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Israel Needs Its Friends More Than Ever

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When Channel 4 decided to commission a TV drama set in the Middle East, to run in the gloomy winter months when people dream, and pray, and pay, for a tiny glimpse of sun, it can't have known how timely it would be. The Promise isn't quite the story of how a young man who wasn't allowed to sell vegetables sparked a revolution that ripped through the Middle East. But it is the story, or part of the story, of the country that fuels some of its deepest resentments.

Peter Kosminsky's drama moves between Palestine in the 1940s and a present-day Israel where rich Jews lay by swimming pools and poor Arabs struggle to buy bread. Drawing on the (fictional) diary of a British soldier, discovered by a granddaughter who's spending a chunk of her gap year with her best friend's family in Caesaria, it tells the largely untold tale of soldiers whose job it was to be the "meat in the sandwich" between Jews and Arabs. They did this by making sure that Jewish émigrés from Europe didn't escape from detention camps -- and so exceed the immigration cap that the British had set -- and then had to watch their comrades being blown apart by those who thought that people who'd been in concentration camps deserved something a little bit better.

It also tells the tale of the young woman learning about this, and going to the West Bank and Hebron, and seeing Jewish children throwing stones at Palestinian children, and Jewish "settlers" taunting the people whose homes they have stolen, and Palestinians being held and humiliated for the hell of it, and going to a café which, moments later, is blown up.

The series, clearly, is about "the promise" of a land for a people whose terrible suffering was not just on an industrial scale, but actually industrialised, and the consequences for the people who were in that land before. It's finely crafted, beautifully shot and extremely well written. It's also extremely balanced.

When you see the real footage of the living skeletons that British soldiers found behind barbed wire in Germany and Poland, and of the ones which didn't make it being shoveled into mass graves, which Kosminsky includes because you can't tell this story without those images, you can see why those who survived, and relatives of those who survived, and also anyone who was human, would think that there must be one place in the world where this could never happen again.

But when you see the lives of the people who were in that place before, who don't have jobs, or enough food for their children, or anything you could really call freedom, you can see why their sympathy for their newish neighbours might have worn a bit thin.

You can see why, when much of the Arab world was uniting, and igniting, in anger against oppression, you might want to have your own "day of rage", and particularly when an American President with a Muslim middle name, who came into office declaring that he would seek "a new way forward" with the Muslim world, started doing things which seemed very much like the old way. When, for example, he made sure that the US was the only country to veto a UN Security Council resolution saying that illegal building on other people's land was, in fact, illegal. You can see why you might think that wasn't very helpful, and particularly since this was the only country in the world whose opinion your neighbour, who was doing the illegal building, cared about.

You can also see why, if an American spokesperson said afterwards that the veto "should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity", you might be a bit confused. And why you might wonder why, if you didn't support what you called "settlement activity", you didn't just bloody well say so. But perhaps you'd realise that when Western leaders said they wanted to help you, what they really meant was that they wanted to look as if they wanted to help you. So when, for example, a British Prime Minister went to Cairo to congratulate a new government on overthrowing an old one (an old one he always said was his friend) and to tell them that they must behave themselves, you'd realise that what he really wanted was to sell them, and their neighbours, tanks.

You can see, in fact, why feelings on both sides might be running quite high. You can see why the country that was doing the illegal building, and taking over land that international law said didn't belong to it, because it knew that the people whose land it was taking couldn't do anything about it, might be very scared. It might be scared because one of the strongest Arab countries in the world, which is on its doorstep, and which had signed an agreement saying that you could oppress anyone you liked as long as you left the strong Arab country alone, had just ousted the man who had signed the agreement.

And because, although the new military government had said that it would stick to the agreement, you never knew with military governments, or what would happen if they had the elections they'd promised. And because a lot of the Arab world had never liked your country in the first place, and we were beginning to see what happened when Arabs got angry.

So when a British writer won a prize in Israel last week, and was given it at a ceremony attended by the Mayor of Jerusalem, who thinks that stealing other people's homes is a sensible thing to do, you can see why the writer might think it was a good idea to say something other than "thank you". He did say "thank you", because Ian McEwan is a polite man, and writers always think it's nice if they get noticed, but he also told the audience, which included Israel's President, Shimon Peres, that there was, "hanging in the air", a "great and self-evident injustice". He said the opposite of creativity was "nihilism" and that this was a place where there was lots of nihilism. It was, he said, there in the suicide bombers, and the "rockets fired blindly" into Israeli towns, and in the "extinctionist policy" towards Israel of Hamas. But it was also there in the "continued eviction and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes".

Everyone, or perhaps I mean everyone in the West, knows that the suicide bombs, and the rockets, and the "extinctionist policy", are a very bad idea, but quite a lot of people in the West, and particularly people in America, seem to think stealing other people's land and houses isn't. They seem to think you can do that, and still claim to be interested in negotiating some kind of peace agreement with the people whose land and houses you're stealing. They seem to think you can talk to their leaders (not the leaders with the "extinctionist" policies, who you won't talk to, but the ones who've made so many concessions that when the concessions are leaked on a website the leaders feel very embarrassed) even while you're knocking down their homes.

You can't. And if you want your country, which is, after all, a democracy, not to be threatened by its neighbours, and particularly those neighbours who may be in the process of also becoming democracies, and may end up with governments a bit like Hamas, then you should probably listen to the very few people who are prepared to tell you what Arabs around the world are reminding us: that there comes a time when bullying backfires.