Colonialism is alive and well in the Middle East
This is not an 'ancient quarrel', it is democracy versus totalitarianism
You don’t need to be on the Left to realise that the roots of the current conflict in the Middle East are neo-colonialism and anti-Arab racism. Indeed, if you are on the Left, you’re more likely to be complicit in both. For it is not, as the fashionable Left would assert, the Israelis who are the colonialists. It is Western diplomatic, academic and journalistic elites.

The Left, in its restless search for an oppressed “other” whom it can champion as a victim, has long fastened on the Palestinians. The Left needs to divide the world into exploiter and exploited to provide a narrative of continuing injustice and a justification for activism. And in the Middle East the Israelis have been cast in the role of imperialist expropriators, bullying projectors of illegal force and carriers of the colonialist virus.

But the truth does not bear out the Left analysis. The creation of Israel was resisted by those forces in the West, diplomatic, political and industrial, who were defenders of imperial interests. It was encouraged, at the time, by the Soviet Union as a means of breaking up the British Empire. And subsequent support for Israel has been resisted by those in the West who still take a colonialist approach to the Middle East, emphasising the pre-eminence of links with oil producers, historic influence among Arab elites and continuing commercial opportunities.

It is not Israel which is guilty of colonialism. It is Israel which is now the victim of colonialism. It suffers from what the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has identified as a Western tendency to “amoral equivalence”.

There is still a tendency in the West to see apparently intractable disputes among foreign peoples as squabbles between “tribes with flags” or “warring factions” in which any energy devoted to apportioning root causes or moral culpability is wasted. Instead of regarding the participants in any conflict as adult moral agents among whom responsibility can be allocated, and on whom differential judgments can be applied, the West looks at them as district commissioners used to look at natives, as mere children engaged in “tit-for-tat” acts.

The only answer is either to turn one’s back on them and let them fight it out, or impose a solution in which “all parties” must give something up. “These people” are not worthy of the same protection we would ask for ourselves in a dispute, they are motivated by tribalism, ethnicity or “ancient quarrels” for which there is no rational solvent.

This tragically arrogant neocolonial attitude governed Britain’s approach to Bosnia, and it still governs Establishment attitudes towards Israel. Britain insisted throughout the Bosnian conflict that it was an intractable dispute between “warring factions” fuelled by unfathomable ancient ethnic quarrels which were susceptible neither to easy explanation nor moral judgment. The miserable consequences of our amoral equivalence are brilliantly recorded in Bernard Simms’ new book, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia. Britain’s failure to recognise that the Serbs were totalitarian aggressors and that the legitimate Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina was a sovereign democratic entity deserving of support, condemned thousands of innocents, many but not all Muslim, to their deaths.

And now, again, the failure of many in the West clearly to discern the difference between a democratic state fighting for survival and its totalitarian aggressor is condemning more innocents to death.

Israel, a nation which has preserved its democratic identity under almost unendurable strain, has had to bury another 25 of its dead this weekend, victims of Islamist terrorism. Those terrorists operate freely within a territory, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which encourages and facilitates their recruitment, preparation and operation. Yassir Arafat has, since September 11, incited terrorists to “continue fighting, fighting determinedly and forcefully”. In October he issued a joint declaration with Hamas, the organisation which carried out the weekend’s attacks, demanding a continuance of “the intifada and the resistance to Israeli occupation”.

Arafat is another Milosevic, a kleptocrat, an autocrat, a sponsor of terror and yet still the West’s “indispensable partner” in peace talks. We view the conflict in the Middle East from underneath the district commissioner’s pith helmet, as just another tribal wrangle between Big Chief Sharon and Sheikh Arafat. Until we see it for what it is — a totalitarian assault against democracy — we shall continue to be accomplices to injustice.

There is, of course, another neocolonialist obstacle to lasting peace in the Middle East. The persistent, racist, view of the Arab world which holds that the region is not ready for democracy.

Just as old Foreign Office Sinophiles prated about Asian values and the Confucian dislike of controversy when denying Hong Kong democracy, so their Arabist colleagues wave away protests about the Saudi, Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian and Iraqi despotisms and their support for terror with one hand while reaching for trade agreements with the other. This policy not only stinks morally, it fails practically. All these nations exacerbate conflict in the Middle East by seeking to divert the popular discontent which has no democratic outlet within their nations into hatred for Israel and the West.

The white man’s burden in the Middle East is particularly heavy. It is the knowledge that we have been accomplices in injustice for too long. The only expiation we can make now is to fight energetically for democracy in the Middle East — by supporting that region’s only democracy as it defends itself today against terror, and arming democracy’s allies in other Middle Eastern nations. Starting in Iraq.

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Michael Gove
December 10, 2001