Angela Merkel is not the great progressive messiah

Trump’s populism needs to be defeated, but pinning all hopes on false saviours like Merkel is not the way to do it.

Espousing left values while at the same time promoting austerity is progressive in rhetoric alone, writes Shabi [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]
Espousing left values while at the same time promoting austerity is progressive in rhetoric alone, writes Shabi [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

by

@rachshabi

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

Another week, another world leader flies to the United States to tackle President Donald Trump. This time it’s the turn of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel who has tried to set the tone for the meeting by saying its slogan will be “one-on-one conversations are always much better than talking about each other”.

Truth be told, the two leaders have had some things to say about each other. Trump laid into Merkel’s migration policy during his election campaign, predicting riots and declaring that the German people would end up “overthrowing this woman”.

Merkel, showing more spine that other world leaders, tied German cooperation with Trump to “shared values”. Following his race-baiting, misogynistic, hate-fuelled campaign, Merkel pointedly listed those shared values as: “democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position”.

She also lambasted Trump’s ban on refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – unlike, say, Britain’s Theresa May, the first foreign leader to visit Trump.

Responding to the ban in January, Merkel said the fight against terror “does not in any way justify putting groups of certain people under general suspicion”.

Merkel, who is standing for a fourth term in Germany’s September elections, takes a list of issues to the White House: Russia, Syria, Ukraine, Nato as well as trade – the US is Germany’s third largest trading partner, after China and France.

Trump, with his protectionist claims of “America first”, his tirades against Nato and praise for Putin, also seems to want the European Union to crumble. The brash billionaire is, in other words, an affront to the values that Merkel holds dear.

Elevated expectations

Commentators who have followed her political career portray an experienced pragmatist who knows how to handle Trump types.

The German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel notes that she didn’t exactly hold former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – the billionaire media tycoon of “bunga bunga” sex party fame – in high regard either, yet nonetheless got what she wanted from him politically .

But the problem is that Merkel’s White House visit carries a weight of expectation far beyond her remit. That’s because ever since Barack Obama stepped down, many have cast Merkel as the new “leader of the free world”.

Leaving aside the anachronistic silliness of this job description, it seems part snub to Trump as not fit for the job, and partly the need for a superhero leader to stand up, on a global stage, for the progressive values that Team Trump is so gleefully battering.

Obama’s final presidential visit to Europe, to see his “closest ally” Merkel, was read as a passing-of-the-liberal-baton situation. Even then, the German chancellor dismissed such claims as “grotesque and downright absurd”.

Victory will come ‘from the bottom up’

So it is worth pointing out – and it seems the German leader would not object – that Merkel is not the great progressive messiah of our time.

It’s not just that she heads the Christian Democratic Union Party, defined as centre-right. Try telling Greece, Spain or Italy that Merkel’s inflexible, austerity-as-law response to the eurozone crisis was in fact prompted by progressive values.

In 2015, with Greece buckling under the crushing austerity cuts demanded by Merkel, leading economists warned that such medicine, imposed from Germany and Brussels, had “bled the patient, not cured the disease”.

The fleeting, feelgood factor of seeing global leaders such as Merkel stand up to Trump is a diversion unless any hope it generates is ploughed into something more substantial.

Meanwhile, those who praised the chancellor’s decision to accept a million Syrian refugees were far less enthusiastic at her ill-fated deal with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stop migrants from reaching Europe – and returning any that had reached Greece back to Turkey.

You could argue that this absence of progressivism, the inflexibility and a lack of collectivism on both the economic and the refugee crises gave the far-right a convenient target on which to focus their attacks against the European project.

In the face of a far-right surge, we crave a progressive figurehead, an inspiring, charismatic type with rhetorical flair, someone who will fight with fine words – if not in fine deeds – the wave of xenophobia, nativism and illiberalism apparently sweeping the West.

In our desperation, it seems anyone will do. This, presumably, explains why George W Bush – yes, the man responsible for the Iraq invasion, torture and Guantanamo Bay – was cast as some sort of liberal saviour when he said of Trump: “I don’t like the racism.”

OPINION: The end of German populist exceptionalism

But espousing left values while at the same time promoting austerity is progressive in rhetoric alone: it doesn’t bring solutions to real economic problems and, worse, fuels alienation and resentment by failing to doing so.

Our focus would be better placed in politics at a community level, building the kind of solidarity and practical networks that might allow genuinely progressive leaders to rise and promoting necessary popular support for such figures once in power.

In this context, the fleeting, feelgood factor of seeing global leaders such as Merkel stand up to Trump is a diversion unless any hope it generates is ploughed into something more substantial.

A pushback against the far-right is a longer, slower fight – and it is more likely to be won at community level, from the bottom up.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Russia, Israel and Iran braced for the endgame in Syria

Russia may soon find it impossible to pursue a policy in Syria that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies.

Russia has forged strong operational ties with Hezbollah and Iran but this does not extend to its endorsement of a militant regional strategy against Israel, writes Aronson [Maxim Shipenkov/Reuters]
Russia has forged strong operational ties with Hezbollah and Iran but this does not extend to its endorsement of a militant regional strategy against Israel, writes Aronson [Maxim Shipenkov/Reuters]

by

Geoffrey Aronson is a specialist in Middle East affairs.

There are many indications that the war in Syria is entering a new and less vicious phase in the uneasy reconstitution of a “New Syria”.

Around al-Quneitra, only 60km southeast of Damascus, however, and particularly along the nearby Golan frontier, contesting parties are escalating efforts to control the agenda on the ground and at the negotiating table.

It is no accident that the region bordering the Israeli-occupied plateau from Shebaa to the Yarmouk has been one of the quietest and less destructive fronts of the war.

Israel’s commanding presence in an area that is peripheral to the interests of the war’s major antagonists has muted the war.

The regime, with its regional allies and Russia on one side, and an opposition of all stripes on the other, have each been more interested in fighting each other than the Israelis.

The ceasefire border established in 1974 between Israel and Syria, even without the presence of United Nations observers on the “Bravo” [Syrian] side, remains the most sacrosanct of all Syria’s bloody frontiers.

Synchronising with Russia 

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s one day visit to Moscow on March 9 was the latest round in the ongoing coordination established in September 2015.

The summit was conducted in a very positive atmosphere. Russia’s official news agency Tass gushed: “Israeli prime minister hails Russia’s role in fight against Islamic terrorism.”

Netanyahu attaches great importance to reaffirming the basis for “synchronisation” with Vladimir Putin, both operationally and diplomatically, as the conflict enters the beginning of the war’s end.

Unlike the Obama administration, Netanyahu never believed that Russia’s entry into the war was “doomed to fail“.

Within days of the September 2015 announcement, Netanyahu was in Moscow. He was eager to coordinate, both operationally in the skies above Syria where the Israeli air force has enjoyed all but absolute freedom of action, and diplomatically to maintain Russian support for explicit “rules of the game” that serve to accommodate Israeli interests and deter efforts by any party – notably Hezbollah, Iran or the enfeebled regime itself – to successfully challenge them.

On the eve of his fourth visit to the Kremlin in two and one half years. Netanyahu declared Israel’s agenda as the endgame in Syria unfolds.

READ MORE – US-Israel relations: Is Trump backing down?

“One of the most important issues we will discuss is Iran’s attempt to make an agreement with Syria. With or without Syria’s agreement, Iran will attempt to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, both on land and at sea.

“In fact, Iran is attempting to slowly open a front with Israel in the Golan Heights.

“I will tell President Putin about my extreme opposition to this plan, and about the possibility Israel will choose to attack. I hope we will be able to come to the understandings necessary to prevent as much as possible confrontations between Russian and Israeli forces – just as we have been able to do until now.”

Approaching Trump

Moscow is not the only address for Netanyahu’s effort to take the Golan out of play. In earlier discussions in Washington, Netanyahu asked US President Donald Trump to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.

And, as if on cue, one day before Netanyahu’s visit, Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley explained US concerns as the negotiating track intensifies.

“This is very much about a political solution now … and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out. We’ve got to make sure that, as we move forward, we’re securing the borders for our allies as well.”

Netanyahu’s efforts to win unambiguous Russian guarantees to limit Iran and its proxies are bound to be disappointed.

Israel has no interest in paying the price for any diplomatic outcome to the war, particularly one that acknowledges an Iranian or Hezbollah role anywhere in Syria, let alone along the disputed Golan frontier.

As the endgame unfolds, Netanyahu expects the Russians to continue to keep Israel’s enemies on a short leash.

Russian-Israel opposition to destabilising the southern front has proved itself. But it is also the case that Hezbollah and the Iranians get a vote in determining the shape of postwar Syria.

The Golan frontier

The Golan frontier has always loomed largein their considerations.

Israel, however, has effectively pre-empted a number of attempts in recent years to create a military infrastructure in the region.

Hezbollah considers all of Israel to be within its range, with or without a Golan front in Syria.

Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah has warned that the nuclear power facility at Dimona and chemical installation in Haifa are within reach of his arsenal.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah sees particular value in extending the “resistance front” east of Shebaa to the Jordanian border – both as a deterrent and as a platform for confronting Israel in the next war.

Iran, too, has a demonstrated interest in, at the very least, testing Israel’s opposition to the deployment of hostile forces allied to Teheran along the border.

Within days of the Netanyahu-Moscow summit, Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary with operational links with Hezbollah and Iran, announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade“.

The group was one of the first Iraqi paramilitaries to send fighters in 2013 to Syria at Iran’s direction. They have been deployed principally in the Aleppo region.

OPINION: Russia’s knockout game in Syria

The announcement is yet another signal that Iran and its allies are increasingly focused on confronting the opposition in the south, but only as the first of a two-stage effort to expand the “line of confrontation” with Israel east from Shebaa to the Yarmouk river.

Damascus lacks the power to prevent this. Iran, for its part, has yet to test the limits of Russia’s opposition, or to commit itself to such a policy.

A balancing act

Russia has forged strong operational ties with Hezbollah and Iran but this does not extend to its endorsement of a militant regional strategy against Israel, in the Golan or elsewhere.

Neither Moscow, nor Damascus for that matter, is interested in empowering its wartime allies to create a military infrastructure on the Golan with the capacity to independently engage Syria, or Russia, in a war against Israel.

OPINION: Israel, Golan Heights and the Syrian endgame

Nevertheless Netanyahu’s efforts to win unambiguous Russian guarantees to limit Iran and its proxies are bound to be disappointed.

As the Syrian war winds down, Russia is increasingly expanding its role as an arbiter among and between enemies and erstwhile allies, a role that offers a compelling rationale for its continuing influence in Syria.

Playing this role will exact a price, however. If until now Putin has been able to contain the contradictions of a policy that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies, in the next phase of the battle this balancing act may not be so easy.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


UN official resigns over Israel apartheid report

ESCWA leader Rima Khalaf says she resigns after UN leaders forced her to withdraw a report accusing Israel of apartheid.

UN Under-Secretary General and ESCWA Executive Secretary Rima Khalaf said she was asked to withdraw a report accusing Israel of imposing an apartheid regime on Palestinians [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

The head of the United Nations’ West Asia commission, Rima Khalaf, has resigned over what she described as the pressure to withdraw a report that was critical of Israel.

The report accused Israel of imposing an apartheid regime on Palestinians. Lebanon-based Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which comprises 18 Arab states, published the report on Wednesday and said it was the first time a UN body had clearly made the charge.

READ MORE: UN report – Israel has established an ‘apartheid regime’

“It was expected that Israel and its allies will exercise pressure on the UN secretary-general to distance himself from the report and that they will ask him to withdraw it,” Khalaf said at a press conference in Beirut on Friday.

Who is Rima Khalaf?
Rima Khalaf, a national of Jordan, was appointed as undersecretary-general of the UN and Executive Secretary of the ESCWA by the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010.
Before her UN role Khalaf held several high-ranking ministerial positions in Jordan, including minister of industry and Trade, minister of planning and deputy prime minister.
Khalaf also held the position of assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS) at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) from 2000 to 2006.
She was the founder of the award-winning Arab Human Development Report.
Khalaf holds a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut and a Master’s in Economics and a PhD in System Science from Portland State University in the US.

“The secretary-general issued his orders to me yesterday morning to withdraw the report. I asked him to review his position, but he insisted,” she said. “Therefore, I submitted to him my resignation from the UN.”

Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Beirut, said that Khalaf clearly stated that she was still standing by the report, which in very explicit terms accused Israel of pursuing apartheid policies in the Palestinian territories.

“The Israeli government was very critical of the report even describing it as ‘Nazi Propaganda’ and one would imagine that they made it very clear to the UN leadership that that is how they saw it,” the Al Jazeera correspondent said.

“So, one would also imagine that is perhaps why the UN secretary-general is demanding this report to be withdrawn from ESCWA website.”

At the time of the publication, the report titled “Israeli Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid” was not on the website of the UN agency, with the link for the report now directing to a web page that consists ESCWA’s prior publications.

A UN spokesman on Friday claimed the issue with Khalaf was not the content of the report but as a result of her failure to follow the necessary procedure before the publication.

“This is not about content, this is about process,” said UN chief Antonio Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

OPINION: Israel is an apartheid state (no poll required)

“The secretary-general cannot accept that an undersecretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorise the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself,” he told reporters.

Al Jazeera’s Tyab said it was “highly unlikely” that the UN leadership was unaware of the report’s existence or the language inside it before its publication.

“The curious thing here is that Al Jazeera and many other news organisations had been aware of this report for several days now,” he said.

“In fact, most news organisations were invited to the press conference that was held around 24 hours ago where this report was released and members of the media were also given an embargoed advance look at this report.

“So it is very curious that the UN is now saying that the official procedures hadn’t been followed, that they were not aware of the language inside the report, when even many in the media were aware of its publication and its contents.

“This feels like yet another chapter in the very strained and complicated relationship the UN has with Israel.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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