Adrian Hamilton: Should we still view Israel as a 'special friend'?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday was the day when, 60 years ago, Israel was launched as a new state by the UN. Today is the day the Palestinians mourn what they regard as Nakba, the "catastrophe". President Bush arrived in Jerusalem to attend the 60th Israeli anniversary dinner yesterday. Presumably he will not be attending any of the Palestinian Nakba functions today.

Which really says it all about those six decades. Israel celebrates as Bush arrives to talk of a peace that almost all of its citizens say they want, but virtually none believe will actually happen. The Palestinians mourn, fobbed off with promises of economic assistance and the dream of a separate state, whilst knowing full well that when it comes to it, the West will always side with Israel in any fundamental quarrel with the Arabs.

"Israel has never had a better friend in the White House than the 43rd President of the United States," Vice-President Dick Cheney told a Washington reception for Israel's 60th birthday last week. Which is no more than the truth. Over the last five years, and particularly since 9/11, the US President and the Vice-President have accepted totally Israel's view of its security needs, its insistence on expanded borders and its refusal to take back Palestinian refugees.

"Never a better friend" was also what Israeli politicians said of Tony Blair when the British PM stood down last year. And this too is true when you look at Blair's support for Israel, particularly over the invasion of Lebanon (see Lord Levy's latest memoirs). Over and above a desire to support the US, Blair believed in the invasion.

The question that no one likes to ask, but needs asking at this time, is whether this total commitment to Israel's interests is any longer justified. Israelis declare, quite understandably, that they are sick and tired of outsiders demanding they do this or that with the Palestinians when their critics haven't the faintest understanding of what it is like to live in a country under siege from a host of enemies. And they are right. In the end it is up to the Israelis themselves to debate and determine where they stand in the Middle East of 20 or 50 years' time.

But it is equally valid for the outside world to ask itself, after three generations, whether Israel should be any longer regarded as a "special friend" (as President Bush describes it) or as an ally which the West should treat as it does any other ally in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or whoever – that is, a Middle East state with its own interest, its particular level of corruption, its internal divisions, its own agenda and with its own threats to regional stability.

That is not to say that it should be left unsupported and its independence not ensured. The West was midwife to its birth and we were a party to the UN bringing it into being. Of course we should guarantee its survival.

But security guarantee is not the same thing as regarding Israel in the way that President Bush does, as a uniquely valuable friend, an exceptional "democracy" whose interests are, per se, the same as ours in a global battle between good and evil. You can believe that but you could equally argue Israel "exceptionalism" is the greatest barrier to what we should be seeking in the Middle East in terms of encouraging democracy and ensuring stability. It forces us, and particularly the US, to support authoritarian regimes and to engage in a "war" against "fundamentalism" that suppresses popular feeling, encourages violence and creates false dichotomies between "goodies" and "baddies".

At this time it suits Israel, as the sole nuclear power in the Middle East, to garner support against Iran as a potential rival. In the same way it suits Israel, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to erect Tehran (admittedly a role which its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is all to willing to play) as an even greater enemy of its survival. Israel as David can ensure itself more friends than as Goliath.

And in a different way it suits the Israeli government (although not necessarily its people) to see the Palestinians divided, Gaza in a state of dire need and the Palestinian PM left pathetically dependent on any gesture of favour that the outside world and Israel is prepared to offer. The last thing that a weak government such as Olmert's would wish is a strong and viable Palestinian state next to it – which is why so many Palestinians have despaired of this whole exercise.

The outside world's interests are not necessarily the same. In the broader concerns of regional stability – the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, the curbing of nuclear proliferation – we need Iran as an ally. At the basest level of self-interest of oil and markets, we should be seeking better relations with the Arabs, not worse. On the higher levels of rhetoric, we can hardly criticise the Chinese for Tibet and ignore Israel's actions as occupiers of Palestine, or criticise Iran for seeking the bomb whilst simply not referring to Israel's long possession of it.

The tragedy of the Middle East is that, by supporting the Israeli government so uncritically, we are only making it more difficult to achieve what most of its citizens wish for – peace and security.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

Comments