LONDON, Oct. 31 (JTA) — British Jews are criticizing Prime Minister Tony Blair, accusing him of placing relations with Arab and Muslim states ahead of support for Israel in the fight against international terrorism.
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, wrote to Blair this week to protest his recent statements distinguishing between terrorism against the United States and attacks on Israel.
Even as the letter was being sent, Blair was on his way to Syria for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad. He also is slated to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Saudi leaders on his trip to the Middle East
After Blair and Assad met Wednesday, Assad defended the use of force by anti-Israel groups.
“Resistance to liberate land is an international right that no one can deny,” Assad said at a news conference. He also accused Israel of using terrorism against Palestinians.
Blair, for his part, did not display much tolerance for his host’s position.
“Violence from whatever quarter is deeply unhelpful,” he said, according to Reuters. “What we require is the space to get the talks started again, and an end to terrorism in all its forms.”
Still, the Board says Blair is sending mixed messages.
“It is hard to take seriously a war against terrorism which involves cozying up to countries such as Iran and Syria, which sponsor terrorism,” Board spokesman Paul Gross said.
The Board understands the imperative of keeping Arab and Muslim countries on the U.S. side in the war against suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, Gross said, but it is determined that Israel not suffer as a result.
“The nature of Realpolitik is that Bush and Blair are forming a coalition with unsavory characters, and the Board is concerned that Israel will be a sacrificial lamb,” he said.
The Board rejects a distinction Blair made in a newspaper interview last week between anti-U.S. terrorism and anti-Israel terrorism. The prime minister said there is a difference between struggles where there is a “genuine source of conflict” and ones where “terrorists have no demands.”
He said the Middle East conflict could be solved by negotiation, unlike the battle against bin Laden.
The Board rejects Blair’s analysis.
“It is quite clear that you can’t negotiate with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. They have made it clear that they want the Jews out of Israel,” Gross said.
“Arafat talks about settlements and pre-1967 borders, but the aims of the people who killed Rehavam Ze’evi are more ambitious than that,” he said, referring to the Israeli tourism minister assassinated by Palestinians on Oct. 17.
He said Blair’s statement was only one of several from the government in recent weeks that have upset British Jews.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw came under heavy criticism for a recent article under his byline that appeared to express understanding for terrorism in light of Palestinian frustrations at Israel.
The article was published in an Iranian newspaper as Straw made the first visit to Tehran by a British Foreign Secretary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Europe Minister Peter Hain — who used to hold the Middle East portfolio — seemed to imply in a recent interview that Israeli actions against the Palestinians could be seen as terrorism. He later distanced himself from that interpretation, saying he had been referring to the actions of Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians.
“The problem is that anti-Israel statements in the press stir up anti-Jewish sentiment in Britain, and it doesn’t help to have government ministers making connections between Sept. 11 and the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Gross said.
The lobbying group Labor Friends of Israel, which has consulted with Blair about his Middle East trip, defends the prime minister.
“Tony Blair has established himself as a sincere supporter of Israel who understands Israel’s unique concerns,” said the group’s director, David Mencer.
He admitted that the present situation — where Britain has to balance support for Israel against the imperative of keeping an anti-terror coalition together — is problematic.
“I don’t think we have seen the interests of Israel and Britain come up directly against each other in a long time, which they might appear to do now,” Mencer said. “I would be more concerned if Blair were not such a strong friend of Israel. He is in a very difficult position, but his intentions are pure.”
Mencer said Blair would deliver strong messages to Assad and Arafat.
“He’ll be telling Syria that the ways of the past are no longer acceptable if they’re going to be part of a coalition against terror, and the message to Arafat is a 100 percent effort in finding terrorist organizations and shutting them down,” Mencer said.
Israeli officials hope Blair will make his case to Arafat in no uncertain terms.
D.J. Schneeweis, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in London, said Blair was “less robust with Arafat than he could have been” when the Palestinian leader visited London two weeks ago.
At that time, Blair praised steps Arafat appeared to be taking against terrorist groups and voiced support for a Palestinian state. Israel claims Arafat eased his tentative efforts against terror as soon as he felt pressure lift and felt international support growing for the Palestinian cause.
Israel is expecting Blair “to make clear to Arafat that terrorism in any form will not be tolerated,” Schneeweis said. “Arafat must act effectively against terrorism if there is to be any progress.”
He said the Israelis do not object to Blair’s support for a Palestinian state. But, he said, “Supporting a state has no connection with supporting terrorist methods. There is no alternative but for the two sides to sit down together and negotiate.”
Schneeweis said Blair potentially can influence Arafat.
“Unless Arafat senses that his own standing vis-a-vis Blair and the West is on the line, he won’t act,” Schneeweis said. “His standing with the West is far more important to him than the welfare of his own people, unfortunately.”