Last month I interviewed Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, and the piece, 6,800 words long, duly appeared in The Tablet, a Jewish-American online magazine. A minuscule part of the interview raised a journalistic firestorm last week in Britain.
Peres said that there was always an anti-Semitic (and anti-Israeli) streak in the British establishment, among both Labourites and Conservatives, and this was given historic expression in Britain’s abstention in the pro-Zionist UN partition vote in November 1947 and in subsequent, periodic anti-Israel arms embargos and in Britain’s treaty alliances with various Arab states. He could also have mentioned Britain’s recent expulsion of the Mossad’s London head of station in retaliation. By the way, Peres said that British MPs are no doubt wary of their millions of Muslim constituents when they make foreign-policy pronouncements.
Some British newspapers summarized the message in their headlines thus: Peres says Britain is anti-Semitic. The exaggeration, not to say misrepresentation, of Peres’s point was in part a reaction to Israeli anger last week over British Prime Minister David Cameron’s public description of the Gaza Strip today as “a prison camp “ and of his condemnation of Israel for its raid on the Turkish “humanitarian “ flotilla heading for Gaza.
A number of points emerge from this fracas: One, newspapers—even quality British newspapers—will manipulate statements to sell copies and to vent their feelings about this or that policy or state (and Israel, unfortunately, is a frequent victim of journalistic prejudice and ire). Another, more significant point, is the steady downward spiral of Israel’s standing in Europe and European public opinion (and in democracies politicians often reflect what publics think or at least will allow them to say). This is a result of the receding memory of the Holocaust (which for decades served to severely curtail criticism of Israel), to the steady political and economic empowerment of the Arab and Muslim worlds (due to oil wealth and demographic clout, which includes Muslim immigration to the West), to postcolonial guilty feelings over their own past treatment of Third World peoples projected onto the Israeli-Arab scene, and, yes—something Peres did not mention in the interview—Israel’s own occasional misdeeds and misguided policies.
All of this has generated a lot of hypocrisy, which has somehow gone largely unremarked. Western states have condemned and punished Israel for its use of false passports in the assassination of a top Hamas officer in Dubai—when their own intelligence services regularly use false passports (sometimes also on “wet operations”; vide the killing by Britain in Gibraltar, some decades ago, of the IRA four) and when their governments designate the Islamist Hamas a terrorist organisation and know that its aim is Israel’s destruction, that is, the destruction of a fellow democracy and member of the United Nations. And some Western states have condemned Israel for stopping and boarding a Turkish vessel bound for Gaza and killing nine of its passengers—while knowing full well that the expedition was not a bona fide humanitarian mission (Israel had offered to convey the goods the vessel was carrying to the Gaza population, and the Turks refused), but instead was carrying out a deliberate provocation and that the passengers attacked the Israeli commandos with iron bars and knives as they descended from helicopters, triggering the soldiers’ counterfire, which led to the deaths on board. Israel feared that the vessel might be carrying weapons for the Gaza-bound fundamentalists—or that if allowed to reach Gaza, a precedent would be set and follow-up vessels would arrive brimming to the gills with rockets for Hamas.
The United States and its allies regularly stop and inspect ships—Iranian, North Korean, Somali—on the high seas to search for weapons. These operations generally pass unreported and without comment in the world press. And if, on boarding such a vessel, crew members were to attack the boarding parties, of Americans or Britons, surely no one in the West would criticize the boarders for shooting their attackers in self-defense. But it is otherwise when it comes to Israelis.