Magazine article The Spectator

Make the Wall the Border

Magazine article The Spectator

Make the Wall the Border

Article excerpt

Generals are often accused of preparing to fight the last war. The Israelis could now be accused of preparing to defend themselves against the Holocaust. In so doing, they are in danger of causing another one.

After the 1967 war, the Israelis were determined to use victory to enhance security. That was understandable. At its narrowest point, pre-1967 Israel was only 12 miles wide. One tank thrust from the West Bank could have cut the country in two. The Arabs had an endless supply of hapless conscripts and, in those days, Russian arms. Their political systems placed no constraint on casualties. They could afford to fight endless lost wars. One defeat would have destroyed Israel.

If the Israelis had required the demilitarisation of the West Bank plus the right to fly war planes across its airspace, they could have made a powerful moral case, and none of that would have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the Israelis went further. They planted settlers, in large numbers.

Within Israel there has always been a section of opinion which insists that the West Bank consists of Judaea and Samaria, two historic Jewish provinces which ought to be part of greater Israel. Though this has never been official government policy, Palestinians could be forgiven for thinking that it was the covert goal of several recent premiers: Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu and Sharon. It has often appeared as if Israel was determined to alter the facts on the ground by creating so many settlements that it would be impossible to withdraw from the West Bank. Especially in the new suburbs around Jerusalem, there is already a sense of permanence.

It is easy to be irritated by the Palestinians. Their spokesmen have never learnt how to win friends and influence people. Abba Eban said that Arafat never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity. That could serve as his epitaph. It would also be a good title for a short history of the Palestinian cause.

Yet there are excuses. People who have been treated badly rarely behave well. The Palestinians cannot be blamed for regarding themselves as the most undeserving victims of the second world war, though they had not even been belligerents. It was as if the West had decided to allow the Israelis to punish them for Germany's crimes. Hence decades of a choking sense of injustice, with spokesmen so lacerated by grievance that they could hardly be coherent. Hence, too, decades of intolerable behaviour: Palestinian-sponsored terrorism, Palestinian spokesmen and clerics who, deciding that they were being treated like Nazis, decided to talk like Nazis.

But however self-destructive the Palestinians often became, this does not absolve Israel and the West from responsibility for their plight. Nor does it prevent them undermining Western interests in the region. Throughout the Middle East, Palestine is a sore tooth: a potent source of political instability. The Palestinian question is making it almost impossible for Western spokesmen to receive a hearing. As soon as they talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, there is the inevitable riposte - 'what about Palestine?' - and the rest of the argument is buried under charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

A few years ago, there seemed to be some hope of an improvement. Despite his support for Israel, George Bush was also happy to speak about the need for a Palestinian state. As he is a man who tends to mean what he says and say what he means, this seemed promising, especially when he talked in terms of a road map to peace. …

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