Friday 8 July 2016

Chilcot, Israel and the Kiss of Judas

احذر عدوك مرة وصديقك ألف مرة فإن انقلب الصديق فهو أعلم بالمضرة

Beware of an enemy once and of a friend a thousand times, because a duplicitous friend will hurt you more. (An Arabic proverb)

I admit: I expected the Chilcot inquiry to be just another sop.  If nothing else, the inordinate length of time it took seemed to bode no great desire to reveal unpleasant truths.  So, had I been asked a couple of weeks ago, I would have expressed low expectations from that inquiry; and I would have been wrong.

Sir John Chilcot, Chair of the Inquiry
True, like the biblical Jacob, we had to wait seven years for this bride; it cost us more than £10 million.  In taxes, not in sheep, goats or camels.

But at least the bride is lovely and wise.  Sir John Chilcot and his team have done good, serious work.  That’s not to say that their report should be seen as The Ultimate Truth – far from it.  Inevitably, the assessments, judgments and conclusions are all subjective, coloured by the authors’ own experience, beliefs and ideological inclinations.  But a huge body of evidence has been uncovered; and the analysis (while far from infallible) is also quite useful.

The Chilcot Inquiry findings will no doubt fascinate people for years and maybe decades to come.  As usual, the honest historian in search of truth and understanding will be followed by the ‘revisionist’ seeking to justify preconceived ideas for the sake of publicity, royalties and tenure.
Even before that, an army of journalists and politicians will exploit the report – without reading it, of course – to further their own interests and careers.  The most unscrupulous ones have in fact already  started to do just that – before the ink has had a chance to dry on Sir Chilcot’s signature.

But there is one aspect revealed by the inquiry which has so far completely escaped attention; which has not even been touched by the journo-political Commentariat.  And yet, reference to that aspect was obvious even in John Chilcot’s public statement, which accompanied the release of the report on 6 July 2016.  Says Sir John:
“On 28 July, Mr Blair wrote to President Bush with an assurance that he would be with him ‘whatever’ – but, if the US wanted a coalition for military action, changes would be needed in three key areas.”
The Commentariat herd has focused its entire attention on Blair’s promise to support Bush “whatever”.  But it’s worth taking in the entirety of John Chilcot’s statement.

What was that “coalition for military action” that Blair was so keen to organise?  And why was he that keen?  A look at the written records gives us the answer: Blair wanted to cover his proverbial bottom, in case the sh** hit the fan (as it eventually did).  On 28 July 2002, Blair wrote in his message to US President Bush:
“The US could do it alone, with UK support.  [but]  If we win quickly, everyone will be our friend.  If we don’t and they haven’t been bound beforehand, recriminations will start fast.”
Blair’s message details the potential dangers:
“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.  Suppose it got militarily tricky.  Suppose Iraq suffered unexpected civilian casualties.  Suppose the Arab street finally erupted, eg in {CENSORED}.  Suppose Saddam felt sufficiently politically strong, if militarily weak in conventional terms, to let off WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction].  Suppose that, without any coalition, the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance.  Suppose, at least, that any difficulties, without a coalition, are magnified and seized upon by a hostile international opinion.”
Throughout his message, Blair advocates a political and military coalition as an antidote against those “any difficulties”.  And not just any old coalition, but one that would include Arab countries; just like in Bush Senior’s First Gulf War.

On the face of it, this made sense.  After all, many an Arab dictator feared and loathed Saddam Hussein; his military might and (especially) popularity on the Arab street threatened their royal thrones and gilded presidential armchairs.  But Arab tyrants are good negotiators; their power and very survival depends on astutely playing other people’s ambitions and fears, hopes and worries.  Accustomed to play by the rules, Western politicians are no match for such predatory instincts.  Tony Blair was easily persuaded that the West needed to pay a price for the Arabs’ militarily ineffective but politically convenient cooperation.  What price?  Well, the Arab autocrats needed to throw their hapless subjects a bone; and in the world of tyrants, where power is admired as the supreme value, that means being able to declare a victory.  Not just against a fellow Arab dictator, but against the habitual scapegoat – Israel.  So the Arab dictators persuaded Blair that the West needed to pay for their cooperation and that the currency needed to be Israel’s security.  As usual, the entire thing was to be disguised under the euphemism ‘progress in MEPP’ – the Middle East Peace Process.  In Blair’s own words:
“The Arabs may support but are far less likely to do so, if MEPP is where it is now.  When I met {CENSORED} and said we would do Iraq, he said: ‘fine – just do it with total force’.  But when we started later to talk about MEPP, he said he was far more optimistic about it.  ‘Why?’, I asked.  ‘Because obviously, with Iraq coming up, the US will put it in a quite different place, he said.  When I said, we couldn’t guarantee that, he looked genuinely shocked.  Then Iraq would be a very different proposition, he said.”
For anyone familiar with Middle Eastern negotiation euphemisms, a deal had been offered: the West would be allowed to “do Iraq” if the Arab dictators could, to at least some extent, ‘do Israel’.  If we needed proof that ‘MEPP’ was all about imposing a "movement" that was "contrary to Israeli worries", we get that from another Blair-to Bush message, dated 11 October 2001:
“This is the huge undercurrent in this situation.  It is the context in the Arab world.  The trouble is it’s damn difficult, though your comments on a Palestinian state and {CENSORED}  […]  It will be very tough, but we need a big, new initiative.  I wonder if we could do as follows: pull out every stop to halt terrorist activity on the Palestinian side or at least have Arafat so clearly trying, that it’s obvious to all; then use this break in the weather, to launch a new talks process, effectively accepting at the outset that the outcome will be 2 states living side by side.  {CENSORED} involvement and it’s your call but, for what it’s worth, I have believed for 2 years now that the US just can’t take the strain of this alone; and that contrary to Israeli worries, the {CENSORED} into a reasonable deal.  After all, it’s the {CENSORED}.
If we showed movement here, the Arab moderates would regain the upper hand quickly.”
We do not know who “the Arab moderates” were in 2001.  Did they include Egypt’s President Mubarak?  The absolute monarchs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Jordan?  Perhaps Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad, the (then) newly enthroned President-for-Life of Syria?

But what is clear is that Tony Blair was in search of a "reasonable deal".  Only problem was – in his mind it needed to be reasonable from the point of view of the USA/UK interests in Iraq; and that meant disregarding "Israeli worries" to keep the "Arab moderates" happy.

Now, let us remind ourselves what was going on at the time – in 2001-2002, when Tony Blair was so nonchalantly advocating the brushing aside of those annoying “Israeli worries”.

The Camp David Summit (Bill Clinton, Arafat, Ehud Barak) had ended in July 2000, with no agreement.  In January 2001, Arafat was finally forced to put in writing the Palestinian official response, rejecting out of hand the so-called Clinton Parameters which had offered Palestinians a state in 100% of Gaza Strip and 95-97% of West Bank, plus 1-3% of swap land from pre-1967 Israel.
Arafat also refused to budge during the Taba negotiations, despite the offer being reiterated, detailed and expanded.

Even while the negotiations at Taba were going on, a campaign of terror against Israelis was unfolding.  It cost the lives of 207 Israelis in 2001 and 457 in 2002.  There were 40 suicide bombings in 2001 and 47 (i.e. roughly one every week on average) in 2002.

Memorial for the victims of the Dolphinarium suicide bombing. 21 Israeli youngsters (the majority teenage girls) were killed in June 2001 by a 22-year-old Palestinian terrorist. 

As his message to Bush proves, Tony Blair was well aware of the situation and of the basis for “Israeli worries”; he did not believe that Arafat was “clearly trying” to “halt terrorist activity on the Palestinian side”.  In fact, in yet another message to Bush (in December 2001), he was stating, in reference to the wave of Palestinian terrorism:
“The issue is not whether [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon takes tough action.  He is bound to and so would any of us in this situation.”
Needless to say, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians had nothing to do with Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s regime.  So, was Tony Blair truly naïve enough to believe that this conflict (rather than, for instance, the lack of freedom and democracy) was the context in the Arab world”?  Doubtful; he was just cynically willing to pay for Arab benevolence with Israeli blood and tears.

Nor was Blair’s attitude new and unheard of.  The cooperation of Arab dictators in the First Gulf War (among them Mubarak of Egypt and Assad Senior, father of the current Syrian president and a prodigious murderer in his own right) had been ‘rewarded’ with the Madrid Conference, in which Israel was forced to ‘negotiate’ (read: face in a public or semi-public showdown) simultaneously with Syria, Lebanon and a joint PLO-Jordanian delegation, under the watchful co-sponsorship of United States and the Soviet Union.

These days, Blair’s 2001-2002 cynical manoeuvre has become a typical Western (or at least European) approach.  Why else would the European Union still refer to the (stubborn, but low intensity) conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as ‘the conflict in the Middle East’?  Isn’t the conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Islam an infinitely more suitable candidate to that title?  Shouldn’t the EU seek to initiate (let alone progress) a Middle East Peace Process for that conflict, which is many centuries old, has resulted in millions of casualties, involves a huge swath of territory including at a minimum Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and is a colossal threat to world peace?

Like Tony Blair in 2001-2002, current European politicians are keen to buy Arab dictators’ connivance at Israel’s expense.  In addition, they hope to ‘sweeten’ the bad taste left by their efforts to keep Muslim refugees out of Europe and to ‘endear’ themselves to their own already large and restive Muslim minority.

The problem with that tactic – besides, that is, its stench of advanced moral rot – is that it won’t work.  Despite what crypto-racist Europeans may think, brown Muslims are not stupid.  Sure, moved by a mistaken sense of Islamic solidarity and/or by anti-Semitic prejudice, some of them may raise their lips in praise for Europe’s cynical policies towards the Jewish state.  But, even when yelled at the top of the voice, such praise only comes from the lips.  In their hearts, many Muslims (both in the Middle East and in Europe) will be thinking: ‘if they do that to Israelis, whom they call their friends, how will they ultimately treat us?’

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