Lebanon: Blair’s other Middle East mistake

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 9th September 2010

A Journey presents Blair’s actions during the 2006 Lebanon war as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle

When Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, was released last week, columnists and reviewers focused on his fairly unrevealing comments about the Iraq war. Less widely reported is Blair’s account of his other major misjudgment in the Middle East: his stubborn refusal to call for a ceasefire during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The conflict, fought for a month between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah, was estimated to have cost the lives of 1,191 Lebanese citizens and 159 Israelis (including 43 civilians). As the Shia militia fired rockets at Israeli cities and the IDF responded with massive bombings in Lebanon, Blair was urged by a huge swell of public opinion, the media, his cabinet and foreign policy advisers to join European leaders in calling for an immediate unconditional ceasefire.

Yet the prime minister stubbornly defied this advice and endorsed the Bush administration’s approach of foot-dragging on a UN ceasefire, allegedly to allow Israel more time to “knock out” Hezbollah.

Previous biographies, such as Anthony Seldon’s excellent Blair Unbound, suggested Blair told aides that his attitude in summer 2006 was to retain “leverage” with both the US and Israel, fearing that to openly criticise them would lose him clout. Indeed, this was a reason often given for sticking with Bush in Iraq: to earn the right to guide and influence. Yet his memoir reveals no such pragmatic concerns, misguided as they proved to be. Instead, Blair declares a deep ideological motivation for opposing a ceasefire. He states: “If I had condemned Israel, it would have been more than dishonest; it would have undermined the world view I had come to hold passionately.”

It is this world view that is most alarming about Blair’s account. Through this lens, Blair believed: “Lebanon was embroiled in something far bigger and more portentous than a temporary fight with Israel.” Instead, he sees it as a “wider struggle between the strain of religious extremism in Islam and the rest of us”. He was thus willing to delay a ceasefire in order to win victory in this wider struggle, of which he saw Hezbollah as a key combatant, and Israel as one of “us”.

From Blair’s perspective this religious struggle defines the Middle East. He states: “To me, you can’t understand Hezbollah unless you understand the role of Iran; or understand Lebanon unless you understand Syria … or understand either country in its present state unless you understand the history not just of the region but of the religion, how it saw itself, how it had developed its own narrative, how it saw its own predicament.”

This includes a remarkable simplification of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he claims “is used as a potent source of friction and war because of religious difference”. The impact of other significant forces, notably nationalism and imperialism, are conveniently sidelined.

Blair hints that the civilians caught up in this struggle are regrettably expendable. Echoing Condoleezza Rice’s own distasteful remarks that the 2006 violence was the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, Blair remarks that “just because we were shocked by the TV footage of the consequences of war, this could not blind us to the consequences of peace on the wrong terms”.

Yet his peace on the “right” terms seemed to include a form of collective punishment of the Lebanese. He articulates: “They [Hezbollah] had to understand that if they tried doing it again, there was a price to be paid that the people of Lebanon would not allow them to pay, at least not with the lives of their civilians.”

One wonders if Blair would have been willing to expend the lives of a thousand Israeli, or even British, civilians in order to make Hezbollah understand.

The use of force to achieve his goals is a further strand of his world view. He states: “The solution to me lay in neither the sole use of hard power nor the sole use of soft power but in the combination of the two.” Moreover, he was willing to overrule all advice and his public to achieve this. He remarks: “It wasn’t that I didn’t get public opinion on Lebanon, nor that I couldn’t have articulated it. My difficulty was that I didn’t agree with it.”

Yet there was a high cost to this ideological stubbornness. Blair’s book dwells on the domestic consequence of his actions, claiming they led to his departure from office, but the costs to Lebanon and the Middle East in general were far greater. When Hezbollah was still standing after the war it claimed a “divine victory” boosting its power and influence. At the same time, the Lebanese government that had come to power trying to reorientate Beirut into a more western orbit was hugely undermined, as its supposed new allies seemed powerless to defend its infrastructure and civilians from Israeli attacks. This caused more internal strife before a Syrian-Saudi-backed stability emerged in 2008.

The reverse of what Blair intended had occurred: Hezbollah and its allies were boosted, Israel was demoralised, the US and Britain were further discredited in Arab eyes, and an excessive number of civilians had died in the pursuit of an unobtainable ideological goal.

A Journey thus presents Blair’s actions in summer 2006 as those of a committed ideologue, not simply Bush’s poodle as previously charged. Blair seems driven by a world view that, though not explicitly neoconservative, certainly has similarities. He sees the Middle East through a largely religious lens, frames its complex conflicts though a simplified struggle between radical and moderate Islam and is willing to use force and sacrifice lives to achieve its aims, irrespective of public and expert opinion.

However, what is most alarming about this is not necessarily the ideology behind the misjudgment in Lebanon four years ago. It is that Blair retains this misguided zeal today and somehow expects to use it to deliver the “right peace” between Israelis and Palestinians in his role as quartet envoy.

A Peace Crime?

Interesting article in Haaretz from Gideon Levy:

It couldn’t have been spelled out more explicitly, clearly and emphatically. Read and judge for yourselves: “Our position is clear: When Israel returns the entire Golan Heights, of course we will sign a peace agreement with it …. What’s the point of peace if the embassy is surrounded by security, if there is no trade and tourism between the two countries? That’s not peace. That’s a permanent cease-fire agreement. This is what I say to whoever comes to us to talk about the Syrian track: We are interested in a comprehensive peace, i.e., normal relations.”

Who said this to whom? Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir last week. These astounding things were said to Arab, not Western ears, and they went virtually unnoticed here. Can you believe it?

What more can Assad say that he hasn’t already? How many more times does he have to declare his peaceful intentions before someone wakes up here? How long must he knock in vain on Israel’s locked door? And if that were not enough, he also called on Turkey to work to calm the crisis with Israel so it can mediate between Israel and Syria.

Assad’s words should have been headline news last week and in the coming weeks. Anwar Sadat said less before he came to Israel. In those days we were excited by his words, today we brazenly disregard such statements. This leads to only one conclusion: Israel does not want peace with Syria. Period. It prefers the Golan over peace with one of its biggest and most dangerous enemies. It prefers real estate, bed and breakfasts, mineral water, trendy wine and a few thousand settlers over a strategic change in its status.

Just imagine what would happen if we emerged from the ruins of our international status to sign a peace agreement with Syria – how the international climate regarding us would suddenly change, how the “axis of evil” would crack and Iran’s strongholds weaken, how Hezbollah would get a black eye, more than in all the Lebanon wars. And maybe even Gilad Shalit, held by the Damascus-based Hamas, would be freed. Sound too good to be true? Maybe, but Israel is not even trying. A prime minister who ignores this chance is no less than a peace criminal.

Instead of the Shalit march that has just ended, a different march should have set out this week, one more massive and determined, calling on the Israeli government, the peace refuser, to do something. Hoarse shouts should have gone up: Peace with Syria now. But this march will not go forward this week. Apparently it will never happen. Singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi, Zubin Mehta and the respectable demonstrators who marched on behalf of one soldier will not do so to support a move that could save the lives of many soldiers and civilians. Why? Because that takes courage. Why? Because Assad was right when he told La Repubblica in Italy: “Israeli society has tilted too far to the right, and it is not capable of making peace with Syria.”

True, they say the Mossad chief thinks that Assad will never make peace because the whole justification for his regime is based on hostility toward Israel. Our experts are never wrong, but similar things were said about Sadat. True, Assad also said other things. Other? Not really. He said that if he does not succeed through peace, he will try to liberate the Golan through resistance. Illogical? Illegitimate? Not a reason to try to challenge him? What do we have to lose but the chance? Even the latest fig leaf a few prime ministers have used here – the assessment that the U.S. opposes peace with Syria – is absurd. Does anyone see U.S. President Barack Obama opposing a peace move with Syria? What a pity that he is not pressing Israel to move ahead with it.

And then there is the old refrain: “Assad doesn’t mean it.” When Arab leaders make threats, they mean it; when they talk peace, they don’t. And also: “We’ll return the Golan and end up with a piece of paper and missiles.” Remember how that was said about Egypt? But we persist: The prime minister is criminally missing a historic chance for peace, and we yawn apathetically. Sounds logical, right?

Worrying events on Lebanon-Israel border

Various news outlets are reporting deaths in a skirmish on the Lebanon-Israel border today. Al Jazeera reports:

At least two Lebanese soldiers have been killed by Israeli forces during an exchange of rocket and gunfire along the border between the two countries.

A journalist was also killed and five more Lebanese soldiers wounded in the Israeli shelling on Tuesday, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Lebanon said.

“The Israelis fired four rockets that fell near a Lebanese army position in the village of Adaisseh and the Lebanese army fired back,” a Lebanese security official in the area said.

Hezbollah’s Al Manar television station said a high-ranking Israeli soldier was also killed in the border incident. The report could not be independently verified….

Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Jerusalem, said “the overall picture that seems to be emerging from Israeli television reports is that the whole incident seems to have started over some misunderstanding”.

“There was some kind of Israeli incursion perceived … to have crossed over into Lebanese territory” which precipitated the exchange of fire, Rowland said.

This comes amidst increased tension in Lebanon over Hezbollah’s alledged role in the Hariri assassination and a recent failed rocket attack on Eilat. Whilst Bashar al Assad has warned that a war is looking ever more likely, Robert Fisk suggests that the recent natural resources found off the coast of Lebanon and Israel might actually delay conflict for a year.

Past precedent would suggest that this is not the first shot in an Israeli invasion. In 1993, 1996, 2006 and of course 1982 Israel attacked quite suddenly and in great numbers, not following a quick fire fight. That said, we are entering the preferred ‘war season’ of summer. Lets hope that the various leaders on each side of the border keep their heads and don’t expose Lebanon to yet more carnage and destruction.

Turkey and Israel: the End of the Affair?

By Christopher Phillips, Shifting Sands 11th June 2010

As the dust from Israel’s 31st May attack on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship continues to settle, and the various sides push their own accounts of who violated which international laws and protocols, one thing is for certain: Turkish-Israeli relations are in dire straits. Despite a long history of friendship, tensions between the two have been simmering since Tel Aviv’s sudden invasion of Gaza in December 2008, further exacerbated by Israel’s public humiliation of Turkey’s ambassador and Ankara’s improving ties with the Jewish state’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus. However, the events 77 miles off the coast of Gaza, in which 4 Turks were amongst the 9 activists killed, has brought matters to a new low with Turkish PM Erdogan declaring the raid a ‘massacre’ and recalling his ambassador to Tel Aviv. So why has this decline come about?

Commentators in the pro-Israel camp have been quick to blame Ankara’s hostility on the Islamist roots of Turkey’s ruling AKP party. According to this narrative, the AKP, angry at continual rejection by the EU, is turning its attention eastwards to recast Turkey in the Ottoman role of dominant power in the Middle East. One writer, the Dayan Centre’s Joshua Teitelbaum, even went far enough to accuse Erdogan of waging ‘Jihad’ on Israel. Yet such analysis is severely flawed. The AKP have been in power since 2002 and, until the Gaza war of 2008, enjoyed excellent relations with Israel: extending military and economic cooperation and mediating Tel Aviv’s peace talks with Syria. Certainly no such Islamist ideological opposition to Israel was visible in those first six years.

Similarly Turkey has in no way turned its back on Europe. The EU remains Turkey’s principal trading partner, an economic relationship that has prompted the unprecedented growth that is allowing Ankara greater financial clout in the Middle East. Far from an Islamic idealism, Turkish foreign relations under the AKP has been characterised by a flexible realism. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s notion of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ has allowed Ankara to maintain and indeed strengthen its ties with Europe whilst abandoning historical hostilities with Russia, Greece, Syria and Iran in order to enhance Turkey’s influence in its surrounding countries.

The decline in relations with Tel Aviv is therefore better explained by Israel’s bizarrely provocative behaviour towards Turkey, rather than a renewed Islamic idealism in Ankara. Indeed, until recently Israel too could be considered a neighbour with which Turkey had ‘zero problems’, as illustrated by the first six years of AKP-Israel harmony. Yet Israel has seemed foolishly insensitive to Turkish national pride in its recent actions. Erdogan felt personally betrayed, for example, in 2008 when he had spent hours mediating a potential peace deal between Tel Aviv and Damascus, only for then Israeli Premier Olmert to scupper the talks by launching the Gaza invasion without any consultation with Ankara. Similarly current Israeli Foreign Officials deliberately humiliated the Turkish ambassador in 2009 by making him sit in a ‘low chair’ during a televised interview, prompting public outrage in Turkey. Now, following the flotilla crisis, despite Israel’s pleas that they had asked Ankara not to sanction the convoy, four bodies returned home to Turkey who had been shot at point-blank range by their government’s supposed ally – a difficult position for any leader to justify to an angry nationalist population.

Yet these actions point to a wider trend in the Middle East on behalf of both actors. For Israel, it displays an even greater siege mentality than usual under the stewardship of Premier Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman. This government’s willingness to discard any international criticism whether it be over the Gaza blockade or stolen western identities to assassinate Hamas leaders in Dubai, and their direct refusal of US wishes to halt West Bank settlements, suggests a leadership convinced of its own rectitude and steadfast refusal to compromise, whatever the costs to its international image. In this light, losing its oldest and most important Muslim ally is a price it seems strangely willing to pay.

For Turkey, we see an emerging regional power that has less and less need of an ally whose actions are increasingly indefensible. In the end, Israel is a tiny market of 6 million consumers, whilst the Arab and Muslim Middle East offer much more. Ankara, one suspects, would rather not have to choose, but conversely, Erdogan will be aware of his rising star in the Middle East as a champion of the Palestinians – even if his primary motivation remains Turkish national interests.

As such trends continue, Israel should be cautious not to disregard Turkey’s importance. This is no powerless Arab dictatorship but a thriving, militarily strong, democratic regional giant. Moreover, Western states, notably the US, have long looked to Turkey as its role model in the Muslim World: proof that Islam and democracy can be compatible. At the final analysis, Tel Aviv should understand that, from a realist perspective that ignores the power of domestic lobbies and sentimental attachments, Turkey is far more important to American and European long-term objectives in the Middle East than Israel is. The last thing Tel Aviv should do is to deliberately provoke circumstances whereby the West has to choose.

US hegemony in Middle East is ending

Talk of a Middle East cold war is inaccurate – Russia and Turkey are simply capitalising on the region’s new power vacuum

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian, 31sy May 2010

A recent arms deal between Russia and Syria has raised the prospect of a new cold war in the Middle East. Foreign Policy’s Josh Landis, for example, suggests that unconditional US support for Israel will draw Moscow back into its pre-1989 role as supporter and arms supplier for the enemies of Tel Aviv and Washington.

Yet Russia’s return to Syria, whether it be the sale of MiG-29s or building a naval dock on the Syrian coast, is not the action of a superpower challenging US hegemony as it was in 1945-89 but rather an assertive regional power taking advantage of the emerging power vacuum in the region. Instead of a new bi-polar cold war, regional powers such as Russia and Turkey are increasing their influence at the United States’ expense.

The idea of a new cold war has gained currency in some quarters for the wrong reasons. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself told La Repubblica last week that “Russia is reasserting itself. And the cold war is just a natural reaction to the attempt by America to dominate the world”.

In the same interview he asserted that there was a new triple alliance between Syria, Turkey and Iran – part of a “northern alliance” that Damascus has been trying to construct against Israel and the US – with Russia now cast in the role as superpower benefactor.

As leader of a small power attempting to defy the global hegemon, it is in Assad’s interests to exaggerate the strength of such an alliance. Yet no such cohesive united bloc actually exists. Russia is pursuing a realist regional agenda, ensuring it can maximise its influence without unnecessarily confronting the US – a cornerstone of Dmitry Medvedev’s foreign policy. A recent spat with Tehran over Russian support for Washington’s new UN sanctions on Iran hardly suggests a united anti-American/anti-Israeli front.

Turkey, too, is not tying itself to any camp. Damascus may regard Ankara’s rekindled relationship with Iraq, Iran and Syria as crucial for any new alignment, but Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy is not limited to those states on its southern border. Turkey is seeking influence and markets for its rapidly expanding economy across the region, including Israel.

Though prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rhetoric has been increasingly populist and anti-Israeli since the Gaza war of 2008-2009, the deep commercial, economic and military ties between the Turkish and Israeli establishments show no signs of receding. Like Russia, Turkey is pursuing its own interests by asserting its influence in the whole Middle East, not just as the lynchpin of an anti-America/Israel bloc.

Yet even though the return to cold war bi-polar blocs in the Middle East is unlikely, the region’s international relations are changing. US power is waning. Though Washington remains the world’s only superpower, the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the limits of US ambitions, while the economic crisis has forced the Obama administration to focus energy elsewhere.

While the Bush era saw the US hegemonic in the region, squeezing the defiant few like Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, today’s Middle East sees a power vacuum led by partial US retreat being filled by assertive regional and middle powers. Turkey and Brazil’s recent nuclear deal with Iran typify this emerging new climate.

Stephen Walt has highlighted that this shift in power is global, with Asia’s share of GDP already outstripping that of the US or Europe. As ever, it seems the Middle East could prove a microcosm of these international changes. If the age of American uni-polarity is coming to an end, perhaps hastened by unnecessary wars and economic shortsightedness, it is much more likely that international relations in the Middle East will come to reflect the multi-polar world that will follow rather than revert to a bi-polar cold war.

In such circumstances, it won’t just be Russia and Turkey expanding their reach in the region, but China, India and Brazil will all bid for a role, too – presumably having fewer demands than Washington about their clients pursuing democratic reforms and peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia’s growing relationship with China might signify the shape of things to come.

Not that this era is yet upon us. The US remains the superpower and could still effect serious change in the region, should it desire. However, the recent actions of Russia and Turkey in the Middle East do show a new assertiveness from regional powers to pursue their own path in defiance of US will, whether through arms deals, trade agreements or diplomatic coups. A new cold war is unlikely, but the age of unchallenged US hegemony in the Middle East could be ending.

Syrian and Israeli bloggers try to resolve their differences online

Exciting concept reported on by Ian Black in The Guardian:

Syrians and Israelis are crossing one of the Middle East‘s great divides to co-operate – in cyberspace – to explore ways to advance peace between their countries.

The groundbreaking OneMideast.org website aims to bring together prominent Israelis and Syrian bloggers, academics and experts seeking ways to break the stubborn impasse in negotiations.

It will host the first Syrian-Israeli public online dialogue of its kind – a remarkable step for two countries which have been in a state of war for more than 60 years. The border between them – a UN-monitored ceasefire line on the heavily fortified Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 – is closed. Nationals from each country are banned from visiting the other; there are no direct communications. But the authorities in Damascus have tolerated previous ad hoc internet exchanges and are thought to be happy with the launch of this permanent platform.

“It is the first time there’s been an organised effort on a specific issue between two enemies, and not only between Syria and Israel,” said Camille Otrakji, a Canadian-Syrian who is helping run the website. “This is an experiment. We hope it will take things a step further.”

Yoav Stern, an Israeli organiser of the site, sparked intense interest in both Syria and Israel when he reported on Syrian blogging in Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading liberal Hebrew-language daily. “We are used to looking at each other in demonic terms,” he said. “This is different.”

For the last year, academics, political analysts, journalists, businesspeople and consultants from both sides have been debating the issues in a private online forum. They produced a list of all possible objections to peace from both sides and voted for the 20 most commonly encountered in Syrian and Israeli societies. The group then produced effective counter-arguments to each of them.

Despite the emnity between the neighbours, negotiations between them have come tantalisingly close to a deal three times during the last 20 years before obstacles emerged to scuttle the process. Syrian officials say that 85% of the problems, including crucial security arrangements, were solved in negotiations with four Israeli leaders from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Barak. Turkey mediated four more rounds of inconclusive talks in 2008.

Still, many analysts believe Syria would never sign a peace agreement with Israel even if it secured the total return of the Golan Heights — unless it was part of a comprehensive peace settlement that included the Palestinian issue.

Syria is nervous about unofficial peace initiatives, such as one involving a retired Israeli diplomat and an American-Syrian businessman who proposed turning the Golan into a nature reserve. “We are making sure that these are not negotiations,” insisted Otrakji. “This is a communications exercise.” The organisers want to avoid the experience of Syria Comment,

a respected US-based specialist website that has been targeted by pro-Israeli bloggers seeking to pressure the Obama administration not to continue its cautious dialogue with President Bashar al-Assad.

The next step is for OneMideast.org to invite experts and opinion formers from both countries to discuss the peace process and to submit constructive feedback for publication on the site.Israeli media reported yesterday that Assad had turned down an offer from the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, under which Israel would return the Golan if Syria severed its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Andrew Tabler: Syria Expert

The news that Syria may, or may not, have delivered SCUD missiles to Hezbollah has prompted a frenzy in the commentariat this week. Pieces have appeared in the BBC, Foreign Policy and Haaretz all speculating what this might mean. Whilst the implications of this development deserve analysis in their own right, i’d like to draw attention to the central role of Andrew Tabler: ‘Syria Expert’ in this story.

Not only did Tabler first draw attention to this story in his piece for Foreign Policy, but he then acted as ‘expert commentator’ for Haartetz, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC’s coverage of the event. Tabler, however, is no impartial view. He works for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – one of the most pro-Israel think tanks in the US. Indeed, it was founded by members of Aipac and any quick glance over their website demonstrates that it frames all its coverage of Syria through an Israeli lens. Though Tabler can claim some expertise on Syria, he spent several years living in Syria founding Syria Today magazine, it cannot be denied that his current employers have a clear political agenda. This sudden escalation in anti-Syrian news is clearly timed to coincide with the approval of a new US ambassador to Damascus in Congress and the WINEP and Tabler have been amongst the most vocal in opposing this reengagement.

I am not saying that Tabler is wrong about the SCUDS – i am not fully aware of the details on the ground and whether or not SCUDS have been delivered. However, i am  frustrated that media outlets are willing to take one ‘expert’s’ word as gospel on Syria without looking at his political credentials. I am particualrly surprised at the BBC’s Kim Ghattas, who is usually genuinely balanced in her reporting.

For a far more balanced response, i noticed Josh Landis has written a good reply in Foreign Policy just now. On that note, good on Foreign Policy for showing both sides!

An opportunity for Syria to take the moral high ground on WMD

Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal came under scrutiny today when Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out of the nuclear summit to be held this week in Washington. According to the Guardian’s Meir Javendanfar,

According to Israeli officials, he pulled out of the meeting after “learning that Egypt and Turkey may have been planning to use his appearance at the conference to call on Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection”.

Finally, it seems, the international community – after commendable pressure from Egypt and Turkey – are beginning to link Israel’s WMD to Iran’s nuclear programme. It has long been argued by Arab leaders that a nuclear-free Middle East is the best way to dissuade Iran from pursuing the bomb.

Seeing this I was reminded of an interview that Bashar al-Assad gave to the Daily Telegraph back in 2004. In it he declared that he would not get rid of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (believed to be chemical, and possibly biological weapons) unless Israel does the same.

It seems that Assad could now steal a diplomatic coup if he once again raises this issue: publically offering to destroy Syria’s stockpile if Israel agrees to denuclearise. There are several advantages to this. Firstly it would give Syria the moral high ground in its war of words with Israel, highlighting the West’s double-standard to WMD in the Middle East, and putting even more pressure on Israel. Secondly it could strengthen relations with the US given Obama and Clintons’ recent advocacy of nuclear disarmament. Thirdly, as ever, it would draw attention to the often neglected issue of the Syrian-Israeli conflict. Finally, it would show support to the proposals of Syria’s ally Turkey and help the process of mending fences with the other advocate of the motion, Egypt.

Abdullah on Syria and Israel

Yesterday King Abdullah II of Jordan gave one of his regular interviews with the Western media, this time for the Wall Street Journal. As per usual, Abdullah reiterated his optimism that Obama is on the right track and, as has been his style in recent years, criticised Israel for not being coherent enough in its engagement with the peace process. Interestingly, the WSJ – often highly critical of Syria – included a question about Jordan’s northern neighbour at the end:

WSJ: One factor in all of this, and no one can really see where we are headed, is Syria…How is Jordan’s relationship with Syria and how do you see that?

HM: Jordan’s relationship with Syria is better than it has been in a long time; probably the best it’s ever been. … So the engagement now between the Syrian and Jordanian government on economic cooperation are at an all-time high. The Israeli-Syrian issue is obviously high on their priority list.

WSJ: The message you get from Syria is they’re ready to talk?

HM: Yes, they are ready to talk but again I think everyone is still trying to decide what this Israeli government is all about. The rhetoric is positive, but actions on the ground show us something completely different, so there is frustration from Syria towards Israel.

This, of course, betrays the WSJ’s ignorance or, perhaps, self-delusion about Jordan’s importance. He might be the friendly face of the Arabs for the Western media, but Abdullah has no influence over Damascus alone. If anything, Damascus is enhancing its clout with Amman due to the growing reliance by Jordan on Turkish trade (and water) that comes through Syria.

Britain expels Mossad agent

Following the cloning of British passports for the alleged Mossad hit in Dubai, Foreign secretary David Milliband has expelled an Israeli ‘senior diplomat’, widely believed to be the head of Mossad in London. As the BBC‘s Jeremy Bowen reports:

Britain’s relations with Israel have been difficult for some time. Israel resents Britain’s support for greater clarity in the labelling of products from Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

And late last year the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni – now Israel’s opposition leader – was forced to cancel a trip to Britain at short notice after a warrant was issued for her arrest on war crimes charges. Worldwide, Israel is now under all-round diplomatic pressure from its allies.

However, I fear that some are getting too excited by this. Britain have made a gesture that it is displeased, nothing more. It’s not even as if the entire Mossad office in london has been closed, merely had its head removed.

It is sadly inconceivable that Britain would ever dare to take a drastically separate path to America with regards to Israel. Indeed one wonders whether the decision to take such a firm approach on this occasion is in the context of America’s current public disagreements with Tel Aviv.  If any other ally had committed so public an affront as using British citizens’ identities to commit murder, one suspects we would see a more drastic response.