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Archive for October, 2017

Catalonia: The Silent Majority

It’s been going on for a while. “Recently in Catalonia we have been living through a kind of ‘soft’ totalitarianism…the illusion of unanimity created by the fear of expressing dissent,” wrote best-selling Catalan author Javier Cercas in the Spanish newspaper El Pais in 2014. Those who didn’t want independence kept their heads down and their mouths shut, in other words.

Three years later, it has just got worse. Last July, leading Catalan film-maker Isabel Coixet told The Observer that “Madrid is deaf and mute and the government here (in Catalonia) is really happy about that. They never really look for dialogue at all.” She added that Catalans are afraid of speaking out “for fear of being called fascists.”

That about sums it up. Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of the people who live in Catalonia want it to remain part of Spain. The latest, published in El Pais on Saturday, showed that 55% per cent of those polled opposed the declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament last week, with only 41% in favour.

That’s an even more decisive rejection of separation from Spain than a poll commissioned by the Catalan government and published just before the declaration of independence, which came out 49%-41% in favour of remaining in Spain. Yet the news coverage was all about flag-waving nationalist crowds demanding independence, because the silent majority was staying low.

Finally, on Sunday, a big pro-Spanish crowd came out in the streets of Barcelona: 300,000 people according to the police, more than a million according to the organisers. About the same size as the pro-independence crowds, therefore, but they left it rather late. The separatist strategy has worked well, and by now the fat is really in the fire.

The separatists’ problem was this: no opinion poll has ever shown a majority for independence since the current upsurge in Catalan nationalism began about eight years ago. For the past few years the ‘yes ‘ vote has been stuck at around 40%. You can hardly declare independence for the region without a vote of some kind, so what do you do?

A referendum is better than an election, because it’s a single-issue vote that will really get the faithful out. But how do you prevent the more numerous sceptics from voting too? Well, the Spanish constitution is a great help there, because it says that a referendum on independence for any of Spain’s regions would be illegal. So if you hold one, maybe the true nationalists will vote despite the law, while the rest obey the law and stay away.

They road-tested this model three years ago with an ‘advisory’ referendum that the Madrid government sort of tolerated (though it said it was illegal), and it worked just fine. Only 37% of the population voted, but 80% of those who did show up voted ‘yes’ to independence

That’s the kind of number you could really use to justify declaring independence, even if it’s a bit of a cheat. If anybody complains, just shrug your shoulders, say you wish the turn-out had been higher, and carry on doing what you want to do: declaring independence. And so it came to pass.

The independence referendum on 1 October was the real thing, not ‘advisory’ at all. Rather late in the day Spanish Prime Minister Maria Rajoy realised that the independentistas intended to use the result as a justification for a declaration of independence, so he got a court judgement confirming that the referendum was illegal and sent the police in to shut it down.

The Catalan nationalists had foreseen this, and welcomed it. Nothing could be better for the cause than images of Spanish police dragging women out of polling booths, and the uproar would keep even the hardiest ‘no’ voters away. The turn-out this time was a bit higher, at 43%, and so was the ‘yes’ vote: 90%. Very gratifying.

With that manipulated result in hand, the president of Catalonia’s regional government, nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont, declared independence last week. The Spanish central government immediately dissolved the regional parliament, removed Puigedemont and his cabinet from office, and announced a fresh regional election for 21 December.

It’s all strictly in accord with Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, and Puigdemont probably foresaw this too. He has always been three moves ahead of Madrid. Meanwhile, Spains’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria now has the job of running Catalonia until the election, and she will probably have a very difficult time.

Puigdemont is now officially a martyr in the eyes of his fellow separatists, and Spain says that he will be allowed to run in the December election, so he has lost nothing. Unless the silent majority find their voices, he may yet be the first president of the Catalan Republic.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“That’s…pass”; and “It’s all…time”)

Balfour Centenary

One hundred years ago this week/next week, in the midst of the First World War, the British government sent a letter known as the Balfour Declaration that led, three decades later, to the creation of the state of Israel.

The letter was officially sent to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of Britain’s Zionist Federation, by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, on 2 November 1917. However, the initial draft was actually written months earlier by Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organisation, at Balfour’s request.

It might all have been different if his fellow Conservative politician, Lord Curzon, had been foreign secretary, but he didn’t get that job until two years later. Curzon told Balfour at the time: “I do not recognise that the connection of the Jews with Palestine, which terminated 1,200 years ago, gives them any claims whatever. On this principle, we have a stronger claim to France”. (Much of France was ruled by English kings until the 15th century.)

But it was Balfour who wrote the letter. The key sentence said: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

There are clearly a few weasel words in there: “national home” was a term invented to avoid promising the Jews an actual state. But the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” (600,000 mostly Muslim Arabs) were only promised that their “civil and religious rights” would be protected, not their political rights, so the implication was clear: a Jewish state was the eventual destination.

Why would the British waste their time on such a peripheral matter at a time when they feared they were losing the war? The Russian revolution was taking a major British ally out of the war, it would be a long time before their new ally, the United States, sent a large army to Europe – and the British were running out of credit. The main (though unspoken) reason was probably that they believed the Jews controlled the banks.

It wasn’t actually true, and the one Jew in the British war cabinet, Edwin Montagu, actually wrote a memorandum on “the Anti-Semitism of the Present (British) Government”. But a number of cabinet members were devout Christians who took the Old Testament almost literally, France had already issued a vaguer declaration of support for a Jewish state in Palestine five months previously, and Britain feared that Germany was also about to do so

So the Balfour Declaration was published, and the hundred-year struggle for the control of Palestine began. Initially the territory included all of the Ottoman province of Palestine, which was then in the process of being conquered by British troops. But Lebanon, north along the Mediterranean coast from present-day Israel, was given to France in the peace settlement.

Then in 1921 Winston Churchill, newly appointed as the Colonial Secretary, called a conference in Cairo which decided that the territory east of the Jordan river would be turned into an Arab kingdom called Transjordan (later just Jordan), and Jewish settlement was forbidden there. (He privately called those who attended the conference “the Forty Thieves”, which seems about right.)

Some Zionists protested at this loss of territory they thought they had been promised. Chaim Weizmann wrote to Churchill protesting that “the fields of Gilead, Moab and Edom [east of the Jordan]…are historically and geographically and economically linked to Palestine, and it is upon these fields, now that the rich plains of the north have been taken from Palestine and given to France, that the success of the Jewish National Home must largely rest….”

But most Zionists thought the change was only temporary, or were aware how hard it would be to achieve a Jewish majority even in the territory that remained, where there were only 94,000 Jews at the time. Israel controls all of this remaining territory today, but even now the population is half Arab if you count the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

It’s still questionable whether a fully independent Jewish state would have ever come to pass in the Middle East if the Holocaust had not endowed it with a flood of Jewish immigrants fleeing the Holocaust or its aftermath. It was also the Holocaust that turned opinion in the great powers (including the Soviet Union) decisively in its favour, and enabled the United Nations resolution that legitimised the state of Israel in 1948.

But it’s very unlikely that Israel would exist without the initial impetus given to the Zionist project by the Balfour Declaration. It’s amazing what a few determined men can do if they are in the right place at the right time.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Count Dracula and the WHO

It was a bit like appointing Count Dracula as the goodwill ambassador for the blood donor service.

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to be plausible. Reality is under no such constraint, and regularly produces events that would never be credible in a novel. Like the decision last Thursday to appoint Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as the World Health Organisation’s goodwill ambassador.

The newly elected head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he hoped that the Zimbabwean president would “influence his peers in the region” to devote more effort to health care, but Mugabe doesn’t really have much by way of peers.

Mugabe, in power since 1980, is effectively president-for-life, whereas all the neighbouring countries except Angola are more or less functional democracies. All of them, again except Angola, provide better healthcare to their citizens than Zimbabwe. Not good, but significantly better.

In Zimbabwe, heathcare improved significantly in the first twenty years of Mugabe’s rule, as did the economy in general. He built clinics, hospitals and schools, and Zimbabweans became one of the healthiest, best educated, and most prosperous populations in Africa. But then it all went wrong.

After a referendum in 2000 rejected a new constitution designed to strengthen Mugabe’s grip on power, he became increasingly paranoid and authoritarian. The sole purpose of government became hanging on to power at any cost (to others), so favoured cronies in the ruling party and the military were allowed to loot the economy – which duly collapsed..

By now, in fact, there is hardly any Zimbabwean economy left beyond subsistence agriculture. Unemployment has soared to 75 percent or higher, and the schools and hospitals have fallen apart. Adult life expectancy has plunged from 61 years to 45, and state-run hospitals and clinics frequently run out of even basic medicines like painkillers and antibiotics.

Mugabe has presided over this catastrophe for seventeen years now, insisting all the while that all is well. At the World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban last May, he claimed that “Zimbabwe is one of the most highly developed countries in Africa.” He is planning to run for re-election as president next year at the age of 94, and nobody dares to defy him.

He will win, of course, after the usual number of opposition activists has been beaten up, jailed or murdered – if he lasts that long, but he is beginning to show serious signs of wear. In fact, Mugabe has made three “medical visits” to Singapore for treatment this year.

Why Singapore? The presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, says that it’s a problem with Mugabe’s eyes, which would helpfully explain away the fact that he frequently appears to fall asleep at public meetings. (He’s just resting his eyes, really.) He needs a foreign specialist for that, but for everything else, Charamba claims, Mugabe goes to a Zimbabwean doctor – who is, he assures everybody, a “very, very, very black physician”.

There are very good Zimbabwean doctors, of course, but most of them, frustrated at the lack of medical supplies, have long since left the country for greener pastures. And it does seem unlikely that it’s an eye problem that has caused Mugabe to make three “medical visits” to Singapore this year. It’s probably something more serious, and Mugabe just doesn’t trust his own health service to deal with it.

How did the new head of WHO hit upon the idea of making this man, of all people, the organisation’s “goodwill ambassador” for Africa? He and his advisers must have discussed it in various meetings for weeks before announcing it. Did nobody ever bother to point out that it would be a public relations disaster? “Special ambassadors” don’t have to do very much, but their choice does shine a light on the judgement and integrity of those who choose them.

In the event, the public outcry about the choice of Mugabe was so instant and widespread that within three days his appointment was cancelled. Mugabe had been the head of the African union when the organsation endorsed Tedros as the sole African candidate for the WHO job, and no doubt Tedros felt some obligation to return the favour, but the organisation’s financial support comes from elsewhere.

So it’s just politics as usual. The WHO’s reputation will eventually recover, but healthcare in Zimbabwe won’t as long as Mugabe is alive. And the world will continue to rotate in an easterly direction.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 5. (“In Zimbabwe…wrong”)

The Fall of Kirkuk

Two big cities fell within 24 hours of each other last weekend. The fall of Raqqa in Syria, once the capital of all the territory ruled by ISIS, came after a five-month siege and was no surprise at all. The fall of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk in Iraq took less than a day and came as a complete surprise.

Possession of Kirkuk was critical for the project of Kurdish independence, because it was the source of most of the oil that would have made an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq economically viable.

The Kurds of Iraq came tantalisingly close to realising their dream of independence. Since the first Gulf War of 1990, five Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq have been ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which had American support because it opposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. That American support continued even after the US invasion that finally overthrew Saddam in 2003.

The new government the US created in Baghdad had no control over the KRG, and the would-be Kurdish state almost doubled its territory by taking over the other provinces with Kurdish majorities, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in panic before a suprise ISIS offensive in 2014. Three weeks ago, the Kurdish government even held a referendum on independence in both its old and its new territories.

It has been clear for some time that the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters would be no match for a rebuilt and combat-tested Iraqi army, which had already recovered all the other territory it lost to ISIS three years ago. Yet the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, still went ahead with his referendum on 25 September, and 93 percent of the voters said yes to independence.

But then Iran, which is worried about the loyalty of its own large Kurdish minority just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, decided it was time to take the Kurds down a peg or three. As the greatest Shia power, Iran effectively controls a lot of the sectarian militias that make up the new Iraqi army, and the Baghdad government was happy to act as its proxy.

The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, probably assumed that American support would shield him from Iraqi retaliation when he called the referendum, but it didn’t. When Baghdad sent its troops in on Sunday, the Trump administration merely muttered some weasel words about not liking to see friends fight, and by Wednesday morning the area controlled by the KRG had shrunk by almost half.

Only months ago the Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the struggle to free Mosul from ISIS control, and the Syrian Kurds have been the main American ally in the fight to destroy ISIS in Syria. But once ISIS was defeated those alliances were bound to end: betraying the Kurds is a old Middle Eastern tradition. The only surprise is how fast it has happened, and how comprehensively the Kurds have lost.

There are about 30 million Kurds, but they live on territory that belongs to four of the most powerful states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been seeking an independent Kurdish state for a century now, but all the countries that stand to lose large amounts of territory if it ever actually happened are profoundly opposed to that outcome.

Moreover, the Kurds themselves have never really been united, even within the borders of the KRG. In practice, control of the territory has always been split between factions centred on the Barzani or the Talabani clans. Each faction has its own militia, and they even fought a civil war that killed thousands in the mid 1990s.

People talk about the peshmerga as if it were a Kurdish national army, but it is actually a loose association of separate militias that answer to different commanders. In the past three years they cooperated in the war against ISIS, but they split over the question of Barzani’s referendum, which the Talabani faction thought was too dangerous. That turned out to be right.

There was no joint defence of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army finally moved. Indeed, there was hardly any defence at all; first the Talabani forced pulled out, and then Barzani’s troops had no option but to follow. The Kurdish dream of independence is at an end, and the Kurds will be lucky if they manage to keep even the autonomy they have enjoyed in Iraq since 1991.

Indeed, they will be lucky if can avoid another civil war over who is to blame for the catastrophe (from the Kurdish point of view) of the past few days.

On Wednesday, President Barzani gave a speech that said, presumably about the Talabani faction: “They want to drag us into a civil war, but we will in no way be doing this.”
But a lot of Kurds blame him and his referendum for provoking the disaster, and they will be looking for somebody to punish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…independence”; and “People…right”)