news on the middle east


Monday, April 20, 2015

Israeli Elections 2015

ISRAEL's ELECTIONS are over and a process of coalition building is underway. The NCF's Chief Media Officer, Ms Deborah Pout, analysed the elections and their aftermath. We circulate her conclusions:
The recent Israeli elections saw Benjamin Netanyahu pull a clear and impressive fourth victory from the jaws of defeat. The polls had been narrowing between Netanyahu's Likud party and the opposition Zionist Union party led by Yitzhak Herzog but many wrote off Netanyahu too early.  Netanyahu has been an adversary never to be underestimated and a master of political wizardry throughout his career. Netanyahu's victory was in part driven by personality and a populist message. Netanyahu also skilfully managed to take votes from smaller parties such as the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and Habayit Hayehudi, the religious party. This election brought into sharp focus how the israeli media and the pollsters got the elections so wrong and failed to identify the underlying political trends amongst the electorate which led to Netanyahu's victory. 
Yitzhak Herzog was the John Kerry of Israel's politics, an urbane, thoughtful intellectual who never quite had the popular touch. The Zionist Union was a joint ticket with Herzog's Labour Party (Hebrew: Avoda) and Hatnuah led by Tzipi Livni. The alliance put Labour back on the Israeli political map with the Zionist Union ending up with 24 seats (Labour itself only had 15 seats in the last Knesset - it's 13 years since Labour were last able to play a lead role in Israel's politics). The electorate did not like Herzog's acceptance of Livni's condition that the Premiership would "rotate". All the more so because of the perception amongst some sections of the electorate rightly or wrongly that Livni had changed her political allegiances on one too many occasion (jumping from party to party four times in the space of four elections). Livni, a constant supporter of the peace process, had started her political career in Likud.  
The election of Netanyahu (he won 30 seats as opposed to the Zionist Union's 24) masks a range of dissonant underlying trends. This election shows that Israel is in practice now centre/right in its politics rather than hard right. One new and important factor on the scene was The Joint List which united Israel's Arab political parties on one ticket and thus became the third largest party in Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, with 13 seats. The new centrist party Kulanu (All of Us) founded by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon which champions socioeconomic issues gained an impressive 10 seats in the Knesset. Kahlon, a popular politician and rising star of Israeli politics, could be a kingmaker in the formation of Netanyahu's new government. The natural alliance for Netanyahu's Likud would be a right wing coalition. But he may consider another option, that of a "national unity" government together with Herzog and Livni. Such a coalition might be an appealing option to Netanyahu as it would make his government more attractive on the international stage. Such an option is currently being examined in "back channels" though it will be very hard to bring all of Labour (Avoda's) MPs to this wedding.
Interestingly Israel's public opinion on a two state solution and the peace process continues to be nuanced. The Israeli Democracy Institute which follows Israel's public attitudes towards the peace process published a poll just before the elections showing the contradictory attitudes of Israelis. Two thirds of respondents expressed support for continuing to hold peace negotiations but 65% of respondents said they did not believe such negotiations would lead to peace in the coming years. Netanyahu is still in the process of building his coalition which may of course be a coalition of right wing parties. If so prospects for a meaningful resumption of peace negotiations with the Palestinians seem slim while Netanyahu is at the helm.
Netanyahu's fourth victory was greeted with disappointment and disquiet in many quarters of the international community  who saw his re-election as signaling the end of any hopes for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians while he leads Israel. During the last days of his increasingly desperate campaign, Netanyahu declared his opposition to a Palestinian State (a change from his Bar Ilan speech and a position he quickly recanted after his victory.) Netanyahu correctly calculated that there were votes to be won by outflanking the right on this issue. Netanyahu's current position on a Palestinian state seems to be that with the perceived weak leadership of President Abbas it would be a target for regional predators including Hamas from Gaza, "Islamic State" (ISIS) from the East and Hizbollah which is Iran's proxy to the North. Iran's nuclear programme is also seen as a severe threat, making it very unlikely that a two state solution can be achieved.    Netanyahu's bloody and costly military campaign in Gaza in the summer of 2014 also came in for criticism domestically and condemnation internationally. It should be noted that Netanyahu's popularity initially increased during the military operation in Gaza. Netanyahu used this to his political advantage by cultivating his image as the only experienced and responsible leader currently in Israeli politics. His poll ratings fell after the summer and Netanyahu's leadership came under increasing political attack.
A leaked EU document claimed that the deadlock in Israeli/Palestinian negotiations and continuing settlement expansion had left Jerusalem on the brink of 'polarisation and violence'. Some Fatah politicians have expressed fears that frustrations on the Palestinian street may boil over into a Third Intifada. Palestinian protests did turn violent last summer over Israel's actions in Gaza and the building of more settlements. These issues didn't seem to play a prominent role in the recent Israeli elections even though there were some attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank. There have been murmurings that Netanyahu may revive and continue Ariel Sharon's policy of a one sided separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it is unlikely that Netanyahu will be able to implement such unilateral moves either politically or militarily. The main obstacle to a peace process will be the possible formation of a right wing coalition. Therefore if he did return to the negotiating table over a peace process and achieved a deal he wouldn't have the majority in parliament to implement it. 
On the international stage Netanyahu's policies and diplomacy have led to US/Israeli relations being at an all time low. Many within the Israeli political and security establishment fear that Netanyahu's leadership is jeopardising Israel's national interest. They believe his reckless diplomacy vis à vis the United States is threatening Israel's most important strategic relationship. The election campaign saw Netanyahu's leadership come in for an unprecedented chorus of public criticism from numerous former senior security officials who called for his ousting as Prime Minister. Netanyahu has indicated he will use his new term in office to try and mend relations with the Obama administration but it may be too little too late. The levels of mistrust and rancour between Netanyahu and Obama are well documented. Many within Israel's political and security establishment are concerned that Netanyahu's diplomatic collision course with Obama has weakened Israel's ability to be heard in Washington over the country's legitimate concerns regarding the US/Iranian nuclear deal. Israel will also be coming under further scrutiny with attempts to isolate the country diplomatically now that the Palestinians have joined the International Criminal Court and may seek to indict  Israelis for war crimes.
The Israeli media and Netanyahu's political opponents thought that the election would be a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness for the job of Prime Minister. They were sure that the Israeli public was fed up with his rhetoric and lack of ability to deal with the crucial issues. The results prove they were right in their analysis but wrong in their conclusions. When Israelis headed to the polls and had to decide between Herzog and Netanyahu they didn't really see any alternative.  There is a huge difference between the way the Israeli Prime Minister is seen by his political opponents and the international community, as opposed to how he is seen by ordinary Israeli citizens. In short, the election results mean that Netanyahu's attention will be primarily focused on domestic socioeconomic issues including the housing crisis and the increased cost of living as well as other internal issues.
For many Netanyahu's re-election signals more of the same but in the world of Middle Eastern politics if there is one certainty it is uncertainty.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Netanyahu’s Two-State Confusion

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has now seemingly performed two U-turns on the matter of the two-state solution in the space of only a few weeks. He has changed his stance either side of his re-election, leaving confusion over what he actually believes but also providing a further understanding of the cynical way in which he uses the Middle East peace process as a political tool.

With election pressure mounting, Netanyahu changed his stance. In 2009, Netanyahu had outlined his support for a two-state solution, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. He furthered this vision with another speech on the subject to US congress in 2011. Yet, in an interview days before the election, he stated “anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the State of Israel”. Now, within days of his re-election, in an interview with NBC, Netanyahu has said, “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution”.

The first change of heart seems to have been a ploy to win the support of right-wing voters, whilst the second is an attempt to repair Netanyahu’s faltering relationship with the US; both pragmatic political moves rather than ideological shifts. The ease with which he is willing to change his views on the idea of a Palestinian state undermines the whole concept, regardless of what he actually believes. In a peace process where trust is so important, the fickle nature of Netanyahu’s rhetoric to suit his own needs, will leave anyone still hopeful of progress both confused and frustrated. If there is no hope of a Palestinian state somewhere down the line then those looking to the peace process for a solution will increasingly look elsewhere for answers. It is this lack of hope that has driven many Palestinians to arms in the past.

So where does this leave the Middle East peace process? In truth, it has been stagnant for some time. Netanyahu’s recent comments will not disrupt any current initiatives; there is currently nothing to disrupt. His comments do seem to suggest that any likelihood of a Palestinian state being created is non-existent for the foreseeable future. It is a view backed up by Barack Obama. When speaking on prospects for a Palestinian state last week, he professed, “What we can’t do is pretend there’s a possibility for something that’s not there”. There are many who have always doubted whether Netanyahu really believed in the two-state solution and, for them, his comments will have only served to confirm this suspicion. Certainly, they confirm the view that Netanyahu’s re-election is not a positive step towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Peace Process Amid Elections in Israel

In December 2014, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for new elections two years ahead of schedule as tensions over the “Jewish state” bill proposing to declare Israel as "the nation state of the Jewish people" threatened to undermine his leadership. Netanyahu and his right wing, hawkish Likud Party does now fight to be re-elected. His biggest opponent is the Zionist Union, a centre-left alliance between Issac Herzog’s Labour Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, a part founded in 2012 to present an alternative to voters frustrated by the stalemate in peacemaking.

Prospects of Land-for-Peace

While many international observers and politicians view the peace process as Israel’s most prevalent political issue, there seems to be little demand amongst the Israeli population for peace with the Palestinians and the outcome of the election will thus rather depend on the parties’ economic policies. BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Kevin Connolly, writes that ‘the moribund state of the vexed peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has never felt like a major campaign issue’. However minor in the run-up to the elections, the prospects for a re-instigation of the haltered peace process will depend heavily on the outcome of the election as Netanyahu and his party moves further and further away from traditional peace proposals.

Israel’s current Prime Minister, who six years ago still embraced the concept of the ‘Two-State Solution’, recently used the unstable situation in the Middle East with ISIS continuing to fight in Iraq, Syria and Libya to explain that for his government the idea of a Palestinian state has lost its viability. He argued that a newly founded state would be vulnerable to be taken over and used as a battleground by militant extremists. The New York Times published an article today, March 16th, stating that Netanyahu authorized the construction and extension of the heavily criticised settlement Har Homa in one of the southern neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. It was part of campaign launched to rally support amongst right-wing voters, who oppose a Palestinian state and hence any negotiations aiming at establishing a Palestinian state in exchange for peace. Both settlements and the ownership of Jerusalem remain two of the main obstacles for peace between Israel and its occupied territories.

While the future of the peace process remains unclear independent of the outcome of tomorrow’s election, recent events and developments indicate that in case of a Likud success the prospects for peace look dire.

Arab Israeli Vote

While Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank do not have the right to vote, the Arab population in Israel, the descendants of those who in 1948-49 remained on the territory, which became Israel, makes up 15% of the electorate and will thus influence the outcome of the election. Traditionally, most of the Arab population’s votes were divided amongst three Arab parties. For this election, however, the Arab parties joined forces with its leader Ayman Odeh stating that their number one objective is to end the current premiership of Netanyahu. If the Arab list is successful – recent polls indicated that they are able to win between 13 and 15 seats in the Knesset – the prospects to revive the peace process are likely to increase as they promised to emphasize the issue and aim to enshrine it again on Israel’s national agenda.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mona Al-Ghussein talks Gaza

Here's Mona Ghussein on the English Hour. I was fairly pleased with the broadcast when I did it, though you may think differently. Let me know:

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Frustration in Gaza

On the 26th of August last year, Israel and Gaza agreed to a ceasefire deal, with the help of Egypt’s President al-Sisi, that would see fishing restrictions gradually lifted and an end of the blockade of border crossings into Gaza. The deal saw the end to 50 days of fighting that claimed the lives of well over 2000 people, the vast majority of which were Palestinians. For the optimists it appeared, given the concessions made by Israel, to provide the stepping stone towards a potential peace deal. Yet frustration seems to be growing in Gaza and there are signs that the ceasefire deal is at real risk.

There have been strains on the ceasefire deal since its inception in late August: in September Gaza fishermen were reportedly fired on by the Israeli navy despite claiming to have been within the allotted 6 mile fishing limit and in December rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza, to which Israel responded with airstrikes. Perhaps most importantly though, in Gaza the conditions of the deal are not perceived to have been upheld by Israel. The opening of border crossings was a necessity to obtain the materials needed to reconstruct the many homes in Gaza destroyed during the conflict. Whilst Israel has provided building materials through the border – around 400 trucks a day pass through for this purpose - the borders are heavily monitored. The view from Palestine is epitomised by Palestinian journalist Hai al-Masri, who writes that “the siege and closure of the crossings have become worse than at any other time”. With thousands of people in Gaza still homeless and living in tents, tensions are simmering as a result.

The division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is also playing a part in this. Last month, for example, Hamas set up a makeshift outpost and patrolled at the Palestinian Authority’s checkpoint; Israel responded by only allowing Gazans with humanitarian emergencies through the border. The strain in Gaza certainly seems to be increasing. Militants have reportedly conducted several attacks against Hamas, including blowing up the car of a Hamas security official on January 20th. So, although Hamas themselves seem inclined to honour the ceasefire for the moment – they have been attempting to prevent the rocket fire into Israel in December, the pressure on them and Gazan people is mounting. Ceasefires between the two sides have been historically precarious and have been consistently broken. This factor, along with the internal disputes in Gaza and the fact that the borders are seemingly no more open than before, mean the threat to this current deal is rising.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Disparity between health levels in Palestine and Israel

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Prevalence of disease

According to the Global Burden of Disease study carried out between 1990 and 2013 there exist gross disparities between the health of Palestinians and Israelis (Humanosphere August 2014). The biggest discrepancies found were in cardio and circulatory disease prevalence and neonatal issues - five times as much in Palestine and diabetes and endocrine diseases which are twice as prevalent amongst Palestinians as Israelis. Although the disparity between child deaths among the two populations has been diminishing over time, the rate among Palestinian children is still 5 times as much as among Israeli children in 2013 with maternal mortality double the rate in Palestine.  There is also a significant difference between the numbers of mental health suffers in Palestinian territories versus in Israel – figures that Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) associates with a high prevalence of anxiety among Palestinians under the continuous mistreatment by IDF forces.

There were found to be many poverty-related and conflict-related afflictions with diarrhoea and infectious diseases much higher (up to 5 times) among the Palestinians as well as low rates of nutrition (5 times as much among Palestinians) which along-side poor housing and low incomes exacerbate the rate of avoidable illnesses. This has contributed to a greater scale of early death with general life expectancy (outside of conflict) around 5 years less among Palestinians that Israelis, 75 to 81, respectively – and an over 65 population of 3.2% in Palestine and 10.5 in Israel (World fact book). 

Further details and a breakdown can be found at

Health provision and access

The general health level among Israelis is on average more comparable to Europe, currently higher than in Italy or Spain (Humanopsphere, August 2014), with health spending currently at USD$ 2,071 per capita  or 7.7% of GDP similar to that of Luxembourg (World fact book) with universal health care in place since 1995. Conversely Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are provided health care through UN agencies, specifically UNWRA and humanitarian organisations such as MSF and the ICRC – but these can cost and do have some notable conditions.  The WHO estimated that 58% of the health sector in Gaza was damaged during Operation Protective Edge with specific medical concerns arising such as the increase of water-borne diseases as a result of over-crowding in shelters; complications for casualty patients including through lack of water and electricity and a decline of physical and mental health from the extended emergency period without improvements to access to health or the overall living conditions in Gaza (WHO 21st August 2014).

Health facilities and provision in Israel do not seem to be greatly affected, if at all, by hostilities and conflict while facilities in Palestine are currently also suffering from shortages in drugs – 28% of essential medicines were at zero stock and 16% at very low with anaesthesia and sutures at only 54% of that required – according to the Pharmacy director general in Gaza (WHO, 2014). The medical journal The Lancet found that poor families in Palestine had little access to medical treatment in Israel – made worse by the barrier erected by Israel within the West Bank and with Gaza – and that a fifth of access requests were either denied or delayed by the Israeli authorities.  Within Israel too, Israeli Arabs were found to experience health services differently.  Here economic factors were found to play less of a role than exclusionary policies towards non-Jews were found to be the cause with lower rates of insurance cover for Arabs (Chernichovsky and Anson, 2005) and subsequent fewer referrals to consultants for non-Hebrew speakers.