Middle East News Review (March 24-30, 2014)

For the week ending March 30th, the top news stories were: 5) new evidence in Israel's weapons seizure; 4) Turkey blocks YouTube; 3) al-Sisi declares himself a presidential candidate; 2) hundreds sentenced to death in Egypt; and 1) the teetering Israeli-Palestinian talks.

  1. #5 - Weapons Shipment Intercepted by Israel was Bound for Egypt, not Gaza

  2. In early March 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called reporters to the port city of Eilat where he condemned the West's hypocracy in loudly condemning Israel for settlement construction, but quietly disapproving of weapon transfers to Palestinian militants by states like Iran. Netanyahu's statements at Eilat came on the heals of a well-publicized Israeli interdiction of a ship in international waters that contained dozens of medium and long range missiles. The Israeli Prime Minister, joined by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, made clear that, based on the evidence gathered on the ship, these missiles were headed to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, Netanyahu and Ya'alon strenuously condemned international leaders for not acting against Iran, who, they contend, could easily ship a dirty bomb in the near future. Clearly, Netanyahu and Ya'alon were attempting to capitalize on this seizure as a way to generate pressure on and distrust of Iran as Western powers entered into final negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. 
  3. The only problem is that evidence now suggests that the weapons were intended for Egypt... not Gaza.
  4. Netanyahu's past performance makes it abundantly clear that the Israeli leader will take advantage of every opportunity to denigrate and malign the Iranian regime. What is most problematic in this episode is that Netanyahu has now provided his critics with ample evidence that his prognostications and predictions of imminent crisis and future doom are, at the least, suspect. Long accused by his critics of "crying wolf" too quickly and too often, Netanyahu must now contend with a world in which he has proven his critics right to a degree and with an international community that may not respond quickly when a real wolf is at the door. In the end, this is a problem of Netanyahu's own doing; however, the ones who will live with the consequences of this behavior are the Israeli citizens.
  5. #4 - Turkey Blocks YouTube

  6. In response to the overwhelming success of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's decision to shut down Twitter, the Turkish government this week decided to block YouTube due to national security concerns. These "concerns" are centered on how the social media outlets have revealed the corrupt internal workings of the Erdogan government. Twitter was shut down after it was used to distribute an audio recording between Erdogan and his son in which the two discussed how to hide large sums of money. YouTube was banned after it was used to distribute an audio recording of Erdogan's security council discussing the possible military action in Syria.
  7. Having learned nothing from the public protests and demonstrations surrounding the Arab Spring, Erdogan believes that by simply turning off the social media tap he can control public dissent. If the old adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true, the social media response to Erdogan's decisions (see below) suggests that the Turkish people will not quietly accept Erdogan's authoritarianism. Perhaps it will take several weeks or months, but if Erdogan continues along this path he risks the same fate as Mubarak in Egypt who, as you might recall, tried to shut down social media in order to quell criticism of his government. That didn't work out so well for Mubarak and, if Erdogan isn't careful, it won't work out so well for him either. 
  8. #3 - Sisi Officially Declares Presidential Run

  9. In an announcement that quite literally surprised no one, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi announced his resignation from the Egyptian military in order to run for president. Al-Sisi's victory in the presidential race is, for all intents and purposes, a foregone conclusion. Al-Sisi will undoubtedly become the next president of Egypt; however, al-Sisi and his lieutenants will certainly put on a convincing performance for the world that the outcome of elections are not known in order to maintain a minimal facade of integrity in the Egyptian electoral system. In reality, just as we all knew al-Sisi would run for president, we all know that al-Sisi will win the upcoming elections.
  10. Sadly, with al-Sisi's eventual victory, the possibility of true reforms in the Egyptian political system stemming from the overthrow of Mubarak will likely disappear completely. 
  11. #2 - Egyptian Court Sentences 529 Muslim Brothers to Death

  12. In an attempt to secure the undisputed title of "Texas of the Middle East", an Egyptian court handed down 529 death sentences this week in response to the death of a police officer. The accused, all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were determined to be guilty due to their participation in a street protest that turned violent and left a police officer dead. 
  13. This is simply the latest episode in a series of moves and countermoves involving the Muslim Brotherhood and establishment forces represented by the Egyptian military. The suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood has become the primary focus of the military over the past several months and this incident reveals that the military believes that overwhelming force, suppression and punishment will ultimately solve their problems with the Muslim Brotherhood.
  14. Unfortunately, the Egyptian military seems unaware of its own history with the Muslim Brotherhood. For years the Mubarak regime endeavored to snuff out the Brotherhood through prohibition, detention, arrest and public condemnation. The result: the Brotherhood quickly filled the political void created when the Mubarak regime was no longer able to command public support to rule. Suppression of the Brotherhood has never worked out all that well for the Egyptian regime and unfortunately this latest series of actions seems to indicate that the Egyptian military has failed to learn that lesson.
  15. Perhaps most problematic for the Egyptian regime is the image the judiciary is creating for the country and its government. Several months ago the regime and judiciary arrested several Al Jazeera reporters on terrorism charges. Their "crime" consisted of interviewing Muslim Brotherhood members for news reports. International condemnation of the trumped up charges has been relentless as virtually no one believes the men were involved in any terrorism related activities. Similarly, the death sentences handed down to the 529 Muslim Brothers has garnered similar international condemnation and serves to display Egypt as a police state spiraling towards greater authoritarianism. 
  16. #1 - Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Teetering 

  17. Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are grinding to a halt despite US Secretary of State John Kerry's best efforts. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies have effectively blunted Kerry's ability to draw concessions out of Israel and, perhaps less effectively, attempted to place the blame on the Palestinians for failing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. As has been pointed out in previous Middle East News Reviews, Netanyahu is fully aware that such recognition is wholly unnecessary for Israel's long-term security and that making such a declaration is deeply problematic for the Palestinian leadership who feels some degree of responsibility to Israel's Arab minority.
  18. Perhaps most troubling is that reports over the past several days have indicated that Kerry's framework incorporates many Israeli demands on the Palestinian leadership without mention of any concessions on the part of the Israelis. If this is the case, then these peace talks are clearly doomed to fail - regardless of whether or not Kerry can secure an extension in the talks.
  19. Criticism of the Kerry framework and its lopsided support of Israeli negotiation points has been most full-throated in the Israeli press, particularly in more liberal and dovish publications such as Ha'aretz and the Times of Israel. Yet these criticisms are not making their way into the international press in a meaningful way. This will become problematic when the talks completely breakdown, an episode of violence occurs out of frustration and disillusionment, and the world sits and wonders how this all happened. 
  20. The talks can still be salvaged if Kerry is able to steer the negotiations back to a more equitable ground. Kerry must be able to secure meaningful concessions from both the Palestinians and the Israelis if the talks are to be successful. Furthermore, Kerry must use his ability to publicly place the blame on either Netanyahu or Abbas for any potential failure in the talks. This is the only stick Kerry is able to wield and, despite their statements to the contrary, it is the one thing both Netanyahu and Abbas wish to avoid.