LONDON - There is something very strange going on in Britain, and Israel's detractors are hopping mad.
Not, I hasten to add, over the apparent use by the Mossad of six British passports in the Dubai assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Criticism on that score is both reasonable and necessary. No country can allow its passports to be used by a foreign state, let alone in a secret service hit job. Britain is no exception.
What vexes them is not so much the use of the passports per se, as the fact that the kind of hysterical public furor that we have come to expect whenever a stick presents itself for beating Israel has singularly failed to materialize. On the contrary, large sections of the British press have responded with barely-disguised awe at the audacious operation that the Israelis ostensibly had the balls to carry out.
The usual suspects in the Guardian
and the BBC look uncommonly isolated.
Witness BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on World Service Television Thursday morning. Bowen was asked to reflect on the effect the affair might have on the UK's already strained relationship with the Jewish state, but was only able to warn of "very severe" consequences at some vague point in the future if the allegations were proven correct.
Seumas Milne, a regular columnist for the Guardian
and one of the most frequent critics of Israel in the British press, was almost tearful at the sheer refusal of both the media and the government to jump to attention in the usual manner. Writing in Thursday's Guardian
, he said: "Instead of setting off a diplomatic backlash, the British government sat on its hands for almost a week after it was reportedly first passed details of the passport abuse. And while the Foreign Office finally summoned the Israeli ambassador to 'share information,' rather than protest, Gordon Brown could yesterday only promise a 'full investigation.'"
Milne continued: "In parallel with this languid official response, most of the British media has treated the assassination more as a ripping spy yarn than a bloody scandal which has put British citizens at greater risk by association with Mossad death squads. It was an 'audacious hit,' the Daily Mail
enthused, straight out of a 'Frederick Forsyth page-turner,' while the Times
revelled in an attack that resembled nothing so much as a 'well-plotted -murder mystery.' Running throughout all this is a breathless awe at Mossad's reputation for ruthless brilliance in seeking out and destroying Israel's enemies."
Milne is right. The public mood in Britain is remarkably pro-Israeli on this issue. Consider an opinion piece in the Times
Thursday by Melanie Reid, tellingly headlined "We're all thrilled by Mossad the movie." In her article, Reid says: "What the secret agents did - and, critically, what we saw them do - was compelling and breathtaking in its cleverness. Box office, in other words."
And, she goes on, "it is an unfashionable thing to say, but I have a considerable admiration for the Israeli way of doing things. They want something, they get it. They perceive someone as their deadly enemy, they kill them. They get hit, they hit back. They don't waste time explaining or justifying or agonizing; nor do they allow their detractors to enter their country and then afford them generous welfare payments. They just act. No messing. No scruples. Not even a shrug and a denial, just a rather magnificent refusal to debate anything."
But there's more: "I've felt this way ever since the Entebbe raid in 1976, an occasion when the Israelis showed Hollywood a thing or two."
And more: "Maybe, as the West becomes increasingly gentle and polite, and pays those monthly direct debits to Amnesty International, we need the Israelis to remind us that the world is not made according to our template. Maybe that is why we are drawn towards tales of uncompromising, ruthless derring-do. How else to explain the veneration of the SAS, the worldwide glut of books and movies on covert operations?"
Reid concluded: "One last point. Usually, in comedy heist movies, no one gets killed. Somewhere a family is weeping at the death of Mr. al-Mabhouh, and no one takes any pleasure from that. But the people who die in Mossad operations tend to be, like the Hamas leader, morally compromised. There's a side to us that acknowledges that some assassins' victims may have had it coming to them. So we're appalled, but not so appalled that we don't look forward with relish to the sequel. Ultimately, this is less about siding with the Israelis than loving winners."
There is a lesson in all this, and it is a refreshing one. I spend a lot of time expounding on the depth and breadth of UK (and wider European) hostility toward Israel. Late last year, I published a book on it. But as I say in the book, and as I now repeat here in this article, the battle for Europe's soul is still an open one.
Britain in particular is a 50-50 nation: as much the country of
Churchill as of Chamberlain, as much the country of the proud and
steadfast defender of democracy as of the mindless appeaser cringing
and groveling before terrorists and tyrannies.
It doesn't always seem that way, particularly since the elite
institutions of this country are so much more in thrall to the thinking
of the second of those two alternatives than the first. But there is
another Britain, and sometimes it shows its face.
How curious that on precisely the occasion when Britain really does
have reason to be critical of the Israelis, that different face of
Britain should decide to come out and show itself.
The writer is director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson
Society in London. He has held senior fellowships at some of the
world's most prestigious public policy institutes since leaving
international journalism in 2003, when his last position was Moscow
bureau chief for
The Times of London. This article is edited and
republished with permission from his blog at www.robinshepherdonline.com