Saturday, May 19, 2007

What Policy for Britain in the Middle East?

The following is a draft article by William Morris - comments and suggestions please.

The great YMCA building in Jerusalem, built by an American with Scottish funding a century ago to be a celebration of hope for Arab and Jew has a motto carved in stone in its chapel wall. It reads:

In essentials unity,
In non-essentials, liberty,
In all thine charity.

Words to build a peace worth dying for.

But now we see blood on blood for nothing as Arab fights Arab in Gaza and as the enduring Arab conflict with the Jewish people celebrates the forty years since the June '67 war and the near 60 years since a resurgent Jewish state was forged in the Middle East back in 1948.

Meanwhile, to cap it all, the West has its own blood spattered war with the Arabs in Iraq.

And we ask what British policy should be?

The British once understood the Middle East. That clearly is no longer the case. They do not even understand their key Mid East ally, Israel.

Israel is about to lose its premier, Mr Ehud Olmert. He should hang on until August and the publication of the full unexpurgated version of the report on the Lebanon war. And with regard to the summer 2006 war with Hezbollah, let's not mince words. Many in the Arab World view this as a war with Lebanon in so much as Hezbollah is Lebanon's dominant political force and is intrinsically Lebanese. And quite astonishingly this was a war which Israel lost. They may pretend differently in the corridors of power but every Israeli knows, in their heart of hearts, what the truth is. Two sides can lose a war. Both the marginalised current government of Lebanon and the State of Israel. The victor was Hezbollah. Note importantly that Britain and America compounded Israel's strategic mistake by resisting calls for an early cease-fire. And today Hezbollah has over 15 unspent rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv (the CIA estimate) and perhaps as many as 200 (the Iranian boast). The number is irrelevant. No one will now bomb Iran, the nation that has become the most powerful of the triumvirate of Mid East superpowers, the other two being Israel and Turkey.

But what nation represents the key to a safer world? Not Iraq, not Iran, not Palestine, and certainly not Turkey. Not Japan, not the Europe, not even the USA, and certainly not Britain.

No, it is Israel. It always was and always will be. We can all lie safer in our beds from Baghdad to Brighton if there is peace between Israel and the Arab World.

Should we see the coalition collapse in Israel in August, the ensuing general election will bring Mr Bibi Netanyahu to power. You want the nuances go and read Haaretz. I am giving you the broad brush strokes as explained to me by that wily old fox Ari Rath, the former Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Post.

As Ari tells it, we may see a softer Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi the peacemaker. Bibi is after all ever the pragmatist. He lost the leadership twice through being too hard line. Once against Barak in that period when Israel had directly elected premier. Barak got 1,900,000 votes against Bibi's 1,400,000. Then he lost out again a couple of years back. Remember the Likud internal elections when he challenged Sharon's insistence on a Palestinian state? To cut a long story short, Sharon set up Khadima whilst in the same breath pulling out of Gaza. Sharon then fell into a coma but in the ensuing general election Netanyahu was almost slaughtered (reduced to twelve seats, the smallest ever faction of the Likud).

So we may see a softer Netanyahu, if we get Netanyahu that is.

The coalition that now governs Israel is scarred witless at the prospect of a snap general election. They want to hold on 'till 2008 to give themselves time to pull a rabbit out of the hat and thus gain electoral credibility. So they are casting around for a substitute premier once Olmert goes, as in all likelihood he will have to in August after the final Winograd report.

All the sensible money was on Foreign Minister Tzipi Leevni until she made a fool of herself by telling Olmert that he should resign and in the next breath announcing that she would stay and serve with him as Prime Minister when he then refused to resign. It is hard to know who will win through given today's Israel but, and this is a tip from me, watch Meir Shitrit if you are a betting man and want to put money on an outsider.

The point being, the coalition will go to all this effort to buy time to save themselves from Bibi. What rabbit is big enough to climb out of the hat and punch Bibi out of the ring? You've got it. Peace with the Arabs in some dramatic shape or form (some sort of accommodation with Palestine included). There really is nothing else.

Everyone, including Olmert, in Israel's beleaguered coalition is mouthing the word peace in hushed whispers behind closed doors. Like a shoal of pouting goldfish behind plate glass, you can't hear them clearly but they mean it. When Olmert goes the current rush for peace will become a stampede. Will it succeed? Maybe not but the opportunity is there.

Given which, will the USA stand in Israel's way? No. Absolutely not. America has a lame duck president emasculated by his defeat in Iraq. You want such a man should stand against Israel? Forget it.

So where does Britain's interest lie? Simple. Stand firm with Israel's remoulded coalition. Forget Olmert and Bibi. One is the past and one is the distant future. Help the peacemakers of tomorrow. 2008 is a lifetime away. Let the incoming Tory government play with Bibi after the next UK general election. Meanwhile our new British Premier, Mr Gordon Brown, must ally himself closely with the new leader of Israel - the new coalition leader. That leader may be current Housing Minister Meir Shitrit, or current Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, or current Foreign Minister Tzipi Leevni. Even old Shimon Peres is a possibility despite his public protestations to the contrary. But there are no other contenders. Britain, if she helps and supports the eventual winner, and does so effectively, can become the oil in the ill-meshing cogs of the ensuing peace process. Britain can do no greater service to the Arab World.

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