Editor's Notes: London and us

"Having just spent a week with that army I have no doubt of its morale and its loyalty."

tony blair 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
tony blair 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
London is obsessing over Saddam Hussein's trial, the vote on the Iraqi constitution, the "lies" Prime Minister Tony Blair told his people to get into Iraq, and the desperate imperative to get back out. Or, more accurately, London's media is obsessing. The Palestinian-born schoolteacher who told his class of 13- and 14-year-olds in County Durham that they'd better "behave or I'll put a bomb on your bus," made page 25 in Wednesday's tabloid Daily Mirror. The launch of an anti-war vigil outside 10 Downing Street, by the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, made page 4 of the same newspaper. A day earlier, the Independent led its front page with the assertion that fears are growing that British troops in Iraq are at "breaking point." Claiming an emerging "crisis in morale," the paper cited as evidence the suicide of a military investigator in Basra, a decorated soldier's recent abandonment of the British army to avoid another tour of Iraq duty, the first case of a soldier facing court-martial for refusing to serve in what he brands an illegal war, and the decision of 70 members of a single battalion to leave the army in the past year rather than go back to Iraq. Writing in Wednesday's Guardian, Simon Jenkins, a former editor of The Times, flatly contradicted the Independent's crisis talk, and did so after spending the last few days with the British troops themselves. "Having just spent a week with that army I have no doubt of its morale and its loyalty," he noted. But in this piece, and in an earlier article in the Sunday Times, Jenkins argued passionately for the withdrawal of those troops as soon as "the next Baghdad government is installed in the new year. Iraq can then be left to the Iraqis. If the Americans want to stay, more fool them." For Blair, the accusation of having lied Britain's way into Iraq - as a purported last-resort response to Saddam's never-found weapons of mass destruction - simply refuses to go away. It was the centerpiece of a damning, book-length polemic by the acerbic journalist and author Peter Oborne, entitled "The Rise of Political Lying." It is a throwaway accusation in almost every interview with ex-political allies turned critics such as former government minister Claire Short. Just this week a top British judge, Lord Steyn, accused Blair's government of scraping "the bottom of the legal barrel" to justify the invasion and telling "fairy tales" about the war making the world a less dangerous place. If Israel's concern is increasingly that the Americans and Brits will cut and run, and leave an Iraq vulnerable to ever greater Iranian influence, then the degree of authority the Iraqi constitution gives to individual regions in establishing their own police and security forces offers terrifying potential for precisely that scenario. Or, as Jenkins puts it so graphically, southern Iraq could develop into "George Bush's personal fundamentalist republic." Like their American counterparts, Britain's leaders are talking tough about staying put. But aides to two congressmen with whom I met recently, one Republican and one Democrat, indicated that a fair amount of the rhetoric is bluster, that troop deployments will continue to be reduced, and that the attractions of finding pretexts for a purportedly dignified exit - an approved constitution, more efficient government in Baghdad, larger numbers of local "trained" troops - are growing. They are growing, in fact, in inexorable parallel with the US and UK troop death tolls. LONDON IS overrun by Israelis, young Israelis, in one particularly child-sensitive area. Sight-seeing in the Harrods department store (it's too expensive to contemplate buying much more than a doughnut there), I locate my daughter in the toy department, fascinated by a tiny car with a built-in sensor that enables it to "drive" along lines made by any black marker on any piece of white paper. She is discussing these virtues with the young salesman - in Hebrew. His name is Yonatan, he's come for a few months of high-earning ahead of Christmas, and I find it mildly curious, but nothing more, that here's a young Israeli in what has for some years now been an Egyptian-owned store. (Owner Mohammad al-Fayed has long been dubbed the "Phony Pharaoh" by Britain's tabloids because of his predilection for exaggeration, both in business dealings and in the grandiose embroidery of his life-story). But after tearing my girl away from Yonatan, we hear two more sales assistants in the same department speaking Hebrew to each other - young Israeli females this time, who tell us they are selling a product of Israeli origin. Next day, we're in the justly famed Hamley's toy store, five full floors and a basement of childish delight, with two or three "demonstrators" on each level showing off the latest fads and innovations. Don't ask me how, but my sons, watching the girl putting an admirably robust race car through its paces, get talking to her - in Hebrew. Her colleague, modeling what looks like an orange plastic shower cap (whose purpose I didn't manage to discern), proves to be Israeli, too. One floor up, the girl selling the multicolored pens that write with a "foil" effect: Israeli. A level higher still, the crop-haired man with the earring and the flawless American accent flying a yellow, remote-control Frisbee: Israeli. How has this come to pass, I ask the Frisbee pilot? How has Israel's youth cornered the market in selling toys to Brits in their own stores? He gives me a lengthy answer, involving an Israeli recruiting firm advertising back home and supplying the staffers. And I understand perfectly well why pre- and post-army Israelis would be happy to get the necessary visas and take such pleasant and fairly well-paying employment. What I can't fathom is why young Brits, and, more relevantly, any other youngsters in the open-bordered European Union - youngsters who don't need any such visa documentation - wouldn't have snapped up the jobs before them. LONDON IS part-way through the BBC's Elusive Peace documentary series - jointly made with the American PBS channel and already screened in the US. It is an enterprise that was plunged into controversy even before the first episode had been broadcast, by a program trailer that casually and fundamentally undercut any aspiration to accuracy with wording that placed all blame for the collapse of the last few years' Middle East peace efforts squarely on Israel. In an unusual, and perhaps unprecedentedly rapid, volte face prompted by the intervention of the BBC's Middle East ombudsman, himself alerted by the indefatigable Anglo-Jewish activist Joy Wolfe, the trailer was hurriedly rewritten and less offensive language substituted. The series itself is also attracting criticism for a perceived anti-Israeli bias - everything from the striking absence of president Clinton's Middle East envoy Dennis Ross from the ranks of interviewees, to an alleged misrepresentative use of comments from Clinton expressing frustration with Israel, to a flawed and over-simplified emphasis on Ariel Sharon's Temple Mount visit as the cause of the second intifada. I haven't been able to see the documentary yet, but I have been reading the accompanying book, by the now-British-based, Israeli-born, journalist-academic Ahron Bregman. It seems less problematic in its use of Clinton quotes, but is certainly troubling in its account of the Sharon visit and the initial phase of the current round of conflict. Entirely riveting, however, is the chapter on secretary of state Colin Powell's spring 2002 visit to our region - barely two weeks after the Netanya Park Hotel Seder night suicide bombing - in what amounted to America's last effort, by Yasser Arafat's last significant Washington defender, to persuade the Palestinian leader to confront terrorism. As a subsequent interview with Powell quoted by Bregman makes plain, the secretary veritably begged Arafat to use his "influence and authority" to prevent more such bombings. If Arafat was not prepared to do that, Powell warned him, "then you're going to find the road ahead very difficult with respect to your relations with the United States." But even Powell's passionate entreaties got him nowhere, of course, and two months later, President Bush was on the White House lawn telling the Palestinians that their only path to statehood, the only path to Middle East peace, lay via "a new and different Palestinian leadership... new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror." The Palestinians, Bregman stresses, had had no inkling of quite how devastating the president's speech would be for Arafat. Diane Butto, a PLO legal adviser, recalls that she and much of the Palestinian leadership were watching the address together on TV, "and our jaws dropped. We knew it was going to be harsh, but did not expect that harsh."