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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue