It’s that time of the year when most journalists and commentators review the past year and what they’ve written about during that year. You can read about notable passings on other sites, I’ll just mention Sir David Frost. Those in the UK will see an echo of him in the title of this piece.
I’m not sure exactly how close America came to flattening North Korea. Personally I think they’d ‘squared’ it with China and Russia, kept their heads and Kim Jong-un blinked. After that of course came the great purge. Uncle Chang (Song-thaek) got the chop and despite various South Korean pundits amongst others predicting provocative behaviour by the North in order to prop up the Kim regime, so far nothing to cause any concern has happened.
Yes, various North Korean officials have been recalled from China. The considered opinion is that Chang Song-thaek was in favour of economic reforms along Chinese lines and Kim Jong-un is not. I take an alternative view. I have a sneaking suspicion that actually Kim wants economic reforms and might even be considering political reforms but he wants to initiate them from a position of strength, not be forced into them. What’s the betting there was some sort of coup plot, probably backed by China and this is Kim Jong-un’s response? The message to China? I’ll initiate reforms, not you. We’ll see.
Vladi Putin is having to face up to the age-old Russian question, are we (Russia) a European power or an Asiatic power? This pre-dates communism and was something that various Tzars struggled with. In it’s latest guise Putin has to decide what to do about Ukrainian desires to forge a closer alliance with the EU. His knee-jerk reaction was to offer to bailout the Ukraine by ‘forgiving’ their debts, continuing to supply them with gas despite the fact that they’ve been unable to pay for most of what they’ve already received and offering a customs union. The deal would have cost Russia billions of dollars and it’s difficult to see that in monetary terms it was/is worth it.The Ukrainians are split over this but it’s worth remembering that there is and has been no love lost between Ukraine and Russia in the past, something that also pre-dates communism. Having seen the Soviet Union collapse and the subsequent re-emergence of an independent Ukraine, I doubt if the majority want to willingly put themselves back under what would effectively be Russian control.
In the meantime Putin continues to try and take advantage of America’s disastrous foreign policy. He’s having mixed success and I’ll write about that in a moment.
At the moment Japan has friends but that may not last. They have a knack of annoying people and have a blind spot where the Second World War is concerned. Right now, America, South Korea and the Philippines side with Japan against China. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the annual visit to the Yasukuni shrine for fallen Japanese soldiers and executed war criminals in Tokyo. In doing so he pandered to the more nationalistic Japanese but seriously annoyed his neighbours. Japan continues to paper-over their war crimes and has never made a full apology, unlike Germany. The Germans have come to terms with the war crimes committed in the name of the German people by the Nazi regime. The Japanese aren’t even told about the war crimes. Their educational system glosses over the Second World War.
A short digression. Thirty-odd years ago I lived in Singapore and used to drink in a bar in Changi Village. Strangely enough, I drank Japanese beer but that’s not the point of the story. A tour bus came round, people got off. A short time later two young Japanese tourists were in tears and the tour guide was not sure how to cope with this. The cause of the tears? They’d just discovered what their Grandfathers had got up to when the Japanese occupied Singapore. They had no knowledge of Japanese atrocities and it had come as a shock.
Whilst the ASEAN countries are worried about Chinese intentions in the area, if Japan were to get a bloody nose from China there would be plenty of wry smiles. Japan needs to realise that they don’t have any real friends in the region, they only have allies against China and grudging allies at times. Don’t expect a Japanese apology any time soon but they may find that once the dust has settled after the latest spat between America and China, however it ends, that there are some harsh words.
Isn’t ready for and doesn’t want a war with America. Xi Jinping, the paramount Chinese leader has problems though. He wants to press ahead with economic reforms but inevitably economic reforms lead to louder demands for political reforms. Political reforms lead to grumbling from the Military who point out that the answer to growing demand for political reform is to unite the country in the face of a foreign threat and stir up nationalistic fervour. Well, Shinzo Abe has done his best to help by visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo and the Chinese Military are doing their bit by stirring up trouble in the South China Sea. The Chinese are stirred-up alright but not enough to stop the agitation for political reform and the real problem with this approach is that it stirred-up the Americans. China now has a very large American naval presence in it’s backyard and they don’t like it.
Xi Jinping’s alternative response was to send a mission to the Moon, which whilst popular wasn’t apparently as popular as the result of a football match, judging by the number of comments on each on Chinese social media. He’s also put a few corrupt officials on trial but then that seems to happen on a fairly regular basis and doesn’t seem to be impressing anybody. He lives in interesting times and bloody good luck to him. He’s going to need it.
Be happy for Barak Obama, he’s finally found a war that he can (maybe/probably/possibly) win.No matter how the current contretemps with China is resolved, America will come out of it looking good…probably. Elsewhere in the World, Iraq and Afghanistan have, pardon my words here, turned to shit. He’s been comprehensively bamboozled by the Iranians as will become apparent in six months time and he’s managed to seriously piss-off ALL his allies in the Middle East. More on that in a moment.
Iraq is disintegrating, although not as spectacularly or as rapidly as Syria. America is pulling out of Afghanistan, a cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy so that’s a stunning success, right? Er yes, except they aren’t. They need a base to continue to bomb Pakistan. They use drones so that doesn’t count, apparently, as compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty. An agreement has been reached between the Karzai Government and the Obama administration whereby American troops will remain in Afghanistan after they’ve all gone home. Confused? Join the club. We’ve won because we say we’ve won and you can’t tell us any different.
Don’t mention Obamacare. Oh sorry, I did. Regardless of whether you think Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms are the work of the Anti-Christ or whether you think they’re a (very) modest step towards a fairer society the introduction of them has been grossly mismanaged. And that’s all down to Obama. I’m not saying that, he said it. Presented with a golden opportunity to distance himself from the debacle of the introduction of said reforms he ignored the opportunity to publicly execute the person charged with introducing them and said it was all his fault. Where is Machiavelli when you need him?
Europe including the UK:
Yeah well, sorry about the heading but the UK is a part of the EU. Anyway rejoice, the UK rediscovered democracy! When asked to rubber-stamp the decision to back America in a (literally) mind-less attack on Syria, the UK Parliament told the UK government to piss-off. Prime Minister David Cameron took the lesson to heart and said he wouldn’t be asking again. Good decision Dave and the American Congress noticed as well.
Ireland has successfully emerged from what amounted to EU economic administration, thus proving that it can be done, France has rediscovered the delights of Foreign Intervention and has introduced a 75% tax rate which is going to be really popular despite the Foreign Interventions and forthcoming economic boom due to arms sales to Lebanon (see below). Germany keeps marching along. Spain has indicated that the Catalan demands for independence are not going to be met no matter what and the implications for an independent Scotland are interesting. My article on Scotland drew a personal attack which I’m not going to respond to. We’ll see what happens eh?
The Middle East:
Ah yes, the Middle East. Where to start?
Saudi Arabia: Israel:
Worried about Iran Ditto
Worried about Syria Ditto
Worried about Hezbollah Ditto
Worried about Lebanon Ditto
Pissed-off with Obama Ditto
Doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood Ditto
Wants to introduce internal reforms but
external events make it difficult Ditto
Doesn’t trust Russian intentions in the region Ditto
Anybody think that there might just possibly be a convergence of interests here? The phone line between Riyadh and Jerusalem might not be exactly red hot at the moment but make no mistake, there is a phone line. Right now it’s via an exchange but expect a direct line soon.
Saudi Arabia has just announced a three billion dollar arms deal. They’re buying three billion dollar’s worth of arms off the French for the use of the Lebanese army. Not American or Russian arms but French, coincidentally the ‘former colonial power’. Saudi Arabia is not buying arms because they’re hoping that Lebanon will have a go at Israel but because they want Lebanon to be able to defend itself against any Syrian attacks. Why would Syria attack Lebanon? Well quite apart from the fact that they actually occupied Lebanon for quite some time and old habits die hard Hezbollah, a Shia organisation based in Lebanon is backing, i.e. fighting on behalf of, the Assad regime, which is also backed by Iran (Shia) and supported by Russia. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government but the other components, Sunni Muslim and Christian, don’t like them much. In fact, most of Lebanon’s current woes originate from Hezbollah. The Lebanese army is quite separate from Hezbollah so Saudi Arabia is arming them to fight against…? Hezbollah actually but nobody is publicly saying so.
What not many people, OK Obama in particular, are saying is the original protestors in Egypt, having lost the election after the fall of Mubarak, decided that they really didn’t want the Muslim Brotherhood. Well tough, that’s democracy. Except actually it was becoming clear that it wasn’t. Ex-President Morsi, currently under arrest and likely to face charges of terrorism in the near future, didn’t actually have any defined powers under the new Egyptian constitution because the constitution hadn’t actually been written. Deciding to short-cut the process, he awarded himself sweeping powers which even Mubarak might have hesitated to assume and the democracy movement asked the army to intervene.
Make no mistake, the Egyptians are split. A large number do support the idea of an Islamic state however after two years Morsi had signally failed to introduce any meaningful economic reforms. He’d also discovered he had a problem with Islamist organisations based in Gaza and in effect dropped them like a hot potato. That meant that apart from Turkey and Obama, he had little or no support. Erdogan of Turkey has his own problems which are currently taking up most of his attention and having Obama on your side is proving to be the kiss of death, at least in the Middle East. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could probably quite cheerfully literally strangle each other so in Israel’s case Obama is not so much an ally as a pain in the ass. Obama no doubt feels the same about Israel but in 2016 there will be a new American Administration. Israel will grit her teeth and wait.In the meantime Secretary of State Kerry is hoping for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If it comes, it will be down to pressure on the PA from Saudi Arabia.
Jordan and the future Palestinian State:
No, they aren’t going to be one and the same and yes there will at some point be an independent Palestinian state, in fact just as soon as the Palestinian Authority feels able to do a deal with Israel. Please God in 2014. Mindless optimism, well let’s think about this.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have just signed an important document. After maybe thirty years of thinking about it Israel and Jordan have finally agreed to develop a hydro-electric generating plant. This is what it’s about. For years there had been an Israeli plan to pipe water from either the Mediterranean or the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This would achieve three things.
!)Provide water for a major desalination plant.
2)Due to the Dead Sea being some one thousand four hundred feet below the level of the Med or Red seas, this created the possibility of a hydro-electric plant, which would power the de-sal plant and the various pumping stations as well as providing electricity.
3)It would replenish the Dead Sea which is in the process of drying out.
The Jordanians have had two major objections to the plan. The first was ecological. They weren’t sure what it would mean for the ecology of the Dead Sea and wouldn’t or couldn’t accept what Israeli scientists thought the effects would be. It was also politically difficult to embark on a major economic project with Israel because the project would call for close co-operation and you’d have to sit down and agree on many things before you started the project. Enter the Palestinian Authority. Realising (finally) that at some point they were going to have to do a deal with Israel and there would be a Palestinian state, it was obvious that the region had not only a water shortage but also a power shortage. Israel supplies a significant amount of electricity to Jordan, the exact figure is hard to determine but some sources claim it may be as much as seventy percent. What is known or at least suspected and not denied, is that Israel has agreed to supply Jordan with gas once the offshore Tamar field comes on line. The new scheme will go a long way towards providing water and power needs for Israel, Jordan and a future Palestinian State. The Palestinian Authority thought they’d better be involved in the talks.
Israel and Saudi Arabia:
A strange pairing? Not if you’ve taken onboard the little ‘areas of mutual concern’ table it isn’t
Let me put it like this, what is the major difficulty for the Saudi’s in establishing some sort of rapport with Israel? The religious differences can be got around by re-interpreting a couple of passages in the Koran. Islamic scholars already do this on a regular basis. It is of course the question of a Palestinian state that is the major stumbling block but not because the Saudis in particular and the Arab World in general ‘love’ the Palestinians. I’m afraid they don’t. Sorry but it wasn’t the Israelis that kept the Palestinians in refugee camps for the last sixty-five years.
The real problem is rhetoric, Arab rhetoric. Even Jordan and Egypt, the two countries that signed peace treaties with Israel indulge in it and it goes like this:
One day we’ll take back the land that the Jews stole from the Arabs and we’ll push the Jews into the sea.
Push into the sea is of course a euphemism for ‘kill’, i.e commit genocide. This ignores a couple of truths. In the vast majority of cases Jews going to what was then called Palestine brought the land off Arab owners, it wasn’t stolen. The other truth is they haven’t been able to do it despite several attempts but it sounds good to the folks back home. Over the years, the Arabs learned to say ‘Israelis’ instead of Jews. It played better to European audiences who remembered the events of the Second World War in particular and two thousand years of antisemitism in general. They may have fooled the Europeans but they didn’t fool the Israelis or the Jewish population of other countries.
In the case of Egypt and Jordan whose respective governments finally realised the imperative for peace, they made no attempt to change public opinion. The same old Imams preached the same old hatred and no attempt was made to put forward an alternative view. Consequently any overt co-operation with Israel beyond not actually going to war has a hard sell. In fact, in most cases the Sadat then Mubarak governments didn’t try and sell the idea at all. Hussein of Jordan, always the pragmatist, tried and had a civil war for his troubles. His successor King Abdullah11 treads carefully, until now. So why now, what has changed?
Well basically Saudi Arabia now needs an understanding with Israel. They’ve been twisting the Palestinian Authority’s arm for about six years to reach an agreement with Israel. The sands of time are now running out. Fast. Iran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power. Whether they intend to take the final step and actually produce nuclear weapons is open to debate, as is indeed their intention to actually use it. Rhetoric again you see. Iran has repeatedly trumpeted their desire to ‘wipe the Zionist entity’ off the map. It’s now got to the point where no Israeli government can take the chance. Israel is a very small country and could not ‘absorb’ any sort of nuclear attack.
Maybe Iran is sincere in their negotiations, maybe not. What is certain is that Obama is distracted by events in the Pacific and in the Middle East has tried to pressure his allies. Saudi Arabia has resisted that pressure and Israel is drumming her fingers on the table in irritation.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states now have the same problem that Egypt and Jordan had. They can see the need for an agreement with Israel but first they have to try and sell the idea to their respective populations at large. At least Sadat could say he got the Sinai Peninsula back but despite that the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated him for making peace. It’s worth remembering that Abdullah1 of Jordan was assassinated because he was thinking about making peace with Israel. Those two lessons have not been lost on Arab leaders.
It would probably take several generations to achieve a significant shift in opinion and they have run out of time. Why?
The modern state of Israel was created in 1948. Today, the population of Israel is approximately eight million. Of that eight million six million are Jewish.
Six million is a figure that is burned into the consciousness of every Jew alive today. It doesn’t matter if you are an Israeli citizen or some other nationality. It doesn’t matter if you are a Zionist or not. It doesn’t matter if you are secular or religious. It doesn’t matter if you support the State of Israel or not. The words ‘six million’ and ‘never again’ are synonymous. In fact there is a story and maybe it’s true, I don’t know. It is said that on the first Israeli nuclear weapon, assuming that there was a first and personally I assume there was, the words ‘Never Again‘ were painted in Hebrew.
Maybe, just maybe, sixty-eight years after the end of the Second World War and it’s horrors and Sixty-five years after the founding of the modern State of Israel the Arabs have finally realised that we Jews are not going anywhere nor are we going to quietly submit to another holocaust. Israel is here to stay and in fact is the most powerful military nation for one thousand miles in any direction. Economically it also outperforms it’s immediate neighbours.In terms of women’s rights there is no comparison between Israel and her neighbours. Religious tolerance? Again no comparison and Israel of course is actually the only truly democratic state in the region apart possibly from Turkey and the Turkish Government’s commitment to democracy is being tested right now. With the discovery of the Tamar gas field and the technological breakthrough in the shale-oil fracking process Israel now has more potential energy reserves than Saudi Arabia.
It is in everybody’s interests that the Palestinians make compromises and reach an agreement with Israel. Yes Israel will also have to make compromises, the difference is those compromises are on the table. All the Palestinians have to do is say ‘yes’. They could have done in 2000, they could have done in 2007. Maybe in 2014, if the Saudis have anything to do with it, they will. And if they don’t? Well as I’ve been saying, it is in the wider (Sunni) Arab interest to reach an understanding with Israel.
I wish you all a prosperous but above all a peaceful New year.