The merits of being on multiple, and contradictory, campaign mailing lists is that I get both sides of the story on Israel/Palestine dropping into my inbox each day.
Last week I was strongly encouraged to join demonstrations both fervently for and adamantly against the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to London.
Netanyahu was meeting British Prime Minister, David Cameron, at 10 Downing Street to discuss a ‘range of issues of common concern’ as the diplomatic correspondents like to put it.
The clue to the real purpose of the visit was in the emails I was receiving from both sides attempting to recruit my presence to demonstrate in Whitehall.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, our oldest and most respected communal body, wanted me to “STAND IN SOLIDARITY FOR ISRAEL” for the following reasons:
Despite ongoing campaigns of delegitimisation against the only democracy in the Middle East, trade is booming between the UK and Israel with the total value of trade and services between the two countries now over £4.5 billion a year. The UK is Israel’s second biggest export market after the US. Trade, science, culture and common values continue to propel ties to new heights.
So bring your British and Israeli flags and join us from 11am tomorrow as we celebrate this special relationship.
Meanwhile, my correspondence from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) also understood the likely business led agenda of the meeting but chose to set it in a rather different context from that given by the Board.
Netanyahu bears direct responsibility for the war crimes identified by the UN Human Rights Council following Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza last summer. More than 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children were killed by Israeli forces during that 50 day massacre, and much of Gaza was destroyed.
And yet the British Prime Minister will shake Netanyahu’s hand next Wednesday and doubtless discuss, among other things, more arms deals between the UK and Israel.
PLEASE JOIN THE PROTEST IF YOU CAN
Living as I do in North Yorkshire, it was easier, and a lot cheaper, to do my bit by signing some online petitions from the safety of my armchair.
The first petition I signed was organised by the Jewish group Yachad, which is a kind of British version of America’s J-Street. Yachad is providing a political home for liberal Jewish Zionists opposed to the Occupation and the expansion of Jewish Settlements. I’m glad Yachad exists and I like to support its work. It’s creating room for a dissenting voice within the Jewish Community, even if personally I go a lot further in my criticism of Israel. Yachad was hoping that Cameron would stress British Jewish concerns about the near 50-year Occupation that every British government since 1967 has considered as illegal under international law. Well, it was worth a try.
The second petition I signed was rather more hardcore in its opposition and, as a result, gathered a great deal more support and media coverage. It was a petition to the British Parliament calling on Netanyahu to be arrested for War Crimes when he arrived in the country. If the petition gained more than 100,000 signatures it would be considered for a debate by MPs in the House of Commons. The chance of our security forces arresting the Israeli Prime Minister as he set foot on British soil were precisely zero but attempting to force a debate in Parliament was well worth of couple of seconds of my time.
Once it past the 100,000 mark, the petitions team at Westminster were good enough to send me a progress update:
Hi Robert Cohen,
You recently signed a petition on the UK Government and Parliament Petitions website for: Benjamin Netanyahu to be arrested for war crimes when he arrives in London.
The Committee considered this petition, along with the Government’s response, on Tuesday 8 September.
Because the Government said in its response that the request made by the petition was something that it was not able to do under UK and international law, the Committee agreed that it would not take any further action on the petition.
The Petitions team
UK Government and Parliament
Well, it was worth a try…and the publicity was good.
The demonstrations I had been invited to last Wednesday passed off predictably with the pro Palestinian side doing a better job of mustering support than the pro Israel side. Altogether, there were around 2,500 people bringing the Middle East War of Words to Whitehall.
I suspect there was no meeting of minds. But neither was there a meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and David Cameron that day. No doubt deliberately, Bibi’s schedule was not ‘as advertised’ and the two prime ministers met the following day in much quieter circumstances.
There was another helpful element to the timing from Bibi’s perspective. Due to the Labour Party leadership contest there was no official opposition leader that had to be met to fulfil diplomatic niceties. If it had all happened a week later we would have the fun of imagining the ‘full and frank exchange of views’ that would have come to pass in a Netanyahu/Corbyn encounter.
Actually, I think Jeremy would have boycotted Bibi on the grounds that the Israeli Prime Minister is, safe to say, in receipt of financial backing from the State of Israel and an advocate of Settlement expansion on the West Bank. And that’s before we get into the whole War Crimes question. Or maybe Bibi would have boycotted Jeremy first on the grounds of his much commented on ‘friendship’ with Hamas. Sadly, the battle of the boycotts never took place.
Together at last
So what did happen when Dave finally met Bibi at Number 10?
Thankfully, we have the following official note-taking from the Downing Street press office.
Below each diplomatically crafted statement of bi-lateral friendship I’ve added a bit of commentary of my own.
“The 2 leaders welcomed the growing economic ties between the UK and Israel, particularly the progress that had been made since the PM’s visit in a number of areas, including research and science, with an additional £3 million of new funding for bilateral medical research projects in 2017.”
So yes, it was all about business interests. But at least it’s all in a good medical cause. Who can possibly complain about life saving drugs? But wait, it’s important to keep following the money.
“They agreed that cyber security was a vital issue, and that it had to be considered both in terms of threats and opportunities. They agreed to collaborate further, with a new package of co-operation covering training and joint exercises to prepare against cyber attacks. The UK will send a cyber business delegation to Israel in December to further strengthen this co-operation.”
No monetary value placed on all this, but field-tested cyber security probably does not come cheap. It’s worth remembering the figure put out by the Board of Deputies, £4.5bn in trade. That’s a lot commerce to take account of long after the medicine bill is taken care of.
This article from the New Statesman last summer reporting on an arms trade gathering may shed some light.
“Among the companies promoting “battle-tested”weapons was [Israeli owned] Elbit Systems, which is working with UK arms company, Thales UK, on a Ministry of Defence contract worth nearly £1 billion for the development of Watchkeeper WK450 drones. The aim is for these to be exported from 2015 onwards.”
Next up, please.
“On the Middle East, both leaders reiterated their commitment to a 2-state resolution as the only way to secure lasting peace in the Middle East, and the Prime Minister [Cameron] emphasised the importance of improving daily life for the people of Gaza, for example through better power and water supplies and facilitating travel in and out of Gaza.”
Hey Dave, nice work to mention Gaza. What exactly did Bibi say back to you on that one? It appears not to have been officially recorded. Was he paying attention at that point? As for the Israeli leader’s commitment to a 2-state solution, Bibi is notoriously flaky on the matter and his idea of Palestinian statehood seems to amount to giving the Palestinians full and total responsibility for emptying the rubbish bins on Thursday afternoons and replacing the bulbs in the street lamps on those cut up bits of the West Bank that Israel doesn’t fancy the look of.
There was more.
“They also discussed the threat of Islamist extremism and agreed that both political and economic security was required for long term peace, and pledged to continue to work together to support fragile countries in North Africa.”
Obviously this threat includes Hamas, although I wonder how this squares with providing economic security in the Gaza Strip. Bibi clearly wasn’t paying attention when Dave mentioned the whole water and electricity thing.
“On Iran, they recognised that while there were differences in their approach, both shared the objective of greater stability in the region, and agreed that it was in the interests of all that Iran allowed regular inspections of its nuclear facilities.”
This is hilarious! “differences in their approach” to Iran is diplomatic speak for being a billion miles apart on a critical issue to the Israeli PM. Even the Board of Deputies has been busy doing Israel’s bidding on the Iran nuclear deal all summer, choosing to back Bibi over Dave.
Netanyahu will know however that Britain’s special relationship with ‘whoever-sits-in-the-White-House’, trumps all other interests. In the States, the Iran nuclear deal dominated the summer and plunged Israeli relations with Obama to somewhere south of nowhere. Cameron, on the other hand, appears to have been forgiven for playing nice with the Mullahs in Tehran. The Board of Deputies are right – the trade links are VERY strong.
Peace talks without preconditions (yeah, right)
After tea and biscuits with Dave, it was time to meet members of the parliamentary Friends of Israel groups where the Israeli Prime Minister made this bold pledge to pursue peace:
“I’m willing right now, without any preconditions, any preconditions whatsoever, to sit down with President Abbas and negotiate this peace. I’m willing to go to Ramallah, yes, a nightmare for my security people. I often do that when I stop at falafel stands. They’re going to have to deal with it. Okay? Or President Abbas can come to Jerusalem, or for God sake, we can take up some of these suggestions for retreats in Sicily or fjords in Norway. Whatever. Anytime, anywhere, now, without preconditions.”
Now don’t get too excited about any of this. Netanyahu was not making a pitch to become Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow Foreign Secretary.
When it comes to a meeting, whether on golden Sicilian beaches or frozen Norwegian fjords, there may be no conditions applied. However, you can bet the house that there will be no shortage of conditions when it comes to actual peace making itself. If you don’t believe me, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will show you the air miles he clocked up during a year of intense diplomacy before giving up on ever getting Bibi to the negotiating table.
The current Israeli position can be summed up as follows:
Sharing Jerusalem – no deal.
Including Hamas in the talks – out of the question.
Refugees – not our problem.
A contiguous Palestinian state with the right to protect its own borders and air space – you must be joking.
And of course Bibi wants all his enemies to become Zionists before he’ll make peace with them “They must recognise the Jewish State of Israel”. It’s like expecting Sinn Fein and the IRA to salute the Union Jack before signing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland 20 years ago.
A surprise dissenter
It turned out that there was a surprise dissenter last week operating at the very heart of the British Jewish establishment. According to the Jewish Chronicle, who are never wrong about anything, the renegade Jew was none other than the British Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Apparently, Mirvis had the audacity to challenge Netanyahu at a meeting of community leaders late on Wednesday night, over the issue of Settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Rabbi Mirvis told Mr Netanyahu that he had been approached by supporters of Israel who wanted to “help us help you”, by limiting Settlement expansion. Netanyahu replied by saying “Settlements are not the issue”.
The words ‘parallel’ and ‘universe’ come to mind, as well as ‘delusional’. You could apply the words to both men under the circumstances.
But maybe Yachad had recruited an unlikely extra signature to its petition, worth rather more than my name.
Balfour has the last word
There was a final highlight for Bibi and his wife Sara before it was time to head home.
A private visit to the British Library to view some original historic documents central to the British/Israel story.
First out of the storeroom was the original Balfour Declaration published in 1917. I’m sure Bibi felt a warm glow as he studied the opening words of the Foreign Secretary’s letter to Lord Rothschild.
“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…”
Much later, Arthur Koestler, author of ‘Darkness at Noon’would describe the Balfour Declaration as: “A document in which one nation solemnly promises to a second nation the country of a third nation.”
I wonder if the Prime Minister got as far as the next sentence in the document:
“…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
It was an awkward commitment, as it turned out, for the British government. And one that cost the lives of a great many British soldiers during the period of the British mandate.
But now it was time to go home.
It had been a Grand Day Out in London and the special relationship with Britain looked safe and secure and all tooled up as far as the arms trade goes.
So it looks like nothing can go wrong, so long as Jeremy Corbyn gets nowhere near Downing Street and the Chief Rabbi doesn’t turn out to be a self-hating Jew.