Magazine article The Spectator

On Its Fiftieth Anniversary, Israel Is Visited by Our Lucky Prime Minister

Magazine article The Spectator

On Its Fiftieth Anniversary, Israel Is Visited by Our Lucky Prime Minister

Article excerpt

Success breeds success. It was almost inevitable that Mr Blair would have a good visit to the Middle East. Unlike his Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister knows how to conduct himself, and he arrived in the region with all the prestige conferred on him by the Ulster settlement. In the event, however, even the optimists were confounded. This would appear to be one of the most successful overseas trips ever made by a British prime minister. But this does not mean that he had a lasting impact on the Middle East.

Modern Israel was created 50 years ago in hope, out of tragedy. Never has a new state come into being with such high ideals; but even as Israel was born, the idealism became embroiled in ethnic conflict. For SO years, high-minded Israelis have been trying to reconcile their values with their security needs - and trying unsuccessfully. Not that high-mindedness is universal in Israel. The Netanyahu government's attitude to the other peoples of Palestine is generous, but only when compared to Joshua's.

There was a lost opportunity for peace after the Six Day War in 1967. The Israelis' territorial gains gave them enormous leverage. As the Arabs tried to exert diplomatic pressure to recover the occupied territories, it became harder and harder for them to maintain the fiction that the whole of Israel was an occupied territory. A couple of years after that, King Hussein and Moshe Dayan slipped into London for secret talks at Julian Amery's house in Eaton Square. The agenda was land for peace, but nothing came of it.

It is easy to understand Israel's reluctance to withdraw from the West Bank. The pre-1967 border had been only 12 miles from Tel Aviv; most Israelis felt much safer with their frontier on the Jordan. There would have been two further obstacles to a territorial settlement. With a handful of exceptions, even the minority of Israelis who would have been prepared to evacuate Gaza and the West Bank - subject to security guarantees -- would have been implacably opposed to relinquishing the Old City of Jerusalem, with its sacred sites. To avoid damaging them, the Israeli soldiers who overran the Old City used only small-arms, and thus suffered additional casualties. The arrival of the first Israeli troops at the Wailing Wall was the most emotionally charged event in the post-1948 history of Judaism. At least as regards the Old City, no Israeli government has ever been in a position to implement UN Resolution 242, on withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Then there is Gaza. It is possible to imagine the West Bank becoming a state. It is even conceivable - just - that statehood and the need to provide normal public services might have dampened the fires of irredentism. But the Gaza Strip is little more than a transit camp, and one for people with nowhere to go to; it might have been designed as a recruiting ground for fundamentalism.

As if the obstacles to a land for peace deal were not already almost insurmountable, there is a further, terminal, complication: the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The Americans might have been able to stop the settlement programmes, but the Israelis are much better at manipulating the American political process than the Americans are at controlling Israel.

It is hard for any Democrat to become president without Jewish votes and Jewish money, and most American presidents have only a fitful attention span when it comes to the intractabilities of the Muddle East. …

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