“An anti-semite is someone who hates us more than is necessary”
The above comment, made over dinner at the Jerusalem Press Club by a prominent Israeli journalist in mid-February to me and five other UK-based journalists, in a nutshell explained why we were there. The state of Israel, created by the United Nations in 1948, has an ongoing PR problem and needs if not friends people in the outside world who at least understand it.
The six of us had been invited to visit Israel and Palestine by BICOM – the British Israel Information and Research Centre which regularly takes small groups to the country. For me it was the first time in the 10 years of running PB that I’d received such an offer and I had a very special reason why I jumped at the opportunity
For 46 years ago, in 1968, I was part of a group of student leaders on a similar sponsored visit just over a year after the Six Day War. On our first day we went into the centre of Gaza – territory that had been “acquired” in the war. We got out of the coach to walk round and immediately faced a hostile crowd. My reaction was to move to safety as soon as possible and was first back behind the line of Israeli army vehicles and into the bus. The second person into the bus was Jacky who a year later became my wife. That was how we met.
Then the country was exuberant and still excited by the military successes and the sheer scale of the territories that they had acquired fourteen months earlier.
Forty-six years later on my return a lot of those territories have gone, it is a much smaller country, and is growing weary of the constant effort to survive as a Jewish state. In its eyes it has given up land for peace but still peace never comes.
The trouble with the land for peace concept is that Israel has a huge political problem with settlers who have set up illegal settlements in what is now Palestinian territory.
These Israelis, there are about a third of a million of them, not only fuel constant international condemnation but are a major impediment to the country’s bargaining position. If the state cannot control them then how can deals be done?
During the visit the Kerry peace initiative was still in play and all sorts of solutions were being discussed.
The one positive feature which I hadn’t appreciated is that a large segment of the settlers are not doing it for ideological reasons – they just want somewhere affordable to live. As a senior Israeli Labour party official told us the answer with this group is just money.
But even taking them out of the equation there are a lot of settlers who will fight, even against their own country, to remain.
For me the stand out, though most discomforting, part of the trip was meeting one of the uncompromising settlers’ leaders. How anyone could reach a deal with him seemed beyond the bounds of possibilities. He turned on me with a ferocious attack when I asked a simple question about the legalities of land ownership.
The Israelis have the resourcefulness for their country to survive but it is always going to be difficult. It is hard to see a political solution in the short or even medium team.