Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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This Week: Israeli-Palestinian Escalation, Egyptian and Syrian Elections

by Robert M. Danin
June 5, 2014

Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah (6th L) and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (5th L) pose for a group photo with Palestinian ministers during a swearing-in ceremony of the technocratic government, in the West Bank city of Ramallah June 2, 2014 (Torokman/Courtesy Reuters).


Significant Developments

Israel-Palestine.  Palestinian officials responded strongly to Israel’s announcement last night of plans for nearly 1,500 new housing units. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for president Mahmoud Abbas, warned that Palestine will “respond in an unprecedented way,” while PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi released a statement today threatening to go the UN. American ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also condemned the settlement announcement. Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, called the settlement announcement a “proper Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian terror cabinet.” Israel’s settlement announcement comes only days after Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas swore in a technocratic government that was the result of the most recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. decision to work with the new PA government does not mean that the United States recognizes it, “because that would recognize a state and there is no state. This is not an issue of recognition of a government.”

Egypt. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Tuesday was declared the official winner of Egypt’s presidential race. According to the country’s election commission, Sisi won 96.91 percent of the vote. He will be sworn into office on Sunday. Meanwhile, the trial of twenty Al Jazeera journalists continued today in Egypt with prosecutors calling for maximum sentences for all defendants. The sixteen Egyptian defendants have been charged with joining the Muslim Brotherhood and could face twenty-five years in prison. The four foreign journalists have been charged with spreading false news and collaborating for which they could face fifteen years imprisonment.

Syria. Bashar al-Assad secured a landslide victory this week in Syria’s “presidential election.” Assad garnered 88.7 percent of the vote with a 73 percent turnout, according to the head of the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Lebanon yesterday, called the election “meaningless.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich claimed that although circumstances prevent an election that would be “100 percent democratic,” the Syrian vote sends a “legitimate” and clear message in support of Assad.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Kerry in Lebanon. Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Lebanon yesterday where he announced $290 million in new aid to those affected by the conflict in Syria. Kerry said that $51 million of the assistance will go to help Lebanon deal with Syrian refugees. The World Bank recently estimated that the Syrian conflict has cost Lebanon $7.5 billion since 2011. Kerry’s visit marked the first visit by a secretary of state to Lebanon in five years. Kerry also expressed his concern about the Lebanese parliament’s delay in electing a president, calling the political stalemate “deeply troubling.”

Syria. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the PBS Newshour on Tuesday that he resigned from the State Department because U.S. policy on Syria was moving too slowly and that he could no longer defend it publicly. Ambassador Ford called for the U.S. to put more pressure on the Assad regime, saying, “Policy has not brought them to the point where they feel they have to negotiate. They’re not under enough pressure, so we need to think about how to escalate pressure.”

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Yemen. A ceasefire between government forces and Houthi rebels began yesterday, after three days of fighting—the latest in a protracted contestation for control of the city of Omran. Rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi proposed the ceasefire Tuesday night, offering to free government soldiers in exchange for the protection of the city’s residents. Over one hundred casualties have resulted from clashes.

Libya. The Supreme Court announced today that it considered the election of Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteg by Libya’s parliament in May invalid due to the absence of a quorum at the time.  Should the ruling stand, interim prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who had been set to hand over power, will remain in power. A final ruling is expected on June 9. The announcement follows a week of unrest in Libya, including a suicide bomb attack on the home of renegade General Khalifa Hiftar yesterday, which killed four and injured several others. Earlier in the day, a rocket struck Maiteg’s offices.

Lebanon. Syrian information minister Omran al-Zoubi attacked Lebanon’s decision last weekend to revoke the refugee status of Syrians who travel back to Syria. Zoubi claimed that it was a strategy to prevent over 500,000 Syrians from voting in their country’s elections on Tuesday.

Kuwait-Iran. Kuwaiti oil minister Ali Al-Omair announced on Sunday that his country is seeking to reach agreement with Iran to secure natural gas. The announcement was made during Kuwaiti Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s visit to Iran, the first by a Kuwaiti ruler since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Saudi Arabia. Saudi minister of agriculture Fahad Balghunaim announced today that the country will test camels for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The Saudi Ministry of Health Tuesday announced a 50 percent increase in deaths resulting from MERS after ordering a review of data last month. The new figures indicate 688 confirmed cases and 282 deaths, while the Ministry had previously reported 575 and 190 respectively.

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