By Michael Portillo, July 23, 2006.
George Bush and Tony Blair refuse to support United Nations calls for a
ceasefire between Israel and fighters in Gaza and Lebanon. Our two countries
risk both diplomatic isolation and criticism at home, since the toll of civilian
casualties sickens public opinion across the world.
Caught unawares by a microphone in St Petersburg, Bush and Blair expressed
no concern for the suffering. The president’s strategic analysis (“the irony is
that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit
and it’s all over”) was inadequate to say the least, and in the brief exchange
Blair descended to Bush’s level of inarticulacy.
None of that means their policy is wrong. To explain why they might be right is
an uphill struggle because many more innocents are dying in Lebanon than in
Israel, making it easy to accuse the Jewish state of disproportionate violence.
The proper question has to go beyond “how many civilians are dying today?” to
“can Israel’s actions contribute to eventual peace?”
The second question is legitimate because Israel is committed to extracting
itself from much of the territory it has occupied since 1967. The proposal to
pull out was so controversial among Israelis that Ariel Sharon, the last prime
minister, left the Likud party. He created a new party, Kadima, which won
office on its single issue promise of unilateral withdrawal. It will involve the
destruction of some Jewish settlements.
Sharon’s unilateralism was criticised by both Israelis and Palestinians. But he
could find no Palestinian leadership able to deliver and enforce a deal. The late
Yasser Arafat was both ineffectual and in hock to the terrorists.
Mahmoud Abbas, his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority,
shows willing but is largely powerless, all the more so since Hamas took over
the Palestinian government in a surprise election victory this year. The dual
leadership of Abbas and Hamas illustrates the division in Palestinian public
opinion between those willing to create a new state alongside Israel and those
committed to Israel’s destruction.
In May Abbas proposed resolving that ambiguity with a referendum. He is
willing to gamble that even though Hamas won the elections, the majority of
Palestinians accept the two-state solution. A positive ballot would bring the
Palestinians into line with the Arab League, which in 2002 voted to accept
Israel’s existence if it gave up the occupied territories.
Before the question could be put, Hamas fighters kidnapped an Israeli soldier in
a raid from Gaza, from which Sharon had withdrawn. A kidnap puts
tremendous pressure on a government. It enrages public opinion and the crisis
cannot end until the hostage is released or murdered.
Presumably that is why the terrorists chose the tactic. Israel’s response
to the abduction was bound to be ‘disproportionate’. Among Israelis the attack
also discredits the policy of unilateral withdrawal because it seems to leave
Optimists have hoped that Hamas might in time be willing to recognise Israel’s
right to exist. It may yet happen but the kidnap is not a promising sign. In any
case, if Israel and Hamas are to do business they must work that out for
themselves. It is hard to see how US or European mediation could help.
Even the most sanguine pro-Arab apologist would not suggest that Hezbollah
will soon be ready to recognise Israel. So in responding with massive force to
the kidnapping of two more soldiers by Hezbollah, Israel is not only attempting
to disarm a well-equipped hostile force. It would also marginalise a group that
opposes the two-state solution, endorsed by most Arab countries.
Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have condemned Hezbollah’s aggression. If
Hezbollah remains in control of large parts of Lebanon, then that country cannot
enjoy stability and Israel will not gain peace even if it continues to withdraw
from occupied areas. For Israelis only the prospect of security justifies the
trading of captured land.
The American government will understand that position. Additionally, Bush
does not want to imitate President Clinton, who in the last weeks of his
incumbency staked enormous political capital on a comprehensive peace deal
that Arafat rejected. Nor does he want to tell other countries to tread softly as
they pursue terrorists across borders.
I was surprised by the Bush-Blair conversation. I have heard world leaders
debate crises in private and none of those discussions compared with theirs in
crude banality. The emphasis on Syria seems extraordinary too. Syria supports
Hezbollah, not least with weaponry, but to believe that Syria could simply stop
Hezbollah probably underplays Iran’s role.
The trouble that Syria and Iran can cause is sad testimony to the failure of
American and British foreign policy. When our forces entered Iraq, Syria
quaked. Its difficulties deepened following the assassination in Beirut of Rafik
Hariri, the former Lebanese premier. At the time Syria occupied Lebanon and
was blamed for the murder. Lebanese protesters forced Syria to pull out its
The Damascus regime looked precarious. The ruling dynasty is Alawite (an
offshoot of Shi’ism) in a country where Sunnis are the majority. President
Bashar al-Assad was not groomed for high office – the heir apparent died in an
accident. He flirted with liberalising the regime but was then pushed back by
reactionary forces. Perhaps his weakness has proved a strength. Bush and Blair
do not like him but they know he may be better than whatever might replace
him. So he remains in place, pulling the strings in Lebanon.
Still worse for Bush and Blair will be if Iran emerges from this struggle with
enhanced prestige, at least in the judgment of the Muslim world. Iran is a bad
dream for the West – a theocratic regime bent on using terrorism to clone its
model throughout the Shi’ite world. Hezbollah was founded to bring about such
a transformation in Lebanon, and Iraq and Syria could be other targets. The
Iranian president is committed to destroying Israel. Iran is working on a nuclear
weapon and its agents are helping to kill Americans in Iraq.
When Bush recently accepted direct negotiations with Tehran on nuclear energy
he reversed an American policy that had applied since the Iranian revolution of
1979. Perhaps that smacked of weakness, since the US’s reward is a Hezbollah
attack on Israel that Iran probably pre-approved. Perhaps then it is not
surprising that America is not hastening Israel towards a ceasefire.
Critics of Israel point out that bombing Lebanon provides fresh grievances for
Palestinians and other Muslims. That is undoubtedly so, and it is exactly what
Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would wish. Israel is forced to choose
between looking feeble (which will increase its vulnerability) or playing into its
enemies’ hands through ‘disproportionate’ action. Before we criticise Israel we
should at least understand that dilemma and be aware that if we stoke up
anti-Israeli feeling we dance to a devilish tune.
It is fashionable to treat Bush’s idea of a global war against terror with
contempt, even though America and Britain have experienced murderous
outrages on their home territory. We are battling Al-Qaeda (a Sunni movement)
in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq we face attack from Shi’ite as well as Sunni
extremists. Al-Qaeda’s ambition to bring down governments across the Muslim
world including Egypt and Saudi Arabia should have us worried.
Iran’s aim to create a cluster of theocratic Shi’ite states committed to
Israel’s destruction is just as alarming. The Al-Qaeda and Iranian menaces are
different (and sometimes opposed) but they both threaten our interests.
America, Britain and Israel have all committed big policy errors. Perhaps they
have made things worse and maybe they have stimulated recruitment to the
enemy. But the present Israeli government was elected to make peace and did
not depart from that course of its own volition. Its struggle against Hezbollah
fits into a complex global jigsaw of battles against terror.
The death toll in Lebanon is repugnant. But if the kneejerk response of western
public opinion is an upsurge in anti-Israeli and anti-American feeling then we
misunderstand our interests and the threat to them from terror. For us to turn
against Israel and America would be perverse and potentially suicidal.