Back to the Future


“War is Peace”

—George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

THE recent expulsion of the head of Syrian intelligence in Britain is an indication of the concerted effort to thwart attacks on Jewish and Israeli institutions in this country. At the Tokyo summit, it was decided to take specific measures and to improve coordination in an attempt to avert further atrocities on the European mainland. The Europeans have been jolted into unimaginable activity in the aftermath of the bombing of Tripoli. It would seem that, in the short term, President Reagan’s military action has had some distinctly positive results. Whether the raid on Tripoli itself will be regarded as a deterrent to the activities of the intelligence services of Libya and Syria is a question which is yet to be answered.

The American action was made possible through the determined indecision of the European governments despite a series of pleas by Jewish communities. The years of passivity bolstered the position of those in the White House who preferred the military option and shored up American public support for the President. Europeans including the British found themselves fearful of Arab economic retaliation if they pushed too hard. Both in terms of Arab economic penetration of domestic industry and exports to Libya, countries such as Italy attempted to be good friends with everyone. Italian exports from Libya, mainly petroleum, have trebled to 6,811 billion lire during the past year.

Despite US technological advances, such as laser guided bombs, civilians were killed in the raid and this was regarded as shocking and immoral. It was in this area that Jewish sensitivities were severely strained. Why did Mr Reagan not order an attack on targets such as the oil pipelines or initiate an economic blockade of Libya’s oil jetties? One answer is that foreign nationals could have become casualties. Another explanation is that this would have resulted in distinct economic problems for certain European countries and created schisms within NATO itself. Yet if the reputedly unstable Gaddafi regime was on the verge of being toppled, as some have written, then surely economic disruption within Libya would have hastened that process. American officials repeatedly apologized for the civilian deaths yet an article which was published in Time magazine before the raid was remarkably well informed in its predictions. It pointed out that “the Libyan intelligence-service headquarters, from which Gaddafi and aides launch terrorist operations, is in downtown Tripoli and hard to hit without causing heavy casualties among Libyan civilians”.

Amidst the barrage of information and disinformation, the Jewish public probably viewed the military action with mixed feelings. British outrage and American jubilation were emotions which many Jewish people were unable to wholeheartedly share. Over 70 per cent of people in this country rejected the US action essentially out of trepidation because they saw it as a military escalation over which they and the British government had no effective control. It is apparent that the British public, including a large segment of Jewish opinion, consider President Reagan’s policies in general to be ill conceived. The Libyan dimension was therefore just one more addition to the catalogue of muted criticism.

Even so, in reacting to President Reagan, many overlooked the fact that Colonel Gaddafi, in his seventeen years of power, has been totally ruthless in the suppression of dissent within Libya. According to the 1985 Amnesty International report on Libya, this has included the imprisonment of writers and journalists and even members of the illegal Marxist Party. Public hangings, torture and general ill-treatment of prisoners from foreign seamen to Palestinian students have been the hallmark of Gaddafi’s regime. In addition to the question of human rights, the central Jewish issue is Gaddafi’s support for an Arab rejectionism which wishes to extinguish even the slowest movement towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace in the region. Well-meaning people, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s respected envoy, Terry Waite, have suggested that all problems between the US and Libya can be solved at the negotiating table. Yet as most know, but few have commented upon, a similar approach between Libya and Israel is an impossibility. Colonel Gaddafi—it can be stated without exaggeration—desires nothing short of the disappearance of the State of Israel. No quarter would be given, no compromise would be offered. The elimination of Israel is at the epicentre of his political outlook. In this, he even distances himself from his mentor, Gamal Abdul Nasser. And it is this fundamental issue of implacable hatred of Israel which separates Jews from non-Jews in their attitude to the Libyan raid.

The global aspects of his Revolution have propelled Gaddafi to sponsor obscure political groups and figures who are ready to mouth the correct slogans—and not simply about the Libyan regime but also about Israel and Jews. Thus in Britain, a small Trotskyist group, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which is held at arm’s length even by other Trotskyists is suddenly able to publish a daily newspaper for nearly a decade. In the United States, Louis Farrakhan discovers the attraction of Adolf Hitler and the diversionary yet populist appeal of antisemitism—even the Nigerian government, a member of the Islamic Conference, has prevented Farrakhan from speaking in Lagos. In Spain, the far right, tinged with military ambition and clerical antisemitism, seeks funds and arms from Libya. The Soviet Union, too, has kept its distance. The Kremlin has been content to sell arms to Gaddafi—some twelve billion dollars worth since 1969—but not to enter into a Treaty of Friendship with Libya. Given the intricacies of the situation, most Jewish leaders refrained from passing judgement on the Tripoli raid. The President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Dr Lionel Kopelowitz, proved to be the exception. In praising Mr Reagan’s action and Mrs Thatcher’s acquiescence in it, he formally aligned the official face of Anglo- Jewry. It may have whetted the appetite of some individuals in anticipation of Mrs Thatcher’s recent visit to Israel, but the implicit sentiment was that Anglo- Jewry shared President Reagan’s global outlook.

The refusal of many US Jewish organizations to accept the administration’s shrill approach on other issues such as Nicaraguan antisemitism suggest that Jewish interests do not always coincide with those of the White House. Even those who publicly supported President Reagan on Libya did so as organizations of American citizens rather than as organizations of American Jews. It should be remembered that two-thirds of American Jews showed themselves critical of Mr Reagan’s policies in voting for Walter Mondale in 1984. Only American blacks exceeded that fraction. A recent Zionist Federation opinion poll indicated that a majority of the British public were totally indifferent to the Israel-Palestine conflict. A sizeable percentage also disagreed with President Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya. Dr Kopelowitz’s statement had made it possible to link these two views. It will add credence to the arguments and perceptions of those who deal in imagery to avoid making a genuine analysis of the Middle East problem. In the emotional milieu following the bombing, it became convenient to single out the Palestinian problem as the root cause. In the House of Commons, Mr Callaghan, the former Prime Minister, commented that “it is the inability to reach a Middle East settlement that strengthens Gaddafi”. The converse is true: it is the inability to restrict Gaddafi’s support for the rejectionists that weakens a Middle East settlement. As Mr Callaghan well knows, the PLO’s unrealistic position on the question of direct negotiations with Israel is partly a result of its unhappy relationship with the rejectionists. If Gaddafi and Assad cut their ties with the rejectionists financially and politically, it may permit the mainstream Palestinian National Movement to pursue a more rational policy. If the PLO does have a moderate wing, as personified by the late Issam Sartawi, then the irony of the raid is that it may have permitted Arafat a measure of flexibility. It is also significant to note that the US State Department’s carefully documented “White Paper” on Libyan involvement in terrorism lays the blame at the door of the Abu Nidal group and not the PLO. Few Palestinians feel affection for Gaddafi. Edward Said, an American-Palestinian intellectual, recently commented in an article in the London Review of Books: “Gaddafi and his peculiar regime are basically indefensible. An erratic, immature, often violent and perplexing man, he has done a lot of harm in Libya and throughout the region. The Palestinian people, ironically enough, have little reason to care for Gaddafi, for all his declamation of Palestinian rights”.

The flaw in President Reagan’s approach is that he believes that international terrorism can be categorized as a monolithic entity. Even if terrorism under the control of Libya and its surrogates now recedes, those who regard Gaddafi as the unsullied standard-bearer of Arab revolution will still have had their beliefs confirmed and fortified by the attack. Paradoxically, the raid may have spawned a new desperation amongst a whole generation of impressionable young men. It may be the spark which will light many fires. Only time will tell whether the raid on Tripoli was a gain or a loss. In the meantime, concerned people will closely observe the unfolding drama.

Jewish Quarterly Summer 1986



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