(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and Stuff.co.nz, July 11.)
Israel recently celebrated its 70th birthday – no mean feat when nearly everyone around you wants to wipe you off the map.
From the very start, Israel’s existence has been threatened by the hostile Arab states that surrounded it. But somehow this tiny country, less than half the size of Canterbury, has survived.
Along the way Israel has negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan – proof that ancient enmities can be overcome where there’s a will. But its relations with other Arab states have, if anything, become more bitter over time.
And it’s no longer just the Arab world that Israel is up against. At the United Nations, Israel is routinely treated as a pariah state. Blatant anti-Semitism is condoned and even encouraged by some Western political leaders.
To our shame, New Zealand has fallen into line with the anti-Israel bloc. Last year, we supported 16 of the 19 UN resolutions that condemned the Jewish state.
This is perplexing, because according to the international Democracy Index compiled by the British magazine The Economist, Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East.
The same UN is often strangely silent when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Arabs, but that’s international diplomacy for you. Diplomats, including our own, do whatever political self-interest dictates.
Admittedly, Israel hasn’t always made it easy to be its friend. The provocative habit of building Jewish settlements in occupied territories claimed by Palestinians has been a consistent impediment in efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
And Israel has done some terrible things – probably never more so than when its army turned a blind eye to the Sabra and Shatila massacres carried out by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies after the Israeli Army invaded southern Lebanon in 1982.
Then there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He’s not an easy man to like. Yet Netanyahu, for all his flaws, is arguably a man for his times, because he’s tough and uncompromising. And presumably, Israeli voters have decided that tough and uncompromising are the qualities they need in an unremittingly hostile world. You can see why.
Therein lies the tragedy of Israel and Palestine. Too often, the agenda is dictated by hard-liners. Whenever there’s a glimmer of hope for peace, it seems to be extinguished by the actions of intransigent extremists with no interest in compromise.
Some of these are on the Israeli side. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish nationalist who opposed the Oslo peace accord that Rabin had signed. The year before, another Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians.
But these were isolated incidents. Any dispassionate assessment of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations shows that it’s most often the Palestinians who seem determined to sabotage attempts at reconciliation.
Take the most recent flare-up. We’re told it was Arab anger at Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital that triggered Palestinian protests, resulting in the deaths of 60 people.
But just this once, Trump may have got it right. Jerusalem is central to Jewish history and culture. It’s mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible and the Torah, but not once in the Quran.
You can safely assume, then, that much of the Arab outrage over Trump’s action was confected. Any excuse to nurture a fresh grievance and stir up international sympathy.
That’s something the terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah are very good at. There’s always a receptive audience of Western apologists for Arab terrorism, ready to demand punitive action against Israel for having the temerity to defend itself.
Western observers wrung their hands over the recent suffering in Gaza, but it could have been halted in the blink of an eye. All it took was for the Hamas fanatics to stop firing rockets and mortar bombs across the border, or digging tunnels underneath it, with the intention of killing Israeli citizens.
All it took was for Palestinian parents to say no, we will not allow our children to do Hamas’s dirty work by being used as human shields and placing themselves in danger by hurling missiles at Israeli border guards. Simple, really.
But the tragic truth is that it suits the wider Arab world to have Palestinians confined in their wretched Gaza ghetto and locked into their victim mindset. It’s the grievance that keeps on giving. They seem determined to remain prisoners of their history.
Western politicians bang on about the two-state solution, but there can be no such solution as a long as key player like Hamas vows never to recognise Israel.
And all this because a few million people, having survived unimaginable horror in Europe, sought to create a sanctuary in their ancestral desert homeland. For all the Israelis’ faults, I have no trouble deciding whose side I’m on.