Middle East: Mind your language

Alistair Cooke: Letter From America: 4/13/02

In the past 10 days/two weeks I've listened to 80, 90 maybe a hundred speakers, statesmen, from many countries, foreign correspondents, anchor men and women, television commentators by the plane load.

One day on the face of an Englishman being interviewed the mention of the phrase "American commentator" raised an eyebrow and there came to mind evenings in London, both a long and short time ago, when there seemed always to be present a friend, the nicest man, and the moment always came when he would tap the air with his pipe, raise his eyebrows and say quietly and confidentially: "Ah yes, the Jewish vote."

This was always said by way of showing forgiveness for some American policy that was unpopular in Europe and I, holding myself in, would say: "No, tell me about the Jewish vote."

There are many competing Jewish votes throughout the United States, so varied as to party and local concerns and so scattered, as to demolish any such reality as a block Jewish vote, any more than you could label "the American college vote".

But in New York city surely there are two millions Jews are there not? One third of the entire Jewish population of the United States.

That is so. Six million Jews in 280 million Americans. Even if they all voted the same ticket it would not be a decisive factor.

But surely on policy towards Israel? Well I've seen no survey but I'm pretty sure that the weight of sympathy for Israel is very heavy.

Anyway 80 years ago the Republicans conceded the New York city Jewish vote to the Democrats.

However, what I wanted to say after 10 days of this clamour of commentators was that I heard nothing new, and I don't say this with any intended tone of condescension which is a favourite attitude of native Englishmen, but as a simple despairing matter of fact.

There is far and wide agreement on the desirability of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia's proposal - in the United States, Britain, a great majority of the United Nations - namely:

Now surely this is a sensible, even-handed and ultimately inevitable goal.

Well, to Western Europe and the United States, South and Central America maybe - but not, after Mr Sharon's incursion, to the states of the Arab Muslim world. All seemed to have lurched over in outrage to the Palestinian side.

And Mr Sharon is left saying that Israel's enemy is America's enemy - terrorism, but here represented by Mr Arafat.

Now between European and American reporting I should say there is one great and unfortunate divergence.

The American picture of Mr Arafat seems to be that of a bare-faced scoundrel who runs three or four terrorist groups that he publicly deplores or sponsors others with links to Iran and especially to Iraq, from whom he receives handsome dollar - some say $25,000 - packages, as graveyard gifts to the families of the martyred suicide bombers.

The European view seems more than this to be of a stubborn scoundrel maybe, who is however the elected leader of the Palestinian people and whose present status is more to be pitied than condemned.

This view has been reinforced every evening by that picture of Mr Arafat by candlelight.

To the Arab Muslim world he is now a besieged martyr. Suddenly to a whole civilisation a lonely hero, rather like George Washington at Valley Forge.

Why was Mr Bush so slow to condemn Mr Sharon?

The long, also the short answer, is the firm tradition of every president since the end of the Second World War, to support and sustain the establishment of the state of Israel.

In 1945 President Truman proposed a participation plan which would define a clear border between two states and would put Jerusalem under control of the United Nations.

The time of dissension and conflict really started when President Truman, after the British mandate over Palestine ended, when President Truman insisted that 100,000 of Europe's homeless Jews be allowed into Palestine at once.

The British, to put it mildly, demurred: Yes, they said, if the Arabs approved.

The Arabs positively did not approve.

Britain's attitude was at the least understandable - Arabia had been of invaluable help to Britain as an ally in the First World War and Britain, like all of Western Europe, was greatly dependent, as the United States is not, on Arabian oil.

Every president since Truman has learned the story of how Israel proclaimed on its own a sovereign state and how within half an hour President Truman, to the shock of his own state department, put out a statement telling the world that the United States recognised Israel de facto - as a fact of life. Two years later de jure, in law.

And ever since Israel has been, for better or worse, America's chief ally in the Middle East and this tradition has meant that any American president's condemnation of any act of Israel would be taken by neighbouring Arab states as a cue to go ahead and achieve their hearts' desire - the abolition of the state of Israel.

That is why Mr Bush was not lounging at his ranch in Texas. He was in a day-long, sometimes night-long, ordeal of discussion with his top men, especially with Secretary of State Powell - and with Mr Sharon and with Arab leaders and Western leaders and with the leaders of regimes you wouldn't guess had any impact or influence on the plight of Palestine and Israel.

After reading and hearing a thousand pictures and a hundred comments I was prepared one day to hear nothing at all and prepare for a quiet social evening, talk maybe about nothing but golf with two old friends who were going to stop by.

They arrived, nestled in, all the tonsils were pleasantly bathed and the visiting lady turned to me and asked a question - the sort of question only the best reporters ask, the simple, penetrating question of a child.

"Where," she said, "did this all begin?"

Well let us see now.

To most of the grey beards I listen to the answer seemed to be the war of 1967.

To the beardless youth it was at least 18 months old. So let's consider.

How about 135AD when the Romans, then in charge, proclaimed that the land called Judea should henceforth be known as Palestine in honour of the coastal inhabitants, the Jews' long-time enemy, the Philistines?

How about 636AD when the Arabs conquered Palestine but a Jewish minority insisted on staying?

For four centuries the Ottoman Turks were the rulers and now, leaping to the 20th Century, we find that after a series of failed liberal revolutions in Germany and brutal pogroms throughout Russia a movement started called Zionism - to give, at long last, to the wandering Jews a permanent homeland in Palestine.

This ideal was originally cradled in Germany and Turkey but during the First World War when both countries were fighting Great Britain the Zionist movement moved to Britain which had been most sympathetic to it.

The First War ended and Britain ran Palestine under this mandate from the League of Nations.

The British foreign secretary declared, in a single sentence, that his government favoured "a national home for the Jews in Palestine, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities."

Jewish immigration continued more or less peacefully but after the Second World War the Germans and Austrians and Hungarians and other homeless Jews who had escaped Hitler's slaughterhouses came in on a tidal wave.

There were fierce Arab uprisings and the Jews countered with their own reign of what they called defensive terror.

Then came the strong support of Mr Truman, the arrival of those hundred thousand more Jews, which alarmed the neighbouring Arab states, which inevitably led to Israel's decision to fight now as a nation for its survival.

After two wars the United Nations wrote what was meant to be the controlling document - partition was approved.

It required, however, the Israelis to "withdraw from occupied territories" to the 1967 border.

Did you notice something that Lord Balfour's declaration and the famous United Nations resolution have in common?

A fatal omission of one word.

Balfour said Britain favoured "a national home in Palestine". The Jews took this to mean Palestine would be it - the national home.

The Arabs said - No, no the declaration says only "a national home" meaning in part of Palestine.

A quarter century later the UN resolution said Israel must withdraw from occupied territories, which to the Israelis meant some territories. To the Arabs it meant the, all the occupied territories.

Each of them through decades of bloodshed and unstinting hate have held to these opposing interpretations. All because of a missing "the".

Next time you draft a treaty pay attention to the simplest English words that can say so much like "by" and "with" and "from" and "for" - and pay special attention to the definite article, the harmless word of three letters: T H E.