Hasan Suroor

Israel's right to self-defence has never been the issue. The issue is whether its response has been proportionate.

EVEN IF the current level of violence in Lebanon were to subside in the coming days as a result of the United Nations' belated intervention, though there are still too many "ifs" and "buts," an issue that will not go away is the proportionality of the Israeli military retaliation against Hizbollah. Questions will continue to be asked whether the scale of the Israeli response has been within the limits of legitimate self-defence. Already, there is talk about the need for a new internationally accepted doctrine of self-defence in order to make sure a country's right to self-defence does not degenerate into lawlessness, as has happened in Lebanon in recent weeks.

At his monthly press conference in Downing Street last Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was asked: "Mr. Prime Minister, do you think Israel's response has been reasonable, moral and legal?" The question came, not from a bleeding heart liberal or a partisan Arab journalist but from an American TV network, which has never been accused of an anti-Israeli bias.

Mr. Blair looked flustered and instead of giving a straight answer to a straight question he worked himself into a lather as he launched into the history of the Israeli-Lebanese crisis. Yes, of course, what was happening was "terrible"; and he was not "indifferent" to the sufferings of the Lebanese people etc., etc. To those listening to him, it was all a very long shorthand for saying: no, I will not condemn Israel even if the rest of the world including my own Cabinet colleagues think its response has been wholly disproportionate.

For weeks as the world has watched, with horror, the indiscriminate Israeli bombardment of Lebanon, killing hundreds of innocent civilians including women and children, Mr. Blair has doggedly refused to criticise Israeli tactics. This despite an open revolt in his Cabinet on the issue and alarm in the Foreign Office that such tactics would effectively serve as a recruiting sergeant for the very forces that Israel and its Western allies want to contain.

At the press conference, Mr. Blair was asked whether he was conscious of the long-term effect of the Israeli actions? Was there not a danger that the young Lebanese victims of Israeli bombardment boys and girls who have lost their whole families could grow up to become Hizbollah supporters? Was Israel not creating a new generation of Hizbollah militants by its actions?

He acknowledged the force of that argument but quickly reverted to his default position namely, an unqualified support for Israel. The problem is that Mr. Blair's position or rather the proxy American position is not shared even by many of the traditional Israel supporters. For all his seeming wrong-headedness, Mr. Blair is an intelligent man and he knows he is being disingenuous when he tries to portray the issue entirely in terms of Israel's right to defend itself.

Of course, like all sovereign states, Israel despite its controversial origins has a right to defend its people. Its right to self-defence has never been the issue. The issue is whether its response has been proportionate. And at what point self-defence becomes virtual aggression. Someone slaps you, do you retaliate by slapping him back? Or by murdering him and then going on to raze his entire neighbourhood killing innocent people in the process? Which is what, many believe, Israel has been doing.

William Hague, the right-wing Shadow Foreign Secretary who counts himself as a friend of Israel, described the Israeli response as "disproportionate, risking unnecessary loss of civilian life and an increase in popular support for Hizbollah." "Israel's friends should be frank about such actions. It is not in the interest of Israel or anyone else seeking peace to undermine Lebanon's democratic future ... Hizbollah may end the current conflict with its `infrastructure entirely destroyed,' as Ehud Olmert has announced, but also with its political position enhanced," Mr. Hague wrote in The Times.

A group of academics from British, American, and West Asian universities called the Israeli attacks on Lebanon an "act of war" against an entire country and in breach of the Geneva convention. "The Israeli government is jeopardising the fragile structure of Lebanese society, trying to set in motion a new civil war rather than endeavouring to support the re-establishment of Lebanon's full sovereignty," they said in a joint statement.

Within Mr. Blair's own inner circle the talk of a "mutiny" has not been just talk. Mr. Blair admitted that not everyone around the Cabinet table and in the Foreign Office agreed with his approach. "I don't doubt that there are people who disagree within the system and I have no doubt there are Cabinet Ministers who have doubts about this or that aspect, possibly about the whole aspect of the policy [on Israel]," he said.

One such Cabinet Minister is Jack Straw, a former Foreign Secretary and currently Leader of the Commons. He was forced to go public with his concerns after failing to convince Mr. Blair of the folly of backing America's pro-Israeli stance. He warned that Israel's "disproportionate" response could further "destabilise the already fragile Lebanese nation." "If you want to go for Hizbollah, go for Hizbollah, not the whole Lebanese nation,"' he said echoing the comments of the Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells who was the first to break ranks with the Blair line when he attacked the Israeli strategy, during a visit to Lebanon and Israel.

Significantly, Mr. Straw's remarks came barely two days after the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was reported to have had a private telephone conversation with Mr. Straw and voiced his "anger" over Britain's policy. Media reports said that Mr. Annan was "so distraught" at Mr. Blair's stand that he asked Mr. Straw to help "in prising Tony Blair apart from George Bush," though this was denied by Mr. Annan's office.

The cost for Blair

Politically, Lebanon has been as damaging for Mr. Blair as Iraq. Analysts fear that his handling of the crisis could cost Britain whatever little influence it still had left in West Asia after the Iraq fiasco. Sir Rodric Braithwaite, one of Britain's most high-profile former diplomats and one-time Ambassador to Moscow, said Mr. Blair had done "more damage to British interests in the Middle East than Anthony Eden who led Britain to disaster in Suez." Writing in The Financial Times, he warned against the consequences of aligning Britain too close to American foreign policy and said Mr. Blair was increasingly looking like a "frayed and waxy zombie straight from Madame Tussauds ... programmed to spout the language of the White House in artificial English accent."

Oliver Miles, former British Ambassador to Libya, wondered if Mr. Blair had really grasped the full "horror" of what was happening in Lebanon as a result of the Israeli bombardment. And it not just retired British diplomats who have questioned Mr. Blair's stance. The U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown, a proud and cultured Englishman, accused Mr. Blair and President Bush of obstructing initial U.N. efforts to stop the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. He told The Guardian that efforts in this direction had "run up against a wall [in the shape of] the U.S. and U.K." a view shared by European leaders.

In its latest issue, the pro-Labour New Statesman has claimed that Mr. Blair knew that Israel planned to bomb villages in southern Lebanon but did not try to stop it because "he didn't want to."

"This [the British policy] has been a case not of turning a blind eye and failing to halt the onslaught, but of providing active support [to Israel]," the journal wrote under the stark heading: "Blood on his hands." It said senior sources involved in fighting terrorism were "gravely concerned" that Mr. Blair's refusal to condemn Israel could further radicalise extremist opinion in Britain and make it more vulnerable to terrorist threat.

Mr. Blair's judgment has been questioned even by his staunch loyalists such as Ann Clwyd, chairperson of the Parliamentary Labour Party. A Blair-ite to her fingertips, she said a "vast majority" of Labour MPs were "critical of Israeli policy." Tony Lloyd, a former Foreign Office Minister and not given to knee-jerk reactions, said he felt "ashamed" to be a Labour MP because of Mr. Blair's unabashedly pro-U.S. stance. In Muslim circles, there is concern that the perceived "pro-Israeli" bias of the Blair administration runs contrary to its claim that it is keen on winning the hearts and minds of British Muslims. According to opinion polls, a majority of Britons, cutting across the religious and ethnic divide, believes that Mr. Blair has been wrong in not questioning Israeli strategy but the Prime Minister has remained characteristically indifferent to public opinion.