| Balfour's Declaration: seeds of suffering
Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar's view of the Middle East is governed by his sense of balance and abhorrence of violence and extremism. A long-term Arabist and supporter of the Palestinian cause, his early support for Israel, as editor of the pro-Israeli Spectator magazine in the mid- to late Fifties, was transformed by his disgust over the Suez crisis and a metamorphosis in his perception of Israel as a peace-loving country. His distaste for aggression encompasses the 'cynical alliance of fundamental Christians and pro-Israelis' in the United States of America; instigators of the so-called 'War on Terror'; propagators of the increased terrorism in the Middle East and its export to the rest of the world.
Lord Gilmour is a moderate man, notably at odds with the uncompromising obduracy of Lady Thatcher's premiership, when he served as her Lord Privy Seal following his post as secretary of state for defence under Ted Heath. His standing as a leading wet in the Heathite tradition is undiminished and he continues, through political authorship and attendance in the House of Lords, to demand attention for the more thoughtful and inclusive form of politics currently in short supply in this country.
When I met him this week, his gloom, regarding the standards of politicians in this country and governmental policy both here and abroad, was lightened by some small satisfaction in the prophetic accuracy of his speeches gainsaying the American and British declaration of war on Iraq and the conduct of that war since. He regards the war as a now proven means 'gratuitously to increase the number of terrorists' and points out that, while Saddam might have been a terrorist against his own people, Iraq had no terrorists of the kind portrayed as the enemy in the rhetoric of the 'War against Terror'.
The ill-effects of Western arrogance and ambition in the Middle East stretch back to the first crusade in the 11th century, since when we appear not to have progressed a great deal. The continuing conviction of some god-given right to interfere obscures clarity of vision and gives extreme violence a gloss of righteousness whilst sewing the dragon's teeth of a new breed of terrorist. The British and Western role in the Middle East since World War I has been ill-conceived in theory and clumsy in practice. The Western takeover of the region at that time frustrated the hopes of Arab nationalism and Lord Gilmour points to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 as the beginning of the misery of Palestine and the seed of the unending problems today. The declaration, in the form of a letter from Balfour to a leading British Jew, Lord Rothschild, was neither official government policy nor any more than a mistaken expression of intent. Initially expected to be ambiguous enough to avoid Arab offence, it stated:
'His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object. It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.'
For Balfour, who had experience of religious factions fighting over the same ground as chief secretary in Ireland, to produce such a document, was extraordinary and may be partially blamed on biblical influence overriding political reason. The declaration was the catalyst of a bitter future for the people of the biblical lands.
As Indians know all too well, existing political divisions were exacerbated after World War II by the arbitrary lines drawn on maps by distant politicians in the former colonial countries. The British were by then too weak to be effective in the Middle East and were ultimately driven out by Israeli terrorism. Strands branching from the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, grew into the multiple Arab terrorist organizations of today in answer to Zionist fanaticism. After Suez, Britain was regarded as a reasonably benevolent but unimportant player in the region although we retained treaties with Bahrain and Kuwait and had interests in the Gulf. We continued to support peace efforts, to little effect it is true, but with more honour than in our latest role as supporters of a bogus war in Iraq and co-purveyors of new violence to the region.
Lord Gilmour takes a somewhat charitable view of Tony Blair's support for George Bush's determination to go to war, allowing vanity and ignorance of the unholy neo-con/pro-Israeli alliance in the US as some excuse. It is his opinion that for those twitching the reins in Washington, the declaration of war on Iraq was no more than a step towards American/Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. Blair's fudging of the weapons of mass destruction issue was, on any reflection, ridiculous. As most people now understand, if Saddam possessed such weapons, his regime was too poor to deliver them and, in any case, what happened to the theory of deterrents' One bomb delivered from Iraq would have resulted in a hundred thrown back by the Americans and the Israelis. It is highly improbable that a self-preserving dictator would have risked it.
The idea of unseating Saddam on humanitarian grounds and thus being seen as the saviour of the Iraqi people may have had its merits but was not part of the true sequence of events. Blair had suggested to Saddam that openness and co-operation with weapons inspectors was the requirement to remain in power. The idea of destroying the dictator and bringing democracy to Iraq was a convenient and unbelievable afterthought. It is depressing to believe that Saddam might have been an improvement on the current status quo where the terrorism created by the war most effectively destroys hopes for an independent, democratic and united country.
If, Lord Gilmour believes, we had got out of Iraq immediately after the destruction of the regime, the situation would never have become as bad as it is now. He is convinced that we are doing more harm than good and that it is vital for the future of the country and the region that we leave. In the hypothetical event that both the British and the Americans withdraw before the problems escalate further, terrorism might initially rise, but it is reasonable to hope that dialogue between Iraqis would begin again in a united desire for renewal of their country. As it is, the new and much publicized constitution has received a yes vote from a population, most of whom have neither read nor understood it. The Kurds have voted for it believing it is a step towards an independent Kurdistan and the population in general has been instructed how to vote by the mullahs and has little sense of the consequences.
Unless Iraq is allowed to become genuinely independent and self-governing, we are on the verge of one of the most unsettled periods in the Middle East for a very long time. If the country splits, or nearly splits into three along religious and factional lines, its neighbours will inevitably become involved. Iran will meddle with the Shias; the Saudis, with their Shia minority, will become restive; and there will be chaos amongst the Syrian Kurds. Turkey above all will be concerned for the stability of the region and its role between the Muslim countries and its aspirations in Europe. The withdrawal of American and British forces offers a chance that the country will hold together as an independent state, reducing the chances of increased religious strife and the potential for territorial aggrandisement from Iran that is likely if Iraq remains an American satellite. A war fought on bogus grounds in the first place has created a potential boiling point for far greater destruction in an area where havoc is already the order of the day. Meanwhile the righteous alliance holds on while its soldiers are killed for a cause that never really existed.
Returning to our starting point, Lord Gilmour takes a grim view of the chances for peace across the Middle East when it depends largely on an end to the support of American politicians for Israeli aggression. All American political parties are pro-Israeli and, apart from the gun lobby, the pro-Israeli lobby is the most powerful in the US. The proselytizing of the democracy practised in Israel, the UK and the US as the path to peace in the Middle East and in the world, is refuted by the roles of those countries as the main aggressors of recent history.
At the moment, with no Palestinian entrance to East Jerusalem, it is quite impossible for there to be a Palestinian state. The problems of the Middle East began with the Balfour Declaration and not until there is a stop to the continuing Israeli theft of Palestinian land is there any chance of settlement. Since Ariel Sharon so publicly exited Gaza, he has stolen more land on the West Bank than the whole of Gaza and the Americans have allowed it to happen. Israel includes about 79 per cent of Palestine and has tried to destroy all Palestinian institutions and culture. It is absurd to suppose that there could be peace without giving the Palestinians East Jerusalem. Mahmoud Abbas, in his unhappy role as president of the Palestinian National Authority, cannot hope for the necessary support of the Palestinian militias unless the daylight robbery of their land and Israeli aggression cease. Lord Gilmour first met the late leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, in a slit trench in Jordan in 1968. Although in his last years, after outrageous treatment from Israel and its supporters, he was over the top and lacking in judgment, Arafat, in retrospect was perhaps the only man who could hold the Palestinians together.
At the end of World War II, was there a geographical solution that would have avoided the decades of violence caused by Zionist extremism and expansionism' Lord Gilmour knew the man most involved in the relocation of thousands of displaced Jews. As many as 75 per cent of them wanted to go to America but were prevented by President Truman who insisted on their going to Israel. He wrote in his memoirs:
'The question of Palestine as a Jewish homeland goes back to the solemn promise made to them [the Jews] by the British in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 ' a promise which had stirred the hopes and dreams of these oppressed people. This promise, I felt, should be kept, just as all promises made by responsible, civilised governments should be kept.'
Perhaps if the disastrous Balfour Declaration had been forgotten or the land of milk and honey sparsely populated by the Kibbutzim pastoralists of early Israeli propaganda, while the power brokers stayed in America, the picture of the Middle East today would be very different. If so, it would be easier to live with for those who carry much of the blame for its recent history.