Thursday 21 December 2023

Ben & Benjamin

On a Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I found myself in a West Midlands town, delivering a presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in front of the local CLP (Constituency Labour Party).  Towards the end of my presentation, there was a sudden commotion at the back of the room: Labour’s candidate for MP of that constituency had arrived.  A big man in an elegant suit rendered incongruous by everybody else’s informal, decidedly working-class attire.  A few people jumped to help him to a seat and he was introduced to me as a former British Army officer recently retired and on his way to becoming a great political leader.

I ended my presentation and spent the next twenty minutes or so answering questions from the audience – most of them genuine and courteously posed.  Then the candidate MP produced a pointed little cough, indicating that he was now going to speak.  The room went quiet as the Big Man intoned in a low, confident voice, heavy with self-importance: “I’ll tell you how this type of conflict should be dealt with.  I served in Northern Ireland.  What you have here is basically one race of people living in the same place, speaking the same language – but fighting because of religion…”  “But”, I tried to object, “Israelis and Palestinians don’t speak the same language.”  “Don’t interrupt me!” he growled.  “I’m not talking about differences in accent.  My point is – you are one people.  You need to negotiate and find a way to respect each other’s religion.  Build trust and learn to get along with each other.”  He continued for a couple of minutes in the same vein, before ending with the punchline.  “I’ll tell you a joke that shows how stupid these conflicts are.  A Jewish person had business in Belfast.  On the way from the airport, the cab driver asks him whether he’s a Catholic or a Protestant.  The man says he’s Jewish.  ‘Yeah,’ says the cabbie, ‘but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?’”  The audience laughed merrily and, before I could respond, the Big Man declared that he had another meeting to attend.  Everybody else headed for the local pub.

I was reminded of all this when I read a recent article penned by Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP.  A former captain in the British Army (i.e. second-in-command of a sub-unit of up to 120 soldiers), Wallace served as Defence Secretary under Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.  Entitled ‘Netanyahu’s tactics are weakening Israel’, his article accuses Israel’s Prime Minister of presiding over “a killing rage”, to cover his “shame . . . for not foreseeing the October 7 attacks”.  Netanyahu’s actions, declares Rt Hon Wallace, “are radicalising Muslim youth across the globe”.

The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP

In passing, let us remember that Rt Hon Wallace was Minister of State for Security (i.e., in charge of counter-terrorism) at the time of the Manchester Arena bombing.  Not exactly the kind of spotless pulpit from whence to preach about other people’s shame and failures!

A government’s most basic job is providing national security.  Clearly, on this occasion the government of Israel failed in that task.  And, as Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu bears ultimate responsibility.  As usual, Israelis rallied under attack; one does not change leadership in the middle of a war.  But Netanyahu’s days in power will be coming to an end soon.

So I have no desire to defend Netanyahu, who – to put it elegantly – screwed up royally.  But I feel that in this article ‘Netanyahu’ is code for ‘Israel’, just like ‘Zionists’ is so often for ‘Jews’.  I don’t know what Mr. Wallace’s experience is in the UK government, but in Israel Prime Ministers does not make personal decisions on war and peace.  There is a security cabinet, a full cabinet, a parliamentary coalition, the Attorney General and the Supreme Court…  There are also military leaders who typically rose ‘a bit’ higher than the rank of captain, who possess actual combat experience and who have been known to speak their minds forcefully on matters of strategy.

What ‘informs’ Rt Hon Wallace’s analysis is… you got it: his experience in Northern Ireland.  The article begins with the following statement:

“There isn’t a single soldier who served in Northern Ireland who didn’t curse, at one time, the events of Bloody Sunday under his breath. The hours spent in the bogs of South Armagh, or the back streets of West Belfast were testament to a conflict that had been ignited by the events on that day in 1972.”

It mentions Northern Ireland also in the concluding paragraph:

“The path to peace, just like in Northern Ireland, means we have to keep trying and do all we can to marginalise the extremes. With the Oslo accords we came close to realising a two-state solution. Now is the time to re-energise that process.”

For non-British readers: in a series of incidents on ‘Bloody Sunday’ (30 January 1972), units of the British army opened fire at Catholic protesters (none of whom was armed) in the Northern Irish city of Derry/Londonderry, killing 14 and injuring at least 15 others.  These days, pretty much everybody accepts that there was no justification for the shootings.  However, no British soldier has ever been jailed; only one soldier has been prosecuted – the case started in 2019 (47 years after the event) and is still ongoing.

In between, the two paragraphs reproduced above, there are additional Northern Ireland references.  Such as:

“Northern Ireland internment taught us that a disproportionate response by the state can serve as a terrorist organisation’s best recruiting sergeant. For many, watching the events in Gaza unfold each day makes us more and more uncomfortable.”

These UK/Northern Ireland vs. Israel/Gaza comparisons are based on a ‘logic’ that escapes me.  I understand that this is the only conflict Ben Wallace has personal experience of.  True, the Irish Republican Army and its various offshoots carried out many terrorist attacks, including against civilians in England.  But at no point did it invade England with thousands of terrorists; at no point did it lay to waste entire villages by torturing, murdering, raping and taking hostage thousands of innocents.  Indeed, the Northern Irish conflict was – very, very clearly – about who should rule Northern Ireland; not whether England had a right to exist.

The Troubles, of course, were not “ignited by the events on that day in 1972”; they started in the late 1960s, and the conflict’s roots go way deeper than that.

Nor can I see how the outcome of the Northern Irish conflict can be used to support Mr. Wallace’s conclusions with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian one.  Last time I looked, ‘UK’ stood for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  There was never any “two-state solution” in Northern Ireland: that ‘country’ is still firmly UK sovereign territory.  The British Army never withdrew from there; nor did it evacuate the hundreds of thousands of Protestants who – let’s face it – are descendants of English and Scottish ‘illegal settlers’.  What Northern Ireland has these days is merely ‘devolution’, i.e. a form of limited autonomy under the Northern Ireland Executive (called this way to avoid any implication that it may be a ‘government’).  Security and foreign relations are the exclusive domain of the UK government – which can also, if needed, suspend the Executive and assume direct rule…  As for the Catholics of Northern Ireland: despite being numerically the majority, they have to share power with the Protestant ‘settlers’ in a consociational system designed to preclude decisions that do not command cross-community support.  Am I forgetting something?  Oh yes – the IRA agreed to disarm

Comparisons are a funny thing: one can find certain similarities even between a city bus and a concert hall (they both have seats, etc.) – if one is so disposed; but experience in riding a bus doesn’t exactly teach one how to conduct a symphony.

The inanity of Wallace’s comparisons is matched only by the man’s intellectual dishonesty.  As UK Secretary of State for the Defence, the Rt Hon justified Turkey’s 2019 attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  In a NATO meeting, he opined:

"Turkey needs to do what it sometimes has to do to defend itself."

The problem is that the SDF did not invade Turkey and never contested Turkey’s right to exist.  With the exception of Turkey, no country considers SDF a terrorist organisation.  Quite the opposite, the SDF cooperated with the US and UK forces in their fight against the ‘Islamic State’ – and lost many fighters in the process.  SDF’s anti-Islamist character is obvious also from the fact that is the only Middle Eastern army – other than the IDF – to incorporate a large number of women, including in senior and combat positions.  So how exactly did the SDF threaten Turkey and precisely what justified the latter’s ‘defensive’ cross-border assault, which used NATO weaponry to kill and maim a large number of civilians?  What bothered Turkey was that the SDF included a large proportion of Kurdish fighters – a fact that might have provided not just pride, but also aspirations to independence among Turkey’s own long-oppressed Kurdish minority.  Nothing bothered Ben Wallace – for whom this was perhaps an opportunity to secure Turkey’s support in his quest to become NATO’s next Secretary General.

As for Wallace’s accusation that Netanyahu’s (or Israel’s) “actions are radicalising Muslim youth across the globe” – I struggle to make up my mind: is it utterly stupid, or just disingenuous?  Surely someone who’s been in charge of UK’s Defence Department knows that there were radical Islamists long before Netanyahu became Prime Minister; and even before there was a State of Israel.  From 7/7 to Manchester Arena to London Bridge and Borough Market, the UK experienced plenty of Islamist violence having little connection to Israel and a lot to do with UK’s own military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – as well as with a track record of colonialism, racism and imperial oppression.  Ben Wallace was already a ‘Rt Hon’ at the time when tens of thousands of Muslims from 85-odd countries travelled – no, not to ‘Palestine’ or to Gaza, but to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.  They included circa 750 British Muslims.

Research by Tahir Abbas, Chair of Radicalisation Studies at Leiden University in the Hague, Netherlands, revealed:

“Since the 1980s, radicalisation has been a characteristic of the Muslim experience in Britain. It is the belief that social and political grievances, as well as a sense of being unsupported, contribute to the appeal of radical ideas.”

Radicalisation (no doubt caused by Israel) on the streets of London...

Still, the Rt Hon’s contention deserves a bit of close scrutiny.  Notice that, despite the recurring waves of Palestinian atrocities and the broad manifestations of antisemitism that they trigger – including in Mr. Wallace’s own country – he is not worried about the radicalisation of Jewish youth.  Subliminally, he does not expect Jews to perpetrate acts of terrorism – or to riot on the streets of London; but he is obviously worried about Muslim radicalisation.  The question is – why?  Are Muslims more prone to radicalisation?  Are British Muslims more loyal to their coreligionists in Gaza than they are to their non-Muslim conationals in the UK?

Do video clips – however horrible – really generate radicalisation?  Or is it radicalisation – itself caused by hate ideologies – that generates video clips and other propaganda tools (placards, slogans, Der Sturmer-like caricatures, speeches by fiery preachers and articles by stupid politicians) designed to propagate that hatred?

Two millennia of humiliation, discrimination and persecution failed to produce Jewish terrorists.  Even Auschwitz – think huge piles of emaciated corpses being bulldozed into a shallow mass graves – did not ‘radicalise’ Jews into murdering, torturing and raping random Germans.

By assuming – based on no evidence other than ‘data’ supplied by a terror outfit – that Israel went on “a killing spree”, Wallace has revealed his own Judeophobic prejudice.  Is that accompanied (as it often is in the West) by Islamophobic bias, causing him to imagine ‘radical Muslim youth’ hiding under his bed?  Or does Ben Wallace – as former Secretary of State for Defence – know something we don’t about the extent to which Islamist propaganda has already been allowed to pump hatred into the hearts of defenceless youngsters?

A government’s most basic job is providing national security.  Just like a captain’s epaulets, the letters ‘Rt Hon’ are not there just for ornament; they symbolise a task, a responsibility.  One that was discharged admirably by Winston; but not by Neville Chamberlain.

If you think Islamist radicalisation is a threat, Wallace ol’ chap, then the answer is not appeasement – it’s deradicalisation.  Now be a lamb and do something about it.  Otherwise, one day we will all say that you failed in that duty – just as abysmally as Netanyahu did!


  1. Thoughtful and powerful critique - as usual. Thanks for this Noru.


  2. I enjoyed reading your article Noru. Very well put.

  3. Noru, very well written. One would expect a UK Defence Secretary to have greater knowledge, understanding & skills .. clearly that is not the case.