The bloody truth is that Israel’s war is our war

Por Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 23/07/06):

George Bush and Tony Blair refuse to support United Nations calls for a ceasefire between Israel and fighters in Gaza and Lebanon. Our two countries risk both diplomatic isolation and criticism at home, since the toll of civilian casualties sickens public opinion across the world.

Caught unawares by a microphone in St Petersburg, Bush and Blair expressed no concern for the suffering. The president’s strategic analysis (“the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s all over”) was inadequate to say the least, and in the brief exchange Blair descended to Bush’s level of inarticulacy.

None of that means their policy is wrong. To explain why they might be right is an uphill struggle because many more innocents are dying in Lebanon than in Israel, making it easy to accuse the Jewish state of disproportionate violence. The proper question has to go beyond “how many civilians are dying today?” to “can Israel’s actions contribute to eventual peace?” The second question is legitimate because Israel is committed to extracting itself from much of the territory it has occupied since 1967. The proposal to pull out was so controversial among Israelis that Ariel Sharon, the last prime minister, left the Likud party. He created a new party, Kadima, which won office on its single issue promise of unilateral withdrawal. It will involve the destruction of some Jewish settlements.

Sharon’s unilateralism was criticised by both Israelis and Palestinians. But he could find no Palestinian leadership able to deliver and enforce a deal. The late Yasser Arafat was both ineffectual and in hock to the terrorists. Mahmoud Abbas, his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority, shows willing but is largely powerless, all the more so since Hamas took over the Palestinian government in a surprise election victory this year. The dual leadership of Abbas and Hamas illustrates the division in Palestinian public opinion between those willing to create a new state alongside Israel and those committed to Israel’s destruction.

In May Abbas proposed resolving that ambiguity with a referendum. He is willing to gamble that even though Hamas won the elections, the majority of Palestinians accept the two-state solution. A positive ballot would bring the Palestinians into line with the Arab League, which in 2002 voted to accept Israel’s existence if it gave up the occupied territories.

Before the question could be put, Hamas fighters kidnapped an Israeli soldier in a raid from Gaza, from which Sharon had withdrawn. A kidnap puts tremendous pressure on a government. It enrages public opinion and the crisis cannot end until the hostage is released or murdered. Presumably that is why the terrorists chose the tactic. Israel’s response to the abduction was bound to be “disproportionate”. Among Israelis the attack also discredits the policy of unilateral withdrawal because it seems to leave them vulnerable.

Optimists have hoped that Hamas might in time be willing to recognise Israel’s right to exist. It may yet happen but the kidnap is not a promising sign. In any case, if Israel and Hamas are to do business they must work that out for themselves. It is hard to see how US or European mediation could help.

Even the most sanguine pro-Arab apologist would not suggest that Hezbollah will soon be ready to recognise Israel. So in responding with massive force to the kidnapping of two more soldiers by Hezbollah, Israel is not only attempting to disarm a well-equipped hostile force. It would also marginalise a group that opposes the two-state solution, endorsed by most Arab countries. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have condemned Hezbollah’s aggression. If Hezbollah remains in control of large parts of Lebanon, then that country cannot enjoy stability and Israel will not gain peace even if it continues to withdraw from occupied areas. For Israelis only the prospect of security justifies the trading of captured land.

The American government will understand that position. Additionally, Bush does not want to imitate President Clinton, who in the last weeks of his incumbency staked enormous political capital on a comprehensive peace deal that Arafat rejected. Nor does he want to tell other countries to tread softly as they pursue terrorists across borders.

I was surprised by the Bush-Blair conversation. I have heard world leaders debate crises in private and none of those discussions compared with theirs in crude banality. The emphasis on Syria seems extraordinary too. Syria supports Hezbollah, not least with weaponry, but to believe that Syria could simply stop Hezbollah probably underplays Iran’s role.

The trouble that Syria and Iran can cause is sad testimony to the failure of American and British foreign policy. When our forces entered Iraq, Syria quaked. Its difficulties deepened following the assassination in Beirut of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese premier. At the time Syria occupied Lebanon and was blamed for the murder. Lebanese protesters forced Syria to pull out its troops.

The Damascus regime looked precarious. The ruling dynasty is Alawite (an offshoot of Shi’ism) in a country where Sunnis are the majority. President Bashar al-Assad was not groomed for high office — the heir apparent died in an accident. He flirted with liberalising the regime but was then pushed back by reactionary forces. Perhaps his weakness has proved a strength. Bush and Blair do not like him but they know he may be better than whatever might replace him. So he remains in place, pulling the strings in Lebanon.

Still worse for Bush and Blair will be if Iran emerges from this struggle with enhanced prestige, at least in the judgment of the Muslim world. Iran is a bad dream for the West — a theocratic regime bent on using terrorism to clone its model throughout the Shi’ite world. Hezbollah was founded to bring about such a transformation in Lebanon, and Iraq and Syria could be other targets. The Iranian president is committed to destroying Israel. Iran is working on a nuclear weapon and its agents are helping to kill Americans in Iraq.

When Bush recently accepted direct negotiations with Tehran on nuclear energy he reversed an American policy that had applied since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Perhaps that smacked of weakness, since the US’s reward is a Hezbollah attack on Israel that Iran probably pre-approved. Perhaps then it is not surprising that America is not hastening Israel towards a ceasefire.

Critics of Israel point out that bombing Lebanon provides fresh grievances for Palestinians and other Muslims. That is undoubtedly so, and it is exactly what Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would wish. Israel is forced to choose between looking feeble (which will increase its vulnerability) or playing into its enemies’ hands through “disproportionate” action. Before we criticise Israel we should at least understand that dilemma and be aware that if we stoke up anti-Israeli feeling we dance to a devilish tune.

It is fashionable to treat Bush’s idea of a global war against terror with contempt, even though America and Britain have experienced murderous outrages on their home territory. We are battling Al-Qaeda (a Sunni movement) in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq we face attack from Shi’ite as well as Sunni extremists. Al-Qaeda’s ambition to bring down governments across the Muslim world including Egypt and Saudi Arabia should have us worried. Iran’s aim to create a cluster of theocratic Shi’ite states committed to Israel’s destruction is just as alarming. The Al-Qaeda and Iranian menaces are different (and sometimes opposed) but they both threaten our interests.

America, Britain and Israel have all committed big policy errors. Perhaps they have made things worse and maybe they have stimulated recruitment to the enemy. But the present Israeli government was elected to make peace and did not depart from that course of its own volition. Its struggle against Hezbollah fits into a complex global jigsaw of battles against terror.

The death toll in Lebanon is repugnant. But if the kneejerk response of western public opinion is an upsurge in anti-Israeli and anti-American feeling then we misunderstand our interests and the threat to them from terror. For us to turn against Israel and America would be perverse and potentially suicidal.