A frank recognition of its past in the Middle East can give Britain a unique role in the peace process
The reprimand of Israel by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, resonated sharply in an already difficult week for Israel. But Britain can do more to influence the Middle East than register a complaint, expel a Mossad officer, or sit on the sidelines as Washington pursues its Sisyphean efforts to renew the peace process.
Of all the western powers it is Britain that has a unique responsibility to Israelis and Palestinians, and something unique to offer both parties. After all, Britain was the original third party to the Palestine triangle. From the beginning of the British Mandate in 1922 to their great escape from Palestine in 1948, it was the British who lived in suffocating proximity to the parties – an intimacy that neither the US nor any other nation has experienced.
It was the British who were present at the birth of the clash between the Zionists and the Arabs of Palestine, and witnessed the conflict unfold. Britain was the first European power to be presented with each party’s litany of demands, and to be at the receiving end of their threats and manipulations. It was the first that each side relied upon to fulfil its aspirations, and that each accused of betrayal. And it was the first to express exasperation at what it saw as both parties’ insufferable behaviour.
Indeed, Britain was not simply a bystander. Having made promises to each side during the first world war, enshrined its incompatible “dual obligations” in the Balfour declaration of 1917, and implemented contradictory policies for some 30 years, it shared responsibility for the conflict’s shape and evolution.
A decision to openly address Britain’s role could have an impact on the most unbridgeable gap between Palestinians and Israelis: the question of ultimate responsibility for the conflict.
The responsibility issue – and its twin, recognition – has only become more intractable in recent years. The Palestinians insist that Israel acknowledge its responsibility for the 1948 nakba and the refugee problem. For Israelis this is unacceptable because they believe it corners them into confessing to “original sin” and ultimately delegitimises Zionism and Israel. They have thus upped the ante recently by requiring that Palestinians recognise Israel “as a Jewish state”, which the Palestinians consider as tantamount to putting a stamp of approval on the loss of their homeland.
This is a circle that seemingly cannot be squared. So what could Britain possibly do about it? Without validating the tactics of blame and breast-beating (or inviting a renewed debate about the nature of its wartime promises), Britain might consider making an important public speech that would address the problems of recognition and accountability directly.
Acknowledging its own role in the origins of the conflict might afford Britain the opportunity to speak to the parties from a position of humility and even complicity: not as an outsider trying to impose its will, but as a former party to the conflict, one that has a moral and historical stake in its resolution, in a way that even the US can never have.
Should Britain admit past failures, Israelis might feel that they can acknowledge their own role in the nakba without getting entangled in a web of exclusive culpability. Palestinians may interpret this as a diffusion of Israel’s responsibility; but they would receive the additional acknowledgment that long before 1948 their quest for independence was undermined by a British policy predicated on building, in their land, a home for the Jews.
Britain could also recall its original pre-Holocaust moral support for Zionism as a movement that sought to address the escalating threats to Jewish minorities from exclusivist forms of European nationalism. Israelis might see this as a more powerful form of recognition than any statement the Palestinians may be forced to utter under duress.
Of course, the fundamental matters that define the conflict today will not be magically assuaged by symbolic gestures. In fact, an excessive focus on existential issues has often provided a convenient stalling tactic for those who want to avoid moving forward on a peace process. But these issues are not likely to go away, and progress towards defusing the issue of responsibility now can help provide a more secure way forward, should there be movement beyond the current impasse.While the US struggles to invent its future as an honest broker, Britain might find its relevance in the Arab-Israeli conflict merely by recalling its past: and to tap into its historical knowledge and reclaim its role as a member of the original Palestine triangle.
This article appeared on p32 of the Main section section of the Guardian on Thursday 25 March 2010. It was published on guardian.co.uk at 08.05 GMT on Thursday 25 March 2010.