The Middle East Channel

What the British elections might mean for Middle East policy

The Middle East has not received much attention in the British electoral campaign. Yet whoever forms the next government will have to establish a stance on the putative Middle East peace process, on Iran, on relations with the Arab Gulf states, including security cooperation and arms sales, and on developments in Iraq, even if British troops are no longer on the ground there.

Judging by the statements of the three main party leaders in their televised debate on foreign policy, all are supportive of British troops in Afghanistan, but none want to see them remain there indefinitely. Labour Party leader Gordon Brown has nonetheless argued that the British deployment is integral to a broader strategy to counter the forces of extremism that could still inspire or instigate attacks on British soil.

However, neither Brown nor his Conservative and Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) opponents, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, respectively, have given much airtime to the role that resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict could play in countering extremism in Europe. Their positions, which are not dissimilar, give more emphasis to the needs of both the Israelis and the Palestinians for their own sakes, and all support a 'two-state' solution, though Clegg has gone further in criticizing the blockade of Gaza.

In the Middle East, both Palestinians and Israelis are interested to know whether British public opinion will weigh in future government calculations. Indeed, both have noticed the emergence of more vocal support for the Palestinians on British university campuses and in public demonstrations of late. The Israelis are particularly attentive to calls for a boycott of Israeli imports, or at least a bar on products made in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband made the imposition of customs duties on such goods a facet of Labour policy. Yet Miliband has done this within the broader context of EU free trade agreements with Israel, which require goods made in the territories to be clearly labeled as such.

Yet this points to the wider context within which the next British government will have to deal with a range of foreign-policy issues, including those in the Middle East.

It is the United States that has adopted the lead on reviving peace talks, and it would make no sense for the future British government to adopt a significantly different line than Washington. Also, as of the Dec. 8 EU statement on the Arab-Israeli conflict, echoed in the most recent pronouncement of the "quartet" (that groups the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia), all EU members have agreed to a joint position on the conflict.

It would be a surprise if the next British government chose to row back on this agreed position. However, unless the Labour Party is able to lead the next government, there could be changes in British relations with both the European Union and the United States under either a Conservative or a combined Conservative and Lib Dem leadership.

While the Tories are mostly Euro-skeptics, the Lib Dems are positively enthusiastic about British involvement in the European Union. Also, the Conservatives have no special rapport with Barack Obama's administration in Washington, and the Lib Dems have talked about the need to end London's "subservient" deference to U.S. leadership.

In recent days Israeli newspapers have run stories warning about the potentially negative prospects for Israel of a British government that accords a prominent position to the Lib Dems. They regard Nick Clegg and his party as positively pro-Palestinian. Yet the Israelis are also interested in how a new British government will handle a diminution in the so-called special relationship with the United States.

For decades Israel and Britain could assume a relatively privileged hearing in Washington. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, both are realizing that the United States has new priorities that do not fit so comfortably with their own.

For Britain the implications are less profound than for Israel. The British simply have to get used to the idea that loyal support in the past, notably over Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, will not assure them special status in comparison with other Europeans in the future. In Israel's case, the bilateral relationship has been palpably shaken.

Whereas the Obama line on restarting the Middle East peace process has confronted the Israeli government with unpalatable demands, the Obama commitment to reaching a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has thus far been welcomed in Britain. Miliband has positively embraced the Obama agenda for the Middle East. On this issue at least, the Lib Dems are likely to follow suit, and it would be a surprise if the Tories chose a significantly different course.

On the subject of Iraq, the Lib Dems claim credit for opposing the 2003 invasion, which has aroused suspicion in Israel, notwithstanding the destabilizing regional fallout from that adventure. Brown and Cameron would rather not talk about Iraq for that reason.

All three parties say there will have to be a comprehensive Strategic Defence Review (SDR) following the election. That will be vital to determining Britain's place in the world and policy priorities in the future because financial constraints and overstretch of the armed forces will require making choices. Labour and the Tories want Britain to build a new nuclear deterrent capability, while the Lib Dems want to consider various, as yet unclear, alternatives to the existing plans.

If there is no clear winner in the elections, a coalition government is in prospect. Clegg will likely be the kingmaker. Ironically, given Israel's own history of coalition governments, the prospect of minority rule or a coalition in Britain is greeted in Israel with apprehension on the grounds that both would spell uncertainty and indecisiveness. The biggest fear of some in Israel appears to be the appointment of Clegg as the next British foreign secretary.

However, Clegg could well opt for another slot in a coalition government, such as deputy prime minister. The real issue will be whether a weak government would want to take a strong stance on the question of Iran -- especially if Iranian intransigence on the nuclear issue presages a slide toward military action.

Meanwhile, a Conservative-led government, with Euro-skeptic William Hague as foreign secretary, will first have to divine a way forward on British relations with the European Union and the United States. The decision of the Conservatives to leave the center-right bloc in the European parliament in favor of an alignment with right-wing groups considered populist and even anti-Semitic in more mainstream EU circles portends an uncomfortable relationship with the rest of Europe.

The key question therefore is what role the Lib Dems could play in tempering the foreign-policy leanings of a Conservative or Labour leadership in a minority or coalition government. They could rescue a Tory leadership from isolation in Europe. Yet they will probably not be able to make changes to British ties to the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

When the Labour government called off the Serious Fraud Office investigation into British arms manufacturer BAE Systems' handling of defense deals with Saudi Arabia -- in the national interest -- the Lib Dems were vociferous in their criticism. Yet if they participate in government and become privy to the secret details of British intelligence links and arms sales to the Gulf, the Lib Dems will no doubt have to sacrifice some of their principles.

Intelligence cooperation with Arab allies and defense deals, are vital to both the British anti-terrorism strategy and independent arms industry. If the Lib Dems assume a central role in the operations of government, they will lose the luxury of moralizing from the sidelines.

The prospects are nothing if not exciting and full of uncertainties. Yet all those in the Middle East, Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians, can rest easy. The next government will not be focusing on their part of the world ahead of other priorities, and when it does, it will not be in a position to make major changes in the region.

Rosemary Hollis is director of the Olive Tree Programme at City University London. 


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The Middle East Channel

The Arab League of Hip Hop

As the Arab League weighs in on the value of restarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, another Arab League has formed and is poised to win more support, overseas and in the Middle East, than George Mitchell could ever dream of. I am speaking of the so-called Arab League* of Hip Hop, a conglomeration of rappers from across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, who have joined forces to spread their message and their music to audiences worldwide. While Hamas security forces were shutting down the first hip- hop concert in Gaza, the leaders of the Arab hip-hop movement, namely Shadia Mansour, the group DAM, Lowkey, and The Narcicyst, were preparing for their first performance together, a historic event which would solidify not only their union, but their supremacy as the voice of the Arab hip-hop revolution.

The growing political potency of Arab hip-hop has drawn the attention of the U.S. State Department, which last month sent out Brooklyn-based hip-hop band Chen Lo and the Liberation Family on a tour of North Africa and the Middle East. The group traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and performed with some of the best local groups, such as NORES in Salé, Murder Eyez in Aleppo, and DJ Lethal Skillz in Beirut. This was, by far, the most extensive and well-designed tour of its kind and showed a serious commitment by the State Department to expand its use of hip-hop as a cultural diplomacy tool, specifically in its inclusion of prominent local artists. However, the exclusion of the Palestinian territories and Gaza on the tour gave a strong impression that the State Department was playing it safe, while sacrificing its best opportunity for real impact.

The show that was shut down by Hamas security forces at the end of last month showed that the new movement has plenty of opponents. As the B-Boy crew began its breakdance set, police burst in, shouting "The show is over!" A brave young dancer tried to explain to one of the policemen that, "Rap means: Respect for All People, but he didn't seem to be listening. He said it was an immoral dance." Officially, Hamas claims that the organizers did not obtain the necessary permits, but it was clear that the event, which took place in a conservative area, posed other issues. But to deny these youngsters, who have literally no other outlet from their barricaded environment, an opportunity to transcend their imprisonment through dance and music is simply cruel. Such cultural repression is hardly worthy of a so-called Islamic Resistance Movement.

Another type of Palestinian resistance movement is taking place outside Gaza, far from the reach of Hamas. British/Palestinian rapper/singer Shadia Mansour recently came to New York to promote her new single, "Kofeyye Arabeyye/The Kufiya Is Arabic," a direct rebuttal to the creators of the "Israeli Keffiyeh," a Zionist variation on the Semitic scarf. The song, with a verse from pro-Palestinian American rapper M-1 (of Dead Prez), quickly became an underground sensation and earned not only a litany of criticism against the makers of the 'Israeli' version, but an outpouring of support for Palestine. Once again, hip-hop proves to be a powerful force shaping young hearts and minds, though it remains to be seen whether this debate will build bridges or generate more conflict across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

One thing is clear, however. Neither Hamas nor the U.S. State Department have the power to cut down or co-opt the sheer force of the Arab hip-hop artists who I saw on stage last weekend at a venue in Brooklyn. When DAM took the stage at Southpaw and called up their "Iraqi brothers," Narcicyst and Lowkey, and "the Queen of Arab Rap," the lovely Shadia Mansour, you'd have had to be across the river not to feel the rumbling of the floor as fans jumped up and down to welcome the artists to Brooklyn. And when they broke into their latest collaboration, the anthem "Long Live Palestine," and the 500-plus fans, adorned in black-and-white kufiyas and "Free Palestine" T-shirts, began pumping their fists and chanting along to every word in Arabic and in English, that's when it hit me that this new Arab League of Hip Hop all-stars has a very clear objective in mind and it's not just to endorse or reject negotiations with Israelis, or to criticize or valorize the actions of the U.S. government in their own backyards. Rather, their mission is to rally their own troops, the foot soldiers of their hip-hop revolution, the millions (yes, I said millions) of young fans, Arab and otherwise, across the globe, who follow not only their music but the messages contained within. This is their constituency, and it grows with every show, in every country that they are able to travel to, and with every new view of their Youtube channels, their Myspace pages, and their Twitter stream. And they don't need anyone's permission to do it except that of their fans, which, as I heard firsthand on Friday night, they have in spades.

So, what can Hamas do to stop these Arab hip-hop revolutionaries from taking a stage? And what can the U.S. government do to get them to promote its foreign-policy agenda? The answer to both is: very little. Nevertheless, both groups would be wise to rethink their approach to hip-hop and find new ways to get behind it, as opposed to standing in front or alongside. Whoever gets there first may discover a powerful and natural ally, insofar as hip-hop embodies both the spirit of diplomacy and that of armed resistance.

That said, watch the live performance of "Long Live Palestine" and read the lyrics. And remember, the battle for hearts and minds will be won with words, not weapons.

Joshua Asen is co-creator of the Hip Hop Diplomacy Project and award-winning documentary film, I Love Hip Hop in Morocco.

*The 'Arab League' also refers to the record label and management company created by Egyptian powerhouse, the Arabian Knightz, covering Cairo's top talent, including MC Amin, Wighit Nazar, and The PharoZ, as well as Saudi superstar Qusai, Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, and Shadia Mansour, not to mention recent collaborations with DAM and other Arab rappers across the region. My apologies to Rush and the homies out in Cairo, Jeddah, and LA. [This text was added on May 4, 2010.]

Joe Seago