Why is Tony Blair still prime minister? One major reason is because he promised to push for peace between Israel and Palestine. Many MPs sided with Blair in the crucial Parliamentary vote before the invasion of Iraq, believing he could and would influence Washington over the issue. This was self-delusion; Blair leads the most pro-Israel government in recent British history.
A year ago Blair told Parliament that the US "should recognise the fundamental overriding importance of restarting the Middle East peace process, which we will hold [it] to'. The last phrase was the critical bit. But this required accepting not only that Blair could influence Bush but that Britain was at least even-handed in the conflict; some people even believed the UK was pro-Palestinian.
Yet before the invasion of Iraq, Britain was a strong defender of Israel. London has always blamed "both sides' for violence as though both are equally guilty, ignoring the facts that one is illegally occupying the territory of the other and that Israel is responsible for far more deaths. Blair never condemns Israel, and he always toes the Israeli line that Palestinian suicide bombings need to cease before Israeli "reprisals' can stop.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), meanwhile, has identified Israel for preferential trade treatment. And arms exports to Jerusalem doubled from 2000 to 2001, reaching £22.5m as Israel stepped up aggression in the occupied territories. Supplies included small arms, grenade-making kits and components for equipment such as armoured fighting vehicles, tanks and combat aircraft. In 2002 Britain began to block some items destined for Israel, and was reportedly considering them on a case-by-case basis. But Whitehall still approved the export of spare parts for US aircraft used to target Palestinians.
Over the past year the occupied territories have descended into greater violence, while the much-fêted Middle East "road map' has effectively died. Some 50 per cent of Palestinians are unemployed, two thirds live below the poverty line, while a quarter of Palestinian children endure acute or chronic malnutrition.
Yet British policy continues as before. Britain has recently supplied Israel with machine guns, rifles, ammunition and components for tanks and helicopters, leg irons, electric shock belts and tear gas. A DTI official recently said there was "no question of treating applications for Israel more harshly or rigorously than [other countries]'.
When Israel bombed Syria in October last year, targeting an alleged "terrorist training camp', the illegal action was condemned by France and Germany. The Foreign Office simply called on "all sides to exercise restraint', and said that Israeli actions to "protect itself from terrorist attack& should be within international law'.
Although the government accepts that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal and calls for a "viable' Palestinian state, it has done nothing serious to pressurise Israel. Currently, Britain is refusing to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in reviewing the legality of Israel's "security barrier', even though it says it opposes the latter.
And Britain is resisting calls for the EU's special trade and aid agreement with Israel to be cut off. By contrast, it has been very active in persuading the EU to agree to ban the political wing of Hamas and to place the organisation's leaders on a terrorist blacklist. The UK has also reportedly taken the lead in calling for strict European curbs on charities raising funds for Hamas.
What explains British policy? The answers might be found in formerly secret files I recently discovered. A Foreign Office report from 1970 entitled Future British Policy Toward the Arab/Israel Dispute rejected both an openly pro-Israel and a pro-Arab policy. The latter was rejected "because of the pressure the US government undoubtedly exerts on HMG to keep us in line in any public pronouncements or negotiations on the dispute'.
The paper also rejected a strategy of "active neutrality' that would have meant being more pro-Arab than the US: that would damage Britain's "worldwide relationship with the US'. The Foreign Office argued, instead, for a "low-risk policy' that would involve putting "private pressure upon the US to bring about a settlement'.
I believe that Britain is publicly trying to position itself as being "neutral' (in line with the 1970 report) but has, in fact, tilted itself strongly towards Israel. Why is this? Another declassified file can help explain.
In 1969 the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) noted that "rapid industrialisation' was occurring in Israel "in fields where British industry can readily supply the necessary capital goods'. It said: "Israel is already a valuable trading partner with a considerable future potential in the industrial areas where we want to develop Britain as a major worldwide manufacturer and supplier.' But in the Arab world, the JIC said, "recent developments appear to confirm that the prospects for profitable economic dealings& are at best static and could, over the long term, decline'.
It seems that the economic opportunities Israel offers, together with the desire to maintain the special relationship with Washington, is more important to Whitehall than a few million mere Palestinians. This shows how basic British foreign policy priorities are and how little human rights feature in those priorities.