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Prospects for peace in the Middle East

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Giancarlo Elia Valori

One of the most negative results achieved by Hamas with its useless “11-day war” was certainly that of favouring the political solution for forming a solid government in Israel, after four rounds of early elections had not been sufficient to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a position to have a majority of seats in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

When the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israeli cities and the retaliatory bombing by the Jewish side stopped on May 21, thanks to the direct mediation of Egyptian President Al Sisi, the Palestinian extremists from Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza Strip for 14 years, and their associates from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad not only failed to achieve any of the presumable targets of the war operations launched without warning on May 10 – with a salvo of rockets fired at major Israeli cities with the clear intention of causing civilian carnage – but they found themselves actually isolated in an Arab world which, apart from a rather weak show of solidarity, did not take action to threaten – for the umpteenth time in a century – direct intervention to “destroy the Zionist entity”.

Just after the end of the missile crisis, consultations between the political forces have started again in Israel, in view of forming a government that should bring to an end the 12 years of Netanyahu’s era, with the creation of a “grand coalition” led by the leader of the Yamina party (“the Right”), Naftali Bennett, and by the leader of the centrist Yesid Atid party, Yair Lapid, which will include representatives from seven parties, including representatives from the Arab-Islamic Raam party.

The other leading politicians in the new Israeli government will be Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White political alliance, and Avigdor Lieberman, the tough former Foreign Minister and Secretary of the Israel Beytenu party.

With a government endowed with a large parliamentary majority, Israel shall face the issues left open at the end of a brief conflict on May 10-21 which, while seeing the failure of Palestinian extremists’ military goals, requires, however, the solution to political problems of great geopolitical relevance.

With the “Abraham Accords” of August 2020 that, under the aegis of the then American President Donald Trump and with Saudi Arabia’ pragmatic “non-opposition”, led to the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan,  the Arab front – once unanimously against Israel – has further fragmented, thus leaving Qatar, the traditional sponsor of Islamic jihadist extremists and of the most radical fringes of the Palestinian resistance, totally isolated and marginalised.

The most enigmatic position, at the moment, remains that of Erdogan’s Turkey.

The Turkish President has probably realised that in recent years he has made too many enemies on the international scene, and his dream of turning Turkey into a hegemonic power at regional level has been shattered after the defeats inflicted by the Muslim Brotherhood in all Arab states, after the failure of the fake “springs” and the bloody anti-Assad insurgency that had, in the end, the only actual result of strengthening the Russian presence in the region and in the Mediterranean basin.

In spite of its sending a substantial naval force to the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has also missed the opportunity of participating – in a climate of cooperation – in the search for natural gas marine reserves in the sea area between Egypt and Cyprus. This search also sees the participation of Israel and Greece which, together with Cyprus, have established a tripartite economic alliance which, by also co-opting Al Sisi’s Egypt, could contribute to Turkey’s further isolation.

Probably it is precisely for these reasons that Turkey not only did not go beyond a merely cosmetic show of solidarity with the Palestinians during the “11-day war”, but also hinted that it would like to improve diplomatic relations with Israel, considering that – despite propaganda and verbal threats – President Erdogan continues to maintain excellent and prosperous trade relations with Israel (indeed, bilateral trade between the two countries during the crisis has even increased).

On the other hand, only a few months ago, in December last year, the Turkish President made an astonishing public statement when he admitted: “our relations with Israel in the field of intelligence, however, have not ceased and still continue… We have difficulties with some people at the top (i.e. Netanyahu, author’s note)”.

This ambivalent attitude of Turkey towards Israel is similar to its attitude towards President Biden’s Administration.

Despite President Erdogan’s verbal protests over the new American President’s official recognition of the Armenian genocide, with the appointment of a new pro-Western Ambassador to the USA, Turkey wants to cool tensions with the United States, also through an attitude of moderation and self-restraint towards Israel. According to Israeli analyst Ely Karmon, Israel’s future policy towards Erdogan’s Turkey should be based on a “trust-but-verify approach”.

The most burning issue with which the new Israeli government shall deal is still the Iranian one.

The threat posed to Israel’s very survival by Iran’s nuclear programme is not underestimated by any of the political forces.

Hopes of a slowdown in Iran’s nuclear research after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the agreement signed in 2015 by Iran with China, France, the United States, Germany and Russia, which envisaged substantial limits to uranium enrichment in Iranian facilities – have vanished in the face of Iran’s reticence on the matter of direct checks on its developments, and after Donald Trump’s decision to denounce its ineffectiveness.

This is the reason why Israel has continued its policy of cyber sabotage of Iranian facilities and “selective elimination” of the scientists involved in the programme (the latest victim was the Head of the Iranian nuclear programme, Moshem Fakhrizadeh, killed on the outskirts of Tehran on November 27, 2020).

Two leading representatives of Israeli intelligence, namely Ephraim Halevy, former Head of Mossad, and retired General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, former Head of the military intelligence Aman, clearly expressed their views on the subject. In an article published in Haaretz on April 22, 2021, they outlined the guidelines of what should be the Israeli strategy towards the Iranian nuclear problem. On the one hand, it would be necessary to continue with the intelligence “pressure” against the programme, considering the fact that it will anyway take two years to manufacture a nuclear weapon, once acceptable levels of uranium enrichment are reached (a move that Iran has not yet made). On the other hand, it would be necessary to reactivate the JCPOA, with a new US involvement and with the support stemming from Israel’s new positive relations with many Arab countries, in view of exerting political and diplomatic pressure on Iran – also in the light of the discreet diplomatic moves recently made by Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran and Assad-led Syria – with the aim of improving mutual relations and reducing tensions in the Gulf region, starting with the civil war in Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels.

Diplomacy is therefore on the move and, in view of achieving positive results in mitigating regional tensions, it must take into account two other important strategic players, namely Russia and China.

Russia is now firmly established in Syria, where it intervened in 2015 to rescue Assad’s regime from defeat by the Islamic State and where it will play a leading role in the reconstruction of the country – 75% of which is destroyed after a decade of civil war – after having also firmly established itself militarily in the port of Tartus and in the air base of Khemeimim, in the north of the country.

Vladimir Putin was the first Russian President to visit Israel in 2005.

Since then, he has managed relations with Israel by giving them a “special status” and – despite some apparent disagreements – also thanks to the professional work of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he has brought about a positive change in bilateral Russian-Israeli relations, which makes Russia a credible counterpart on all Middle East’s negotiating tables.

The other counterpart in the region that is becoming ever more influential is President Xi Jinping’s China.

As early as the 1990s, China and Israel have established strong bilateral economic ties, especially in the defence industry, thus arousing the ill-concealed concerns of the United States.

These relations have grown in parallel with numerous political and economic understandings between China and the Gulf States, and this has enabled China to play an increasing role throughout the region.

The truce between Hamas and Israel was brokered by Egyptian President Al Sisi, but it was reached also thanks to the behind-the-scenes work carried out by Chinese diplomacy within the UN Security Council.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – within a scenario which remains complex, but sees the majority of political players committed to seeking new models of cooperation and peaceful coexistence – has become actually marginal, after having been the centre of gravity of the Middle East dynamics for seventy years. This probably helps explain the desperate move of Hamas which, on May 10, attempted to thwart negotiations by launching missiles against the Israeli cities, without this having any significant influence on the regional equilibria.

This is the reality that the new Israeli government shall face. A situation that was unimaginable only a few years ago and which leads us to say – paraphrasing Winston Churchill – that, with regard to the conflict in Palestine, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.