Why Should Arabs Trust Britain?
Chris Doyle, Director, Council of Arab British Understanding
Tony Blair has, in a most welcome statement, pledged his support for a Palestinian state. This backs up statements at the Labour party conference and comments made by President Bush. There is a realisation that Arab and Muslim coalition members are anxious about the continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinians.
The US and UK are desperately hoping for widespread Arab and Muslim backing in order to isolate Al Qaida and Usama Bin Laden. Yet despite the frenetic diplomatic activity, Muslim and Arab backing has been cautious, mainly because time and time again, Arabs and Muslims have received many promises but with little result.
It may not be Blair’s fault but the history of the Middle East conflict is one littered with broken promises and double standards. First there was the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that essentially divided up the Middle East according to French and British wishes, violating British promises made to the Arabs. There followed the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland but the clause relating to the rights of the indigenous non-Jewish population (the Palestinians) has been ignored even until today.
Elsewhere, Arabs and Muslims live on promises. Kuwait lives on a promise of US protection but many remain nervous that this offer will not outlive their oil supply. Iraqis were given reason to believe in 1991 that if they rose up against Saddam Hussein then there would be US backing. There was none. The no-fly zones were installed to protect the civilian populations below from the Iraqi regime – there has been no protection. The Oil for Food Programme, supposedly to cater for the humanitarian interests of ordinary Iraqis, has strengthened the control of the Iraqi regime over its people through the ration system. The promise of ridding Iraq of any weapons of mass destruction capability was undermined by US threats to remove the Iraqi regime. The only thing it removed was any chance of cooperation with an Iraqi Government who saw regime change not disarmament as the prime US objective, and therefore the inspectors as nothing less than spies and a security risk. As yet, there has been no promise of ridding Israel of its weapons of mass destruction.
And now the Prime Minister is mimicking George Bush by declaring that there should be a Palestinian state, adding crucially that it must be viable. Why is this met with cynicism by Arabs and Muslims? Because during an entire year of Israel atrocities against Palestinians, Blair was mute. Arafat was clearly over the last twelve months not a welcome visitor in Downing Street, whilst on 15 October, all was hand-shakes and smiles as Blair sought to keep the coalition jigsaw together. And support for such a state is really an alignment with the majority of Israeli public opinion, even Sharon's. Furthermore, Blair’s Special Envoy to the Middle East is Lord Levy, no doubt an able person, but he is a committed Zionist. He was chairman of Worldwide Youth Aliya, an organisation devoted to binging young Jews to Israel, including to the settlements. Can you expect Arab and Muslim leaders to treat Blair as neutral? As for the US, since his election, Bush limited US involvement in the region, thereby allowing Ariel Sharon the freedom to use American F-16s and Apache attack helicopters against Palestinian civilians. Settlements, the most shocking example of Israeli (in Arab eyes -Western,) colonialism, have expanded unopposed.
How can we expect others to adhere to international law when Israel continues to 1) violate over 50 Security Council Resolutions 2) violate nearly all human rights covenants such as those on torture and the rights of a child (except one related to slavery!) 3) systematically violate the Fourth Geneva Conventions, the very same conventions established to prevent what had happened to Jews in Europe ever happening again. What is the historical equivalent of Ariel Sharon (and all his predecessors) moving Jews into occupied territory at the expense of the local inhabitants taking their land in order to create living space for a particular chosen race?
If this is not to be another broken promise, if the US and UK are to earn the trust and respect of the Muslim world, then there must be a consistent determination to see this through. A ‘viable’ state equals a contiguous, sovereign entity, with full control over borders, land and resources, something never offered at Camp David by Ehud Barak in July 2000. Instead Palestinians still live on the West Bank divided up into over 200 islands surrounded by setters who fall under a separate law and a separate economy. Palestinian lives are characterised by poverty; roadblocks; destruction of their homes and land; and insecurity (Why does nobody ever mention Palestinian security concerns when far more of their people are dying and getting injured?). Tony Blair must make it crystal clear that such a situation does not dovetail with his vision of a viable Palestinian state. He must put some flesh on the bones of his promise of support. It is not the time for vague promises and temporary interest. Moreover, negotiations must not be held hostage to the extremists on both sides who do not seek co-existence.
If the Americans and the British are to win the hearts of minds struggle then they have to prove their intentions are genuine, and not just spin. That would be one major step to thwarting further support for Usama Bin Laden.
By Chris Doyle