Friday, May 4, 2007

A terrible, delusional, wasteful misjudgment

May 4, 2007

Blair’s support for Israel last year was wrong. And we said so

Never believe people who protest: “I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’.” Of course they do. There is nothing more satisfying than to be vindicated. So here you go.

Last July I wrote a couple of columns on these pages excoriating Israel for its overreaction to the kidnap by Hezbollah of two of its soldiers. I criticised Tony Blair for not condemning Israel’s disproportionate response and I predicted that his action – or rather inaction – would hasten his demise.

Inevitably, I was deluged with e-mails accusing me of anti-Semitism (as if!), anti-Israeli bias and ignorance. Patronising readers told me that I had no understanding of Israel’s position in the Middle East. My warnings that Israel’s killing of nearly 1,000 Lebanese civilians and displacement of half a million would only add to the ranks of Hezbollah sympathisers and further inflame Muslim opinion against the West were dismissed as prejudice.

So it is some consolation that the Winograd Commission – set up by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, himself – savagely criticised him this week for the failed war against Lebanon. On the decisions made in launching the war, the report says: “We determine that there are very serious failings in these decisions and the way they were made. We impose the primary responsibility for these failures on the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff.

“The decision to respond with an immediate, intensive military strike was not based on a detailed, comprehensive and authorised military plan . . . The Government did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of ‘containment’, or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the ‘escalation level’, or military preparations without immediate military action.”

Mr Olmert “made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one. Also his decision was made without close study of the complex features of the Lebanon front and of the military, political and diplomatic options available to Israel . . . All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.”

Phew! If that is the interim report, what has the commission saved up for its final statement? I cannot remember ever reading such trenchant criticism of a government in an official report.

What this ought to (but doubtless won’t) do is puncture the delusion held by many in the Jewish community that any criticism of any action by any Israeli government is either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel or both. It simply isn’t.

Only last week I mentioned in passing that, had Jack Straw still been Foreign Secretary last July, he could have moderated Mr Blair’s support for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon. One reader e-mailed to say that I was either “entirely stupid” or “an anti-Semite happy to plant some anti-Israel poison” or “almost unbelievably ignorant of the facts”. Oh, and apparently, I am a “journalist-idiot” too.

Perhaps this reader would like to put the same charges to Judge Eliyahu Winograd, the commission chairman? Or perhaps he and his ilk could grow up and accept that candid friends of Israel may occasionally be justified in disagreeing, in good faith, with its government? It doesn’t mean that we hate Jews or that we don’t defend Israel’s right to exist.

But the problem does not lie only with paranoid e-mailers. Our own Prime Minister labours under a similar delusion. It is not that he believes criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic; but he is determined that no disapproval of Israeli action will ever pass his lips in public. He has held to this stricture as rigidly as he has to its cousin: unstinting support of US policy.

Mr Blair’s justification is that, by defending these governments in public, he has more “traction” with them in private. Would that this were so. Our Prime Minister met Mr Olmert just before the war and whatever he said at No 10 had zero effect. He warned President Bush that a better plan was needed for post-war Iraq, and what transpired? Sometimes, I suspect, he does not even tell the hard truths in private, since he shrinks from personal confrontations and is happier telling people what they want to hear.

It is not as if Mr Blair was not warned at the time that his position was ill-judged. Colleagues told him that the Israeli bombing of villages in southern Lebanon would strengthen Hezbollah, undermine Lebanon’s democracy, fail to achieve the military objective and weaken Mr Olmert. What is more, his support for the bombing would play into the hands of those who wanted to radicalise Muslim youth.

This was possibly the worst foreign policy misjudgment of his premiership, and it left a scar that remains to this day. Ministers and MPs who were prepared reluctantly to support the case for war in Iraq watched the pulverising of southern Lebanon and felt morally sick at their leader’s refusal to condemn it. Sure, Israel had a right to defend itself, but not at this level of untargeted aggression.

Previously supportive colleagues started to peel away. Because of the summer recess, their misgivings went largely unreported. But it meant that, when the Brownite coup happened last September, many more MPs and ministers were receptive to the idea of Mr Blair going within the year.

Another sad consequence is that the man who might have had so much to offer the Middle East peace process is now discredited there. Mr Blair could have applied the lessons he learnt in Northern Ireland – in particular, that he could not make peace by involving only moderates from the UUP and SDLP. It was the arrival of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams at the negotiating table that made an agreement possible.

The same boldness is needed now in the Middle East. Any negotiation will have to include Hamas as well as Fatah, the ultra-orthodox Shas party as well as Labour. Had Mr Blair remained even-handed last July, he could now be the perfect peacebroker. Instead, he will have to content himself with lecturing conventions of American mortgage brokers. What a waste.

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