The Middle East Channel

Netanyahu Orders Pull Back in Contact with Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ordered a halt to high-level contact with the Palestinian Authority on non-security related issues. However, lead peace negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as well as defense and security officials would be allowed to continue to engage with the Palestinians, and "low-level" cooperation would be permitted. According to a senior Israeli official, the move was in response to a Palestinian bid to join 15 international conventions. Netanyahu's order came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Israel's announcement of 700 new settlement apartments in East Jerusalem led to the breakdown of Israeli and Palestinian peace talks, though he noted both sides had taken measures to obstruct progress. According to Palestinian government spokesman Ihab Bsaiso, contacts between top Israeli and Palestinian officials are already rare, so the move won't affect Palestinian "daily life or government business."

Syria

The Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah fighters, recaptured the town of Rankous near the border with Lebanon on Wednesday. The gain was part of an offensive by President Bashar al-Assad's forces to clear rebels from the strategic Qalamoun region and consolidate control over an opposition supply line from Lebanon. After Rankous, the last remaining rebel-held town in the area is Zabandani. Meanwhile, Iran delivered 30,000 tons of food supplies to Syria on Tuesday in efforts to assist the government in dealing with food shortages, which have been compounded by a recent drought.

Headlines

  • The United States has informed Iran that its choice of U.N. envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, is "not viable" because of his alleged role in the 1979 hostage crisis.
  • Iran and world powers worked to bridge "significant gaps" as talks over Iran's contested nuclear program continued on Wednesday.
  • A series of car bombings hit mainly Shiite neighborhoods of Iraq's capital killing at least 16 people on the anniversary of the 2003 fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces.

Arguments and Analysis

'More Israelis living in poverty on eve of Passover' (Daniel Ben Simon, Al-Monitor)

"This year's Passover celebration has been tainted by recently publicized findings showing that hundreds of thousands will be hard-pressed to celebrate Passover with their families, because they are unable to finance the holiday meal.

In December 2013, Latet published an Alternative Poverty Report revealing an alarming, gut-wrenching social reality. The shock factor increases when reading about the children who happen to be born in underprivileged families. It seems that 37% of children in poor families rely on bread and various spreads for their main nourishment. Out of 532,000 families suffering from nutritional insecurity, 60% reported that they were forced to reduce the composition of their children's meals due to economic distress. What's more, 46% of the parents reported that sometimes their children did not eat for an entire day, due to a lack of food at home, while 9% of the children were forced to steal food and 12% were forced to collect food from the floor or from the garbage."

'Turkey: Orientalists' Delight' (Steven A. Cook, Council on Foreign Relations)

"Turkey is no different from other countries, of course: Check out the way the rest of the world portrays Americans. But in some discrete ways Turkey seems particularly susceptible to clichés and misrepresentation. One is geography, which leads to endless imagery of the country as "a bridge between East and West" (like fingernails on a chalkboard), another is religion and the fact that 99.8 percent of Turks are Muslims, which is always excellent fodder for discussions of the country's "perennial kulturkampf between secularists and Islamists." I have never understood why people writing in English tend to choose the German instead of just "culture war" nor why all pious Muslims are categorized in these tales as Islamists. Then there is the fact that Turkey is the inheritor of a great empire with a fascinating history and some seriously stunning architecture. I mean, who would take a first look at the "city of 1,000 minarets" without their oriental juices flowing? Bring on the kebap, water pipe, and harem."

-- Mary Casey

Kobi Gideon / GPO via Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran and World Powers Resume Nuclear Talks

Iran and six world powers began a new round of talks in Vienna on Tuesday over Tehran's contested nuclear program in efforts to establish a final deal by July 20. The meetings on April 8 and 9 are expected to focus on how to monitor Iranian compliance with an agreement, how to deal with U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran, and suspected past atomic bomb research conducted in Iran. Both sides have said that they hope to draft a comprehensive agreement in May. A U.S. official said he is confident they will meet the deadline for a final deal, but noted that there are some difficult choices that Iran must make. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said there is a possibility of reaching a deal by July, though it would require "a lot of work." The parties reached an interim agreement in November 2013, which Iranian leaders said would ease sanctions and improve living conditions, however many Iranians feel the interim accord has done little to help them, putting increasing pressure on negotiators ahead of the July deadline. The new round of talks has come amid a dispute between Iran and the United State over Iran's nomination of Hamid Aboutalebi as Tehran's new U.N. envoy. Aboutalebi is suspected of participating in a student movement that seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. U.S. Senators approved a bill Monday that would block Aboutalebi from entering the United States, though Iran's Foreign Ministry said it is still waiting for a formal response from Washington.

Syria

A masked gunman shot and killed a Dutch Jesuit priest Monday at a monastery in the rebel-held Bustan al-Diwan district of the Syrian city of Homs. Father Frans van der Lugt, who was in his 70s, had lived in Syria since 1966 and was well known for his refusal to evacuate the besieged city, saying he would not leave while Christians were still in Homs. The gunman's motives are unclear, but it appears Van der Lugt was directly targeted. A Vatican spokesman expressed "great pain" over the priest's death saying, he was a "man of peace." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing saying it was an "inhumane act of violence." Van der Lugt's death has come amid increasing tensions between rebel groups in the blockaded Old City of Homs over whether to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty from the government. Meanwhile, former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed, in a meeting last week, that "the active phase of military action in Syria" will end this year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pushing for stronger U.S military support for Syrian opposition forces, however the Pentagon is resisting a military intervention saying it would risk turning into an open-ended foreign entanglement.

Headlines

  • An Egyptian appeals court upheld sentences Monday for three activists, known for their roles in the 2011 uprisings that led to the fall of Mubarak, convicted in December of violating an anti-protest law.
  • Oil prices dropped Monday after Libyan authorities and a rebel group that had blockaded four oil terminals in the east, reached a deal to open up two of the ports.
  • Yemeni security forces have arrested 13 people suspected of involvement in the kidnappings of foreigners, businessman, and two U.N. workers.
  • An Egyptian court has sentenced four men to prison terms of up to eight years for committing homosexual acts, in a verdict condemned by human rights groups.

Arguments and Analysis

Refugee 101: Palestinians in Lebanon Show Refugees from Syria the Ropes' (Sarah E. Parkinson, MERIP)

"'Lebanese' Palestinians have attempted to provide a buffer against these challenges. Palestinians visit General Security on behalf of their Syrian tenants or friends in order to clarify regulations and fees ahead of time. This step protects Syrians from harassment or document inspection. Some have volunteered in part due to their personal connections with Lebanese bureaucrats -- via intermarriage, for example -- that were understood to protect new refugees from bribe requests. Other 'Lebanese' Palestinians have personally accompanied refugees to General Security in order to protect newcomers from being overcharged (or to raise the alarm in the event of their detention). Coupled with the now common habit of tracking the distribution of Lebanese military checkpoints around the camps, these practices provide a quotidian safety net for refugees from Syria. Relaying that a new checkpoint is being staged, that a stricter officer has arrived or that walk-ins are being searched as well as cars not only protects refugees from immediate threats; it also gives them a sense of community integration and solidarity.

But tension is building among 'Lebanese' Palestinians, 'Syrian' Palestinians, Syrian nationals and other marginalized populations. The housing situation is one major source of pressure. Rooms in Shatila and Burj al-Barajna that rented for $100 in 2011 now rent for $400 or more a month (the minimum wage in Lebanon is $250 a month but is often ignored by employers, especially since cheap labor is abundant). Many 'Lebanese' Palestinians who control these homes expelled African and Asian migrant workers living in the camps in order to raise prices for refugees from Syria. This process fractured support networks for some of Lebanon's most vulnerable and oft-ignored non-citizens and left them financially exposed. It also means that Syrian refugees' savings bottom out faster than previously, forcing them to crowd more people into the same tight, run-down spaces. Yet the financial success of this model is visible in the new floors being built above Shatila's skyline; four-story buildings have expanded to eight or nine stories. A small financial elite (in relative terms) is thus rapidly emerging within Shatila's established Palestinian community."

'The risks of a nuclear Saudi Arabia' (Nick Butler, Financial Times)

"The prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the fragile government of Saudi Arabia is bad enough. The country is fundamentally unstable - held together only by force and by the flow of oil money to an ever growing number of citizens who high expectations and low productivity. But equally concerning is that any further conflict in the region - even at a level below the nuclear threshold - could shake the global energy economy to its foundations.

Over time the world is moving away from dependence on Middle East oil. Improvements in efficiency, and the development of all sorts of alternatives from shale gas and tight oil to solar and wind will give consumers new choices. Pretty soon oil demand will peak globally - as it has already in the US, Europe and Japan.

But the crucial point is that we are not there yet. It is common place to talk about oil and gas self sufficiency in North America and the potential for development of Chinese shale gas. The hard reality though is that neither will be achieved before 2020. In the shorter term there are new sources of supply gradually coming onstream - for instance in the Caspian, Brazil and west Africa. But in every case the pace of those developments is slower than promised. We cannot afford to misunderstand the fact that the positive prospects for the medium and long term do not remove the dependence of the oil market on Middle East exports for most of the next decade."

'Uphill Battle in Gulf Strategy' (Becca Wasser, Defense News)

"Greater GCC defense cooperation would be financially and operationally more effective. A coordinated, cooperative GCC would provide Washington with an institutionalized multilateral channel to reassure the gulf states. But as the GCC diplomatic rift illustrates, no matter what initiatives are put forward by President Obama, collective GCC security cooperation is unlikely to happen.

Gulf states remain very protective of their sovereignty and maintain their preference for bilateral engagement, even when this complicates important defense initiatives. But US engagement with the gulf states does not rest on a cooperative GCC security institution. It is a preference, not a prerequisite.

American multilateral engagement has proved challenging as the individual gulf states require bilateral reassurance and individual attention. The recent tempering of ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will further complicate US efforts, but they will in no way cause the US to shift its strategy.

There are inherent obstacles to GCC military integration, and the political mistrust of the gulf states is just one challenge. As such, it is likely that the current strain in the GCC writ large will produce little change in the structure of US-gulf security cooperation."

-- Mary Casey

DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images