Mitt Romney's Palin-esque ignorance of Middle East politics

Suggests that Palestinians are the aggressors and Israel is a state desiring no more than its own security.

In yesterday’s leaked video Mitt Romney gave two reasons for his view that the Israeli-Palestinian situation should be left unresolved indefinitely. First, the Palestinians reject peace and are committed to the destruction of Israel. Second, the Palestinians will never agree to the Israeli military presence that will be required in their future state to prevent Iranian infiltration via, for example, the Palestine-Jordan or Palestine-Syria borders.

What will hurt Romney in electoral terms is his Palin-esque ignorance of the basics. The West Bank does not share a border with Syria, and the Palestine-Jordan border seems an unlikely site of Iranian infiltration given that Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and has neither an alliance nor warm relations with Tehran. Expect Romney’s opponents to feed this into the wider case that he is “not ready for prime time”.

What should hurt Romney - but is unlikely to given the way discussion of this topic is framed in US politics - is his attempt to portray the Palestinians as the aggressors and Israel as a state desiring no more than its own security. The core of the issue, in reality, is the Israeli occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land in flagrant violation of international law, and Israel’s denial, for decades, of the Palestinians’ right to democratic independence in a fully autonomous state.

The illegality of Israel’s settlement of Palestinian land – already widely understood in any event - was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in 2004. In 2002, the Arab League offered Israel full recognition in exchange for its withdrawing from the occupied territories so that the Palestinians could establish their state there. The formula was agreed by the Palestinians, but rejected by Israel. Even Hamas, while formally opposed to such a settlement, has indicated (pdf) that it would accept it if ratified by the Palestinian people, who continue to favour the two-state solution. In any event, no one is stopping Israel from simply relinquishing the stolen land and withdrawing to its legal borders of its own accord.

Romney’s remarks have been portrayed as a departure from the established consensus that the US must work towards a two-state settlement. But it’s unlikely that the Palestinians would perceive much difference between a Romney presidency and the last several administrations. Since the Oslo accords of the early-nineties, Israeli colonisation has grown significantly, while US policy has oscillated between placing no and not very much pressure on Israel to make marginal “concessions” on land. Putting rhetoric aside, the reality of the US position has been that Israel can take most or all of the territory it wants, and the Palestinians can have strictly limited autonomy on the remaining isolated patches. The only exception was a brief moment at the Taba talks in January 2001, when a more viable solution appeared possible, before Israel walked away.

Romney says that "the idea of pushing on the Israelis to give something up to get the Palestinians to act is the worst idea in the world". However, at issue is not the Palestinians failure “to act” but Washington’s failure to “push on the Israelis to give something up” – specifically, the land it is illegally colonising. The so-called “peace process” has been moribund for a decade because neither George Bush nor Barack Obama were willing to challenge Israeli intransigence. In that context, Romney’s advocacy of “kicking the ball down the field” is no more than an endorsement of the current approach. Israel of course will be delighted with this. The Palestinians, less so.

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing.

Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside Jerusalem's Old City. Photograph: Getty Images
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser