Editor’s Notes: Steady on, old chap

By David Horovitz November 5, 2004

Boris Johnson is a welcome visitor from a terrorized and confused Britain

Barely noticed – understandably – amid the hubbub surrounding the Knesset’s disengagement and budget debates, Bush’s reelection, and Arafat’s decline, two small delegations of British ‘friends of Israel’ parliamentarians visited this week.

Among them was rising Conservative pol and journalist Boris Johnson, MP for true-blue Henley and Oxfordshire South – a rare colorful personality on the generally gray British political landscape. Johnson is perhaps best described as a young fogey – a distinctly disheveled, somewhat absent-minded, public-school educated posh-talker who seems, on first contact, to have emerged straight from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse – and from Bertie Wooster territory rather than Jeeves’s. Within the first few minutes of our conversation, Johnson actually, in the plummiest of tones, employed the phrases, ‘Gosh, yes’ and ‘Now steady on, old chap.’

But first impressions can be deceptive, as the producers of a popular British current affairs-comedy TV show, Have I Got News for You, discovered when they invited Johnson to be a panelist, anticipating the great fun his fellow, more experienced, fast-talking satirists would have at his apparently buffoonish expense. So skillfully self-deprecating and good-natured was Johnson, though, that he emerged from the encounter soaring on a wave of public popularity and was later invited back to guest-host the show, sailing cheerfully through his own presentational ineptitudes to boost his jolly-good-egg image still further.

But if Johnson the TV star has been in the ascendant, Johnson the politician arrived in Israel under a heavy cloud. A recent editorial in the magazine he edits, The Spectator, had dared to slaughter several sacred cows. An assault on the outpouring of ‘mawkish sentimentality’ in Britain that has followed last month’s decapitation by his Iraqi kidnappers of British hostage Ken Bigley, the article asserted that Britain has become a ‘society hooked on grief’ and one that ‘likes to wallow in a sense of vicarious victimhood.’ And the piece reserved its most pointed barbs for Liverpool, Bigley’s home, a city blighted by unemployment and what it termed ‘an excessive predilection for welfarism,’ whose citizens, it went on provocatively, ‘cannot accept that they might have made any contribution to their own misfortunes.’

Since alienating a city of almost half a million people is fairly poor politics, Johnson’s appalled Conservative party leader, Michael Howard, compelled him to issue an apology for ‘the offense I have caused’ and to make a rapid pilgrimage of contrition. The late-October Liverpool sojourn was not entirely successful, the low point coming when, during a lunchtime call-in at the local Radio Merseyside, the murdered hostage’s brother, Paul Bigley, telephoned to castigate Johnson as ‘a self-centered pompous twit’ and urge him to ‘get out of public life.’

Blond hair askew and shirt particularly crumpled after a morning ‘learning everything I could have ever wished to know about ancient wells and sewers,’ Johnson, in Jerusalem, indicates that he has not been chastened by the storm his magazine’s editorial stirred up and that he stands by much of what was written. And he says he’s had an overwhelming degree of support from his readers.

I tell him I was particularly struck by another line in the editorial, which rejected the charge that Britain’s Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, has Bigley’s ‘blood on his hands.’ It was a charge leveled at Blair by the hostage himself in his final days. Chained at the neck, feet and hands, and hauled in front of the TV cameras, Bigley essentially accused the prime minister of condemning him to death by failing to negotiate with his terrorist captors, lamenting plaintively that ‘my life is cheap. He [Blair] doesn’t care about me.’

Brother Paul, Johnson’s subsequent phone-in tormentor, was similarly explicit at the time, going so far as to assert that ‘I think if he [Blair] leaves office, Ken’ll be home tomorrow on a plane.’

How widely felt in Britain, I asked Johnson and his parliamentary colleagues, is the notion that Blair failed Bigley – that he wrote the hostage’s death sentence by refusing to negotiate a deal with the kidnappers, who were purporting readiness to release Bigley in return for the freedom of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay?

Fairly widely held, they chorused. Indeed, ran their assessment, Britons, and Blair’s natural Labor constituency most of all, are fairly widely ranged against everything about the Iraq war, which they don’t believe they should be fighting, and against Blair personally, partly in consequence of the fact that they loathe President Bush.

And how widely felt, I went on with typical Israeli self-preoccupation, is the notion that Israel is at root to blame for all the Middle East ills blowing into the West – for Islamic extremism, for terrorism? ‘Well, the whole of the chattering classes are ranged against you,’ volunteered one of the MPs immediately, prompting her colleagues to list the various sectors where Israel is gradually losing its very legitimacy – the Church (‘I’ve never heard a bishop in the House of Lords say anything even remotely neutral about Israel,’ remarked one of the Labor legislators, who sits in the upper house), the unions, the teachers, academics, the media, the students…

One of their fellow MPs, Jenny Tonge from the third-party Liberal-Democrats, they recalled, went so far as to declare in January that if she were a Palestinian, she ‘might just consider’ becoming a suicide bomber herself.

The mindset behind such positions, as these parliamentarians presented it, basically regards Israel as strong, with America and America’s weaponry behind it, and the Palestinians as poor and dispossessed, and consequently places the onus on Israel to solve the conflict.

Most Britons who hold to that view, they went on, would find it hard to believe that Yasser Arafat wouldn’t accept a two-state solution, that many Palestinians don’t accept it, and that the conflict predates Israel’s capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967. ‘A significant number,’ one of the MPs said, ‘regard Israel as quite illegitimate.’

Johnson piped up at this point that the chaps in his Henley pubs – the ones who’ll tell you that ‘I served in Palestine, old boy. Jolly fine fighter, the Arab’ – consider that Israel invaded Palestine, and is now building settlements as a landgrab. If Johnson tried to tell them that Israel has been desperate to make peace, observed another of the group, a fellow Conservative MP, ‘I don’t think he’d get out of the pub in one piece.’

‘The received wisdom,’ in short, as still another of these MPs put it, ‘is that if you solved the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, there’d be no terrorism.’ No 9/11. No Madrid bombings. No Taba bombings. No kidnapping and killing of Ken Bigley.

That received wisdom was, I think, swirling behind the remarks we heard from Tony Blair on Wednesday, in his brief appearance congratulating George W. Bush on reelection.

Blair only spoke for a few minutes, but he used almost all of that time to urge the president to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians a top priority. A proven defender and supporter of Israel, Blair nonetheless, in what was a carefully drafted address, veered dangerously close to legitimizing terrorism – intimating that the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the fundamental causes of the murderous attacks from which the world is reeling today. As one of Johnson’s colleagues had explained to me the day before: ‘Blair has to deliver Israeli-Palestinian peace to his own party. That was the price they demanded of him for the Iraq war.’

Reviled by much of Labor for having allied himself so closely with Bush and brought Britain so deeply into Iraq, Blair sounded to me on Wednesday night like a man a little terrorized himself. If the visiting MPs’ comments on Britons’ mindset are accurate, he is certainly the leader of a country that has been terrorized – where people are ready to shift blame and guilt from the brutal killers of an innocent man to a prime minister who chose not to submit to murderous extortion.

Johnson and his colleagues did at one point suggest that ‘aside from the metropolitan liberal elite, among the wider public, there may be a broader sympathy for the Israeli position.’ But any comfort such an assessment might have brought was quickly crushed when one of them added: ‘But of course those people aren’t generally very interested anyway.’

Still, for the chattering classes, anybody else who is interested, and for Tony Blair, it’s worth voicing a ‘steady on, old chap’ and restating yet again: We would all like to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We in Israel are dying because of it. Perhaps now, post-Arafat, a genuine opportunity to do so may gradually be created.

But let’s not get this upside down. It is not the absence of a solution that is producing terrorism. It is terrorism – the terrorism that destroyed the Oslo process, the terrorism that has fueled four years of conflict – that is blocking a solution. Gosh, yes.

© The Jerusalem Post