1 – Israeli-Palestinian peace process
I’m not optimistic about the prospects of any real progress being made in the John Kerry-brokered peace negotiations currently taking place between Israel and the Palestinians. The sad fact is that the will to reach a genuine deal does not appear to be there on either side. Kerry seems naive, if arguably well intentioned, but both sides are apparently doing little more than going through the motions in order to ensure continued patronage from their U.S. sponsor.
PM Netanyahu’s latest release of 26 convicted Palestinian terrorists (December 30) without receiving anything in return (the third of four such tranches), has not gone down well in Israel across much of the political spectrum and has further undermined Kerry’s position as a credible peace broker. It was Kerry personally who pressured the Israeli PM to make the releases as a “gesture of goodwill”. Local reports suggesting the Americans objected at the last minute to the release of one of the 26 when they realised he had killed a U.S. citizen, have been met with cries of hypocrisy in the Israeli media. The suggestion is of a glaring double-standard on the part of Washington when it comes to equating the value of Israeli and U.S. lives. In what might be interpreted as a slight to the U.S., the murderer of the American citizen was released as planned, despite their objections.
Israel’s ongoing building in disputed areas remains a major stumbling block to the peace negotiations, whilst the Palestinian Authority’s reluctance (or inability) to rein in terror groups within their territory also gives little cause for genuine optimism. The sinister arrival of Al Qaeda in the West Bank as well as in Hamas-controlled Gaza is another major barrier to peace and could signal further weakening of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose administration in Ramallah remains the subject of major corruption and cronyism allegations.
The UN’s decision to make 2014 the Year of Palestinian Solidarity is ill-judged and counter-productive.
2- Syria and Lebanon
2013 saw tens of thousands more deaths in Syria, many of the dead being innocent women and children. Syria is a place of misery and tragedy on a massive scale. The refugee situation is already a major crisis and is only set to further deteriorate with the prospect of peace seemingly a long way away.
The broadly positive developments on the removal of chemical weapons from the Syrian regime of disgraced President Assad have been counter-balanced by the continued proliferation of lethal conventional weapons on both sides. With indications suggesting that the planned peace negotiations are unlikely to make much headway, the year ahead looks to hold little prospect of peace breaking out in the war-ravaged country. U.S. influence on the conflict is now all but non-existent after President Obama’s dithering in the summer of 2013. Russia, who along with China refused to join the international criticism of Assad, now appears to be the main power broker. Iran, however, is the core problem in the noxious mix that is the Syrian civil war.
Could the nuclear weapons negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran hold the key to peace in Syria? If a final deal is made conditional on Iran – Assad’s main supporter and financier – backing away from their alliance with the Syrian president in return for the green light being given to a limited nuclear development program, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. For Israel however that light would represent an oncoming train and raise further concerns about Iranian nuclear intentions. Would Iran seriously be prepared to ditch its closest regional ally and its direct corridor to its proxy army, Hezbollah, in south Lebanon?
The most likely long-term scenario in Syria remains the break-up of the country into a federation of states representing different religious and cultural groups. One for Assad’s Alawite sect, one for the Druse, one for the Syrian Kurds in the north of the country, and one or possibly two states for the Islamists – the diminishing number of moderates, and the radicals - who now include elements of Al Qaeda and other unpalatable groups that have come to dominate the Free Syrian Army that opposes Assad’s rule. This, or a variation on the federal states theme, might be a solution for eventually ending the Syrian civil war, but the presence of Islamist regimes bordering both Lebanon and Israel is surely a recipe for another regional conflict soon after.
Car bombings and the assassination of key figures in Lebanon seem destined to make 2014 a difficult year for the country that has bounced back so well from the devastating civil war of the 1980’s and ‘90’s. Recent events suggest more strongly than ever that the broadly sectarian Shia-Sunni war in Syria is on the verge of dragging neighbouring Lebanon into the conflict as Sunni militias –amongst them Al-Qaeda affiliates and jihadists – seek to punish Shia Hezbollah in their own backyard for meddling in Syria on the side of Assad.
3 – Egypt
The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi in the summer of 2013 has seen the return to the helm of the Egyptian military.
Morsi made the fatal error of confusing his narrow mandate to govern with a green light for rewriting the new constitution with a distinctly Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood slant, a constitution that had been so hard-earned with the violent fall of Hosni Mubarak a year earlier. Under Morsi’s watch Egypt’s economy completely collapsed in 2013 despite massive financing from the Gulf state of Qatar, a move that well and truly blew up in Qatar’s face.
Now, under General Sisi, Egypt has effectively returned to military rule. Not that Sisi’s takeover was your run-of-the-mill coup. On this occasion literally millions (some estimate as many as 22 million) Egyptians turned out to call for Morsi’s overthrow and for the military to re-establish some semblance of normal life. To some degree that has happened, along with the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the arrest of most of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.
Sisi, despite losing the backing of the US (who disappointingly expressed dismay at the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood administration), has gone after the Islamist terror organizations in the Sinai that flourished while Morsi was president. He has made the pursuit of Islamist terrorists such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the extremely dangerous Sinai Peninsula a top priority. President Obama’s lack of support for Sis has however presented an open goal to Vladimir Putin who has moved quickly to offer Russian support and enhance Russian influence in this most significant of Arab countries.
Scheduled new presidential elections in 2014 should see Sisi given a mandate by the Egyptian people to continue in charge. While he is far from being an angel, he does appear to offer a chance of stability and the prospect of improved conditions for many Egyptians.
2014 should be a better year for the Egyptian people than the year before.
4 – Iran
2013 was a very good year for the Iranian regime, and 2014 also appears to hold plenty of promise with crippling international sanctions having been eased slightly and Iran’s profile in the world having been given a swift makeover.
The US, the EU, and others, appear to be guardedly optimistic that Iran will come to sign a genuine deal to limit its nuclear capabilities, this despite a plethora of signs that there have already been many breaches of the interim agreement signed in Geneva in November. Iran’s charismatic new president is the acceptable face of the Islamic Republic, but the truth is that the strings continue to be pulled by one man and one man only, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameinei. The Ayatollah, who has the feared Republican Guard at his disposal, continues to spout anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric to the Iranian people and the international community at every given opportunity.
Israel is more or less alone in publicly opposing the Iranian rapprochement, warning that Iran is just buying time to continue its nuclear development by subterfuge and that the Ayatollah and his cronies are having a laugh at the western powers.
Diplomatically, Iran has run rings round the West with its new photo shopped image. But this is no cuddly regime. This is a country that routinely abuses human rights on a massive scale, carries out an unprecedented number of executions each year, violently suppresses freedom of speech, and continues to sponsor major terrorist activity via its proxies Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, as well as renewed support for Hamas.
The Iranian veil will surely slip at some point in 2014, but will the world be wise to it when it happens? Might Israel choose to go it alone in attempting to limit Iran’s capabilities as it did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, or will PM Netanyahu continue to be perceived across the globe as The Boy who Cried Wolf? We’ll have to wait and see.
5 – Netanyahu’s China syndrome
If you haven’t been following the whole sorry tale of China turning a blind eye to the facilitating of Islamist terror through Chinese banks, then here’s a brief overview of a major story that could haunt Binyamin Netanyahu in 2014.
In 2006, Daniel Wultz, a teenage American on holiday in Israel, was killed in a bomb attack at Tel Aviv central bus station. Two years later his grieving parents were tipped off by Israeli intelligence to the fact that funds used to facilitate the bombing had been transferred to his killers through a Chinese bank. The Israeli government encouraged the Wultz family to pursue a case against the Chinese in the U.S. courts and promised to pass on all the intelligence gathered on the movements of funds through the Chinese accounts. They sought a successful prosecution of this and other similar cases in which Israelis and others had been killed by Islamist terrorists as a result of funds acquired through Chinese banks.
The Wultz family set out on the legal battle and made significant progress, to such an extent that in 2013 they stood on the verge of winning a landmark case that could have resulted in the banning of Chinese banks from the U.S., a decision that would have a multi-billion dollar impact on China’s plans to expand its business influence into North America.
In May 2013, PM Netanyahu went on an official visit to China where his hosts reportedly promised significant investment in Israel and the opening up of markets in China to Israeli businesses on the condition that Netanyhu block a key Israeli witness in the Wultz case from giving evidence.
In a decision he may live to regret, Netanyahu - the man who likes to portray himself as the scourge of Arab terrorism - allegedly agreed to the offer, placing business ahead of seeking justice for victims of acts of terror. The Wultz case appears to have been severely compromised. The Chinese may well avoid being blocked out of the US financial markets unless Netanyahu allows the witness – who has already given a sworn affidavit to the court – to travel to New York to give evidence in person, as required. The Israeli leader has conveniently cited “national security” as the reason for not allowing the witness to testify.
This complex and internationally significant case has the potential to cause irreparable damage to Netanyahu and shake up Israeli politics if the Israeli PM can personally be held liable for the decision to ditch the Wultz case in favour of sucking up to the Chinese.