The only exceptional thing about Cherie Blair's observations on the motives
of Palestinian suicide bombers is that anyone should have considered them exceptional.
The notion that the pursuit of martyrdom is the consequence of hatred born of
despair is one that the vast majority of British people would accept. In its original
phase, it was easy to dismiss suicide bombing as the handiwork of a few Islamist
fanatics. But the atrocities are now so frequent, and the pool of volunteers so
deep, that it has lost all analytical value, save for those who wish to stifle
debate. Only a collective trauma outside our national experience could have brought
an entire people to this point, and it serves no useful purpose to deny it.
None of this has prevented certain politicians and sections of the press from
working themselves into a lather. The usual suspects have been out in force, attempting
to pillory Mrs Blair as a latterday Lady Macbeth or terrorist fellow traveler.
Their most abused argument is the dishonest suggestion that any attempt to understand
the bombers implies that the victims "had it coming".
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible to understand
within the framework of a simplistic victim/perpetrator dichotomy; each side belongs
simultaneously in both categories. Those who want to find solutions, rather than
take sides, have a responsibility to consider the fears and aspirations that animate
It is tempting to dismiss this spat as another symptom of the media frenzy
that has engulfed Downing Street in the past few weeks. There is an obvious correlation
between those who think that Mrs Blair is an apologist for Hamas and those who
consider Black Rod to be an unimpeachable authority on her husband's integrity.
But I detect something else in play too, something discernible in the widespread
suggestion that Mrs Blair "gaffed" by departing from what many take to be the
government line. I caught a whiff of it on a BBC news report which censoriously
noted that her comments had been addressed to a charity, Medical Aid for Palestine,
that describes Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an "occupation".
It would have escaped the viewers' attention that this is also the policy of the
Nor was there anything awry in her acknowledgment of the hopelessness that
breeds Palestinian terrorism. It chimed with the sentiments expressed by the prime
minister in his Brighton speech last October, in which he spoke of the need to
fight for "the wretched, the dispossessed" of "the slums of Gaza".
The significance of the reaction to his wife's comments is that it provides
an accurate measure of the distance traveled since Brighton, from emoting about
the suffering of the Palestinians to falling in behind Washington's one-sided
support for their tormentors in Israel's Likud government.
Formally, at least, the government's policy remains unchanged. It opposes Israel's
occupation and demands the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Both in
rhetoric and in practice, however, it is clear that Blair's approach is governed
by an altogether different set of priorities, chief among them the desire to stick
as close as possible to George Bush.
It is instructive to observe how the government's position has tacked to keep
in step. The high point of Blair's concern for the plight of the Palestinians
coincided with Washington's effort to assemble an international coalition for
military action in Afghanistan. It was at this point that Ariel Sharon was slapped
down for the unhelpful suggestion that he too was fighting the war against terrorism.
With Afghanistan won and the US administration's hawks ascendant, Israel is once
again free to act at will without a squeak of protest from Britain.
Blair is now forced to agree with Bush's judgment that Ariel Sharon is "a man
of peace" when any reading of history would suggest exactly the opposite: a man
who harbors ambitions to create a Greater Israel by force. Cynics might interpret
American proposals to create a provisional Palestinian state on Gaza and 40% of
the West Bank as a neat trick to advance that agenda. Once the Palestinians have
accepted 40%, splitting the difference over the remaining 60% will be presented
as another "generous offer".
The mismatch between the theory and practice of Blair's Middle East policy
stems from an unwillingness to confront Washington with the uncomfortable truth
that a just peace will remain elusive while one side enjoys impunity. If Cherie
Blair has performed one service this week, it has been to remind us that terrorism
cannot be tackled while injustice is ignored. Many have long suspected that she
would have made a more principled and courageous politician than her husband.
Now we have proof.
David Clark is a former Foreign Office adviser. email@example.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002