Rare support for democracy in a sea of misunderstanding
Despite its mistakes, Israel is a legitimate nation should not be treated as a pariah, writes foreign editor Greg Sheridan
WHEN you're young, you think that every piece of mail is going to be that special letter that recognises your brilliance. As you get older, you realise that most pieces of mail are bills. But recently I did get a remarkable piece of mail. It told me that if I would accept, I would be awarded the Jerusalem Prize.
Sponsored jointly by the Israeli Government and the local Jewish community, it is awarded to people who have supported Israel conspicuously.
Since I believe that Israel is a democracy in good standing I was delighted to accept the award, which has been won by sundry heads of government, foreign ministers, social democrat and conservative European politicians and many others over the years.
Its previous Australian recipients include Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and Frank Sartor, formerly lord mayor of Sydney and now a minister in the NSW Labor Government.
Since the award was announced I have had a certain amount of mail urging me not to accept it. I must disappoint these folks, many of whom have written in good will and some detail, for I am greatly honoured to receive the Jerusalem Prize. I cannot accept the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state, or not really a democracy, or that it should be treated as a pariah.
It goes without saying that in accepting this award I do not compromise my independence as a commentator. I have often been critical of Israeli policies. Last year I opposed its military operation in Lebanon.
My views are unusual in the commentator class but they are mainstream in Australian politics. In a fine address to a gathering of Labor Friends of Israel last week, Labor
leader Kevin Rudd praised the "vibrancy of Israel's democracy". He said that both Hamas, the dominant political grouping among the Palestinians, and Hezbollah, are terrorist organisations and "you can't negotiate with terrorists".
"Israel's strategic challenges," he said, "are great and that's why it's important that the modern state of Israel and its govern-
ment has friends around the world. And I simply state unequivocally that we remain a strong and close friend of Israel in good times and bad."
This is truly a bipartisan position in Australia. Israel has probably never had a better friend as Prime Minister than John Howard. This was evident in Howard and Downer's decision, along with only a handful of others, to vote at the UN in 2004 against a resolution to condemn Israel's security barrier, following a ruling against Israel in the International Court of Justice.
Again, Rudd's view is enlightening. He criticised the vote but argued not that Canberra should have voted against Israel, merely that it should have abstained. Rudd's star new candidate for Eden-Monaro, the distinguished former colonel and military lawyer, Mike Kelly, has argued in a legal journal that the ICJ was wrong and that Israel's security barrier is legal.
But let's pull back and look at a bit of history. There have always been Jews in Palestine. Israel was created by a resolution of the UN to partition Palestine between the Jewish and Palestinian populations. When Israel was founded in 1948 it was immediately attacked by the massed armies of five Arab neighbours.
Twice more Israel had to fight wars of national survival against the armies of its Arab neighbours - in 1967 and 1973. And all through from that time to this, with only fairly brief pauses, it has been subject to terrorist attacks.
In 2000, in Camp David and in subsequent negotiations, the government of the then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinians their own nation on more than 95 per cent of the West Bank, all of Gaza and part of East Jerusalem. There was also the offer of some land from Israel proper to compensate for that part of the West Bank which is in effect predominantly Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem.
But this offer of land was in exchange for the Palestinians, and Israel's Arab neighbours, embracing peace - accepting Israel's legitimacy, ending their hate-filled and anti-Semitic propaganda designed to make schoolchildren despise the Jews, and stopping terrorist and other attacks on Israel.
The then Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat, walked away from this offer and did not even make a counter offer, because, like some of the leaders of neighbouring nations, he had never accepted that Israel had a right to exist at all.
None of this means that Israel is beyond criticism. Israel, like any democratic nation, makes plenty of mistakes and sometimes it makes moral mistakes. But it is a robust democracy founded on decent values and it tries to correct its mistakes. This week's Winograd Report on last year's Lebanon action was fiercely critical of Ehud Olmert's Government. That suggests Olmert made some mistakes. But the bigger story is what a vibrant, genuine, problem-solving democracy Israel is to commission such a report and let its findings go where they may. Moreover, the question is not whether Israel is perfect, but are its actions reasonable for a democracy under such constant threat and attack. How would we react in circumstances similar to those Israel faces?
Anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are all different, yet they are all intimately related. They draw from diverse sources, yet they are all, in their virulent forms, fundamentally irrational and evidence of psychological and ideological dysfunction rather than genuine analysis.
Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the deaths of near enough to 1.5 million Iraqi Arabs and Iranians. He killed 300,000 to 400,000 of his own citizens deliberately and a million or more died in the wholly unjustified war he launched against Iran. Anyone who was seriously concerned about Muslim suffering in the Middle East would have concentrated on Saddam all the years he was in power.
Yet the UN, and the Left internationally, focuses with obsessive zeal on Israel. I once interviewed Abdurrahman Wahid, the former president of Indonesia and a great Muslim leader, and asked him about the Middle East. Israel, he told me, "is a democracy in a sea of misunderstanding".
Commentators should write about Israel the same as they write about any other nation, with a desire to tell the truth, know the facts and make judgments based on civilised values. I agree with Wahid. Israel is a democracy - that fact speaks for itself.
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