The dividing lines seem clear: conservatives (small ‘c’) and the British establishment broadly support Israel’s actions in attempting to eradicate Hamas as a military force in Gaza, taking their cue from the pro-Israeli US position; socialists and British Muslims back the Palestinians and even Hamas, to a variable extent; the liberal intelligentsia sympathises with the Gazan Palestinians while also conceding that, maybe, Israel has little choice other than to act as it is doing – a position based on the firm conviction that the continuing existence of a separate Jewish state of Israel is sacrosanct.
But what should English foreign policy be in the matter? Clearly, this is a paradoxical question, as there is no such thing, formally, as English foreign policy. As we know, foreign policy is a reserved matter, so that even if there were a devolved English government along the lines of those that presently exist in the other nations of the UK, that government would not have an official position on the events in Gaza or any other foreign-policy matter. That didn’t stop the Scottish First Minister’s pro-Palestinian assessment of the events from appearing on the Scottish Government’s website on 3 January, however: “The Israeli Government’s response to the security situation is totally disproportionate, and appears to be a general punishment of the people of Gaza”.
I actually agree with Alex Salmond: I think the readiness of the Israeli government to kill and injure so many innocent Palestinian civilians partakes of their general oppression of and enmity towards the Palestinian people, and their fundamental denial of the concept of a dignified, self-determining nation of Palestine. Only thinking of the situation in these terms can make sense of how the Israelis think it can possibly be justified to slaughter so many people in pursuit of their security objectives: they see their security and the defence of their own civilians as so paramount that the loss of Palestinian lives simply does not weigh in the balance. But beyond the demeaning trade-offs between the number of casualties on either side (how can you set a limit on the number of (Palestinian) human lives lost that is ‘acceptable’ or ‘proportionate’ to the aim of preventing other (Israeli) lives from being lost?), this attitude is comprehensible only when set against what is ultimately at stake: defence of Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state is predicated on the denial of the existence of Palestine and, as a corollary (if necessary), on the destruction of the existence of Palestinians.
Note that I referred to ‘Palestine’ and not a ‘Palestinian state’. The point of the distinction is that the heart of the conflict between Israel and Hamas concerns whether the territory currently occupied by the state of Israel should remain a Jewish state or should become a new nation state of Palestine. Hamas and its anti-Israeli backers throughout the Muslim world – particularly, Iran – want to create a new Islamic state of Palestine, replacing the present state of Israel. Hence, the Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s infamous declaration that he wished to wipe Israel off the map, while chillingly evoking nuclear annihilation to Western ears, probably refers mainly to this aspiration to replace the state of Israel with an Islamic Republic of Palestine. By attempting to neutralise Hamas as any sort of military force in Gaza, the Israelis are trying to deal a mortal blow to general Palestinian aspirations towards the creation of such a nation of Palestine. The Israelis are aiming to negate any concept that they should be negotiating with Hamas ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president, as they doubtless suspect that he would have tried to cajole them into talks with an organisation they regard as a mortal enemy. Hence, if Hamas are taken out of the equation before President Obama can find his feet in foreign affairs, then only negotiations with the ‘moderate’ Fatah organisation leading towards the establishment of a two-state solution will be left on the table: a Palestinian state, separate from the Jewish state of Israel, and occupying a much-reduced territory to that of the Palestine that lives on in the hearts and dreams of the battered Palestinian people.
It’s easy to see why English people should naturally be inclined to side with the Palestinians. As I stated in a previous post, our aspirations towards the establishment of a distinct English nation, freed from subordination and assimilation to the UK state, are analogous to those of the Palestinians, even though the situation is clearly hugely different in other ways. We also share our patron saint St George with Palestine: the patron saint of suppressed nations, as I call him. The very fact that Palestine has a patron saint should tell us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about much more than a fight for control of territory between Judaism and Islam, or between the West and Islam, for that matter. In a blog post on the subject today, Cranmer rightly reminds us that there is – or at least, was – a sizeable and ancient Palestinian Christian community, which is being persecuted and driven away from its ancestral homeland as much by Islamic hardliners as by Israel. And yet, Cranmer still persists in characterising the present conflict as just the latest manifestation of a mortal struggle between Judaism and Islam. Clearly, this is fundamental; and Cranmer does emphasise the way the religious conflict is wrapped up in beliefs about land ownership. However, more fundamental still is the struggle for nationhood: the fight to keep alive the idea and hope of a nation of Palestine that once occupied the territory now occupied by Israel. Hamas has hi-jacked those aspirations in the service of its own extremist Islamic agenda. But the Palestine to which the majority of Palestinians still aspire is not, I would suggest, a monolithic, Iranian-style Muslim state; but one in which there would be tolerance and protection of non-Muslim minorities, including the ancient Christian community.
And including Jews? Well, there’s the nub of the question. Is the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state the only way to protect the Jewish people that live there from a terrifying new Holocaust or dispersion as the vengeance and hatred of the Palestinian people and the Arab world in general is wreaked upon it? This nightmare vision is what ensures that the West continues to back Israel, as we never want to allow another mass persecution and extermination of the Jews to happen again. But is a two-state solution really the only one that could guarantee the Jewish people’s security, while fulfilling – in part, at least – the Palestinian people’s aspirations towards nationhood? The English experience and, as I would say, the natural empathy we should feel towards the Palestinians, could suggest the outlines of a different way out of the impasse. After all, it was Britain that laid the foundations for the present morass by sanctioning the creation of a state of Israel without a corresponding Palestinian homeland while it was administering the territory in the wake of the Second World War. So perhaps England, as distinct from Britain, is in a unique position to atone for the failings of Britain and find a way through.
What if, instead of a two-state solution, England were to propose and push for a two-nation / one-state solution: an integrated, single, federal state covering the present territory of Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories. The new Israel and Palestine would be divided into distinct self-administering nations, with re-negotiated land borders – e.g. the whole of the West Bank being incorporated into Palestine. Meanwhile, the city of Jerusalem could have a separate status as an international ‘free city’, rather like those of medieval Europe or, indeed, a devolved city-county like London. Effectively, then, Israel-Palestine would be divided into two nations plus a non-national city – Israel, Palestine and Jerusalem respectively – with governmental responsibilities being apportioned between the central state and the nations in rather the same way that they are presently between the UK state and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (a structure that should also be extended to England, of course). The new state of Israel-Palestine would have to be secular – neither Jewish, Islamic nor Christian – so as to ensure equal rights and protection for all faith communities. The non-denominational, international city of Jerusalem could become a shining beacon and symbol of the peaceful cohabitation of the three great faiths for which it has such a privileged and precious status. If necessary, Jerusalem could become some sort of international protectorate, with its security being assured by a rotating international force made up from traditionally Christian and Muslim nations alongside those with other, non-Abrahamic faiths. And the fact that there would be a single state would mean that Palestinians could consider the whole of Israel-Palestine as their ‘country’, even if only a part of it were technically their nation. They would be free to live and work throughout the territory; as, indeed, would Jews be in the new nation of Palestine. This would make good some of the humiliation of the Palestinian people and make them feel that not only their nation but their land had been restored to them – although part of the agreement might have to be that all individual disputes over land ownership were formally ended.
‘It would never work’, I hear my readers say. Well, the present situation isn’t exactly working, either; and the single- and even dual-state solutions that have been advanced so far have not come to fruition. The above single-state / dual-nation solution is attempt to reconcile the conflicting claims of Jewish security and Palestinian nationhood. And it’s reconciliation that is so desperately needed; not bombs.
In any case, my main point is not this particular proposal in isolation. This is merely an example – but hopefully, an intriguing one – of what a distinctive English foreign policy might look like. We wouldn’t have to be hide-bound to the legacy of British foreign policy stretching back over decades and centuries; and we wouldn’t need to slavishly toe the American line. We could go with our instincts, our sympathies and our flair for pragmatic compromise. And just think; if England were able to mediate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just think how this could improve our relations with the Islamic world, and with the Muslim communities in our midst!
The possibilities, as they say, are endless. But it might require an independent English foreign policy, and indeed English independence per se, to bring them about. But the example I’ve just given is one where thinking outside the British box might enable England to play a wonderful role in international relations to which our genius for practical solutions and, perhaps, our Christian heritage suit us well.