Editor's Notes: Drifting away from Israel

Popular sentiment in Britain is shifting against Israel, says outgoing Ambassador Tom Phillips candidly.

Tom Philips 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Philips 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tom Phillips is a model British ambassador. He’s personable, empathetic and he knows his stuff. He’s well-liked by his Israeli interlocutors, and by his colleagues in the diplomatic corps.
He’s served in Tel Aviv for four years – years when Israeli-British relations have seen their ups and downs – without causing offense or making enemies here, and also without doing or saying anything that would cause offense or make enemies elsewhere in this region. That much is evident in the fact that, as he now completes his term, he will head off almost immediately to another challenging posting, though one where his hosts will probably be more deferential: Saudi Arabia.
The successive high-ranking appointments underline his standing and prestige back home – a status further highlighted by the knighthood he was awarded in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List just last month.
He comes to an interview well organized, with a folder of paperwork to make sure he faithfully represents British policy where necessary. And though he’s not working from any prepared script, and this is a farewell conversation, Sir Tom is a diplomat to his soul.
What follows, therefore, is emphatically not a case of a demob happy, departing ambassador cutting loose. It constitutes, rather, the carefully measured assessments of an intelligent, highly credible, experienced envoy – Her Majesty’s man in Tel Aviv relaying, in typically unruffled terms, the kind of insights he more routinely vouchsafes to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.
As an ex-Brit who goes back once a year or so, I find Britain to be increasingly troubling territory.
I lament that Britain appears incapable of internalizing the challenges we face, and it faces, from Islamic fundamentalism.
And I chafe with indignation, frustration and anger at a growing sense that our reality is misrepresented, misreported and misunderstood in Britain.
As such, I found our conversation profoundly dispiriting. Not because of any feeling that Sir Tom Phillips is himself hostile to Israel. Quite the reverse. I’m certain he entertains a genuine affection for our country.
But his overview, to my mind, gives relatively marginal weight to what I would consider Israeli mainstream sentiment, and more amply encompasses the arguments of those, within this country and without, who would point disproportionately at Israeli failures when explaining the years of peace process setback and deadlock.
The uncertainty Phillips highlights about whether this coalition, under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is ready and willing to make drastic territorial concessions to the Palestinians, is more than legitimate; it may well be that even Netanyahu hasn’t made his mind up. The conviction that the Palestinian Authority is ready and willing for a viable deal is more jarring.
The devastating impact on the Israeli psyche of the second intifada, though Phillips acknowledges it, seems underappreciated, as does the impact of the security barrier in necessitating a Palestinian change of course. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and its dismal consequences goes unmentioned; so, too, Netanyahu’s settlement freeze and his repeated calls for direct talks.
And Ambassador Phillips, remember, is not analyzing us through the filter of The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC. He’s been right here – representing Britain to us, and us to the Brits.
He evidently believes we risk making a frightful mess of things. He fears we are blind to the peacemaking bona fides of Mahmoud Abbas. He’s far from convinced that we’re ready to relinquish “Fortress Israel.” And he’s being diplomatic.
Israel was quite distressed by David Cameron’s comments in Turkey this week (including his description of Gaza as a “prison camp,” his insistence that “the situation in Gaza has to change,” and his renewed condemnation of the “unacceptable” Gaza flotilla “attack”). Does this reflect new British government policy?
The remarks that the prime minister made in Turkey in broad terms were not new language. He’s used language along pretty much the same lines in the House of Commons in the past. It doesn’t mean that we don’t welcome the steps Israel has taken to relax access to Gaza… but we think more can be done. The number of trucks going in could be increased quite substantially.
And in the end there’s got to be some more allowance for Palestinian exports as well.
We accept that all of this has got to be consistent with Israel’s security concerns. But one of the effects of the blockade has been that you’ve driven the economy into a Hamas-controlled tunnel economy and the Palestinian Gaza private sector has been almost completely destroyed.
We need to get that going again.
Broadly speaking, it’s the British sense that Israel has been dealing with Gaza in the wrong way?
Yes. The situation is unsustainable, very difficult – as it was before there was any relaxation.
And counterproductive.
We had people going into Gaza, and they were bringing back stories of the “legal economy” being severely undermined.
The economy becoming totally dependent on the tunnel trade. Hamas being able to benefit from that politically, to take credit. The private sector being destroyed. Young boys on the streets with no role models apart from the Hamas guy in the black shiny uniform on the street corner.
So although one understood all the political pressures that were leading Israel to that situation, the fact is it was causing significant humanitarian concerns. But also it was creating, in psychological terms, another generation of people that are not going to feel that friendly about Israel.
What of the argument that the easier it is for Hamas to rule Gaza, the more it can solidify its hold there, and allocate resources for arms?
The blockade was helping Hamas to solidify its rule there, giving them a total grip of the economy. I’ve been out to Sderot many times. I understand the security concerns. We have to find a way that doesn’t mean more harm is going to come to them. There are many aspects of this problem. But where we were was not solving the problem. It’s as simple as that.
Is the British government thinking that Hamas should be granted more legitimization?
We are firm on the Quartet principles. We want the political focus to be squarely on the Mitchell process – and that’s the discussion between the PA and the Israeli government.
Do you see an optimistic scenario for Gaza?
It’s very difficult. In the short term, unless Hamas surprises us by evolving, we have to find more clever ways to prevent the humanitarian situation getting worse there, but without empowering Hamas in the way that the blockade was empowering Hamas. In the meantime, progress should be made on the negotiating tracks so that the choices for the Palestinian people, including Hamas, get clearer and clearer.
So the people of Gaza will look across to the West Bank and say, “There you see the benefits of dialogue and conciliation. We need something like that here”?
Something like that. This is a question of degree. One doesn’t want to keep all the people of Gaza in a total, locked down, negative economy.
If you imagine any peace process, there’s going to be a moment of choice for the Israeli people and for the Palestinian people – however it’s done, referendum, elections, whatever. At that moment of choice, it has to be clear: what the gains would be from going for what I hope will be the offer of a sustainable two-state solution, as opposed to anybody else pushing another agenda.
Is Britain broadly coming to the opinion that Israel is not acting in its own interests, that the Israelis are being very foolish?
After four years here, and having gone back to the UK quite often, talked to people there – in the Jewish community, in parliament, the press, universities, etc – I certainly think there is a problem.
There is a drift of opinion away from Israel. This is not government. This is happening with the popular mood.
What’s the core reason? When I grew up, I remember taking my [exams] when the Six Day War was happening.
You’ve got plucky little Israel against a sea of non-democratic states as a dominant image out there. Now the image is the other way round. David has become Goliath and vice versa. The image that’s out there is of Israel as the occupying power.
What people see in the UK is, OK, Israel has some genuine security concerns and they’ve got to be met. But the answer to that cannot be keeping several million people without full civil, human and other rights, in a state of occupation. This is not a problem of hasbara. You get a lot of people in Israel who say, “Let’s launch a new hasbara campaign, change our image in the West, hunky dory.” No, it’s a problem of substance.
People in the UK sense that Israel hasn’t made up its mind. What does Israel want? Is Israel so drawn, for understandable reasons, for deep historical reasons, to the biblical homeland – east Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria – that it cannot renounce them, even if renouncing them is the only way to achieve sustainable long-term life for the Jewish people? Or is it really ready to make that compromise? This is why the settlements issue has become so crucial.
Because to go on building settlements signals “that’s the agenda. Actually we want to go on building there. We haven’t made that choice.”
And that’s why settlements has become a critical litmus test of Israeli intentions.
You have basically two choices: Fortress Israel – we stick there and we hold on until, we hope, things are better. Or you try to achieve peace with your neighbors.
There’s a question, of course, about whether that’s possible. But I would say it’s much better to try for the latter.
For me, the two-state solution is the only sustainable way for Israel to achieve a secure place in the Middle East. It is also the only way to meet that slow climate of opinion change that’s happening in the international community out there.
The international community has to be very, very responsive to all the security worries that underline why this is a tough choice for Israel. And we also have to accept, as does Israel, that the Palestinians do have rights. That the Palestinians do have a narrative. They’re in an impossible situation at the moment. It’s going to be a very tough deal to put together. We owe it to you to try and support that deal.
You say it’s not an issue of hasbara, but in that very interesting and not unconventional overview, you only had a semi-clause there – you said something like, “Obviously there are questions about whether the Palestinians are ready for it.”

Mainstream Israel, it seems to me, does not believe in Fortress Israel. Mainstream Israel recognizes that to keep Israel Jewish and democratic it needs an accommodation with the Palestinians. That transformation is embodied in Ariel Sharon. The overwhelming weight of the problem, for mainstream Israel, is the sense that we have not had a Palestinian partner.

That Arafat chose not to make peace at Camp David. That Abbas has not emerged from Arafat’s shadow, and has not said to the Palestinian public, “You know what, the Jews have historic rights here. We’re going to have to compromise.” I think that is massively underestimated in the West.
You’ll have seen that both Prime Minister Fayyad and President Abbas have been more out there in the Israeli press recently, trying to explain that they really can be partners for peace. We believe they are serious about achieving a two-state solution.
We believe they are involved in the process of trying to build the sort of accountable state that Israel will be able to live with. We’ve been trying to help that.
There’s another story in the last four years – there’s been a success story in the West Bank. There is the beginning of a sustainable two-state solution. I don’t think many Israelis understand that. They’re not seeing it.
I do take on board that when Abbas was in America just now he did say unusually positive things about the Jewish presence in this land. But where do you see the signs of a remotely serious effort, top-down on the Palestinian side, to tell the people of the West Bank and Gaza that ‘the Jews have rights here too, and we’re going to have to compromise’? Instead, what you see and what you hear is the continued delegitimization of Israel in Palestinian media.

Israel has moved a great deal because of the sense of its interests – that the demographics were such that we need an accommodation with the Palestinians.

The last Palestinian leader was Yasser Arafat, deriding the notion of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. And the middle ground in Israel is not remotely persuaded that the Palestinian leadership is telling its people to prepare for peace. To prepare for statehood, sure.

A state at reconciliation with Israel? I don’t think most Israelis believe that. And I think that most Israelis believe the international community underestimates that, and has forgotten about the terrorist onslaught of 2001, 2002 and 2003.
In all these situations there are terrible parallels. Israel says, “We have no partner for peace.” You go to the Palestinians and they’ll say, “We have no partner for peace.” There are remarks that have been made by some of the ministers in this cabinet, about peace not being possible for a decade, or the settlements going to let rip in September. They would see those sorts of remarks as incitement in the same way as you would see some of the things they say as incitement.
I would say to anybody who was around, or aware of what was happening, during the second intifada or earlier, in these terrible waves of terrorist bombings, that there’s a change here. When the Palestinians were unhappy not that many years ago, what happened? Arafat might have whispered to Hamas or something and you’d see a terrorist bomber coming down to Netanya. The Palestinians are still unhappy. Hey, they’re an occupied people.
Are you surprised they’re unhappy? What are you getting? You’re getting peaceful protests in some of the areas.
You’re getting political action against settlement produce. Isn’t this an enormous advance? A peaceful political protest. You can say that’s delegitimization. I would say look at the political evolution.
You might say it’s change of tactics, if you wanted to be cynical.
But in human life terms, hang on, this is a very significant plus.
The polls on both sides show majorities in favor of a two-state solution. That’s important. The polls also show a majority on both sides fear that it cannot be achieved. Both sides have got to take steps towards recognizing the full validity of the other’s narrative and the other’s identity.
The peace process is about recognition of each other’s narrative identities, and the rights that go with that. And I don’t think either side is fully there yet. That’s why the two hardest issues here are Jerusalem and the right of return – the refugee issue – because they are the two issues which encode the identity narratives which are at stake here. That’s one of my reasons for pessimism, because I know how hard it’s going to be to have an incremental approach while people are still waiting to know what’s going to happen on the big issues.
I grew up in Britain, and I hugely appreciate that my father’s family was able to build new lives in Britain after fleeing Nazi Germany. Today, I think the hostility to Israel is really quite terrifying. And I think part of that is because this country is not fairly understood. Parts of the British media are extremely unfair in their representation of the Israeli reality.
I wouldn’t want to deny that there is anti- Semitism in the UK. It’s a very difficult area between “Israel as a state must take legitimate criticism” and a gray edge to that which gets into dark forces. The government has to try and hold that line very carefully in its own discourse, and we do so.
When I’ve gone back to the UK, I’ve spoken at universities, and I talk pretty much like I’m doing now, about how I see the problems, about how Israel has the right to be here, about how the Palestinians have the right to be here, too, and the only way to meet the national aspirations of the two peoples is a two-state solution...
At SOAS, Oxford and places like this, I haven’t had people throw sticks at me and say, “It’s a Zionist entity, get out, imperialism.”
You can have a really intelligent debate if you cast it in the right way. I don’t feel the debate is lost, the argument is lost, once you really go into the history, the Peel Commission, the Mandate, the rest of it.
Between the two countries, we have trade running at over £2 billion a year, and 25 percent up in the first few months of this year.
We’ve worked very hard on the cultural front.
This research and academic exchange scheme, set up by Gordon Brown and Ehud Olmert in 2008, is a big success. There’s a lot going on at the people-to-people level that doesn’t get the headlines. This is not a simple story of hostile Britain drifting away from Israel.
But you have boycott efforts in academia. When half a dozen Israeli scientists get invited to the British Science Museum, it becomes a semi-scandal, given the climate, with protests that scientists who by extension purportedly help fuel the Israeli military machine are being hosted by Britain.
The climate can be difficult. That’s why I say the government has a clear duty to spell out our opposition to boycotts. We have done that. None of these boycotts has actually happened.
We’ve done what we can to foster the bilateral links.
I’m not trying to say there isn’t a problem.
The center of gravity is becoming more critical of Israel because of this dominant image, and reality, of the occupation, and this continuing question mark about whether Israel has made up its mind about what it wants to do.
There are three aspects to the David- Goliath equation. I don’t doubt that militarily Israel is seen as a Goliath. But what you’re describing is a climate in which the other two parts of that equation – the demographics and the geography – where Israel is plainly a David, don’t seem to be resonant. You keep talking about the occupation as the root of the problem. Well, Israel wasn’t occupying that territory in 1948-67 and it was still forced to fight existentially.
But then look at some of the good news there. After 1967, you had the [Arab states’] Khartoum “Three No’s” [to peace, recognition and negotiation with Israel]. That was the response of the Arab world. Look at the Arab peace initiative now. There’s actually been quite an evolution. Peace with Egypt. Peace with Jordan. Links with other parts of the Islamic and Arab world.
Many people on both sides believed we were going to make peace in 2000, and instead...
You’re right, and it was a shock to me to come back in 2006 and to realize that people are more insecure now than they were when I left in 1993 (after a three-year term as deputy head of mission). I do think the second intifada had a searing, traumatizing effect on people’s minds. We have to respond to that. That’s true.
But in the end, as we know ourselves from Northern Ireland and other situations, you have to move forward, the answers have to be political, or else we are locked into conflict.
I’ve heard it suggested that Israelis are complacent at the moment. That because of the relative security calm there’s no sense of urgency on the Israeli side. I don’t think that’s the case. I think Israelis feel a sense of urgency. But the second intifada cannot be underestimated. That was terrorism as a strategic weapon.
Doesn’t that mean you should give some credit to...?
Yes, if people had a strong sense that the Palestinian leadership was saying to its people: “They have rights here too; we’re going to have to compromise.” The sense, rather, is that if Abbas came tomorrow and said, “I’ve done the deal, folks,” his people would say, “Why? You’ve never given us a reason to think that there would be any legitimacy in a compromise.”
Well, I think President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are trying to move towards a sustainable two-state solution. In a very basic, human sense this conflict has gone on too long. The price that you’re paying, that everyone is paying.
There is a deputy British prime minister now (Nick Clegg) who called for an arms embargo at the time of Operation Cast Lead. Might that be British policy in the event of further conflict?
You have to look at the policies being adopted by the government of which he is now a part. There is a coalition agreement. The positions people took in opposition, they took in opposition.
Britain had its own very serious terrorist assault on July 7, 2005. I know Brits are very stoic and resilient. But are they reluctant to acknowledge that there is an Islamic extremist danger within Britain? Are they finding it more convenient to try to find external scapegoats – to say that “Tony Blair was too supportive of George Bush or of Israel, and therefore the extremists have now struck in our country?"
The vast majority of the Islamic population are people living law-abiding, creative, helpful, useful lives as my fellow citizens. We certainly do have a problem with some people who do feel for one reason or another disaffected.
And of course with the Internet, some guys out there in the tribal areas beaming messages in... there is a problem that some people can be turned, can be radicalized. We have a whole “prevent, pursue, protect” policy approach. We have to uphold the law, and we have to deal very hard with people who are trying to incite terrorism.
Are there external scapegoats? Does it help if you take a tougher line against Israel? I don’t think that’s a real factor.
Finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli- Palestinian debate would help Western interests in the region. There’s no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t begin to argue that there should be a two-state solution for Israel unless I primarily believed that it is in the interests of the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve it.
It’s tough in a way to be the jam in the big strategic situation. But you’ve got to think about your interests and where is Israel going in the long term. I have seen the occupation in a very subtle and difficult way as an existential threat to Israel. Israel is a high value, high morality society. That’s what this place is about. Its roots. Its religion. You cannot maintain that and be an occupying power.
My argument with you is that if Israel could fix this, Israel would fix this.
You believe that your government is up for a solution broadly along the lines of the Clinton parameters, Geneva, Olmert’s offer...?
This coalition may be. And there have certainly been coalitions in the last few years that would have been, and that were, and that in fact initiated a lot of these things. I don’t doubt that there would be a social struggle here. But I think that the narrative that asserts that Israel could fix this, defies careful...
You’d then have to get into the detailed narrative of what went wrong in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Maybe in the next interview. Because I do think you can track that down, right back to Arafat didn’t want to go to Camp David, thought it was too soon. And what happened in 2008, there are two sides to that as well. There were some elements in what Olmert offered there that I have enormous respect for, especially his taboo-breaking offer on Jerusalem, which still hasn’t got the respect it deserves.
In 2000 and 2001, the formula wasn’t quite there on Jerusalem. I think the formula on Jerusalem is the key to the deal and the key to Israel’s acceptance in the Arab world.
I really don’t think it’s a function of a particular formula. I think it’s a function of whether there is genuine will. If the genuine will is there on both sides, you’ll find the formula.
As I leave Israel, you can say that all the analytical elements are there for a two-state solution. You can pin it together and say it’s got public support. There’s a bright American president who knows where it’s got to go. Everybody knows the broad shape of it. And you go on listing the elements. And yet you also feel, psychologically, people aren’t there – for all the reasons you’ve set out in this interview, David, and I would add to that the sheer difficulty of the core issues: Jerusalem and the right of return.
It’s that psychological fear that I pick up. Despair and pessimism are never policy options. I do believe there are ways forward here. But I am fully conscious that every time a peace process fails on both sides of the Green Line it gets harder to build the trust, to generate momentum, to cope with all the psychological things that you come out with as the representative Israeli in the street here. Ultimately that is the task of political leaders – on the Israeli side, as well as on the Palestinian side, and on the world side to try to help you to get there. There’s a real leadership task out there to be done.