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Friday, 14 October 2011

14 October 2011

I have a proposition for you this week: I’ll give you one pound if you promise to give me £1,000 in return.

No? So why do you think Israel has agreed to release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas of just one captured Israeli soldier?

The 25-year-old soldier’s name is Gilad Shalit, and he’s probably one of the best known men in Israel. He was snatched by Hamas fighters more than five years ago close to the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip – and he’s been held, incommunicado, somewhere in Gaza ever since.

Within the coming days, he’ll be freed, and there’ll be mighty celebrations across the length and breadth of Israel.

His family, who have waged a relentless campaign to keep his name in the public eye and to put pressure on successive Israeli governments, will be ecstatic.

So will 1,000 Palestinian families, especially the relatives of the 315 Palestinians who were serving life terms in Israeli jails. (There are thought to be in total more than 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.)

But why did Israel agree to the lop-sided deal? There are several reasons: first, because it is an Israeli tradition to bring every lost soldier home, dead or alive. In the past, similar deals have been done to win the return of slain soldiers’ bodies, or even of body parts.

Israel is a small country, with a conscript army. Israelis accept the reality of combat risk in the knowledge that the State will do anything, if the worst happens, to “bring the boys home”.

Second, because Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, needed a victory. He’s lost two important regional allies – Egypt’s President Mubarak and Turkey under its ever-more assertive prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – and was unable to prevent the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas scoring a substantial propaganda coup at the United Nations last month with his appeal for Palestine to be recognised as a full State member of the UN.

So the deal for the release of Gilad Shalit is, in the words of Israeli political commentator Yossi Verter of Haaretz, “the most important deal of his [Netanyahu's] life … he will forever be remembered as the man who brought back Gilad Shalit.”

But the truth is that this deal has been on the table, more or less in its current form, for quite a while. What's changed is the regional political environment.

As Mr Netanyahu himself candidly put it: “With everything that is happening in Egypt and the region, I don't know if the future would have allowed us to get a better deal -- or any deal at all for that matter ... This is a window of opportunity that might have been missed.”

As for Hamas, it needed to do something to show, after Mr Abbas’s coup de théâtre at the UN, that it's still in the game. A thousand celebrating Palestinian families means thousands more Hamas supporters. The message is a simple one: Hamas’s armed struggle gets 1,000 prisoners released, whereas the endless non-negotiations of Mr Abbas’s Fatah get nothing.

Each side made some concessions to get this deal signed. Israel agreed that some, although not all, of the released Palestinian prisoners will be allowed to live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip (there was, apparently, endless haggling over individual names); Hamas agreed that some of the best-known prisoners, including the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, much touted as a potential future Palestinian leader, will stay behind bars.

As for what follows, who can tell? With both Netanyahu and Hamas strengthened, and with a shaky Gaza ceasefire in effect yet again, might they now be able to move forward on more substantive issues?

Optimists say it’s possible. But in my experience, when it comes to the Middle East, optimists are usually disappointed.

Friday, 7 October 2011

7 October 2011

I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that you are deeply concerned about what’s happening in Syria.

I’m also going to assume, for the sake of the same argument, that when you mull over the options for international action to put pressure on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, you would much rather that such action was sanctioned by an appropriately worded UN security council resolution.

In other words, you thought – by and large – that the NATO-led military intervention in Libya was more acceptable than the US-led invasion of Iraq.

So here’s my question: now that Russia and China have cast their vetoes to block a Security Council resolution on Syria – a resolution that had been much watered down in the hope of winning their acquiescence, if not their approval – what would you do?

Your choices are these: do nothing, on the grounds that you tried and failed; try again, with a different form of wording in an attempt to win over the Russians and Chinese; or say to hell with the UN, we’ll go it alone, put together as broad a coalition as we can, and do what needs to be done to bring an end to the ghastly mess that Syria is becoming.

There is little doubt that the crisis is worsening. According to the UN, the death toll since the start of the anti-government uprising in March is now close to 3,000 – and many thousands more are believed to be in jail.

There are also growing indications that at least some of the anti-government protesters are now armed – in the cities of Hama and Homs there are now daily reports of clashes between security forces and armed opponents. From here to civil war is a short and slippery slope.

Why did the Russians and Chinese cast their vetoes? China did because Russia did – and because Chinese leaders are deeply suspicious of any foreign interference in what it regards as a country’s domestic affairs. (If I say Tibet, you’ll understand why.)

And Russia, according to the pro-government MP Sergei Markov whom I interviewed on Wednesday, won’t endorse any UN resolution that might be seen as a step along a path which leads to a Libya-style intervention.

Remember, Moscow abstained in the vote on Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas in Libya, short of foreign troops on the ground.

It’s been regretting that abstention ever since. What’s more, now that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he expects soon to resume his former duties as President Vladimir Putin, there are already some signs that Moscow’s foreign policy stance is beginning to harden, perhaps in anticipation of his return to the presidency.

The European Union and the United States have already imposed a long list of sanctions on Syria – and its powerful neighbour Turkey is talking of doing likewise.

But if President Assad was worried that he might face the full wrath of a toughly-worded Security Council resolution, he can rest easy: the threat has passed.

And those governments – in Washington, London and Paris – who worry about the threat to regional stability if Syria spirals into all-out civil war are left with a dilemma: how can they exert real pressure, and remain on the right side of international law, without the agreement of Russia and China? (By the way, South Africa, India, Brazil and Lebanon all abstained on the Syria resolution this week, so there’s evidently still a lot of persuading to be done.)

Incidentally, a key factor in the Libya intervention was a request from the Arab League for a UN-approved no-fly zone. And there’s no sign – at least so far – of any similar request being made regarding Syria.

In other words, stand by for many more weeks of diplomacy and arm-twisting before the UN tries again to come up with an acceptable formula for action.

Oh, and by the way, changing the subject entirely, if you enjoy radio drama, you may like to make a point of listening to Radio 4’s Afternoon Play on Monday at 2.15pm. It’s called “A Time to Dance” and one of the characters in it … no, I really shouldn’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say you might recognise the voice.