One of the first things any journalist covering the Middle East should learn is that rumors of tension between Israel and the West are very much exaggerated. The latest “row” over the expansion of settlements is no exception.
According to the news agency AFP, Britain, France and Germany have led condemnation of Israel’s newly-announced plans to build more houses in the Jewish-only settlements of East Jerusalem and the wider West Bank. Predictably, the Israeli foreign ministry appears disgruntled by this stance. Avigdor Lieberman’s officials are telling the European Union to focus on Iran and Syria, rather than on “inappropriate bickering with one country,” namely Israel.
With a little bit of background research, AFP could have learned that far from being appalled by Israeli settlements, the EU’s governments are accommodating their construction.
A statement made to Britain’s members of Parliament (MPs) on 5 December illustrates that point. Alistair Burt, a Foreign Office minister in the London government, was asked about the statistics provided by Israel to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Israel joined that club of industrialised countries last year, in a diplomatic triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues.
Compromise of convenience
Burt told his fellow MPs of a compromise reached whereby the OECD has agreed to consider the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as property of Israel for certain purposes. Following a visit by OECD officials to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics in the summer this year, it was agreed that Israel would not need to provide “disaggregated data” on macroeconomic issues that distinguish between “pre-1967 Israel and the post-1967 areas.”
Although Burt tried to present the issue as a technical one, his choice of language is revealing. Instead of spelling out that Israel occupies the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza and the Golan Heights in violation of international law, he simply referred to those territories as “post-1967 areas.” He went on to hint that the compromise was made on practical grounds because the “post-1967 areas” only account for 4 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product.
So there you have it: the West is happy to accommodate the Israeli occupation for the sake of convenience.
If I was to inclined to buy Burt a Christmas present, it would have to be a copy of Shir Hever’s book The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation. It shows how claims that the occupation is of negligible importance to Israel’s economy are made habitually by mainstream analysts. Hever demolishes those claims by highlighting how the territories that Israel occupies comprise its second largest export market and how Israel has built a lucrative military and “homeland security” industry around the occupation. You can be sure that the 4% estimate cited by Burt does not take such critically important factors into account.
Remarkable success story
Exactly one week after Burt made those comments, he attended the annual lunch of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a lobby group within the main party of the UK’s ruling coalition.
The keynote address to that gathering of 120 parliamentarians and 400 businesspeople was given by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (in a country less wedded to imperial bombast, he would simply be called the finance minister). Osborne told his audience that “Israel’s a remarkable success story when it comes to the development of hi-tech industry and it’s really a beacon to the world of how you can foster these small companies that grow into world-beating businesses.”
The review of this sumptuous banquet on the CFI’s website doesn’t give the impression that Osborne was intent on “inappropriate bickering” with Israel. Rather, he seemed more interested in nurturing closer commercial ties with this “remarkable success story.”
Nobody with any knowledge of history would be surprised that the elites in Europe’s one-time colonial powers feel an affinity with Israel. Journalists should bear that in mind the next time they hear rumors of tension.