Years ago, as an undergraduate history student at SOAS, I wrote an essay on the Balfour declaration and the British role in the formation of the state of Israel for Professor Malcolm Yapp. Professor Yapp kindly gave me an ‘A+’ for that essay, but I also remember a tutorial in which he queried my argument that Britain was self-interested, dishonest, and duplicitous, and had no interest in Arabs or Jews, except insofar as it could use them to further its imperial interests.
Professor Yapp put it to me that the Balfour declaration was in fact an act of selfless altruism that went wrong, but whose original intentions were good and even noble. Yapp was a former foreign office offical himself, and I had no doubt that he sincerely believed this. I sensed also that this belief reflected his conviction that the British political elite was generally – perhaps uniquely – benign and motivated by moral decisions and moral conviction, rather than the colder strategic calculations that other powerful states have made.
I didn’t accept this argument then, and nothing that I have seen since has led me to change my mind. I thought about Professor Yapp yesterday, when the newly-appointed foreign secretary Philip Hammond turned up in Jerusalem to bring British influence to bear on the Gaza war.
On the day that Israeli rockets killed more than fifteen people in a school in Gaza, Hammond attended a joint press conference with Netanyahu and gave an interview to Sky News in which he expressed his solidarity, understanding and support for Israel.
In a soft interview with Sky TV’s David Bowden that had all the forensic penetration of two pensioners playing ping pong in an old people’s home, Hammond blamed Hamas for causing the war and also for preventing a ceasefire. Hammond neglected to mention that the ceasefire had been opposed above the heads of Hamas, without consultation, and without including any of its demands for an opening of borders or the ending of Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Hammond also reiterated the British position that Israel has the ‘right to defend itself’ against Palestinian rockets. He omitted any reference to the chain of events that led to the war which preceded the rockets, and his interviewer thoughtfully refrained from mentioning it too.
Most chillingly of all, Hammond twice expressed Her Majesty’s understanding for Israel’s ‘difficulties’ in conducting military operations in Gaza, on the grounds that ‘ if you launch rockets from a densely-populated civilian area there will be civilian casualties, that I’m afraid, is inevitable.’
So in other words, when civilians die, it’s not the fault of Israel, but Hamas. Faced with these insurmountable difficulties, Hammond politely suggested that Israel should conduct its operations with ‘restraint’ and in accordance with its core ‘western values.’
Such restraint was especially necessary, because ‘As this campaign goes on and the civilian casualties in Gaza mount, Western opinion is becoming more and more concerned and less and less sympathetic to Israel’, and ‘there is huge public concern about the level of civilian casualties and the humanitarian situation that is going on in Gaza.’
For Hammond, former defense secretary and millionaire-businessman, such ‘concern’ is more dangerous and disturbing than the ‘inevitable’ casualties themselves, because it is likely to make Hamas ‘politically stronger.’
This response is not just an example of hypocrisy, or political dishonesty and cowardice, though it is all these things. What Hammond’s arguments reveal once again, is an entirely unproblematic acceptance of Israeli violence as an instrument of state policy at the upper echelons of the British establishment, coupled with a wary recognition of what he clearly regards as the naive sentimentalism of the ordinary public, that foolishly allows itself to be horrified by photographs of dead children.
The same logic once led Blair to slow demands for a ceasefire in the 2006 Lebanon war, when he was inadvertently captured on microphone offering to go to Lebanon to pretend to be a peace envoy so that he could ‘just talk’ – and give Israel more time to blitz the country and complete its war aims.
Hammond is working from the same playbook. Though he reiterated at his press conference with Netanyahu that his government was ‘gravely concerned’ about civilian casualties, it is clear that it is only concerned about the political consequences of these casualties. It was certainly clear to Netanyahu anyway, who thanked Her Majesty’s government for its support and told Hammond, ‘ I thank you for keeping your moral focus and your moral clarity. We shall need it in the days ahead.’
Netanyahu is not the man to talk to anyone about ‘moral clarity’. And whatever that term means it has nothing at all do with the actions of our man in Jerusalem, who demonstrated once again yesterday the remarkable ability of the British elite to transform even a plodding and unimaginative appatchnik like Hammond into a cold-blooded, merciless exponent of amoral realpolitik.