Blair: Don't apply rules to Israel that you wouldn't apply to your own country

By Tony Blair, August 26, 2010
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Former Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a passionate plea for tolerance at the Herziliya conference

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair makes a passionate plea for tolerance at the Herziliya conference

Former British prime minster Tony Blair nailed his colours firmly to the mast of Israel and democracy this week in a stunning address to press, politicians and diplomats in Herzliya.
Speaking in his capacity as official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, Mr Blair challenged critics of Israel not to apply double standards to the Jewish state. He said: "In any of our nations, if there were people firing rockets, committing acts of terrorism and living next door to us, our public opinion would go crazy." Openly identifying himself as a "friend of Israel", Mr Blair acknowledged that he had "plenty of criticisms".

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Yuli Edelstein, the Minister for Public Diplomacy and the Diaspora and international ambassadors based in Israel also took part in the conference.

Here, we publish a lightly edited version of Mr Blair's speech, entitled 'The Delegitimisation of Israel'.

"There are two forms of de-legitimisation. One is traditional, obvious and, from the quarters it emanates, expected. This is the attack from those who openly question Israel's right to exist. It is easier to deal with because it is so clear. When the President of Iran says he wants Israel wiped off the face of the map, we all know where we are. This is not to minimise the threat, of course. It remains profound.

The other form is more insidious, harder to spot and harder to deal with, because many of those engaging in it will fiercely deny they are doing so. It is this that is in danger of growing, and whose impact is potentially highly threatening, in part because it isn't obvious.

It is a conscious or often unconscious resistance, sometimes bordering on refusal, to accept Israel has a legitimate point of view. People are perfectly entitled to agree or not with Israel; but this is rather an unwillingness to listen to the other side, to acknowledge that Israel has a point, to embrace the notion that this is a
complex matter.

This often does not come from ill-intentioned people. They would dispute vigorously such a characterisation of their mindset. They would point to the injustice of Palestinian suffering, acts of the Israeli government or army which are unjustifiable and they would say, rightly, that you cannot say that to criticise Israel is to de-legitimise it. Such minds are often to be found in the West. They will say they advocate a two-state solution and they will point to that as proof positive that they accept Israel's existence fully.

Though this is true in theory, in
practice they wear Nelson's eye patch when they lift the telescope of scrutiny to the Israeli case. In a very real sense, they don't see it.

They won't accept that Israel might have a right to search vessels bringing cargo into Gaza, given that even this year over 100 rockets have been fired from that territory into Israel. Leave aside the multiple probes relating to the flotilla, upon which there will naturally be heated debate. I mean a refusal to accept that, however handled, no Israeli government could be indifferent to the possibility of weapons and missiles being brought into Gaza.

I often have a conversation about the West Bank which goes like this. Someone says: Israel must lift the occupation. I reply: I agree, but it has to be sure that when it does so, there will be security and a Palestinian force capable of preventing terrorism. They say: so you're supporting occupation. I say: I'm not: I'm simply pointing out that if Hamas, with an unchanged position on Israel, were running the West Bank, Israel would have a perfectly legitimate right to be concerned about its
security.

A constant conversation I have with some, by no means all, of my European colleagues is to argue: don't apply rules to Israel that you would never dream of applying to your own country. In any of our nations, if there were people firing rockets, committing acts of terrorism and living next door to us, our public opinion would go crazy. And any political leader who took the line that we shouldn't get too excited about it, wouldn't last long as a political leader. Israel is a democracy. Israel lost 1,000 citizens to terrorism in the intifada. That equates in UK population terms to 10,000. I remember the bomb attacks from Republican terrorism in the 1970s. There weren't many arguing for a policy of phlegmatic calm.

So the issue of de-legitimisation is not simply about an overt denial of the state of Israel. It is the application of prejudice in not allowing that Israel has a point of view that should be listened to.

One thing I always repeat in interviews about Gaza - despite disagreeing with the previous policy on it - is to say to Western media outlets: at least comprehend why Israel feels as it does. In 2005 it got out of Gaza, took over 7000 settlers with it and in return got rockets and terror attacks.

I know all the counter-arguments about the unilateral nature of the withdrawal, the 2005 Access and Movement (A&M) agreement and the closure of the crossings. But the fact remains: there is another point of view and you can't describe it as illegitimate.

This is hugely heightened by the way things are reported. Here the televisual images are so shocking that they tend to overwhelm debate about how or why conflict began. Because Israel, like the US or the UK, has superior force and because in such situations the horrible tragedy is that the innocent die - these images arouse anger, sympathy and a disgust that at one level is completely understandable but at another obscures the difficult choices nations like ours face when they come under attack.

The combination of all of this is a curious disjunction of perception. To those outside, Israel is regularly perceived as arrogant, overbearing and aggressive. To Israelis, there is a sense that the world is isolating it unfairly and perversely refusing to see they too have a right to have their voice heard.

The issue is how to respond. First, there is vital principle that needs to be established: to criticise is not per se to de-legitimise. There are plenty of Israeli and Jewish voices that passionately disagree with Israeli policy. I am a friend of Israel and openly avow it. I have plenty of criticisms. De-legitimisation is qualitatively different. It can seem the same. But it isn't. The one is valid. The other is not.

Having done that, however, we should highlight the fact that de-legitimisation is happening, and be vigorous about identifying and countering the instances of it. The aim: not to make people agree necessarily with Israel's point of view but to insist they listen to it and persuade them at least to the position of understanding. Where there is incitement, expose it.

Second, Israel should always be a staunch and unremitting advocate and actor for peace. Not that it should simply be for peace; it should advocate it and act to achieve it.

Tzipi Livni's and Ehud Olmert's negotiations were an immensely important part of showing the world that whatever else they might say, they had to accept that the government of Israel was genuinely trying to bring about peace.

The re-start of the direct negotiations next week is important because it shows that PM Netanyahu, on behalf of the government of Israel, is an advocate for peace - and because, with a one-year time frame indicated, it shows that there is a sincere yearning on the part of the people of Israel to live in an enduring and honourable peace with their Palestinian neighbours.

Third, there will be no successful negotiation unless all the final status issues are on the table.

Fourth, a crucial response to de-legitimisation is to deal with the legitimate criticism. We can and should do more, more quickly, to improve the daily lives of Palestinians. There has been real progress in the past year. We should deepen it. I am a convinced persuader for the bottom-up approach. We have visible empirical evidence to support it: the improvements in Jenin and the opening of the Jalameh crossing to Israeli Arabs; changes to A & M in response to the hugely improved capability of the PA on security; the very successful plc in Bethlehem that yielded hundreds of millions of dollars of investment; the modus operandi with the new department under Deputy Prime Minister Shalom that has resulted in significant gains; and I hope, in time, a new approach to tourism and to development for Palestinians in Area C.

Such change does not only lead to improvements to Palestinian lives. It also deals with what is the most potent fuel - especially in Arab media - of hatred against Israel.

That is the idea that Palestinians suffer not injustice alone but a form of humiliation. Dignity is a very important concept. Consistent with security, Israel should be constantly looking for ways to compensate for the indignity which inevitably results from the security measures taken and should avoid any unnecessary indignities.

You can justify restrictions in Gaza taken for reasons of security. But with a Gazan population, half of whom is under the age of 18 and 300,000 of whom are under the age of four, security is the only arguable basis upon which to put such restrictions. Of course Gilad Shalit should be released immediately. His detention is a profound denial of human rights, as is the way he is being treated. But a policy based on threats to Israel's security is the only one its friends can defend. This leads me to my final point. It is our collective duty to argue vigorously against the de-legitimisation of Israel. It is also our collective duty to arm ourselves with an argument and a narrative we can defend and with which we can answer the case against Israel.

Let me tell you why I am a passionate believer in Israel. This is a democracy. Its parliament is vibrant. Its politics is, well, not notably restrained, let's say. Its press is free. Its people have rights and they are enforced.

I had an argument with a friend about Israel. I said: "OK, let's assume you are charged with a crime you didn't commit and the penalty is 20 years in prison. And you're a critic of the government. Tell me: under which country's legal system, in this region, would you prefer to be tried?" He struggled for a bit and then said: "That's not the point." "But it is," I replied.

Look around the world about what we admire about the Jewish people: their contribution to art, culture, literature, music, business and philanthropy. It's a spirit that is identifiable, open and rather wonderful. Whatever bigotry is, it is the opposite of it. It is a free spirit.

I am a religious person myself. But the society I want to live in is one that treats me no better as a result; makes my view one amongst many; and pursues science, technology and progress with vigour and without prejudice.

The best answer to the de-legitimisation of Israel lies in the character of Israel itself and in the openness, fair-mindedness and creativity of ordinary Israelis. That character and those people built the state of Israel. They remain its guardians. They are why to de-legitimise Israel is not only an affront to Israelis but to all who share the values of a free human spirit."

Last updated: 2:57pm, August 26 2010