Sandy Milne – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 16 Jun 2021 03:20:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 From Dentist to Israeli Kingmaker: Mansour Abbas Isn’t The Champion Palestinians Need Wed, 16 Jun 2021 04:05:55 +0000 Perth, Australia (- Special to Informed Comment) – “We will reclaim the lands that were expropriated from our people,” said Dr. Mansour Abbas, 47, in a largely Arabic-language speech before the Knesset plenum. “This is a national cause of the first degree.” This, he said right before being sworn in to join a patchwork coalition led by a man who openly supports annexation of most of the West Bank. Naftali Bennett, Yamina leader and former IDF officer; a man who once gleefully claimed to have “killed lots of Arabs.”

The irony almost certainly wasn’t lost on Abbas, Israel’s new kingmaker. Together with three colleagues from his United Arab List (Ra’am), the Islamist politician broke with Joint List orthodoxy to hand Bennett a one-seat majority in the Knesset. Enough to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu–but, in this case, maybe better the devil you know.

Though the formal integration of an Arab party into an Israeli coalition government sets a historical precedent, it’s not–as plenty of mainstream news outlets would have you believe, a sudden sea change in Israeli-Arab relations. Arab citizens have served in various capacities within successive Israeli governments; most notably Ghaleb Majadleh, a one-time minister of science, culture, and sport. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accepted the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s–though the relationship was never formalized.

It’s hard to believe, as Abbas himself puts it, that “the very act of our participation in this government and in this political process brings […] calm to the region, a feeling of hope, that it’s possible to live together,” he says. Discourse befitting of a kingmaker, but patently wrong nonetheless.

His willingness to break from tradition to join the “Change” coalition has, in fact, so far soured tensions; far-right Israelis have bashed Bennett for accepting a “terror supporter” into their midst, while Palestinians have zeroed in on his supposed fracturing of the united Arab-Israeli parliamentary front. “He wants to get in the new government to get as many personal gains as he can,” says Gaza-based political analyst Hassan Lafi. “And to create an alternative leadership of the 48-Palestinians, other than the currently existing one.”

Any ulterior motives aside, that criticism ignores a far more serious issue–and that which explains Abbas’ ostensible mental gymnastics in terms of the settlements issue. He simply doesn’t care about Palestinians outside the Green Line. “We focus on the issues and problems of the Arab citizens of Israel,” Abbas told Time last week. “We have cardinal problems: crime, violence, economic distress, severe lack of housing, unrecognized villages in the Negev. We want to heal our own problems.”

Where he’s been lauded–like, most recently, in Al-Monitor for having “changed the rules of the game,” you’ll notice one key commonality: it’s always from Arab-Israeli writers, rather than stateless Palestinians.

To be sure, social issues plaguing the Arab community (particularly in the south) have reached a head, and it is a sign of positive change to see them ameliorated. Abbas’ accession to the Change coalition was secured in exchange for not-so-insignificant gains for that group:

● The doubling of a five-year economic development plan for the Arab community, now worth 30 billion shekels ($US9.3 billion)

● A government plan to address violence within Palestinian communities in Israel;

● The recognition of Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Naqab/Negev desert; and

● The abolition of the Kaminitz Law, a crackdown targeted at unlicensed construction in Arab communities.

But taken in the context of the apartheid policies Palestinians as a whole are subjected to, these concessions seem lukewarm. In keeping with his blue-and-white blinkered view of the occupation, Abbas does not openly address policies promoted by the Israeli right to dilute Palestinian collective identity and erase their heritage–tactics which most recently culminated in the Sheikh Jarrah uprising. It’s also well worth asking if, under such a system, Palestinians can ever become citizens of a non-secular state–and how, if Abbas sticks to his selective view of the conflict, he can actively advocate for Palestinians within a framework that treats them as second-class citizens.

Taking a realpolitik approach to improving the lot of Arab-Israeli citizens is one thing–callously disregarding Palestinian non-citizens is another. Tellingly, Abbas addressed these tensions to Italian daily La Repubblica on Friday. “There will be difficult decisions to be made, including security decisions,” he said. “We have to juggle our identity as Palestinian Arabs and citizens of the State of Israel, between civil and nationalistic aspects.”

Abbas is to be commended, to a degree, for negotiating improved living conditions for those Palestinians living in Israel. But it does raise the question of what sort of would-be Palestinian leader pays not the slightest lip service to the suffering taking place in Gaza and the West Bank–and one who will happily work side-by-side with a man like Naftali Bennett.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBC News: “How will Naftali Bennett lead Israel’s new coalition government?”

“Stop the Stupid”: Even GOP Stalwarts Are Turning on Trump’s Coup Attempt Wed, 02 Dec 2020 05:03:37 +0000 (Special to Informed Comment) – Trump’s coup may have failed, but the scars to democracy won’t heal for generations.

In a fitting end to his four years in power, he took to Twitter to reject the election’s results. “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election,” he exclaimed, casting doubt over due process in the electoral system. One of the few institutions left unscathed–or rather, uninfected–by his tenure.

If not cutting, his criticism was particularly directed at battlegrounds like Michigan and Pennsylvania; alleging that absentee voting and an opaque counting process skewed the count in those states.

As November unfolded, though, this scorched-earth policy seems to have settled itself as more of a swan song than a viable risk to the republic. Slapped down by federal judges and decried by the establishment media, the administration has recalcitrantly agreed to begin the peaceful transition of power–though they haven’t given up on a recount, with dozens of lawsuits still pending.

It’s fair to feel scared. With just a few digital diatribes, Trump was able to unite the last of his cultish base. Facebook reports that one “Stop the Steal” group amassed 360,000 members in just one day (before being banned under the company’s disinformation policy). Yet as the nation moves forward into a Biden presidency–and as urban demographic shifts make his species of firebrand politics much less electable–what’s perhaps more unnerving is the degree to which the GOP’s leadership has been willing to turn a blind eye to this stunt.

At the time of writing, only a handful of Republicans have publicly accepted the results of the election. Outside of the Never Trumpers, this list includes hard-line social conservatives like Nebraska’s Ben Sasse -– and it’s growing by the day. Yet it’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see the majority of Republicans stay silent on the issue, and indicative of the hold that Trump’s base still has over the Overton window. Even in defeat, Trump’s figure casts a long shadow over the Republican Party.

As the Senate judiciary committee convened in mid-November to confront social media executives, Republican senators were keen to steer the conversation away from White House disinformation. Focussing on the process, rather than the substance, of how those labels were applied to the election, committee chair Lindsey Graham pressed a narrative of anti-conservative bias and censorship. Fitting, considering how much skin Graham has in the game–days later, it would be revealed that he had asked Georgia’s secretary of state to find a way to reject legally cast absentee ballots.

Amongst the party’s cadre of elites, however, the few to break ranks have been Michigan lawmakers. On Monday, Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI) hit back at Trump’s continued allegations of voter fraud in his home state. A staunch conservative and RSC faithful, Mitchell nonetheless called for the outgoing President to “drop these arguments without evidence or factual basis.” “Stop the Stupid,” as he otherwise put it, a battle cry that rang out amongst liberal pundits.

The week before, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) told CNN’s Dana Bash: “You know what? The voters have spoken. No one has come up with any evidence of fraud or abuse. All 83 counties have certified their own election results.”

While some would suggest the two have a vested interest in clearing the electoral process that brought them to Capitol Hill, both Upton and Mitchell were of the few to shirk the party line and call out Trump in 2019. After he suggested that four American congresswomen should “go back and help fix the […] places from which they came,” both denounced these comments as unbefitting of the leader of the free world. Mitchell, in fact, went so far as to try to censure Trump over it–one of just four Tea Party members to do so.

You could say that these actions represent the best of conservative values. In an era of Trumpisms and congressional complicity, a willingness to call out the President at his worst isn’t just plucky–it’s an act of war. A return to the sort of individual liberty the Tea Party was founded on–not in terms of gun ownership, nor mid-pandemic recklessness–but in terms of intellect and personal responsibility.

Sadly, if there’s anything different about these two, it’s certainly not reflected in their voting records. With luck, the years to come will be a reckoning for Trump’s team of enablers: a study of not just how he came to occupy the Oval Office, but who stayed silent through to the bitter end. As the coup narrative moved from op-ed material to the newswires, it’s a case of who distanced themselves and when.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Olbermann vs. Trump #33: Trump Lawyer Wants Chris Krebs Executed. The Death Threat As A Trump Tactic

Despite Saudi Atrocities in Yemen, Trump and Boris Johnson are Addicted to Arms Sales to Riyadh Mon, 20 Jul 2020 04:03:32 +0000 Tokyo (Special to Informed Comment) – “There is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of IHL [International Human Rights Law].”

So says the Honorable Elizabeth Truss MP – the UK’s top exports expert, and wolf in wolf’s clothing. Leafing through a copy of her statement delivered to Parliament last week, you could be forgiven for thinking Saudi infractions of IHL are “isolated incidents.” They’re not – six days later, the British defence minister would reluctantly admit to Parliament that his department has counted over 500 in Yemen. If you took Truss’ transcript at face value, you could also be persuaded into believing that the UK is nevertheless resuming arms trade with Saudi Arabia, as the New York Times would subsequently report. The truth is, it never really stopped.

Nearly a year has passed since a British court ordered the government to put a pause on the granting of export licenses to Saudi Arabia and revisit existing ones – a review that was estimated to take just “a few months.”No licenses have been revoked, no progress statements issued, and no Western warlords held to account. Instead, defense primes with licenses predating the ban (like BAE Systems) have continued to funnel arms and personnel to the conflict – and more than that, Truss has admitted that three licenses have been “erroneously” issued anyway.

You could look at the sheepish way British lawmakers have addressed the court-ordered pause as an example of the dangers of diplomatic duplicity. The results are absurd – Truss’ speech came just one day after Westminster levelled sanctions against 20 Saudi officials over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabian dissident and columnist for the Washington Post. As though that weren’t conflicting enough, that particular sanctions announcement was swiftly followed by an apologetic phone call from Deputy Minister of Defense Ben Wallace to his counterpart in the Kingdom, which was gleefully reported by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

American Simplicity

While all this is undoubtedly damaging to Britain’s reputation both at home and abroad, it offers a striking contrast to the current situation in the States, where a groundswell of opposition to the Saudi monarchy has rippled through oil-patch Republicans. After the Saudi-Russia price war caused US crude prices to dip into the negatives for the first time, the knives were out for Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, popularly known as MBS. A group of senators from Texas, Louisiana, Alaska, and North Dakota accused the country of waging “economic warfare” on the US, and tried to push through legislation that would have withdrawn US troops as well as a decades-old bilateral security umbrella. Although the move captured several formerly pro-Saudi lawmakers – like Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – Washington policy has not actually changed and so you could well argue that this is yet more evidence of hypocrisy from Western leaders. Nevertheless, it is clear that 2020 could prove a tipping point for US relations with the regime.

If there has been a degree of commonality between American and British policy towards the country, it is that both have been motivated by money – and both are willing to contradict themselves in pursuit of it. The oil-for-security flavor of the framework meant this was somewhat inevitable as economic priorities shift, yet it seems that US-Saudi relations may be approaching a crisis point.

Is a Geo-economic breaking point on the horizon?

As for the US-Saudi relationship, “the only thing holding [it] together now is Trump—- he has a peculiar affinity for Saudi Arabia,” says Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, in April. Donald J. Trump’s first overseas trip as 45 was not to Mexico or Canada – as is the tradition – but to Riyadh. In yet another extraordinary departure from protocol, he brushed off advice from intelligence officials in the wake of the Khashoggi killing to, as he put it, “Stand With Saudi Arabia.”

But Trump’s worldview is guided by a sort of brutal transactionalism, one even more pointed than that of Elizabeth Truss. It’s worth bearing in mind that America now sources just 6% of its gross oil imports from the country, a figure that is likely to shrink over the years to come. And while his administration managed to ram through over $8 billion in sales to the Saudis in 2019 (nearly tripling that made out to second-placed contender, Australia), it’s hard to get a read on how much the scorched-earth price war will end up costing the US amidst the coronavirus downturn. Even Trump seems to have had enough, reportedly threatening to withdraw US troops from Saudi Arabia in a call to MBS on April 2.

If money talks, oil shouts

At the heart of the US-Saudi relationship, at least as it was initially envisaged, is stability. A shotgun marriage, it is no great secret that American affinity towards Riyadh ties in to the outsize influence exercised by the fossil fuel industry in Congress. “It is ridiculous,” Kissinger famously raged at the outbreak of the 1973 OPEC embargo, “that the civilized world is held up by 8 million savages.”

Three months later, he was inside the palace of Saudi King Faisal, promising US economic, technical, and military aid. “Our objective is to work with Your Majesty and to strengthen our friendship on a long-term basis,” he told the king.

While it’s hard to separate out exactly how much of the slump in demand across 2020 is attributable to the Saudi price war, it’s clearly caused major headaches for the sector – with global benchmark Brent crude plunging more than 30 percent in just one day. Concerns amongst the sector played into the bipartisan nature of the resolution passed against US support for the war in Yemen in March 2019, which saw left-leaning Democrats stand united with firebrand Tea Party voices such as Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).

Amidst a strange new normal, humanitarians advocating for Yemen might find allies in the most unlikely of places. Hypocrisy? Maybe, but that’s just the nature of the game.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

What’s the impact in Yemen of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia? – BBC Newsnight