Nine years after it was delivered, Tony Blair’s speech to the 2001 Labour Party conference remains a chilling piece of hubris and hypocrisy. Britain’s government, he claimed, was not only concerned with the well-being of its own people but with the entire planet. “The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountains of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.”
Blair’s protégé Catherine Ashton has evidently learned a few tricks from the war criminal who masquerades as a peace envoy. As the EU’s foreign policy chief (“high representative” in Brussels parlance), Ashton has been diligently spreading the myth that she and other senior European politicians are even-handed in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Ashton – appointed a life peer and a minister under Blair - recently denounced the criminal conviction that an Israeli military court handed down to Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, an organiser of weekly demonstrations against the massive wall that penetrates deep into the West Bank. Read on its own, Ashton’s two-paragraph response to the conviction appears laudable, giving the impression that the EU is determined to defend the Palestinians’ right to protest against the theft of their homeland.
Yet this is the same Ashton who has generally displayed a shameful disregard for Palestinian prisoners until now. When she met Israel’s overtly racist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman in July, the only detainee on Ashton’s mind was the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured (not “kidnapped”, as many newspaper stories would have us believe) by Hamas in 2006. Certainly, Shalit should be treated humanely and there are compelling reasons for arguing he should be released on compassionate grounds. But it was entirely wrong of Ashton to focus on a soldier who was enforcing a brutal occupation, while not uttering one word – in public, at least – about the plight of Palestinian prisoners. Had her advisers consulted the organisation Defence for Children International, she could have learnt that at the very moment she was posing for photographs with Lieberman, Israel was holding more than 280 Palestinians aged between 12 and 17. Each year Israel detains an average of 700 Palestinian children – usually for an offence no more serious than throwing stones at one of the world’s most powerful armies. Most of these children are held within Israel, in violation of international law; under the Fourth Geneva Convention, people convicted in an occupied territory may only be jailed inside that territory.
Or a glance at the website run by Addameer, a prisoners support group, could have equipped Ashton with the alarming statistic that 650,000 Palestinians – one-fifth of the population in the occupied territories – have been locked up by Israel since 1967. Indeed, the Israeli government is responsible for the incarceration of an entire people – Gaza is routinely and accurately described as the world’s largest open-air prison; the West Bank has become a patchwork of checkpoints and roadblocks, where the ill and injured often die because Israeli troops stop them from travelling to see a doctor.
Ashton’s chumminess with Lieberman – a man who does not live in the state that he represents but in an illegal settlement – is at odds with how she shuns Hamas, the winners of a 2006 election. Even though the EU’s own observers deemed that election to be free and fair, the unelected Ashton has refused to meet local political leaders on the two occasions she has visited Gaza. Such a snub would be virtually unthinkable if she was travelling anywhere else.
And what can be said of her reaction to the attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla at the end of May? Nine peace activists were murdered by the state of Israel in its unprovoked raid on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, but all we got from Ashton was an inspid statement describing the incident as a “tragedy” (this implied that she did not feel that the deaths had been caused deliberately). She has subsequently been reticent about the sham investigation that Israel has called into the attack. The proverbial dogs on the street know that David Trimble, a leading foreign observer to the inquiry, cannot be considered impartial; earlier this year the former Ulster Unionist leader set up a new “friends of Israel” group. Trimble is clearly a propagandist for Israel but Ashton cannot bring herself to say so.
On the subject of propaganda, Ashton appears to have gobbled up and digested many of the lies that flow interminably from the Israeli government. In July, she welcomed the minor modifications that Israel had made to its economic blockade of Gaza as a “significant step forward”. It is instructive that her message was almost identical to that which Tony Blair had been sending over the preceding month. Despite maintaining the pretence that he is an international “peace” envoy for the Middle East, Blair had been selling the planned “easing” of the blockade as a diplomatic triumph (he has sought credit for brokering it), long before he had been appraised of just how much easing would occur. The truth, of course, is far less cheery: the imports of tomato ketchup and mayonnaise now allowed to Gazans have not halted the wider strangulation of their economy, nor the denial of their elementary rights.
Ashton’s obsequious attitude towards Israel follows many years in which the EU has become increasingly acquiescent towards Israel’s crimes against humanity. Under the terms of an EU-Israel association agreement that came into effect in 2000, Israel is required to respect fundamental human rights in order to qualify for privileged commercial access to the Union’s markets. Heaps of documentation illustrating that Israel has not complied with this provision have been accumulated over the past decade, yet not only has the EU refused to rescind Israel’s existing trade privileges, it has granted further perks. An agreement on agricultural trade concluded in November 2009, for example, lets Israel export 80 percent of its fresh produce and 95 percent of its processed foods to the EU free of customs duties. Theoretically, this only applies to goods from within Israel’s internationally recognised borders. In practice, the Israeli exporter Agrexco mixes up crops grown in Israel and those grown in Israeli settlements in the West Bank in its warehouses, then labels the whole lot as “made in Israel”.
Meanwhile, Israel has been integrated into the EU’s economic and political programmes to such a degree that it has become a member state of the Union in all but name. That is not just my observation. Speaking in Jerusalem last year, Javier Solana – Ashton’s predecessor as foreign policy chief – said that Israel is “a member of the European Union, without being a member of the institutions.”
The EU-funded programmes involving Israel range from archaeology to enterprise promotion. While their activities vary, their effect is the same: they help confer a kind of respectability on Israel that this rogue state does not merit. One especially malevolent example of this cooperation is that Israeli weapons companies – the makers of weapons used to kill and maim civilians in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza over the past two years – are busily drawing funds from the EU’s scientific research programme. Israeli firms and universities are on course to receive more than 500 million euros from this programme under its current duration (2007-13).
Diplomats say that EU-Israel relations tend to follow a simple logic. When the “peace process” is seen to be going well, the relationship improves; when it encounters difficulty, the relationship sours. Although efforts to formally “upgrade” the relationship so that Israel can be brought further into the EU’s structures have dragged somewhat lately because of widespread public revulsion at Israel’s attacks on Gaza, there is now a possibility that the momentum will be regained. The likelihood that “direct negotiations” soon to get underway between Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian “president” (his term actually expired in early 2010) will lead to a meaningful peace is almost nil, at least if we understand peace as not being the absence of war but the presence of justice. However, the talks could conceivably give the EU’s 27 governments a pretext to clasp Israel closer to their bosom.
Israel’s serial defiance of international law and the way it treats Palestinians as sub-humans should be deplored by decent people everywhere. The willingness of our governments to accommodate Israel’s transgressions is similarly despicable and worthy of similar outrage.
•First published by New Left Project (www.newleftproject.org), 3 September 2010