By Anshel Pfeffer
I met this week a senior IDF general who had been intimately involved with the planning and execution of last year’s Operation Cast Lead. I asked whether he was planning a trip to London any time soon. “I never went on vacation in Britain, even before the arrest warrants began,” he answered half jokingly. “My parents were in the [pre-state underground militia] Etzel – MI5 still has a file on my family.”
While I was busy chatting with the general, the biggest story of the week was staring me in the face and I missed it. It could have been mine days earlier; but instead, Al Jazeera was first.
A week earlier I had learned that Tzipi Livni would be speaking at a Jewish National Fund event in London, and then heard she had apparently canceled. It should have been obvious to me that some pro-Palestinian lawyer was going to try and slap her with an arrest warrant, and I probably could have confirmed this in a couple of phone calls to London. But somehow I missed it, my usually keen journalistic instincts somehow dulled by a backlog of work and other pressing tasks.
Another story that got away, only to scream its obviousness at me once it came out elsewhere. Obvious to me, that is.
What I still find very surprising about the Livni-war crimes-arrest warrant story is the number of Israelis, normally very aware and in touch with life outside the bubble, who were themselves surprised by the entire episode. They seemed to feel that the former foreign minister being threatened with arrest somehow moved the whole issue up a notch.
Why? Because she is a woman? Because according to Israeli politics, Kadima lead by Livni is pegged as a centrist, even centrist-left party? Does that make her any different from all the ex-generals who have so far been threatened with international jurisdiction and surprise arrests for war crimes? For god’s sake, she was part of the innermost forum that decided on the exact dates and stages of Cast Lead, along with Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert (and according to some reports, of the three, she was most in favor of extending and prolonging the operation).
Ultimately, Livni is responsible for what at least one highly regarded international jurist claims was a series of war crimes. Why did anyone expect her to get preferential treatment? Why does anyone think she should somehow be exempt from responsibility, while for the last four years just about every senior Israel Defense Forces officer – in active service or the reserves – has been forced to give up shopping on Oxford Street and Knightsbridge? And Britain is just one country – the same is true of visits to many other western European nations. Scandinavia, Spain and Belgium are all off-limits to the entire senior class of IDF officers as well as a select group of politicians.
There is a much wider issue at stake here, beyond former ministers’ and generals’ lecture engagements and holiday plans. Those who say that this is Israel’s battle for international legitimacy are only telling us part of the story. The reality is that in many countries, that battle is over, that battle has been lost. In some of the most “enlightened” nations of the Western world, identifying Israel as a racist, warmongering apartheid state is no longer a radical view, shared mainly by anti-Semites and “Arab lovers” – it has become the mainstream opinion.
Three years ago, then prime minister Tony Blair promised his Israeli counterparts that the legislation allowing private citizens in Britain to obtain arrest warrants for foreigners suspected of carrying out war crimes would be amended. And he meant it. No one had to point out to Mr. Blair that with the wars taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan, he, his colleagues and the officers of the British Army and their American allies could also find themselves in the dock. Blair’s successor Gordon Brown has also made similar promises.
So why was this amendment never put into effect? Not because the Labour government could not find the necessary majority in parliament. And the leaders of the Conservative Party have also privately assured the Israeli embassy in London that it would support such a motion. No, the British government hesitated and prevaricated because they knew full well just how downright unpopular such a move would be. They would have been eviscerated by the local press, by every single human-rights movement, by the Archbishops, the professors and by the great majority of their own grassroots memberships.
For a weak and deeply unpopular government, this was too much to contemplate. In other words, while Israel may be able to comfort itself with a degree of sympathy from Britain’s political leadership, it has lost the understanding of the rest of the country’s opinion makers.
Some of you may be asking, So what? Britian’s days as a superpower are long over. True, but in the arena of international media and public opinion, Britain still punches way above its natural weight. The maiden speech given by Catherine Ashton – who is from Britain and the European Union’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy – in which she roundly criticized Israeli policies is just the latest striking example. The response from Israeli politicians, a proposal to boycott British products, already signed by a third of the Knesset, is risible. Just as the connection Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman made between global anti-Semitism and the arrest warrants in his speech on Wednesday is pointless, neither is another round of moaning about Israel’s “hasbara failure” going to get us anywhere. The point at which a change in PR tactics might have remedied Israel’s international situation has long passed.
No amount of explanation as to why there is no room for comparison will help any more. As far as much of the world is concerned, Israel today is the South Africa of yesteryear. And as it was with the end of apartheid, the only remedy here is relinquishing control of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem and establishing a viable Palestinian state. The alternative is accepting our status as a pariah state.
I happened to be in Britain both during the opening week of the Second Lebanon War and the first days of Operation Cast Lead, and naturally I followed the media coverage closely. My unscientific observation was that in the second case, Israel’s official spokesmen were actually given wider opportunity to explain its position than they had been two and a half years earlier, and on the whole, while still generally critical, the tone in the media seemed to be less anti-Israel during the Gaza operation.
Belatedly, I realized this wasn’t a greater acceptance of Israel’s actions, it was simply acceptance by the British reporters and broadcasters that Israel, as far as they are concerned, is a rogue nation – perpetually engaged in bloodshed, certainly no better than its Hamas adversary. We can continue to huff and puff as much as we like, but for the rest of the world, an arrest warrant against an Israeli politician isn’t a shocking news story, it is simply a fact of life.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.