Nick Cohen

How can ‘needy’ Britain help Palestine when it can’t help itself?

How can 'needy' Britain help Palestine when it can't help itself?
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A senior civil servant gave Andrew Rawnsley a haunting description of Brexit Britain’s new place in the world. When Theresa May visited Washington, he said, she looked 'needy'. The diplomat summed up our future to perfection. Britain is now a needy country. The importuning Mrs May tours foreign capitals looking for emergency trade deals like a poor relation. Begging bowl in her hand and a wheedling note in her anxious voice, she can think of nothing but making ends meet.

If it were not for Brexit, which never forget Mrs May opposed, the PM could act with European allies and try to bring a minimum of order to the chaos Trump is causing. When Benjamin Netanyahu visited London today, for instance, she might have told him that unlike the leader of the Labour party she does not associate with anti-Semites. She is not a racist or a friend of racists. Rather, as a friend to Israeli Jews she wants him to know that the occupation and settlement of the West Bank is a disaster.

There is truth in the accusation from Israel’s opponents that the country is starting to look like an apartheid state, she might continue. Not Israel proper, where there is the rule of law and legal equality, but in the occupied territories, where Arabs, unlike Jewish settlers, have no vote. What is he going to do?

If Israel were to annex the West Bank without the approval of Palestinians living there, it would be naked imperialism. If it went ahead anyway, and did not give the Palestinians full citizenship and the vote, it would not just look like apartheid, it would be apartheid. If Israel were to annex and grant citizenship, Netanyahu would fundamentally alter the character of the Israeli state, and open the possibility of an Arab government coming to power. As he is never going to do that, what is he going to do? Annex the territory and drive out the Palestinians? That would be a crime against humanity. Carry on with slow debilitating occupation? That would add to the suffering of the Palestinians and drain Israel of blood and treasure.

One day there will have to be a deal. That day clearly is not close. The Islamist friends of the Labour leadership in Hamas and Hezbollah want war to the death. For the time being, it is true, or at least plausible, for Israel to say that, if its troops were to pull out of the West Bank, they would ensure a repeat of what happened when they pulled out of Gaza. Hostile forces would move to the new border and start launching rockets at Israel. But the fanatics won’t last for ever. When better leaders come forward, a deal could be reached.

But how can that day ever come? Every new Israeli settlement makes a deal harder and is meant to make a deal harder. So it is not just Islamist sectarianism and Arab rejectionism which ensure the Palestinians are not a 'partner for peace', as the Israeli government insists ad nauseam. By its actions, the Israeli government is showing it has no wish to be a partner – either now or at any time in the future.

Speaking of religious sectarianism, the only justification on offer for the settlements is the Biblical superstition that Jews are entitled to the whole of the ancient land of Israel. Depending on which myth you favour, Eretz Yisrael can stretch from the Euphrates to the Nile. As no one to my knowledge thinks Israel should annex, say Egypt, then even this obscurantist justification fails.

We are told May will mumble a few polite protests. 'I would expect the Prime Minister to set out the government’s position that we think continued increases in settlement activity undermines trust,' said a Downing Street spokeswoman. But why should Netanyahu listen?  The world knows that needy Britain is desperate for trade deals to compensate for the loss of full membership of the single market. Hence, Britain cannot offer a critique of Erdogan as he uses the excuse of the coup to round up critics by the thousands. Hence, it cannot afford to speak plainly to Donald Trump, as Mrs May so embarrassingly demonstrated in Washington.

We are now the rich world’s supplicant, scraping for favours wherever we can find them. Even readers, who think governments have no business worrying about human rights, and should just concentrate on trade instead, ought to be wary. Anxious negotiators do not do well in trade negotiations or any other type of negotiation. Their adversaries can smell their desperation and exploit their weakness. According to its supporters, Brexit would make Britain Great Again. All it is doing is making Britain needy for years to come.