Adrian Hamilton: Does anyone believe Britain about Jericho?

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The Independent Online

Listening to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, this week, denying that there was any collusion between the British and Israelis in the withdrawal of monitors from the Jericho prison, and then again earlier this week trying to say how much we loved the Iranian people while leading a campaign to impose UN sanctions on them, I was reminded of General Pinochet.

Not in the sense that Straw is like Pinochet, although they do share a similar delight in themselves. It is just the thought of how much time has passed and how many illusions have been shattered since General Pinochet was arrested in Britain on a Spanish warrant six years ago.

Jack Straw, for those who may have forgotten, was Home Secretary at the time, and was in seventh heaven; the former radical student leader wallowing in the role of the man who was bringing one of the left's greatest hate figures to justice and pioneering international law in the process.

Of course, it never came about. Although the Law Lords upheld the principle of global prosecution for crimes against humanity, Number Ten soon sensed the problems it posed and the precedents it set in its dealings with others. So the good General was medically examined, found to be too ga-ga to be tried and quickly shipped off back to Chile, where he practically skipped down the airplane steps boasting of his release.

It should have been clear then, not just from the fact of Pinochet's release but the ruthlessness with which the stratagems to effect it were instituted, that the early dreams of an ethical foreign policy were doomed. The Prime Minister saw foreign policy in terms of power and Britain's means to achieve it.

Everything - the statements about being back at the heart of Europe, the proclamation of the UK's special role in Middle East peace, the decision to go to war in Iraq alongside the US - were essentially expressions of his view of Britain as a "player."

The declarations about human rights being a central focus of concern were sincere but eminently dispensable. And so in a sense were Jack Straw's beliefs, or at least his hopes of radicalism in office.

What we have now is a foreign policy that has lost its way since Iraq went sour and a Foreign Secretary who chatters on, putting a burbling, brave face on whatever he's asked to do next. Whether he believes in it at all no one knows and, worse, few seem interested in finding out.

Take this week. On Monday, Straw was repeating President Bush's line that we wished to reach out to the Iranian people over the heads of their people and getting hopelessly mixed up in the process as to whether he was supporting action by an unelected theorcratic structure to hold in check a democratically elected new president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

On Tuesday he was trying to spin the line that the removal of British monitors from Jericho had been in the offing for months and that we'd never even hinted to the Israelis it might happen. And on Wednesday, Blair was in the Comons trying to say it was all planned and above board.

Nobody accepts this, most especially in the Middle East, and with good reason. There is just something unbelievable in the claim that we had been complaining for months at our role as monitors of a group of prisoners in a Palestinian jail accused of assassinating an Israeli minister and had taken the decision to remove them only as a reluctant last resort.

We had agreed with the US to the task of monitoring the prison as part of a deal to protect the Palestinian militant leader Ahmed Saadat from Israeli revenge while making sure that he remained incarcerated.

Once we went, we left the field open for certain Israeli action. As the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said in exasperation "I'm giving the facts. They left at 9.20 am, and the Israelis came in at 9.30 a. How can we explain that?"

The explanation seems pretty clear to most observers. After the election of Hamas, the British were afraid that the Palestinians might free Saadat, who had been elected to parliament, and the British monitors would be left as piggies in the middle who would be blamed whatever happened. So - just as Number Ten took the pragmatic decision on Pinochet - so the British this time conveniently scarpered leaving the Israelis to do their worst. It wasn't brave. It breached all our commitments to the Palestinians. But it did get us out of a hole.

It also made a mockery of all Tony Blair's much repeated claims to act as an honest broker determined to bring a just peace to Palestine. Pragmatism not principle informs our decisions and, as far as the Middle East is concerned, we have clearly given up an independent role.