The Issues that Shape Middle Eastern Politics
Three main issues have come to dominate global headlines in the first quarter of 2019: the Iran-US relationship, Israel and its parliamentary elections and the ever-changing dynamics in Libya. The outcome of each of these will impact regional and trans regional relations and understanding aspects of them is essential. In the following analytical snapshot — a Q & A — information of these three situations is teased out via conversation.
Nardone (Formiche)—What could happen internationally following Israel’s elections (re: in case of a change in the executive)?
Belfer—Given that Netanyahu’s most formidable opponent is Benny Gantz, Israeli and indeed regional politics are set to change considerably. First, if Netanyahu is successful and retains his position as Prime Minister, his coalition would have taken a further shift to the right bringing in known Jewish extremists and ideologues. This will frustrate budding relations with the Arab World, including in the Gulf, and make peace with the Palestinians much more difficult--if not impossible.
Also, it will, de facto, recognise the controversial annexation of Golan. An empowered Netanyahu -- given his recent brushes with the law -- will also be a more bullish Netanyahu. Alternatively, a Benny Gantz leadership will likely reach out to a wider consensus in Israel to rekindle proper negotiations with the Palestinians and to better exploit the newfound influence Israel wields in the region now that Iran is being checked by the Arab Gulf states, Russia and the US. Gantz is a security heavyweight and will not be soft on security provisions. But, as a soldier, he knows the consequences of reckless politics and will be more guarded. He may be the right type of leader to encourage a more robust engagement with the Arab World.
Nardone (Formiche)—What do you think about the situation in Libya? Is it possible that Haftar’s advance has been facilitated by external support? What are your expectation for the future?
Belfer—Libya was in a state of suspended animation and Haftar is rapidly moving to break the 8 year impasse and consolidate a power-position for his Misurata militiamen. The momentum is needed. While Italy had previously sought a more inclusive solution, others (re: Qatar, Turkey) attempted to infuse national politics with an Islamist flavour based around the Muslim Brotherhood. This has failed and Haftar, although an unapologetic military man is not an Islamist. It is about time for Libya to stabilise and hopefully this latests bout will produce the ingredients to do so.
Nardone (Formiche)—Is the withdrawal of US troops from Tripoli a sign of weakness and acquiescence to Haftar’s plans? Is there the possibility that Washington transforms Libya into a ‘new Syria’ (re: comparing US-Haftar relations with Russia-Assad relations)?
Belfer—I think that the US withdraw is short sighted and reflects the lack of US strategic awareness. I do not think that a ‘new Syria’ is on the horizon. But then again, Middle Eastern politics is unpredictable.
Nardone (Formiche)—Last year Donald Trump reassured Italian PM Giuseppe Conte about Italy's leading role regarding Libyan dossier. Did Italy lose the opportunity to manage this role?
Belfer—I would not say that Italy lost the opportunity, but rather that the Libyan’s took it over themselves. Since the Palermo talks, the momentum shifted back to the Libyan militias themselves and the European role has been eclipsed ever since.
Nardone (Formiche)—Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has asked the EU to reject any Turkish attempt to join the Union. Since Turkey stands with Serraj, shouldn’t Italy revise its position on this issue?
Belfer—Turkey is a ‘wild card’ in the wider region but its ambitions are rather clear -- to establish a stronger presence by using Qatari money and Muslim Brotherhood organisations. Italy and Turkey may have agreed on Serraj's leadership, but they did not agree on why. For Italy he represented a voice of reason and for Turkey a voice of Turkish power projection. Salvini is right to reject Turkey's EU membership bid ... at least until it changes its behaviour to better reflect European interests and values. And, of course, it ceases its occupation of Cyprus -- an EU member state.
Nardone (Formiche)—The US has listed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists. What is the reason behind this decision and what will be the consequences?
Belfer—The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is one of the main engines for terrorist activities internationally. Hezbollah in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Europe in addition to the Badr Brigades, PMUs, Houthis and Islamic Jihad Palestine all owe their funding, leadership and direction to the IRGC and its Al Quds force. Increasingly, the IRGC has been operationally focused on attacking US interests and allies and by ascribing them to the US terror list it is hoped that their economic lifelines in Europe will be interrupted. It is also hoped -- like Hezbollah -- that other international actors follow suit and recognise the IRGC as a terrorist group: its activities fall nothing short. Of course, this can be reversed if Iran ends its policy of intervening in and destabilising its neighbours especially those allies of the US and Europe such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. The IRGC's true leader is Ayatollah Khameini and by pinching his armed forces, the US may be able to clip the wings of the Islamic Republic of Iran on its ambitions to consolidate its position in the East Mediterranean and throughout the Arab Gulf.
This interview was first published on 09 April 2019 in the original Italian with Formiche and is available at: https://formiche.net/2019/04/belfer-libia-israele-iran/