Sunday, 27 July 2014

Extreme takeover

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday - 27 07 2014

The world is living dangerous times. Suddenly we have various international flashpoints that could flare up into something bigger at any time with dire consequences. Our sensitivity to such risks increases as we mark the centenary of the First World War which, in the summer of 1914, flared up from one such localised flashpoint into a global conflagration in a matter of weeks.

The Jewish/Palestine dispute has escalated to an all-out war in spite of the major difference between the military strengths of the two outfits. If one takes a narrow view of the current events, one can hardly blame Israel for proceeding with a ground invasion of Gaza. No sovereign country can sit idle as its neighbour pours rockets on its towns and villages. But the narrow view is the wrong view.

As always, current events need to be evaluated in a historical context to reach a proper assessment, and for a proper assessment I suggest reading a recently-published book by famous Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, entitled My Promised Land. It is enlightening, as it gives an intellectual appreciation of how the building of the nation of Israel was, to a significant extent, at the expense of the Palestinians who had occupied the land and were unceremoniously forced out with scant recognition for their rights and interests.

The Jewish Palestine dispute is extremely complicated as there are too many blood accounts open on both sides. Apart from international prodding, a lasting solution requires moderate leaders on both sides – a Mandela for each side – to look beyond past acrimony and understand that only a proper internationally recognised two-nation state solution can result in peaceful co-existence.  

Unfortunately, both sides are being led by extremists who are the antithesis of Mandela. Prime Minister Netanyahu, apart from his own personal extreme and narrow views, is a slave to government coalition partners of extreme right-wing/religious parties who pretend a God-given right to the land they occupy without international title. The Hamas faction of the Palestinians, which is in charge in Gaza, demands the extinction of Israel and does not even recognise Jewish rights to nationhood within the confines of the UN mandate. These positions are so extreme that they allow no room for diplomatic negotiation and as pressure builds up, flash points such as the current one become unavoidable.

Unfortunately, both sides take a very narrow view. Hamas should realise that pouring rockets on Israeli towns and villages will at best cause a superficial scratch on the Jewish state but will invite a land invasion that puts at risk the lives of hundreds or thousands of innocent civilians, even if in the process it kills a few score Israeli soldiers. It seems that Hamas have become so immune to the suffering of their own people that the satisfaction of killing a few Israeli soldiers is greater than the grief of losing so many of their own innocent civilians apart from compounding the already grave misery of those who survive.

Israel, on the other hand, needs to get serious in working for peaceful co-existence. They must realise that blocking nearly two million people on a tiny strip of land, whatever the security reasons behind such a blockade, is the perfect training ground for grooming terrorists who – for want of anything more productive – spend their life digging tunnels to exit points that beat the blockade to pursue their purposes, which are often more revengeful than benevolent. Israel needs also to look at the maths and realise that – without peaceful co-existence through an internationally recognised two-state solution – internal democracy is doomed as eventually the Israeli Muslims will start outnumbering the Israeli Jews.

Eastern Ukraine has again become an extreme flashpoint after the downing by a surface-to-air missile fired from pro-Russian controlled Ukrainian territory of a civil Air Malaysia airliner, killing all the nearly 300 people on board.

One gets the feeling that this is just the early chapter in a much longer history book that is yet to be written. The situation is grave, as it brings into direct confrontation the protagonists of the Cold War – which we wrongly assumed had finished with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and with the accession of many Eastern European sovereign states that were formerly in the USSR orbit of influence into the EU and NATO in 2004.

The current flashpoint in Eastern Ukraine is nothing other than a proxy war between NATO and Russia, as both sides realise that a full-scale confrontation would be too dangerous for either. Through this proxy war, each side is sizing the resolve of the other to defend an escalation. The not so veiled occupation by Russia of the territory of Eastern Ukraine proximate to its border is pitched against international sanctions against Russian companies and personalities which are often a double-edged sword as they hurt the trade and investment relations of both West and East.

Before things become more serious, there needs to be a UN-sponsored international conference where a diplomatic solution is reached that represents a compromise between the two current extreme positions. The compromise has to take account of these factors, even if they could seem prima facie contradictory:
1.     The safeguarding of Ukraine entire sovereign territory.

2.     The recognition of Russia’s interest in Crimea through some sort of land lease agreement similar to Hong Kong’s status before its reversion to China in 1997.

3.     The recognition of Russian interest in maintaining a NATO-free buffer zone between its borders and NATO countries.

4.     The recognition of the rights of ethnic Russian majorities in Eastern Ukraine to a large degree of autonomous self-administration.

5.     The recognition of the right of sovereign Ukraine to seek cooperation with and, if necessary, membership of the EU.
Finally, the flashpoint closer to home is Libya which, unfortunately, is degenerating into a failed state. A failed state on our doorstep is a strategic risk that we have to worry about. Unfortunately, the parallelism between what is happening in Libya and the experience of Iraq following the removal of their dictators is too obvious to disregard or about which to be optimistic.

Iraq and Libya are cases of “be careful what you wish for”. There is no doubt that the regimes of Hussein and Gaddafi were despicable in their gross disregard of minority and human rights. But this is the narrow view. The wider view is whether the alternative is any better. In both cases, the alternative seems to be a failed state where extremists take over, where newly-created democratic institutions are too shallow rooted and too fragile to defend themselves, and where populations that had been glued together by the iron hand of a dictator become unstuck and fall into a civil war in which might is right and the rule of law is the barrel of Kalashnikov.

The position is too serious for it to become a political football between the government and the Opposition – which was the whole purpose of the parliamentary debate forced by the Opposition this week. With the government having offered full access to the Opposition to keep it informed about the extremely fluid situation in Libya and the steps being taken to safeguard the interests of Malta and the Maltese, there was little value to be gained by a parliamentary debate, especially when things are very often so delicate that public disclosure could cause more harm than good.

In such situations, Malta’s interests are served better by covert cooperation between our political forces than by overt performances for the gallery in parliament. But one must pay tribute to the courage of our diplomats who returned to Libya, after they were blocked in Malta, to be as close as possible to the Maltese who have decided to stay even though they were offered a route to leave.

But the Iraqi and Libyan experiences have a clear message: the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never a straight line, it is never easy and things could get worse rather than better. As the Egyptian experience is suggesting, the transition may have to pass through the military and it is to be hoped that, for want of something better, the military is benign and will be successful in institutional nation-building to make the transition to democracy quick and successful.

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