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Why is Israel so vital to the West?

The residual legacy of guilt about Jewish suffering during World War II still runs deep in western psychology - while the plight of Palestinians is largely ignored
Protesters wearing face masks of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stand outside the gates of London's Downing Street on 23 March 2023 (AFP)

Seventy-five years ago this week, an anomalous state was imposed on the Arab Middle East. The new creation was alien in every sense to the region’s culture and anti-colonial struggle, which it would put into reverse - and it had no historical antecedents in the Arab world, despite the relentless promotion of biblical mythology to pretend otherwise. 

From the start, Israel was a western creation: a settler-colonial state set up with the aim of absorbing the Jews of the world, or as many of them as would come in preference to the United States or Europe, where most wanted to live. 

The new state went on to violate international law repeatedly, attack its neighbours, persecute the native Palestinian population, and impose a system of apartheid rule over them. Astonishingly, it became the recipient of unstinting support from powerful western states, apparently unshaken by any of its excesses.

Russia’s crimes against Ukraine were swiftly punished by the imposition of ferocious western sanctions, while Israel has been forgiven for similar crimes against Palestinians - and its privileged status in western esteem has not changed. 

So far this year, Israel has killed more than 130 Palestinians; maintained its siege of Gaza, currently victim to yet more Israeli bombing; and continued to pursue more land grabs and evictions of native Palestinians. As if none of this was happening, it’s business as usual for Israel-West relations.

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After 75 years of blatant pro-Israel western bias, which flies in the face of natural justice and common decency, this is a moment to reflect on the origins of this bias. Its effect has been to protect Israel from retribution, giving it impunity to act at will. 

If instead, Israel had been left to fend for itself, the Palestinian struggle for freedom would have been short, and the settler community in Palestine would gradually and peaceably have been absorbed into the region. 

Exploiting Palestine

But that would never have been allowed to happen. For western states in the aftermath of World War II and its devastating effects on their Jewish populations, Palestine was a godsend to be exploited. 

Longstanding persecution of Jews in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust and Jewish refugee exodus, needed an urgent solution - but not in Europe or the US, as they had already refused to admit Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in 1938. Where better to send them than Palestine, then under British colonial rule and unable to mount effective resistance to a foreign influx of Jews? 

Palestinians were well aware of Zionism's danger to their country from early on, resenting its use as a solution for Jewish persecution in Europe

The 1946 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry was set up precisely in order to assess the country’s ability to absorb this influx, and to provide a refuge for a people western states had rejected. 

Palestinians were well aware of Zionism’s danger to their country from early on, resenting its use as a solution for Jewish persecution in Europe. The western impetus for recompense, particularly strong in the wake of WWII, dominated the decision to admit Israel as a UN member state in 1949, despite several reservations

Nothing else explains the UN’s admission of a state that flouted the UN Charter, had no fixed borders, was created by violence and ethnic cleansing, had no demonstrable ability to live peaceably, and was unable to give assurances that it would respect UN resolutions on the status of Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees

The gift of Palestine as compensation to Jews for their suffering, not least the western antisemitism that was behind it, has been fundamental to western support for Israel, although it is unlikely that anyone today is conscious of it. The residual legacy of guilt about Jewish suffering, and the idea that Jews are owed a state, still runs deep in western psychology - most obviously in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe and among European-origin Americans. 

Special status

Coupled with persistent antisemitism, this has endowed Israel with a special status, to be preserved as a Jewish state. Its usefulness as an agent of western imperialism in the Middle East and beyond, and a source of surveillance technology and field-tested weaponry (on Palestinians), add to its appeal. But these cannot alone explain the untouchable, even sacred, position accorded to Israel by the West.

That is why the West adheres so desperately to the two-state solution, despite all the evidence against it ever happening. 

Why Israel and the West fail to understand the Palestinian struggle
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It is also the major reason why the one-state solution, despite its clear advantages - not to mention, inevitability - has never taken off at the official level, and is unlikely to while the present mindset persists in western countries.

A glance at the map shows the impossibility of anything other than a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been de facto one state, ruled in its entirety by Israel. The population of this one state is approximately half Arab Palestinian and half Jewish Israeli. 

Due to Israel’s apartheid system, the Arab half does not benefit from equal rights with Jews, and the majority of Arabs have no rights at all. As I argued in my new book; One State: The only democratic future for Palestine-Israel, the obvious way forward in a situation like this is to restore everyone’s rights, to end Israel’s apartheid and repressive rule, and to convert the existing inequitable state into one democracy for both peoples to share in equity and partnership.

No such democratic state is possible, however, without the dissolution of the current state of Israel, which the West so fears. But if it happens, it will spell the end of Zionism, and also of Jewish supremacy and injustice in the country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Ghada Karmi is a former research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. She was born in Jerusalem and was forced to leave her home with her family as a result of Israel’s creation in 1948. The family moved to England, where she grew up and was educated. Karmi practised as a doctor for many years, working as a specialist in the health of migrants and refugees. From 1999 to 2001, Karmi was an associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where she led a major project on Israel-Palestinian reconciliation.
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