The State of the Israeli-Gaza Conflict

Gaza is militarily isolated, and the rhetorical support it used to get from the Arab world is no longer a given.

By: George Friedman

The origins of the modern Arab-Israeli conflict are pretty well known. 

Gaza, the narrow strip of land running to the Sinai Peninsula, was originally part of the Palestinian mandate, a British-administered area. 

After the establishment of Israel, a war broke out with neighboring Arab countries. Egypt mounted an assault into the Negev Desert that was defeated by the Israelis, save for the thrust up the coast toward Tel Aviv. 

This was ultimately blocked by Israel, but the Egyptians were not routed. 

That became Gaza.

Gaza became a rallying cry for Arabs in the Middle East, who, along with the Soviet Union, supported the Palestinian cause. 

But after the Soviet Union fell, Moscow lost interest, and support for the Palestinian cause declined as Gaza became a unique Palestinian entity, holding and administering a Palestinian territory.

Today, Gaza is a heavily populated and extremely poor area. 

It is dominated by two political factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that work together. 

From Gaza’s point of view, it is the last organized, territorial resistance to Israel.

It does not have a conventional military capable of engaging Israeli troops on the ground, but it does have facilities for storing lots of short-range rockets able to strike a limited area around its borders. 

It also has a number of longer-range missiles able to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. 

These missiles, along with the know-how to make rockets, were provided by Iran. 

As Arab support for the Palestinians declined, Iran filled the void. 

Relatedly, Iran controls a large number of rockets and missiles in Syria, as well as a very large establishment in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon – all of which constitutes part of Iran’s arc of influence into the Mediterranean.

Israel is engaged in a battle to eliminate the Iranian threat in Syria but has not tried to eliminate the threat in Lebanon; the size and distance and possible retaliatory force poses too much of a challenge. 

It has also refused to act decisively against Gaza, which should not be regarded simply as an Iranian puppet but as an independent actor.

And so, Iran aside, Israel is concerned about Gaza for two reasons. 

The first is the possibility of it waging an extended missile campaign against Israel’s heartland: the triangle of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. 

Second, it is concerned about guerrilla attacks potentially launched from Gaza. 

Israel therefore periodically launches attacks against Gaza that are meant to disrupt its military capabilities rather than to occupy the strip itself.

Gaza, the final redoubt of the Palestinians, is concerned primarily with survival. 

Only then can it force Israel to reach some sort of accommodation with the Palestinians and with Hamas. 

One way to force Israel into accommodation is to pose a significant threat. 

Hence the missiles. 

This creates a political-military conundrum for Gaza. 

It must survive, but merely surviving does not give it any kind of leverage.

Israel has no interest in accommodating Gaza, since accommodation would leave Gaza capable of acquiring missiles and thus threaten Israel's heartland. 

Israel is therefore content with the status quo, but if it had its druthers, it would prefer to occupy Gaza and disperse its citizens.

Undertaking such a broad attack is a military challenge. 

From the standpoint of an armored/infantry operation, Gaza is not small. 

It is extremely urban and densely packed. 

Enemy forces can be widely placed in buildings and, being familiar with the area, can engage, withdraw and redeploy relatively easily. 

Gazans have sophisticated anti-tank weapons, putting tanks and armored personnel at risk, along with the infantry. 

All the while, Gazans may elect to fire missiles at the Israeli heartland. 

While Israel would likely defeat the Gazans, the price could be far greater than Israel is willing to pay. 

Therefore, Gazans tend to attack with relatively short-range rockets, and Israel with rockets launched from aircraft, coupled with small-scale special operations targeted at specific targets – leadership, weapons, factories – with fast entrance and exit by the troops.

There’s a notable difference in this week’s fighting. 

Normally, other Arab countries issue hostile statements against Israel, but so far they have been relatively quiet. 

To the contrary, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. condemned Gaza’s missile barrage against Israeli citizens. 

Elsewhere, a well-known preacher in the United Arab Emirates named Waseem Yousef tweeted outright support of Israel’s actions. 

Plenty in the Arab world took issue with both statements, of course, but the fact that they were allowed to be made by their respective governments indicates a significant shift in Arab sentiment toward events in Gaza.

At the moment, Gaza is militarily isolated, and the rhetorical support it used to get from the Arab world is no longer a given. 

This creates psychological questions, and psychology is essential to warfare. 

The Israelis are threatening to destroy Gaza’s leadership and to change the reality of Gaza. Ultimately, this requires occupation to work. 

The Israeli response must appear disproportionate, and the lack of automatic support disheartening. 

It did not expect, I think, that the Abraham Accords would somehow lead to a break in the pro forma gestures of support. 

Israel's threatening to launch a major ground offensive is likely forcing Arab governments to reassess their positions.

If the psychological shock doesn’t change the military approach, then nothing changes. 

Gazans have nowhere to go. 

Israel is afraid of settlement that leaves Gaza autonomous, and Gaza still has support from Iran, which is itself under pressure. 

The Israelis are casualty adverse, and urban fighting generates casualties. 

An extended air attack with the most precise missiles available will still yield massive civilian casualties. 

Gaza is worth some bad press to Israel, but not that much.

As the conflict evolves, there are two things to watch for: missiles targeting Tel Aviv, and Israeli infantry and armor penetrating into Gaza. 

Protecting Tel Aviv gives Israel, with more military capability, more urgency. 

Hamas knows as much.

 Xi Jinping’s Achilles Heel

China’s birth dearth is becoming more acute as its population ages.

By The Editorial Board

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech via video for the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in Beijing, April 20. / PHOTO: JU PENG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his ambition to make China the dominant global power of the 21st century. 

But the latest Chinese census reveals a major vulnerability: What if the Middle Kingdom doesn’t have enough young people?

After some delay China finally released its census results Tuesday. Though the population grew a little last year—to 1.412 billion in 2020 from 1.4 billion—the more salient fact is that its population continues to gray as Chinese women are having fewer babies. 

The proportion of people 60 or older increased to 18.7% of the population (from 13.3% in 2010), even as it recorded the lowest number of annual births (12 million) since 1961.

Beijing has seen this coming. In 2016 Chinese couples were allowed to have two children instead of one, reversing a policy in place for 35 years. 

Last month the People’s Bank of China recommended the government abandon its population control policies if it hopes to compete with America, but even that may be too late. 

Once fertility falls, the trend is hard to reverse no matter what incentives governments offer.

Many governments have tried, and some believe that Poland or Hungary (which now spends nearly 5% of its GDP to encourage its citizens to have more children) may have the answer. 

But generally these policies have either failed outright, or shown at best modest fertility gains.

The social and economic implications are enormous, involving everything from the dynamics of the Chinese family to the growing demands on China’s already stressed and underfunded health and pension programs. 

In March the government announced it will gradually raise the retirement age from 60 today, no doubt in expectation of these results. 

The retirement costs would be difficult in any country, but China hasn’t achieved broad prosperity beyond its coast and major cities.

Other nations also face graying populations and a declining total fertility rate, which is the average number of children per woman. 

The Japanese, Singaporeans and South Koreans are wealthier than the Chinese but have, respectively, total fertility rates of 1.36, 1.1 and 0.9. 

Europe’s overall is 1.522. 

The U.S. rate is 1.7, while China’s is 1.3.

The trend confirms that Beijing’s often brutal family planning interventions have left China with a demographic time bomb. 

We should also acknowledge that the ruling Communists were often encouraged by Westerners in the 1960s and 1970s who feared the world would soon be overpopulated.

Now the demographic bill is coming due. Mr. Xi may believe the U.S. is in decline. 

But he may learn that the greatest obstacle to his ambition to replace the U.S. as global leader doesn’t come from abroad. 

It is the aging Chinese population that is a legacy of his Communist Party predecessors.

Algeria and Morocco: Caught in a Losing Battle Over Regional Dominance

Both countries are fixated on each other, despite having more pressing issues to deal with.

By: Hilal Khashan

For more than a decade, Algeria and Morocco have been locked in a costly arms race. 

Their shared border has been closed since 1994, a consequence of tensions over an unresolved border dispute and the conflict over Western Sahara. 

They are long-standing rivals in the competition over leadership of North Africa, though neither is currently in a position to eclipse the other.

Origins of the Problem

The border dispute between the two countries goes back to France’s occupation of Algeria in 1830. 

Responding to Morocco’s support of rebellions against the occupation, France defeated the Moroccan army in the Battle of Isly in 1844. 

A year later, France coerced Morocco into signing the Lalla Maghnia Treaty, which led to France’s annexation of parts of the Moroccan border to its Algerian territories. 

The French deliberately did not demarcate swathes of desert land, claiming they were barren and uninhabited. In 1950, France annexed them to Algeria after discovering iron and manganese in Tindouf and Bechar. 

In 1957, France offered to return them to Morocco, if Rabat agreed to form a joint administration to exploit the newly discovered minerals. 

But Morocco’s King Mohammed V refused, preferring instead to wait until Algeria’s independence to negotiate their future. 

In 1961, Morocco signed an agreement with Algeria’s provisional government, which wanted to start talks to settle the land dispute as soon as Algeria won independence. 

When that happened, in 1962, King Mohammed V visited Algiers and met with Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, who emphasized his commitment to his country’s territorial integrity, which had already cost the Algerian people more than 1 million lives. 

Rabat responded by presenting a map of “Greater Morocco,” which included Western Sahara, Mauritania, parts of Mali and a quarter of Algeria. 

Algeria’s refusal to negotiate the border situation created an enduring atmosphere of distrust and hostility. 

The two countries fought to a stalemate in the 1963 Sand War, which left relations between them fractured to this day.

Costly Arms Race

For both Algeria and Morocco, military spending has taken precedence over economic development. 

Morocco’s military is among Africa’s best-equipped and most competent. 

In 2009, the country spent $2.3 billion on deals to purchase U.S.-made F-16 jets, trainer jets and attack helicopters, and to modernize its M1 Abrams main battle tank inventory. 

Several years ago, Morocco commissioned Harris Corp. to equip its F-16s with electronic warfare systems. 

In 2013, Francois Hollande, France's president at the time, signed a secret deal with King Mohammad VI to supply Morocco with two advanced Earth observation satellites for $670 million. 

Morocco also acquired from France Caesar 135 mm howitzers and MICA surface-to-air missiles. 

The deal prompted Algeria to improve its targeting capabilities by gaining access to the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System.

Last year, Morocco announced a five-year plan worth $20 billion to achieve regional military supremacy. 

The plan involved rivaling Algeria’s air capabilities and developing an indigenous arms industry. 

The Moroccan army administers two huge military sectors, one in the north near the Algerian border and another in the south near Western Sahara.

But despite Rabat’s recent defense push, Algeria still outspends Morocco. 

Morocco’s military spending between 2005 and 2015 totaled $48 billion compared to Algeria’s $58 billion. 

Since 2013, Algeria has spent more than $10 billion per year on defense, a 176 percent increase over 2004, despite budget cuts in other areas due to declining hydrocarbon revenue. 

In 2009, Algeria surpassed South Africa as the continent’s largest arms importer. 

Between 2013 and 2017, it purchased more than half of Africa’s arms imports, 60 percent of which came from Russia.

Algeria has used much of its hydrocarbon revenue, especially over the past decade, to boost its military arsenal, which far exceeds its actual needs. 

Between 2010 and 2019, Algeria acquired four updated Russian Kilo-class submarines to add to its two Soviet-era submarines, upgraded in the 1990s. 

In recent years, it commissioned several frigates and corvettes for its rapidly expanding navy. 

The Algerian air force has plans to withdraw from service its old MiG-25 and Su-24 jets and replace them with Su-34 and Su-35 jets and additional Su-30s. 

It may also be interested in acquiring Russia’s state-of-the-art Su-57.

Thus, despite Morocco’s efforts to tip the military balance of power in its favor, Algeria has an overall edge against its neighbor – a fact that Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has publicly boasted about in the past. 

The government in Algiers justifies its defense spending by arguing that the country faces enormous security challenges along its 4,300-mile (7,000-kilometer) border with seven, mostly unstable, countries. 

Though some activists took issue with the increase in spending at a time of financial hardship, most Algerians accepted it, citing fears over potential spillover from Libya’s conflict, the French military campaign against militant groups in Mali and Niger, and remnants of armed gangs operating in Algeria’s mountainous eastern provinces.

No Regional Dominance

In the 1990s, Algeria defeated Islamic groups in a bloody civil war, convincing the international community that it is a trusted partner in the war against terrorism. 

Its global image as a peace-loving nation paved the way for its procurement of military hardware from many countries, including nonlethal ordnance from the United States. 

That image also prompted Morocco to present itself as a dependable regional power. 

It rejoined the African Union after boycotting it for 33 years when the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, also known as Western Sahara, was admitted as a full member. 

In 2016, Morocco provided military equipment and troops to help Niger in its fight against Boko Haram. 

Morocco now has the 13th largest contingent of U.N. peacekeeping forces.

Both Morocco and Algeria have excellent international reputations – the former adopting a staunch pro-Western position and the latter adopting an independent foreign policy with good working relations with the major powers.

But they continue to scramble for regional dominance, believing that North Africa is undergoing a period of drastic change following the Arab uprisings. 

It’s uncertain whether Morocco will be able to achieve military supremacy, given Algeria’s determination to maintain its edge, but what is certain is that their arms race reduces the possibility of future cooperation and threatens to intensify regional instability. 

Morocco hopes that the protests in Algeria – which began in 2019 after its longtime president announced his candidacy for a fifth term – will destabilize the country, helping to usher in Morocco as the region’s new leader. 

It’s unlikely, however, that the Algerian army would ever let that happen.

They are caught in a seemingly never-ending rivalry. 

Instead of identifying a new framework to resolve or let go of their differences, they seem fixated on the past. 

Indeed, despite having more pressing issues to address like health care and education, they carry their grievances against each other like a ball and chain. 

The Dark-Money Tipping Point

For years, an orchestrated campaign by powerful corporate interests has sought to rig the US judiciary in its favor. Having largely succeeded, it is now on the verge of securing constitutional protection for its signature method of corruption: dark-money influence operations.

Sheldon Whitehouse, Hank Johnson

WASHINGTON, DC – America’s courts are under siege from right-wing special interests. 

They want to rig the federal judiciary to favor large employers over workers, mega-banks over small businesses, and gun manufacturers over gun victims. 

Again and again, the political agenda pushed through the Federalist Society, a group that has done more than any other to move the federal judiciary far rightward, has become the law of the land at the expense of everyone else. 

And now, if this operation gets its way in a little-noticed case before the Supreme Court, secretive interests will cement their upper hand in US constitutional law for generations to come.

As the chairs of the Senate and House subcommittees on courts, we have closely observed the alarming encroachment of dark money on the judiciary. 

The undisclosed interests wielding that influence dictated the last three nominations to the Supreme Court, and then pressured the Senate to ram the nominees through, including by spending millions of dollars on national television and radio ad campaigns (especially for Justice Brett Kavanaugh when his nomination ran into trouble).

Having helped to install sympathetic jurists on the federal bench, a web of financially interconnected legal groups then takes turns setting up cases to land in the Supreme Court, where they file coordinated amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs in support of the outcome they are pitching. 

Resembling a strategically conducted orchestra, the amicus effort is the closing movement of a massive court-capture operation.

The key to this operation is dark money: donations that cannot be traced to a donor. 

Special interests have built a massive network of dark-money front groups to carry out every function of court capture, from selecting judicial nominees, to picking cases for them to hear, to lobbying through amicus briefs for the outcomes they desire. 

From 2014 to 2018 alone, this network received $400 million in dark money, according to recent expert testimony to the Senate.

It’s an unfortunate fact that this dark-money campaign is working. 

Even before Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the Court in the dying days of Donald Trump’s administration, the Republican majority of five had run up an 80-case streak of partisan 5-4 victories for big Republican donor interests. 

But the real payoff could come in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez, where the Court may decide that a right-wing donor elite has a constitutional right to secrecy when it uses front groups to influence politics and courts.

The parties in the case tell us much about what is at stake. 

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation is part of the constellation of dark-money front groups funded by billionaire energy mogul Charles Koch, and its Americans for Prosperity affiliate provides the political muscle for the operation. 

Still more telling is the array of “amici” who flocked to the case even before the Supreme Court agreed to hear it. 

These groups often appear in well-organized armadas before the Court, but the presence of more than 60 dark-money front groups in this case indicates that something big is afoot.

The explanation lies in Congress, where powerful corporate entities deeply involved in dark-money operations have begun openly refusing to answer questions about dark-money funding. 

In doing so, they are “pleading the First” – claiming a previously unknown First Amendment right to operate covertly in politics through dark money.

Ironically, the requirement that political spending be transparent was established by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the door wide for big money in politics. 

But the Court has made no effort to insist on adherence to its transparency requirements, and now that the Court’s political balance has lurched rightward, those requirements on paper may be shredded.

Justice Clarence Thomas was alone in opposing the disclosure requirements back in 2010. 

But three new justices have since been ushered onto the bench by dark-money forces, and Justice Samuel Alito seems likely to flip to the dark side. 

That makes a plausible majority of five for unlimited dark money. 

Certainly, whoever is behind those 60 amici thinks so.

Needless to say, the special interests that have built a massive influence machine around the federal judiciary will protect it at all costs. 

No dark money would mean no machine, and no machine would mean no influence. 

It is as simple as that. Today’s Supreme Court – the Court that dark money built – may be the one to lock in dark money for the long term.

As politicians, we are convinced that Citizens United was wrongly decided, and we are deeply disappointed that the Court never enforced its decision’s own terms. 

We have witnessed widespread obstruction and corruption in Congress as a result of these failures, and we believe these problems are factors in the public’s dissatisfaction with government.

For the Court to offer constitutional protection to dark-money schemes would make matters much worse. 

An informed citizenry is one of the few checks on power and influence in government. 

Deny citizens information about what is going on around them and in their government, and you have struck a deadly blow against democracy.

That would certainly suit the autocratic dark-money forces that worked so hard and spent so much to shape the current Supreme Court. 

Democracy is what these forces oppose. 

They want power for billionaire puppet masters operating from behind the dark-money curtain. 

We cannot let that happen.

Sheldon Whitehouse is a US Senator from Rhode Island.

Hank Johnson is a US Representative for Georgia’s fourth congressional district. 

A Red-Hot Copper Fund Could Lose Its Shine

Interest in a copper index fund spiked alongside commodity’s price. Despite metal’s bullish outlook, investors should understand what they are buying.

By Jinjoo Lee

A worker at a Russian copper refinery last year. The price for the metal has soared roughly 90% over the past 12 months./ PHOTO: ANDREY  RUDAKOV/BLOOMBERG NEWS

“Copper is the new oil” wrote Goldman Sachs in a widely-cited report. Individual investors are taking notice.

The metal’s price has soared roughly 90% over the last 12 months, with bulls pointing to robust demand from the world’s transition to green energy and speedy economic growth in China, which accounts for about half of global consumption.

Fund flows into the United States Copper Index Fund, CPER 2.32% the largest exchange-traded product for copper, soared starting in the second half of 2020 alongside the commodity’s rising price. 

The fund, with the ticker symbol CPER, was launched in 2011, but it only had $5 million to $10 million in assets under management until early last year. 

As copper prices picked up, assets ballooned to $100 million by this January and have more than doubled since then to roughly $225 million today, according to Kurt Nelson, Managing Partner at SummerHaven Investment Management, which manages the fund.

The rush comes just about a year after another commodities index fund operated by the same company—the United States Oil Fund, under the ticker symbol USO—experienced its own explosion of popularity as individual investors, hoping to take advantage of a bottoming of oil prices, piled into it. 

It aimed to track the spot price of oil by owning near-term futures contracts instead of expensive-to-store physical barrels. 

As futures prices briefly turned negative, the fund had to quickly pivot and change its benchmark to avoid the potential catastrophe that befell one Chinese fund.

Like USO, CPER owns futures. 

The longer-term problem with such funds is that they can severely lag behind the price of the commodity if longer-dated futures prices are more expensive than those expiring sooner, as has frequently been the case for oil. 

Under such a situation, known as contango, when a fund sells a soon-to-expire contract for a more distant one each month, it constantly has to pay up.

This is less-problematic in copper’s case because its futures curve is frequently backwardated. 

That describes the situation when the price of copper for near-term delivery is more expensive—the inverse of contango. 

That shape allows the fund to “roll” an expiring futures contract into a cheaper one, which adds to a fund’s returns. 

Copper futures tend to take this shape with greater frequency than oil because global copper production generally matches global demand each year, according to Mr. Nelson.

Secondly, the copper index fund is more flexible than the way the USO was originally structured. 

Instead of buying just the front-month contract for copper, the fund is able to shift positions between near-term futures and longer-dated futures. 

When the futures curve is in contango, the fund shifts to positions further out in the curve to minimize so-called negative roll yield.

The one caveat is that as copper gains popularity, it may draw in financial speculators just as oil has. 

Their presence is thought to be one reason for more frequent contango in oil, which led to a constant drag in returns for the USO. 

Ilia Bouchouev, managing partner at Pentathlon Investments, notes that this is less of a concern for copper because storage costs are much lower than for oil. 

That would prevent a situation where further-out futures contracts are substantially more expensive compared to near-term ones. 

For now, the main drag that currently comes with owning CPER is its expense ratio of roughly 0.8%, which adds up over the years, as do even short periods of contango.

Since its launch, CPER has gained about 5% even as continuous copper futures are up by more than 20%. 

USO, by contrast, has lost about 86% compared with a 39% drop for a continuously held oil futures position.

Investors looking to ride a continued short-term boom in the commodity’s price and unwilling to dabble in futures should feel free to do so through CPER. 

A long-term buy-and-hold strategy, however, could leave them owning a lump of coal instead.