state building measures that are based on the unimplemented LPA. SKIPPING THE CONSTITUTION AND RUSHING ELECTION LAWS WOULD BE WORSE While sidestepping the full implementation of the LPA brings with it real risks, skipping over the constitution and rushing election laws would be an even more serious mistake. Both a constitution and balanced election laws are essential to holding elections that advance, rather than undermine, forward progress. And yet it seems the plan reached in Paris will attempt to bypass or rush these crucial steps. The Paris Agreement stipulated that elections should be held on a “constitutional basis,” but it remains highly ambiguous as to what this language refers to—or even what it could refer to—and what the legal basis will be for December elections. The Constitutional Drafting Assembly did reach a draft constitution in July 2017 that provided guidance for presidential and parliamentary elections. A reluctant HoR was intended to approve the document by organizing a popular referendum on it that would need to pass a two-thirds popular vote. But eastern factions have stopped the constitution from going further by violent, political, and judicial means. Attendant Libyan parties in Paris made no commitments to pass this draft nor compose a new one before elections, and, considering the lack of pressure on obstinate factions, progress is highly unlikely in such a short timeframe. If the July 2017 draft cannot be used, will the elections be based on the 2011 Interim Constitutional Declaration? This document, established in the immediate aftermath of the late Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall by a short-lived transitional government, did not provide any guidance for presidential mandates and powers and offers poor guidance on the length of parliamentary mandates. If the 2011 Interim Constitutional Declaration needs to be amended to set these parameters, it is unclear what the process for amending it will be given that Libya’s legislature remains divided. Holding elections without a constitution in place—or with a sloppily conceived “constitutional basis”—will leave powers, mandates, and term limits undefined or poorly defined, and competitions for power will be more fierce and violence more likely. If rival factions cannot agree on a constitution, it is unlikely that they will draft and agree on on balanced election laws. According to the LPA, new election laws must be drafted by a joint committee of the HoR and the HCS and then approved by the entire HoR. Each side will try to draft laws that are electorally advantageous to it, and without a constitution defining the parameters of power, the stakes will be even higher. If external players like France increase pressure or incentives for committee members to push through election laws that will not be amenable to their wider parliamentary bodies or their allied militias, then elections will be highly contentious. Given the precedent for electoral violence in Libya, those that stand to lose will be inclined to use violence to mitigate the results or prevent elections outright. WHAT LIBYA AND ITS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORTERS SHOULD DO Elections are certainly a necessary step for Libya. The mandates of each of Libya’s rival governments have expired or were never fully enacted, and no entity has enough credibility to gain the support of requisite militias to control the country. Without electoral or domestic legitimacy, the international community will continue struggling to consolidate support for any Libyan government. Fresh elections are needed to produce a new political body that external powers can rally around, but, at the same time, they are a risky endeavor and could provoke more violence. The very conflict the UN is currently trying to resolve was sparked by the results of a contentious election in 2014, and wider conflict could still emerge. Holding elections too early greatly exacerbates these risks. Thus, the push for elections should be accompanied by far greater international cooperation to pressure competing Libyan factions to reach agreement on a constitution before elections, not after. Outside actors should also press for genuine compromise on the election laws between Libya’s most powerful factions to avoid giving these factions cause and pretext to violently disrupt the elections. If the compromises needed to implement these steps—formal and informal—cannot be reached before elections, the notion that elections themselves will solve these problems is far-fetched. President Macron and others may want to champion the May 29 election agreement reached at the Paris summit as a step forward. With UN efforts bringing about so little progress, their desire to push for a nationwide vote in Libya before the end of the year is understandable. But if they press Libyans to hold elections without a durable constitution and balanced election laws in place, it could be a major step back, and Libya could again descend into widespread conflict as a result. The consequences will be felt in Libya, the region, and beyond.
President Trump’s Syria Strikes Are Not About Syria
The airstrikes conducted by the United States, Britain, and France on Saturday against Syrian military targets were about upholding a nearly century-old prohibition against chemical warfare, not about Syria’s seven year-long war that has killed more than half a million people. Indeed, the limited coalition airstrikes are a clear reflection of President Donald J. Trump’s extremely circumscribed objectives. In explaining the rationale for Saturday morning’s strikes, Trump clearly explained that it was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons that had precipitated a U.S. military response, as had been the case just one year ago. Trump identified “the purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons.” Trump’s move to separate chemical weapons usage as a vital U.S. interest, above and separate from the Syrian conflict, represents remarkable continuity in approach with his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Both Obama and Trump contemplated military force because of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, not his indiscriminate slaughter of his countrymen or any other American geostrategic objective in Syria. Both presidents similarly identified defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s caliphate as a vital U.S. interests worth risking American lives for. The only difference between the two presidents is that Obama ultimately backed down after nearly striking Syria for chemical weapons usage, whereas Trump executed such strikes twice. Yet when it comes to Syria more broadly, both presidents agree: Syria is not America’s fight. Trump was clear in his Friday night address to the nation that in Syria the United States seeks to protect the American people, and that means liberating territory once controlled by the Islamic State, not liberating territory controlled by Assad or removing the Syrian leader. In explaining his approach to Syria on Friday night, Trump also indicated something more fundamental about his outlook: the Middle East’s problems, including Syria, are not America’s to fix. “The United States will be a partner and a friend,” Trump said, “but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.” Partner and friend, but not leader. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, on Sunday articulated the Administration’s conditions for withdrawing American troops from Syria, saying it could only happen after three goals had been accomplished: defeating Islamic State militants, ensuring chemical weapons will not be used, and maintaining the ability to watch Iran. Note: while specifying the concern over future chemical weapons usage, not one of those goals specified by Haley relates either to the ongoing war in Syria, or towards ending it, with or without Assad. Given that the Western strikes in Syria Saturday morning were about chemical weapons and nothing more, it is no surprise that Syria’s President Assad was reported to be in a good mood on Sunday following the attacks. And why not? Assad now has further reason to feel confident that the United States will not work to topple his regime. President Trump has stated his preference to extricate America from the Syrian quagmire. Only images of Syrians killed by chemical weapons seem to arouse Trump’s willingness to put Americans in harm’s way in Syria. Assad knows that Syria’s further use of chemical weapons may, but not necessarily will, precipitate additional U.S. airstrikes. But for the Syrian president, that may be a highly beneficial tradeoff. The Syrian army’s recent use of chemical weapons seems to have been decisive in breaking the rebels’ will in Douma—the last remaining opposition holdout in the area of Eastern Ghouta, a strategic location near Damascus. Assad and his army probably see that military gain far outweighing the costs associated with Saturday’s coalition strikes. Sure, Assad may now think twice before using chemical weapons again. But at another decisive moment in a future battle, he may again calculate that an American reprisal is a price worth paying if chemical weapons allow him to gain further control over vital Syrian territory. One of the more interesting aspects to the most recent chemical weapons episode is the fact that Trump clearly and forcefully fingered both Iran and Russia for its support for Assad, essentially shaming them for associating their countries with “mass murder.” Yet by painstakingly avoiding striking their personnel in Syria, and by stating a desire for improved relations with Moscow and possibly Tehran, Trump demonstrated his desire to leave open diplomatic channels to both Russia and Iran. Those searching or expecting a more comprehensive Syria strategy from the Trump administration should stop looking. Trump, like Obama, wants out of the Middle East, including Syria. American allies looking for something more adventurous in Syria can expect to find a sympathetic ear in Washington and access to U.S. weapons. But the United States is not going to lead any heroic redemptive efforts, let alone any idealistic fights. Yet as he seeks to narrowly define U.S. interests in Syria to the use of chemical weapons and the defeat of the Islamic State, Trump may soon discover, as did his predecessor, that the “troubled” Middle East has a way of changing, if not thwarting, outsiders’ policy agendas.
Donald Trump
President Trump’s Peace Efforts Require A Regional Approach
President Donald Trump’s non-stop flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv is being described as the first ever non-stop flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That the Saudis allowed this direct flight, usually banned, reflects the fact that the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, like that of Israel with a number of Gulf states, has been quietly but perceptibly thawing in recent years. This thaw reflects the growing convergence between Israel and the Sunni states of the Arab world, all who share a view that Iran is the biggest threat to their security and regional stability. Matching that convergence was the message conveyed by President Trump, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Israel, of a geo-strategic shift in U.S. policy. It was just one year ago that then-President Obama, seeking a modus vivendi with Tehran, said that America’s Gulf allies need to “share the Middle East” with the Iranians. That view of the Middle East was decisively repudiated this week, with Trump clearly aligning the United States with the majority of the Sunni Arab world, and Israel, against Iran. Yet despite this shift and some hints of an improved tone, President Trump carried no explicit public message of peace from Riyadh to Tel Aviv on Air Force One. Nor did he explain—either in Riyadh, or in Israel—the specific possibilities for peace between Israel and the larger Arab world. Instead, President Trump focused on Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as the committed partners for peace, adding only that the Arab world would like to see the two leaders reach a bilateral agreement. Without integrating the leaders of the Arab states he just met in Riyadh into a new framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, President Trump is unlikely to achieve the peace he seeks. The Arab states have a crucial role to play, both in incentivizing the Israelis to make sacrifices for peace, and in supporting the Palestinians in concluding a conflict-ending agreement with Israel. Perhaps most striking was President Trump’s choice not to mention the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which Israel and the Arab states agree can serve as a basis for a comprehensive approach. While the API, when proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, originally offered peace between Israel and the Arab world after a complete Israeli withdrawal to boundaries existing prior to the 1967 Six Day War, the proposal has since been modified by the Arab states to make it more palatable to Israel. For several years now, the Arab states have suggested that the plan can serve as a basis for negotiations, and that progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace can be met with parallel progress toward peace between Israel and other Arab states. Recognizing these changes, Netanyahu last year broke over a decade of official Israeli silence and spoke positively at the Knesset of the API. Contrasting with President Trump’s focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace and his relative silence regarding a regional approach are the comments of Israeli and Arab officials themselves. In Riyadh, it was Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir who praised President Trump for going to Israel as part of an effort to move away from conflict toward partnership. And it was Netanyahu who noted alongside President Trump that the only variable that may have changed to make peace more attainable is the regional environment, noting that “common dangers are turning former enemies into partners. And that’s where we see something new and potentially something very promising.” Perhaps in the weeks and months ahead, President Trump will seek to exploit the regional goodwill he hinted at and which exists to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace. Other than the new Middle East regional environment, there is little to suggest that myriad obstacles that have prevented a bilateral peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas before can now be overcome, particularly pursued the same tried and tested way through direct bilateral negotiations. Unless President Trump adopts a new approach—one that integrates the Arab states as active participants in support of a deal, not as bystanders to another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—there is scant reason to believe the new U.S. president will have any greater success in brokering a peace deal between these two Middle Eastern leaders than did the previous administration.
  • Palestinian Territories
    Palestinian President Abbas’ Washington Challenge
    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces one of the greatest negotiating challenges of his political career on Wednesday when he meets President Trump at the White House: He must convince many skeptics in Washington that he is willing and able to sign the “ultimate deal” that President Trump seeks. As the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) leader, Abbas has twice before been presented far-reaching peace proposals—once by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and a second time by President Obama at the White House in March 2014. In both instances, Abbas did not reject the offers. Nor did he say yes. Instead, he did not relate to them, thereby leaving the question lingering to this day for many outside observers as to whether the 82-year old president is too constrained to provide yes for an answer. It is not that Abbas has failed to demonstrate political courage in his life-long career rising through the ranks of the PLO. He was among the vanguard of those Palestinians committed to non-violence in the nationalist struggle with Israel. Advocating peaceful reconciliation with Israel was politically risky and personally dangerous. He continues to boost security coordination with Israel, despite domestic pressure to abandon these efforts. Yet since becoming the leader of the Fatah party, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) all at once, he has also projected an image of passivity and rigidity within negotiations with Israel. This is not to exonerate the role Israel plays on the other side of the table or others facilitating those talks. But it does raise questions about Palestinian limitations. Today, Abbas faces a paradox: The only way he can realize his avowed goal of ending the conflict and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital is through negotiations with Israel. Yet he is deeply constrained from negotiating concessions necessary to realize these goals. A President Without Gaza One source of constraint is structural-- his rule extends to only part of the territory previously controlled by the Palestinian Authority. He lost control over Gaza when Hamas fighters violently took over the coastal strip in 2007. Since then, Palestinians have lived with two rival leaderships: Abbas’ Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas’ Islamist rule in Gaza. Historically, Hamas has been the champion against a two-state solution and Abbas’ non-violence, negotiations, and security cooperation with Israel. The assumption during negotiations since 2007 has been that a peace deal will attract Palestinians away from Hamas and its rejectionism once the Palestinian people are presented with the prospect of the benefits of an agreement. Yet the opposite has seemed to be far more likely: Hamas is poised like a sniper to shoot down any agreement or progress towards peace, labeling possible negotiating concessions Abbas makes as a betrayal of the Palestinian patrimony. When meeting President Trump on Wednesday, the Palestinian leader will have to explain how he can overcome Hamas’ spoiler role and help produce an agreement, despite the Gaza leadership’s opposition. Abbas will likely point to recent measures he has taken against Hamas in Gaza, such as cutting fuel subsidies and electricity payments, to demonstrate his willingness to challenge Hamas' leadership. A Legitimacy Crisis A second major constraint on Abbas’ ability to sign a peace agreement is his own flagging political standing. He is in the thirteenth year of a presidential term that was originally meant to be limited to four years with no sign of new elections anytime soon owing to the territorial split with Gaza. Abbas has also failed to appoint a deputy or successor for any of his top leadership roles as head of Fatah, head of the PLO, and head of the PA. Abbas recently sought to bolster his standing last November by holding a General Conference of his ruling Fatah party. While that move may have temporarily solidified his standing and set back rivals, Fatah is hardly popular. The last time Fatah and Hamas competed in parliamentary elections, Fatah candidates took a beating in what was seen mainly as a protest vote against them. In the subsequent decade, Fatah has done little to reform or rejuvenate itself and thereby remove the sources of popular discontent. As Ghaith al-Omari, a former negotiator and advisor to Abbas, points out, the Palestinian leadership is facing a “severe legitimacy deficit” due to its failures to deliver political achievements and its “record of poor governance and corruption and its highly restrictive grip on political space.” Omari notes, “If these issues of legitimacy remain unaddressed, no leader can conclude peace—no matter what the terms of the deal may be.” Challenged Within His Base This lack of popularity and fledgling legitimacy has contributed to a third challenge now facing Abbas: an incipient leadership challenge within his own Fatah party. Just two weeks ago, Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader imprisoned by Israel on five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization, launched a hunger strike that is as much a challenge against Abbas as it is against Israel. Barghouti, often polled as the most popular Palestinian rival to Abbas, was one of those marginalized by Abbas last November. He kicked off this hunger strike of over a thousand Palestinians imprisoned in Israel with an op-ed in the New York Times portraying himself as an illegitimately-incarcerated Palestinian Nelson Mandela. As Abbas prepared for his upcoming meeting with President Trump, businesses and schools were shuttered throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem in solidarity with the prisoners. In flexing this political muscle from prison, Barghouti is not only challenging Abbas’ leadership, but further constraining the Palestinian president’s freedom to maneuver in Washington and in future dealings with the prisoners’ jailers: Israel. A Decisive Moment President Abbas meets on Wednesday a new U.S. president keenly interested in forging a comprehensive conflict-ending peace agreement, not in pursuing an open-ended peace process. Abbas must now convince President Trump on this visit that, despite the recent negotiating history and seemingly insurmountable Palestinian constraints, he can conclude the peace agreement Trump seeks. Moreover, he must decisively answer the question that looms large for many in Washington: Does Abbas seek a legacy as the man who ended the conflict with Israel and created a Palestinian state? Or does he seek to be the nationalist leader who stood tough resisting Israel and international pressure, albeit peacefully, and refused to concede one inch of Palestine’s historic rights?
  • Israel
    President Trump: Peace Processor
    President Donald Trump’s evolving views on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear to be coming into greater focus as he prepares to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House later this week. Over the past few months, Trump has expressed two broad sentiments seemingly in tension with one another. In his first interview after the November 2016 vote, then President-elect Trump reiterated a previously expressed desire to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling it “the ultimate deal.” His desire to pursue such a deal has been matched, however, by a second strand of thinking, reflecting an admiration not only for Israel but also for its far-right settlers. The Israeli settlement movement opposes the idea of a Palestinian state and seeks Israel’s annexation of the entire West Bank. The president seemed to be reinforcing his earlier financial support for the settlement enterprise when he appointed staunch settler supporter and fundraiser, David Friedman, to become the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. Friedman immediately announced his intention to live in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, since, he suggested, President Trump would soon be recognizing the Holy City as Israel’s capital. For months, many Middle East observers have wondered how President Trump will reconcile these two strains in his thinking—the quest for the ultimate deal and his support for the settlers who claim all the land as their own. One indicator emerged over the weekend when Israel’s largest circulation Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, published an interview with President Trump. The president had dined at the White House the night before with the free tabloid’s pro-settlement founder and financier, Sheldon Adelson. In a seeming rebuke to his dinner guest of the night before, President Trump clearly stated his concerns about continued Israeli settlement activity and their potential to impinge upon peace-making: “The [settlements] don’t help the process, I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.” That could only have meant: land left for the Palestinians. But lest there remain any ambiguity, President Trump stated clearly: “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” At that moment, President Trump acknowledged not only the tension between continued settlement expansion and peace making efforts with the Palestinians, but his clear preference for peace-making. In doing so, Trump fell into line with 50 years of American thinking that has seen Israeli West Bank settlement expansion as unhelpful, at best. Lest the Israel Hayom interview be taken as a one-off, Netanyahu disclosed yesterday to his cabinet that two days after his inauguration, President Trump had privately informed the prime minister of his intention to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Told by Netanyahu that the Palestinians are unwilling to make a deal, Trump’s response was, according to the Israeli leader: “They (the Palestinians) will want, they will make concessions.” Having been put on notice by Trump of his intention to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace, Netanyahu told his cabinet: “we mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.” How President Trump intends to pursue peace and how he will succeed where his predecessors have all stumbled is yet to be determined. It seems that President Trump himself is not yet sure. He is taking a decidedly different approach in launching his efforts than that of his predecessor, President Barak Obama, who announced his intention of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with fanfare just two days after his inauguration. In contrast, President Trump is gradually revealing his intentions while consulting in an uncharacteristically low-key fashion with regional partners. Yet Donald Trump, in one stark and unmistakable way, is no different than the eight presidents that preceded him: He is clearly and unambiguously a peace-processor.