UK’s ex-minister: Israel should have apologized
I sat my final law examinations at the University of Leeds in June 1967.
In between revision, and the examinations themselves, I became glued to my radio, to listen to the latest twist in the Arab/Israeli “Six Day War.”
I was a student leader at Leeds, just elected as union president, and on the left. What was striking was the strength of support for Israel, from left, center and right; the disdain for Egypt and the other Arab countries, who were reported to have been the aggressors. An added reason to be on Israel’s side was that it was almost the only democracy in the region; its opponents largely autocracies. How things have changed in the intervening 40-plus years.
Now, on this side of the Atlantic at least, it is Israel that is increasingly isolated, and with less and less active, vocal support. That shift in sentiment has also been apparent in the British House of Commons, where I have been a member for the last 32 years. Only a tiny, wholly unrepresentative minority challenge Israel’s right to exist as a secure, sovereign state. That is not the issue.
What has lost Israel support, and allies, has been its arrogance; its cavalier approach to international norms; and the inability of its leaders to act in a statesmanlike, strategic way. Instead, as Turkish President Abdullah Gül has observed Israel now “burdens even its allies.”
Nowhere has Israel’s negative approach, its alienation of its friends, been more stark than over its handling of the aftermath of the killings of nine Turkish civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara on May 30 last year.
All of us who have had the responsibility of government know that those in a country’s defense forces, put in harm’s way on the orders of government, may sometimes over-react in the heat of the moment. That does not excuse the service personnel involved, but it’s a fact of life.
If the over-reaction has involved the unwarranted killing of another country’s citizens, still more if that country has been an ally, then wisdom and statesmanship is required in handling the fallout. In the Mavi Marmara situation, the government of Israel should have apologized. After all, even the United States government, whose default position is never to criticize Israel whatever it does, has been reported as urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an apology.
Israel could – and should – have apologized in a full-hearted manner, but in a way that neither humiliated nor embarrassed them. Once the apology had been issued, and then accepted by Turkey, both countries would have had a platform for the restoration of normal relations.
Instead, relations have deteriorated, from tepid, then to cold, and now to freezing, with the decision of the Turkish government to expel the Israeli ambassador from Ankara, and downgrade diplomatic relations between the two countries. For this situation Israel has only itself to blame.
In turn, many commentators blame Israel’s political system for the myopic leaders it produces, and the inherent instability of its governments.
There’s a good deal of truth in this. In a multi-party, heterogeneous society, the system of proportional representation used for electing MPs to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) produces a nightmare of splinter, and extremist, parties who then routinely hold the larger minorities to ransom. The irony, however, is that there is a good deal of evidence that the Israeli people are not, in fact, at one with their political leaders over the course the government is taking in its foreign policy. Earlier this year polling conducted in Israel found that when asked what their country should do if the world intends to recognize a Palestinian state, 48 percent felt Israel should too. A still larger percentage, 53 percent, said they would encourage Netanyahu to present a diplomatic initiative that included significant concessions. More important still, the survey found that Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party, which argues for stronger engagement with Palestine, was ahead of the governing Likud Party.
Sadly, while Israel asks for special understanding of the constraints of its democracy, it has been, at best, slow to recognize how similar, but opposite, forces are constraining other countries in the region, Turkey included. Take as just one example a recent poll that found 53 percent of Egyptians supported scrapping their country’s peace treaty with Israel. As President Gül has correctly summarized, “Democracy is on the ascent … and no democratic country can follow a dishonorable policy by disregarding its own citizens’ wants and sensitivities.” Middle Eastern public opinion is crystal clear: a two-state solution broadly aligned around 1967 boundaries. Internationally the feelings are just as strong with 71 percent in the U.K., 82 percent in France and 86 percent in Germany now supporting Palestinian statehood.
The mark of a true leader is one that is willing to take risks in the interest of peace and who is prepared to engage with partners and neighbors to build a consensus. Contrast this with the position of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, which seeks to stifle every initiative toward peace and lacks a complete understanding of the wider geopolitical developments, not only in the region, but also within its own country. Luckily, Turkey has adopted a positive and engaging role which, unlike Israel, is backed in its actions by widespread regional public opinion. Indeed, it is through, not against, Turkish leadership that democracy, reconciliation and peace can flourish across the Middle East, and Israel can then come to enjoy real security and stability within borders recognized internationally.
Jack Straw is a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.