Trump’s “Deal of the Century”
US President Donald Trump launched his Middle East Peace Plan on January 28 at the White House in presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in conspicuous absence of any Palestinian representative. It was essentially the political proposal complimenting the economic component of the plan released earlier on June 22 2019 in Manama by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor.Trump’s Plan was detailed in an elaborate 181-page document offering vision of a complex deal to square the circle of conflicting demands from Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). To the former, it legitimised control of the Israeli settlements in West Bank, recognises undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and grants Israel security control over the occupied territories. To the PA, it provided, under a number of arduous conditions, eventual gain of a conditional, limited sovereignty, a new capital (Abu Dis) at the outskirts of West Jerusalem, access to holy Islamic shrines in Jerusalem, logistical connectivity between West Bank and Gaza and possibility of a territorial swap in the Negev desert. The indicated conditions imposed on the PA included, inter alia, complete disarming all Palestinian militias, recognise Israel as a Jewish state, joining international organisations only after Israeli consent, prohibits any international legal references against Israel and the US, stop payments to family prisoners and martyrs and sanitisation against hate speech and radicalisation. The Trump Plan provided for a four year period for its consideration by the concerned stakeholders.Palestine and Arab reactions to the Trump Plan ranged from its complete rejection to a more guarded, low-key acknowledgement as a basis for negotiations. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas described it as a “Slap of the Century” and personally attended emergency meetings of the Arab League and the UN General Assembly to get it rejected for failing to meet the ‘minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people’.
(i) The backdrop to the Trump Plan has two of significant contextual issues. It follows a string of path-breaking pro-Israeli policy pronouncement and measures made by the United States during past three years. These include moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, unilaterally recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, considering Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “not inconsistent with the International law” and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Secondly, it was unveiled during the re-election process both in the US and Israel and was alleged by some observers to help the incumbents in both countries.
(ii)Relevant to note that about 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to around 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, where an estimated 2.6 million Palestinians live. An additional 200,000 Israelis reside in 12 neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their future capital. Israel annexed east Jerusalem decades ago, in a move not recognized outside of Israel. The U.S. under Trump became the only major power to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while adding that the city’s borders should be negotiated. About 20,000 settlers also live on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
(iii)Although Arab League rejected the Trump Plan, according to media reports, some Arab states were individually ambivalent. President Trump’s unveiling of his plan was attended by the Ambassadors to the US of Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. Saudi Arabia “appreciated Trump’s efforts and called for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks”; the UAE’s ambassador to Washington said the plan “offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework”. Egypt urged “a careful and thorough examination of the US vision”, while Jordan warned against “annexation of Palestinian lands”.
The perennial tensions between Washington and Tehran reached a new low with a US drone strike killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Al-Qods force, soon after his arrival at Baghdad airport on Jan 2/3 night. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Deputy Commander of Hashd Al-Sha’abi (Popular Militia Unit – a pro-Iran Iraqi Shia outfit) was also killed with him. Iranian leaders vowed vengeance and on Jan 8 launched 22 missile attacks on the US military facilities at Al-Asad and Erbil, two bases in Iraq. While President Trump publically denied any significant damage to the US men and material, the Pentagon later admitted that 111 US military personnel have been treated for the “concussions” suffered by the attack and that some structures were destroyed. The US responded to the Iranian attack by imposing fresh sanction against 8 Iranians.The body of Gen Soleimani, a decorated officer and highly popular legendary personality in Iran, was taken in public procession through main cities of Iraq and Iran before being buried in his hometown on Jan 7 amidst widespread outpouring of anger and grief.In his justification for authorisation of assassination of the Iranian general, President Trump alleged that Gen Soleimani was planning attacks on a number of US facilities in the region including some embassies.A Ukrainian civilian jet on a scheduled flight crashed on Jan 9 soon after taking off from Tehran airport killing all 176 persons on board. After three days of prevarication, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IGRC) admitted on Jan 11 that the passenger jet had been shot down as the air defence units mistook it as an incoming American missile. The foreign media reported of anti-government demonstrations in Tehran to vent their anger at the perceived attempt by the IRGC to cover up their blunder.On Jan 15, the so-called E3 (The UK, France and Germany) signatories of the JCPOA decided to invoke the agreement’sdispute mechanism with regard to Iranian decision to breach the prescribed limit on the uranium enrichment
Please see: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/bracing-for-global-impact-after-soleimanis-assassination/article30473032.ece
Following the US killing of Iranian General at Baghdad airport and retaliatory Iranian missile attacks on two Iraqi airbases housing American forces, sentiments grew against foreign forces on country’s soil. At the acting Iraqi Prime Minister’s suggestion, the national parliament passed a resolution on Jan 5 calling for expulsion of all foreign troops. The US authorities rejected this demand for withdrawal of their estimated 5,000 troops in the country and called for its reconsideration. President Trump said that Gen Soleimani’s assassination was intended to stop the ongoing hostilities and not to commence the new ones. He also called for NATO countries to play a greater role in securing the Middle East.The internal situation in Iraq continued to be fluid during the month, with influential but maverick Shia cleric Musa Sadr withdrawing his support for anti-government protests on Jan 25. The Iraqi security forces raiding a protest camp in Baghdad the next day, leading to 4 deaths. Three rockets were fired at the US embassy compound on Jan 26.
Approaching military denouement between the forces of GNA (Tripoli-based Government of National Accord led by President Fayez al-Serraj) and those of LNA (Benghazi-based Libyan National Army under Gen. Khalifa Haftar) prompted intensified attempts by the UN and other stakeholders to influence its outcome. The military initiative remained with LNA forces and their allies (such as Egypt, the UAE, Sudan and Chad as well as some Russian mercenaries) which attacked Military Academy at the outskirts of Tripoli on Jan 5 and captured Sirte couple of days later. On Jan 18, LNA announced a naval blockade GNA’s oil exports depriving the latter of nearly three fourth of its oil revenue worth $77 mn daily.On Jan 2 Turkish parliament approved the government proposal to deploy troops to assist GNA forces. This was followed by reports of Turkish military experts and some Syrian fighters arriving in Libya to support the GNA forces. While Russia-Turkey summit on Jan 10 in Ankara agreed to work together to stabilise Libya, its call for a ceasefire was ignored by Gen Haftar. Although he subsequently attended the two peace conferences in Moscow (Jan 13) and Berlin (Jan 20), he parried the calls made at both for cessation of hostilities in Libya. Sporadic fighting continued around Tripoli till end of the month.President of Libya and Algeria met in Algiers on Jan 7 with the host-side declaring that the capture of Tripoli by LNA to be the redline.
Despite a number of resolutions by the UN Security Council and other international fora prohibiting foreign interference in Libya, such involvement has continued for mainly two reasons: Firstly, Libya has the largest hydrocarbon reserves in Africa which are located at Europe’s doorstep. Secondly, the chaos since ouster of Col Qaddafi regime in 2011 has allowed the motley Islamic militants to establish their fiefdoms in various parts of this country. A number of neighbouring countries consider such entities to be a threat to their stability.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, 79, passed away on Jan 11 after a protracted illness. He was succeeded on the same day by Haitham bin Tareq Al-Said, his 65 year old cousin and former minister.
Seamless succession and high-ranking regional and global participation in the funeral of Sultan Qaboos underlined importance of this transition that came after a long suspended apprehension. While the Sultan Haitham is likely to continue with his predecessor’s policies, he may have to speed up governance reforms kept in abeyance during much of the past decade. The coming denouements, including Yemeni Civil war, US-Iran tensions, oil market turbulence and the Middle East Peace Process would test his diplomatic acumen.
In their first attack on a US military facility outside Somalia, Al-Shabab militants attacked Lamu, an airbase in northern Kenya, killing 3 American servicemen and destroying 6 aircraft. The attack was seen as in retaliation to the earlier US air-attacks on Al-Shabab personnel.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, visited Pakistan and met Prime Minister Imran Khan on Jan 2. A $200 million aid package to the SMEs in Pakistan was announced on this occasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a day’s visit to Syria on Jan 7. Although the visit was essentially meant to celebrate Russian Orthodox Christmas with Russian military personnel deployed in Syria, he also visited Damascus – for the first time since Russian military intervention in Syria – and met President Bashar Al-Assad.While a ceasefire in Idlib was brokered by Russia and Turkey on Jan 10, the fighting soon resume and Syrian army announce capture of strategically significant highway town of Maavet al-Numan on Jan 29.
Russian backed Syrian military campaign to capture Idlib appears motivated by two considerations. Firstly, al-Assad government’s determination to have its writ run throughout the country before the expected attenuation of support from foreign backers such as Russia and Iran. Secondly, to open up country’s strategic M5 highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo.
Following rejection of the government headed by Prime Minister designate Habib Jemli on Jan 11 by the Parliament, on Jan 21 President Kais Saied nominated Elyes Farfakh to make similar attempt.
An al-Houthi missile attack on a government garrison in Marib killed 111 soldiers. This incident led to resumption of Saudi airstrikes and dashed hopes of a more enduring cessation of hostilities.An UN investigation team concluded on Jan 9 that al-Houthi’s did not carry out the attacks at two Saudi oil facilities in September 2019.
A new cabinet comprising of 20 ministers under Hassan Diab was announced on Jan 28 amidst continuing youth protests. Most minister were technocrats backed by the main political parties divided along sectarian lines. The new cabinet immediately adopted country’s much delayed annual budget to stave off an economic crisis.
On Jan 25, the transitional government signed a peace deal with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North providing, inter alia, Special Status to Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces.All assets of the National Congress Party (NCP) of the deposed president Oman Hassan al-Bashir were seized by the government.
II) Economic Developments
Israeli Gas Exports:
On Jan 16, Israel commenced exports of natural gas to Egypt from her Laviathan offshore field. Similar exports planned to Jordan triggered adverse political reactions including a resolution in the parliament and mass demonstrations. Israel also has plans to export gas to some countries in Southern Europe.
Following exercise of the “green-shoe” option on Jan 12, Saudi Aramco further raised the size of its IPO to $ 29.4 billion.
A 930 kms TurkStream pipeline under the Black Sea to supply Russian natural gas to Turkey was jointly inaugurated by Russian and Turkish presidents on Jan 8. In the next stage, the pipeline is to be extended to Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. It would provide a strategic alternative to Russia away from dependence on passage through Ukraine, a country with which Moscow has frosty relations.Separately President Erdugan announced on Jan 17 that Turkey shall commence gas exploration in Eastern Mediterranean later this year. Earlier moves in this direction have been criticised by some regional countries as possible infringement of their territorial waters.
The January-end deadline for negotiating a US-sponsored agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on charging up of the Grand Renaissance Dam over Nile river passed without a deal. While Ethiopia regards the matter as within her sovereignty, Egypt, which depends on Nile waters for 90% of her needs, is extremely concerned.
III) Bilateral Developments
India took the following actions in light of escalation in US-Iran tensions following the assassination of Gen Soleimani:(a) India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued a statement on Jan 4 saying:”We have noted that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US. The increase in tension has alarmed the world. Peace, stability and security in this region are of utmost importance to India. It is vital that the situation does not escalate further. India has consistently advocated restraint and continues to do so.”(b) On Jan 7, MEA issued a warning to her nationals against travelling to Iraq; and (c) On Jan 9 , India decided to deploy naval ships in the Gulf regionIranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif visited New Delhi on Jan 14-16 to participate in the Raisena Dialogue. In his interviews to the Indian media, he welcomed India playing a role in diffusing the tensions in the Gulf region.In a report published on Jan 26, PTI quoted market analyst firm Bernstein to emphasise that Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance India Ltd proposed sale of 20% stake in the oil-to-chemical business to the Saudi Aramco for estimated $15 billion signalled expansion rather than retreat as growth opportunities are expected to boost the petrochemical and refining vertical. This and other media reports have indicated that the deal was intended to pare the RIL’s debt.
Please see: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/view-india-is-the-most-exposed-major-economy-to-turmoil-in-west-asia/articleshow/73181991.cms (The views expressed are personal)