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Defense & Security
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Will Saudi Arabia Renew the 'Arab Peace Initiative' as the Middle East Seethes?

by Daniel Brumberg

Whether Hamas’s October 7 assault has ended whatever prospects existed for forging diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. The assumption that a second key goal of the attack was to get Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) to back away from a deal to recognize Israel may be true. But it is also possible that a protracted conflict in Gaza that invites a wider regional war—a prospect that now seems likely—could get Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader to revive the “Arab Peace Initiative” (API) that deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz proposed in 2002. After all, there was a time not so long ago when some experts speculated that the initiative might “supplant” the Abraham Accords by providing an umbrella for a consensus of Arab governments, one that would address the key issue that the accords sidestepped: the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel. But such a step faces significant hurdles, not least of which is that no matter the outcome of Israel’s unfolding military campaign in Gaza, Hamas’s success (which surprised even its leaders) in breaching Israel’s defenses and spreading mayhem and death in southern Israeli towns and kibbutzim has made it and Islamic Jihad the paramount symbols in the Arab world of Palestinian resistance to any territorial compromise with Israel. Moreover, as Israel’s incursion creates massive civilian casualties, it is galvanizing the Arab street from Casablanca to Kuwait City, thus making it difficult for any Arab leader to make the case for revising a wider Arab initiative. And yet MBS might try, especially if he concludes that doing so would help consolidate his personal power before his eventual ascension to the throne. Such a move would represent a not insignificant change for the prince. After all, he had already signaled to the Biden administration that securing US support for a nuclear power plant under the umbrella of US security guarantees is far more important to the Saudis than conditioning the normalization of relations with Israel on a demand that Netanyahu’s government would surely reject—namely, to renounce Israel’s intended annexation of the occupied West Bank. Hamas’s assault may leave MBS with a newfound appreciation of the Palestinian issue. But his credibility as an interlocutor for the Palestinians has been tarnished by his lack of enthusiasm for embracing a cause that never topped his list. MBS Wins Either Way Reflecting on the implications of Hamas’s assault for Saudi Arabia, and for MBS in particular, one analyst argues that while the attack may have ended—or at least suspended—efforts to secure Israeli-Saudi normalization, this outcome would not represent a strategic or political loss for MBS. By changing the “discussion to MBS and Israel, away from MBS and Khashoggi,” he suggests, the crown prince got what he wanted: he has rehabilitated his image “just by talking.” Deal or no deal with Israel, MBS wins. However cynical it may be, this assessment is not off-base. In the rarified circles in which MBS thrives, where high-level diplomatic discussions and frequent appearances on global news programs fill his days and weeks, talking is a sign that he is in the game and that he counts. But knowing this, when it comes to the question of normalizing relations with Israel and other hot-button issues, he has been careful with his talk. Thus in a September 20 interview with Fox News, he noted, “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important, we need to solve that part.” Yet he avoided any direct mention of conditions while adding that, “We hope that we will reach a place that eases the life of the Palestinians.” There was no reference to the Arab Peace Initiative or a Palestinian state. Reiterating his hope that the ongoing discussions would give the Palestinians a “good life,” he showed optimism about the course of talks with the Biden administration. From a negotiating standpoint, this caution may have made sense. From his own vantage point, it also makes sense that MBS sees politics through the material lens of securing a “good life.” But from a diplomatic standpoint, his words were potentially problematic, as they suggested that the crown prince might be demanding less of the Israeli government and its leaders than the Biden administration. In late August, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reportedly told Israel officials that they were “misreading the situation” if they thought that Israel would not have to make major concessions to the Palestinians for any deal with Riyadh. On September 13, he asserted that Saudi leaders told him that the “Palestinian piece is going to be very important,” thus seemingly anticipating the language that MBS used a week later in his interview with Fox News. Coordinated or not, these statements set off alarm bells, not in Israel, but in the United States. In a novel situation, several liberal Jewish organizations and a group of 20 Democratic Senators echoed Thomas Friedman’s September 5 opinion piece, in which he urged the administration to “just say no” to a Saudi-Israel deal that didn’t include an Israeli commitment to halting annexation and stopping actions that would preclude a Palestinian state, such as expanding settlements. This campaign was also tied to the stand-off between the Israeli government and the opposition regarding Israel’s “judicial reform” law. The authors of these demands knew that by insisting on linking Saudi-Israeli normalization to the Palestinian issue, the White House would make Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu navigate between two choices, one of which would probably lead to the collapse of his government. Thus the specter of US Jewish groups, Democratic senators and a prominent New York Times columnist delivering a message that MBS deliberately fudged, and that the administration seemed hesitant to place at the center of its talks with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Pulling Victory from the Jaws of Defeat? It is not unreasonable to assume that in the wake of the Hamas assault, MBS might talk his way out of an explosive situation that for the moment threatens to undermine Israeli-Saudi normalization, but could upend the entire superstructure of the Abraham Accords. If, in addition to producing a humanitarian crisis and thousands of civilian deaths, a prolonged Israeli incursion into Gaza triggers a wider regional war, the leaders of Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain might freeze their relations with Israel. This would be an enormous setback for the Biden administration, as it has bet nearly its entire Middle East policy on sustaining and expanding the accords. Since such an outcome would also put MBS in a tight spot, it is reasonable to expect that he, his ministers, and the semi-official Saudi press are getting busy revising the crown prince’s talking points in ways that emphasize his commitment to the Palestinians, thus perhaps setting the stage for an effort by him to dust off the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Indeed, it appears that the stage is already being set for such a shift. Careful not to get ahead of MBS, on the first day of Hamas’s attacks, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the kingdom was “closely following the developments of the unprecedented situation between a number of Palestinian factions and the Israeli occupation forces.” Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud then had a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which according to the ministry noted “the kingdom’s rejection of targeting civilians in any way and the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law.” Taking the message one small step forward, the editor of Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat said that “Israel’s hubris has pushed it to miss several opportunities.” But as the summary of Saudi responses from which the above statements are all drawn shows, these remarks largely steered clear of Iran, and did not, of course, mention MBS’s recent observation about improving the lives of Palestinians. Echoing this tactical caution while moving the needle forward a little, Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Mohammed Alyahya noted in a Washington Post editorial that MBS’s Fox News interview showed “his country’s commitment to easing the life of Palestinians through negotiations for normalization,” but prefaced this observation by stating that Saudi officials remain convinced that the “API is a solid foundation from which good-faith negotiations can proceed.” That position, he added, was also set out on September 23 at the UN General Assembly by the Saudi foreign minister. Thus the crown prince’s allies recast MBS’s tepid words on the Palestinians while placing his outreach to Israel under the umbrella of the API, a plan that is rejected by both Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Beyond the Dream Wagon These rejections reflect theocratic worldviews about Palestine that have been embraced by both Hamas and at least two ministers in Netanyahu’s government: Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. But this spirit of rejectionism is less the product of ideology or faith than an outcome of a stalemated conflict. That standoff has produced desperation among Palestinians who feel powerless, and a sense of either resignation or arrogant defiance among Israelis, born of the misconception that Israel could protect its security by sustaining the status quo or advancing the annexation of the West Bank. But the current sorry state of affairs was also a product of other factors, including the genocidal language of Iran and its allies in Lebanon, the apathy of Arab leaders, and the decision of the Biden administration to hitch its Middle East policy to a dream wagon of Arab-Israeli harmony that ignored the Palestinian issue. This was a fantasy because while the leaders of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia do not worry about democratic accountability, the sentiments of their people do matter. However charming and even welcomed, all the interfaith dialogue and prayer in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh will not produce conditions that will help Palestinians and Israelis toward some kind of imperfect but just peace. This lesson will now get a new hearing from Arab leaders, from the Biden administration, and perhaps eventually, from a new Israeli government. But the White House will have to make it clear to MBS and other Arab leaders that proposals to revive a wider Arab Peace Initiative must be based on much more than talk, or for that matter, on the kinds of diplomatic hedging that MBS has pursued with a hardline Iranian government that rejects Palestinian-Israeli peace of any kind. Enormous financial and institutional resources, as well as a display of political will the likes of which have not been seen in the region for decades, will all be required to create any hope of moving beyond this apparently hopeless moment. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of World and New World Journal, its staff, or its Board of Directors. This paper was originally published by Arab Center Washington DC. Republished with permission. © Arab Center Washington DC, October 2023.’ 

Defense & Security
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'The worst is coming': Jordan braces for spillover effects of Israel-Hamas war

by John Calabrese

As the Israel-Hamas war enters its fourth week, the Kingdom of Jordan finds itself on the frontline of the conflict and King Abdullah II a central figure in the regional and global diplomatic efforts to contain it. Facing a complex set of domestic and external challenges even before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and with a perilous ground war in Gaza now underway, the Hashemite Kingdom is bracing for a broader conflict and multiple spillover effects. A precarious reality at home and abroad Domestic pressures Jordan faces numerous challenges that King Abdullah II is under mounting pressure to address. Popular discontent with the perceived corruption and indifference of government officials and the royal family itself has been growing, though there are few signs that the survival of the monarchy is at risk. Fueling this discontent are the worsening socio-economic conditions after the Jordanian economy failed to absorb successive external shocks, namely the COVID‑19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to official figures, the unemployment rate stood at 22.3% in Q2 2023 and over 40% for those aged 15‑24. Interest rates, which have continued to climb as the result of a sustained period of high inflation and the Jordanian currency’s peg to the United States dollar, are further squeezing household incomes. The price of essential goods remains elevated, by pre-2022 standards. Meanwhile, wage growth has broadly stagnated. Public debt has swelled to around 110% of GDP, increasing external debt service payments and thus placing a heavy burden on the country’s foreign currency reserves. About 27% of the population is living in poverty. Jordan’s persistent economic malaise has done little to dissipate the public anger and frustration that boiled over last December, when a nationwide strike over fuel price increases stemming from austerity measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sparked riots in several large cities, featuring clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of the king along with skirmishes between protesters and police. These latest disturbances are part of a recurring pattern marked by chronic economic and fiscal crises, outbursts of public anger, and limited reforms. But it is important to note that in the past couple of years, the state has met growing popular dissent and disgruntlement with heightened repression. External challenges Despite having succeeded in repressing jihadist attacks from infiltrating the kingdom and playing a pivotal role in inter-Arab reconciliation with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Jordan has continued to grapple with the spillover effects of the Syrian civil war. At the same time, Jordan’s relations with Israel have deteriorated. The kingdom is waging a tough battle against increasing drug and weapons trafficking and carrying a heavy refugee burden, further stretching its resources. Across its northern border with Syria, a prevailing state of lawlessness has transformed Jordan into a key transit route for the smuggling of captagon, a highly addictive and lucrative amphetamine, along with other drugs and weapons. In addition, the United Nations World Food Program’s (WFP) recent reduction by one-third of aid for the 119,000 Syrians residing in Jordan’s Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps has increased fiscal pressure on the government. Meanwhile, Jordan’s political relations with Israel have deteriorated. During Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy premiership (2009-2021), Jordan’s relations with Israel were frosty. Although bilateral relations somewhat improved during the 18-month tenure of Israel’s “Change Coalition” under Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid, the return of Netanyahu to power at the head of a hard right-nationalist coalition at the end of 2022 rekindled tensions. A rare meeting between King Abdullah and Netanyahu in Amman last January, aimed at easing tensions, was eclipsed three months later by a series of violent confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The 1994 Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel remains deeply unpopular in Jordan. According to a March 2022 survey conducted by The Jerusalem Post, 32% of respondents ranked Israel as the country that most threatens Jordan’s security, and 48% identified the Jewish state as the country most responsible for regional instability. The Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies’ Arab Opinion Index 2022, issued in January of this year, found that 94% of Jordanian respondents opposed any recognition of or ties with Israel. Raising the specter of an upsurge of violence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip last December as a new hardline government in Israel was about to take office, King Abdullah warned in a CNN interview, “We have to be concerned about a next intifada. […] And if that happens, that’s a complete breakdown of law and order and one that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will benefit from.” The Jordanian leader could not have anticipated the shocking Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, yet his remarks at a conference in New York just two weeks earlier were prescient: “This belief by some in the region that you can parachute over Palestine — deal with the Arabs and work your way back — that does not work.” Grappling with conflict The war in Gaza has compounded the domestic and external challenges facing the Hashemite Kingdom. More than 2 million or 40% of all registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan. Since the onset of the war, thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets daily in Amman and around the country in pro-Palestinian rallies organized by opposition parties and to protest Israel’s bombing campaign and incursions into Gaza. Some young protesters attempted to storm the Israeli embassy while others reportedly demanded Jordanian authorities “open the borders” so they could join the fight to “liberate Palestine.” Hamas leaders have urged Jordanian tribes to enter the conflict against Israel. King Abdullah has faced growing calls to expel Israeli diplomats and abrogate Jordan’s peace deal with Israel. Two weeks into the war, at an emergency Middle Eastern summit in Cairo, the king channeled Jordanians’ growing public anger, harshly criticizing Israel for inflicting “collective punishment” on Gazan Palestinians. Jordanian diplomats have likewise lashed out publicly against Israel. Meanwhile, officials in Amman have directed their outrage and frustration not just at Israel but at Western “silence” in the face of Palestinian suffering and seemingly unconditional U.S. support for Israeli retribution. In an interview with CNN, Queen Rania, herself of Palestinian descent, decried the “glaring double standard […] in the face of such human suffering,” which “to many in our region it makes the Western world complicit.” On the 21st day of the conflict, a nonbinding resolution introduced by Jordan calling for “an immediate, durable, and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, even as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the expansion of ground operations and a near-total communications blackout was imposed on the besieged enclave. As the war continues into its fourth week, Jordan is grappling with the multiple dimensions of a rapidly escalating conflict. On the domestic front, Jordanian authorities have sought to contain the protests. The Ministry of Interior has banned gatherings and demonstrations in the Jordan Valley and border areas. Earlier, Jordanian police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of people protesting in an area around the Israeli embassy. Meanwhile, suspicion lingers that some Israelis may be flirting with the idea of a population transfer. Reflecting these concerns, a joint statement released during the Cairo summit, after King Abdullah’s meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, rejected “any attempt at the forced displacement of Gazans into Jordan and Egypt.” At an Oct. 17 press conference held following his meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, King Abdullah stated unequivocally, “There will be no refugees in Jordan and no refugees in Egypt,” declaring it a “red line.” Echoing the king, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi stated, alarmingly, that any attempt to displace Palestinians from the West Bank would be “considered a declaration of war.” The current conflict in Gaza has shaken the foundation of Jordan’s relationship with Israel. Reflecting the strain the conflict has placed on the relationship, Jordan has decided to pull its ambassador from Israel. Yet Jordan needs Israel and, thus, finds itself in a steadily worsening predicament. Facing a deepening water crisis and potentially destabilizing shortages, Jordan was inching closer to finalizing a binding agreement on a “climate barter” with Israel ahead of the 2023 U.N. Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28), when the Gaza war broke out. The initiative, dubbed Project Prosperity and sponsored by the United Arab Emirates, envisions the sale of desalinated water to Jordan from Israel and the purchase of green electricity by Israel from an Emirati-funded solar farm in Jordan. The Gaza war is likely at least to postpone, if not derail this project as well as delay completion of the previously approved “Jordan Gateway” joint industrial park. The possible adverse economic repercussions of the escalating conflict on Jordan extend beyond its relationship with Israel. Shortly before the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, an IMF report warned that mounting economic pressures threatened the “sociopolitical stability” of Jordan as well as Egypt and Lebanon. Supporters of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), protesting against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, are blocking oil tanker trucks from crossing into Jordan, saying they will not allow Iraqi oil to be exported to countries that have peace agreements with Israel. Depending on how long the Israel-Hamas war lasts and is fought, Jordan could suffer a sharp decline in tourism and foreign investment as well as a disruption of cross-border trade. The grand U.S.-backed plan to build a multimodal India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), which would pass through Jordan, could become a casualty of the conflict in Gaza. The conflict has also complicated Jordan’s relationship with the United States. King Abdullah, Washington’s longstanding, stalwart regional partner, canceled his meeting with President Joe Biden in Amman in the aftermath of the deadly blast at al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. The U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in the conflict was surely greeted with displeasure in Amman. And the U.S. pledge of a $100 million package in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians reportedly was viewed by Jordanian (and Egyptian) officials as a token gesture. Because the U.S. is the single largest contributor of bilateral assistance to Jordan — aid that the country has come to greatly depend upon — Amman will likely tread carefully lest its differences with Washington over the conflict risk severely damaging the relationship. However, the longer the war and the greater the loss of civilian life in Gaza, the more difficult it will be for the Jordanian monarchy to balance the tasks of managing its relations with Washington on the one hand and the domestic political fallout from the conflict on the other. Conclusion Speaking at an Oct. 19 press conference, with diplomatic efforts having failed to yield results in ending the Gaza conflict, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Safad expressed his fear that “the worst is coming.” His apprehension appears to have been confirmed, as, a little over a week later, Israeli troops advanced into the northern part of the enclave, accompanied by a massive aerial and artillery bombardment and amid a communication blackout. With a dangerous new phase of the Israel-Hamas war having begun, Jordan awaits the repercussions, having little leverage and few policy options.

Diplomacy
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China’s approach to the war in Gaza is not anti-Israel. It’s designed to contain the US

by Ahmed Aboudouh

China’s position on the war in Gaza is controversial and ambiguous to many observers. Beijing has criticized Israel’s blanket bombardment of civilians and condemned violations of international law. President Xi Jinping waited until after the Third Belt and Road Forum to comment on the crisis, reiterating China’s long-held position that a two-state solution should be implemented and calling for a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the besieged Gaza Strip. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went further, describing Israel’s bombardment of civilians in Gaza as actions that ‘have gone beyond the scope of self-defence’. At the same time, Beijing avoided condemning Hamas’s atrocities against civilians. As in Ukraine, China is positioning itself as a peace-seeking, ‘neutral’ great power, in contrast to the US, whose committed support for Israel is depicted by Beijing as a destabilizing, violent influence in the region. But China’s comments on the war, and its non-interventionist stance, mean it is unable to influence events – an uncomfortable position when its interests are directly threatened by the war. That may be why Beijing is increasingly aligning with Russia on the Palestinian issue, an unprecedented development that aims to guarantee a place at the negotiating table at minimal cost to both – and undermine US influence in the region. Familiar tactics It is now clear that China is adopting the Ukraine playbook on the Israel–Hamas war, seeking to publicly chart a different course from the US and its allies and their unconditional support for Israel. Chinese officials’ diplomatic interactions with the region are strictly adhering to Beijing’s policy of balancing between the Gulf States and Iran and between the regional main powers and Israel. The rhetoric from Beijing is carefully designed to focus on the broader context, such as implementing the two-state solution, addressing humanitarian issues and preventing the conflict from turning into a regional one. It has refrained from describing the Hamas incursion into Israel as a terrorist attack but has called Israel’s retaliation ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians – signalling its opposition to an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. This is not simply the behaviour of a peace-loving, mercantilist giant. Rather, it is a structured, deliberate strategy to achieve China’s objectives in the region and beyond. ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ China does not aspire to replace the US position in the Middle East, but will undoubtedly be pleased to see the US again drawn into a conflict in the region. Chinese experts believe the more strategic non-East Asian theatres that require Washington’s attention, the more time and space China gains to assert its strategic domination in the Indo-Pacific. China has reaffirmed its historical affinity to the Palestinian cause (its policy since the time of Mao Zedong) and its policy of what might be called ‘anti-Western neutrality’ – that is, neutrality that stops short of condemning any country or force that undermines Western centrality in the global order (rather than explicitly lending support to Hamas). China also uses ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ to appeal to a densely populated and strategically important support base. Many Global South nations are sympathetic to Palestine, and the war is therefore an issue China can use to mobilize support for its leadership of developing countries. This in turn helps win backing for Chinese positions on core issues like Xinjiang and Taiwan – and for Xi’s vision of global governance, enshrined in his signature initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). China has also sought to consolidate regional unity, urging the Islamic World to ‘speak with one voice’ with China on Palestine, building on its initiative to mediate a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March – a big win for the GSI, which is based on regional countries independently taking the lead in ‘resolving regional security issues through solidarity and coordination.’ The war encouraged Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salaman and Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi to speak on the phone for the first time, something China was pleased to see. By stressing its neutral stance and its role as a voice of the Global South, China wants to check the US’s moral standing and legitimize internationalization of the issue, calling for a global conference to initiate a peace process – thereby removing Washington from its decades-long position as the unchallenged arbiter in the conflict. The ultimate objective is to degrade the US’s global standing and win the ‘discourse power’ war by capitalizing on sympathy for Palestinians worldwide. A flawed policy However, beyond the short term, China’s policy is flawed and unsustainable. While the Biden administration has failed to speak in a balanced way on the war, instead unconditionally supporting Israel, it has mobilized US diplomatic might to influence Israel’s response – preventing the conflict from spreading outside Gaza and allowing aid to reach civilians. Its committed response to the war, in fact, may put to bed the idea that Washington has departed from the Middle East, strengthening its traditional regional role. Chinese ‘anti-Western neutrality’ meanwhile, has led Israel to retaliate diplomatically by joining the UK and 50 other countries at the UN to condemn China’s policies against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, saying they constitute ‘international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.’ Like the Ukraine war, the Israel–Hamas war shows that ambiguity and ‘anti-Western neutrality’ are complex acts. To be considered neutral, others must also believe it. Neutrality also prevents China from directly influencing these dangerous events in a way that favours its interests. China has significant economic connections to the region. It is the biggest trading partner with most MENA countries and almost half of its imported oil comes from the Gulf. China’s overall trade with the Arab world stood at more than $430 billion last year. These significant interests are vulnerable to regional wars and instability - but Chinese leaders can only watch events unfold from a distance. China should now understand that transactional de-escalation between regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran does not necessarily constitute peace. One of the key lessons of the conflict is that Iranian proxies were ready to blow up the region to impede Saudi normalization with Israel. China-sponsored integration initiatives will be no more successful at preventing another similar episode. Possessing great power capabilities is one thing. Acting like a great power is another. The US has demonstrated its continuing commitment to Israel and ability to influence Israeli policy. China has confined itself to voicing objections and calling for peace. Alignment with Russia may amplify its voice in a peace settlement. But there is a long way to go before that becomes reality. China must understand that in these crucial days, lip service diplomacy is the last thing MENA people want.

Diplomacy
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Saudi plans to ‘de-risk’ region have taken a hit with Gaza violence − but hitting pause on normalization with Israel will buy kingdom time

by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Saudi Arabia and Israel had seemingly been edging closer to a landmark deal to normalize their diplomatic relations – and then the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, 2023, happened. Since then, thousands have died in Gaza and in Israel. And fears of the conflict spreading across the region form the backdrop to frenzied diplomacy across the region, including a visit to Israel by U.S. President Joe Biden on Oct. 18. It also threatens to undermine a key pillar of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic agenda: the “de-risking” of the region. With Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set on implementing “Vision 2030” – an ambitious economic, social and cultural program – and developing the kingdom as a destination for tourism and investment, a renewal of regional instability is the last thing the crown prince needs. De-escalating tensions Certainly, the escalating violence in the Middle East presents a challenge to the shift toward de-escalation of tensions across much of the broader region in recent years. This has included the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. But it goes further, including multiple-state treaties that have healed rifts across the Gulf, culminating in the signing of a deal in March 2023 to restore Saudi-Iranian relations. These diplomatic breakthroughs opened up a space for greater regional cooperation through initiatives such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor unveiled at the G20 meeting in India in September 2023. The hope of officials across the region was that economic development could integrate the region and move discussion away from the failure to make progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Palestinian question Violence in Israel and Gaza threatens to knock Gulf states off a delicate balancing act of supporting the Palestinian cause in front of their largely Muslim populations while also making overtures to Israel and the U.S. Qatar, for example, has long hosted the political leaders of Hamas while remaining on friendly terms with the U.S.. It will now likely face significant Israeli and U.S. pressure to expel Hamas leadership. The UAE and Bahrain both normalized relations with Israel in 2020, along with Morocco. But public support for the Abraham Accords across the region was always lukewarm at best and may now dwindle away. Meanwhile, Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, is gearing up to host COP28, the international climate change conference, starting Nov. 30. The UAE will not want the event overshadowed or put at risk by a new regional war. Reaching out to Israel But nowhere is the tightrope more delicate than in Saudi Arabia. This is by virtue of the kingdom’s religious standing in the Islamic world – it is custodian of the faith’s two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina – and the ambitious raft of economic reforms the kingdom has rolled out as part of Vision 2030. The campaign for Palestinian statehood has long been a cause célèbre in the Muslim world, and the current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has been a staunch supporter of Palestine all his life. But his son and heir, the crown prince, has increasingly shown an interest in dialogue with Israel. This has culminated in the talks to “normalize” relations between the two countries – something that would represent a historic breakthrough in Israel’s acceptance within the Arab and Islamic world. As recently as Sept. 20, Crown Prince Mohammed told Fox News that “every day, we get closer” to a deal. Indeed, a series of leaks to U.S. media in the days and weeks prior to the Hamas attack suggested that the outlines of an agreement were taking shape, driven by the Biden administration. Public shows, private diplomacy But the Hamas attack and Israel’s response have punctured this momentum. Saudi sources briefed the media on Oct. 13 that talks on normalization had been paused – but not abandoned. Such messaging is in line with Saudi attempts to balance domestic and external interests. An initial Saudi Foreign Ministry statement on Oct. 7 appealed to both the “Palestinian factions” and “Israeli occupation forces” to de-escalate. But at the first Friday prayer at the Grand Mosque in Mecca after the attacks, Saudi authorities were more forthcoming in taking sides, with the state-appointed cleric urging support for “our brothers in Palestine.” Behind the public shows of support for Palestinians, there is evidence that Saudis are trying to spearhead diplomatic efforts to prevent the war between Israel ad Hamas from developing into a wider conflagration that might bring in Lebanon, Iran and others. On Oct. 12, Crown Prince Mohammed discussed the unfolding developments in Israel and Gaza with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi – their first conversation since ties between the two countries were restored in March. Three days later, the crown prince received U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riyadh amid media reports of differences between the Saudi and U.S. positions on the conflict and the need for de-escalation. Oil and foreign investment Such diplomatic moves fall in line with the crown prince’s desire to “de-risk” the region. He is eager to see that nothing jeopardizes a series of “giga-projects” – such as Neom, the futuristic new city on the Red Sea coastline – that have become synonymous with Vision 2030. The Saudi fear is that a prolonged or regional conflict will deter foreign investment in Vision 2030. Foreign investment was seen as key to the project’s success. But levels of foreign investment plunged after the detention by the Saudi authorities of dozens of senior Saudi business figures at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in 2017 over allegations of corruption. Investors took fright at the prospect that their business partners might suddenly disappear or be shaken down. As a result, the Saudis are having to shoulder a greater proportion of the costs of Vision 2030 themselves. This explains why Saudi officials have cooperated with their Russian counterparts in OPEC+ meetings to keep the price of oil at a level high enough to generate enough revenues to fund the projects. Vision 2030 has become so bound up with Crown Prince Mohammed’s pledge to transform Saudi Arabia that he cannot afford for it to fail – hence his determination to reduce sources of regional tension, including with Iran. Saudi officials also recently revised their plans to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2030 upward to 150 million and launched a bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup. Underlying these initiatives is the Saudis’ desire to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from an overdependence on oil, turning the kingdom into a destination for capital and people alike. These ambitions would be endangered by another regional war in the Middle East – especially if it drew in Iran. Playing the ‘normalization’ card So where does the “normalization” of Saudi-Israeli relations go from here? Putting the process on ice – for now – fits Crown Prince Mohammed’s careful balancing act. Proceeding at full speed would have risked blowback from other Arab and Middle Eastern states, undermining the process of “de-risking” of the region. It also may provide Saudi Arabia with greater leverage – Israel and the U.S. will be keen that the current violence does not derail the process entirely. So pausing the process, I argue, now makes tactical sense for Saudi Arabia, given the outpouring of anger in the Islamic world at developments in Gaza – and it provides the Saudi leadership with an opportunity to control the next phase of what remains an extremely delicate endeavor.

Diplomacy
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Even if Israel can completely eliminate Hamas, does it have a long-term plan for Gaza?

by Ian Parmeter

Not counting periodic cross-border skirmishes, Israel has fought three major wars against Hamas since withdrawing its forces from Gaza in 2005 – in 2008, 2014 and 2021. Each involved limited ground incursions, with Israeli soldiers in Gaza for about a fortnight. In the past couple weeks, Israel has put together a huge force to mount another ground invasion in retaliation for the Hamas cross-border attacks that killed around 1,400 Israelis on October 7. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have called up their entire armoured corps – more than 1,000 tanks. Around 360,000 reservists will also join the force’s full-time personnel of about 170,000. The operation is shaping up to be Israel’s biggest since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at driving the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from its base there. The Israelis succeeded in that objective. But an unforeseen consequence of that war was the development of the Shia militant organisation Hezbollah. With Iran’s support and tutelage, Hezbollah has become a far stronger enemy for Israel than the PLO had ever been. It’s a truism that wars have unintended consequences. And in the current conflict with Hamas, it’s not clear what the end game might be for Israel. Why a ground invasion is so risky The difficulties of a Gaza ground assault are clear enough. Fighting street to street in a confined, highly urbanised environment will be hideously difficult for Israel’s forces. Hamas also has the advantage of an extensive tunnel network estimated at up to 500 kilometres in length, enabling its militants to attack and then disappear. Israel can counter these challenges to some extent with the use of robots and drones. But night vision technology will be ineffective in the total darkness of tunnels, as these devices require faint ambient light to work. Israel has also warned the roughly 1.1 million civilians in the northern half of Gaza to move to the southern half. Altogether, the United Nations says some 1.4 million people in Gaza have been displaced so far in the conflict, with nearly 580,000 sheltering in UN shelters. It’s unclear how many people are still in the north. Israel has warned that those who remain could be classed as sympathisers with “a terrorist organisation”.  Inevitably, there will be appalling civilian casualties. Not all will necessarily be the IDF’s fault, but the default position of the region and those in the global community opposed to Israel’s action will be to blame Israel. Another challenge is the estimated 200 hostages taken by Hamas during its raid into Israel. Hamas says it has spread them around Gaza. Almost certainly, some will be in the northern war zone. Hamas claims 22 have already been killed by Israeli bombs. Some relatives of the hostages are criticising the Netanyahu government for not giving sufficient priority to freeing their loved ones. When the fighting stops: no good options What Israel intends to do if and when it has secured the northern half of Gaza is not clear. The coastal strip is already facing a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation, according to the UN. And in terms of administering the territory, there are few good options. 1) A military reoccupation of Gaza, as Israel did from 1967 to 2005. This would constitute a huge military burden and expose IDF personnel to violence and kidnapping. US President Joe Biden has warned reoccupation would be a big mistake. 2) Eliminate Hamas’ senior leadership, declare victory, then leave. Such a victory would almost certainly be short-term. Other low-level members of Hamas would take pride in coming forward to reconstitute the group. Or another group, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, might fill the vacuum. Israel would not be able to control who or what that entity might be. 3) Call on the secular Fatah party that now controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to take control in Gaza. That is scarcely viable. Fatah lost a civil war to Hamas in 2007 and there’s no indication the Palestinian Authority’s return would be acceptable to Palestinians there. Moreover, the authority’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was elected to a four-year term in 2005 – and is still in charge. As such, he lacks legitimacy, even in the West Bank. 4) Administration of Gaza by non-aligned local leaders. This is a pipe dream. Even if such figures could be found, Gazans would almost certainly see them as collaborators with the Israelis, given their role would be to keep the strip’s hardliners under control. 5) Administration of Gaza by a non-Palestinian Arab force. Again, this is not feasible. The leaders of potential Arab contributors to such a force, such as Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would not want to be seen as policing Palestinians on behalf of Israel. 6) Administration of Gaza by a non-Arab or United Nations force. Given the enormous risks, it’s very hard to see any non-Arab countries embracing this idea. A UN peacekeeping force would require not only Israeli approval, but a UN Security Council resolution at a time when Russia and China rarely agree with the three Western permanent members. Israel also contends Hezbollah has impeded the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon from carrying out its mandate, preventing it from stopping militant attacks. After the Hamas attacks, Israel would be unlikely to entrust its security to peacekeepers with little incentive to put their lives on the line for its sake. ‘Mowing the grass’ For too long, Israel has believed the Gaza imbroglio could be contained. However, the population has grown so large, this is no longer the case. With a growth rate of just over 2% per year, its population is expected to be three million by 2030. Gaza is also incredibly young, with a median age of 19.6, compared with the global average of 30.5. Almost half the adult population is unemployed, and Palestinians in Gaza are four times more likely to be living in poverty than those in the West Bank. This is a recipe for social upheaval and radicalisation. As two Israeli journalists, Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, noted in a perceptive analysis of Israel’s 2014 Gaza war, the Israeli military describes its assaults on Gaza as “mowing the grass” – acting to punish Hamas severely for its aggressive behaviour and degrading its military capabilities. The aim was to achieve realistic and, therefore, limited political and military goals. It was part of a long-term strategy of attrition, which would have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along the border. Eliminating Hamas altogether, the authors said, was not an “attainable military objective”. From a humanitarian perspective, this phrase is objectionable. The question, now, is whether Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt a different strategy this time. We’ll find out in the coming weeks.

Defense & Security
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Factors Affecting the Beginning of Israel’s Ground Operation Against the Resistance and Gaza Strip

by ‘Atef al-Joulani

Up to this moment, Israel has demonstrated clear confusion and hesitation regarding launching its ground operation against Hamas and Gaza Strip (GS). Indeed, it has postponed the operation more than once for various pretexts, starting with bad weather conditions, the need to complete the mobilization of the forces necessary to launch the operation, responding to the US administration’s request to delay the operation to allow the release of civilian detainees, and then waiting for more US military support, which raises questions about the factors affecting the Israeli decision to launch a ground assault. One of the most important factors is the desire to restore the image of deterrence which collapsed and was greatly damaged in the October 7th attack, as well as, restoring the Israelis’ confidence, especially the settlers of the Gaza envelope, in the ability of their government and army to protect them and provide security for them. The Israeli political and military leadership realizes the difficulty of achieving this through mere air operations since, despite their brutality and size of human losses and destruction, Hamas still maintains its strength and capabilities and continues to engage in battle and fire rockets without interruption. Also, Israel’s declared goals of its current war, which are to end Hamas’ GS rule and knock out its military capacity, are difficult to achieve without a large ground invasion. Netanyahu and his ruling coalition know that Israelis assessment of the war’s outcomes will be based on the achievement of declared ambitious goals. In addition to the above, there is widespread and unprecedented Israeli political and popular support for launching a large-scale ground invasion that would destroy Hamas’s military capabilities and ends its danger and threat. In addition, there is immense Western support for Israel to take the necessary military steps to punish Hamas for its recent attack under the pretext of self-defence, which constitutes an encouraging factor to pursue the ground war option. However, there are other opposing factors, increasing the complexity of Israeli calculations, making the government hesitant and pushing towards delay. Mainly, the facts on the ground and the extent they make the Israeli leadership sure it would achieve military victory rather than getting involved in a new military failure that would be added to the fiasco of October 7th. The Israeli leadership is aware of the Palestinian forces readiness to engage in a ground confrontation and believes that Hamas did not launch a successful and accurate attack without preparing a defense and confrontation plan for a certain Israeli reaction. The strong reactions of the resistance to some Israeli exploratory manoeuvres to approach the GS outskirts in the Khan Yunis area have shown the extent of the resistance’s vigilance and readiness for confrontation and ground clashes. The psychological and moral dimension also plays an influential role in Israeli calculations. For Israel is aware of the collapsed morale of its military, and the need for time and effort to boost it before going into an extremely ferocious battle. Perhaps this what made Israel seek US forces assistance that the US administration claims have arrived as advisory missions. It has become clear that proceeding with the systematic destruction of the Strip and its infrastructure, the brutal killing of civilians and the application of the scorched earth policy would be a preferable temporary option before achieving complete readiness of the Israeli army and US logistical presence. This policy could also serve as an attempt to further exhaust the advocates and supporters of the resistance and create situations of restlessness among them, as well as exhaust the resistance, deplete its ammunition, and destroy as much of its infrastructure as possible. However, Israel might not find it suitable to embrace this policy indefinitely in light of the escalation of Arab and international popular momentum against the killing of civilians, the steadfastness of the resistance and the restlessness of the Israeli home front as well as the decline in the international cover for the occupation. The US position stands out as an influential factor in forming the Israeli decision to start the ground operation, which was highlighted by the discrepancy and disagreement between the position of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was influenced by US advice to delay the operation, and the position of his Army Minister Yoav Galant and the rest of the army leaders who are eager to launch it. At the same time, the US military buildup in the region seeks to support the Israeli side and is a warning message to Iran, Hezbollah, and the resistance forces, not to intervene effectively. Hence, it provides better conditions for the Israeli ground military attack that wants to deal a devastating blow to Hamas, the resistance forces and GS. Moreover, the hesitant US position is influenced by the fear that the ground war will cause the conflict in GS to spill into a regional confrontation with Hezbollah and other parties, who are threatening to engage fully in the confrontations in the event of a ground invasion. The strikes on US bases in Syria and Iraq by some Iran-affiliated groups have given additional indications of the potential dangers of starting the ground operation. The US does not hide its concerns about the expansion of the current confrontation in a way that exhausts its efforts and constitutes an important challenge to its strategy of calm and de-escalation in the region. It wants to focus on the challenges of the Ukrainian war and the escalation with China in the Taiwan file. In addition to the above, there is the issue of civilians detained by Hamas, a number of whom hold US citizenship. In this respect, the US administration prefers to provide an opportunity to release them before resorting to the option of ground war that might put their lives in danger. The possibility of mass casualties among Palestinian civilians in GS due to the ground attack is no longer an influential factor and sensitive issue for Israel, however, the matter may seem relatively different to the US side. For the US has confirmed its support and endorsement of Israel’s right to defend itself and target Hamas, but at the same time, it has mentioned the importance of avoiding killing civilians and the necessity of bringing humanitarian aid to the Strip. In conclusion, the possibilities of launching a ground operation against Hamas and GS are still strong and have many strong justifications, which makes it expected at any time. Its calculations are mainly related to field considerations and are influenced by the anxious and hesitant US position.

Diplomacy
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The New Geopolitical Landscape in The EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood: Fragmentation of Economic Ties Post-February 2022

by Arthur Leveque

Introduction The EU’s Eastern neighbourhood is now more fragmented than ever when it comes to the countries’ relations with Moscow. The Russian full-scale and genocidal invasion of Ukraine brought about a change in the EU’s relations with Ukraine and Moldova which received the candidate status. Their membership talks with the EU are expected to start soon, pulling both countries further away from Russia. Georgia, however, remains for now at the door due to democratic backsliding, although the majority of its population supports accession to the EU. Tbilisi’s relations with Kyiv have turned increasingly sour due to its more than-ambivalent reaction to the full-scale invasion. Armenia’s relations with Russia have become more ambiguous. Albeit having lost confidence in Moscow as its main security provider, it helps Russia to evade the Western sanctions. Azerbaijan, in the meantime, has gained from the EU’s re-orientation of energy imports and acted as an independent player, wishing to maximise its benefits yet not being able to present a viable alternative to Russia gas for the European markets. Belarus’ relations with Russia appear more straightforward – i.e., collaboration in the invasion of Ukraine and Minsk’s growing dependence on Moscow. At first glance, one can see that the geopolitical landscape is being reshaped. In the following, this analysis takes a closer look at what those countries’ foreign trade with Russia can tell about this evolution and the Russian leverage in the region. 1. Ukraine & Moldova: Divorcing for Good? The share that Russia used to claim in Ukraine’s foreign trade shrank radically, falling to 1.1% for exports and 2.8% for imports against 5% and 8.4% in 2021, respectively. One-fifth of those imports are linked to the energy sector and, most likely, to gas transit as Ukraine reached self-sufficiency in the winter of last year, owing to the decrease in gas consumption. At the same time, according to the SecDev Group, 12.4 trillion USD worth of Ukraine’s energy deposits, metals, and minerals have fallen under Russian control due to the occupation of the Ukrainian territory.  With the Russian blockade, Ukraine’s foreign trade has collapsed, while exports to overseas partners like China or India have shrunk.8 Ukraine has, therefore, had no choice but to turn to the European Union and find new markets to ensure its survival. Ironically for Russia, the EU member states (Poland and Romania in particular) have become by far Ukraine’s biggest trading partners. Exports to the EU reached 28 billion USD in 2022 (26.8 billion in 2021), which represented 63.1% of total exports (up from 39.4% in 2021). Imports from the EU accounted for 26.9 billion USD in 2022 (28.9 billion USD in 2021), which equalled 48.9% of the total volume (up from 39.8% in 2021). Having lost all forms of political capital and economic influence in Ukraine, Russia can only resort to the destruction and looting of its national resources. Moldova’s import indicators have remained relatively stable since 2014. What stands out from the data, however, is that the share of exports to Russia shrank from 8.8% in 2021 to 4.4% in 2022. This is partly explainable by the Kremlin’s fruit embargo on Chisinau, which used to be Moldova’s most important export to Russia. In contrast, the share of Moldova’s exports to Ukraine has risen dramatically: from 3% in 2021 to 16.6% in 2022. Its exported value to Ukraine grew from 92 million USD to 720 million USD, whereas the total value of Moldova’s exports increased by around 1.2 billion USD. Hence, Ukraine accounts for around 60% of the increased value, making it the second-largest foreign trading partner behind Romania/EU. Moldova’s main exporting sector to Ukraine is mineral fuels, oils, and distillation products (81.25% or 587 million USD out of the total of 720 million USD), which has to do with the fact that natural gas is being backhauled from the EU to Ukraine via Moldova. The European Union – and especially Romania – remains in the first place. In 2022, the EU’s share in Moldova’s exports and imports stood at 58.6% and 47.3%, respectively. Moscow can still turn Chisinau’s economic dependence into political leverage – to a certain extent – by fuelling the economic crisis through halting gas shipment and thus influencing the prices, which could provoke discontent in Moldova’s Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia in particular. Similarly, the Kremlin can employ its two main proxies – the Party of Socialists and the ȘOR Party – for the same purpose, with a view to the upcoming 2024 presidential and the 2025 parliamentary elections. Moldovan authorities are already preparing to mitigate the Russian energy leverage not only by buying electricity from Romania and requiring the distributors to stockpile natural gas but also by countering the Kremlin propaganda and aligning with EU media regulations. 2. Georgia & Armenia: Risky Strategic Ambiguity Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow are best described as ambivalent. After an initial downgrade in exports and imports following the Russian invasion in 2008, both have been growing for over a decade. Russia’s share in Georgia’s imports reached its maximum since 2005 in 2022: 15.4% and 17.1%, respectively. However, Russia’s share in Georgia’s exports has slightly dropped down to 14.2%. The European Union remains Georgia’s biggest trading partner, accounting for 20.1% of its exports and 24.4% of its imports. Russia’s use of dependencies to leverage foreign countries has been in the experts’ spotlight for a long time. Most recently, the Georgian office of Transparency International highlighted that the money coming to Georgia from Russia through remittances, tourism, and exports in 2022 was three times higher than in 2021 (mainly due to the soaring remittances). In 2022, it amounted to 14.6% of Georgia’s GDP, whereas this figure represented only 6.3% in 2021. Moreover, the Kremlin has gained new forms of leverage – e.g., through the acquisition of 49% of Petrocas Energy – since Irakli Garibashvili came back to power, reinforcing the trend of Russia’s growing share in Georgia’s foreign trade. Separately, Georgia has been trying to benefit from the war and thus intensifying its economic contacts with the Kremlin, thereby weakening the anti-Russia front and the sanction regime. The aforementioned facts help build the case for classifying the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) as pro-Russian. They are also being interpreted as the GD’s attempt to consolidate its power ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections. Regardless of the academic debate about the political nature of the government’s intentions, Georgia finds itself in a complex and risky situation of strategic ambiguity as the figures suggest.  Yerevan’s relationship with Moscow has also been quite ambivalent, especially since last year. Russia was Armenia’s first trading partner, accounting for 44.6% of its exports and 30.4% of its imports in 2022. In a long-term perspective, Armenia has been increasing its dependence on Russia for nearly a decade already. Back in 2014, the EU was still Armenia’s number one trading partner with export and import shares of 29.3% and 24.2%, respectively. Nonetheless, worth noting is a (radical) change that occurred between 2021 and 2022, especially with regards to exports. The value of exports to Russia increased from 793 million USD to 2.3 billion USD. This spike was due to re-exports to Russia from Western countries in line with the Kremlin’s “parallel imports” strategy. Not only does Armenia help Russia circumvent the sanctions but also tries to benefit from the invasion by increasing its trade, as well as attracting and facilitating the re-settlement of Russian IT businesses. For years, Armenia has been trying to balance between Russia and other partners in the context of the war with Azerbaijan. Amidst the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor and the lack of Russian engagement, Armenia finds itself in a tricky position. A huge tension remains between Armenia’s willingness to diversify its foreign policy away from Russia – towards the EU among others – and its tight relationship with Moscow that still enjoys many leverages through defence, energy, and economy. Nevertheless, Yerevan’s willingness in itself indicates that Russia has been losing traction in the South Caucasian state. Furthermore, Armenia’s recent decision to send its first humanitarian aid to Ukraine raises numerous questions as some might see it as another balancing act or a new foreign policy failure for Russia.   3. Azerbaijan: Independence from but Proximity to Russia When it comes to Azerbaijan’s foreign trade with Russia, the figures have not changed dramatically. An increase in Turkey’s share in Azerbaijan’s foreign trade is perceptible, and so are the share and value of exports to the EU (58.8% or 13 billion USD in 2021 against 65.6% or 25 billion USD in 2022). The figures, however, further indicate that Baku has also diversified its import partners. For instance, China has experienced a breakthrough. Russia remains Azerbaijan’s first import market (18.8%), followed by the EU (16%), Turkey (15.8%), and China (14.3%) within the same range. Unlike other countries in the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood, Azerbaijan does not depend on Russian energy for its consumption. Furthermore, Baku benefits from the war by enjoying a huge boost in revenues, owing it to the EU’s reorientation of energy trade partners after the full-scale invasion. Azerbaijan remains a key player in the region, able to shape the rules of the geopolitical competition due to its relative independence from other countries. Overall, Russia does not enjoy an economic leverage substantial enough to allow it to influence Baku’s foreign policy course. One might prefer to read their bilateral relations through the context of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some see such a “deepening” as potentially putting Armenia, the West, and Ukraine at risk. The blockade of the Lachin corridor that has isolated and trapped around 120 000 ethnic Armenians inside Nagorno-Karabagh, with dire humanitarian consequences, speaks against any rapprochement with the West, and so does Baku’s increasing military cooperation with Moscow. The fact that Azerbaijan is forced to import gas from Russia in order to meet its obligations to Europe is another worrying development, not to mention its suspected aid to Russia to avoid sanctions. One may argue that, in 2022, Azerbaijan kept a low foreign policy profile, choosing not to vote on the UNGA resolutions condemning Russian aggression. This is in line with other signs pointing to the long-term cooperation – if not friendship – between those two countries.   4. Belarus: Extreme Dependence and Collaboration Belarus is indubitably the country where Russia managed to keep strong ties and leverages. In addition to letting Russian troops be stationed on its soil, thus opening the way for the full-scale invasion, there is evidence of Lukashenka’s involvement in the forced deportation of at least 2 100 Ukrainian children to Belarus. When it comes to Belarus’ foreign trade with Russia, the ICT database will hardly be of great use, considering the lack of reporting from 2022 and the impossibility of fully grasping what was hidden under the “Area NES” category in 2021. Furthermore, one would be prudent to doubt – to a certain extent – the official government figures in light of Belarusian officials’ tendency to conceal information, as showcased by Lev Lvovskiy. Nonetheless, by looking at Belarus’s foreign trade, one can draw the conclusion that its “multi-vector” economic policy is dead. Following the violent political repressions domestically, Western sanctions, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has lost both the EU and Kyiv as main trading partners. Minsk has lost almost all its exports to Ukraine (5.5% of Belarus’ GDP), while trade with the EU has more than halved following Russia’s invasion – third and second places, respectively. The contraction of Belarus’ trade with the West and the closure of the Ukrainian market pushed Belarus to turn even more towards Russia and, to some extent, China. Different estimates put Russia’s share in Belarus’s foreign trade within the 60% – 70% range in 2022. In fact, this might have more to do with higher prices (due to the devaluation of the Belarusian Ruble), rather than an increasing trade volume according to the Eurasian Development Bank. Furthermore, Russia made its market available to Belarusian exports and loaned 1.7 billion USD for the import substitution programme; Belarus’ debt servicing payments have also been delayed until 2027-28. Therefore, Belarus funds the efforts to mitigate recession by increasing dependence on the Russian market. Belarus’ economic stability is “directly linked to Russia’s macroeconomic standing” according to Kamil Kłysiński from the OSW. Finding economic niches in non-Western countries and rogue states is the only way for Belarus to limit its dependence on Russia. Conclusion Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and its consequences are reshaping the geopolitical balance of the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood region. • Ukraine has no choice but to purify itself from Russian politico-economic influence and leverage and turn to the European Union in order to survive. • The picture is clear under Moldova’s current government, which is now embracing a Euro-Atlantic course and trying to wean off Russian politico-economic influence. • The Georgian government tries to benefit from the war while dangerously sliding towards pro-Russian authoritarianism and causing an increase in tensions with both Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic community due to this position. • The Georgian government tries to benefit from the war while dangerously sliding towards pro-Russian authoritarianism and causing an increase in tensions with both Ukraine and the Euro-Atlantic community due to this position. • Azerbaijan is a player of its own kind that enjoys positive relations with the Kremlin and helps it to bypass sanctions, as its other South Caucasian neighbours do as well. • Belarus not only willingly paved the way for the Russian invasion and participated in many crimes Russia committed in Ukraine but also became even more dependent on Moscow. The fact that Russia managed to retain – or even increase – its more or less strong level of politico-economic clout in some of the countries and influence their economic choices highlights hardened lines of division in the foreign policy strategies of the six countries and increased fragmentation of EU’s Eastern neighbourhood more broadly.

Defense & Security
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Iraq, Sudani, and the War on Gaza

by Rend Al-Rahim

In the space of just over two weeks, Israel’s war on Gaza has upended Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shai` al-Sudani’s year-long careful balancing of Iraq’s foreign relations and his efforts to maintain stability in Iraq. The images from Gaza have outraged Iraqis, as they did others in the region. Following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the beginning of the Israeli response to it, Sudani expressed in a meeting of his government Iraq’s steadfast support of the Palestinian cause, giving a full-throated endorsement of Palestinian rights and statehood. In the ensuing days, he increased his diplomatic outreach, holding phone calls with the King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, among other regional leaders. Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein attended a meeting in Jeddah for the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to discuss Palestine. The prime minister also issued a call for a meeting of the Arab League to coordinate positions. In addition to the humanitarian needs of Gazans, another principal concerns for Sudani during these diplomatic contacts was to avoid escalation of the war and its expansion to other areas in the region. Unanimous Support for Palestinians Other prominent Iraqi politicians made statements of support, including President Abdul Latif Rashid, leader of the Sadr Movement cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who issued a call for protests, and the Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri. Significantly, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a statement supporting Palestinian rights, decrying the Israeli occupation, and condemning the destruction of Gaza. Interestingly, unlike his statement in 2014 in response to the assault by the so-called Islamic State, Sistani did not call for a general mobilization to confront Israel. Sudani’s support for Palestinians responded to a dark national mood, but his statements and diplomatic moves were not sufficient for the Shia militias allied with Iran, who escalated their rhetoric beyond mere condemnation of Israel. Popular anger also put the spotlight on Muqtada Sadr who, on October 9, called for demonstrations following Friday prayers, and on October 13, his adherents gathered in the thousands in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, chanting slogans against Israel and the United States. Not to be outdone, Shia militia groups were more strident, issuing condemnations and threats to the United States and Israel, and carrying out repeated attacks on US bases in Iraq, such as that in Ain al-Asad, Harir airbase, and Baghdad Airport. Hadi Al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, threatened the United States and pledged that the liberation of Palestine will be launched from Iraq. Similar warnings came from Kataib Hezbollah, Asa`ib Ahl al-Haq, al-Nujaba, and other powerful Shia militias. The bombing of the Ahli Hospital in Gaza on October 17 further inflamed national sentiment and galvanized Shia militia groups into action. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square the following day and on Friday October 20 denounced the United States and Israel and carried pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, slain commander of Iran’s Quds Force Qassem Suleimani, and leader of Lebanese Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah. Iran heads what is commonly known as the “axis of resistance,” a group of pro-Iran regimes and militia groups in the Middle East, including Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen’s Houthis, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. Officers from Iran’s Quds force met with militia leaders in Iraq to coordinate actions in the event of escalation. Sunni and Kurdish leaders were more muted in their responses to the Gaza crisis. Sunni clerics, Speaker of the Iraqi House of Representatives Mohammed Al-Halbousi, and other Sunni leaders voiced their support for Palestinians. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was more guarded. Through its spokesperson, the KRG in Erbil called for a unified Iraqi stance and stated that the Kurdish position cannot be different from that of the Iraqi government. This may arise from the greater dependence of the Kurds on American good will, and therefore a reluctance to antagonize the United States. Moreover, Shia leaders, and particularly those associated with militias, have often accused the Kurdish leadership of sympathy and cooperation with Israel which was one of the rare countries that supported the 2017 referendum for Kurdish independence, and that was severely condemned by the Iraqi government. Sudani’s Stressful Position Turmoil in Iraq creates multiple headaches for Prime Minister Sudani, especially that provincial elections are due on December 18, less than two months from now. Iraqi militia groups have been invigorated by the events in Gaza and have found new legitimacy, a new raison d’être. While Sudani did not attempt to disarm the militias during the past twelve months, he has at least been able to curb their activities and claim stability with sufficient peaceful space in Iraq to encourage foreign investment and economic growth. Now it will be much more difficult to put the militia genie back into the bottle. With newly empowered hard line Shia groups holding the high ground, Iraq is likely to return to instability, discouraging investment and jeopardizing the prime minister’s economic plans. Worse, it is likely that Sudani will henceforth be far more at the mercy of armed Shia factions after his success in obtaining their grudging acceptance and support in the past twelve months. Now they are far more likely to question and constrain his decisions and actions. Moreover, the political ascendancy of Shia armed groups will equally intimidate the Sunnis and threaten Kurdish interests, further derailing Sudani’s efforts to build good relations across the country that would be conducive to stable politics. What is certain is that the renewed strength of hardliners in Iraq will translate into increased Iranian interference in the country’s internal affairs and foreign policy choices. Iran’s regional calculations will determine the scope and modality of belligerence by its Iraqi allies, leading to greater pressure on the prime minister. His stated intent to maintain an even-handed foreign policy will be in danger of collapsing. In January 2023, Sudani told the Wall Street Journal that Iraq could have good relations with both the United States and Iran, and that foreign forces (specifically American) were still needed. He has also repeatedly endorsed the Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States. Should Iran and its armed Iraqi partisans exert more influence, such a balancing act will be difficult to uphold, and Sudani will risk the good will he has built with the West. There are rising demands on Sudani to amend the Framework Agreement to allow for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. In tandem, the prime minister was in Moscow for a meeting with President Putin. Although the meeting was arranged before the Gaza war, it acquires significance now, and was applauded by the militia groups. Within the immediate neighborhood, the bridges so assiduously built by Sudani and his predecessor, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, with Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, will be threatened, since the relation these countries have with Israel is tantamount to treason according to the Shia groups. Likewise, economic cooperation and investments by these countries, sought by Sudani’s government, are likely to suffer. Prime Minister Sudani faces dangerous times. How the coming weeks unfold depends on Iran’s intentions, over which he has no control. But he is an astute politician. At the Cairo Peace Summit on October 21, the prime minister gave an emotional address in support of Palestinian rights, called for a ceasefire and for the establishment of a fund to aid Gaza. Sudani went into high gear because he has much to lose, being dependent for his job, at least in part, on the approval of the Iran-friendly Shia militias. The Cairo speech likely emanated from conviction, but it also served for internal consumption in Iraq. In a significant response, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki praised the statement and urged all to stand by Sudani and not engage in unilateral actions that could cause internal and external instability. This is a step in the right direction, but it does not mean that Sudani and his policies are out of the danger zone. Indeed, he faces a tough choice: he can either cave in to the militias and allow them to destroy what he has achieved in the last year, or he can take a firm stand against their unfettered rising power, and possibly risk his job and the anger of Iran. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of World and New World Journal, its staff, or its Board of Directors. This paper was originally published by Arab Center Washington DC. Republished with permission. © Arab Center Washington DC, October 2023.

Defense & Security
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Gaza depends on UN and other global aid groups for food, medicine and basic services – Israel-Hamas war means nothing is getting in

by Topher McDougal

International aid groups are warning that they cannot deliver food and other basic services to people in the Gaza Strip and that a “dire” humanitarian crisis is set to worsen. International aid groups provide food and other means of support to about 63% of people in Gaza. Israel stopped allowing deliveries of food, fuel and other supplies to Gaza’s 2.3 million residents on Oct. 10, 2023, and is reportedly preparing for a ground invasion. On Oct. 12, 2023, Israel warned 1.1 million Gaza residents in the northern section of the enclave to leave for the southern region, in advance of a potential ground invasion. I am a scholar of peace and conflict economics and a former World Bank consultant, including during the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. International aid groups now face the same problem in Gaza that local businesses and residents have encountered for about 16 years: a blockade that prevents civilians and items, like medicine from easily moving into or out of the enclosed area, roughly 25 miles long. That 16-year blockade did not apply to the food and fuel that groups brought in to Gaza. Now, it does. Gaza’s blockade and economy Gaza is about the size of Philadelphia and requires trade with different businesses and countries in order to maintain and grow its economy. But Gaza is heavily dependent on foreign aid. This is partially the result of Israel setting up permanent air, land and sea blockades around Gaza in 2007, one year after Hamas rose to political power. Egypt, which borders Gaza on its southern end, also oversees one checkpoint that specifically limits people coming and going. While Israel has granted permits to about 17,000 Gaza residents to enter and work in Israel, the food, fuel and medical supplies that people in Gaza use all first pass through Israel. Israel controls two physical checkpoints along Gaza, which monitor both the entry and exit of people and trucks. Israel limits the kind and quantity of materials that pass into Gaza. And the blockades generally prohibit Gazans who do not have work permits or special clearance – for medical purposes, for example – from entering Israel. Israel’s restrictions through the blockade intensified since Hamas’ surprise attack on 20 Israeli towns and several military bases on Oct. 7, with Israel then announcing a broad blockade of imports into Gaza. This stopped all food, fuel and medical supplies from entering the region. Gaza’s isolation The Palestinian enclaves of West Bank and Gaza – which are generally lumped together in economic analyses – both have small economies that run a massive deficit of US$6.6 billion in losses each year, as the value of the imports they receive greatly outweighs the value of the items they produce and sell elsewhere. More than 53% of Gaza residents were considered below the poverty line in 2020, and about 77% of Gazan households receive some form of aid from the United Nations and other groups, mostly in the form of cash or food. Gaza’s weak economy is caused by a number of complex factors, but the largest is the blockade and the economic and trade isolation it creates. For the average Gazan, the blockade has several practical effects, including people’s ability to get food. About 64% of people in Gaza are considered food insecure, meaning they do not have reliable access to sufficient amounts of food. Food as a percentage of Gaza’s total imports has skyrocketed by 50% since 2005, when Israel first imposed a temporary blockade. And the amount of food the West Bank and Gaza actually produce has tumbled by 30% since then. It is hard for Gaza to produce food within its own borders. One factor is that Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza’s only power generation plant and main sewage treatment plant in 2008 and again in 2018. These attacks resulted in the spread of sewage waste on land and in the water, destroying farmlands and food crops and threatening fish stocks in the ocean as well. The UN’s big role in Gaza Gaza’s weak economy and isolation because of the blockade mean that it relies heavily on international aid organizations to provide basic services to residents. The biggest of these aid groups in Gaza is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – also known as UNRWA. Today, UNRWA is the second-largest employer in Gaza, following Hamas. It provides the bulk of the education, food aid and health care services for people in Gaza, in addition to 3 million other people registered as Palestinian refugees who live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and other places. Over time, UNRWA has evolved into a kind of parallel government, alongside Hamas, which Israel, the United States and other countries designate as a terrorist organization. UNRWA funds and runs a network of 284 schools in Gaza alone, employing over 9,000 local people as staff and educating over 294,000 children each year. UNRWA runs 22 hospitals in Gaza that employ almost 1,000 health staff and has 3.3 million patient visits per year. Its schools are converted into humanitarian shelters in times of crisis, such as the current war. People can go there to get clean water, food, mattresses and blankets, showers and more. The number of people in Gaza who are displaced from their homes has quickly risen over the last few days, totaling over 330,000 on Oct. 12, 2023. Over two-thirds of these people are staying in UNRWA schools. A complicated US relationship The U.S. has historically been the single-largest funder of UNRWA, a U.N. agency that relies on governments to support its work. The U.S. gave more than $500 million to Palestinians from April 2021 through March 2022, including more than $417 million that went to UNRWA. U.S. support to UNRWA has fluctuated throughout different presidential administrations. Total U.S. aid to the West Bank and Gaza peaked at $1 billion in 2009 – after Israel sealed off the territory. It reached $1 billion in annual contributions again in 2013, when former Secretary of State John Kerry helped restart peace talks between Israel and Hamas. In 2018, the Trump Administration cut almost all of the money the U.S. typically gives to UNRWA, amounting to roughly 30% of the organization’s total budget. Defenders of the policy change cited UNRWA-published textbooks that allegedly glorified jihad. UNRWA, for its part, maintained that, as an outside organization, it can only use the educational materials the country it is working in wants. The Biden administration then restored funding to UNRWA and other organizations helping Palestinians in 2021. Some Republican politicians have said that UNRWA has “cozied up” to Hamas. And an internal UNRWA ethics committee has accused top staff at the agency of “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation … and other abuses of authority” that created a toxic work environment. Meanwhile, since the war between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 8, more than 1,500 Gazans have been killed and more than 5,300 injured, while Hamas attacks have killed more than 1,300 people in Israel and injured about 3,200 others. International aid groups and European Union officials have called for a humanitarian corridor to be set up in Gaza – meaning a protected path specifically for civilians, aid workers and necessary basic items to pass through safely back and forth from Gaza to Israel and Egypt. So far, there are no clear plans for such a protected pathway.

Diplomacy
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Prime Minister Netanyahu Meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

by Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, today, at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, held a private meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The leaders then issued statements to the media. Prime Minister Netanyahu: "Chancellor Scholz, thank you for coming to Israel. Thank you for your solidarity with Israel, you, the government of Germany, the people of Germany, in these trying times. Eighty years ago, our people experienced the worst savagery in the history of humanity with the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people on the soil of Germany and Europe. I must tell you, my friend, that the savagery we witnessed perpetrated by the Hamas murderers coming out of Gaza were the worst crimes committed against Jews since the Holocaust: the decapitation of people, the shooting of little children with bound hands, the murder of children in front of their parents, the murder of parents in front of their children, the hiding of babies in the attic and the murderers who came to the attic to murder the babies, the rape and murder of women, the abduction of families, the tearing of grandmothers and Holocaust survivors into captivity, the death pits that remind of us of Babi Yar where jeeps surround the depression in the ground where they crowd young people in and they shoot them with machine guns. This is the savagery that we only remember from the Nazi crimes from the Holocaust. Hamas are the new Nazis. Hamas is ISIS and in some instances, worse than ISIS. And just as the world united to defeat the Nazis, just as the world united to defeat ISIS, the world has to stand united behind Israel to defeat Hamas. This is a part of an axis of evil: of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Their goal, open goal, is to eradicate the State of Israel. The open goal of Hamas is to kill as many Jews as they could and the only difference is they would have killed every last one of us, murdered every last one of us if they could, they just don’t have the capacity, but they murdered an extraordinary 1,300 citizens which in American terms is many, many, many 9/11s. So obviously we must take action to defeat Hamas to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. But this is not only our battle, it is our common battle. The battle of civilization against barbarism. And if it’s not stopped here, this savagery will reach you very soon and reach the entire world. We have a vested interest, an abiding interest, to make sure that doesn’t happen and it can only be achieved with the solidarity of the civilized world. I hope and I believe that many, many around the world see ISIS for what it is and see Hamas for what it is, which is a reincarnation of ISIS. We appreciate the fact that you came here to stand with us in this battle for the future of civilization. Thank you, Chancellor." The Prime Minister added: "Thank you, Chancellor. I appreciate all your statements, including your last reference to protecting the Jewish community. We discussed this in our conversation as well. The question of the safety of civilians is something that is raised by Hamas' actions. Hamas is committing a double war crime. Not only is it targeting civilians with unprecedented savagery, it’s hiding by civilians, their own civilians. We are calling on the civilians to leave Gaza, go south to safe zones and Hamas is preventing them often at gunpoint from doing so. Hamas wants to keep them there as a human shield and prevent the people from leaving and getting out of harm’s way. It’s important that the entire world understands this. The responsibility for the civilians who are there, both the abducted people and both the people who are kept there at force, the citizens of our country, and the citizens of dozens of countries and the Palestinian civilians themselves, that responsibility sits squarely on the shoulders of the Hamas war criminals. They’re committing a double war crime: attacking civilians, hiding behind civilians as human shields. The entire world should condemn it and should support Israel in its just war. Thank you very much, Chancellor."