The time has come for a re-appraisal of UK policy towards Israel, 19 years after the Middle East Peace Process started in Madrid.
On 16 March 2010, American General Petreus testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that "the enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests."
It is time for the UK Government to take a view as to what extent that is equally the case as far as our own interests in the Middle East are concerned.
Why it is important
The conflict in Palestine has remained unresolved since the end of World War II. Unlike many other conflicts in the world, it is not self-contained: developments there have a huge impact on the politics and stability of the Middle East, on the Asian sub-continent, and on the relationship between the developing world and the United States and Europe.
It is hugely expensive. The USA gives Israel $3 billion per year for military equipment. The European Union gives just under 500 million Euros per year in assistance to the Palestinians2. Following its pledges of increased funding made at the Paris conference in December 2007, the UK Government gives over £80 million annually in support of the Middle East Peace Process3. During 2009 the EU and its member states contributed around one billion Euros4. Nowhere else in the world is so much being given to achieve so little.
The UK's current policy
Ever since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, the UK has supported a Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), incorporating a 'roadmap' designed to lead to a viable and sustainable Palestinian state living peacefully alongside a secure Israel: with both countries sharing Jerusalem for their respective capitals.
The realities on the ground
Developments over the past decade have combined to make the realisation of this vision progressively harder to achieve. It is now fading rapidly.
In Gaza some 1.5 Million Palestinians, of whom 60% are aged less than 18, are blockaded by land, air, and sea. As a result, their average earnings are only $600 per year5. In Israel, about the same number of Palestinian Arabs, comprising 22% of the population, face poor living standards, exclusion from Government and major employers, and discrimination in housing and political representation.
In Jerusalem the Jewish population enjoys the status of citizens, and municipal development plans assure an adequate supply of housing. The Palestinian population by contrast has only the rights of 'residents' and virtually no permission to build new housing.
Finally in the West Bank, the Palestinian population is being 'warehoused' in ever more concentrated enclaves. Those without the proper permits risk forced expulsion to either Gaza or elsewhere in the region6. Jewish settlers by contrast are permitted freedom of movement and construction: with the result that their settlements and related infrastructure have consumed around 60% of the available land space.
As a result of such freedoms, the Jewish citizens of Israel enjoy average earnings of $21,000 per year. Palestinians by contrast, able to move only with difficulty through a matrix of controlled check-points, have few employment opportunities: their average income is $1,200: less than 6% that of their Israeli neighbours7.
These conditions breed cynicism and despair: and provide fertile ground for those seeking to de-stabilise the wider Middle East.
The myths to dispel
Israel has always presented itself to Europe and the USA as the only strategic ally of the West in the Middle East, and a bulwark against both Iran and that country's aspirations as a regional (and nuclear) power. Viewed in this perspective, the Palestinian issue gets relegated to the sidelines. Both the UK and the EU provide money, but have made no headway in resolving the core problem.
It may have made sense for the UK to view Israel as a strategic ally when it had control of the Suez canal, and wanted a counter-balance to the pan-Arab nationalist movement represented by Egypt's President Nasser.
That was over 50 years ago. The Six Day War in 1967 changed the whole dynamic of Middle East politics, and Israel's territorial aggression means it has no friends, and no influence, in the Middle East.
As a result, it has no diplomatic relations with 20 out of the 22 members of the Arab League. Egypt and Jordan do recognize Israel, but relations are frosty, and exchanges minimal.
Association with Israel only creates hostility in the region. The country has no strategic value to the UK, whose interests would be better served by strengthening its relations with other countries in the region: including those of the Arab Gulf states, where it has a long history of close co-operation.
A more realistic view
Israel is indisputably the strongest military power in the Middle East. It has a huge arsenal of weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons. Since consolidating its territorial position following the Six Day War in 1967 it has progressively strengthened its control of the Palestinian population, who are now little more than the passive recipients of international aid programmes. If there is no 'partner for peace', it is because one party no longer has the capacity or the resources to bring anything to the negotiating table.
What needs to be said
Since the elections of February 2009, Israel has moved progressively to the right. Internally, its settler community is developing into a state within a state. Externally, its relations with neighbouring countries are becoming ever more strained: Turkey is a prime example of this. Jordan and Syria are others.
Those who genuinely want to see Israel flourish in the future must speak out and condemn what is increasingly becoming the mentality of the ghetto. It cannot go on destroying legitimate Palestinian aspirations to lead a normal life without ultimately destroying the peace, security, and freedom of the Israeli people themselves.
It is now 62 years since Jewish immigrants into Palestine established the state of Israel. If that state is ever to become legitimate, living at peace with both itself and its neighbours, it has to choose between two primary options:
- Either it withdraws to the 1967 'Green Line' (or close equivalent) and enables the development of a Palestinian state on 22% of historic Palestine (including Gaza).
- Or it retains control of the whole of historic Palestine and gives all of the people living there the same rights, under a single, democratic legal system, regardless of faith or ethnicity.
However, even that is only part of the picture. What about the right of return for Palestinians? The Palestinians are not only struggling for a state but the right to return to their homes and this is also central to their cause.
In any event, with regards to the first option, the so-called 'two state solution', this will allow Israel to retain the character of a predominantly Jewish state. But if it is "Jewish" can it also be democratic?
The second option, the so-called 'one-state solution', will create a state which is democratic, but not 'Jewish' in the sense envisaged by the founding fathers of Zionism – such as Theodore Herzl.
But given the demographics of the Holy Land, it is not possible to be both. Israel can be either Jewish, or democratic: it has to choose. Demographic studies are clear that the likelihood of Jews being the predominant people in Palestine is unrealistic simply because of current demographic trends, i.e, Jews are growing at a rate of 2% per annum while Arabs are growing at a rate of 4%. Most studies therefore predict that in 20 years the number of Arabs will be equal to the number of Jews.
What has developed over the past decade is a military dictatorship which simultaneously abuses Palestinians and corrupts Israeli society.
It is time we spoke clearly to Israel of the consequences of the path it is drifting down, and stopped deluding ourselves that it is in either of our interests to do otherwise.
*The Author is a member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab Understanding (CAABU) and the UK branch of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). The views expressed in this article are written from a personal perspective.
1Quote from Moshe Dayan's widow, published in an interview in Haaretz on 28 February 2010
2EC Assistance to the Palestinian people, 2008.
3DFID Palestinian Team Strategic Interim Plan, 28 March 2008
4Quoted in 'Europe's Road to a New Jerusalem', Chris Patten, European Council on Foreign Relations, 14 December 2009
5Amnesty International report quoted in MIFTAH article of 03 March 2010: 'Dividing Palestine: the drought of '48
6IDF Order Will Enable Mass Deportations from West Bank: article by Amira Hass, in Haaretz, 22 April 2010.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.