Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will be visiting Iran on 18 April. The visit comes in the wake of the nuclear framework deal initialed on 2 April. Australia did not have a role in the ‘P5+1’ team of negotiators, but will look to benefit from any positive outcomes of the ongoing negotiations, if and when a final agreement is signed at the end of June.
Like every other country, Australia seeks to advance its own interests. However, it ought to be mindful of the Middle East strategic equation, and not sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gains.
On Ms Bishop’s list of talking points will be Iranian asylum seekers, Islamic State, sanctions relief, business interests, and a mandatory, light wrist-slapping about human rights and Iran’s long-running policy of undermining regional countries through proxies.
There are a lot of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia or on Nauru and Manus Island. Most of them have been or likely will be judged as not being owed protection (i.e. as not being genuine refugees). When an individual has had their asylum seeker claim rejected, Australia can forcibly return them to their home country—but only if that home country is willing to accept them. Until now, Iran has refused to accept Iranians forcibly repatriated from Australia. And since most failed Iranian asylum seekers refuse to return voluntarily, this puts Australia in a bind. Ms Bishop’s priority in Iran will be to secure an agreement from Iran to receive failed Iranian asylum seekers from Australia.
With the prospect of UN sanctions against Iran being withdrawn, Ms Bishop will be seeking opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Iran (especially in its decrepit fossil fuel infrastructure), buy from Iran and sell (especially livestock) to Iran.
Both of these issues—though especially the first—put Australia in the position of supplicant. Iran will thus have considerable leverage over Bishop to push for what it wants. And what it wants is an end to its international isolation without having to pay the price of giving up its nuclear program or stopping its drive to achieve regional hegemony. In the context of the Australian visit, it will want Australia to praise Iran’s good intentions in the nuclear negotiations and in regional politics. It will want Australia to lean on its Western friends to accept Iranian assurances about its nuclear ambitions. And, of course, it will want Australia to drop or considerably lessen its own sanctions against Iran (which are separate and additional to the UN sanctions).
Will Bishop accede to some or all of these demands? The answer lies in the determination of whether Australia wants to return all those failed asylum seekers more than it wants to hold Iran to account for its actions (which don't directly affect Australia).
But the strategic equation is highly important. As former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has now repeatedly warned, it appears that the US has shifted its strategic objective of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capability to constraining that capability. This is a fundamental shift, and is already having considerable impact on the Middle East and, particularly, those countries that have looked to America to guarantee their security (and who are increasingly feeling like they're being hung out to dry).
Ms Bishop’s trip to Iran so soon after the framework deal means that Australia is playing a small but important role in the developing Middle East dynamic. How will history look upon this footnote?
I have written previously (most recently here) about how the Status Quo Bloc (which consists of most Sunni Arab countries) are fearful of Iranian intentions. Israel and its prime minister might be very vocal about Iran (perhaps too vocal, to its detriment), but they largely mimic the thoughts of the Status Quo Bloc.
Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.
As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.
But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.
Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).
Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.
Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)
While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.
The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.
Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.
This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.
Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.
We often think of time as more than a commodity; time can be a threat. And in the Middle East, time is used as a weapon to the detriment of the West.
Time can be perceived in different ways—objectively (by measuring its passage with a clock) and subjectively, where time slows down or speeds up, is precious or cheap, depending on one’s outlook and personal situation. For instance, two hours with friends seems to fly by, but a two-hour meeting can feel like an eternity.
Just as time can fly or lag, depending on circumstances, so can the importance of time change. Put bluntly, in negotiations or conflict, if a party believes that time is on their side, there is less pressure on them to reach a conclusion than the party who believes that time is against them. A party that believes time is against them will be willing to make concessions to conclude the process they're in, to ensure that the passage of time doesn’t make things worse.
It is therefore important to be the party with whom time rests. Put differently, it is important to make the other party believe that time is not on their side. In this way time can be weaponised. There are different ways to weaponise time. Broadly speaking, they fall to three categories: military, political/diplomatic and nature.
While there are many variations of this theme, if you can make your enemy believe that your overwhelming military power will create a major problem for them if they do not do something (or do not desist from doing something) by a certain date, then you will have made your enemy aware that time is not on their side.
If you can make your enemy aware that increasing numbers of third parties are against them and, for as long as your enemy maintains its current course of action, this trend will continue, then your enemy will gain the impression that time is not on their side.
While it is difficult to categorise with one word, if you can make your enemy aware that nature – be it in the form of demographics or climate change or the rising tide – will make it worse for them as time goes on, then their perceptions of what their options are will be duly affected.
With these things in mind, we can turn to the Middle East. The three issues in the Middle East that are currently attracting media attention are: the perennial Israeli–Palestinian dispute; the Iran nuclear negotiations; and Islamic State (the actual Syrian civil war, of which Islamic State is only one party, has seemingly fallen off the radar, to be replaced by videos of Islamic State barbarity).
In regards to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that Israel is time-poor and that Palestinians have time on their side. This is for diplomatic and natural reasons. On diplomacy, the international community is increasingly critical of Israeli positions and increasingly accepting of Palestinian decisions. Opinion polls show the same trend among the general public in Western countries. These trends are reflected in growing diplomatic recognition of ‘Palestine’ and growing public support for boycotting Israel, despite the moral bankruptcy of doing so.
On nature, most Israelis and Palestinians believe that the ‘demographic threat’ of, within a few decades, there being more Arabs west of the Jordan River than Jews has the ability to considerably change the equation.
Because Israel believes that time is against it, it has made increasingly large offers to compromise in search of Israeli–Palestinian peace. Palestinians, on the other hand, have barely changed their negotiating positions since 1993. A long as everyone thinks time is against Israel, don't expect the Palestinian position to change.
Israel’s friends should want to change this time perception equation. They could do so by making Palestinians aware that the generous international aid it receives without (enforced) conditions will end by a certain date if Palestinians don't start acting responsibly in haste.
As to the Iran negotiations, the Islamic Republic is confident that time is on its side. Broadly speaking, it knows that the West (in particular, US President Obama) wants a negotiated outcome more than Iran does. So it can afford to wait, and obfuscate, and delay and otherwise keep on drawing out the negotiations so the Western offers come more and more palatable. The West occasionally rattles a sabre (‘no option is off the table’), but these are not considered credible by Iran. Were the West or Israel to make a credible military threat based on an unmovable deadline, Iran’s perception of the time up its sleeve might change dramatically. But this is unlikely to happen.
Countries like Saudi Arabia – which perceive Iran as a threat – also believe time is against them. That is why many are beginning their own nuclear programmes.
Islamic State is where one can see time on the side of the West (or, at least, against Islamic State). As I wrote previously, it is inevitable that Islamic State will recede with time. Indeed, these signs are already coming to pass. (That said, in Islamic State’s wake will be only chaos and ruin. This will likely be filled with another party or many parties squabbling over the right to rule—particularly the right to rule the oil fields in the areas Islamic State currently controls. Without a significant amount of money and US troops on the ground—neither of which will likely be made available—it is unlikely that conditions can be put in place that will allow for peace and security to be restored for the people of the area in the foreseeable future.)
As time goes on, things are becoming more difficult for the West’s Middle East allies. Time cannot be stopped, but perceptions of how much time one or the other side has can be changed. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the Europeans have the will to slow down the Middle East’s current trajectory toward further instability and conflict.
In 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.
Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.
Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.
It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn't like Shi’ites.
The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.
Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.
It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.
The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn't work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.
Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn't so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.
What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis - won't have been resolved. It's not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).
In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn't have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.
A spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).
Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.
The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.
These steps are:
Learning how to attack (online)
Learning how to attack (physical training)
Preparing for the attack
Carrying out the attack
In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.
Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.
Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.
They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.
Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.
These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.
These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.
These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.
This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.
What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.
The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.
The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.
It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.
There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:
“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.
“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world's population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”
In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.
Until recently, the Palestinians have had a binary choice in their path to statehood—negotiate with Israel or fight Israel. Neither have proven successful. The policies of the international community have opened Palestinian eyes to a third way, pursuing Israel in international organisations to embarrass and weaken the Jewish state.
On 30 December, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution calling for a Palestinian state within two years. It fell one short of the required nine yes votes. Two countries—Australia and the US—voted no and four others abstained.
The Palestinian Authority was the driving force behind this initiative. I believe that not only did the Palestinians know the resolution wouldn’t pass (even if it had have received nine yes votes, the US would have vetoed it), they wanted the resolution to fail. It is worthwhile noting that France had been working with the Palestinian delegation on a less one-sided draft—in other words, one that might have passed. But the Palestinians rejected moderate language, insisting on a draft with fewer Palestinian concessions, and maximum Israeli concessions.
Why would Palestinians want to have a Security Council vote calling for a Palestinian state voted down? The Palestinian leadership has two main objectives: to attain statehood and to retain power. The second objective is much more important for the Palestinian leadership than the first. History has shown numerous times (most recently in 2000, 2001 and 2008) that, in any situation where the Palestinian leadership faces a choice between achieving statehood and retaining power, retaining power wins out.
The dilemma is caused because achieving statehood through negotiations with Israel will involve substantial concessions for both sides. These concessions are widely known and, for the Palestinians, will result in: having a Palestinian state in 22 per cent of what it considers ‘historic Palestine’ (i.e. Israel, the West Bank and Gaza); and no ‘right of return’.
The ‘Right of Return’
While most Palestinians have grudgingly accepted the first concession, few will concede the second. The Palestinian leadership has been promising a full right of return to Israel since the founding of the national movement in the 1960s. Any Palestinian leader that agrees to a state without the right of return will be seen to have betrayed the Palestinian cause, likely resulting in an assassin’s bullet.
(Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish state, cannot agree to this ‘right of return’, because it would result in Jews becoming a minority in Israel, thereby creating two Palestinian states and no Jewish state. It thus argues—reasonably, in my opinion—that, following a final status peace agreement, the world’s Palestinians can immigrate to the State of Palestine (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and the world’s Jews can immigrate to the State of Israel.)
The refugee issue is, in my opinion, the principal reason the Palestinian leadership has rejected multiple Israeli offers of statehood.
For those who don't know: What is the ‘right of return’?
In the 1947–49 Arab–Israel war, about 750,000 Palestinians Arabs became refugees. This mostly occurred in the first half of 1948. About half were kicked out by Jewish forces, and about half fled. The Palestinian leadership demands that these refugees and their descendants (today numbering in the millions) have the right to return to their former homes in what has become the State of Israel. This is not a right afforded any other refugee population.
Israel the Scapegoat
Notwithstanding the vexed question of refugees, the Palestinian leadership has long used the Israelis as scapegoats for everything wrong in Palestinian society. Crime, unemployment, corruption and lack of infrastructure are all blamed on the Israeli occupation. Were the occupation to end and a Palestinian state be established, the Palestinian leadership could no longer duck responsibility. Of all these failures, corruption will be the hardest to fix (and this is the problem for which Israel is the least responsible). For a Palestinian leadership historically reluctant to put its people’s future ahead of its own, this in and of itself is a reason not to achieve statehood and forms, in my opinion, the second most important reason the Palestinians have rejected statehood offers.
Role of the International Community
Given that the Palestinian leadership does not want to achieve statehood if doing so will threaten its rule, the international community could and should engineer a situation where the Palestinian leadership will not feel threatened by statehood. This could be done by implementing two policies. First, by tying future aid to Palestinian good governance, it could force the Palestinian leadership to rid its ranks of corruption (since the Palestinian economy is reliant on aid). The West has threatened such action in the past, but never delivered (which has taught the Palestinians that the West is a toothless tiger). If carried out, it would be a painful process, but ultimately be healthy for both the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.
The refugee issue is far more problematic. However, the international community could provide political cover for the Palestinian leadership if the former were to: a) state quite plainly that the refugees and their descendants will definitely not be allowed to immigrate to Israel en masse as part of a peace agreement; and b) concurrently promise significant funds to integrate Palestinians into either their host populations, the new state of Palestine or third countries.
Although the above is possible, I don’t believe it is likely. As written about in far more detail in this post, the West blames Israel for the continuation of the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. It thus places the onus on Israel to resolve problems and places diplomatic pressure on Israel to do so. And while this in and of itself isn’t a problem, almost all Israeli and Palestinian actions, whether good or bad, are filtered by Western commentators through the prism of ‘Israel is to blame for the lack of peace’. Thus, Palestinian actions that undermine peace (such as corruption, violence, unachievable promises and more) are seen as unfortunate but excusable actions of an occupied people. This would be harmless except for that fact that by providing Palestinians with aid and recognition without holding Palestinians to account for bad behaviour, the West has effectively rewarded bad behaviour and thus encouraged more of it.
The Palestinian leadership largely (though incorrectly) sees the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a zero sum game. That is, it believes that whenever Israel loses, the Palestinians win. With increasing condemnation of and pressure on Israel, the Palestinian leadership has come to the conclusion that it does not need to compromise with Israel. The world will continue pressuring Israel and will continue providing Palestinians with aid and recognition. And while the West will make statements about what it expects the Palestinians to do, it will not punish the Palestinians if they do not comply.
Palestinians Internationalise the Conflict
This leads us to the Palestinian objective in regards to the draft UN Security Council resolution.
Ahead of the vote, the Palestinians said that if the draft resolution were rejected, ‘Palestine’ would seek to join the International Criminal Court and other international organisations. Indeed, since the 30 December vote, the Palestinians have already signed the Rome Statute—the first step to acceding to the ICC.
As a member of the ICC, the Palestinians will seek to have Israel and individual Israelis prosecuted for war crimes committed on Palestinian territory. (The ICC only has jurisdiction in the territory of its members; it has no jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza until it accepts ‘Palestine’ as a member.)
Joining the ICC and other international bodies continues a trend that began a few years ago, and is the culmination of the trend cited in the opening paragraph of this post—that the Palestinian leadership has found a third way (the first being violence, the second being diplomacy—though at the cost of the leadership losing its rule) to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests without compromising.
And while this tactic has been and will continue to hurt Israel and advance Palestinian interests, it will not lead to a viable peace for two reasons. First, it further diminishes the little trust Israelis have that Palestinians want to live in peace with it. That doesn’t matter so much, since the Palestinians argue that the reason they are internationalising the conflict is because they have lost all trust in Israel. However, and second, pursuing Israel in the realm of ‘lawfare’ might well hurt Israel and provide the Palestinian leadership with a short-term bump in popularity (which the UN Security Council vote achieved), but it will do nothing to address the chronic obstacles blocking the path between the current reality and a viable Palestinian state. Some of these obstacles have nothing to do with Israel. Others are associated with the Israeli occupation, but will only be overcome when Israelis and Palestinians work together in good faith. (Which is not to say that Israelis are blameless—far from it. But this is clearly an example of Palestinians shooting themselves in the foot for short-term advantage.)
But let’s say I’m wrong. What if UN condemnations, ICC prosecutions and even sanctions by countries such as Australia (which is what some people are calling for) successfully pressure Israel into withdrawing from the entirety of the West Bank (including those parts of Jerusalem that the Palestinians claim)? The occupation will have ended.
But the Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. The majority of its exports and imports go to and come from Israel. Its electricity and much of its water is supplied by Israel. Many Palestinians find work in Israel or the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, the West Bank has no airport and no access to the sea; it is reliant on Israel for all international imports and exports. If Israel is forced through condemnations, prosecutions and sanctions to withdraw from the West Bank, you can bet it will have nothing to do with the new State of Palestine. No goods or services will cross the Israel–Palestine border. Any product entering Gaza (which has a port on the Mediterranean) will likely not be allowed to cross into Israel and then into the West Bank. The Palestinian economy will crash. Violence and chaos will be the result. Terrorist groups will also turn their guns on Israel, which will be forced to intervene to protect its citizens.
And so on. If Israelis and Palestinians want a peaceful future, they must cooperate. And while both sides continue to pursue unhelpful policies, trust (and, with it, good will) diminishes and the possibility for cooperation further evaporates. The Palestinian move to go to the Security Council, lose on purpose and then use it as a pretext to join the ICC and other international organisations is one of the most significant such unhelpful moves in the last 10 years.