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Editorial

Lady Jenny Tonge’s crime

“No place in politics for those who question existence of state of Israel” declaimed Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, in the tweet that prompted the resignation from her party ‘whip’ of a member of the British House of Lords. But the question of the likely future non-existence of Israel is already raised- albeit more tentatively than Baroness Tonge put it- in current official UK policy, endorsed by all three of Britain’s main political parties.

No doubt Miliband, who is constantly derided for being weak, was trying to sound tough; perhaps he also felt the need to appear stridently pro-Israel to counterbalance (in the eyes of the pro-Israeli lobby) the British Labour Party’s decision last Autumn to support the Palestinian bid for recognised statehood at the United Nations. Either way, his message, along with the rest of the clamour following Baroness Jenny Tonge’s remarks on 23rd February at a meeting of Middlesex University’s Free Palestine Society, as part of the ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ programme, seemed to be predicated on the existence, for all time, of Zionist Israel: a sacred cow whose holiness is presumably above that of ones own country- because no British politician living in the 21st Century could possibly pronounce that there is no place in politics for those who question the existence of the United Kingdom.

Not only that, but a cow which, if we are to take seriously the outrage at Baroness Tonge’s comments, appears to be held more sacred by UK politicians than it is by Israeli politicians. As Medhi Hasan pointed out in the New Statesman, Ehud Olmert, who was Israel’s prime minister from 2006 to 2009, argued that Israel will cease to exist if it continues on its present trajectory. The BBC reported in November 2007:

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said failure to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians would spell the end of the State of Israel.

As quoted by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Olmert predicted:

“If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

A not dissimilar point has since been made by another former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who is currently the Israeli Minister of Defence. The Guardian reported on 3rd February 2010:

Ehud Barak, Israel's defence minister, last night delivered an unusually blunt warning to his country that a failure to make peace with the Palestinians would leave either a state with no Jewish majority or an “apartheid” regime.

[...] Barak, a former general and Israel’s most decorated soldier, sought to appeal to Israelis on both right and left by saying a peace agreement with the Palestinians was the only way to secure Israel’s future as a “Zionist, Jewish, democratic state”.

“As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic,” Barak said. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Returning to the comments by Olmert, it is notable that in his view the end of Israel would be due in large part to the loss of support from Jewish groups in the USA. He said:

“The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.” 

Baroness Tonge also predicted, although not quite in the same way, a future cessation of support for Israel in the United States. Her recorded words, which resulted in such a stir, were as follows:

 “As I said in my introduction, beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there forever in its present performance because one day the United States of America will get sick of giving 70 billion a year to Israel to support its, what I call, ‘America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East’, that is, Israel. One day the US people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA ‘enough is enough’. Read that book by Walt and Mearsheimer called ‘The Israel Lobby’. But, it will not go on forever, it will not go on forever. Israel will lose its support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

Self-delegitimisation

As if to demonstrate the solidarity of the UK’s main political parties on the exclusion of Jenny Tonge, it was a Conservative MP, Robert Halfon, who appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on 2nd March to argue against her. Mr Halfon, who is a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, used the phrase “delegitimise Israel” no less than three times during the interview, to describe what, he asserted, Baroness Tonge was seeking to do.

“Delegitimisation”, according to a 2010 report in Haaretz, is “the new buzzword in the world of pro-Israel activism.” The phrase, it would appear, has a two-fold aim: the first one being that of splitting critics of Israel into those whose views are ‘legitimate’ and those who are beyond the pale, for instance those who describe Israeli policies as Apartheid (notwithstanding the references to Apartheid by previous and current Israeli leaders); however, as for what might be considered ‘legitimate’ by the Israeli establishment, one can note that it is now against the law in Israel even to advocate a boycott of goods made in the illegal settlements. The second aim is clearly to corral Jewish and other potential support into an uncritical pro-Israel stance on the basis of fear that people are trying to ‘delegitimise’ the Jewish State.

But does not the perceived legitimacy or otherwise of Israel depend, in large part, on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Israeli actions which have made, and make, the state of Israel what it actually is? In the 2nd March Radio 4 interview, Baroness Tonge expressed the view that Israel “was a good concept at the beginning and many people supported it”, but that she wished that they had left the Palestinians where they were, and included them. She added: “If they’d done that, rather than persecuting them, and now trying to take the whole area for themselves, it would have been a very different story.”

It hardly needs to be added that Israel is in defiance of scores of UN resolutions, including- despite the USA’s energetic use of its veto- Security Council resolutions.

Before going further, it should be noted that, in Israel, there is a substantial group of people who would very much like to see the end of Israel as a Zionist and specifically Jewish state; that group being those of the descendants and survivors of the original Arab population who were not ethnically cleansed to the West Bank, Gaza, or refugee camps elsewhere- the Palestinians who live within the internationally recognised (ie, 1967) borders of the country, forming about 18% of the population, and who face constant discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity.

Two-way strings

Jenny Tonge’s recorded remarks at Middlesex University, delivered as an ‘off the cuff’ response and under pressure of assertive heckling by zionist activists, contain an error and two apparent ambiguities. Although they have been made much of by right-wing bloggers and other critics, a consideration of these by no means detracts from the cogency of the points she made.

As has been pointed out, the official annual grant from the USA to Israel is $3 billion not $70 billion (although a cumulative $70bn figure for this aid has been cited); however that is very far from being the total financial cost to the US government of its support to the Israeli state. Given that Israel is the centrepeice of the USA’s military and diplomatic activity in the Middle East, and a key source of the USA’s regional and global unpopularity, it can be concluded that a significant proportion (one might hypothesise at least 7%) of the United States’ annual military budget of approximately $1 trillion is required because of the USA’s unstinting backing of Israel.

But whatever its cost to the US taxpayer, there is no getting round the fact that American support is essential for Israel.

This brings us to one ambiguity, on the issue of the nature of the relationship between the USA and Israel, and the role of the ‘Israel lobby’. In an apoplectic opinion piece, published in the Independent, Howard Jacobson frothed with accusations against Jenny Tonge, ranging from “loathing Jews” and wishing for “genocide” to “stupidity”. But Jacobson also sought recourse in logic:

Even for someone holding an unreasonable position, she reasons badly. Take her point that Israel is “America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East”. If she means thereby to accuse America of using Israel to spearhead its aggressive foreign policy, then she can’t also cite with enthusiasm, as she likes to, the Mearsheimer and Walt conspiracy-fantasy that the Israel lobby has America in its pocket. It’s make-your-mind-up time, Baroness: just who is pulling whose strings? If you think America is jerking Israel’s at the same time as Israel is jerking America's, then you’re describing nothing more sinister than identity of purpose.

Unsurprisingly, to Jacobson (to whom it is so obvious that Israel can do no wrong that for him its critics, including its critics who are Jewish, must be motivated by anti-semitism) the “identity of purpose” between the USA and Israel can be ‘nothing sinister’. But it is precisely that “identity”, which was consummated after Israel conquered (amongst other territories) Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967, that has ensured that the Palestinians have since then been subject not only to never-ending occupation but to illegal colonisation, land and water theft, mass imprisonment without trial, cantonisation, checkpoints, seiges, assassinations and massacres.

And while the work of the US academics Mearsheimer and Walt has been extremely useful in detailing the political, organisational and financial machinations of ‘the Israel lobby’ which is a key means of ensuring US backing for Israel- and hardly a ‘conspiracy’, as pro-Israel organisations proudly boast of their successes in influencing US policy- that does not require Jenny Tonge (or anybody else) to also accept the claim by those authors that there has been, since the end of the Cold War, no US strategic interest in promoting and facilitating an intransigent and militaristic Israel.

Until the mid-to-late 1960s it was Britain, and to an even greater extent France, who were Israel’s main foreign sponsors. They had both conspired with Israel (and that conspiracy was real enough) to invade Egypt in 1956; and it was the French, after all, who gave the Israelis the nuclear bomb and nuclear-capable missiles. The USA’s later adoption of Israel as ‘its own’ took place during, and as an important part of, the process in which the United States supplanted the European former colonial powers as the dominant imperial force in the Middle East. Notably, Baroness Tonge’s description of Israel as the USA’s aircraft carrier follows the remark by top US military commander Alexander Haig, who was Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, that Israel is America's “unsinkable battleship in the Middle East.”

It should be added that the ‘who is pulling whose strings?’ question is often applied also to the political process within Israel. It is suggested, by some of the Jewish people in Israel who are in favour of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, that the ultra-zionist fanatical minority which forms the militant core of, and lobby for, the half a million Israelis who are illegal settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, does not represent Israel’s real interests; even that this ‘settler lobby’ has taken the country hostage. Nevertheless, the Israelis subsidise and expensively protect their extremist settlers, and authorise illegal construction of dwellings for more and more of them, despite (or because of) the trouble which that causes. And the United States, despite its own official policy against further Israeli settlement building, permits Israel to carry on doing so under the US military and diplomatic umbrella- including using its UN Security Council veto to prevent condemnation of the settlements- thus obstructing any prospect of a peaceful solution.

End of the window


As for the other ambiguity in Baroness Tonge’s remarks, the phrase “Israel is not going to be there forever in its present performance” that has been interpreted as meaning either that Israel will not continue to exist for ever ‘in its present form’ or that, ‘on the basis of its present performance (ie, behaviour)’, Israel will not carry on existing forever. But these are not incompatible concepts, and it seems quite possible that Jenny Tonge had both these thoughts in her mind when she uttered that phrase.

It might actually be more productive to consider what Ehud Olmert meant when, following his pertinent comparison between Zionist Israel and Apartheid South Africa, he predicted that the State of Israel would be ‘finished’ if the prospect of a two-state solution collapses. Presumably, he meant that there would no longer be, on the territory on which Israel currently exists, a state which could continue to define itself as Jewish, explicitly privilege Jews over members of other ethnicities, and be imbued with the Zionist ideology.

Connected to this, there is the question which is raised by Britain’s official policy position on the future of Israel and Palestine. This position was confirmed in Parliament on 6th February, in response to the following question, which, as it happens, was asked by Baroness Tonge:

“To ask Her Majesty's Government, following the Deputy Prime Minister's statement on 17 January referring to Israeli settlements on the West Bank as ‘vandalism’, what proposals they have made for an alternative peace plan if the window for the two-state solution closes.”

To which the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford) replied:

“The Government continue to believe that the way to resolve the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is through negotiations, resulting in two states, giving the Palestinian people the state they need and deserve and the Israeli people long-term security and peace.

“We are making clear to both parties that the window for the two-state solution is closing and there is an urgent need to make progress towards resolving the conflict.

“Should we judge the two-state solution is no longer a viable option, we will revise our approach in consultation with key partners in the international community.”

That is the official British view, supported by all three main political parties: the window for the two-state solution is closing.  On 17th January, as cited by Baroness Tonge, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had made a clear and repeated statement of this UK position, during which he described the Israeli settlement policy as ‘vandalism’.

Prior to her resignation, Jenny Tonge was a member of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party, and following the fuss that was fanned by Ed Miliband among others, it was Clegg who forced her to resign. But it is the UK’s position, enunciated by Nick Clegg, that the possibility of a two state solution- that is, a solution which includes the survival of Israel- is closing. Why is the window closing? Because, as the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised, of the Israeli policy of building and expanding illegal settlements, thus creating ‘facts on the ground’ that will sooner or later make a two-state solution impossible to deliver. Then what happens? Though the official British position trails out after that, concealing its embarassment with  ‘consultation with key partners’ etc, where can it go, apart from towards Ehud Olmert’s prediction that the State of Israel will be finished?

The crime of the Right Honorable Lady Tonge was twofold: that she pronounced the logical conclusion of what is officially the British position; and that she did so from a standpoint quite distinct from that of the British establishment. Whereas Nick Clegg began his statement with the remark that there is no better friend of Israel than himself (the usual phrase ritually uttered by Western leaders to open or accompany their statements on the Middle East conflict) the sympathies of Baroness Tonge are unmistakeably with the Palestinians.