Happy Days are Back Again

July 22, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict


It has been a terrible month for Israel’s reputation in Great Britain. The government has announced a partial arms embargo in protest of Operation Cast Lead. The Charity War on Want has held a launch event for a new book entitled Israeli Apartheid: A Beginners Guide. The Guardian has featured commentaries promoting the apartheid analogy as well as accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of using Nazi language to defend settlement policy. The BBC and other media outlets have given massive coverage to the recent Breaking the Silence report slamming the IDF for committing “war crimes.” Barely a day goes by without a new front being opened against the Jewish state.
Ismail Haniyeh, right, hands…

Those of us who follow such matters are always in danger of getting too close to our subject. But, given that the IDF is not involved in combat operations, I for one have never seen a period like it. On Friday, the Guardian ran two anti-Israel opinion pieces on one and the same day.

There’s something in the air. The Israel-haters smell blood, and they’re going in for the kill. It could be that we are on the threshold of a new era. But why now?

The simplest explanation is that the relentless, unremitting stream of anti-Israeli invective that has been pumped into the public mind in Britain over the last decade or so was always going to reach critical mass at some point. There is nothing particularly significant about the timing. The clock has been ticking for years. Israel’s time has simply come.

ULTIMATELY, THE simple explanation may be the best explanation. But there are a number of other factors now at play which may have helped bring the situation to a head.

First, the election of Barack Obama is perceived by many British opinion formers as heralding a refreshing new approach to Israel from the United States. For linguistic and historical reasons, political change in America is keenly felt in Britain. Obama’s comments calling for a freeze on the settlements have provided the pretext for a renewed assault on Israel in general using the American president’s huge popularity as cover.

Second, the election of Netanyahu combined with the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister have offered new opportunities to make the attack personal. Even for Israel’s most virulent detractors, it was not easy to mount a hate campaign against Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu has been demonized in Britain for years. Lieberman is portrayed as little better than a skinhead. The wolves have been thrown fresh meat.

Third, Foreign Secretary David Miliband has recently recast the tone of British pronouncements on the Middle East and relations with the Islamic world in a way that serves the broader agenda of Israel’s opponents. For example, in a speech in Oxford in May and reported in the Guardian, he spoke of abjuring distinctions between “moderates and extremists” – a line that, despite Foreign Office denials, was widely interpreted as potentially paving the way for talks with Hamas and other militant groups. He also referred to “ruined crusader castles,” “lines drawn on maps by colonial powers” and to the failure “to establish two states in Palestine.”

Miliband cannot be held entirely responsible for the way his words are interpreted. But it is precisely in such guilty, post-colonial terms that Israel’s opponents in Britain have always talked. To hear their own kind of language echoing back at them from the leading figure in the UK foreign policy establishment is likely to embolden them further.

Fourth, in a country whose opinion formers still fulminate about the invasion of Iraq – sometimes portrayed as a venture inspired by Israel and Zionist neoconservatives in America – the Netanyahu government’s hard line stance on Iran has got the alarm bells ringing again. Are we going to get sucked in to yet another war in the Middle East for the benefit of Israel, they ask.

Fifth, Netanyahu’s new emphasis on insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state is pushing Israel’s opponents against the wall and forcing them to declare themselves with greater clarity. Of course, this does not just apply to Britain. But as a country whose opinion forming classes rank among the most hostile to Israel in the Western world, the move has provoked a particularly hysterical reaction. Since the Palestinians have made it clear that they have no intention of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, British opponents of Israel have been forced to choose between accepting that Palestinian rejectionism forms the real root cause of the conflict or themselves rejecting the Jewish character of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise to boot.

PUT ALL of these factors together and it becomes easier to understand why a situation which was awful to begin with has deteriorated so rapidly.

The obvious question now is where next. With the partial arms embargo in mind, we should obviously be watching for an extension of formal sanctions. Outside the governmental sphere, it is a racing certainty that unions will renew efforts for trade and academic boycotts. Media hysteria will grow as each new assault on Israel’s integrity helps legitimize and validate the next. For the Jews of Britain, the prospect of increasing anti-Semitism against this backdrop is all too real.

The darkness is closing in.

The writer is director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society in London. His book, A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, will be published in September.