Geoffrey Wheatcroft: How Israel gets away with murder

Indifference to criticism of the bombing and invasion of Gaza is the result of indulgence by the West

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When Lord Derby asked Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of Georgian England, why he, as a Jew, didn't write Jewish history, Namier replied: "There is no modern Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology, and that is not amusing enough for me." It might be said that the underlying purpose of the Zionist project – which Namier passionately supported – was to reject Jewish martyrology, and to turn the Jews from passive victims to active makers of their destiny.

That has been accomplished to a fault, many would say as they watch the news from Gaza, where one image after another has caused deep revulsion. But then that rejection of martyrdom and victimhood may also explain what has puzzled as well as dismayed onlookers – the fact that Israel seems to be quite oblivious to international opinion.

In Muslim countries there is, of course, intense hostility to Israel, which, in return, has long since followed the Latin principle oderint dum metuant towards her neighbours: Let them hate us, so long as they fear us. Since there's no point in even trying to win their hearts and minds, they should be taught to respect brute force, a precept which, it should be admitted, has enjoyed considerable practical success.

The West is different, and European sentiment can be changed by events, as indeed it has been. Israel and Zionism were once very popular causes in Europe, not least on the liberal left, until the 1967 Six Day War and after. Since then, European sympathy has steadily ebbed away as Israel attacked Lebanon in 1982, and again in 2006, with the suppression of the intifadas between. And yet Israel shrugs off all strictures and rebukes. No criticism from relief agencies or the Red Cross makes any difference.

Even more strikingly, Israel has ignored the Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire. One reason for this is that the only Western country that really counts is the United States, and Israel has for many years been able to rely on unconditional American support. Having threated to veto previous draft resolutions, the US took part in drafting the security council resolution calling for a ceasefire, and was evidently going to vote for it.

Then late on Thursday the American representative shocked other council members by abstaining. This volte face came on direct orders from the White House, after president Bush had spoken to Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and the Israelis have taken abstention as permission to continue their action. "Israel is not going to show restraint," Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, told The Washington Post yesterday, understandably enough in the circumstances.

Although Israel is sometimes described as an American client state, which receives huge financial subsidy from Washington, she is unique as a client state: she can do exactly as she likes in the knowledge that she will never be seriously restrained by her sponsor. Even when the White House is privately irritated by Israeli actions, Congress is absolutely reliable, never knowingly outbid in its unswerving loyalty. During the bombardment of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the House of Representatives passed a resolution of total solidarity with Israel by 410 votes to eight, and the Senate has just passed another on a hand vote, not even bothering to take a formal tally.

Anyone who thought that there would be a change of heart and direction after the last American election hasn't been concentrating. The Senate in question is the newly elected, strongly Democratic one, which has just met for the first time. During the presidential campaign Barack Obama went out of his way to endorse Israel. He has appointed in the form of Hillary Clinton perhaps the strongest supporter of Israel ever to serve as Secretary of State, not excluding Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Hitler, though even she is surpassed in her commitment by Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff.

But there is more to it, and Israeli intransigence or indifference to outside opinion goes back before the birth of the state. As it happens, Emanuel has something in common with Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni: their fathers all served in the Irgun. This was the intransigent Zionist militia – described as terrorists by Isaiah Berlin among others, and as fascists by Albert Einstein among others – which waged a campaign of violence against the British, and the Palestinian Arabs, in the last years of the British Mandate in 1946-48. Its exploits included the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, with great loss of life, the hanging of two captured British sergeants in reprisal, and the massacre of villagers at Deir Yassin.

Behind that brutality lay something else. Men take revenge for small wrongs, Machiavelli said, unable to avenge the larger, and the Irgun was avenging an incomparably and unimaginably greater crime just suffered by the European Jews. The Jews had tried to be nice to the goyim, Zionism said in effect, and see where it had got them. A Jewish state would now be created and guarded with all necessary force, indifferent to what the outside world thought. If need be, Israel will borrow the old chant of the Millwall fans, "No one likes us, we don't care"– and no more Jewish martyrology.

Not that Namier was the only Zionist to use "Jewish" in a derisive sense. When someone mentioned Trotsky's phrase "No war, no peace", David Ben-Gurion said that it was "some stupid Jewish idea", and there is a well-known Israeli story about Moshe Dayan, the military hero of the Six Day War. When he taught at the Israeli staff college, Dayan used to expound a problem, ending with the words, "And I want no Jewish solutions here."

He meant that, on the sand table or the field, he expected his battles to be won by dash and ferocity, rather than than by the traditional Jewish virtues of subtlety and patience. Zionist toughness has worked for a long time, but it could be that Israel will one day discover that there's something to be said for Jewish solutions.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'The Controversy of Zion: Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma'

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