A defining feature of modern Britain is the incredible rudeness of its television presenters. That media inquisitors should be persistent and not allow public figures to get away with evasive answers is understood. But there’s a world of difference between doggedly pursuing answers and plain rudeness.
A couple of days after the Israeli military action on the high seas off Gaza last month led to the unfortunate deaths of nine Turkish “peace activists”, I happened to watch the news on Channel 4, a station established in the 1980s to accommodate ‘alternative’ perspectives. The newscaster, Jon Snow, well known for his colourful ties, and who is iconic enough to be deified in the National Portrait Gallery, was visibly angry at what he regarded as Israeli high-handedness. More to the point, he made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to conceal his displeasure.
One of the guests invited to give the ‘other side’ of the story was a functionary from the Israeli embassy in London. In moments like these, the job of an embassy spokesman is unenviable: he has to appear convincing, unflappable and yet not be unduly smug. I personally thought the gentleman faced up to the aggressive barrage rather well. That was until Snow confronted him with the possibility of what would happen if another flotilla of ‘peace’ boats made their way to Gaza. The diplomat was firm that Israel wouldn’t permit it. An angry Snow retorted that a Turkish minister had announced Ankara would send a battleship to accompany the next flotilla. “Will you risk war?” he asked the Israeli spokesman belligerently.
The diplomat looked puzzled and politely retorted that there was no possibility of Turkey doing that. Why don’t you get on the phone, snapped Snow, and find out whether Turkey is planning to do precisely that? And then, barely concealing his displeasure, he abruptly terminated the conversation.
That would have been the end of this story. However, barely half a minute before the programme ended, Snow peremptorily clarified that there was no suggestion that Turkey was planning to send a battleship to engage Israeli coastguards in a naval battle.
To my mind, a mild ‘sorry’ was in order. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, the lack of generosity has become the norm. Strangely, for a country that was once seen as the doughty success story of West Asia, an oasis of enlightenment amid the cruel harshness of the desert, Israel has become a near-pariah. The paradox is that this transformation has taken place despite Israel’s success in ensuring that its right to exist is now acknowledged by most countries in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. Unlike the situation that prevailed for the first three decades of Israel’s existence, even Islamic countries are disinclined to frown upon countries such as India that have healthy diplomatic and commercial relations with Tel Aviv (or, should we say, Jerusalem).
The suggestion that this shift in perception — to the extent that even a writer such as Amitav Ghosh is pilloried for accepting an award from a university in Tel Aviv — has to do with the plight of the Palestinians is only partly true. Till the Six-Day War in 1967 put an end to all Arab hopes of defeating Israel militarily, many Palestinians seriously believed that the clock of history could be turned back and that the region could return to its pre-Balfour Declaration status. Today, the moderate Palestinian leadership —the successors of Yasser Arafat —tacitly recognize that Israel is there to stay and that the second-best but realistic solution is to settle for a Palestinian State that includes the West Bank and Gaza.
The tragedy, as the Israeli statesman, Abba Eban, rued in 1973, is that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Arafat’s nerves failed him in Camp David when the former American president, Bill Clinton, almost hammered out a settlement, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is wary of open engagement with Israel, fearful as he is of being made even more irrelevant by Hamas and the rising tide of Islamism. The Palestinian leadership is a pathetic victim of its own prolonged posturing.
Israel, on its part, is equally fearful of giving legitimacy to Hamas. The militant Islamist militia is yet to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Unlike the old Palestine Liberation Organisation which was ostensibly non-denominational, Hamas is infected by the post-9/11 Islamic radicalism and its propaganda and appeal reflect it.
It is recognized by all those who sanctimoniously urge Israeli ‘restraint’ on all occasions that a Hamas-controlled Palestinian State will inevitably become a staging post for Syrian and Iranian attacks on Israel. Already anxious about Hezbollah inroads in Lebanon, the last thing Israel wants is to subject the whole country to the sustained rocket fire once experienced by the towns adjoining Gaza. The fragility of Israel’s security demands an internationally guaranteed, demilitarized Palestinian State.
The prospects of this happening are becoming increasingly remote. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made extreme hostility to Israel a feature of its neighbourhood policy, adding Holocaust-denial to his dhobi list of visceral anti-Semitism. Egged on by his supreme leader, Ahmadinejad is now encouraging a Iranian Red Crescent flotilla to break the Gaza blockade.
Syria may not be on the same ideological wavelength as Iran but it too seeks an Israel that is in a state of permanent tension. And, to add to Israel’s woes, the pressure of Islamic radicals at home has forced Turkey to review its earlier ‘friendship’ with Israel. Having been rebuffed in its attempts to join the European Union (the reasons were entirely linked to its religious character), Turkey seems determined to live up to the stereotype that was unjustly pinned to it. Indeed, the emotional upsurge in the aftermath of the Gaza crisis may well make it increasingly difficult for Kemal Atatürk’s legacy to withstand public pressure.
Those who fall back on moral indignation to denounce Israel’s harsh blockade of the Gaza strip seem unmindful of the country’s hostile surroundings. Yes, Israel would be wise to refrain from building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Equally, it can be patient in its plans for the whole of Jerusalem. However, it is worth asking whether the unconditional lifting of the Gaza blockade, the rollback of all West Bank settlements and the return of the capital to Tel Aviv will placate its opponents or convince them that the Jewish State is losing its nerve.
In a characteristically robust intervention, Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, put his country’s predicament in context. “We need to always remember that,” he said, “we aren’t North America or Western Europe; we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren’t second chances for those who don’t defend themselves.”
Barak, who has been blamed for Israel’s “disproportionate” response, wasn’t talking a language that goes down well in the West, and certainly not with the campus radicals who seem to be driving international responses. However, while the West seems inclined to fight the clash of civilizations with constant accommodation and a show of guilt — which explains why Israel has effortlessly fitted into the slot vacated by apartheid South Africa — the stakes for the Jewish State are higher. For the West, multicultural benevolence is a decadent indulgence; for Israel, resisting religion-inspired aggression is a question of survival.