from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Israel’s Surprise Unity Agreement, Further Disunity in Syria

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and new Kadima head Shaul Mofaz give a joint press conferece on May 8, 2012 (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).

May 10, 2012

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and new Kadima head Shaul Mofaz give a joint press conferece on May 8, 2012 (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).
Blog Post

Significant Middle East Developments

Israel. In a move that caught virtually all Israelis by surprise, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early Tuesday morning that he was forming a new unity government with the Kadima party and its new leader Shaul Mofaz (my Tuesday morning analysis available here). Israelis had been bracing for new national elections. As Netanyahu and Mofaz met secretly to hammer out the deal on Monday night, Knesset members were working to dissolve the government in preparation for a likely September 4 vote. Mofaz’s Kadima brings an additional twenty-eight Knesset seats to the Likud-led coalition. The new government will be comprised of ninety-four of the available one hundred and twenty Knesset seats, making it the largest ruling coalition in Israel’s history. Netanyahu will now serve out the remainder of his term and elections will likely be held in October 2013. At a joint press conference with Mofaz on Tuesday, Netanyahu said, “we’re pulling together for four main issues: to pass a fair and equal replacement of the Tal Law; to pass a responsible budget; to change the system of governance; and, lastly, to try and promote a responsible peace process." Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, responded on Tuesday saying “This is the right time for the Israeli government to reach peace with the Palestinian people by immediately accepting the requirements of the peace process.”

Syria. UN special envoy Kofi Annan briefed the UN Security Council on Tuesday, expressing concern over the continuing Syrian violence and warning that the international community is in a “race against time” to prevent Syria from sliding into a full civil war. A day later a bomb hit a military convoy transporting the chief of the UN observer mission Major General Robert Mood, wounding six Syrian soldiers. This morning brought the single deadliest assault of Syria’s unrest when two car bombs exploded outside an intelligence compound in Damascus killing at least fifty-five people and injuring another three hundred and seventy-two. Meanwhile, Syrians voted in parliamentary elections Monday. The Assad regime promoted the vote as an opening of the political system, but the election was boycotted by Syria’s opposition. The Syrian National Council slammed the regime for holding the vote, saying “Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces two million Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people, does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution or an electoral law, or to run elections.”

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials announced on Tuesday that a Saudi double agent had infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and foiled a plot to smuggle a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound aircraft. The agent had provided critical information that allowed the CIA on Sunday to target a drone strike and kill Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, the new operations leader of Al Qaeda and a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Also on Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. has recently resumed on-the-ground military training to aid Yemen’s fight against Al Qaeda. Training activities had been suspended during the recent political upheaval.

Syria. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Anne C. Richard, told reporters in Amman today that the U.S. has allocated an extra seven million dollars to aid Syrian refugees, bringing the total to nearly forty million. The assistance will be funneled through international and local agencies inside Syria and in surrounding countries, including Jordan. Richard also said that the U.S. has no plan to accelerate the movement of Syrian people to the U.S. so long as they are safe, and expressed hopes that they will be able to return to their homes soon.

Quotes of the Week

  • “We support the Annan plan but if someone were to ask me what my hopes are, I would say I have lost hope…What can 50 observers do? They can’t visit even a small part of a region of the country.” – Turkish prime minister Erdogan on Tuesday
  • “Not one of the leaders of the occupation can be classified as worse than the other. Attempts to categorize them as doves and hawks is incorrect, they are all fond of shedding Palestinian blood.” – Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of Hamas, in an interview with the Ma’an news service on Wednesday
  • “A basic right of our people is being violated. The right of being able to choose our leadership.” – Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad in an interview on Tuesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Algeria. Algerians went to the polls this morning for parliamentary elections for the first time since unrest hit the region last year. The final results are due tomorrow, with turnout estimates due after polling stations close tonight. Many Algerians doubt the integrity of the process and are planning to skip the vote, despite assurances from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that the election will be the most open in the country’s history, with five hundred international observers scattered across more than forty-eight thousand polling stations.

Iraq. Interpol announced on Tuesday that it had issued an international Red Notice for the arrest of Iraq’s Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi “on suspicion of guiding and financing terrorist attacks.” In response, Turkish deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag said on Wednesday that Turkey would not extradite the Iraqi vice president who fled Baghdad in December and has been in Istanbul since April 9. Hashemi’s trial in Iraq was postponed again today for the second time until May 15.

Bahrain. Bahraini authorities reportedly suspended talks this week with the country’s opposition and have announced stiffer measures against illegal protests. Abduljalil Khalil, a senior member of the opposition party Wefaq, said that all talks have ceased. Bahraini government spokesman Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa said that the opposition must first declare that it is ready for talks without preconditions. Khalifa also said that “because of the escalation in violence, we are looking into the perpetrators and people who use print, broadcast and social media to encourage illegal protest and violence around the country…If applying the law means tougher action, then so be it.”  Secretary of State Clinton hosted Bahraini crown prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in Washington on Wednesday. She noted the steps taken to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry while encouraging the Bahraini government to champion a clear process that will lead to reform.

Libya. The Tripoli headquarters of the country’s interim government came under attack on Tuesday by armed men claiming to be former rebels angry over unpaid stipends. One guard was killed and four others wounded before security forces were able to repel the attackers. Libyan prime minister Abdurrahim al-Kib, speaking about the attack in a televised speech, vowed that the government would not negotiate under “threat of arms.”

This Week in History

This week marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret understanding between Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, to partition the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. The agreement allotted Lebanon and parts of Syria to France, southern Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre to Great Britain, and the region in-between to become a unitary Arab state or confederation of Arab states under French and British influence. Arab rulers did not learn of the agreement until its text was published by the Soviet Union in 1917, creating deep resentment that lingers to this day, despite the official abrogation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement at the Conference of San Remo in 1920.

Statistic of the Week

According to an Arab Technical News Gateway report, the number of Arab users of social networking sites has increased to record rates in 2012. Arab Facebook users constitute 12 percent of the world’s total users, an 8 percent increase from two years ago. More than 1.3 million Arabs currently use Twitter. Saudi Arabia has the largest share of Twitter users with 393,000 employing the service. Eighty-eight percent of the Arab world’s tweets produced in March came from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain.