Understanding history is crucial to bringing peace to the Middle East

Wednesday 28th December 2011

Sir Harold Atcherley

In a recent article on Libya in Politics First, William Hague referred to the importance of Britain maintaining its moral authority and stressed the importance of abiding by our UN mandate. Fine words but they pose the question of whether foreign policy can ever be moral, at least in the sense implied by the word nowadays. Britain’s behaviour over the Middle East, particularly in Palestine, for so many years, is certainly an outstanding example of where any notion of morality appears never to have entered the head of government.

Today with a settlement of the Israel/Palestine problem as remote as ever, we need to understand the origins of “the Hundred Years War” in the Middle East. Palestinians certainly need no reminding. James Barr’s excellent book “A Line in the Sand” is essential reading for all those interested. It is both objective and well researched.

I worked in the Middle East for several years immediately after World War Two and was living in Damascus in 1948 when it was bombed during the Jewish/Arab war, which led to the occupation of Palestine. I recall being a guest at a dinner hosted by the British Minister. A group of well-known Syrians and Palestinians were also present and towards the end of the evening one of them remarked that “unless or until the Palestinian question is solved there will be war in the Middle East.”

In 1917, Britain’s policy on Palestine was set out in the Balfour declaration. This stated that: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

The failure of Britain to honour the vital qualification (about not infringing on the rights of non-Jews in Palestine) left no doubt that serious trouble throughout the Middle East was bound to come. The British army was finally bombed out of Palestine in October 1945 by Zionist terrorist groups, which ended, not before time, Britain’s imperialist presence in the Middle East.

William Hague’s aim to maintain moral authority is rendered well nigh impossible by the fact that the Security Council of the UN is long overdue for reform. Its permanent membership is still restricted to the five World War Two allies, of whom three–Britain, France and America–are particularly ill-equipped to play a positive role in furthering negotiations, since none of them are trusted by Arabs or Israelis. A reformed UN Security Council, including Brazil, Germany, India and Japan is urgently needed. Eli Bahar, a retired official from Israel’s internal security service, has warned of “dire consequences if the country fails to start talks to establish an independent Palestine.” He went on to say that: “Failure to reopen negotiations would trigger the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, prompting a new wave of terrorist violence against Israel.”

Professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, Foreign Minister in Ehud Barak’s government, wrote in the concluding chapter of his excellent book “Scars of War Wounds on Peace–the Israeli-Arab Tragedy” that: “Israel’s moral standing as well as vital political imperatives require that the Palestinians recover their rights and dignity as a nation. Democracy and Jewish statehood cannot be reconciled with territorial aggrandisement.”

Only Israel is in a position to take the initiative as the original aggressor in 1948 and the major power in the Middle East today. This can only be done, however, if the Israelis succeed in electing a moderate government. To the extent that any help or pressure may be required from the UN, this can only be effective with a new team, representative of the world as it is today.

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