A debate of the deaf poisoning young minds

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 21/11/06):

There I was last Thursday night, addressing the Cambridge Union, going at it like a locomotive with a mouth, and telling them that, no, you couldn’t blame terrorism on US foreign policy. I mean, take the Istanbul bombings, two of which were exploded at Turkish synagogues, killing Turkish Jews, how could those . . . “Point of information!” came from my left, in the tones — I rather thought — of Berkshire. “Was it not the case, Mr Aaronovitch, that the successful murdering of Istanbul Jews was motivated by a revulsion to Israeli policy, a policy supported by the Americans?” And there was applause.

Applause, readers, not just a nodding of heads at a true, if sad, analysis — but a clapping as of a rhetorical victory gained. I should have replied that this logic would permit BNP members to assault any Muslim near, say, the Green Lanes mosque, and have it argued on their behalf that their action was really the product of Islamist outrages on 9/11. But I didn’t think of it in time.

Maybe the applauders thought of themselves as friends of Palestine. Clare Short recently argued that “US backing for Israeli policies of expansion . . . and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world.” This from a former minister of aid who knows that up to three million might have died in the Congo over the past decade. Did she imagine that the Cobra Matate militia had originally taken up arms in case the Zionists took a sudden long swing southwards?

It all gets weirder. There’s Jenny (I coulda been a bomber) Tonge telling a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference about the influence of Jewish finance in British politics; there’s Asghar Bukhari, of the British Muslim Public Affairs Committee, outed by The Observer this weekend as a donor to David Irving’s defence fund in 2000. Bukhari had told Irving that he sympathised with his suffering caused in “trying to expose certain falsehoods perpetrated by the Jews”. Now Bukhari says: “I wrote letters to anyone who was tough against the Israelis . . . I had a lot of sympathy for anyone who opposed Israel.” Everyone knew about Irving’s Holocaust denying but Mr Bukhari somehow managed to miss it.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t listen to me, because I’m one of them. So says Richard Ingrams writing in The Independent recently. “Israel’s Fifth Column to which I recently referred,” said Ingrams, “has achieved another little victory in its propaganda war.” The “victory” was a programme I was asked to make for Five to balance one by the strangely fatuous philosopher, Ted Honderich, justifying suicide terrorism, and I as a “staunch defender of Israel” was part of this fifth column. Honderich himself seems to suggest that my programme was all part of giving Jews disproportionate influence in public argument.

I am not a “staunch defender of Israel” any more than I am a staunch defender of Poland, and rather less than I am a staunch defender of Spain. Nor, Mr Ingrams, for all your Boratian insinuation, do I write what I do because my secular father was born Jewish and chose to keep the name and therefore I feel I have a mystical blood bond with my racial family. My problem is that I am discovering that those who are pretending to be “friends” of the Palestinians are busily constructing the notion that Israel is the sole cause of the problems of the Middle East. And I now realise the extent to which they have poisoned the debate in Britain, especially among the young.

After the debate (which brute competitiveness forces me to tell you that our side won) another student said to me in the bar that the problem was that Israel was set up in 1948 because of “the Americans and Jewish terrorism”. Not, you will notice, the UN. And I thought, if that’s what we’re learning here at university, what hope is there for Mr Blair (or successor) in the attempt to get peace talks started again?

Two weeks ago, at a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, the author David Grossman, whose son was killed on the last day of the war with Hezbollah, said what everyone ought by now to understand. “Any reasonable person in Israel, and I will say in Palestine too,” he told the crowd, “knows exactly the outline of a possible solution to the conflict between the two peoples.” It’s the two-state solution, based on something like the 2000 Clinton parameters. Jerusalem is divided, the Holy Places shared, Israel withdraws from almost all the settlements, there is a right of refugee return to the Palestinian state, there is a guarantee of security for Israel and a recognition of her borders.

Grossman again: “Any reasonable person here and over there knows deep in their heart the difference between dreams and the heart’s desire, between what is possible and what is not possible. . . . Anyone who does not know, who refuses to acknowledge this, is already not a partner.” The Cambridge student, his applauders, the American hawks, are in danger of not being partners. Instead they become cheerleaders on either side of the continued bloodiness. They help in a small way to turn the wheel: rockets, Hezbollah attacks, suicide bombings, “retaliation”, “targeted assassination”, stray shells, Hamas kidnappings, the wall, rockets . . .

Into this, from time to time, is intruded a moment of slight hope — the election of Abu Mazen, the withdrawal from Gaza, the collapse of Likud — to be followed by something worse than disappointment when (as recently) an anti-Arab racist enters the Israeli Government, or when Hezbollah — unpunished and uncriticised — breaches all the terms of the recent ceasefire.

The answer remains the same. To Grossman what is now needed is leadership of a completely different kind to that which Israel has had for a decade. Right now, he believes, fatalism has taken over. When was the last time, he demanded, that a prime minister initiated a social or cultural or ideological move, instead of “merely reacting feverishly to moves forced upon him by others?”.

Then he said: “Go to the Palestinians, Mr Olmert, do not search all the time for reasons for not to talk to them. Talk to them, make them an offer their moderates can accept . . . Make them an offer that will force them to choose between accepting it or preferring to remain hostage to fanatical Islam. Approach them with the bravest and most serious plan Israel can offer.” A hundred thousand Israelis applauded, and thousands of Palestinians might have done so too, if they had heard him above the slogans and funeral ululations.

Even Hamas may wonder whether it hasn’t achieved more by getting unarmed civilians to surround its threatened activists than it ever could by rockets and suicide bombs. True friends of Israel should support him. And the so-called friends of Palestine, instead of indulging in their borderline anti-Semitics over here, would do better to support the Palestinian Grossmans in their struggle over there.