Friday, May 20, 2011

A Letter to the Secretary of State for Defence

Last Sunday (15 May), I was at a wonderful conference called 'We Believe in Israel'. It was held in London, and almost 2000 people were there. The choice of sessions was overwhelming: it seemed hard to miss a good one.

The plenary session in the morning was opened by a speech by Dr. Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence, a man rightly praised for his pro-Israel attitudes. However, on this occasion, he said a number of things that sparked a very negative response on the part of half or more of his audience, who booed him. I'm sure he was taken aback, thinking that most of what he had to say was designed to please a Zionist crowd.

Afterwards, I felt he needed a briefing on what had gone wrong, but I wasn't sure where he'd get one. Whoever had advised him when preparing his speech had got several points badly wrong, and I wasn't sure that he would turn to the Israeli embassy or anyone else who might explain things. So I wrote a long letter in an attempt to bring some clarity into his life. The letter is on its way to the Ministry of Defence, and I hope he reads it.

It won't do any harm to spread knowledge of this letter more widely, so here it is. Any comments will be helpful. And, no, my timing was wrong, so there's no reference to Obama's horrendous call for Israel to return to the Auschwitz borders.

Rt. Hon. Dr. Liam Fox
Secretary of State for Defence

Dear Dr. Fox,

I have just returned from the ‘We Believe in Israel’ Conference, held in London on Sunday. Your opening speech to a large and sometimes hostile audience was impressive and, for the most part, nuanced, and I want to congratulate you on it and, rather belatedly, on your address to this year’s Herzliya Conference, which was outstanding. Your love for Israel and the support you offered her were obvious from the outset. If only more politicians could see this matter as you do…..

But you must have been dismayed and somewhat puzzled by the reception some of your remarks received. It may have seemed unfair to have such a pro-Israel speech countered in parts by hostile voices, and that is to be regretted. But there is, I think, a silver lining, in that this provides an opportunity to explain why those matters were deemed contentious by fifty per cent or more of your audience. Given the overall composition of that audience, it’s clear that they enjoyed and agreed with the largest part of what you said. I don’t doubt that, if asked, everyone would have agreed that your heart was in the right place, but that you had been misled, as often as not by nuggets of received wisdom which most or all of us think mistaken. So, what about the other passages?

The first one to draw my attention was your eulogy of British treatment of Jews and then Israelis during the Mandate and around the time of Israeli independence. I don’t have access to your text, but I remember that you spoke highly of British support for Jews and unprejudiced assistance in the creation of Israel. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite, and I say this with sorrow as a British patriot willing to defend this country on a broad front. After the White Paper of 1939, Britain closed Palestine to almost all Jews. This had an immediate impact, since it prevented thousands of European Jews trying to flee the impending catastrophe in their homelands, shutting off what might have been their safest place of refuge. After the war, Britain imprisoned many thousands of concentration camp survivors in camps on Cyprus and turned back attempts by other Jews to land on the shores of the Mandate. In 1948, as the Israeli war of independence was about to break out, Britain threatened to intervene on the side of Egypt. At the same time, Britain left forts, weapons and ammunition for the Arabs and nothing for the Jews, with the strong implication that they hoped for an Arab victory, which would drive the Jews out of the country. During that war, Transjordan’s army was led by thirty-eight British officers. And there has long been a perception that, like the Quai d’Orsay, Britain’s Foreign Office has always been strongly pro-Arab.

I’m sure you can appreciate why your expression of a rose-tinted picture of British-Jewish and British-Israeli relations did not go down too well with those parts of your audience who were aware of these more negative facts. However, let me add that, in the many years I have been privy to Israel advocacy circles, I have never come across anti-British sentiments. You are doubtless aware of that yourself. All I would ask, then, is a greater measure of consciousness on your part. Some measured affirmation of the difficulties Britain has caused the Jews down the years would go a long way to winning approval from similar audiences in future.

Now I must address those three issues about which Sunday’s audience grew vocal in disagreement. These were three areas on which your listeners felt you had misrepresented the facts, not about past history, but about matters that touch more nearly on the present day and the hopes for a valid peace process. I hope I did not misunderstand you in any of these.

1967 borders
At one point you stated that any final settlement would require Israel to return to her 1967 borders. That is not true. The relevant UN resolution 242, whose chief author was the British peer Lord Caradon, affirmed the principle that there should be ‘withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict’. That resolution was accepted by Israel but flatly rejected by the PLO, a rejection that lies at the root of later conflicts. As you may know, Caradon and his fellow drafters deliberately omitted the definite article before the word ‘territories’, leaving the interpretation of which lands should be vacated by Israel to future negotiations. He did so because he knew the 1967 borders were ‘inadequate’ and exposed Israel to attack on its eastern flank. No Israeli government will ever accept a return to those borders, nor will they be compelled to do so in any future negotiations.

Famously, the late Abba Eban referred to the pre-war 1967 lines as ‘Auschwitz borders’, because they exposed Israel to attack: ‘We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz. We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June, 1967, if we had been defeated; with Syrians on the mountain and we in the valley, with the Jordanian army in sight of the sea, with the Egyptians who hold our throat in their hands in Gaza. This is a situation which will never be repeated in history.’

Certainly, there are few topics in the Israel-Palestine debate more contentious than this one. There is almost universal condemnation of Jewish settlements, from the White House to the UN to the EU. Your statement on Sunday that called the settlements as ‘illegal’ and an ‘obstacle to peace’ was not therefore unusual in that context, but you will recall how much disagreement it provoked in the hall. You can hardly be blamed for expressing an opinion that is so widely shared, but I do think you should pause to ask if what you said is true.

A close examination of the claim of illegality will show where the fallacy lies. The settlements are not illegal. Controversial, certainly, and, in the case of the tiny, trailer-camp units, as much condemned in Israel as outside. The legal defence is simple. When Israel entered the West Bank (Samaria and Judaea) in 1967, it did so to protect its own citizens from attack by Jordan. In such a situation, occupation is provoked and justified by enemy aggression. British occupation of part of Germany in 1945 was, by the same argument, wholly legal, and has never been challenged. The West Bank had previously been illegally annexed by Jordan in 1950, following its conquest in the 1948-49 conflict. Thus, in 1967, the Israelis did not occupy Jordanian sovereign territory. Nor did they occupy sovereign Palestinian territory since the Palestinians had not acted on earlier resolutions to establish an Arab state alongside Israel. This means that the West Bank is merely ‘disputed territory’, not illegally occupied sovereign land.

Apart from this, it should not be forgotten that the Jewish people have a long connection to Judaea and Samaria, a connection that long precedes Arab conquest in the 7th century. In the 20th century, several settlements were set up with full legal recognition, in places like Neve Ya’cov and the Etzion Bloc, or older habitations like Hebron. Neve Ya’cov was forcibly abandoned when it faced attack from Jordanian troops in 1948 and was occupied by Jordan. Only when Jews returned there after 1967 was any question raised about legality. The same is true of the Etzion Bloc (Gush Etzion).

I do recognize that, in your position as a member of the UK government, you cannot say that the settlements are not illegal’, but on Sunday I think a more nuanced expression might have helped allay people’s fears that, despite your public Zionism, you subscribed to the accusation of illegality. This is not easy territory, but it is territory about which Israel cannot afford to back down. It is all but certain that any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will result in an acceptance of the major settlements as part of Israel, in exchange – it has been suggested – for unoccupied areas of comparable size.. More worrying than the Israeli retention of little more than 5% of Arab land is the current Palestinian position, which refuses to have even a single Jew living in its territory. This may prove a major obstacle in the case of Hebron, where the small Jewish population is already subject to severe restrictions. In Israel, of course, Arabs form some 20% of the population, with equal rights under the Constitution.

A touchier topic, on the whole, than settlements, and with the potential to upset an audience like Sunday’s. But this is less clear-cut than the other issues, since the future status of Jerusalem is entirely negotiable. In some ways, the issue revolves less around legality and more around religion and emotion on both sides, though more, I think, the city’s centrality to Judaism, I suggest, is more relevant than its historical character for Muslims. I should, perhaps, explain that I’m a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies and that I have a keen sense of what is involved here. For Jews, it is not just the division of the city (something you consider necessary) that is hard to contemplate, but the way that division would take place. By taking East Jerusalem, the Palestinians would gain complete control over the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the world for Jews. Despite cries to the contrary, neither Jerusalem nor the Temple Mount have ever had much importance for Muslims or Arabs. In the early phase of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers prayed towards Jerusalem, following the practice of the Jews in Medina. But about ten months after his move to Medina, he abruptly swung right round during prayers to face Mecca, literally turning his back on Jerusalem. There is even a verse in the Qur’an which records this change of direction and states that it is preferable to the previous one. By contrast, Jewish worship has focused on the city from the time of King Solomon, and remained firmly fixed there throughout the long years of the diaspora. Given that Muslims have Mecca and Medina (both cities closed to Jews), Muslim control over east Jerusalem would be unjust and might lead to renewed conflict over the mere fact that it had fallen into non-Jewish hands.

In Jewish hands, Muslims would enjoy the same rights they already have of access to the twin mosques on the Mount, the al-Aqsa and the Qubbat al-Sakhra. Israeli treatment of non-Jewish holy places has always been exemplary. Haifa contains an extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage Site, which contains the gardens, shrines, and international headquarters of the Baha’i religion. In Iran, by contrast, all the Baha’i holy places have been bulldozed and built over, and their cemeteries trashed. That alone causes me to consider Israeli control preferable to any by the Islamic waqf authorities. The Waqf authorities are guided by shari’a law, whose principles form the foundation of the Palestinian Authority’s Basic Law. In general, shari’a rulings are deeply prejudicial to the rights of Jews and Christians, and give no status at all to the followers of any other religion. By contrast, the Israeli Law for the Protection of Holy Places (1967) provides a more equitable basis for the control of Muslim, Jewish and Christian sites throughout the Old City.

There is another reason for Jewish concern. In Hebron, you can visit the Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, secondary only to the Temple Mount in Jewish affection and veneration. I visited it in March, and was deeply impressed by this large building dating from the days of King Herod, i.e. the same period as Herod’s Second Temple, of which the Kotel or Western Wall remains. Because Hebron is chiefly Arab and Muslim, the Tomb, which is believed to be the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah, comes under Islamic control. The result is pitiable. Jews are allowed to use only 20 per cent of the edifice and are not allowed to improve or develop it in a seemly manner. Nor is any form of historical or archaeological research permitted. This naturally gives rise to concern for the Jewish and Christian sites in east Jerusalem should they be made subject to shari’a law, which is harsh regarding churches, synagogues, cemeteries, and other sacred sites.

This is difficult to put into political words, but it is immensely important to Jews who, after some two thousand years have regained a measure of access to their holiest sites only to see them at risk of being repossessed by the same people who banned them from entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs for 700 years. There has to be a better solution to the issue of Jerusalem, therefore, than a crude division of the city, which, incidentally, is mentioned some 700 times in the Bible but not once in the Qur’an.

I did not at first intend to write at such length, but the subjects demanded their say. I hope you will not interpret this as a letter of criticism: it is not. I understand that official UK policy on these matters makes it hard for you to introduce another note, however correct that might be. But I believe your work in this field would benefit from closer discussions from a representative grouping of pro-Israel activists, both Jews and non-Jews like myself. There is no shortage of organizations, and just about as many opinions. Nonetheless, I think the points I have made do come close to what most of us believe.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin