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Adrian Hamilton: Israel has no future as a purely Jewish state

More cynical observers of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, tend to dismiss his latest offer to the Palestinians, to stop settlement building if only they would recognise Israel as a "Jewish" state, as typical of the man – a meaningless gesture to evade commitment. "Bibi", in the eyes not just of the left in Israel but increasingly the officials of Washington and Europe, is the "Tricky Dicky" of the Middle East, only without Nixon's vision of international affairs.

For others – and they are fewer and fewer as the weeks of stalled talks go by – Netanyahu is the Nixon for whom a Palestinian peace agreement is his China moment. All the evasions are expressions of a man manoeuvring his own right-wing coalition partners to a point where they could accept a stop to settlement building and for real peace negotiations to start.

Well, you can believe that if you want to. After all the Middle East has been through, it would be truly wonderful if Netanyahu could act the Nixon in Beijing. But he won't. For behind his offer to PA President Abbas lies a simple fact. Israel, under his government, is redefining itself in a narrower and more orthodox view. Just as the Muslim world is moving to religious conservatism, so Israel is moving towards a fundamentalism of its own.

Last Sunday's decision of the Cabinet, by a vote of 22 to eight, to require all new non-Jewish citizens to swear an oath pledging their loyalty to the country as "Jewish and a democratic state" is a case of racist discrimination on any interpretation. But it is more than that. At heart it reflects a push to make Israel into a mono-cultural, ethnically-homogenous nation which deliberately rejects other races or beliefs within it.

That poses problems enough for those secularist Israelis who fear the spread of Orthodox authoritarianism in the country. The Labor Party minister, Isaac Herzog, may be going a bit far in calling it a further "step towards fascism". Yet it clearly signals a move away from plurality, freedom of expression and equal treatment of all citizens under the law.

But for those abroad, and especially Israel's Arab neighbours, it poses a far more direct challenge to the kind of regional integration and openness of borders which any peace talks must imply. The more closely you define Israel as a uniquely "Jewish" state, the less room there is for it to act as a co-operative member of a Muslim majority Middle East. Its role becomes that of an enclave which views itself as not just separate but in clear opposition to everyone else about it.

There's simply no point under these circumstances in pursuing peace negotiations. There isn't the basis on which an Israeli government of this hue would accept let alone support a separate Palestinian state. Which is what most Palestinians and Arabs already conclude. But, under pressure from the US, they feel they have no choice but to persist in the fiction of a possible settlement, just as Netanyahu, also under pressure from Washington, feels that he can't dismiss the talks outright.

Only US pressure on the two parties isn't equal. The Palestinians, still looking to America to provide a solution they themselves are too weak and divided to provide, know they have to do their best by Obama or lose their only hope. Netanyahu, on the other side, knows full well that the White House will never pull the plug from under him, however frustrated they may be with his refusal to prolong the suspension of settlement building.

And so the negotiations will totter on. And, while the Arab league conveniently keeps things ticking over on their side until after the US elections, Israel's government pursues a direction inimical to a negotiated agreement.

Is there no end to Palestinian humiliation? The answer is no, not until they give up on America and get their own act together and take a unilateral course to statehood.

Rescue is a political drama as much as a human one

If Linda Norgrove had emerged from her incarceration as successfully as the Chilean miners have theirs, you can bet the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and half the Cabinet would be there to greet her return, just as the Bolivian President rushed to embrace the Bolivian miner in the Chilean drama and Chile's head of state was there for the rest.

The irony is that it was America, with its drilling equipment and the advice of NASA about re-entry procedures and care, which did much to ensure the safe release of the miners in Chile just as it is America that is being blamed over here for Linda Norgrove's death.

That is unfair. The US is nothing if not competent when it comes to training and equipping specialist forces. But war isn't peace. It is infinitely less calculable and more subject to error, however good the planning and the forces.

David Cameron is being politically correct but less than honest when he declared after the event that he was still "clear that the best chance of saving Linda's life was to go ahead". Until we know the full story of the rescue attempt, and why it was launched, we can't know that. Given the misleading information released initially, we may never be told the full truth.

In the broad political sense, however, the damage is already done. Chile has come out of this, its reputation immensely enhanced by the way it managed the whole operation. The death of Linda Norgrove will just add to the sense here of a hopeless enterprise in a far off country where we don't belong.


Further viewing

'Ace in the Hole', directed by Billy Wilder (1951).