In a very interesting turn of events, Bahrain has become the first Arab country to blacklist the Hezbollah terrorist group:
Bahrain on Tuesday became the first Arab country to officially blacklist the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the Al Arabiya network reported.
Bahrain based its decision on statements made by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, which the Gulf state viewed as an intervention in its internal affairs.
Bahrain’s main Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq has recently warned of fresh protests across the Sunni-ruled kingdom unless a national dialogue with the regime leads to real reforms, namely a constitutional monarchy.
Two years ago, during the wave of “Arab Spring” riots, Bahrain declared a state of emergency, giving the military authority to quell pro-democracy protests with the backing of 2000 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dozens of people were killed during clashes in the capital Manama between security forces and protesters. The king referred to the events as an “attempted coup.”
Bahraini MP Adil Asoumi told Al Arabiya there is evidence that Hezbollah is instigating violence against the government, adding that the decision to blacklist the group was a “measure is to protect Bahrain’s security and stability from Hezbollah’s threats.”
According to the MP, Hezbollah is a threat not only to Bahrain, but to the rest of the Gulf region as well, so “we call on our Gulf brethren to confront the terrorist organization to secure Gulf security.”
One would think that if an Arab country could bring itself to call the Hezbollah terrorists, a Western entity like the European Union could do the same. One would be wrong. As has been previously reported, the Europeans have a hard time classifying Hezbollah as anything other than a social aid society.
This European refusal to classify Hezbollah as terrorist is having repercussions on Israel’s newest ally, Cyprus, further complicated by its relationship with Lebanon:
Citing its friendship with Lebanon, Cyprus said it was unwilling to unilaterally declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, despite the fact that a Limassol court sent a member of the Shiite group to prison for his role in a plot to kill Israelis two weeks ago.
However, Cyprus will not block such a designation if the European Union (of which it is a member) accedes to international demands to brand the group a terrorist organization, Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told The Times of Israel Tuesday in Jerusalem.
“The EU has to take the collective decision [regarding declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization], by which all will have to abide,” Kasoulides said. “Certain individual member states have taken unilateral decisions regarding Hezbollah. I think that everybody must appreciate that Cyprus, being a very small country and very close to the area, is not in a position to take unilateral decisions. But if there are collective decisions by the EU we will abide by them.”
Israel, the US, the UK and other states, including Egypt and Bahrain, have added the Shiite group to their lists of terrorist organizations, but the EU has so far refused to do so. Officially labeling Hezbollah a terrorist entity would significantly hamper its ability to operate. But doing so requires unanimity among the EU’s 27 member states, which until now has not been achieved, mainly because of French objections.
However, since a Bulgarian police investigation earlier this year blamed Hezbollah for a July 18, 2012, terrorist attack in Burgas that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian, calls have grown louder for the union to rethink its stance. Such demands further intensified after a Cypriot court convicted and sentenced to four years in prison Hezbollah operative Hossam Taleb Yaacoub for a plot to attack Israeli tourists in the Mediterranean island nation.
As the main reason for Nicosia’s refusal to blacklist Hezbollah, Kasoulides cited his country’s close ties with Lebanon. “On several occasions, when there were civil wars or other forms of war in Lebanon, we were hosting many Lebanese in Cyprus,” he said. “Whatever happens — considerations regarding law and order or whatever — we need to preserve our friendship with this country. Because we sympathize also with them, and the fact that they had so many times been the victims of extraneous conflicts that had nothing to do with them. We also have this in mind.”
Mr. Kasoulides’ thinking is confused. Lebanon’s “extraneous conflicts” have very often been caused precisely by Hezbollah, and would provide an even stronger reason to blacklist it rather than to protect it.
The Cypriot Foreign Minister’s visit was complicated by a minor diplomatic incident caused by a scheduling conflict because of John Kerry’s visit:
While PMO officials Wednesday said the meeting was “good,” without providing any details about its content, Israeli media called it a “diplomatic incident,” noting that bilateral ties are currently extremely delicate, especially since Jerusalem’s recent détente with Ankara and the new light that could shine on regional energy cooperation.
A clash of schedules was not the greatest worry for Israeli diplomats. What is of more concern is if Israel’s attempted rapprochement with Cyprus’ rival, Turkey, will cause Cyprus to downgrade relations with Israel. Kasoulides allayed these worries:
But Kasoulides, who spoke with The Times of Israel before meeting the prime minister, said that Nicosia’s friendship to Israel was guaranteed regardless of Jerusalem’s ties to other countries.
“Despite the differences that we have with Turkey — and we have many, and there is a lack of trust from Cyprus to Turkey and vice versa — we have never seen the relations of Turkey with other countries, and in this case Israel, as a zero sum game regarding Cyprus,” he said. “We are not in this kind of antagonism or competition. In this modern world, the position that the friend of your enemy is not your friend anymore does not apply.”
The Cypriot government “very much” appreciated that Netanyahu called President Nicos Anastasiades immediately after last month’s apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which clashes between pro-Palestinian activists and IDF troops aboard the Mavi Marmara ship resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. On March 22, Netanyahu apologized for “operational mistakes” and pledged to compensate the families of those killed. In turn, Erdoğan agreed to restore full diplomatic ties with Israel.
However, Israel’s apology to Turkey didn’t bring the desired results. The reconciliation talks between the two countries were postponed at the request of Turkey, and the families of the
activists terrorists who were killed on the Mavi Marmara are going to court anyway despite the Israeli apology and offer of generous compensation:
Israel may have apologized, but it seems that normalization of relations is still far off. A few hours after the families of Marmara fatalities announced they would not drop their suit even if they receive compensation, it turns out the meeting between the Israeli and Turkish delegations, who were set to discuss several central issues for the return to normalization, will be put off till April 22, at the request of the Turks.
That’s a horribly two-faced attitude of the Turks – to take Israel’s money but to continue with the court case (or should I say show-trial) of IDF soldiers. Should we be surprised?
Ahmet Varol, a journalist present on the Marmara, said the Turkish were demanding Israel provide a time frame for removal of the blockade in Gaza, and that it allow Ankara to examine the process. “Nobody wants compensation, and although the apology has diplomatic meaning, it carries no meaning for the victims.”
During a Sunday press conference with the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, US Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with the Turkish leaders to fully renew diplomatic relations with Israel. Kerry said that it was important that Israel and Turkey agree to completion of the reconciliation agreement, but emphasized that the US would not impose a deadline on the two countries to return to normalization.
I think it’s a mistake for either Israel or America to plead with the Turks. They have had their apology and their offer of compensation, and if they cannot accept either with good grace and comply with the previously agreed terms, then they should be ignored, just like one would do with a two-year old child having a tantrum. Withdrawing the apology and the offer of compensation would be an even better idea in my humble opinion since neither has brought the desired diplomatic results.
In the ToI article linked above, the Cypriot Foreign Minister was quite diplomatically undiplomatic about the Turkish reaction to Israel’s apology:
While Kasoulides declined to opine on whether the apology was a good or bad move, he expressed skepticism about the Turkish government’s true intentions.
It is difficult to believe that relations “can improve so dramatically a few days after Prime Minister Erdoğan has equaled Zionism to fascism, for instance. But it’s not up to me to foment this kind of discord between Israel and Turkey,” Kasoulides said.
Cyprus knows from experience that “Turkey is always in the habit to receive but not to be able to reciprocate,” he added. “This happens in the case of the relations between Cyprus and Turkey so I cannot tell how things will develop between Turkey and Israel. It is a good thing for somebody to be cautious and see.”
Very wise words to abide by and kudos to Mr. Kasoulides for being so outspoken.
One of the purported aims of the Israeli apology would have been energy cooperation between Israel and Turkey over the newly discovered gas fields in the Mediterranean. That might cause problems, though, between Israel and Cyprus, although Netanyahu denies this. As the Times of Israel (linked above) mentions:
Analysts of regional energy policies have also pointed out that an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation would be a game-changer in that Jerusalem could choose to partner with Ankara rather than with Nicosia in exporting the country’s natural gas. “It is possible that a cooperation in energy between Turkey and Israel would follow an anticipated rapprochement,” Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız said this week.
Kasoulides said Cyprus was very interested in energy partnerships with Israel — indeed, it was the main reason for this visit, he said — yet he allowed that his country has no right to claim a monopoly of such cooperation.
Netanyahu, in his March phone call to President Anastasiades, said the détente with Turkey “would not affect in any way the relations between Israel and Cyprus, and in particular the relations in the energy sector,” Kasoulides said. “That was the content of the conversation, that was the purpose of the conversation.”
I sincerely hope Israel is keeping all its diplomatic options open with regards to its natural gas fields as well as regarding its security.
Another aim of the apology would have been cooperation between Israel and Turkey on combating or controlling the violence in Syria which is spilling over into both Israel and Turkey. Although not connected to Turkey, latest reports are that the Syrian jihadist rebels are moving in to the vacuum created by Syrian troop withdrawals from Golan, causing alarm in Israel:
The Syrian government has withdrawn thousands of troops near the buffer zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, leaving a power vacuum which Israel is concerned could be filled with jihadist forces ready to turn their guns on the Jewish state, British newspaper The Guardian reported Sunday.
Syria has redeployed divisions in the Golan to the area around Damascus to battle anti-government forces near the Syrian capital, according to the report.
The redeployment near the Golan border was the most significant in 40 years, Western diplomats said according to The Guardian. Israel is concerned that the jihadist groups hostile to both Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Jewish state could move to fill the power vacuum in the Golan, creating a battlefront with Israel.
Four elite Syrian divisions made the Golan border Israel’s quietest for the past four decades, The Guardian explained, but tensions have simmered on the Golan Heights in the last few months. Last week, a mortar shell fired during fighting between Syrian rebels and loyalist troops landed in Israel. Errant explosives have landed several times in Israel-controlled Golan territory, and some cross-border incidents have prompted return fire from Israeli army patrols.
Israel is concerned that Assad’s weapons stockpiles, which include chemical weapons and advanced anti-aircraft missiles systems, could fall into the hands of either Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is loyal to Assad, has links to Iran, and is very hostile to Israel, or Sunni Islamist groups in Syria with links to international terrorist groups, which seek Assad’s ouster and are no friendlier to Israel.
On Sunday, an Israeli colonel told visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on a helicopter tour of the Golan that Israel is increasingly concerned about foreign, Sunni jihadists who have flocked to Syria to fight Assad, according to Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail.
The volatile situation in the Golan is complicated by the reduction and possible disbanding of the UN observer force UNDOF:
As Syrian troops move out of the Golan, the future of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights is also thrown into question. The states that make up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights are reconsidering their commitments. Croatia already withdrew its troops last February.
“It’s clear UNDOF is having very serious problems in meeting its challenges,” an Israeli official said according to The Guardian report. “But Israeli national security figures are very skeptical as to the real utility of international forces in dealing with our security issues.”
All these countries are so interconnected and intertwined with each other, and yet the internal and international rivalries make the whole region such a tinderbox.