I’m not referring here to people who strive to be well-informed, something that is desirable and healthy. Rather, I’m talking about those who use their privileged status to try and keep debates within strict limits so that power remains in the hands of an elite.
The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) — a “think tank” based in London and partly funded by the financier George Soros — includes veteran civil servant Nick Witney on its panel of “experts.” Witney is a handmaiden of the arms industry (a subject to which I will return momentarily), posing as a peacemaker.
His latest pamphlet — Europe and the Vanishing Two-State Solution — advocates “tough love” towards Israel. The European Union should be more “assertive” in dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, he argues.
His understanding of the word “assertive” is narrow and the steps that he advocates are far from radical. He is favorably disposed, for example, towards an effort being made to introduce compulsory labeling for goods imported from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. This idea is already on the EU’s agenda — though a discussion on that the Union’s foreign ministers were supposed to have earlier this week was postponed under pressure from the US.
Witney emphasizes his opposition to a total ban on settlement goods. He is similarly against wider sanctions and boycotts, dismissing claims that such tactics worked in the case of South Africa. Witney attributes the end of white minority rule in that country to the courageous leadership of FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. He ignores how de Klerk decided to release Mandela only after support for apartheid had proven costly for global capitalism by, among other things, campaigns for the closure of accounts with Barclays, a bank with major investments in South Africa.
Perhaps the most offensive point that Witney makes is that judgments on the “credibility” of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, should rest on his willingness to sacrifice the right of return for Palestinian refugees uprooted by Zionist forces in 1948. Witney even puts the words “right of return” in quotation marks and suggests that it should be “satisfied only at some token level.”
The right of return is a central issue in the battle for justice. The question of how that right can be realized is one for all Palestinians — including those forced out of historic Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas has no mandate to abandon that right — nor do experts in think tank land.
Before taking up his current job, Witney was the first head of the European Defence Agency (EDA), a Brussels-based body set up in 2004 with a view to strengthening the arms industry on this continent.
I interviewed Witney for my new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War. He confessed that he had “clear memories” of discussions with Israeli diplomats about strengthening cooperation between European and Israeli weapons makers.
The possibility of a formal cooperation agreement between the EDA and Israel was explored, he told me, though none was reached. “I didn’t want to spend the first three years of the agency negotiating agreements,” he said. “I wanted to spend the time on more practical things.”
Witney stated he was “uneasy” about the idea that Israel could be one of the first countries with which the agency decided to liaise. “On one hand, I am signed up 100 percent to the security of Israel,” he said. “On the other side, many of the things the Israelis do are flat contrary to European values — especially the settlements.”
It is odd that Witney was afflicted by scruples on this matter — assuming that he told me the truth. During his career, he has been happy — even proud — to do business with human rights abusers.
Witney’s own resumé notes that he helped Britain’s ministry of defense secure a massive arms contract with Saudi Arabia. Known as the al-Yamamah program, this deal was so controversial that Tony Blair intervened personally when he was prime minister to block a probe into allegations that it involved large-scale corruption.
When I asked Witney how he could justify the contract, he implied that it did not aggravate tensions in the Middle East in any way. “It always seemed to me that the Saudis lived in the biggest glass house in the world and would be the last to throw stones,” he said.
His metaphor is unfortunate, to say the least. In March 2011, Saudi Arabia sent 1,200 troops across the causeway linking it to Bahrain. The troops brutally repressed pro-democracy protests in Manama, the Bahraini capital.
Who manufactured many of the tanks driven by those troops? None other than BAE Systems, the company that has been the main beneficiary of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Like David Cameron and many others in the British government, Witney went to Oxford, a university dedicated to maintaining the country’s iniquitous class system. He is certainly educated enough, then, to be able to understand the consequences of what he is advocating.
One of his pet projects is to campaign for a more militarized EU. The Union’s grubby alliance with Israel is intimately linked to this process of militarization. Israel, for example, is taking part in a number of warplane projects with European firms.
Witney might come across as an erudite voice of reason. In reality, he is a warmonger.