Reprehensible Israeli policies and mistaken token responses

Israel's policy towards the Palestinians has long been morally and politically reprehensible. But it

There are few places as squalid as Gaza. There are few places so resembling a cage as this strip of land on Israel's south-western fringes. There are few places that more clearly symbolise asymmetric warfare, that are more focused on by the media, and yet feel so helpless. It is no wonder that most Palestinians living there have so enthusiastically greeted the victory of Hamas. Their experience of the alternative has brought them misery. The events of the past week, as both Zaki Chehab and Haim Baram write in our special report (pages 18-22), presage further gloom and bloodshed.

Three sides share blame for the horror, but by no means in equal measure. Israel is most culpable. Perhaps with the exception of Yitzhak Rabin, it has never seriously entertained a vision of a viable two-state solution. It has gone through the motions, even withdrawing its settlements from Gaza, but it would accept only an entirely neutered Palestinian state, or rather two encircled, incomplete Bantustans, whose external borders, internal transit routes, utilities and public finances would be utterly at the behest of the Israeli authorities. This has been the politics of occupation and humiliation, encouraged by the various White House administrations and followed by hapless European envoys.

What few opportunities the Palestinian leadership has been granted, it has squandered through incompetence and corruption. US policy, staunchly pro-Israeli for half a decade, took a new turn under the Bush administration, which has applied its simplistic neoconservative logic to this most complex of areas.

The elections demanded of Palestinians in January 2006 brought the unintended consequence of a Hamas victory. The response of the Israel/US/EU alliance was to "punish" them by withholding financial transfers it had no right to withhold, and to impoverish further an already desperate and resentful people. Even President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to forge a coalition with Hamas earlier this year provided no respite.

Now, for the first time, there will be two rival states, one potentially Islamist in Gaza, the other largely secular in the West Bank. One will be starved of resources, the other may have some money returned to it. The colonial politics of divide and rule - one group deemed "extremist", the other "moderate" - has been given a 21st-century imprimatur. As ever in the debacle that is George Bush's Middle East policy, two countries benefit: Iran and Syria.

The potential for war is great. Israel, after its failed invasion of Lebanon last August, no longer feels invincible. It sees the hand of Iran in everything done by Hamas (and Hezbollah to the north). And it will hit out, again. Violence across the region will spiral.

What should the world do? In Israel, a candid debate is taking place about how to deal with these changing circumstances. The media there are vigorous, as is parliament. Academics enjoy more freedom than elsewhere in the Middle East.

That is why Israel's many detractors should desist from easy rhetoric and token gestures. That is why recent decisions to consider British boycotts by the National Union of Journalists and the University and College Union, which represents academics, are misplaced.

The only boycott that matters is a political one, and that, quite plainly, will not happen. Academics and journalists are among those still most open to persuasion. There is, with many Israelis, still a battle of ideas to be won. That task is harder in the US, where a new McCarthyism has taken hold. A hunt for anti-Semites under the bed is being led by the American right, with its outposts in the UK. Their verbal aggression towards Israel's detractors is a deliberate manipulation of the debate, a diversion from the original criticism. Indeed, the Israeli government, and its policy towards the Palestinians, is often indulged more in the US media than it is in Israel itself.

One can understand the frustration that, after all these years, so little progress has been made. Israel's policy towards the Palestinians has long been morally and politically reprehensible. But it is only through concerted engagement that a broader catastrophe can be averted.

We're just so damned nice

Britain's got talent, Simon Cowell has tried to prove over the past few weeks, but is it really in the stick-twirling, octogenarian tap-dancing, toddler music-hall turns or transvestite singing acts we've seen on ITV?

Assiduous viewers will know that we certainly have a talent for tear-jerking tales of triumph over tragedy. Sweet Connie's heart-melting voice helped the family get over Gran's death; plucky Craig risked parental rejection by coming out as a baton-twirler; obdurate Brian refused to let an attack of nervous shaking halt his knife-throwing act (which luckily was stopped before he killed his daughter).

Paul Potts, the eventual winner, overcame the humiliation of being accused of cheating, while cheeky chappie Jake Pratt enjoyed a poor but happy childhood in the uncompromising environment of a Scarborough holiday camp.

But what of our quieter skills, the ones that wouldn't make it to a Royal Variety Performance? Politeness (obviously, Simon). Lawns and marmalade (a league of our own). Compromises (within reason). Dignity (standing on it). Tolerance (and please don't suggest otherwise).

But maybe our finest talent was revealed when the BBC released a report on its own terrible failures (page 17). We do the best self-criticism. Where but Britain would a major corporation flagellate itself for being too nice, too liberal and too anxious to raise money for starving children? What a talent!

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?