In praise of Israel

Critics should admit their double standard.

Critics should admit their double standard.

It is often said, when Israel is criticised, that it is judged by a different standard from its neighbours. That we hear relatively little in general about the lack of free speech in, say, Egypt or Syria, nor about the thousands of political prisoners in the region (except when it comes to Iran), but that Israel's every move is scrutinised, its motives doubted, and every firing of a shot by one of its armed forces deemed an aggressive act.

This is undoubtedly true – although the "Zionist entity", as presenters used to call it on Saudi television when my family lived in the Gulf in the Eighties, often appears to want as bad a press as it could possibly have. Why else, if you have to build a "security wall" at all, would you build most of it on Palestinian land – an outrageous grab for extra territory that divides and disrupts communities, and which naturally reduces Israel's standing in the eyes of the world?

But are we more vocal about misdeeds such as the above than we were about the quotidian repression and torture practised by Saddam Hussein, for instance, or the status of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia? Yes, we were and we are. For, however much we may squirm away from saying so bluntly, we in Britain have long regarded Israel as much more like "us" than "them". A country composed to a great extent of people of recent European origin. Consistently, unshakeably, western-orientated (so much so, that it even joined Britain and France in the ill-fated Suez venture). And, above all, a democracy in a sea of dictatorships and absolute monarchies.

If one thinks back to the Sixties and Seventies, there was even more reason for us to feel kinship with Israel. While Europe, whether Social or Christian Democrat, embraced corporatism, dirigisme and various shades of étatisme, Israel elected Labor government after Labor government. This was the Israel that figures such as Daniel Barenboim still recall – one that was secular, socialist, cultured, humane and, I remember from my childhood in the Seventies, greatly admired.

But it is that feeling of similarity, in my view, not an unstoppable tide of resurgent anti-Semitism, that is the main reason why Israel has been portrayed so negatively for so long. The excesses of "others" we judge differently, often more leniently. Those of a friend and relative we view harshly indeed. With Israel, it is as though a continental democracy were to have been complicit in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, to have crushed to death in 2003 the American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was trying to stop a Palestinian home being demolished, to have put into a fatal coma the British photographer Tom Hurndall, shot in the head the same year while he helped Palestinian children cross the street in Rafah, and a voluminous catalogue of other incidents and fatalities in between and since.

All of which makes recent news from Israel at once grave and quite outstandingly impressive. The conviction last week of the country's eighth president, Moshe Katsav, of rape, is described in today's Jerusalem Post as "staining the reputation of Israel and its citizens". But once one passes the initial reaction – of horror that so high and venerated an official could commit such a crime – I would say quite the opposite. As David Harris writes on the Huffington Post: "How many other countries in the Middle East – or beyond – would have tried and convicted an ex-president? This was the case, just last week, with Moshe Katsav, sending the message that no one is above the law – in a process, it should be noted, presided over by an Israeli Arab justice."

It is an astonishing case: terrible for those involved, yes, but one that conveys belief in a quite exceptional level of accountability. Could you imagine such a charge ever being allowed near the courts in America or France? Wouldn't there be some behind-the-scenes fix to spare the establishment's blushes?

Let us not enter an argument about orientalism or relativism here. We do hold Israel to a different standard, and we ought to admit it. So when Israel meets and exceeds that standard, we owe our applause. However dreadful the circumstances of this case, it is an example to the world when a country can state so clearly that no one, not even the highest, is protected from being brought low by justice. Would that there be many more, and many happier, occasions when Israel can fill us once again with such admiration.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.