To go to Beirut just when Shimon Peres is doing his uniquely energetic electioneering both there and in southern Lebanon does not seem well-timed. However, a friend in Beirut says it’s quiet there this morning and the weather is good. As the four of us are heading not for the beaches but for the refugee camps on behalf of Medical Aid for Palestinians, the weather is not decisive. We stick to our plans and I telephone the Foreign Office to discover if I can defend British policy on Lebanon, assuming we have one, and if so how. The Foreign Office man tells me that it is all Hizballah’s fault because they are against ‘the peace process’. I murmur that the attacks on civilians were unquestionably started by the Israelis and ask what the Government feels about the creation of yet more hundreds of thousands of refugees. The FO chap thinks that none of that is really relevant because the Hizballah are against the ‘peace process’, adding, however, that we are ‘now moving back to the middle’. He means that we are moving way from Michael Portillo’s pompously ignorant remarks a few days ago when he gave his Israeli hosts carte blanche to do what they liked in Lebanon. I ask with a touch of acrimony why we ever left ‘the middle’ and ring off.
On the plane, I read Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, which first appeared in 1937. Very funny in places, and Auden’s verse ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is a triumph, though not in the same league as the great man himself; surprisingly, Auden uses a seven-line stanza instead of the eight of Don Juan. Auden and MacNeice’s ‘Last Will and Testament’ which ends the book contains the lines:
and for our intelligent island pray
That to her virtuous beauties by all poets sung
She add at last an honest foreign policy.
The captain comes down the aisle to tell us that the Israelis have just killed 95 people at Qana, mostly women and children. As that means Peres has now reached his century of dead civilians, we think he will declare the innings closed. And even if he doesn’t, Clinton, Major and Co will surely condemn the atrocity and force him to stop.
The weather in Beirut is not good (and I seem to have been stricken by Lebanese food before I have touched it), but in the last two years there has been an impressive amount of rebuilding. We soon discover that the British Government has one remarkable achievement to its credit: it has made itself even more unpopular in Lebanon than in Britain. This is largely Portillo’s doing. Yesterday’s optimism turns out to have been fatuous, the product of euphoria induced by a couple of drinks on the plane. The Israeli bombardment goes on, though not in Beirut. Peres has seen too many massacres to be much influenced by another one. And, incredibly, Malcolm Rifkind does not condemn the Israeli massacre but tells the BBC that this ‘is what happens in a conflict of this kind’. One expects that sort of thing from Portillo, who probably thinks Lebanon is French and something to do with the European Union and therefore to be opposed. Rifkind should know better. Probably he does. Before we left London I had the impression that, with Rifkind away in Bolivia or somewhere, our attitude was being laid down not by the Foreign Office but by 10 Downing Street, which has of course made a hash of it. Probably at least part of the trouble comes from the need to raise party funds for the general election.
Paying attention to the colour of the traffic lights is optional in Beirut, which is disconcerting until you get used to it. An additional hazard is that the local drivers are continually on their portable telephones while threading their way through their similarly telephoning compatriots. As the Israelis have cut the road to Sidon and Tyre to prevent medicine and food reaching the beleaguered south and are indiscriminately shelling all civilian cars, we decide to go to Tripoli in the north. Because of my length I am usually allotted the comfortable position in the front seat. This morning I insist on giving it up to Will Camp. After a particularly hair-raising hour and a half’s drive we get out to stretch our legs. Rather pale, Will ascribes my action not to guilt at always hogging the best place but to frightened prudence. He could be right.
Conditions are bad at a hospital in a refugee camp north of Tripoli. The equipment is old and the place is about to be rebuilt. The oddest thing about the hospital, though, is that it has no patients. Either they have been killed off, or nobody risks going there. Palestinian doctors in Lebanon used to get their training thanks to scholarships from the Socialist Bloc. Now that there is no Socialist Bloc, they don’t get trained. They are allowed to go to Lebanese universities, but these are expensive, and Lebanon’s draconian laws against Palestinians taking good jobs prevent them making enough money to afford to go to one.
As so often before, I am struck in Beirut and Jerusalem by the gulf between the high ability of British diplomats and the fumbling policies they are compelled to expound; as Vansittart once put it, they spend their time ‘executing ordained error’. Yet they do it so well that for a time they make British policy seem almost plausible. What they cannot say of course, and perhaps do not allow themselves even to think, is that for some time now British foreign policy has effectively been reduced to one simple maxim: ‘Always follow the Americans – except when they are right.’ Startlingly, the US did at one point get things more or less right over Bosnia; so we opposed them. Elsewhere the danger of Clinton being right is so remote, especially in the Middle East where US policy is entrusted to the urges of the pro-Israel lobby, that Britain is almost invariably a slavish member of the American retinue.
The absurd thing is that the fighting here is unnecessary because, as the Israeli journalist Haim Baram has pointed out, there would be no Hizballah shelling if Israel withdrew from its self-styled security zone – one-seventh of Lebanese territory – which in defiance of UN Resolutions it has illegally occupied since 1978. Israel is still causing immense destruction in the south. But life must go on – after all, the theatres in Paris remained open during nearly all the major journées of the French Revolution – and we go to a smart dinner party. Some of the Lebanese guests have been collecting food and clothing for the refugees. The Israelis have driven 400,000 Lebanese from their homes, of whom some 70 per cent have come to the suburbs of Beirut. The British equivalent would be five million people suddenly arriving in the suburbs of London. What would Portillo think of such an influx into his suburban constituency?
Lebanese food is among the best in the world, but I have embarrassingly insular prejudices and view the delicious-looking spread of dishes with circumspection. Juliet Camp, my faithful food-taster, is in the other room, so I eventually summon the courage to ask our courteous host which plates contain garlic etc. I am told what to avoid and enjoy the meal. Israel’s ‘slaughter of the kids’, as a Beirut paper puts it, and its onslaught on the Lebanese economy, which after electioneering is the main motive for Peres’s aggression, have united Lebanon more successfully than anything any Lebanese politician has managed in the last fifty years. Even the Christian Maronites now support Hizballah. At an impressive televised press conference Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, likened the Hizballah resistance movement to the French Resistance in the last war, and the Lebanese present at our dinner contend that Israel now behaves like the Germany of old, a view strongly shared by Leonard Larsen in an outspoken commentary for the US Scripps Howard News Service. We point to the obvious differences, and everybody finally agrees that Israel’s contempt for non-Israeli lives, its brutal occupations and enthusiasm for collective punishments, are sufficiently abhorrent without being heightened by emotively misleading comparisons. Returning to our hotel, I remember the striking TV pictures a few days ago of Israeli pilots standing to attention in commemoration of the Holocaust after and before bombing the hell out of Lebanon. Were any of them struck by the reversal of roles?
We go by road through Syria and Jordan to Jerusalem, where the new building since last year is about as conspicuous as in Beirut, the difference being that in Beirut the Lebanese build on their own land with their own money, whereas here the Israelis build on stolen Palestinian land with the aid of the US taxpayer. Warren Christopher has arrived, looking as clueless as ever, to enforce a ceasefire on Israel’s terms. But the French have rightly refused to leave the field. The Americans after all are not honest brokers; they are not even dishonest brokers; they are wholly committed to one side. Yet instead of welcoming the French efforts Britain behaves like a jealous schoolgirl trying to thwart her superior classmate by sucking up to the headmistress. We follow the Americans.
The Jerusalem Post is as bellicose as our Israeli taxi-driver – a strong Likud supporter – was last night, but creditably it prints an article by Dan Leon who is critical of Israel’s ‘strongarm policies’. He makes the obvious point that Israel’s assault on Lebanon – its gratuitous destruction of the Lebanese infrastructure, its callous treatment of the population and its indiscriminate shelling – are wildly disproportionate to any offence by Hizballah. The Israeli Government, he says, has failed the moral test. The Clinton and Major Governments have also failed it. They are, as it were, moral defectives. Has any British government since the war played a more ignominious role?
It is a moot point whether it is better to be bombarded or blockaded by the Israelis. (The Lebanese have suffered both.) Israel’s siege of the Palestinians is less savage than what it is doing in Lebanon but almost as damaging and much more prolonged. The Palestinians have been blockaded since the terrible suicide bomb attacks in February, although once again electioneering and an evident desire to weaken still further the Palestinian economy seem the chief reasons for Peres’s imposition of collective punishment throughout the Occupied Territories. Jerusalem is the prime political target but Gaza and the West Bank are the worst economic sufferers.
We get into Gaza after a 50-minute wait at the checkpoint; the Israelis provide only one soldier to process the documents of the long queue. Gaza is more than ever like a vast concentration camp because now it has two commandants – the Israelis and Yasser Arafat. The Israelis, despite their alleged withdrawal, still occupy more than a third of Gaza’s land and take a higher proportion of its water – for its army and a mere five thousand settlers, most of whom do not live there but are irregular commuters. And of course the Israelis stop Palestinians entering or leaving. The Palestinian Authority has no more respect for human rights than its predecessors. People are picked up in the middle of the night and held in prison without notification of their relatives. Trials also take place after dark – they are known as ‘the midnight specials’ – and make no pretence of justice. The economic position is disastrous. Unemployment, we are told, is 70 percent, and there is a good deal of malnutrition. Despair is even more widespread. If Israel was still the immediate occupier, there would be another intifada.
It is hard to find an educated Palestinian anywhere in the Occupied Territories, not employed by the Palestinian Authority, who has a good word to say for Arafat or ‘the peace process’. Evidently he is like the Tennessee Senator, Estes Kefauver, of whom it was said that everybody was against him except the voters. With Arafat, however, even ‘the voters’ do not seem too enchanted. Buying a paper in Jerusalem, David Wolton said, ‘Look there’s Arafat kissing Haider Abdel Shafi,’ the eminently respected leader of the Madrid delegation whom Arafat had insulted the day before. ‘Arafat,’ said the paper-seller, ‘Arafat kisses everybody. He kisses everybody’ – by which he meant that Arafat was too fond of kissing the Israelis. Nobody denies that Arafat is a superb politician: adept at making deals, tireless at forming alliances, unworried at breaking his word, and ready to bribe anybody in sight. In short, he is a master at amassing power. It is his use of it that people object to. The widespread feeling is that he is servile to Peres and tyrannical to Palestinians. Nevertheless, as his potential rivals are dead – assassinated – there is no alternative to him. If he disappeared, there would probably be civil war. Unfortunately his negotiating technique is to throw away his usually very low cards without getting anything in return.
The rationale of America and, much less important, Britain supporting Peres’s cruelty in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories is that everything possible must be done to stop Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud Party winning the Israeli elections and dishing the so-called peace process. As Macaulay famously wrote, because Frederick the Great insisted on robbing a neighbour he was pledged to defend, ‘black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.’ Now south Lebanon is reduced to rubble and the Palestinians are bludgeoned and blockaded into submission to secure the re-election of Peres and Clinton to posts they have filled without distinction. The West’s infatuation with Peres is odd. Quite apart from the last few months, there is little in his record to suggest he is a genuine man of peace.
Peres v. Netanyahu seems to me to be similar to Clinton v. Dole – one could not possibly vote for either of them. Only one of the many Palestinians we have met here strongly favours Peres. All the others think it will make little difference who wins. The few Israeli critics of Zionism whom we met hold the same opinion. The reason is that what they see happening on the ground is completely at variance with what enthusiasts for ‘the peace process’ like to believe is going on. Israel is still stealing vast swathes of Palestinian land, an activity which is not reconcilable with a genuine desire for a decent peace. It is about to wreck Bethlehem by purloining a great chunk of Christian Palestinian land. It is engaged in squeezing as many Palestinians and Palestinian businesses as possible out of Arab East Jerusalem and is crippling the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time it is pinching yet more Arab property and spending vast sums of money to build roads – closed to Arabs – to every single one of its settlements. This means, first, that Israel is wrecking the West Bank, and secondly, that it has no intention of removing its illegal colonies.
Hence the general view that in substance, though not in rhetoric, there is little to choose between Peres and Netanyahu. The Palestinians and Israelis we meet mainly favour Netanyahu because he is less ‘insidious’. In other words, his intention to dominate and ill-treat the Palestinians is open. Peres is far cleverer. His intentions are similar, but his silver tongue conceals them, fooling the West into believing that he is seeking a just peace. Thus under Peres the hapless Yasser Arafat would be permitted his own postage stamps and allowed to be President of a Palestinian ‘state’. But that state will be four or five disconnected bantustans or ghettos in the West Bank and Gaza: in fact, the territory will be so crisscrossed by Israel’s new apartheid roads that it will be more like an archipelago than a collection of ghettos. Probably the nearest it will get to having Jerusalem as its capital will be a town somewhere else which the Israelis will allow it to build and to call by the Arabic name for Jerusalem. Israel will effectively control land, water, security and the economy, while ‘Palestine’ will be a vassal state and Arafat’s authority merely municipal. He will be Israel’s chief colonial policeman or, perhaps, paramount native chief. Under Netanyahu Arafat would be deprived of these trappings, but the reality – roughly, South Africa in 1965 – would be the same, and understandably many Palestinians would prefer palpable oppression to fictional freedom.
On our way to Hebron we pass along the interminable line of glowering Israeli settlements, built in defiance of international law and a fitting monument to the corruption of American politics. In their ugliness and unsuitability, surprising in a country which has such artistic skills at its disposal, they seem to be saying: ‘We know we are intruders, but don’t care, because we are determined to crush not just the Palestinians but their landscape too.’ They have succeeded only too well.
The mosque at Hebron, an imposing building, surprisingly still has an aura of peace despite Baruch Goldstein’s recent massacre in it of 30 Palestinians. Even the Israeli soldiers guarding it are quite polite – normally Israeli manners make those of New Yorkers seem akin to Beau Brummel’s. The Israeli Labour Party customarily gets many votes from Israeli Arabs. At present, alienated by Peres’s Lebanese bombardment and his collective punishments of Palestinians, they are threatening to abstain in the contest between him and Netanyahu. To placate them he will have to pledge (again) the long-delayed redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron, which will still leave the mosque under Israeli control and will not please the inhabitants of Hebron. Having seen what the Palestinian police have done in Gaza and the West Bank, the Hebronese are not looking forward to their arrival in the town. Until recently Arafat contented himself with nine separate security services; now he has 12, some say 14. They may make him feel safer, but they don’t have that effect on anyone else.
Flying home I read Anthony Burgess’s verse novel Byrne, which, unlike Auden’s poems, mainly uses the Don Juan stanza. It contains some excellent Byronic lines, but after ten days in Beirut and Jerusalem I am too obtuse to see its connection with Byron. I also read some documents which give hope for future world peace and justice. The UN Security Council, prevented by the USA from criticising Israel’s aggression, may have acted contemptibly over Lebanon. It could not even condemn the atrocity at Qana, merely calling it an ‘incident’ caused by ‘shelling’ without saying whose shelling it was. But the Council has found its voice on a more vital issue and is prepared to act decisively. While Israel was murdering the Lebanese to American applause, Libya was shamefully flying 250 pilgrims to Mecca in defiance of a Security Council Resolution which restricts its international flying. Since Arab states, unlike Israel, are expected to obey the UN, this is a grave matter, and the President of the Council finds Libya’s conduct ‘totally unacceptable’. So we have ‘at last an honest foreign policy’! Auden and MacNeice would have enjoyed that. So, too, would Byron:
And if I laugh at any mortal thing
’Tis that I may not weep.