WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s national security adviser described his boss’s foreign policy approach as “disruptive” on the eve of the US president’s first White House meeting with the Palestinian leader, saying his unconventional ways could create an opportunity to ultimately help stabilize the Middle East.
Trump faces deep skepticism at home and abroad over his chances for a breakthrough with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, not least because the new US administration has yet to articulate a cohesive strategy for restarting long-stalled peace talks.
While travellers are clearly unhappy over the restrictions that came out of the blue, Royal Jordanian Airlines has taken a mirthful take on the issue.
Travelling to the United States was already becoming tough for people from certain countries under the Trump administration. Now to make things tougher, a latest flying mandate restricts the travellers flying from the Middle East and North Africa from carrying their electronic devices on board. In the wake of this travel restriction, one can’t help but wonder how would the travellers now make their 12-hour long journey pleasurable.
The tiny Middle Eastern state of Qatar has come a long way since it gained independence in 1971.Qatar’s capital, Doha, was a sleepy pearl fishing community until the ’90s, when it began tapping into its vast offshore natural gas reserves. After investing heavily in liquefied natural-gas technology, Qatar is now one of the leading exporters in the world, with a sovereign wealth fund (known as the Qatar Investment Authority) worth over $85 billion, according to CNN Money.
Today, it is home to the headquarters of the country’s largest oil and gas companies, and a population of almost 600,000.
And the city is not done growing. As a result of Qatar’s increasing corporate and commercial activity, 47 new skyscrapers are currently being built in Doha, according to Emporis. New hotels will also be joining Qatar’s skyline to attract even more tourists to its spa villages, huge malls, and scenic artificial islands. In 2022, Doha will even host the FIFA World Cup in its brand-new (questionable-looking) stadium.
To see how far the country has come since it gained its independence from the United Kingdom just over four decades ago, we compiled some photos of Doha then and now.
THEN: Here’s what the skyline of the Qatari capital of looked like in 1977.
A joke making the rounds among Russian officials and hacks who take a keen interest in what is going on in the Middle East these days goes something like this: How will the Yanks deal with the Islamic State group?
They will create “Islamic State 2”, a bigger and better armed group, and let it deal with the original Islamic State group. And what happens when “Islamic State 2” turns against them as it happened with the original Islamic State? They will create “Islamic State 3”, and so on.
But seriously, the rise and spread of the Islamic State group is no laughing matter. Now that the US and its allies have finally woken up to the dangers of the spread of the extremist group, the worry in Moscow is that the hotheads in the Pentagon and at Nato headquarters in Brussels will decide to start hitting Islamic State positions in Syria along with “other targets” there as well – for instance, Syrian army positions.
US President Barack Obama has already announced his plan to deal with the group, promising to lead a “broad coalition” that will “roll back this terrorist threat”. In Moscow, the fear is that the US will seize this opportunity to intervene in Syria.
The Libyan scenario
According to Valeriy Fenenko from the Moscow Centre for International Security, the US can actually use the presence of the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to implement the “Libyan scenario”.
“The Americans are bound to try to compensate for their failure last fall,” he says. “At first, it will be air strikes against terrorists and then, in parallel, it may amount to helping the moderate opposition. The US may start a creeping interference, like it happened in Bosnia,” he said.
In any event, Russian diplomatic efforts are in full swing. According to one Russian source, Moscow is trying to prevent possible air strikes in Syria by the US, UK and others, in the same way it did last year when the danger of air strikes was growing by the day.
“Our people in Arab and European capitals were desperately trying to find some sort of solution last year,” he said. “The threat of a regional war that could escalate into a world war was taken very seriously by the Kremlin. And this scenario is in the cards again.”
The feeling in Moscow is that the recent Nato summit in Newport, Wales, missed out on a great opportunity to involve Russia in finding a solution to the spread of the Islamic State group and other militant groups associated with it across Iraq and the Middle East generally. Not to mention, the very real threat of these violent men entering European countries, and even reaching the US.
“The Russians have been warning the Americans ever since the civil war broke out in Syria that it was very dangerous to arm the opposition there,” one former Russian general who was in charge of anti-terrorist operation told me. “There was no chance that the arms destined for the so-called moderate opposition would not end up with the likes of the Islamic State. Not to mention that lots of it was coming as well from ‘liberated’ Libya.”
The same bandits
What worries Russian officials is the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to talk to President Bashar al-Assad’s government about a possible joint effort in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria.
As Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said recently, it doesn’t make sense for the West to help the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State group but deny cooperation to Assad who is fighting “the same bandits”.
Some Russian analysts are saying that the bigger problem of the current crisis is that the Islamic State group runs its recruitment campaigns not just in the Middle East but in Europe as well.
Different figures are cited over the number of Europeans who have joined the ranks of the group in the past several months, but if you consider that the number of fighters has risen – according to Russian estimates, from about 6,000 in June to over 30,000 at present – it can be assumed that we are talking about thousands of young Muslims travelling from Europe to fight in what they believe is a holy war.
The senseless war in Gaza has probably indirectly boosted the Islamic State group’s recruitment campaign, making it easier to claim that the West and Israel are hellbent on wiping out the Muslims in the Middle East. It remains unclear as to why Israel’s armed forces attacked Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and conducted blanket air strikes that were bound to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.
In the opinion of Russian experts, this looked more like a smokescreen for US failures in Iraq and Libya rather than an attempt to wipe out Hamas’ arsenal and top commanders. From a military point of view, Benjamin Netanyahu’s war achieved absolutely nothing, except perhaps giving Hamas a boost in popularity.
The danger for Russia from the Islamic State group is that some of its members come from Chechnya and Dagestan, the two Muslim republics in the south of Russia, and there is a risk that the group can find sympathisers and supporters there and even start to build a network across the Caucasus.
That is why Moscow is now calling on all parties to make a joint effort to destroy the Islamic State group before it becomes truly international.
However, as the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems Konstantin Sivkov points out, the military option is only part of the solution in tackling the Islamic State group.
He says that air strikes would not be enough and that it’s crucial to also fight its ideology and cut off its finances that are now flowing through perfectly legal banking channels. The war against the Islamic State group is fraught with dangers. It might get out of control and drag the whole region into a much wider conflict.
The discovery of a letter to Sir Winston Churchill from his future sister-in-law has thrown new light on his fascination with Islam and Muslim culture
He is indelibly associated with the fight to preserve Britain and its Empire from Nazi invasion and his subsequent denouncement of Soviet totalitarianism’s Iron Curtain.
In the public eye, Sir Winston Churchill’s long political career earned him a place among the greatest of Britons.
But what may come as a surprise is that he was a strong admirer of Islam and the culture of the Orient — such was his regard for the Muslim faith that relatives feared he might convert.
The revelation comes with the discovery of a letter to Churchill from his future sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, written in August 1907, in which she urges him to rein in his enthusiasm.
In the letter, discovered by Warren Dockter, a history research fellow at Cambridge University, she pleads: “Please don’t become converted to Islam; I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalise [fascination with the Orient and Islam], Pasha-like tendencies, I really have.”
Lady Gwendoline, who married Churchill’s brother Jack, adds: “If you come into contact with Islam your conversion might be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it.”
In a letter to Lady Lytton in the same year Churchill wrote: “You will think me a pasha [rank of distinction in the Ottoman Empire]. I wish I were.”
Churchill’s fascination led him and his close friend Wilfrid S. Blunt, the poet and radical supporter of Muslim causes, to dressing in Arab clothes in private while in each other’s company. Dr Dockter said of the letter from Lady Gwendoline: “Churchill had fought in Sudan and on the North West frontier of India so had much experience on being in ‘Islamic areas’.
“But during this period Churchill was in the Liberal phase of his career, having switched to the Liberals in 1904.
“He often came to loggerheads on imperial policies with hard-line imperialists such as Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of Northern Nigeria. Churchill was opposed to Lugard’s punitive expeditions against Islamic tribes in northern Nigeria.”
The letter was discovered by Dr Dockter while researching his forthcoming book, Winston Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East.
He points out that Lady Gwendoline’s concerns may not have been so wide of the mark. Not only did Churchill appear to regard Islam and Christianity as equals – a surprisingly progressive notion for the time – but he also admired the military prowess and history of expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
In October 1940, as Britain faced its darkest hour against Nazi Germany, Churchill approved plans to build a mosque in central London and set aside £100,000 for the project.
He continued to back the building of what became the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park – which he hoped would win support for Britain in the Muslim world at a crucial moment – even in the face of public criticism.
In December 1941, he told the House of Commons: “Many of our friends in Muslim countries all over the East have already expressed great appreciation of this gift.”
Churchill’s attitude may appear hypocritical, given his forthright defence of the British Empire – which at its height ruled over millions of Muslims across India, Egypt and the Middle East.
In his book The River War (1899) – his account of the frontier wars of India and Sudan – he was scathing of the fundamentalist, ultra conservative Mahdiyya form of Islam adopted by the Dervish population of North Africa.
He states: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries … Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce … The influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.”
Lady Gwendeline Spencer Churchill (National Portrait Gallery London)
But Dr Dockter says a closer examination of Churchill’s attitude to the wider Muslim world reveals it to be “in stark contrast to the purely imperialistic and orientalist perspective of many of his contemporaries”.
In his book, he states: “His views of Islamic people and culture were an often paradoxical and complex combination of imperialist perceptions composed of typical orientalist ideals fused with the respect, understanding and magnanimity he had gained from his experiences in his early military career, creating a perspective that was uniquely Churchillian.”
The revelation that Churchill had a close affinity for Muslim culture comes at a time when tensions between the three great monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are greater than they have been for centuries.
Ironically, many of the fault lines between Islam and the West have their roots in the world Churchill helped shape after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of the Middle East at the end of the First World War.
The settlements between the region’s colonial powers, brokered by Churchill, with T E Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” – as an adviser, gave birth, in Dr Dockter’s words, to “the Middle East we know, warts and all”.
Sir Winston Churchill in Bangalore, India in 1897
Dr Dockter, who assisted Boris Johnson on his book The Churchill Factor, said: “Not many people are aware that Churchill and T E Lawrence were friends or that they worked together to solve the riddles of the Middle Eastern settlements. Understanding these settlements is paramount to understanding the legacy of Britain in the Middle East.”
Of course, Churchill did not convert to Islam, and Dr Dockter concludes that his fascination was “largely predicated on Victorian notions, which heavily romanticised the nomadic lifestyle and honour culture of the Bedouin tribes”.
Such was his limited understanding of Islam that as colonial secretary during the early 1920s he had to ask what the difference was between Shia and Sunni Muslims, the two major groupings whose long-standing animosity is currently playing out in Syria and Iraq.
As Dr Dockter points out, at least he had the good sense to ask the question in the first place, regarding an issue which bedevils the West’s involvement in the region to this day.
As an observant Jew with children in Jewish schools in Paris, he is worried about anti-Semitism in his home country and the popularity of radical Islam. He’s also worried about his government’s relations with the other country in which he has citizenship, Israel – especially France’s plan to ask the UN Security Council to call for a Palestinian state on the 1949 armistice lines.
Habib voiced his concerns to French President François Hollande while the two were returning from a visit to Italy on Sunday.
“I tried to tell the president on our flight that, in my opinion, it is counterproductive to go to the UN and try to force Israel’s hand. The great powers should push parties to negotiate, that is the only way to reach a good agreement. I think he listened. He said he would update me,” Habib told The Jerusalem Post from his office in Paris the next day.
Habib said he got the impression from Hollande that France thinks the US will veto its resolution anyway, but the MP maintained that the government would be making a mistake to pressure Israel in this way, even if it is certain it will be vetoed.
According to Habib, the UN resolution would give the Palestinians the state they want, with nothing in return – without them recognizing Israel as the Jewish state or giving up the right of return.
Instead of a UN resolution, France should push both sides to negotiate, which is the only way to bring peace, he posited.
At the same time, Habib is not very optimistic about the possible outcome of such talks.
“Israel wants and always wanted peace, but I don’t think it’s possible now,” he contended. “In the meantime, we should try to encourage coexistence to bring real peace, which would mean living side by side. [The Palestinians] don’t want any Jew to live in Gaza or Judea and Samaria; that’s not peace.”
“Whoever wants peace has to understand Jerusalem can never be divided and we need freedom of religion for all, like we have under Israeli sovereignty,” he stressed.
Habib told Hollande that Israel is ready for real peace, and proved so in the past by evacuating towns in Gaza where Israelis were born and raised. However, he delineated that the conflict is clearly not about land – otherwise the Gaza disengagement and generous offers by prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak would have brought peace.
“Everyone wants an agreement and it’s very complicated.
The fact is that for 70 years, no one has succeeded,” he sighed.
“I explained to the president, as a French MP, that Israel is the only state in the region – where thousands of women and children are being killed – that has the same values as we do,” Habib continued. “Hamas is like Islamic State and Boko Haram, and wants Shari’a; negotiating with them is a bad idea. The world has to understand that Israel is in a hostile environment. It’s a small state, and the only one in the world for the Jewish people.”
Israel will not give up on its security and its land for “fantasies”; as a small country, it “doesn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.”
“Israel is like the life insurance of the Jewish people. I am convinced that if the State of Israel existed at the time, the Holocaust would have been impossible,” he added.
Habib asserted that Europeans can be naïve and ignore the lessons of the past, which is why they don’t understand how important it is that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East – where he emphasized that everyone else is either a dictator or an extremist.
That naïveté applies to the Iran nuclear talks as well.
Habib expressed pride in France’s stance in the negotiations, saying his country is relatively alert, but he is concerned about the American position and Russian dominance in the negotiations.
“We all want an agreement with Iran, but it has to be a good one – and this is not a good one. We have to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and all experts and reports say they are on the way to getting one,” he pointed out.
“I don’t think we’re heading towards [a deal] that looks effective. Iran will get all its money back and will be ready for the minute it is allowed to have weapons.”
Habib compared the brewing Iran deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement: “Everyone wanted to prevent a war, but we still got one.”
The French MP postulated that a bad deal with Iran puts the whole world in danger, not just Israel.
“How can a country like the US allow something like this?” he wondered. “I don’t understand it.”
IF HABIB’S positions seem very similar to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, there’s a reason for that: Both grew up on the philosophy of Likud forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and the two have been close personal friends for over 20 years.
Habib’s father, Emanuel Habib, was a leader of the Tunisian Jewish community in France and a well-known Revisionist Zionist who was friends with prime minister Menachem Begin.
Habib, 54, joined the Jabotinsky- founded Betar youth movement as a teen; he made aliya in the late-1970s, when he finished high school in France, and studied industrial engineering at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology.
He eventually became an executive at Citizen Watches and the Groupe Vendome luxury jewelry brand, all the while engaging in activism in the French Jewish community through the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).
It was through that activism that Habib met Netanyahu in the early 1990s, and became friends with him and his wife, Sara.
In 2013 Habib was elected a member of the French National Assembly, as part of the centrist UDI party, representing French expats in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, San Marino, Turkey, the Holy See and Israel – which has more French citizens than all the other areas combined. The MP said he is proud to represent constituents from places that are central to all three monotheistic religions.
When asked if he coordinates his political actions with Netanyahu, Habib’s response made it clear he was sensitive to accusations of dual loyalty.
“I ask the prime minister’s opinion and I give him mine, but he’s the prime minister of Israel and I’m an MP in France,” he began, but then continued to detail the dynamics between them.
“We talk, and of course we share values; France and Israel have the same goal [of peace].
I love France very much. I was born there, and it is my first language, but there is no problem loving both countries.
France and Israel have friendly relations.”
“I am a member of the French Parliament and Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have been among my closest friends for 23 years – well before he became prime minister,” he revealed.
“Personally, I have learned a lot from him and gained a lot of useful experience at his side.
“This is why I am very grateful to him. I strongly believe that Netanyahu, who is still young, will [go down] in history as one of Israel’s greatest prime ministers, and will deeply mark Israel history.
I truly know that under his leadership, the people of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide are in safe hands and can sleep peacefully.
“As a Jew and as a French-Israeli binational, it is an honor for me to count him among my inner circle,” continued Habib.
“And I was touched when he said last week to [former French president Nicolas] Sarkozy, when the three of us met: ‘We are like brothers.’” As for political issues, “I talk to the prime minister often and I try to explain France’s concerns to him. The French government has good intentions and wants peace, but they don’t understand it’s not just about territory. My deep belief is this is, fundamentally, a religious war.”
AS AN observant Jew in the French National Assembly at a time when anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise, Habib has received death threats and must be accompanied by bodyguards in France.
Habib said the attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this year are tied to demonization of Israel.
“In [Operation Protective Edge], the media just showed dead bodies of Palestinian children all the time. Any normal person is pained to see a child killed, but the media only showed that, not the Grads and [other] rockets shot at Israel. That is why the French media holds part of responsibility in the rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic feelings.
“These pictures of children, trapped in a city under fire and sometimes killed, have been used as a justification for recent anti-Semitic attacks in France – for example, in last January’s attack on Hyper Cacher,” he explained.
As for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, calling for a boycott of a country is considered illegal discrimination in France, and in most cases French courts do not allow boycotts to continue – but the problem is a moral one at its core, Habib detailed.
The MP pointed to atrocities throughout the Middle East and Africa and said the UN hardly ever condemns them, but focuses on Israel.
“French people don’t hear that 300,000 people were killed in Syria and that Islamic State is crucifying Christians like they did 2,000 years ago.
They think Israel is the source of the world’s problems, when the Palestinians are responsible for the conflict,” he lamented. “War in the Middle East is not about territory, it is about religion.”
“This is a moral problem for everyone, not just Jews.
“The world needs to open its eyes. I’m not just worried about French Jews, I’m worried about France, my country, which is facing a Islamist threat,” he stated, clarifying that “of course not all Muslims are jihadis, but It is a lot of people… There are thousands of cases in France.”
We can’t know for sure. It is a lot of people… There are thousands of cases in France.
This is a phenomenon,” he warned.
“You can criticize the government, but so much attention is focused on the tiny, sole Jewish state that has been fighting for its existence for 70 years. People used to say Jews poisoned wells or put Christian blood in matzot. Today they blame a tiny state for all that is happening in the world,” Habib said.