The shift in Tory thinking about Israel, signalled by remarks made by the party’s foreign affairs spokesman William Hague during the Lebanon war, has claimed its first political casualty. Baroness Miller of Hendon, the Tory trade and industry spokesman in the Lords, has now resigned from the front bench in protest.
Hague’s remarks shocked many Jews inside and outside the party. In an article in the Times, he blamed Israel for the ‘injustice of attacks on purely civil infrastructure’ in Lebanon and claimed that ‘elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate, risking unnecessary loss of civilian life’.
In fact, Israel bombed only a tiny part of Lebanon and tried to avoid unnecessary loss of civilian life, including telling people to flee from the areas to be bombed. And at least half the alleged ‘civilian’ deaths were actually Hezbollah soldiers who had hidden themselves and their rockets in civilian houses, thus using them as human shields for military targets.
Given the hysterical opprobrium heaped on Israel for its ‘disproportionate’ response, based on grossly distorted reporting which presented Israel’s self-defence as a war crime, it was deeply disturbing to see the Tories jump onto this obnoxious bandwagon.
Their response that Hague had always acknowledged Israel’s right to security was disingenuous. The word ‘disproportionate’, in this context, was toxic. The party thus colluded in a poisonous animus any politician of decency should have denounced.
A number of people wrote to the Tory leader David Cameron to protest about his endorsement of Hague’s remarks. They received an email from Cameron’s office written by one Alice Sheffield — who happens to be his sister-in-law, but let that pass.
In addition to calling for restraint on all sides, this email said: ‘We believe it is important to maintain a balanced approach to the issue which does not give precedence to either of the parties to the conflict’.
Astoundingly, the Conservative party was saying that it regarded Israel and Hezbollah as equals in the conflict — and that it would not give precedence to Israel over a force that is committed to its destruction (not to mention the destruction of the west, too).
A deputation of concerned Tories took Ms Sheffield’s email to Hague. He told them he was horrified by it, that it did not represent the party view and that it had not been cleared by either himself or Cameron.
So a new letter was drafted and sent out with Hague’s imprimatur from Cameron’s office. But although this stressed the right of Israel to defend itself against Hezbollah’s aggression, it said again that elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate — such as the ‘attacks on the Lebanese army’ and the ‘Christian areas of Beirut’, the ‘destruction instead of damaging of infrastructure’ and the attacks on Qana ‘because of the large number of civilians that turned out to be there’.
But elements of the Lebanese army were in bed with Hezbollah; the places bombed in the Christian area were the airport and the port, which are legitimate strategic targets in any war; and the initial Qana claim almost doubled the actual toll there of 28 dead (images of this ‘atrocity’ were later shown to have been staged by Hezbollah).
As for the ‘destruction of infrastructure’, this apparently referred to bridges. The Israelis say they bombed them to stop any movement of the kidnapped soldiers or fresh munitions —standard strategic aims in war. Party sources say the Tories actually accept the validity of bombing the bridges. But it’s apparently the fact that they were destroyed at their foundations rather than being merely knocked out of action that makes all the difference.
The baffled Israelis say they didn’t intend to destroy the foundations. They didn’t even think of them. They used ordinary bombs with no strategic intention other than putting the bridges out of action to immobilise the enemy.
They are right to be baffled. The Tory argument is risible— and would be used in no other conflict without being laughed out of court.
The party has brushed aside the Sheffield email as unauthorised. But it is most unlikely that an official in the Leader’s office would write such a detailed policy statement off her own bat. The replacement letter was scarcely any better; it repeated absurd claims made by Israel’s enemies which inflamed an already virulent hostility.
The Tories are riding the tiger of anti-Israel prejudice. Their leadership seems to have decided there’s a better show in town than the Jews. The Tories maintain they are still Israel’s friends; but as the saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies?