Middle East update: February 28 2018


So there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Wednesday’s five hour humanitarian pause in Eastern Ghouta did actually take place, unlike Tuesday’s scheduled pause. The bad news is that the overall situation in the Damascus suburb continues to deteriorate:

Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory despite a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.


Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of the eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-held area near the capital.

For some reason, even though the humanitarian corridor was open on Wednesday, no civilians tried to leave Eastern Ghouta. You don’t suppose they might have been skeptical about the ceasefire holding, do you? No, it must be that the rebels are forcing them to stay. Hat tip to Vladimir Putin for clarifying that for us. For my part, I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, you guys might need to string two or three actual daily ceasefires together before people start to actually believe that it might be safe to make a break for it. Just a theory.


Several international refugee aid groups working in Iraq have issued a report warning that displaced Iraqis are being forced to return home even though conditions are not yet safe or livable:

At least 8,700 displaced Iraqis in predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province were forced to return from camps to their areas of origin in the final six weeks of 2017, it said.


In two of five camps the aid groups collectively oversee, 84 percent of displaced Iraqis said they felt safer in the camp than in their area of origin. More than half said their houses were damaged or totally destroyed and only 1 percent said they knew for sure their houses were available for return.


One in five people who left a third camp came back later after facing retribution and threats in their areas of origin.

The pressure to return people to their homes is intense with an election looming in May. But the return of displaced Iraqis has to be handled properly if the country is to have any hope of long-term stability.


Two separate Saudi airstrikes, one in Saada province and the other in Hudaydah province, killed at least nine civilians on Wednesday.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has returned to Saudi Arabia. So if we don’t hear from him for the next few weeks, you’ll know why.


New public opinion research suggests that there is still a path to a two-state solution that can win the support of majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians, even though support for a two-state peace currently has 46 percent support across both groups. Including elements like a guarantee of Palestinian security cooperation, compensation for refugees displaced in the Nakba, and incorporating a peace deal into regional and international security frameworks all produce significant increases in popular support for an accord. It’s possible that the biggest obstacle to a deal may be the perception that reaching a deal is so challenging–well, that and an unwillingness by any of the parties to the peace process to actually get serious about it:

In a Catch-22 finding, the most significant reason people oppose a two-state solution is their perception that it is not feasible. So, if the Trump administration’s plan is demonstrably realistic and feasible, Palestinians and Israelis will support it.


These findings demonstrate that flexibility and open attitudes still exist on both sides and that the right policies can reverse rejection of a two-state package by Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides have shown a complete absence of political courage for a decade, and if the Trump administration hopes to surmount this cowardice, it will need proposals that allow the leaders to attract popular support while still making hard choices.


Still, progress is unlikely until the White House rehabilitates relations with the Palestinian leadership and repairs the damage caused by the Jerusalem declaration. That requires a fair and balanced plan, including terms referring to the Jerusalem area as hosting capitals of both states with a special regime over the Old City.

I’m not sure I buy this. It’s one thing for people to support these ideas in the abstract, when a pollster calls them, and quite another to get behind them when they’re actually on the table. And the issue of political courage isn’t one that can be just waved away. There’s certainly none of it to be had right now and won’t be for the foreseeable future. Which means a lot of long-term damage is probably going to be done for the next several years.

To wit, consider the current US government, which has appointed as its ambassador to Israel a man who seems to think his primary responsibility is, instead of managing US-Israeli diplomatic relations, instead to advocate within the Trump administration on behalf of the Israeli far right:

The pro-settlement Israeli right does not appear overly concerned by the prospect that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have to relocate from his office to a jail cell, following police investigations against him. Nor are these occupation deniers losing sleep over an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being cooked up by President Donald Trump that would disrupt their plans to annex East Jerusalem and West Bank lands to Israel. They have placed their trust elsewhere, and it’s not in the Almighty. As long as David Friedman occupies the office of the US ambassador in Tel Aviv — soon to be in Jerusalem — they need not worry. Since Trump’s former attorney was given the plum diplomatic assignment, the platform of the pro-settlement HaBayit HaYehudi party has become White House policy.


In his role as the president’s gatekeeper to the Israeli arena, Friedman has taken it upon himself to ensure that White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt do not take seriously the boss’s talk of achieving the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. For Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer, the Arabs went bankrupt in 1967. Moreover, as far as he is concerned, anyone who goes bankrupt should be grateful for any offer that keeps him from being thrown out into the street. Friedman has become the scourge of the State Department and National Security Council. A US official who attends meetings of the US peace team told Al-Monitor that when Friedman is in the room, Greenblatt aligns to the right, but when Friedman is absent from the forum, Greenblatt allows himself to present balanced and logical views.

If you want to know why the Israeli government feels safer than ever in conducting its slow-moving ethnic cleansing campaign in the West Bank, Friedman is a good place to start. Whatever the Trump administration says about Israel-Palestine is less important than the things it’s actually doing.


Paul Pillar suggests an approach for the United States in its nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia: offer Riyadh a choice between a deal modeled after the 2009 US-UAE 123 agreement, which includes US nuclear assistance but would also ban the Saudis from enriching uranium; or a deal modeled after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would allow the Saudis some limited enrichment but with no US assistance and as intrusive an inspections regime as the International Atomic Energy Agency can devise. I’ve occasionally suggested that we offer the Saudis their own JCPOA, if only to watch Riyadh, which sometimes likes to complain about how lenient the Iran deal is, scream bloody murder over the possibility of accepting its inspections requirements alone.


The two main conservative challengers to Hassan Rouhani in last year’s Iranian presidential election–former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf and cleric Ebrahim Raisi–are reportedly planning to run for parliament. Barring some unforeseen event Iran won’t hold another parliamentary election until 2020, so this is highly speculative. But it makes sense, even if it is a comedown for both men (and particularly for Raisi, who likely saw the presidency as a stepping stone toward succeeding Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader).

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