Palestinian elections: January 25th
Palestine is where we should be most worried. Palestine - where it all started with the foundation of the state of Israel, a wound that has never healed. The unpopularity - hatred even, of the arab-in-the-street for the US, started then and grew as over the years, they were perceived irredeemably to be supporting the Israeli side and no other. To all intents, to Arab eyes, they were the same thing.
World attitudes have clearly changed over fifty years but in the wake of WWII, Arab public opinion was a matter of supreme indifference to the west. Britain dismantling its empire, felt that holding the mandate from after WWI, and after giving certain pledges then, it had the right to dispose of this rather inchoate chunk of the sprawling former Ottoman Empire, as a Jewish homeland. The principal opponents to this were the King of Jordan, a British appointee, and the Mufti of Jerusalem - no t such heavyweight opponents for a Whitehall emerging from the defeat of Hitler. The world Jewish movements did the rest. Having come close to extinction in Europe, they took their opportunity to repopulate the unpromising territory. Jewish fighting men from many WWII allied armies came to fulfill what many felt to be their obligation to help the local-born sabra create a nation. Capital was available, technology arrived. The new Israeli state won the admiration of much of the world as they made the desert bloom and fought tenaciously and well to repel attacks from all their neighbours. Apart from their complex religion, they introduced western culture and democratic values to the region, so that, in clear contrast to the Arab states that surround it, it has the 'feel' of a small European nation, subject to the rule of law. But they did one terrible thing, the consequences of which remain with us all. Like the cossacks or the gestapo of the collective Jewish racial nightmare, their victorious fighting men, civilians - everyone fell on Arab communities and villages in the new state, terrorized and expelled the inhabitants, old and young, with the deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing by expulsion.
Thus was born the Palestinian identity, people whom neighbouring states did not want or need, yet who refused to be eliminated as a people. Inconvenient all around, but the reality was no-one allotted 'them' new lands. They became squatters in the slums and in refugee camps of those cities, towns and villages in the crescent that lies outside Israel's land boundaries. As new generations of young men emerged from this life of squalor with their normal share of warrior genes, together with a righteous cause, they were the ripest recruits ever for terrorism.
Over the half-century, many attempts have been made to find an equitable solution. Some US leaders and others tried hard. The current one did not. It is said that Secretary of State Powell came close to resignation in the first few months of the first Bush presidency, because he was constantly blocked by the White House in progressing initiatives towards settling this awful problem. It was not that the White House had no interest. Apparently Sharon, for many years, has been in daily communication with Dick Cheney's office, (US policy appeared to be : whatever Sharon wants to do is our policy).
The intifada was provoked to large extent by Ariel Sharon's cynical armed excursion to Jerusalem's Temple mount, the site of Islam's third most holy shrine. It raged for years, many died, including mounting numbers of Israeli civilians. The world that had admired the students of Tienanman Square standing unarmed in the path of Chinese tanks, were invited nightly on TV to witness the biblical role-reversal of teenage Palestinian "Davids," throwing stones at the armoured "Goliaths" of Israeli tanks. Were we expected to condemn these Palestinian boys for this bravado?
Israel's strong man, Sharon seemed to be ready to consolidate the West Bank settlements and defy the world. Suddenly, his initiative to evacuate Gaza changed the pervading perception. This had promise. It may or may not have been a feint, a part of a wider plan, but it was a break in the deadlock.
The State Department stirred itself and an agenda for a two-state solution was on the table. Sharon, at this writing, looks unlikely to play any further part and his successor is still unknown. But the immediate problem at the root of what looks to be about to
become a disaster, is not the lack of leadership on the Israeli side, although a political power vacuum can only complicate the reaction.
On January 25th, the Palestinians go to the polls. All the evidence is that they will elect into power Hamas, or give them a powerful boost into sharing in government. Listed by State Department and the EU as a terrorist organization, it is sponsored by
IRAN and is the religiously inspired competitor to Fatah, the secular party of the late Yasser Arafat and the inc umbent president Mahmoud Abbas. That enfeebled and widely discredited party is infamous for its corruption, but more relevantly it has been quite unable to control the armed factions (Hamas being only the most prominent), that have persisted in armed anarchy and acts of terrorism against Israel. The pre-condition to progressing the two-state solution was to prevent this, and it is the test of Abbas's Palestinian government which it has signally failed.
If this election results in a Hamas government, or even a coalition including them, supported as they are by
IRAN, neither Israel nor the USA are likely to treat with them, so a negotiated settlement won't happen . Sufficient reason apart from that is that Hamas say they will not disarm their supporters nor recognise the state of Israel - it remains their policy that Israel must be destroyed!
Postions will polarize. Fortress Israel's wall will be more than symbolic. War might happen, given sufficient provocation! Violence will certainly escalate, particularly if
IRAN mixes in. The overdue solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, centerpiece of a long, slow, but necessary reconciliation between the west and the forces of Islam will have disappeared, with no obvious way of restoring it.
The outcome depends on the Palestinian voters but currently looks utterly bleak!
UKRAINE March 26th Parliamentary elections.
UKRAINE might be our second biggest worry. With the Orange revolution, the west achieved a great coup for democracy which looks to be in serious danger of trickling into the sands. President Yushchenko, who appears to be a decent man and a democratic one, is not necessarily the forceful chief executive this country-on-the-cusp really needs. The fundamental problem is that in his parliament, only a minority of the lawmakers are with him. They are mostly of the previous administration which grew up under President Kuchma, a powerful, seasoned executive president, but a monster. On March 26th are the new parliamentary elections. If Kuchma's former people - the pro-Russian party of Yanukovich who lost the presidential election to Yushchenko, consolidate a majority, then
UKRAINE is unlikely to make further progress, rather to slip back, particularly as constitutional changes already in train, are moving power from the elected president to a prime-minister who will need to command a majority in that legislature.
It is as simple as this. The Presidential election moved the nation to face towards the democratic and prosperous west, instead of as for many centuries past, eastwards towards Muscovite domination. To do this meant that the citizens were promised a better life, a better future for their children. Elections are the time when such propositions are tested. Under Yushchenko, they must be free and fair elections and the polls indicate that at 13% he is not doing well, far behind Yanukovich (31% ), with Yuliya Timoshenko, his former prime minister having been dismissed by him, campaigning with her own new bloc. People are not feeling better off, even before the Russian gas onslaught, which AT BEST, is leaving them facing a doubling of price.
What is at stake here? The fate of 47 million people in Europe's largest nation and the configuration of the future Europe, no less. Where will the boundaries of states that cleave to the enlightened rule of law, meet the dark forces of central Eurasia?
Russia, after short period under Yeltsin's benign and rather chaotic rule has now repudiated democracy. It has a regime of a non-accountable ruling clique of former KGB and military chiefs, where government is by fiat, where justice is not available, where the media is not free, where corruption and contracted murder are an integral part of public life. It is probably only a matter of time before the re-introduction of the gulags.
A UKRAINE returned to Moscow's control has been the Russian Foreign Ministry's primary foreign policy objective since Yeltsin 'gave away' their full independence in 1991. They see the Ukrainian future as a part of a newly reconstituted slav-dominated 'Greater Russia'. That policy was doing well but had not yet won over
UKRAINE's people. (One stumbling bloc was Chechnya. When Ukrainians remembered the blood of their young conscript soldiers that had been spilled 'for the Soviet Union' in
AFGHANISTAN, they saw no reason to supply new sources of cannon-fodder for Russia's imperial adventure in Chechnya, a matter on wh ich Moscow has had no answer for them). But the drift eastwards fell apart with the Orange revolution, when people were able to see that they were being cheated in a phoney election by a president who had been caught ordering political murders, and by corrupt politicians who had become billionaire oligarchs, whilst the ordinary people throughout the nation struggled for their daily existence. They saw their close neighbours, Poland and Slovakia, who left communism behind at about the same time as they did, doing very much better. The large Ukrainian diaspora, many in Canada and the USA, were encouraging them to make the break from Moscow's domination - and they did.
But the prerequisite to future success is commitment by the institutions of the west. It is the European Union primarily that needs to display some bold leadership. Something dramatic is needed now. It needs the Jack Kennedy approach: "Ich bin ein Berliner." It needs more than top Commission people like Barroso mouthing good intentions. If Blair, Chirac and Angela Merkel were to visit Kiev seperately or together, and each pledge that to the limits of their own ability they would work for th e eventual inclusion of
UKRAINE into the EU, then no greater incentive could be available. NATO membership is not a solution, how could it not be seen as a provocation, unless NATO's objectives could satisfactorily be redefined in such a way that even Russia could be invited to join?
It is up to the leaders of Europe to confirm out loud that
UKRAINE is a part of Europe, and if it has chosen the democratic way, that it will be sustained by the larger community. As it is, short term national politics and the fear of the great debate - what is Europe going to be - is in danger of scuttling the democratic project in Ukraine and make no mistake, if that window closes, Moscow with all its tried and trusted methods of repression will make sure that it does not re-open.
Why should the EU leaders do this, when their domestic critics would savage them? Because this is not primarily a US problem, although they would seek to assist. It is about Europe, and only the EU can deal with that. To allow this magnificent break-through in democratic progress to wither on the vine, and it already has an uphill struggle, would restore the western march of an expansionist, totalitarian Russia, and the re-absorption of 47 million Ukrainians to be re-processed into greater Russians.
The dark side would be greatly strengthened, it's borders would move nearer to the heart of democratic Europe and succeeding generations would be astonished at our myopia.
IRAN : Any time soon
IRAN ruthlessly invented the suicide bomber as a cheap and effective military weapon against Saddam's
IRAQI tanks, and it moved from there to be a terror weapon aimed at civilians. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president, is shaping up like a presidential suicide bomber, leading his nation in defiance of the world to the brin k of confrontation, simultaneously on Israel, and on Nuclear proliferation. Given the instability in Palestine and the likelihood of an Israeli successor to the stricken Sharon needing to show he has cojones, Ahmadinejad single-handedly has already offered a casus belli with his threats towards Israel. If the Palestinian election results in a
IRAN / Hamas engineered breakdown of t he peace process, then in that shambles, whilst much of the world is feeling generally hostile to a potentially nuclear-armed
IRAN, with the nod from the White House, the Israeli Air Force may at last slip the leash and make the pre-emptive strike on
IRAN's nuclear installations that no doubt many Israeli planners would dearly like to get done. They would be unlikely to neglect also taking out the Iranian Air Force and their rocket capacity.
Alternatively, the UN Security Council might in theory impose sanctions on
IRAN if China doesn't veto, as Chinese energy futures are largely concentrated on exploiting Iranian reserves. Securing those energy needs may well outweigh a spell of unpopularity with Washington and the west. But what sanctions are available? To sanction existing oil and gas exports, to re ally hurt
IRAN, would primarily affect a major US ally, Japan. That isn't going to happen. Besides, to reduce world supply by the equivalent of Iranian energy output, would drive world prices over the $100 a barrel mark. Forget it!
The pressure would mainly fall on European companies in all industries, as the US has already long forbidden it's own corporations to trade with this pariah nation. That obviously would not stop Russian and Chinese and in general rogue traders, as middlemen or primary suppliers, filling the vacuum. The sanctions threat looks so unconvincing that it is hard to believe that seasoned diplomats could seek to go that route, unless
RUSSIA and China had already committed to it. After all, nuclear-armed
NORTH KOREA, in whom both are interested, is sitting just below the geopolitical horizon and is no doubt working hard on how to gain some advantage for themselves from the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The distressing reality may be that the genie of nuclear proliferation is now impossible to return to its bottle and the UN must quickly find a Plan B. If
IRAN does proceed with the development of the 'Shi'ite bomb', then we should expect their Sunni rivals in Saudi Arabia understandably to fast-track the same route. The cause of restraining nuclear proliferation, already looking sick, would take another downturn. De jure or de facto,
INDIA and Pakistan are now nuclear powers. Pakistan, the possessor of the 'Islamic bomb' is terrifyingly unstable, where the powerful lSI branch of the armed services was the father and mother of the Taleban in next-door
AFGHANISTAN; where there is little love lost for the west and its non- Islamic ways, and with three, fortunately unsuccessful, attempts on the life of President Musharraf within the past year. If they could get rid of him, then an Islamic coup would follow. The question then is whether the armed forces would turn out to be pragmatic and westwards-leaning like say, those of
TURKEY, or shot through with Islamic zealots in powerful positions; or perhaps like those of the Shah's Iran, overwhelmed by the incoming priestcraft's mobilization of the peasantry and the workers. That would demonstrate who controlled the existing 'Islamic bomb', a strategic question of critical importance to nuclear-armed
INDIA, let alone the west
It can be seen just five full years into the 3d millennium, that removing the old certainties of the confrontation with communism, has not made the world a safer place. It might be that Ahmadinejad, who unlike Moscow and Washington of yesteryear has no (MAD) Mutually Assured Destruction to deter attack, will be removed by higher authority - his elected government in IR AN is only at the third tier of power. In that case we might yet be cheering the ayatollahs and the venerable Ruhollah Khomenei could be set spinning in his grave.
Clive Lindley - Publisher