Still pro-Israeli, I’m afraid

So far as I can see almost all polite opinion is sure that Israel has behaved very badly in recent weeks in Gaza. I – rather tentatively – beg to differ.

Just to be clear. I am no expert. I read the broadsheets and take in grown-up television and listen to bits of Radio 4 and that’s about it.

Also to be clear, I am fairly sure that Israel has not been very clever in its use of the periods of relative peace in recent years. It seems reasonable to wonder why mildly good Palestinian behaviour was not rewarded by concessions designed to encourage this good stuff.

What’s more, there is clearly something to be said for Hamas and Hizbullah as “social actors“. That much seems sound in the case made by Jeremy Greenstock (The Today Programme, 12 January 2009, 8.34am) and William Sieghart (his colleague in Forward Thinking). But I get the feeling these two men are bending over backwards in their desire to be useful. They are the “soft cop” to Tony Blair’s “hard cop”.

I do have prejudices here. Obviously, the Palestinians have an enormously strong historic grievance. Equally, it seems clear that at least throughout my adulthood the Palestinians have been the victim of the liberal support which encourages victimhood, dissidence and violent resistance of the sort which characterised the IRA.

Of course it is not all clear the degree to which the zeitgeist drove Palestinian politics. And, in the post-Arafat world, modern Islamism is presumably an enormous and relatively fresh factor. But as outsiders discuss which side we support, these narratives matter a great deal, and quite possibly more than they do on the ground.

My fundamental belief is that Israel is capable of rational, decent politics and of rational, decent relations with the Palestinians. It is also, for all sorts of reasons, a very fierce enemy. One prods Israel at one’s peril.

Put this all together and I find myself strongly prejudiced in favour of Israel because I think that if it got what it is asking for, it could become an excellent neighbour instead of being a very stroppy one. In short, given sustained peace, Israeli’s moderates could much better control its hotheads and fundamentalists.

The IRA precedent is telling. It is important to see that the IRA has utterly failed in its core rhetorical mission: to force Irish unity. Everyone could have told them throughout the last forty years that this would be so. Everyone told the Republicans that their Northern Irish lives could readily be made pleasant after years of abuse, once they stopped the killing. The blood the IRA shed and caused to be shed was wasted, even in the terms of its own goals.

It is very, very unlikely that Israel will disappear. To that extent Hamas are wasting their breath and blood. If what really matters to Hamas is a civilised life for the citizens of Palestine, then they need to get a decent two-state solution. Now of course it doesn’t at all matter that Hamas have some redundant rhetoric, and they’re welcome to it. Political movements (the IRA, the Labour Party in the UK to name but two) cling to very large claims long after they’ve ceased to have relevance. To get a decent two-state solution, Hamas and others only have to stop physically wounding Israel; they could hang on to talking nonsense for quite a while longer .

You may say that Israel has been very foolish in enraging Hamas and the “Arab World” (that very diverse entity) with its recent assault or “war” on Gaza. Tactically and strategically and politically, Israel’s actions may indeed have been unwise. But they were fairly predictable. I have heard no argument which suggests that it would have been impossible for Hamas simply to have given up violence and instantly to see the risk of Israeli assault taken away. To that extent I think it is fair to say Hamas has willed this assault, and even the mistakes which Israeli may have made in conducting it.

In this, there are close IRA parallels. I strongly believe that the IRA leadership knew perfectly well the hell it was unleashing in the 1960s and they knew perfectly well the likely response of the British state. Terrorists thrive on their enemies’ cock-ups.

I have no idea the degree to which Palestinian leaders are played by Iran or Syria or anyone else. It seems likely that The Israel Project is accurate in its damning evidence. I incline to the view that much of the pain in Iraq and anywhere else in the Middle East stems from the rivalries between states, not merely the “popular movements” which are variously manipulated by governments.

I don’t say that Israel is being clever in its behaviour, but I do believe it is the party which is being provoked into violence, and probably on purpose. I believe that even supposing it sometimes fails its own high standards, its cause and much of its behaviour is righteous.

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Publication date

15 January 2009