Sunday, January 2, 2011

Why the Middle East is about to split the Coalition wide open

People walk past the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's old city (Photo: AFP)

  By Peter Oborne

All British governments, whether of the Right or the Left, have taken a positive view of Israel, and for all kinds of understandable and commendable reasons. There is the historical fact that Britain signed the 1917 Balfour Declaration and was the imperial power that handled the so-called Palestinian mandate after the First World War. Britain therefore played a greater role in the formation of the Israeli state than anyone else.

That responsibility lives with us today, and so does knowledge of the Holocaust, the most terrible, troubling and shocking expression of collective evil in European history. No wonder that ordinary Britons have long felt a strong fellow feeling for what they see as a plucky, independent country fighting a mortal battle for life against hostile neighbours.

In recent decades, a further factor has come into play. Successive prime ministers have resolved never to challenge the foreign policy of the United States, while the US in turn has forged an unshakeable alliance with Israel. This has made Britain, by proxy, Israel’s second closest ally.

Events in recent years, however, have made this state of affairs (which once seemed so natural) anachronistic and embarrassing. It is not just the deplorable events in Gaza, where Hamas’s leaders yesterday staged a mock attack to commemorate the second anniversary of Israel’s offensive. The fulcrum moment came just over four years ago, with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Certainly, Israel was provoked by Hizbollah’s cross-border attacks, but the response was unbalanced. Approximately 1,200 Lebanese were killed, including many women and children. One friend of mine, a very brave soldier who served in the British Army for 25 years, witnessed some of the Israeli attacks. He later told me that he had never experienced anything like the lack of concern for innocent human life displayed by the Israel troops, so much so that he now refuses to enter the country. Yet Britain, following the lead of the United States, refused to call for a ceasefire, let alone condemn Israel’s actions.

Two years ago, when Israel moved in on Gaza, the British and American response was almost as muted. And over the past few months, Israel has continued to build settlements, in naked defiance of international law, on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has chosen to turn his back on the world. As a result, the Middle East peace process is dead, and the prospect of an independent Palestinian state has vanished.

Certainly, there are grave faults on all sides, but nobody can dispute the fact that it is Netanyahu who must bear the responsibility for the Israeli decision to carry on building settlements. Meanwhile, President Obama, who alone possesses the means to put real pressure on Israel, appears paralysed. In a stunning abrogation of duty, he and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have given up the ghost and effectively left the Middle East to its own devices.

This situation creates an urgent problem for our Government. The traditional British response of aligning ourselves with the United States is, of course, still available – and has its supporters in the heart of government. But in the light of the events of the past few weeks, it has become a policy that carries moral and other costs. It means sharing complicity, alongside the United States, for the settlement building, the prison state that now prevails in Gaza, and for President Obama’s gutless abandonment of the search for peace and decency.
The Cabinet is split three ways, and it should be said that some of the most powerful ministers are with Netanyahu and the United States. George Osborne made an extraordinary speech recently at a dinner for the 250th anniversary of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Chancellor, whose speech was cleared by the Foreign Office (though not without a certain amount of “to-ing and fro‑ing”) reaffirmed the official position, which demands a halt to the settlements. But his speech was laden with pro-Israeli rhetoric; there are no signs that Osborne, any more than Obama, would support any kind of sanctions that would force the Israelis back into the international community. Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, take the same position. Indeed, Gove’s best-selling book Celsius 7/7 argues that Israel must be defended at all costs because it “is an integral part of the West, a vessel for its values, and example of its virtues and is hated not for what it does but what it is”.

Many Lib Dem ministers, however, take exactly the opposite position – fiercely critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian cause. Before the election, the party was a powerful supporter of Palestine; indeed, Nick Clegg was the only leader to speak out strongly against the invasion of Gaza. These views have not changed in office: privately, Clegg is urging Britain to ditch its recent subordination to the United States and run an independent Middle Eastern policy. He and Jeremy Browne, the lone Lib Dem Foreign Office minister, are also coming under pressure from party activists. Though this sentiment has been contained so far, it is bound to burst into the open soon.

This brings us to David Cameron and William Hague. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are not ardent Atlanticists like Osborne, Gove and Fox. Nor are they as openly pro-Palestinian as Clegg and his men. But Cameron does want to use Netanyahu’s intransigence over the settlements to open clear blue water between Britain and America. I am told that privately, he was very supportive when Hague angered Netanyahu by meeting Palestinian activists on his trip to Israel in the autumn.

Now it is reported that the Foreign Secretary, who friends say is determined to make progress in the Middle East, is planning to enhance the status of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in London. This follows a similar move by the French over the summer, and is bound to annoy the Israeli government. Yet it is purely symbolic. A much tougher and more practical set of measures was set out three weeks ago in an open letter to the European Commission from a group of former EU bigwigs, including Chris Patten. This important document argued that the EU should not renew its existing trade deals with Israel so long as it continues to violate international law (and pointed out that the EU, having poured some 8 billion euros of taxpayers’ money into the peace process in the form of assistance to the Palestinian Authority, is entitled to express its opinion).

The authors of this letter believe that taking such robust steps would not alienate the United States – in fact, it would help President Obama, by providing a counterweight to the Congressmen and Senators who are determined to block progress towards peace. Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems would be very happy indeed to back strong measures like these, and it will not be long before they start to call for them openly. It may not be on many people’s radar, but Middle East policy has the potential to split the Coalition wide open.


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