December 11, 2002

A Much Admired Country

After the Heritage Foundation gave Lady Thatcher their Clare Boothe Luce award – presented by Vice President Cheney – the Iron Lady defied doctor's orders, and made a little speech. She warned us that we face the 'twin headed monster' of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and moreover she praised her successor, as Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He offers 'strong and bold leadership', by which, of course, Lady Thatcher means that Mr Blair offers devout followership to the Great Ally. There wasn't anything in the way of praise for her current successor as leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, but then she can't be expected to push her larynx too far. Mr Duncan Smith, despite his lack of immediate relevance, deserved something in the way of a pat on the head. For without his complete abnegation of a national-interest based opposition to the government, Mr Blair wouldn't be able to get away with one tenth of the things that he presently does.

Now although the Tory leader is even more fond of the United States than the Prime Minister is, there's a country that almost brings rhetoric to his mouth, so rapt can he become when contemplating it. This country, and you know which one it is, is one that, among many other delightfully individualistic interpretations of what it is to reciprocate British friendship, went, for example, out of its way to attempt to sell missiles to Argentina during the Falklands War. Fortunately we stopped that, but over the years Britain, and many individual Britons, haven't been so lucky at dodging the Israeli bullet.

A week or two ago I was at one of those interminable sub-academic conferences anyone with even a vague interest in the Middle East ends up being invited to. And there, during a discussion on the role of the British military in the post-war Middle East (I was 'in favour', if that's not too vulgar a position to take in an academic discussion) I expressed the sort of doubts, nothing more than that, cited above about Israel. This earned me a furious, spitting denunciation from a British partisan of Israel, who assured me that I had 'no idea how many Muslim terrorists there are just waiting to kill British soldiers', and that I ought to be thoroughly ashamed of myself for not showing more solidarity with our fellow democracy, and historic ally, Israel.

Pedantry comes to me as easily as cable TV to the underclass, so I deeply enjoyed telling my colleague that, 'in fact, the number of British soldiers murdered by "Muslim" terrorists [that was me "sneering"] in the post-war period is dwarfed by the number killed by "Jewish" terrorists, but I can't say that this tells me very much about the intrinsic qualities of either Islam or Judaism'. Not the snappiest comeback in the world, but you get my point. Well, she didn't, so I had to go on. It turned out that this apparently well educated woman, doctorates, academic appointments, you know, that sort of thing, was more than keen to pronounce on the contemporary problems of the Levant, but hadn't the slightest idea about how, for instance, the state of Israel came into being. The operative word in this instance is terrorism. For what it's worth, I've a fair degree of sympathy with those who'd shoot terrorists in the back of the head, especially when they're trying to kill British soldiers, but the thing that puzzles me is why this particular terrorism, the foundational terrorism of the Middle East (predating and prefiguring even that in French Algeria) just doesn't get spoken about today.

This dull but insistent question occurred to me again when I read Mr Duncan Smith's latest effusion about Israel. This was given to a fairly ineffectual internal party lobby group – Conservative Friends of Israel – and was, on one level, harmless, if shameless, audience appeasing. However, the arguments marshalled to that end went beyond the habitual, sickly emptiness this sort of sucking-up speech normally requires. Because Mr Duncan Smith sees Israel's fight as our fight, Israel's enemies as our enemies, and Israel's cause as our cause. Israel, to be historically boring, hasn't ever seen things in reverse: they've never seen Britain's problems or enemies or 'cause' as theirs. And that's just peachy: there's not much point in being an independent, sovereign state if you can't define what your own interests are, and if you can't pick your own friends. The question British conservatives ought to face is, is Israel our friend? Are her interests meaningfully analogous to our own? Can we, indeed, be positively sceptical about this country and her relationship to us, as we are about a great many other countries?

That last question is the roadblock between us and all sensible discussion on this subject. Since before we can even start discussing Israel in the cold blooded and realistic way we'd like to think we do all other matters, the issue arises, is Israel to be discussed in cold blood? Can we treat her as we would aim to treat other nations? Does Britain, despite, shall we say, her reasonably impressive track record in the war against Hitler's Germany, have to accord Israel a unique status, in deference to the Nazi's industrial-scale genocide of European Jewry? Obviously not. The campaign, by means of ethnic terrorism, to establish a Jewish state in Palestine was underway, and waged against us as much as anyone, long before the Holocaust began. The question of whether or not there should be an Israel is surely not made or lost on the basis of six million dead? Either it was always justifiable that Israel came into being, or it wasn't. And regardless of what the rights and wrongs were in building an intentionally ethnically exclusive democratic state in the first place, Israel now exists, and attempting to get 'rid' of her now would be difficult, bloody, possibly immoral and frankly unconservative. Only anti-semites should think anything other than the truth that Israel, plainly and simply, is just 'a country as any other'.

Like many other foreign countries, her past relationship with Britain is mixed. The Etzel bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 (killing indiscriminately solider and civilian, Christian, Jew and Muslim) was hardly the only act of terror waged against us since World War II. Even grosser acts of barbarity than the booby trapping of the bodies of two murdered British soldiers have happened since (though not many). Yet when the more extreme friends of Israel start making frenetic moral claims for her, start demanding of us favours for her we would, in similar circumstances, grant no other, the only thing this behaviour ultimately will do is damage the object of their affection. As much as the conspiracist's fantasies as to 'Israeli influence', the foreign conservative who feels obliged to stake out positions pertaining to Israel more 'determined' than even her own Labour party does, interferes with common sense too much. Simply put, it isn't our fight, it's theirs, and it's something more than presumptuous for outsiders to chide Israelis for their insufficiency for the battle.

When asked to account for the discrepancy discussed above, why the Lechi terrorism of, say, Yitzhak Shamir, has been absolved by time, but the terrorism we are supposed to be fighting today sees us involved in a war eternal, the answers are obscure. One consistent tack is to engage in conditional relativism: we shouldn't concentrate on Israel's past misdeeds, such as they are, at the expense of missing actual, preventable sins being committed in the here and now. So sure, terrorism waged against Israel, as against any of us, at any time, is wrong, but that doesn't make the case why Israel has some particular claim to this status above and beyond everyone else. That's the great bugaboo – we're to hate terrorism might and main, save for terrorism carried out in Israel's name. Why? Explicitly or otherwise, the 6 million dead stand behind this defence. It's a matter of taste more than anything else, but I don't believe the Jews of continental Europe were gassed, shot, hanged, desecrated and hurried to death so that a proto-state, which next to none of them felt any contemporary affinity with, can do what she does today, in the absence of any common standard of criticism.

Iain Duncan Smith told the Conservative Friends of Israel that we, Britain and Israel, are on the same side, which we're not, because, 'the war waged by terrorism against civilisation – against those countries, who cherish democracy and the rule of law – continues'. Israel is a democracy under the law by no standard we would apply to ourselves. Declaiming that it 'has a right to defend itself against such attacks' as every other democracy does isn't invalidated by arguments as to whether or not she's a democracy, it's invalidated by the fact that she, like Mr Duncan Smith, denies this supposedly inherent right to Palestine. Why? To adopt the morally outraged language American neo-conservatives have come to favour about 'old Bush' tolerance for monarchical Arab despotism, do we not think that these are men, like us, who can govern themselves freely?

Every breath in the Tory leader's speech was punctuated by hypocrisy of one sort or another. Saddam is 'obsessed with building and acquiring weapons of mass destruction', which, as Mister Mackie from South Park could tell us is bad, but, y'know, it's not that no one in the Middle East should have nukes. However, and tragically

The Palestinian people have suffered from decades of corruption, extremism, violence and misjudgements. They need real leadership.

God knows we all need some of that last stuff, but what does Mr Duncan Smith think the Palestinian people also believe themselves to have suffered from? They'd say occupation. Who knows if this is their worst problem – nations are no doubt as bad at self-diagnosis as individuals – but do Israel's friends think this is a good thing? Would it be a good thing (here's a test for them) were it applied to Israel herself? Would she benefit from 'occupation', perhaps a temporary occupation, lasting only so long as it takes to secure Palestinian security? Few things are as bizarre as those friends of Israel who condemn those Palestinians who deny the right of Israelis to enjoy a state of their own. In fact, bizarre isn't the word, as the degree of self-deception required here borders more on the hysterical. When it comes down to it, some Palestinians inconsequentially deny the right of the Israeli state to exist as a matter of purest theory. In counterpoint, Israel denies the right of a Palestinian state to exist as a matter of brutal fact.

I can't tell you how much I don't care which side 'wins' in what we used to call Palestine. My contention is that Israel's ongoing victory matters as little to us as would her sudden defeat. No British interest, moral or practical, is wrapped up in this dispute. We, for what it's worth, were self-evidently right from the point of utilitarian benefit, from the pre-war Royal Commission on, to urge on the inhabitants of Palestine a partitioned binational state. That they rejected this then was their own fool look out, and we really shouldn't be too bothered by them now. Let them kill each other, we're well off out of it. What aggravates about the inanity of a Duncan Smith is twaddle like, 'Conservatives have always stood for the values that Israel stands for: freedom, positive achievement and the rule of law'. One last time: Israel suffers from legal torture, 'Ashcroft-plus', rule by a narrow high caste social elite, endemic corruption and a command economy, irresponsibly subsidised by meddling outsiders. The Conservative party has its flaws, but for the moment, it's got the edge on Israel.

In the end, the Tory mentality in foreign affairs is summed up in whether you can assent or not to this claim by Mr Duncan Smith: 'The world cannot afford to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt. Time is on his side, not ours.' Poor Iain doesn't like the word 'Tory', refuses to use it, and certainly doesn't behave like one. Time is no more on Saddam's side than Israel is on ours.

– Christopher Montgomery

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration. His column appears here on Wednesdays.

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