Middle East: no goodies or baddies

It is hard to resist taking sides in the Middle East. The atrocities that Hindus and Muslims visit upon each other on the Indian subcontinent or the even more horrific clashes between Hutus and Tutsis in Africa cause us merely to wring our hands. Their quarrels, we think, are not for us to comprehend, still less to resolve; in the words of Malcolm Muggeridge's satire of the earnest, old-style Manchester Guardian leader, we greatly hope that wiser counsels will prevail, and leave it at that. But the war between Jews and Palestinians is closer to home, not just geographically but politically and culturally. On to this conflict we can project our own prejudices and fears.

Some see in the Jewish state a force for modernity: dynamic, liberal, democratic, and paradoxically multicultural (because Israel has a big Arab population and its Jewish immigrants come from diverse backgrounds). Its kibbutzim may now be defunct and its population (as John Kampfner reports on page 10) changing radically; but Israel is still recognisably a welfare state with a parliamentary system. Most Britons would feel more at home in Tel Aviv than they would in Cairo or Damascus, never mind Baghdad.

But on the left at least, the more common view of Israel now is of a colonial oppressor which exploits and represses the Palestinians. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank look like the French settlers in Algeria; the fragmented bits of land ruled by the Palestinian Authority look like the Bantustans of South Africa; Hamas and Hezbollah look like the liberation movements of the colonial era.

None of this is very helpful. The existence of democracy, unemployment benefit and the BBC Third Programme in London did not make British rule more palatable to African or Asian subjects in Nairobi or Delhi; why should Israel's democratic virtues wipe clean its faults? Equally, Israel does not practise apartheid and Yasser Arafat is not Mahatma Gandhi.

Go to the heart of the dispute and you are left with two fundamental points. First, the Jewish state is a creation of the western powers. The aim was, initially and mainly, to install a friendly, relatively stable power in a strategically vital area of the world. Later, the idea of Israel became the Second World War allied powers' version of the final solution to Europe's Jewish "problem". Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular naturally wonder why the tragic results of Europe's inability to tolerate a harmless minority should be exported to them. As for the Jewish claim to biblical lands, it makes no more sense to the Arab mind than an Italian claim to establish a Roman state along the length of the A5 would to the British. Indeed, it never made much sense to European minds either, given that they would happily have settled for a Jewish homeland in Uganda or Siberia, if they had thought it practicable.

The second point is that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict is seen on both sides as a war for national survival. Without territories in the Middle East, both are condemned, as a people, to permanent diaspora. Both, from experience, may fear that, without a homeland, they face a risk of physical extinction; the more likely outcome, however, is cultural extinction. It is hard enough, in the modern world, to preserve a distinct identity, even if you do have a territory and a state; it becomes very much harder if you have no such focus. This is why our age is plagued not so much by old-fashioned contests for territory between states or by the social uprisings that characterised much of the 20th century, as by wars of secession or national liberation. Ask some liberation movements for a list of their grievances or for something resembling a political programme, and you will get nothing coherent: their goals are cultural, not political, and they have a longing for identity that goes to the heart and soul.

All this is what makes the Middle East conflict so desperate, and so dangerous. Those who believe that their survival is threatened will go to any lengths: they will blow themselves up in suicide bombings or will use the nuclear bomb if they have it. This rules out what is usually the best way for outsiders to approach a war: to wait either for the two sides to tire of killing each other or for one totally to defeat the other. If either the Jews or the Palestinians faced annihilation, they might take the rest of us down with them.

Western involvement, for all the risks that it will simply prolong the conflict, is therefore a necessity. But it must be even-handed, and seen to be so; it is no use apportioning blame, or identifying goodies and baddies, or raking over what Ariel Sharon did in 1982 or Mr Arafat in 1974. The sooner the US withdraws its financial, military and intelligence backing for Israel, and does so publicly and dramatically, the better. There is only one permanent solution in the Middle East: separate, independent and territorially coherent Israeli and Palestinian states, free from fear and confident of the future. American power (and no other power will do) will be needed to guarantee the absolute security of that settlement; it can never do so as long as it is compromised by its support for Israel.

All off-message here

The New Statesman is full of dispute. The editor has quarrelled with a former editor; the political editor has fallen out with the deputy editor (or is it the other way round?); columnists are at daggers drawn (see pages 17 and 22). Much of this is reported in the national press, making us sound like a soap opera with an unusually high proportion of over-wrought and over-cerebral characters. No complaint there; as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. But readers (many of whom have kindly written in support) should be assured that life goes on as normal. We are not new Labour. We do not require contributors or staff to be on-message. We do not apply political tests. We rather like articles expressing views that the senior editors (who cannot, naturally, even agree the time of day) detest. We like argument and passionate disagreement. Our circulation is rising. The membership of tightly controlled political parties is falling. Is there some lesson in this?