Issue 219: 2017 11 16: Pre-school brain-training (Lynda Goetz)

16 November 2017

Pre-School Brain-Training

Brits need to look at other countries.

By Lynda Goetz

When it comes to education, we in Britain tend to think (as indeed we do in many other areas) that we are leading the rest of the world.  Sadly, when it actually comes down to it, there are many other countries from which we could be taking some lessons.  Our overriding preoccupation appears to be with attainment and initially with the three Rs.  Our belief that the earlier we start teaching these, the better the likely outcome, not only flies in the face of the facts, but almost certainly contributes to the stress of our children.  In an international survey conducted last year by the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, British children came very near the bottom (13th out of 16) in a table rating the happiness of eight, ten and twelve year-old schoolchildren.  Astonishingly perhaps to those of us who remember the days of horror stories from Romanian orphanages, Romania tops the list for children’s well-being.

In spite of a number of reports over the last few decades highlighting the benefits of pre-school being dedicated to aural learning and play, the increasing tendency in this country has been to subject nursery age children to the rigours of learning their letters and numbers and how to read and write; literacy and numeracy in other words.  This has the effect of prolonging a process which in many other countries does not start until much later and which thus lasts for a much shorter duration.

As some may be aware, many of the Scandinavian countries do not start formal schooling until seven.  In this country it now starts at four.  In Finland, ranked last year as the world’s most literate nation and at the top of Europe’s comprehensive school rankings for the last 16 years, they believe that “children under seven are not ready to start school.  They need time to play and be physically active.  It’s a time for creativity”.  These were the words of Tiina Marjomieni, head of the Franzenia Daycare Centre in Helsinki, spoken to Guardian journalist Patrick Butler when he visited the centre last year for an article on Finnish Pre-school Education.  The main focus of Finnish pre-school education is absolutely not formal learning, but the promotion of the well-being of the children and the introduction to ‘the joy of learning’ through both free-play and teacher-directed play.  This has been shown to have greater long-term benefits for disadvantaged as well as privileged children.

David Whitebread, director of The Centre for Research on Play in Development, Education and Learning at Cambridge University, is a great supporter of this approach to pre-school education and believes that play at this stage in development can engage children in the process of learning.  He was one of the 130 signatories to a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 11th September 2013, which argued that the UK should consider this approach and concluded that ‘in the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take the (supporting) evidence seriously’.  David Whitebread is part of the Too Much, Too Soon Campaign, which since that launch in 2013 has tried (without it has to be said much success) to move the UK government away from the current emphasis on pre-school literacy and numeracy in favour of creative and expressive play.

On 4th November a Telegraph article reported that two young Afghanistan war veterans, Oliver Holcroft and Rufus Gordon-Deane, believe they have perfected the way to ‘unlock a child’s genius’.  Put that way, it apparently appeals to the celebrities and ‘tiger’ mums of Chelsea and Notting Hill, who have been signing up to the pair’s pre-school classes (Tarka London) in droves.  The Telegraph would appear to be somewhat late in writing about the winning formula employed by Tarka, as Sophia Money-Coutts was drooling about the ‘handsome’ pair in Tatler way back in January and they have been going since 2015. However, what they are peddling is effectively exercise for pre-school kids.  Why?  Because most kids these days (privileged or otherwise) do not get enough of it and it is exercise and play (not the ability to read at three) that is crucial to children’s development, as the Scandinavians have long since shown.

The founders of Tarka (what a great name) acknowledge the debt they owe to the Scandinavian approach to pre-school education, and their web-site contains facts and figures to back up their claim of providing ‘structured exercise to promote cerebral development’.  In a page on the University of Cambridge website School starting age: the evidence David Whitebread sets out a review of the research evidence, which alongside other studies and the Scandinavian success stories, really does appear to provide all the support one might want or need to shift the emphasis in our nurseries and early school years.  In spite of this, campaigners still have a fight on their hands to get ministers to abandon Baseline Assessment for 4 year-olds (Better without Baseline).  The pilot plan to assess children going into Reception was abandoned in April 2016, but as recently as 14 September the government in its plans for the future of primary assessment has once again included the idea of tests for 4 year-olds – opposed not only by those who believe the Scandinavian way is better and healthier, but by many of the primary school teaching staff.  As our worldwide rankings in terms of both attainment and mental and physical well-being fall lower and lower, why are we increasingly obsessed with testing children and why can those in government not listen to the experts and look around the world to see how others can, at least sometimes, do things better than we do?

 

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Issue 129: Crossword – What a Mess

16 November 2017

Crossword by Boffles

boffles crossword

What a Mess

 

To see a printable version of this crossword

 

Issue 129: Crossword – What a Mess – printable

16 November 2017

Crossword by Boffles

boffles crossword

What a Mess

Across
6 Races around in a tax-efficient aircraft according to the 19ac papers (5,8)
8 Their loans are a big problem and so is the man in charge of them (8)
9 May be a broken one? (4)
10 Sports pundit wrong-footed by the 19ac papers (7)
12 Will one ever be found for airport expansion in the SE? (1,4)
14 This border is proving a real Brexit problem (5)
16 Trump claimed his phone was by our spies (6)
19 Definition of a tax haven? (8)
21 Is it because the Government is this that we cannot find the Brexit? (13)

Down
1 Sort of saucy message some MPs like to send (4)
2 Some say PFI enables the Government to ……. the books (6)
3 Damian Green is alleged to have watched the wrong one (7)
4 How will MPs ……. themselves in the new politically correct era? (5)
5 Daisy claims she was at No. 10 (8)
7 They even have their own sleaze watchdog (5)
11 Priti met a lot of important ones during her hols (8)
13 It is like one of those corny films the way politicians do (5,2)
15 Was Michael or did he fall on his sword? (6)
17 What we lack in the unpromising creek we find ourselves in (6)
18 Some of the claims may be inspired by it (5)
20 Middle Eastern leader holding a British woman prisoner but no mullah (4)

Issue 128: 2017 11 09: Contents

09 November 2017: Issue 128

The Week’s News

A Lens On The Week

Comment

Tick The Box by John Watson

A system for the simple.

Lenin’s Remains Remain by Neil Tidmarsh

It’s not easy to bury the spirit of 1917.

May In Six Minutes by J R Thomas

Are we back with Neville Chamberlain?

The Beginning Of The End by Frank O’Nomics

Politics is impinging on central bank independence.

Sleazebusting Diary Of A Corbynista by Don Urquhart

The recess cannot come soon enough.

Features

An Advance Too Many? by Chin Chin

Chin Chin loses column.

Reviews

The Retreat (by Sam Bain)

The Park Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Letters

Letter from Mr Timothy Marshalla

Puzzles, Crossword and Calendar

Crossword by Boffles: “Plain Vanilla 26“.

Solution to the last crossword “Independence“.

Quiz by Boffles

Answers to Quiz

What’s on in November 2017 by AGGro.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 123: 05 October 2017

Issue 124: 12 October 2017

Issue 125: 19 October 2017

Issue 126: 26 October 2017

Issue 127: 02 November 2017

 

Issue 129:2017 11 16:Taxing for Mr Trump (J.R.Thomas)

16 November 2017

Taxing for Mr Trump

by J R Thomas

American Bald Eagle in front of flag looking fierce

There are not many obvious similarities between Mrs May and Mr Trump, but the two leaders can certainly find one – a wafer thin majority when it comes to getting legislation through their respective legislatures.  Mrs May retains power by virtue of her controversial deal with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party and must nervously contemplate the newspaper headlines every morning to assess how many Conservative MP’s are at her service, and how many cabinet ministers she will need to fire.  Mr Trump of course has a Republican majority in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate. Although being Republican does not necessarily mean that Representatives will support their President in all, or indeed, any, matters, in practice the President can be reasonably confident of being able to get a majority for any legislation he cares to propose in the House.  But it is a very different matter in the Senate – step forward Senator John McCain.

The Senate is of course the more senior legislative organ; unlike the House of Lords it is in Bagehotian terms both dignified and efficient – the upper and more senior house but also approving all legislation before it becomes law. Senators often have age and experience and even dignity on their side; they are also more independent and free-thinking than members of the lower house – and they can be trouble.  Currently there are fifty two Republican Senators, the Democrats having forty eight – or technically forty seven and Bernie Sanders, who is an independent once again.  As we write, three Republican senators are restricted in their participation, Senator McCain who is suffering from the side effects of cancer treatment, Rand Paul who was attacked by his neighbour while cutting his lawn at home (we throw no further light on this), and Thad Cochrane, who is recovering from an infection.

Mr Trump, in need of a legislative success, is advancing with his proposed tax change bills, far reaching and complex pieces of legislation of particular benefit to corporate America (it is interesting that lowering tax rates on corporates is not hugely controversial in the US) but with intended benefits to all tax payers, especially the lower paid.  Whilst it is supported by all Republican members of both Houses in principle, bits of the legislation are controversial.  Among the Representatives a bit of pork-barrelling will probably cope with that, but Senators are made of greater things – more and better pork might deal with some issues, but some are matters of principle where not even the finest bacon will help.  Several Senators are, for instance, implacably opposed to the proposed inheritance tax change – they think it favours the rich too much; some are opposed to amending the deductibility of home mortgage interest – not generous enough to middle income home owners.  The current tax code allows tax credits to tax payers adopting a child – the policy writers would like to dump that but the pro-life lobby is campaigning that it should remain.  Finding a way through this maze will take some doing; though the up-coming midterm elections may to some extent focus politicians’, or at least strategists’ minds.

Mr Trump needs to get this through; he has achieved no major policy victory so far and to win one for the pocket book would go down well with his core supporters.  Having nothing to point to in his first year is not a great achievement – though it has not benefitted the Democrats either.   Mr Trump is unpopular amongst the scribbling and chattering types, but his core supporters have so far remained loyal, if only on the basis that at least he is trying to do things.

The Democrats though still seem divorced from their traditional supporters; Mrs Clinton is touring the country promoting her book on the election; her party is still arguing endlessly about why they lost.  This so far is focussed not on why their core supporters did not turn out, but on marketing and polling deficiencies – which might be seen as a lightning rod when the candidate did not really cut the mustard.  Mrs Clinton remains a formidable force in the Democrats, but increasingly a group of potential candidates, who may wish to prevent her running again in 2020, is emerging.  Leader of that pack is Terry McAuliffe, the departing governor of Virginia, who was the Clintons’ principal and remarkably successful fund raiser for all their runs at the Presidency.  Now Mr McAuliffe thinks it should be his turn – though there are plenty of others.  But Hillary may yet get her final chance – ambition and the historical appeal of being the first female President might yet win out, certainly if the lady has her way.

Last week saw two races for Governorships – one in Virginia which the Republicans were hoping they might win – not in natural Republican territory but polling suggested a close race – and one where they had taken the precaution of putting in place a non-Trump Republican candidate.  Maybe that was a mistake – he lost – as did a similar candidate, Kim Guadagno, in New Jersey.  New Jersey is a more serious loss – it has been run by Chris Christie (he of the bridge – he’ll always be haunted by that bridge) a popular Republican, Presidential hopeful, supporter of Donald, who has reached the statutory limit on holding his office.  Mrs Guadagno was his deputy and seemed a natural successor, but not to the voters, who went for the Democrat Phil Murphy by a 12% margin.

Mr Trump is on his big tour of the Far East and has not said much about these two setbacks for the Republicans, though it seems quite possible that they may not be upsetting him too much.  In any case, governorships do not much matter – a contest for a Senate seat would be a very different thing.

The media are making much of the ongoing enquiry by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign’s possible, or alleged if you prefer, connections to Russian money and Mr Putin.  Mr Mueller now has his first scalp, that of Paul Manafort, one of the President’s campaign advisors, together with his business partner Rick Gates.  They have been charged (similarities to Al Capone may be noted but we are not commenting) with tax evasion and non-filing offences relating to earnings from assisting a political campaign in the Ukraine.  Mr Mueller says there’s a lot more, and various persons are being interviewed, but what the more is, Mr Mueller is keeping to himself.

But note that so far none of this comes anywhere near Mr Trump; and even if the Russians were working with, or as has been suggested, blackmailing, Mr Manafort (both fiercely denied), that does not implicate the President in anything.  Mr Trump seems a bit bothered by some of this, or so says the gossip ring in the White House – but because it is weakening his political clout in the tax bill, not because he is worried about Mr Mueller arriving in the West Wing with a set of cuffs.

This won’t do for the press though, who would like a good story.  Possibly they may yet get one – George Papadopolous, another of the vast number of “special advisors” who climbed aboard the Trump campaign bandwagon as it started to gather speed has admitted that he lied to FBI agents about his attempts to find dirt on Mrs Clinton and her campaign.  Could this be the smoking gun?   Could it lead to the President, or at least to the Presidential family?  Mr Trump does not seem too bothered by this one either; but maybe he is good at being cool under pressure.

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Issue 129:2017 11 16:Diary of a Corbynista (Don Urquhart)

16 November 2017

Diary of a Corbynista

Cabinet Purge:Priti off a cliff, Boris running out of road

by Don Urquhart

Mug shot of Don Urquhart8 November

Priti Patel hasn’t resigned yet.  The bookies reckon before 11.00 this morning.  Apparently she had meetings with Israeli politicians in September as well as her well chewed over holiday in August.  The affair has introduced us to Lord Polak, the Chairman of the lobbying company TWC Associates.  He set up Priti Patel’s 12 meetings.  In the foothills of this issue people are rattling on about a cabinet code of conduct, while history will say that a cabinet minister went on a trip funded by a lobbying company and lied about it through her teeth.

9 November

Who knew what when?  Now Tom Watson weighs in with the suggestion that Priti Patel met with FCO officials in Jerusalem during her holiday.  This need not be at variance with her claim to have informed the FCO during her “holiday”.   Most likely some local embassy person turned up at her hotel to ask “Oi! What’s going on?”  It’s still hardly conceivable that she should behave so recklessly without consulting May or Johnson.  Or did she?  Lord Polak is a major donor to the Tory Party so could it have been official party policy to give him back something for his money?

10 November

Less than half of state secondary schools offer the opportunity to take Computer Science GCSE.  The most obvious reason for this is a shortage of qualified teachers but why should this be the case?  Is it so difficult to work out how many of each type of teacher we need, then put in place a programme to deliver them?  All that the Department of Education can offer is some feeble gestures and aspirations.  Almost certainly this is an area where the Treasury feels the government can get away with cuts.  Either that or successive education ministers have been asleep at the wheel.

11 November

We have short memories.  Trump and Putin met at the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vietnam.  They agreed something about Syria but we don’t know what precisely.  The body language of the photos has the two men at ease with each other and it could just be that they have agreed to work together to clear IS out and to bring peace to Syria.  With Trump you never know what the next tweet will bring but the sight of Russian and American leaders being friendly is surely not a bad thing.

12 November

Michel Barnier is demanding something within two weeks.  Is it a number or an agreement to a process arriving at a number?  Suddenly the Irish question appears intractable with the EU proposing absorption of Northern Ireland into the Single Market and Customs Union.   Michel must be wondering who he should be talking to with Boris and Gove apparently plotting May’s demise, 40 Tory MP’s keen for her to go, and her cabinet colleagues disappearing with the regularity of  X Factor or Strictly contestants missing the cut.  Were it House of Cards you would discard it as implausible.  It is surely just a matter of time before the PM jumps out of the shadows to push a nosy journalist under a tube train.

13 November

Today Theresa May and some of her ministers are meeting with British and European business leaders.  You have to wonder what they are going to discuss that shouldn’t have been put to bed months ago.  Is she going to tell them something new, assure them of Britain’s continuing something or other?  Why would they take any notice of the weakest British Prime Minister since Chamberlain?  How likely is it that she will be there to deliver on any commitments she makes?

14 November

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian housewife who has been sentenced to 5 years in prison in Iran for spying while on a visit to the country.  She has denied this, maintaining that she was in Iran for a holiday and to meet family.  At a Commons Select Committee, Boris Johnson said that she had been in Iran training journalists.  The Iranians took this as confirmation of her criminality and he tried the “I was misinterpreted” line then, when that cut no ice repeatedly, asserted that she had been in Iran on holiday.  Last week he said he would be going to Iran in a couple of weeks, yesterday he said he would go by the end of the year.  At the Guildhall Theresa May had him visiting Moscow to reinforce her new hard line with Russia.  Is it advisable to load him up with any other jobs when his career is defined by whether or not he can arrange the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

 

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Issue 129: 2017 11 16: The Tesco Advertisement (John Watson)

16 November 2017

The Tesco Advertisement

What are immigrants invited to join?

By John Watson

It is all rather surprising.  When I heard that Tesco were being attacked on Twitter over the inclusion of Muslim families in their Christmas advertisement, I not unnaturally supposed that it was the work of Islamic fundamentalists.  Some North London ayatollahs, perhaps, long bearded, clad in white robes and furious at the apostasy suggested by their flock’s participation in the great Christian festival, or at least in the excessive materialism which now pollutes it.

As readers will know by now, that wasn’t the case at all.  The objections came from Christian parts of the community, angry that their Muslim neighbours should be allowed to participate in an important part of our lives.  It is an odd approach, when you think about it.  For one thing the celebration of Christmas has not been restricted to believers in the Gospels for many a long year.  A huge majority of the population celebrates Christmas and yet only a small number go to church.  Should atheists and agnostics be barred from the celebration as well?  They are not Christians either.

The truth is of course that Christmas has long had a dual nature.  For the practising Christian it is a hugely important religious festival, commemorating the start of the most important life in human history. For others it is merely a tradition, an occasion to celebrate family and friends which, although rooted in religion, has become a part of the secular culture.  What possible reason could there be for objecting to the participation of Muslim families, even devout Islamic families, from this part of our national life?

This column often lays stress on the nature of the invitation which Britain extends to its immigrants.  It is not an invitation to colonise parts of our cities and to live apart from us there.  It is to share in the life we lead, with our values, our traditions and our culture.  Of course they will have their own religion.  We have no desire to “open windows into men’s souls” any more than did Elizabeth I, nor to start telling them or anyone else what they should or should not believe.  Nonetheless, the long term aim must be to increase social integration, and those who sneer at Tesco’s advertisement should reflect on how well their attitudes fit in with that.

Many people find the secularisation of Christmas (and the focus on consumption which it has brought in its wake) offensive, either on religious grounds or because of the emphasis on greed, laziness, couch potatoism and indulgence.  Still, like it or not it has become an institution – part of the way in which many of us live – and it is hard to see why immigrants should be excluded from it any more than they are barred from watching football matches or going to parties.  If they are not to be barred, why should Tesco not include them in its advertisements?

One cannot help but think that there is a catch twenty-two at the bottom of all this.  If you are an immigrant who does not participate in British life, you are criticised for trying to set up some sort of ghetto on British soil.  If you do participate then you are indulging in a form of cultural appropriation, linking into a culture where you do not belong.  Either way, one set or another of tweeters will be after you and the likelihood is that the two sets of tweeters comprise exactly the same rather nasty sneering people.

Perhaps we should end by going back a couple of millennia to the days when Christ did indeed walk the stony pathways of Palestine.  It is way beyond the remit of this column to explain who he was or what he was there to do.  One point does, however, stand out from the second chapter of Luke.  He was “a light to lighten the Gentiles”, carrying his message beyond those of Jewish blood and out into the wider world. His teachings were for all, whatever their religion.  It would be odd indeed to start excluding people from the celebration of his birth, however secularised, merely because they came from the wrong racial group.

 

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Issue 129: 2017 11 16: Sexing Up Paradise (Chin Chin)

16 November 2017

Sexing Up Paradise

An exclusive exposé.

By Chin Chin

It’s a Brave New World and a cold one.  Demoted from weekly to occasional columnist by the editors of the Shaw Sheet, how on earth am I going to get my articles accepted?  Something spectacular is needed.  Rebranding, yes, that’s the thing.  I’ll reinvent myself, focus on an area which will make me an invaluable asset of the magazine.  What is it to be?  War correspondent? – Too risky.  Food & Drink? – My waistline will not allow.  Theatre and film? – Full of North London types talking about themselves.  I know!  I’ll be an investigative reporter!  Slouch hat, dirty raincoat, all the doings.  After all, is there a better time to enter investigative journalism than following the release of more of those Paradise papers?

I’ve seen it done on Panorama and it doesn’t look too difficult. You walk around with an enquiring and mildly shocked expression, like a slightly goofy oyster which has just been opened.  Then you stick a microphone up someone’s nose as they get into their car and leap out of the way as they roar off.  Another dose of the oyster expression, a couple of breathless references to “offshore” and the case is made, even though no one understands quite what it is.

Okay, Panorama is different.  The Shaw Sheet is in print so, unless they include a good photo, nobody will actually see me.  What a waste of my oyster impression.  Still, there is no harm in practising it in the mirror to get in the mood.  Let’s get the breathing right: in, out, in, and then “offshore”.

To be a successful investigative reporter you have to reveal something sensational.  What is it going to be?  There’s not much point in investigating American companies.  There any rolling up of profits offshore would be between them and the US Revenue, hardly of interest to British readers.  Then there are structures set up by media stars to avoid tax on their earnings.  Not much surprising there and anyway there are far juicier stories about the media going the rounds at the moment.  No, I need a story which strikes at the very fabric of society.  Tell you what, I’ll write about the offshore investments of the Duchy of Lancaster, a portfolio of assets run by the great and good on behalf of the Queen.  We know there is something fishy there.  After all Frank Field, Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons (a double brainer by any measure), has called for the board controlling the investments to be replaced.

Right, here is the plan.  Find out where the Duchy of Lancaster invests its money and turn up on the doorstep.  Stick a microphone in someone’s face and jump out of the path of their car.  Then make the oyster face.  Get a friend to take a couple of photographs and Bob’s your uncle.  Facebook, fame and fortune in that order.

The difficult question, of course, is just where to do the doorstepping, but luckily last week’s Times comes to the rescue.  The Dutchy invested in the Dover Street VI Cayman Fund LP.  Right, pack the swimsuit and off we go.  Hold on a minute, I had better get the address.  Yes, here it is on Google.  It seems that the fund is run from, er… Boston, Massachusetts.

Oh dear, that isn’t what I’d hoped for at all, so let’s try another one, the Jubilee Absolute Return Fund.  According to Google its address is in Guernsey, not the sun-drenched Cayman Islands I grant you, but tax haven enough for me to write “offshore” in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of way.  Now what is this fund?  Some sort of tax avoidance vehicle, I hope, or at the very least a way of hiding assets kept available for the bribing of foreign officials?  Oops no, it’s rather a respectable hedge fund, and the running of hedge funds offshore is well recognised as legit by the Treasury.  So much so indeed that parliament has enacted special rules to allow the investments of foreign hedge funds to be managed from the UK.  Worse still, any profits made by investors will be taxed in full under our offshore funds regime.  Not much scandal about that one then.

It was at this point that a horrid thought struck me.  Suppose that all of the Duchy’s overseas investments were in perfectly respectable funds that didn’t give investors any tax advantage?  What would happen to my story?  How could I launch my new career as an investigative reporter?

Luckily there is one big thing on my side.  The tax laws are too complicated for most people to understand and there clearly is lots of naughty avoidance offshore by big corporations, media stars and the like.  If I mixed the topics up a bit and used the word “offshore” in the right way, I should be able to smear the Duchy’s investments quite successfully.  What did you say?  Not quite respectable to mislead the public?  Well, that’s an out-of-date attitude if you like.  Both sides did it royally in the lead up to the Brexit referendum.  It’s perfectly usual nowadays.

 

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Issue 129:2017 11 16:A New Peace Plan For Palestine And Israel(Neil Tidmarsh)

16 November 2017

A New Peace Initiative For Palestine And Israel

Surprisingly viable, surprisingly ominous.

By Neil Tidmarsh

So the White House is preparing a plan for peace between Israel and Palestine.  That’s a good thing, isn’t it, whatever we might think about the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC?  But it’s bound to fail, isn’t it, like all those other Israel/Palestine peace plans?

The answer to both questions is a surprising “Not necessarily…”

To take the second question first.  Two recent developments in the Middle East suggest that this may well be a propitious time for such a plan.  In Palestinian politics, the moderate and secular Fatah appears to be eclipsing the more extreme Hamas.  And the Arab Quartet states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – presently share a number of pressing concerns with Israel, enough perhaps for them to make common cause with their traditional enemy, accept its right to exist, and use their influence to encourage Palestine to come to an agreement with it.

Ten years ago, the militant Islamist movement Hamas (dedicated to the fight against Israel) seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah, its rival Palestinian faction.  Fatah continued to govern the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but Palestinian leadership was fractured, making any kind of diplomatic initiative impossible.  Last month, however, talks hosted by Egypt resulted in the two factions signing a reconciliation deal; Hamas now agrees to share power in Gaza with Fatah, with elections for a united Palestinian government next year.  In reality this is a defeat for Hamas, a recognition that they have failed in Gaza and that Fatah now has the upper hand.  Hamas exists to fight Israel; but a united Palestinian government led by the moderate and secular Fatah would be willing and able to engage in peace negotiations and might even be capable of making a weakened Hamas put down its weapons.  The fact that Israel co-operated with Fatah to force Hamas into those talks in Egypt (by reducing water and energy supplies to Gaza) is an encouraging sign.

Israel faces two enemies, both avowedly dedicated to its destruction.  The first is a general one – militant Islamist jihad.  The second is a specific one – the state of Iran, and its sponsorship of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.  But both of these are threats to the Arab Quartet states as well.  The authorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are just as concerned as Israel about the threat which militant Islamist jihad poses to their established order.  And, being Sunni states, they are also threatened by the Shia state of Iran and the Shia terror militants of Hezbollah; they are deeply concerned about the expansion of Iranian influence across the region following the defeat of Isis in Iraq and Syria and the success of Assad’s Iranian-backed forces against Syrian rebels.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are emerging as hostile, competing super-states in the region; they are already engaged against each other via proxies in the civil wars in Yemen and Syria.

So it would suit the Arab Quartet and Israel to make common cause with each other against militant Islamists and against Iran.  But one thing stands in their way: the festering Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  The Arab states can’t be seen to be abandoning the Palestinian cause for the sake of a realpolitic alliance with Israel.  Saudi Arabia, however, is already making efforts to sweep that obstacle aside.  Last week, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Riyadh and, according to Israeli reports, was given an ultimatum by the Crown Prince: accept the proposals for the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal which is forthcoming from Washington, or resign.

Riyadh’s apparent hope that an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal will clear the way for co-operation between the Arab states and Israel against Iran appears to be a tactic in Saudi Arabia’s strategy to overcome its rival Iran by building a grand alliance against it.  The strategy involves other tactics; Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies sent Qatar to Coventry earlier this year for its alleged pro-Iran tendencies, and now it seems that they are trying to do the same to Lebanon; this week the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation, saying that the pro-Iran Hezbollah (the Tehran-sponsored Shia militia and terror group with which his own pro-Saudi faction shares power) is trying to take over the country.  Mr Hariri made his announcement in Saudi Arabia and has not yet returned to the Lebanon, fuelling suspicions that his hand was forced by Riyadh and that he is being held there against his will.

And this brings us back to that first question – “an Israel/Palestine peace plan is a good thing, isn’t it?” and its surprising answer – “Not necessarily…”

Peace is always a good strategy.  But as a mere tactic in an aggressive strategy designed to give you the upper hand in another, greater conflict, peace is a rather more questionable entity altogether.  A just deal which brought peace and satisfaction to the long-suffering Palestinians and to the embattled state of Israel would be wonderful; if it also helped to contain Iranian aggression in the region and reduce Hezbollah terror, then so much the better; but if it emboldened and empowered Iran’s enemies so that they felt capable of taking on the Shia state in a final confrontation for supremacy in the region…  The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, though long-running and tragic enough in itself, would seem like a mere side-show if the apocalyptic nightmare of a war between a Saudi/Israeli alliance and Iran ever became a reality.

 

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