At the end of June, House Magazine carried an interview with the parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, Alistair Burt. Burt has a daunting portfolio, for his responsibilities encompass no less than 27 countries stretching from North America through North Africa to the Middle East.
But in his interview he appears to have touched substantively on only two of them: Syria and Israel.
Regarding Syria, Burt quite rightly acknowledged that the UK wished to foster regional stability: “A lot of letters I’m getting from constituents to MPs, that I sign off and answer,” he explained, “are saying ‘where is the British interest in this?’” Well, I can tell you — and him — that I recently wrote to my MP about British policy towards Syria. I provided my MP with the website link to one of the most shocking pieces of film I have ever seen — namely the beheading, in a Syrian village on June 23, of a Catholic priest, François Murad. Father Murad had been kidnapped from his monastery by anti-Assad “freedom fighters,” and, on a nearby hillside, he and two other unfortunates were beheaded one by one, each severed head being then placed on top of its body for the purposes of photography and to the accompaniment of rousing cries of Allah Akbar.
My understanding is that it is the current policy of Her Majesty’s government that anti-Assad “freedom fighters” such as these should be befriended, supported and armed. But on this great matter Burt said practically nothing. Instead, he turned his attention to Israel. The Jewish state — he warned — has lost support from the British public because of its conduct towards “the occupied Palestinian territories” and, specifically, because of “detention of children and the way in which some of the activities in the territories, settlements, go on.”
“That honesty and frankness,” commented the interviewer, “is what has won Burt so many friends on all sides of the House… the Burt philosophy is deceptively simple: never forget how the voters see the big picture.”
But how do voters see “the big picture”? That surely depends on what is presented to voters as “the big picture” they are being asked to consider.
On the evidence of opinion polls, voters in the UK would indeed appear to harbour a generally negative view of Israel and Israeli policy towards Palestinian Arabs. A briefing prepared by advocacy group Beyond Images a year ago summarised the findings of eight polls carried out by respected organisations since 2005. This suggested that two-thirds of British people believed — for example — that “Israel has never offered to give up land for peace” and that “ordinary Israelis reject the idea of a Palestinian state”.
This year, I’ve travelled extensively in Britain, addressing audiences on the subject of peacemaking in the Middle East. At one gathering, I asked whether members of the audience supported the creation of a second independent Palestinian state alongside the first (as I do). Many clearly had no idea that Jordan had been carved out of the Palestinian Mandated territories. Some seemed unaware of Israel’s evacuation of Gaza until I pressed them to explain from where the rockets are launched that fall on Sderot.
My experience indicates there is a lofty public relations mountain to climb. I would have thought that a minister as knowledgeable as Burt should have no need of such lessons. But then we must remember that the government’s policies in respect of the Islamic world are largely in tatters. Look not only at Syria, but at Egypt, where the regime of democratically elected Mohamed Morsi (welcomed by Burt’s boss, William Hague) has been overthrown. Look at Iraq, where mass murders of Shia by Sunni (and vice-versa) are daily occurrences. Look at Afghanistan, where we are now being told that Taliban terrorists, on whom responsibility lies for the deaths of so many British soldiers, are now — apparently — partners for peace.
We are surely entitled to hear from Burt and Hague something resembling an apology for these foreign-policy failings. And we are surely entitled to see Burt, of all people, rise above popular prejudice and acknowledge that, in the scheme of things, the quarrel between the Jewish state and its neighbours is hardly a major cause of regional instability.