This year Israelis have been proudly celebrating Tel Aviv’s centenary. It is hard to imagine that this cultural and economic powerhouse, one of the richest and most vibrant cities in the Middle East, was little more than a collection of sand dunes a century ago.
By any standards, its rapid development has been a monumental achievement. Among those who recognised Tel Aviv’s potential early on was Winston Churchill, who paid the city a brief visit in 1921.
During an eight day tour of Palestine, undertaken in his official capacity as Colonial Secretary, Churchill toured Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Rishon Le Zion and Jerusalem. When he arrived in Tel Aviv, he was greeted by crowds of enthusiastic flag waving schoolchildren and presented to the city’s mayor’s, Meir Dizengoff. Dizengoff told Churchill that the Zionists had been able to create ‘such a pretty oasis in the middle of the sandy desert,’ leading the Englishman to salute the ‘initiative of its inhabitants.’
Churchill was equally impressed with the other agricultural settlements that had sprung up around Tel Aviv, including the town of Rishon Le Zion, founded in 1882. After his visit he told the House of Commons: ‘From the most inhospitable soil, surrounded on every side by barrenness and the most miserable form of cultivation, I was driven into a fertile and thriving country estate, then to vineyards and finally to the most beautiful, luxurious orange groves…’ The Zionists had ‘changed desolate places to smiling orchards and initiated progress instead of stagnation.’ His impressions of the early settlements, captured in these romantic tributes, shed some light on his reasons for supporting Zionism.
Churchill was steeped in mid Victorian imperialism, believing that an empire was justified if it brought civilisation to otherwise ‘backward’ peoples. He already possessed a low opinion of Palestinian Arabs, partly because of their support for the Ottoman Turks in World War 1.
In his racial world view, while the Jews and Zionists represented the forces of enlightenment, the Arabs (particularly the Palestinian Arabs) were backward, uncivilised and anti British. He entirely rejected the charge that the Jewish pioneers had displaced indigenous Arab peoples. He believed that the economic progress in Palestine, whereby the desert was made to bloom and new industries develop, gave the Jews a superior right to possess the land. It was one of the reasons why he urged the British government not to renounce the Palestine mandate in the inter war years.
But Churchill also understood the deep and abiding historical connection between the Jews and the Holy Land. In the White paper of 1922, he wrote that the Jews were in Palestine ‘as of right, and not by sufferance’ based on their ‘ancient historical connection.’
When he was confronted in 1921 by a hostile Palestinian delegation who urged him to renounce the Balfour Declaration, he impressed on them that Jews ‘should have a national centre and a National Home,’ adding: ‘Where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated.’ Today few Western politicians would express their support for Israel using such romantic sentiments. Perhaps for this reason Churchill deserves to be remembered as one of the foremost Gentile Zionists of his day.
Obama has failed to learn the folly of appeasement. 17 September 2009
70 years ago this month, Hitler’s invasion of Poland exposed the bitter follies of the policy of appeasement. A series of cynical, short sighted concessions were made to a totalitarian leader whose appetite for conquest was insatiable.
In recent months, events have shown that Western statesmen have learnt little from the past. The release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbasset Ali El Megrahi, appears to have been part of a cynical deal to secure British business interests in Libya. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw accepted the argument that unless they sanctioned a prisoner transfer agreement in which El Megrahi was included, the Libyans would jeopardize the UK’s ‘fundamental interests.’
Yet in retrospect this appears absurd. For it was surely also in Libya’s fundamental interests not to scupper an oil exploration deal that would harvest billions of petro dollars for the regime. For as the Libyan Europe Minister, Abdulati al-Obeidi, recently admitted, “Libya also looks out for its interests and to cease the BP deal is not in our interests." One cannot escape the conclusion that the supine behaviour of the Foreign Office and our Prime Minister was both squalid and unnecessary.
In recent months, Washington has been guilty of a similar folly in its dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Obama, in a break with his predecessor, committed himself to unconditional negotiation with his country’s sworn enemies. In his own words, he sought to ‘unclench the fists’ of these countries and their bellicose leaders. That included direct US negotiation with Iran over its plans for nuclear status.
This pursuit of negotiation came despite years of failed talks between Iran and the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) in which the latter nations had offered the Islamic Republic one incentive after another to end its nuclear programme. Despite the offers it received, the regime remained defiant with President Ahmadinejad, echoing his boss Ali Khamenei, swearing that it was his country’s inalienable right to be a nuclear power. Obama was so committed to these talks that he refused, for at least a fortnight, to openly condemn Tehran’s brutal suppression of pro reform demonstrators.
But if Obama was not willing to sanction criticism of this tyrannical behaviour, what further leverage would he give to Iran’s leaders on other issues? The President appears to have laboured under the delusion that if only he kept quiet about Iranian brutality, some great diplomatic prize would be dangled before him. To that end, he recently accepted Iranian demands for one to one talks on a range of issues, the first such negotiations for three decades.
Now, to the chagrin of Western observers, President Ahmadinejad has ruled out any discussion of the nuclear issue at these talks. In the President’s words, "Having peaceful nuclear technology is Iran's lawful and definite right and Iranians will not negotiate with anyone over their undeniable rights." In other words, despite unconditional American largesse and a President willing to re-engage with Muslim nations, Iranian intransigence remains unchanged. That is because no amount of soft diplomacy can alter the regime’s fundamental determination to dominate the region, using its nuclear status as leverage and various terror groups as its willing proxies. And in the absence of a robust American foreign policy, the Iranians now have time to enrich uranium until they build their first atomic weapon. According to some reports, this is now an imminent possibility.
While the repercussions of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities are grave, they pale into insignificance compared with the prospect of a nuclear Islamic Republic. In the face of an intransigent Iranian regime, Obama’s use of ‘soft power’ and appeasement is fast crumbling. It is time that he, and his Western colleagues, learnt the lessons of history.
Why the verbal pogrom? 19 November 2009
We are living through a period of unremitting hostility to Israel. The reputation of the Jewish state is under assault like never before with its very existence challenged on a daily basis. No other country on earth is subjected to the same barrage of calumnies in the court of international opinion.
What factors could explain this incessant ‘verbal pogrom’? Could it be due to a resurgence of anti semitism or might it reflect much deeper shortcomings in our own culture? According to Robin Shepherd, in his new book, A state beyond the pale, the answer is more complex than we might imagine. Shepherd provides a horrific reminder of the onslaught that is underway. During Operation Cast Lead, Israel was regularly compared to Nazi Germany. Conservative MP Sir Peter Tapsell declared that Israel’s policies in Gaza were ‘gravely reminiscent of the Nazi atrocity on the Jewish quarter of Warsaw’ while the Vatican’s peace and justice minister said that Gaza resembled ‘a big concentration camp.’
In recent years, Israel has been compared to racist South Africa while critics refer to the security barrier as an ‘apartheid wall.’ The words ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘war crimes’ are so regularly applied to Israeli actions that they scarcely raise an eyebrow anymore. Shepherd is in a good position to observe this irrationality, having worked for influential think tanks on the Continent as well as being Moscow Bureau Chief for The Times.
Much of this demonisation comes from the radical left whose raison d’etre is to smear and vilify the opposition. As Shepherd says ‘The totalitarian mind is energised by the need to hate.’ And as a pro American, militarised, capitalist nation state, imbued with religious values and fighting a non Western enemy, Israel has become the ultimate whipping boy for these embittered radicals. But Shepherd points to a more disturbing reality. While this discourse has been driven by the hard left, it has also seeped through the arteries of the mainstream media, influencing Europe’s opinion forming classes. Thus a paper as influential as the Financial Times felt able to lambast Israel’s tactic of ‘collective punishment’ in Gaza, declaring afterwards that there was ‘no debate to be had about it.’ Leading politicians across Europe have joined charities, trade unions, NGOs and churches in regurgitating the left’s vile discourse.
Clearly this hysteria is not confined to the fringes. But is this due to a resurgence of anti semitism now dressed up in ‘respectable’ garb? Here Shepherd makes a useful distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ anti semitism. The former refers to those who start out hating Jews and who apply that hatred and bigotry to Jewish causes, including Israel. The latter refers to bigoted positions which may not be motivated by anti semitism. In the irrational diatribes against Israel, we are seeing objectively racist discrimination against the Jewish state but its core motives are more complex.
The problem, as Shepherd sees it, is civilisational. Europe is beset by a series of ‘pathologies’ which render it incapable of defending its core values. The European Union, founded on the promise of outlawing war, harbours an inherent distrust of nations that unilaterally exercise power. The ruling assumption is that conflict resolution must proceed by discussion and negotiation, preferably guided by the dictates of international law. Indeed, opinion polls consistently show that only a minority of Europeans believe there could ever be a just war. If nationalism has been expunged from the European project, so too has Christian belief. Europe’s avowedly secular elites have airbrushed religion from Europe’s Constitution, replacing it with the moribund philosophy of multiculturalism.
Shepherd neatly sums up the Continent’s state of exhaustion: ‘Belief has given way to relativism; passion to apathy; resolve to appeasement.’ In this state of intellectual and moral lethargy, it is hardly surprising that Europe’s intelligentsia find it so hard to defend a Jewish state which adopts, as it must, such a robust response to terror. The problem is exacerbated by the presence of a vocal and radicalised minority of European Muslims. While their attitudes to Israel exhibit the most strident bigotry and anti semitism, Europe’s response is marked by cowardice and denial. In 2003 a report from the European Monitoring Centre for racism and xenophobia concluded that rising anti semitism was mainly due to young Muslims. The EU tried to suppress the report because, in the EUMC’s words, ‘it clashed with political correctness.’ But
Robin Shepherd has little time for muddle headed thinking or political correctness. He analyses the current hysteria over Israel with elegance and clarity while his research is meticulous at all times. This stimulating volume may just prove to be one of the most incisive political commentaries of our times.
Game of cat and mouse is gifting Iran time. 26 November 2009
One month ago, the deadline passed for Iran to respond to a deal on its nuclear programme. Under the terms of the deal, Iran was required to ship the bulk of its low enriched uranium to Russia where it would have been processed and returned to Tehran for purely civilian purposes. It was hardly a perfect deal for it would have allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium, the very thing that has so worried Western observers.
Having prevaricated for a number of weeks, the Iranians have now signalled that they will not accept the offer. This behaviour comes as no surprise. It has been the standard diplomatic manoeuvre from a government which has constantly played a tactical game of cat and mouse with the West. Since 2003, the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) have tried to persuade Iran to give up enriching uranium in return for generous economic concessions.
But while Iran’s diplomats have been stringing along their European counterparts, her scientists have been busy designing warheads and testing explosives. In the IAEA’s annual reports, Iranian leaders are regularly accused of evasiveness, concealment and lack of transparency. President Ahmadinejad has been remarkably adept at this form of cat and mouse diplomacy. While recently declaring that his country would ‘not retreat one iota on the undeniable rights of the Iranian nation’ he has spoken warmly of establishing ‘international nuclear cooperation.’ Put simply, he has offered a phoney olive branch to anyone naïve enough to accept it.
Now that diplomacy is spent, the West can respond to the Iranian threat in two ways: sustained economic pressure or military action. In regard to the former, UN sanctions have been imposed on Iran for the last three years but these have been watered down under pressure from Russia and China. Nor does the current mood music from Moscow and Beijing suggest any major change of heart. A month ago, Sergei Lavrov declared that new sanctions against Iran could prove ‘counterproductive’ while China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, praised the ‘cooperation in trade and energy’ between his country and Tehran. Any sanctions proposed by the US and her allies are therefore likely to be weakened by a determined Sino-Russian axis.
As for the latter option, Washington appears to have backed away from a military attack since at least 2006, fearful of the political repercussions. No one should underestimate how Iran would respond to a strike on its nuclear facilities. A vengeful Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz, choking off the flow of oil and disrupting an already beleaguered world economy. Her leaders might also respond to a unilateral strike by staging terror attacks in the Middle East and beyond, using proxies like Hezbullah for good measure. Worrying as this scenario is, the consequences of an Iranian bomb would be much worse. A nuclear Iran could bully its oil producing neighbours at will, threaten US troops in Iraq and deepen instability across the Middle East.
The country could also pass nuclear technology to terrorists, igniting a regional conflagration that would empower Islamic extremists across the globe. A regional arms race would inevitably follow. It can hardly be in the interests of Russia or China to face this danger with equanimity.
Given President Ahmadinejad’s blood curdling rhetoric, the Israeli government understandably views an Iranian bomb with the deepest alarm. But Iran’s nuclear programme is not just an existential threat to the Jewish state; it is a threat to the world. Iran’s defiance can only be countered by rigorous sanctions (i.e. on refined petroleum) or the serious threat of military action. No other options should be on the table.
Facing this kind of sustained pressure, Iran’s leaders might just see sense and abandon their illicit nuclear programme. Thus far, however, world leaders have been lethally divided, gifting Iran the most precious commodity of all - time. Unless our statesmen wake from their stupor, they will soon find that the Iranians have used that commodity to devastating effect.
A terrorists for Shalit swap will only encourage more violence. 31 October 2009
Ever since his abduction in June 2006, Israelis have yearned for the return of Gilad Schalit. For over three years this young man has been held without access to the Red Cross, a clear violation of international humanitarian law. In recent weeks, there has been fevered speculation about an imminent deal involving the release of nearly 1,000 Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails, a policy that has the apparent backing of a strong majority in Israel.
Yet while Israel faces a gruesome dilemma, this policy is a tragic blunder. For starters, it will rejuvenate the Hamas leadership whose genocidal desire to eradicate the Jewish state will hardly be assuaged. This is likely to be the case even if, as expected, Marwan Barghouti is one of those released. They will likely treat their prisoners as returning heroes, offering them the kind of glamorous reception that was showered on the unrepentant child killer, Samir Quntar. This is bad news for Israel but a massive boon to Iran and the jihadist movement worldwide.
Furthermore, this asymmetric ‘terrorists for prisoner’ swap will only bolster Hamas’ determination to kidnap more Israelis in the certain knowledge that such actions will bring handsome dividends. Huge numbers of new recruits will reinforce the already swollen ranks of Palestinian terror, exacting untold harm on innocent Israelis. Anyone doubting this should look very carefully at the facts on prisoner exchanges. Since 1985 over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners serving time for hostile activities or terror actions have been released from Israeli jails, usually in the context of prisoner swaps.
According to the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, ‘about 50 percent of the terrorists freed returned to the path of terror, either as a perpetrator, planner or accomplice.’ No deal can be justified when it creates a greater danger to civilians in the long run or when it incentivises further acts of hostage taking. Yet this is the awful form of 'moral hazard' that Israel must confront. By signalling her desire to meet Hamas’ unreasonable demands, Israel’s deterrent strength is being eroded.
Supporters of this deal usually respond with the same question: How could any Israeli Prime Minister look the Schalit parents in the eye and tell them that their son was not coming home? But there are surely more pressing questions to consider. How could that same Prime Minister justify to bereaved parents the premature release of the blood-thirsty terrorist who had murdered their child? How could those parents possibly believe that justice had been served by such a decision? Furthermore how could that Prime Minister justify to future victims of terror a decision to release more cold hearted killers whose raison d’etre was to murder Jews?
Israeli leaders have been facing just this dilemma for nearly 30 years, reflecting a generational shift in strategic thinking. For in the 1970s, such deals with terrorists would have been seen as unconscionable. During this decade, the world was transfixed by a global campaign of Palestinian terror. Aeroplanes were hijacked, synagogues were bombed and city centres became scenes of carnage and bloodshed. Yet in the face of this murderous onslaught, Europe’s governments retreated into spineless appeasement, releasing Palestinian murderers in return for empty promises that their own nationals would be spared. Naturally, a succession of Israeli governments condemned this craven diplomacy, believing it would create incentives for further terror. They were proved right as the spate of kidnappings and hostage incidents only increased. But throughout the 1980s and 1990s they changed tack, releasing thousands of Palestinian prisoners for their own captured soldiers, or the remains of those soldiers.
The baleful consequences are there for all to see. Israel certainly has a responsibility to all its soldiers, especially those who are facing captivity. But it has an even greater responsibility not to put its other citizens in harm’s way. One must never countenance ‘any’ price for the return of hostages.
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