Recent surveys have shown little public support within Britain for Israel’s actions against the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Israel’s leaders protest that they have a right to self-defence but these protests win little sympathy. Most observers, including some leading members of my own party, believe that Israel has acted “disproportionately”. The nature of the media coverage has encouraged this belief. BBC and other reporters broadcast the horrific scenes of civilian areas flattened by Israeli bombs. Hardly any attention is given to the fact that Hezbollah launch their missiles from residential areas. Hezbollah think nothing of using family homes and flats as human shields. When Saddam Hussain did that we were appalled. But not now.
I have always supported Israel because I admire its democracy and the constitutional freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. Many of the nations in the region fund terrorists and repress their own people. All of the world’s democracies should have a natural solidarity with Israel but there has been little sign of such solidarity in recent days or in recent years.
Israel has failed to win the support it deserves because the rights and wrongs of situations do not matter enough in our postmodern societies. What weighs most heavily on today’s western minds are perceptions of strength. Israel is seen as the strong man of the region. It has the advanced weaponry, the elite troops and the support of America. The Palestinians first and now the Hezbollah operatives are seen as the underdogs. It’s plucky Hezbollah versus mighty Israel on the media. People feel ‘disproportionate’ sympathy with the people of the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon because there is a clear imbalance between their crude forms of organisation and weaponry and of that available to Israel.
If Israel is ever to win more international allies the western understanding of the region needs to be reframed. The reality is that Israel is one of the most vulnerable nations on the planet. It is certainly the most besieged. It is surrounded by fundamentalist preachers, terrorists and dictators who object to its very existence. This true axis of evil is led by the President of Iran. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently called for a war against the West, and for Israel “to be wiped off the face of the map”, one of the biggest mistakes made was to (i) treat this as something new and (ii) to dismiss it as political rhetoric. Far from being a one-off statement, Ahmadinejad was confirming a series of statements by Iranian leaders. In 2001 Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated “if a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the application of an atomic bomb, it would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world”. Iran, in particular, and Syria are now the world’s leading funders of terrorism. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are nurtured from Tehran. How would we feel if nearby nations were funding Britain-hating terrorists? What would we think of our political leaders if they waited six years to respond to missile attacks from those terrorists?
The ‘world community’ asks Israel to act proportionately but what will ‘world community leaders’ do in order to protect Israel if it does act in a way that Annan, Chirac and Putin think appropriate? Not, of course, that these leaders act proportionately in defence of their own interests. Putin almost bombed Grozny back to the stone age when Chechnya wanted independence. Chirac ignored world opinion when France tested nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. Annan turned a blind eye to the corruption of the oil-for-food programme – corruption that contributed to the loss of thousands of lives every month in Saddam’s Iraq. The best clue to understanding how the world will protect Israel in the next few years is to reflect on recent history. The best thing the world community does is talk. Disproportionate talking is in fact the only thing it does but jaw-jaw has not stopped the suicide bomb or missile attacks on Israel. After Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in accordance with UN resolutions the world community promised to disband Hezbollah and protect the northern territories of Israel from shelling. It didn’t. The promise never evolved into action. $100m has been sunk into the UN’s interim force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in every year of the last six but Hezbollah has only grown stronger. The only newsworthy story generated by UNIFIL was a recent financial scam.
Israel played by the international rules for six years but ‘disproportionate diplomacy’ did nothing to stop attacks on civilians or its soldiers being kidnapped. Israel now watches the same international community engage in a ‘disproportionate dither’ over Iran’s nuclear programme. Tel Aviv has seen the world fail to protect Israel from Hezbollah. Why should it have much hope that we will protect it from a nuclear Tehran?
Ultimately the terrorists of Hezbollah and their backers are responsible for the loss of life in Israel and across Lebanon. If peace is to be found for all people of the region it needs to begin with a fundamental reappraisal of recent years of international diplomacy. From Bosnia to Darfur and from Iraq to Lebanon the UN has chalked up a terrible record of failure. After this immediate crisis has passed it is vital that we first face up to the reasons for that record of failure.