A prominent conservative argues that cultural and political kinship make Israel the West’s natural ally.
By Peter Hitchens
Conservatives should support the State of Israel on principle, just as the globalist Left seeks to defeat Zionism on principle. The legions of political correctness would usually approve of a state founded as the result of a classic “national liberation” struggle against a classic “colonial oppressor” and ought to endorse a country so profoundly secular in so many of its institutions and so dominated by social-democratic political and cultural thinking. Especially, they should be enthusiastic about a nation whose whole reason for existence is profoundly anti-racist.
But they don’t and they aren’t. The Left will readily forgive Irish Republicans for terror and even for Catholicism. They remain sentimental about Fidel Castro despite the show trials and the dungeons. They will pardon South Africa almost everything, including an incorrect attitude towards AIDS. But all the categories flip over and upside down when it comes to Israel and Zionism. Why? Here are some suggestions, offered in the spirit of inquiry.
Despite its socialist appearance—kibbutzes, female soldiers, and the rest—Zionism is a profoundly conservative idea, based on the re-creation of an ancient nation and culture. It is also globally conservative, requiring a definite and uncompromising form of national sovereignty and an implicit rejection of multiculturalism. Israel stands—alone in its region—for placing the rule of law above the rule of power. Its destruction would be a disaster for what remains of the civilized world. Yet it has never been so threatened.
The recent Iraq war has done substantial damage to Israel’s hopes of survival, damage that was implicit in the pro-war case from the start. Those Zionists who supported the war made a serious mistake. The marketers of political and diplomatic cliché have expressed surprise that George W. Bush fulfilled his earlier pledge to pursue the road map to peace. How wrong they were. Even as the doomed Abu Mazen is carted off the stage in a bruised heap, the absurd effort to find a Palestinian Authority chieftain who both has any power and believes in compromise continues. If they had been paying attention, they would have realized that the globalist faction in the Republican Party has for many years been ready to sacrifice Israel in return for a settlement with the Muslim world.
It is strange how few have put together the two most frightening events of the year 2001, even though they took place within days of each other. The first was the Durban conference of the United Nations, supposedly “against racism.” The Muslim world chose to turn this gathering into a scream of hatred against Israel and against its protector America, so much so that the U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out. Just a few days later came the attack of Sept. 11. It has always interested me that this event was swiftly followed by, of all things, the payment of America’s back dues to the UN and the first open White House declaration of support for a Palestinian state. The War on Terror was strangely irrelevant to what had actually happened, with its clumsy ill-directed blows against Afghanistan and Iraq and its embarrassed refusal to confront Saudi involvement in terror or notice Palestinian street celebrations of the Manhattan massacre.
The alteration in policy towards Israel and the amazing pressure that must have been put on Ariel Sharon to swap his mailed club for an olive branch are by contrast real, accurately directed, and vastly significant. The trouble is, they are acts of appeasement rather than of resolution. This is serious, and if Washington is wrong (as I believe it is) about the Palestinian cause’s real capacity for compromise, it will turn out to be a grave step towards the dissolution of the Israeli state—not by frontal military action but by demoralization, destabilization, and de-legitimization.
The Israeli state has many flaws that only a fool would deny. Terrorists, still not fully disowned and in some cases actually revered, were prominent in its establishment and then in its governing class. It has engaged in pre-emptive war and has driven people from their homes through fear and massacre. Some of its responses to terrorist attack have been clumsy, lazy, and incompetent. Its present Prime Minister is severely tainted by indefensibly ruthless and inhumane past actions. Its political system is designed to enthrone factions, some of them repellent. The most important fault of all is that Israel should never have been founded, and should never have needed to be founded. But this last fault is an involuntary one, and is the reason for many of the country’s other troubles. It is no good blaming Israel for existing when its foundation was a desperate response to mechanized racial murder. Nor is it any good for supporters or opponents of modern Israel to pretend that the National Socialist massacre of Jews did not change the argument about Zionism for as far ahead as it is possible to look.
If the world were as liberal idealists imagine, Zionism ought to have been forgotten long ago as a foolish idea, a cranky and hopeless project as unrealistic as Esperanto. And if mankind were ruled by reason, then Zionism would indeed have gone the way of Esperanto. You might have thought that secularism, by making Judaism a matter of involuntary race rather than one of voluntary religion, would have resulted in near-total integration and assimilation. This did not happen. The opposite did. It is therefore important to remember that most right-thinking people believed with utter certainty that assimilation would happen and Zionism would fail. They believed this, during the years before 1914, in a period of history similar to our own because of its illusory stability and its materialist optimism. They continued to believe it in an era similar to the one we are just entering, the years of nervous anticipation and fear of war between 1918 and 1939.
The projected “National Home for the Jews” endorsed by Britain in 1917 was never intended to become a nation. It was to be part of the British Empire, not ruling itself but governed benignly from London, a permanent way station on the proposed land-route to India and a glacis protecting the Suez Canal from any power that threatened it from the north. The British Empire accepted the Zionist scheme because it provided Britain with an excuse to straddle one of the most important pieces of strategic property in the world.
This arrangement would have safeguarded the Arab peoples already living in the neglected Ottoman sanjaks that were arbitrarily glued together to form the Palestine Mandate, an entity even more artificial than Iraq. Under British government, Arabs were not given the right to rule Jews, and Jews were not given the right to rule Arabs.
When the idea was first put forward, there was plenty of room for both peoples within wide frontiers. For at that stage nobody had planned to set up the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which first came to birth as the Emirate of Transjordan, hacked in a hurry out of the original Mandate. This was another accident along the way, following the diplomatic game of pass-the-parcel, which began when the French ejected the British client “King” Faisal from Syria in July 1920. They had won the territory at the peace conference and did not share T.E. Lawrence’s enthusiasm for Hashemite chieftains.
To console Faisal, London gave him the throne of Iraq instead, inaugurating another permanent crisis. This displaced his brother Abdullah, who had originally been promised the Baghdad throne. Abdullah, a monarch with no realm, urgently needed another kingdom to reign over. He complained noisily and was given Transjordan to soothe his wounded feelings. Thus three-quarters of the original Palestine Mandate, the entire area east of the river Jordan, was snatched away from the projected “National Home” before it had even begun. The famous West Bank was seized illegally by Transjordan in 1948, allowing that country to change its name to Jordan. So when Israel occupied it in 1967, it merely passed from one illegal occupier to another. Though it is not widely known, this very area was originally designated for “close Jewish settlement” at the San Remo Accords, which defined the original Mandate and which remain the only agreed international document defining sovereignty over this territory. Even the Golan Heights, now claimed righteously by Syria, were originally within the Mandate and became part of Syria in later Anglo-French horse-trading.
There is a general assumption that Israel at some point stole its territory from a legitimate Arab state. Many of Israel’s critics seem to believe that there was at one stage a sovereign country called “Palestine” out of which the Jewish nation was unfairly carved. But no such country ever existed; Palestine was never the name of anything but a Roman province. The only previous title—for so many centuries that it had no real rival claimant—had belonged to the Ottoman Empire. From the Ottomans it passed directly to the British. When Britain, bankrupt and demoralized, scuttled from the region in 1948, Israel grabbed as much as it could of this dubious legacy. Arab armies in turn seized as much as they could.
Israelis unquestionably perpetrated unforgivable massacres and drove people from their homes. Had things gone the other way, there would have been other massacres, other refugees. Wilsonian ideals of national self-determination can take on a blood-stained tinge, just as much as imperialism, if not more so. When a colonial power vacates a disputed territory, such horrors are likely. But this was in 1948, a year after the partition of India and Pakistan, another shameful scuttle by Britain. All the refugees from that vast upheaval have found new homes. It also came shortly after the expulsion of millions of Germans from East Prussia, the Czech lands, and from Western Poland. Those dispossessed in these savage deportations have long since resettled, and no serious movement demands their return home. Why, uniquely, are the Arab refugees of 1948 still the focus of international demands for the restoration of lost lands?
There is one key difference that keeps this issue alive, especially on the Left, which mostly has not even heard of the German expulsions and would probably defend them if it had. Israel is not like other countries because it is a Western nation carved out of Middle Eastern territory. This leads us to the uncomfortable truth—unwelcome to modern Zionists who shudder visibly at any mention of the word—that Israel is the last major European imperial colony on the face of the earth. In its struggle for survival in a world that already has enough reasons for disapproving of it, modern Israel has sought to stifle such thoughts.
But a European colony it is. What distinguishes Israel from its Arab neighbors is no longer its general prosperity and physical modernity. Oil has evened up these differences in the past decade, and, while serious squalor persists in many Arab countries, so do middle-class comfort and good, functioning services. The difference runs much deeper. Israel’s people are European by culture and law, imposing that culture and law on a region where cousin marriage and tribal loyalty are normal, while pluralism, tolerance, party politics, and the rule of law are abnormal. In this, the new state is the direct heir of the British officers who governed the area as undisguised colonists between the two global wars—and from whom it has inherited much of its legal system, not to mention a chain of imperial fortresses still used by the Israeli army.
This makes Israel the permanent ally, in the Middle East, of the world’s lawful and free countries. This alliance is based on cultural and political kinship, factors that cannot be altered by a tyrant’s death or a coup d’état. Washington may be able to buy the friendship of one Arab or Muslim regime or another with arms and cash. But as soon as that regime falls, the investment of years is wasted if the new rulers are hostile.
I suspect this difference, far more than the ethnic and religious ones, arouses the hostility of Arab regimes. We do not really know what the Arab and Muslim peoples think, since such states do not have free public opinion as we know it. We do know that an ugly anti-Semitism previously largely unknown in the Middle East, has been deliberately and crudely encouraged by Arab regimes trying to find an outlet for the justified discontents of their own poor. We also know that there has been no desire for permanent compromise and genuine peace between even the supposedly moderate Arab regimes and Israel. The state of relations between Israel and Egypt, for instance, is frigid, nervous, and held in place mainly by American subsidies, and this despite Israel’s handover of territory of enormous strategic value. In fact, the Israeli-Egypt “peace,” artificial and without friendship between governments or peoples, is a standing warning to those who fantasize about a “new Middle East” or a harmonious two-state solution.
The hostility is bitter, kept alive by semi-official and official media and, in a nasty new development, it is now often crudely racialist, though nobody is supposed to mention this. The Western Left would drive a Holocaust-denier from any campus that employed him, but the thought police who search the minds of their domestic opponents are unmoved by the blatant anti-Semitism of the Arab terror organizations. Many who denounce Islam for its intolerance draw back from this condemnation when that intolerance is directed against Zionists. By a peculiar process of mental dishonesty so outrageous that it works, Zionism is often equated directly with German National Socialism by critics of Israel. The only reason for this absurd, disproportionate, and cynical claim is that it neutralizes the fundamental case for Zionism, namely that Germany’s policy of systematic massacre was unique, and that the Jewish case for a Jewish sovereign state is therefore unique.
Conservatism is realistic, honest, consistent, and opposed to cant. It takes the side of the particular and the ancient. It sees virtues in Western civilization against its rivals. It penetrates the disguises in which history advances itself and is not fooled by passing appearances. It does not seek perfection, but it does try to be principled. On all these grounds, and because that country is threatened as never before by shallow and ill-considered idealism, conservatism should consider Israel an ally. ______________________________________________
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.