Perhaps the least important aspect of Sunday night’s events in international waters off Israel is what actually happened. In the world in which Israel operates, the rights or wrongs of what Israel actually does are irrelevant. Reaction to Israeli behaviour is no longer governed by facts or by rational responses. The country is judged — and found guilty in advance — in the context of a perception on which all right-thinking people agree — that Israel is the enemy of peace.
Whenever Israel acts, the default response is to condemn first and inquire later. That has certainly been the pattern this week.
The pattern is well established. Remember the Jenin ‘massacre’ in April 2002? The condemnation travelled round the world, and became accepted fact before the truth could get its boots on. According to a Guardian leader, the events surrounding Israel’s destruction of suicide bomb-making factories in Jenin on the West Bank during the second intifada were ‘every bit as repellent’ as Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York on 9/11. Palestinian spokesmen such as Saeb Erekat reported 3,000 dead civilians. The media recycled this as fact, with daily updated tales of Israeli war crimes, summary executions and general depravity. Israel was condemned across the planet.
But when the facts emerged, weeks later, there were not 3,000 dead but 46 — all but three of whom were combatants. One Palestinian newspaper even celebrated Jenin as a ‘great victory against the Jews’, with 23 IDF soldiers killed in door-to-door fighting.
For years, supporters of Israel’s right to defend itself from terror have shared the same oft-repeated moan: why isn’t its PR better? Surely lies such as Jenin, and the rush to judgment this week, could be avoided if more effort went into PR.
But that misunderstands the dynamics. Israel does not just have a better case than the near universal condemnation it now receives across the globe implies; it is the front line in the war to defend Western civilisation from radical Islam, its citizens faced daily with the threat from terror.
This is the crucial point. We are embarrassed — shamed — by Israel’s refusal to bend as we do. Increasingly spineless ourselves, we cannot even agree that radical Islam is a threat in the UK, let alone decide how to defeat it. Many of those in authority here would rather pretend all is well than confront it. Daily, as the body count increases, our will is being sapped in the military version of that fight in Afghanistan. And increasingly we forget the monumental and hard-won achievements in Iraq.
Israel, however, seems to make no concessions, even when it actually makes things worse for itself. Its dogmatic refusal to hold its own independent inquiry into Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last year meant that the malevolently biased Goldstone inquiry defined the terms of Israel’s ‘guilt’. Holding its own inquiry would not have been an admission of culpability; rather, it would have demonstrated the strength of Israel’s democracy.
Similarly, its settlements are a standing affront to justice, and clearly make any kind of peace with moderate Palestinians even more difficult. Yet Israeli governments of all stripes have exacerbated the situation with more building.
Mark Regev, the cogent Israeli spokesman, may be ever-present on our screens whenever Israel is deemed to have transgressed, but the Israeli PR effort is not even half-hearted. The Israelis long ago realised that they are prejudged as the villain, and it is now clear that they no longer care what anyone else thinks.
Their logic is stark. The West is no longer able even to stand up for itself, so the chance of it standing up for Israel is zero.
And the evidence bears that out. Whenever Israel takes military action to defend itself — in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza last year, for instance — it is condemned for the very fact of taking action, almost irrespective of the facts. It is as if resorting to military action of itself makes the case invalid.
Our new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, made clear where he stood when in 2006 he condemned Israel’s action in Lebanon as ‘disproportionate’.
A fortnight ago, Mr Hague was in Washington. At a meeting in the British embassy, he was questioned by a guest about a phrase he used a lot during the election, that the UK would have ‘solid but not slavish’ ties with the US under a Conservative government. What specifically, he was asked, did this mean; how would he have acted differently from the previous government? ‘Israel,’ the Foreign Secretary immediately replied. ‘The Lebanon war.’ Tony Blair had supported Israel’s action.
So it came as no surprise when, on Monday, Mr Hague, before any of the facts were known, issued a statement deploring what had happened, demanding that Israel ‘act with restraint and in line with international obligations’ and insisting that it ‘open the crossings to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza’ — the effect of which would be to give Hamas access to any weaponry it fancies.
Then, he added as an afterthought, ‘It will be important to establish the facts about this incident, and especially whether enough was done to prevent deaths and injuries.’ Judge first, inquire later.
Even the US, Israel now feels, is shaky. The spat over a settlement freeze is regarded as neither here nor there. Israel would do a deal if there were anything real on offer. The substantive issue is Iran. President Obama has spent 18 months appeasing the mullahs and seems catastrophically unwilling to confront the implications of what his behaviour is making inevitable — a nuclear Iran.
This combination of US weakness and Iran’s ever-increasing strength is creating a powerful lure at a critical moment. Had the US shown itself to be a strong player in the region, there might have been an opportunity to prise Syria from its previous path of terror. Instead Syria is looking towards Iran — as is Turkey, whose quasi-Islamist governing party is being gifted by our weakness the chance to move the country from its western alliance.
All of which points to a sobering conclusion. Israel now feels that it is so out of kilter with the West that it considers itself to be alone against its enemies. Perhaps that is so. But Israel cannot survive alone. Iran’s arming of Hezbollah and Hamas makes them ever stronger — and they are not even the greatest threat Israel faces.
Unless something changes dramatically in the West, and we realise that Israel’s war really is our war, then the country which this year celebrated its 62nd anniversary may not survive to celebrate its 75th.
Stephen Pollard is editor of the Jewish Chronicle.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 5, 2010