Ariel views

Israel's new ambassador to Britain is a highly controversial choice. Opponents say he is an inexperienced Sharon crony who barely speaks English. So how will Zvi Hefetz cope with Paxman and Humphrys? In his first British interview, he tells Jonathan Freedland why he wants to meet his country's critics.

Read Jonathan's full interview with Zvi Hefetz on The Guardian's website

Israel, the wall and the world court

Published in the Jewish Chronicle, July 16 2004

As a rule, predictions are not a good idea. Just ask the bookmakers who put Greece?s chances of winning the European championships at 100/1. If that goes for sport, it certainly applies to politics. So journalists should tread carefully when attempting to forecast the future: events have a nasty way of tripping you up.

One exception was last week?s ruling by the International Court of Justice on the legitimacy of Israel?s security barrier. Both the decision itself and Israel?s reaction to it were entirely predictable.

For who doubted that The Hague would condemn what it called the ?wall,? constructed to keep out Palestinian terrorists? Was anyone surprised that the world court found ?the wall and its associated regime?contrary to international law?? Or that construction of the barrier had entailed ?the requisition and destruction of homes, businesses and agricultural holdings? and that Israel was therefore ?under an obligation to return the land, orchards, olive groves and other immovable property seized?? It would have been a shock if The Hague had said anything else.

You could have placed an equally safe bet on Israel?s reaction to the ruling. I raised barely an eyebrow when I heard that the Israeli foreign minister had refused to comment on the verdict, lest he ?dignify? what he insisted was a non-story.

Nor was I taken aback by the words of Ra?anan Gissin, the abrasive spokesman for Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. (I wonder, incidentally, if Gissin realises how much PR damage he does to Israel every time he opens his mouth: his smirking, American-accented blend of arrogance and aggression has all the appeal of a 1980s apartheid-preserving Afrikaaner.) Of course, Gissin was going to say the ICJ decision ?will find its place in the garbage-can of history.? Anything less would have been a surprise.

Happily, Israel?s actions this week did not quite match its earlier words. The government announced it was now ?looking at ways? to change the route of the wall. That makes sense because the barrier itself is not the problem ? it?s the route it?s taking. Placing a wall between Israelis and Palestinians may be a dismal, pessimistic solution but if it stops the bombers, then it?s surely worth it. (Last Sunday?s horrific attack on Tel Aviv proved the mechanism is not failsafe, but four preceding months without an incident is quite an achievement.)

What that logic does not justify, though, is running the fence deep into Palestinian territory. If the object is simply to keep out would-be killers, then why not have the wall hug the ?green line?, the old 1967 border? By bobbing and weaving deep into the West Bank, the fence?s route suggests another agenda: the grabbing of land that should be destined for a future Palestinian state. What?s more, it is the route of the fence, rather than the fence itself, which is causing the humanitarian problems seized on at The Hague ? separating Palestinians from their land and their livelihoods, dividing villages, breaking communities.

If it?s true that Israel is now seeking ?to bring the fence closer to the green line,? that can only be good. But note Israel?s emphatic insistence that it?s making the change not to please The Hague, but in response to a ruling last month from Israel?s own supreme court.

Heaven forbid anyone should think Israel might actually be heeding world opinion! That would break what has become a ritual dance: international body condemns Israel, Israel condemns international body. Implicit in the now-routine Israeli response is a suggestion that not only is the latest international judgement wrong in itself, but that it is part of a wider pattern of harsh treatment, if not outright bias. Whether it is the European Union, the United Nations or now the World Court doing the condemning, Israel and its Jewish supporters have their answer primed and ready. ?What do you expect from that lot?? The implication is that such bodies are congenitally biased against Israel, maybe even against Jews.

This is an unhealthy habit and we should change it. For one thing, it is curiously un-Zionist. The first Zionists were passionate in their hope that Jewish self-determination would at last allow the Jews to join ?the family of nations.? They did not want the Jews to withdraw from the world, but to join it. How disappointed they would be to see a Jewish state that constantly turns its back on the rest of the planet, as if in a collective sulk. The Zionist impulse was not to scorn international bodies but to yearn for the day when Jews could play a part in them.

More pragmatically, we should hesitate before dismissing global institutions for the simple reason that one day we might need them. Ariel Sharon insisted Israel?s wall was no business of a court that represents the legal arm of the United Nations. After all, in the Sharon world-view, the UN is nothing more than a vipers? nest of Israel-haters.

This kind of thinking is a luxury that might be available to other countries, but not Israel. For, unlike them, Israel owes its existence to a decision of the UN. What basis of legitimacy does Israel have other than the 1947 partition vote that created the Jewish state? If we persuade world opinion that the United Nations is irrelevant and bogus, where does that leave us when next confronted with the claim that Israel has no legal right to exist?

We may not like the opinion the rest of the world has of Israel right now. But we cannot make the world go away. We are part of it ? just as we always wanted.