English lessons: Don’t speak before thinking

English lessons: Don’t speak before thinking

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Even the best of politicians blurt things out without any sense as to the timing or appropriateness of their comments or the consequences and damage they may cause. So it was recently with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Israeli President Shimon Peres, who gave evidence that they both suffer from “foot-in-mouth” disease.

Having made his first obligatory visit to Washington in early July, Cameron began a whirlwind visit of some of the major foreign policy “hotspots” with a trip to Turkey. Following the flotilla controversy between Turkey and Israel and despite the conciliatory gestures apparently now being made by both sides to find ways to repair the relationship, Cameron chose his visit to Ankara to pounce on Israel. He called Israel’s role in the deadly flotilla confrontation “unacceptable” and scored the Israelis for the blockade of Gaza. “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp,” he said.

In fact, Cameron did encourage Turkey and Israel to maintain their bilateral relationship and urged Turkey and Israel “not to give up on [their] friendship.” Cameron’s gratuitous swipe at Israel, however, was a transparent effort to befriend his Turkish hosts and solidify the support of the Muslim and Turkish hardliners.

Based on his public remarks — not only pertaining to Israel/Gaza/the Palestinians but also to Pakistan/Afghanistan/India —  the foreign policy initiatives of the British government may be off to a rocky start, at best.

Widening the gap between Great Britain and Israel were remarks by Israeli President Shimon Peres in an interview, published in the Web magazine Tablet, with Ben-Gurion University historian Benny Morris. While reviewing British-Israeli relations since the days of the Balfour Declaration, Peres began to comment on more contemporary issues. Morris raised the de-legitimization efforts against Israel throughout the world, and asked if it extended beyond Scandinavia.

“Our next big problem is England,” Peres responded. “There are several million Muslim voters. And for many members of parliament, that’s the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. And in England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab, of course not among all Englishmen, and anti-Israeli, in the establishment.”

While Peres did not call the English anti-Semites or Great Britain an anti-Semitic state, virtually every newspaper and media outlet in Britain spun the story that way. So extensive was the uproar, and so universally negative was the reaction to his interview (including within Anglo-Jewish circles) that Peres issued an elaborate clarification of his comments, which actually had been completed before Cameron’s remarks in Turkey.

Cameron and Peres both demonstrated a genuine weakness in diplomatic and political skill. They spoke from the gut and presumably without adequately sensing the fallout.

In the case of the 87-year-old Israeli president, he is the head of state and not the head of government. While he should have better sense than to stir up an unnecessary contretemps when Israel is indeed facing a worldwide de-legitimization campaign, his remarks will not be viewed as the voice of the Israeli government, careless and imprudent as they were

Cameron’s comments are perhaps more alarming on their face. Cameron is in the early months of his leadership of the first coalition government in Britain since World War II. His comments suggest that he may not yet be prepared for “prime time,” at least on foreign policy issues. Alternatively, he may be seriously concerned about his coalition partners, the Social Democrats, so much so that he intends to move his government in a considerably different direction than had been anticipated and had been pursued by the former Labor government. This would appear to be especially true as far as British policy in the Middle East and Indian sub-continent.

For British Jews as well as for Israel, both of these politicians’ remarks are disturbing. In truth, Peres’ observations were probably more accurate than most Jewish leaders can or want to admit and suggest the need for some internal political soul-searching.

The seriousness of Cameron’s remarks, however, could spell the beginning of an even more immediate set of problems for Anglo Jewry.

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