Jan 2003 Journal

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Of ballots and bullets (editorial)

Although predictions are always hazardous one can safely say that 2003 will be the sort of year alluded to in the Chinese phrase ‘interesting times’. Three issues – two of them interrelated – dwarf all others and cast long, dark shadows over the coming year. The freestanding issue, so to speak, relates to domestic affairs. It is the face-off between HM Government and the resurgent trade unions. Should Prime Minister Tony Blair seem to be following in the footsteps of his last Labour predecessor, Jim Callaghan, the perception alone will have gone a long way towards making the country ungovernable.

The prospect is particularly daunting today because during the 1979 Winter of Discontent a well-supported Conservative aspirant to the premiership stood ready to move into No 10 Downing Street. Today it seems that a Labour government is losing support without the benefit thereof accruing to the Tory opposition. In other words, a political system that has served the country well for over a century shows signs of malfunctioning.

The Liberal Democrats have evolved into a significant political force too recently to provide a credible alternative opposition. They may well be on the way towards acquiring gravitas – but they are not quite there yet. In addition, they suffer from something akin to an identity crisis. To put it plainly: are they meant to occupy a position on the political spectrum mid-way between Labour and the Tories, or do they intend to outflank Labour from the left?

It is not altogether fanciful to say that if a Martian had dropped in on Lib Dem conclaves during the Iraqi and earlier Afghan crises he might have wondered whether President Bush or Saddam (or Mullah Omar) was the enemy.

To an eavesdropping Martian interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict, the issue would have appeared much more clear-cut. If he had attended the TUC conference, university debates or televised studio discussions he would have found that the jury was no longer out as to who – Sharon or Arafat – poses a greater threat to peace. In British public perception, it is most definitely the former!

Let us recapitulate: the early Zionist pioneers who settled in Palestine had no intention of forcibly seizing Arab land. Throughout the interwar years the majority of the Yishuv subscribed to a non-aggressive ideology, although the Arabs staged pogroms in 1929 and bloody riots in 1936.

In 1948 all neighbouring Arab countries tried to strangle the new-born Jewish state at birth. Four more wars followed at irregular intervals. Unremitting hostility dating back to 1929 had meanwhile a) shifted the Israeli Labour Party into a more militarist posture, and b) elevated the Likud from an opposing minority into a party of government. These developments accounted for the controversial planting of settlements all over the territories captured in the 1967 war. Such a policy breached international law, attracted UN censure and proved ultimately counter-productive.

On the other hand, Israel had been the victim of serial aggression. Besides, since the foundation of the UN, two permanent members of its Security Council, Russia and China, have totally incorporated areas seized by force of arms – e.g. the formerly German Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic, and formerly semi-independent Tibet – into their sovereign territory.

More crucially, Ehud Barak was prepared to take a gamble on peace at Camp David in 2000 by offering a more than halfway return to the status quo ante 1967 – a gamble in which Arafat refused to join. The resulting second intifada plumbed new depths of inhumanity encapsulated in the term ‘suicide bombing’.

Arafat’s ‘No’ undermined Barak. It also hoisted Sharon, whom many Israelis dub ‘a bastard – but at least he is our bastard!’, into power. When Labour ministers walked out on Sharon last October, fresh elections were called. In the impending ballot Israelis will have a choice between a dovish Labour candidate, Amram Mitzna, and Ariel Sharon.

It is highly unlikely that the voters, traumatised by endless bloodshed, will prefer Mitzna, who advocates a unilateral withdrawal from the ‘territories’, to Sharon but the former may well be a serious contender next time round.

However, hard on the heels of the ballot, bullets may fly in US-led military action against Iraq. This alas may put sorely tried Israel within range of Saddam’s weaponry. We can only hope and pray that the Jewish State has anti-rocket rockets and gas-proof shelters in place to mitigate the possible impact of Saddam’s last desperate throw. One thing is certain however: a Middle East no longer under his shadow will be a much better place!

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