Developments in West Asia, August 2018
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Jordan-Palestine Confederation

President Trump had spoken about his “ Deal of the Century” for resolving the Palestinian issue. He also created a huge controversy and immense setback to the prospects of the Middle East Peace Process with his decision to shift the US Embassy to Jerusalem, de facto recognising it as the capital of Israel, much to the chagrin of the Muslim world. Gaza continues to have blockades and suffers casualties. Arabs and Palestinians, especially the Saudis and Emiratis who otherwise would have tried to find a modus vivendi with Israel due to their Iranian fixation, had to publicly oppose the move. Meanwhile, US decision to withdraw support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) dealt a blow, while Trump also cancelled a $ 200 mn bilateral aid for the Palestinians; most likely a pressure tactic to bring President Abbas and company to the table. Abbas had refused to meet US officials since the Jerusalem announcement. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz praised US leadership for halting the funds to UNRWA.

Another controversial issue reportedly proposed by US officials was to broach the possibility of Jordan- Palestinian Confederation as the way out of the impasse. President Abbas mentioned to a group of peace activists that Jared Kushner and Greenblatt had asked him to consider a Confederation with Jordan. Apparently, Abbas claimed that “I will agree to a Confederation with Jordan and Israel only”, meaning if Israel was part of it. For Jordan, this idea as such has been an anathema since 1984. Expectedly, Jordanian leadership rejected the alleged call for a confederation stating that it was impossible to join the Kingdom with Palestine’s West Bank. Jordanian Minister and Spokeswoman Jumana Ghuneimat said that it was neither possible nor “open for discussion”. Jordan supports a two state solution and its position has been crystal clear. Another angle to it is that King Abdullah-II, a direct descendent of Prophet Mohammed, is the custodian of the third holiest mosque of Al Aqsa in Jerusalem and other holy sites there, which provides him with a religious parity with the Saudi custodianship of holy mosques. Jordan also detests the very idea as their own population comprises of over 60 percent Palestinians and that could cause instability in the Kingdom if the proposed option ever became a reality.

Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, also agreeing with the official position, said that the idea of a confederation will take away Palestinians’ right to “retake and liberate their Israeli occupied lands”. The proposal as quoted in Haaretz read, “a confederation agreement will be signed between the leadership in the West Bank and Jordan without clarifying whether a joint parliament and a joint constitution will be established, and without determining whether the Palestinian component will be granted the status of a state. Israel may be willing to recognise the Palestinian state but only as part of the confederation and without Gaza – which will be transferred to Egyptian security cover. The settlements will remain in place and under direct Israeli security and civil control.”

The so called “Third or Jordanian Option” has always scared the Jordanians since they can’t get over the 1970 Black September Revolution triggered by Palestinians under Yasser Arafat. Arafat had challenged Jordanian armed forces when King Hussein was made to fight street by street to keep his rule and the Kingdom intact.

Iran and the US Spat

After his decision to withdraw from the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump continued with his carrot and stick policy. On the one hand he imposed stern and punitive sanctions on Iran on August 6, raising humiliating demands, and on the other, even agreed to meet the Iranians. Of course the Iranians dismissed the insane and unreliable overture as “useless” and continued to pressure their European counterparts who also do not agree with Trump and are trying to salvage the nuclear deal. In mid-August, US set up an “ Iran Action Group” with Brian Hook as its head on the 65th anniversary of the CIA led coup in Iran when a democratically elected government was removed. Hook’s job is to “direct, review and coordinate” while following on the execution of the 12 demands that Secretary Pompeo had outlined last May. Trump has often claimed that JCPOA was a bad–bad deal and that he would work out a “bigger better deal” than what Obama had achieved. He also wished to achieve his objectives by imposing more severe sanctions on November 5 not only on the Iranian oil and gas exports but also on the countries that continue to import and do business with Iran after his unilateral cut-off date. No one, except the protagonists, would agree that his demands have anything really to do with the quality of JCPOA. Trump’s tirade against Iran’s role in the region, its missile programme and support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah have nothing to do with the nuclear deal per se. USA indeed hopes that the difficulties imposed by the sanctions will bring Rouhani to talks and create dissent and demonstrations in the country that would force the regime to change course. It is also surmised that there might be an interaction between US and Iran on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly as Oman and others are trying to bridge the divide, although Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel may not be interested in any rapprochement.

In India too, the debate continued on the impact and compliance with the US sanctions, especially the secondary ones as India is the second largest importer of Iranian oil. While China and Russia and several European countries have clearly outlined their opposition to the unilateral and irrational US stance, India’s position on imports from Iran has been somewhat ambivalent despite the External Affairs Ministry claiming that “India follows the UN sanctions”. Although Nikki Halley carried a message in this regard, one would see a specific outcome either way following the 2+2 India-US dialogue held in September 2018.

Saudi Arabia and Canada

The spat on the human rights issue has really taken to an extreme with the withdrawal of Ambassadors. On August 2, the Canadian Foreign Minister Freeland tweeted criticising Saudi Arabia for the detention of two human rights activists. Saudi Government called it an overt and blatant interference in their internal affairs which was in contravention of the basic international norms and charter governing relations between the states. It further warned that if Canada continued in this direction then Saudi Arabia will assume its right to interfere in Canadian internal affairs. Taking it to further extreme, Saudis recalled their Ambassador and expelled the Canadian Ambassador, issued advisory against travel to Canada, blocked new trade deals and withdrew scholarships from Saudi youth studying in Canada virtually creating a no-interaction zone. It could possibly be that Saudi’s felt emboldened due to the recent snub to Canadians at G-20 by their big brother Trump. This is evident from the US State Department’s anodyne reply, “We are aware of Government of Saudi Arabia’s statement recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and expelling Canada’s ambassador. Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States. I refer you to the Canadian and Saudi Ministries of Foreign Affairs for further information.” However, Canadian PM Trudeau maintained that “Canada will continue to stand up for human rights “and the Foreign Minister herself repeated, “We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.” Who will blink first remains to be seen but Saudi Arabia under the young Crown Prince Salman has become adventurous and overtly decisive.

Meanwhile, a UN report on War Crimes in Yemen castigated the Saudis, Emiratis and Houthis for perpetrating violence against innocent civilians. It said that military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as eight years — actions that may amount to war crimes. The report accused Saudi and Emirati airstrikes for causing the most civilian casualties, saying they had hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, jails, boats and medical facilities. “There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” said Kamel Jendoubi, the Chairman of Report Committee.
At the same time, the report also charged that the Houthi rebels, who control northern Yemen and are fighting the Saudi-Emirati coalition, may have committed war crimes. They were accused of shelling civilians, torturing detainees, recruiting young children to fight and blocking access to humanitarian agencies.

(Ambassador Anil Trigunayat is a former Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta)

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