Donald Macintyre: A constant – and candid – friend of Israel

It was a historic moment – and Gordon Brown rose to the occasion
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown's first visit as Prime Minister to Israel and the occupied territories was always going to be overshadowed by the arrival in Jerusalem of Barack Obama tonight. There is no doubt which of the two men has the potential to be more important to the Middle East.

That said, there was something historic about the first-ever Knesset speech by a UK prime minister, given the long – and chequered – role of the British mandate which ended 60 years ago. What is surprising, given the scale of the political burdens pressing down on him at home, is that Mr Brown largely rose to the occasion. What is even more so is that his speech yesterday – or at least the sections of it dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – might make useful reading for the Democratic presidential nominee.

There is no reason to doubt Mr Brown's story about being instilled from childhood with an interest in, and affection for, Israel by his late father. He was apt to recall it in private conversation years before he became prime minister and it was of any diplomatic use to him.

But what is relevant to the Obama visit is not so much the personal link with Israel, which Mr Brown certainly milked for all it was worth. Rather it was the use of it to demonstrate his credentials to be not only, as he put it yesterday, "a constant friend" of Israel but also – within the strict limits of what is possible in Western public diplomacy – a relatively candid one.

Mr Brown's Knesset speech was in sharp contrast to President Bush's in May, which contained just one passing reference to the Palestinians and was warmly welcomed by those Israeli parties most addicted to settlement-building in the West Bank. Mr Brown outlined a two-state solution based on 1967 borders forthrightly and in a context in which a large and over-powerful minority of his audience believe in no such thing.

It was symbolic that the one Knesset member actually to walk out – as Mr Brown was saying that the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad offered Israel "the best partner for a generation" – was Uri Ariel, of the far-right National Union, and one of those most delighted by Mr Bush's utterly self-serving and irresponsible Knesset speech.

The language Mr Brown used to call for two states "with Jerusalem the capital for both, and a just and agreed settlement for refugees" raised an eyebrow or two among otherwise well-disposed Israeli officials. They would have much preferred him to go easy on the idea of dividing Jerusalem between the two peoples and to rule out absolutely any notion of the "right of return" to Israel for even a token number of refugee families from 1948 as part of a final deal.

Yet Mr Brown's formulation on these topics was fully in line with – and, if anything, less expansive than – that proposed at Camp David in 2000 by the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, who was among the British Prime Minister's audience in the Knesset yesterday.

The basic idea underlining last November's summit at Annapolis had one chance, however slim, of working. That was to show such rapid advances towards an agreement on the outlines of a two-state solution and even before that, in improving the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank, that Palestinians, even in Gaza, would have their belief restored in the path of negotiations.

Even if by some miracle more progress is being made in the talks than currently seems likely, the "facts on the ground" still militate against any such belief. Which is why Mr Brown called again yesterday for a freeze on settlement-building and "help in easing the obstacles to Palestinian economic growth".

Mr Brown's approach is hardly faultless. He puts too much faith in inward investment in the still devastated – if in the West Bank very slightly improving – Palestinian economy as long as such obstacles remain. But he did at least find the language with which to make clear to Israel's whole political establishment - and not just to its beleaguered and quite possibly outgoing Prime Minister – that true friends of Israel have a right to speak out about the course they believe it should take in its own interests.

The same idea in fact that Senator Obama himself was expressing when he said during the Ohio primary that being "pro-Israel" did not mean signing up to every policy of Likud. Since then, and the confusing retraction that followed the Senator's extraordinary remark that Jerusalem should remain the "undivided capital", he has been rather less clear than Mr Brown was yesterday. If Senator Obama could rise above the perceived needs of US electoral politics far enough to be even as candid a friend as Mr Brown, he might just revive the fast waning hopes for what could be the last chance for a two-state solution.