Patrick Seale
Gulf News
March 7, 2013 - 1:00am

The Middle East is experiencing some of its greatest political upheavals since the creation of the Arab state system after the First World War. Right across the region, regimes have been toppled and authority challenged. In one country after another, people have gone down into the street in their tens of thousands to demand jobs, bread, respect, an end to corruption and police brutality, a greater say in how they are governed. In several Arab countries, secular Arab nationalism has been discredited while political Islam, long suppressed, has re-emerged to the front of the political scene.

In reacting to these events, the European Union has tended to leave the initiative to the US. There were, of course, some exceptions. France, for example, played a leading role in spearheading the international intervention in Libya and more recently in Mali. But, on the whole, in dealing with major problems like the Arab-Israeli conflict, the dispute with Iran over its nuclear programme, or the highly destabilising civil war in Syria, the European Union has preferred to leave the initiative to the US.

Problems have arisen, however, because of America’s close relationship with Israel. For several years now, the Israeli tail has wagged the American dog in the Middle East — and Europe has meekly followed along. This has not been good for the reputation of several European countries, Britain in particular. In the explosive climate created by the Arab revolutions of the last two years, it is surely time for Britain and the European Union to recover their freedom of thought and action in dealing with the Middle East.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has festered for the past 65 years, remains a factor of immense instability. Today, the two-state solution is moribund, if not actually dead. A last minute attempt must surely be made to bring it back to life, or the consequences could be extremely dangerous for the Middle East and for European interests in this important region. Britain has a historic responsibility for the tragic state of affairs. Instead of keeping silent, Britain should be making a big and noisy fuss about the cruel oppression the Palestinians are suffering — under occupation in the West Bank and under siege in Gaza. It is surely time for the UK, and its European partners, to press for Palestinian statehood at this eleventh hour, even if it means threatening Israel with sanctions. As Israel’s major trading partner, the EU could apply considerable pressure, if it were able to summon up the courage and the political will to do so.

Israel’s present course is ultimately suicidal. It is a small country which depends on generous American aid and protection, but its long-term survival must surely depend on its ability to reach an accommodation with its Arab, Iranian and Turkish neighbours. This can be achieved only by halting and reversing its theft of Palestinian land and allowing the emergence of a small Palestinian state living alongside it in peace, security and prosperity. Israel’s reward would be normal relations with all 22 Arab states.

Britain made a blatant mistake 10 years ago when the then prime minister Tony Blair joined the US in the invasion of Iraq. The war was planned by a group of pro-Israeli neocons embedded in George W. Bush’s administration — notably Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith at the Pentagon and David Wormser in the vice-president’s office, among many others. The French and the Turks were wise enough to stay out of the war. Israel wanted Iraq destroyed because, after the Iran-Iraq war, it thought it might one day pose a threat to Israel’s eastern front. So Iraq, a major Arab state, was shattered and hundreds of thousands of its citizens killed. Millions more were displaced or driven into exile. It is still a long way from recovery.

An unforeseen consequence of the war was to unseat the Sunnis from power in Baghdad and replace them with the majority Shiite community. This meant that Iraq could no longer play its traditional role as a Sunni counterweight to Shiite Iran in the Gulf region. This development has caused some of the smaller Gulf states to take fright at the prospect of falling under Iranian hegemony. The shift in the regional power balance has also worried Saudi Arabia, the major Arab state in the region.

Having managed to persuade the US to destroy Iraq, Israel then shifted its attention to Iran, another potential challenger to its regional supremacy. Israel has campaigned tirelessly to get the US to join with it in an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — or, better still, for the US to do the job alone. Israel has not hesitated to depict Iran as a terrorist state and its nuclear programme as a threat to all mankind.

In his first term as president, Obama was able to resist Israel’s intense pressure for war against Iran. But he only managed to do so by imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, and forcing the Europeans to follow suit. Sanctions have more than halved Iran’s oil exports, shattered its currency, cut it off from international banking, and inflicted great hardship on its population.

There are now, at long last, some timid signs of a more rational approach to the Islamic republic. The recent talks in Kazakhstan between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany appear to have had some limited success and are due to be followed up soon by further negotiations. The obvious solution is for Iran to be allowed to enrich uranium to a low level for peaceful purposes under strict IAEA safeguards, in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

But Israel is seeking to torpedo any such compromise. It wants to close down Iran’s nuclear industry altogether. It doesn’t want any of its neighbours, near or far, to acquire even the possibility of a modest deterrent capability. As we all know, Israel is a major nuclear power with an elaborate arsenal of well over a hundred nuclear weapons, numerous long-range delivery systems and a second strike capability in the form of nuclear-armed submarines. It wants the freedom to hit its neighbours at will and never to be hit back.

In Syria, the US and some of its allies seem to be edging towards supplying weapons and equipment to opposition fighters. Of these, by far the most effective are radical Islamic groups, such as Jabhat Al Nusra, linked to Al Qaida. The US and its allies are thus in the paradoxical position of fighting Al Qaida across the world but supporting it in Syria. They will undoubtedly live to regret it. The Syrian conflict should be brought to an end as soon as possible. The way to do this is not to arm one side against the other, but to deny weapons to both sides. A ceasefire must be imposed by the US and Russia, backed by all the other external parties who have been feeding the flames of war. This is what the great majority of the martyred Syrian population is longing for.


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