by Martin Odoni

It seems that nothing the Israeli Government ever does to the Palestinians will meet with meaningful condemnation from Western Governments. So long as the theft of Palestinian land is done quietly and in small slices, and so long as summary killings of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers are done just a few at a time, the USA, Britain, France, Germany etc will turn ‘Nelson’s Eye‘.

It must be something of a mystery to the people of the former Palestine themselves. Why do the West keep letting them get away with it? they can hardly be blamed for asking. Is it racism? Is it because Israelis are ‘whiter’ than Arabs?

To be honest, racism may well play a role in the thinking of many, but more so in Israel than outside. In international terms, the real reason Israel gets away with so much is far more a matter of what is rather kindly referred to as “High Politics,” the politics that keep countries in existence. High politics, it seems, goes hand-in-hand with low morals.

Much of the Palestinians’ unhappy condition stems from a world-famous man-made waterway on the west edge of the Sinai Peninsular. This waterway, the Suez Canal, connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, and was constructed in the mid-19th Century, opening in 1869. There had been a short stretch of land on the west edge of the Sinai Peninsula connecting it to the rest of Eqypt. By cutting through that land, a narrow water channel was opened allowing sea traffic in the Mediterranean to travel straight onto the Red Sea, and vice versa. Without this, anyone wanting to travel from, say, Mecca in Arabia to Alexandria on the north coast of Egypt, would either have to make the journey by land, through some very inhospitable desert landscapes, or travel by ship all the way around the whole of Africa, entering the Mediterranean via the southern coast of Spain: Literally, a journey of months.

With the Suez Canal open, and good sailing conditions, the journey would take just a few days instead.

A close look at the most critical strategic ‘choke-point’ in world trade. Note how close the northern mouth of the Suez Canal, at Port Sa’id, is to modern Israel.

European Imperial powers of the era were thrilled to see the Canal’s construction, especially, after initially opposing the project, the British. Since losing control of its colonies in North America during the late-18th Century, Britain had rebuilt its Empire by pushing eastwards into Asia instead. Throughout the 19th Century, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire was undoubtedly India. But it had been very difficult to maintain swift communication and supply lines to India from the Motherland. The quickest journey from Britain to India, known as The Cape Route, required ships to sail south-west into the East Atlantic, following the west coast of Africa all the way south to the Cape of Good Hope. Then, the ships would be required to curl all the way around the southern coast of Africa, and then cruise slowly north-east across the Indian Ocean.

This voyage, nearly twelve thousand nautical miles in length, could take over six months from start to finish, and passed through considerable dangerous waters, especially south of the Cape. The Suez Canal, however, cut over three thousand miles from the journey. British ships after the initial south-west journey into the Atlantic Ocean, would simply turn east and enter the Mediterranean, instead of heading down the west coast of Africa. (The entrance to the Mediterranean was kept open by British control of Gibraltar, interestingly enough.) Once past Gibraltar, the ships would skirt the north coast of Africa, and then enter the Canal at Port Sa’id, once they had reached the south-east corner of the Med.

The 19th Century trade route connecting Britain to the Persian Gulf and India is still strategically critical even today. Remember, big international maps tend to understate the size of Africa quite markedly, so the distance involved in the old Cape Route is not fully conveyed here.

After traversing the Canal, the ships just had to get to the other ‘end’ of the Red Sea, then bear east, and India was just a few days away, dead ahead. In all, the average journey time was cut by several months, and now passed through markedly safer waters.

By 1875, over three-quarters of the ships using the Suez Canal were British. It had become such a powerful ‘artery’ of Anglo-Indian links that the Government went to remarkable lengths to protect it and keep it in UK possession. Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister from 1874-1880, forked out four million pounds (nearly half a billion in today’s money) for the country to buy up a 44% stake in the Canal. Also, Disraeli, always one of Britain’s cannier leaders, realised that he needed practical as well as legal protection for his country’s investment. Therefore, at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, he secured an alliance with the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which was under threat of war with Russia to its immediate north. In exchange for British strategic support in the event of a war breaking out, the Turks agreed to let the British set up military bases on the island of Cyprus, just off Turkey’s south coast. This was less than 250 miles from, and almost directly north of, Port Sa’id. It was therefore an ideal remote base from which the Royal Navy could patrol the waters surrounding the Canal. (Cyprus has remained partly occupied by the British military ever since, much to the chagrin and resentment of its native population.)

An excerpt from Anton von Werner’s famous masterpiece, Berliner Kongress, 1878. The British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is centre-left in the image, in conversation with the seated Russian Ambassador, Prince Alexander Gorchakov. Centre-right is the first Chancellor of the unified German Empire, the Prussian mastermind, Otto von Bismarck. Stood behind him is Gyulya Andrassy of the Kingdom of Hungary, representing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another Russian, Pyotr Shuvalov, is the delegate shaking hands with Bismarck.

Britain retained control of Suez for much of the next eighty years, as an absolutely crucial strategic ‘choke-point’ for British power and resources through two World Wars. It was only due to the exhaustion of the Second World War that British control was finally lost to the Egyptian President, Gamal Adbel Nassar, who nationalised the Canal at the start of what became known as ‘The 1956 Suez Crisis’. British and French forces responded by invading Egypt and occupying Port Sa’id. There they had support from the Israeli army, who invaded via the Sinai Peninsular.

The invasion soon petered out, when political pressure from the USA on the British and the French persuaded them to withdraw. The US President, Dwight Eisenhower, was worried that the invasion would drive Nassar into seeking support from the Soviet Union, with whom Egypt had already agreed a controversial arms deal a year earlier, using Czechoslovakia as a front. Although Eisenhower’s attitude to Egypt would very much harden over the next few years as it showed an increasing tendency towards socialist policies, during the Crisis itself, he still thought Nassar could be lured towards a free market platform. To this end, Eisenhower went as far as to threaten the sell-off of large stocks of British and French capital held at the Federal Reserve, which was liable to cause very damaging runs on both the pound and the franc, if the invasion was not abandoned.

This episode of modern history should be a very telling clue about the true shape of world politics since the end of World War II. Not only did it demonstrate that the USA was now in charge, whether the old Empires of Europe and Asia liked it or not, but it also demonstrated the real reason why the likes of the UK are always kowtowing to American demands. Certainly it has little to do with ‘friendship’ or ‘special relationships.’ Essentially, the USA has had a grip on the UK in particular since late in World War II by holding a large reserve of sterling at the Fed. Any time the British have stepped out of line, the US has quietly threatened to dump a large chunk of this reserve cheap on international markets, knowing that it is likely to cause the pound to depreciate and trigger a UK financial crisis. To date, the British have backed down almost every time. (The only notable exception has been when President Lyndon Johnson wanted Harold Wilson to provide military support in the Vietnam War. Although Wilson resisted full involvement, his Government still did not dare to condemn some of the atrocities committed by the US military – including deployment of napalm and CS gas.)

Back when the American leader was called Johnson. Lyndon B. Johnson’s relationship with Harold Wilson (left) was often very uneasy, especially over British refusal to send troops to Vietnam. Even so, given all the intelligence work, arms shipments, technical aid and propaganda material the British provided to help the USA and South Vietnam, it is still something of an urban myth that Britain “stayed out” of the conflict.

But more pertinently, that Israel could get involved in the Suez Crisis gives us an enormous clue as to why the West will not oppose its project to ethnically-cleanse Palestinians from their former lands entirely. By the time of the Crisis, Britain no longer had control over India, but it was still desperate to retain the Canal. This was because by this point, the oil supplies in the Persian Gulf had become every bit as important as the connection to India had previously been, and the quickest route to the Gulf was also reached via the Canal, only by circling around the Saudi Arabian peninsular at the end of the voyage, instead of pushing east.

Because of the general exhausting impact of the World Wars on the British military, which is today massively reduced from what it was a century ago, it is simply not feasible for the UK to guard the eastern Mediterranean on its own. It still retains its Cypriot bases, but they no longer retain forces sufficiently large to do much more than defend their own ground and provide intelligence. The USA has the power to do far more, but already has vast forces spread out all across the Middle East, most particularly surrounding Iran, and these forces are becoming increasingly overstretched. Forces across the European Union are also far smaller than they were in the Age of Empires, and, particularly in eastern Europe, have a somewhat paranoid desire to focus their resources on guarding against possible Russian incursions.

If only there were a country on the Mediterranean east coast that could do the job of guarding this critical trade route, in return for military/financial support? Well, as luck would have it, that is where Israel comes in.

This image is taken from a variant of the board from the popular game Diplomacy, with annotations added. The arrowed yellow lines give us a close-up view of the journey from Britain to the Suez Canal via the Mediterranean Sea. Note the massively important strategic positions of Palestine (“Future Israel”), Sinai, and the British bases on Cyprus – all in close proximity to the Suez Canal.

Israel is just the width of Sinai away from Port Sa’id, so it is in an excellent strategic position from which to protect traffic using the Canal. The peninsular also provides a useful defensive ‘buffer’ zone against Egyptian incursions into Israel. Israel has an extensive military, largely financed by the United States, Britain and EU countries. For complicated demographic reasons I have outlined before, Israel has an incentive to try and minimise and reduce its non-Jewish population, so it cannot be outvoted in Elections, as that could end the country’s status as a ‘Jewish State.’ So long as it remains Zionist Israel, it will fulfill the wishes of the West in guarding the shipping lanes for oil supplies heading out of the Gulf and towards Europe. Should it cease to be a Zionist country e.g. if an Arab majority forms and votes for an ‘end-of-epoch,’ as it were, then the new Government is likely to have less sympathy with European interests, and more enthusiasm for the interests of peoples closer to home. Therefore, Western powers not only tolerate Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, they even quietly encourage them. Anything that reinforces the status quo.

It is a symbiotic relationship of an ugly type. The Western powers prop up Israel with military funding and supplies to use against hostile neighbours, and Israel in return uses some of those resources to ward off intermittent threats from those same neighbours to Western oil supply lines. (Large Israel-sympathising Jewish communities in Britain and the USA make protecting Israel an easy choice for any ‘democratic’ leader wanting an easier ride in Elections too.) Israel spares the West the enormous practical difficulty of transplanting, and finding a suitably large base for, a large army permanently in the eastern Mediterranean. This support for British strategic interests was even explicitly promised by prominent figures in the Zionist lobby, such as Chaim Weizmann, during the long and protracted negotiations that led slowly to Israel’s resurrection.

“Egypt to the left of me, Sinai to the right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with Suez.”

It would not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that the world has revolved around the Suez Canal for over 150 years, a condition that, if anything, became more set-in-stone as the Age of Steam gave way to the Oil Age. In that time, a large proportion of the most important international incidents to happen, be they commercial, military, or geopolitical, have centred on access to and control of the Canal. In an era of increasingly dominant air travel, and of a climate change crisis that drags the world kicking and screaming away from its juvenile oil-addiction, the importance of the Suez Canal may even be declining at last.

But we are not at the point where we can argue that it is ‘obsolete’ yet; indeed it was even extensively widened by the Egyptian Government a few years ago so it could accommodate more and larger shipping, a clear investment for an expected long future. The Canal remains crucial. So long as ‘Big Oil’ remains powerful – which it does – the Suez Canal will still remain an enormously crucial trade-route and strategic “choke-point.”

So when you see conflicts being played out in the Middle East and northern Africa on television news reports, you can be sure that to some degree, the Canal, and the Western desperation for control of it, will be playing some kind of role.

It plays a central role in Israel’s ability, quite literally, to get away with mass-murder.