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June 01st 2009 print

Michael Danby

Ah, McGeough, You’ve Done It Again

The publisher’s flyer that accompanied my review copy of Paul McGeough’s new book, Kill Khalid, describes the author as “one of Australia’s most proclaimed foreign correspondents”. They meant “acclaimed”, but it’s an appropriate mistake. McGeough was a war correspondent in Baghdad during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and emerged as a trenchant critic of the war. The war was opposed by many good people who opposed the Coalition of the Willing, its aims and methods. The excesses of Halliburton, the Australian Wheat Board’s $300 million bribery of Saddam Hussein, together with the endless bombings in Baghdad and the remorseless toll of young American dead seen every night on The Lehrer Report, all combined to sour support for the war.

But this approach was not good enough for Paul McGeough. He is more conspiratorial. Indeed his critique of Western policy in Iraq plumbed new depths with his “world scoop” that Iraq’s then leader, Iyad Allawi, personally shot al Qaeda prisoners in a Baghdad jail. This exclusive story remains exclusive.

In this context, I approached Mr McGeough’s venture into new territory, literally and journalistically, with trepidation. This book, in my view, idealises Hamas, the radical Islamist group which McGeough unremarkably and uncontroversially argues rose from the ruins of the sadly failed Oslo peace process to defeat the corrupt Fatah regime in the Palestinian elections of 2006. Hamas seized control of Gaza, by then evacuated by Israel in a unilateral withdrawal.

Kill Khalid in micro-detail recounts the well-known story of the Israel secret services’ botched assassination of Khalid Mishal. McGeough’s thesis is that the rise of Hamas to prominence in Palestinian politics is all Israel’s fault. Why am I not surprised to learn this? Central to his book’s thesis is the belief that the long-running “peace process” is all an Israeli ruse, because all Israeli governments since 1967 have been determined to keep the occupied Palestinian territories forever. McGeough sees successive US administrations and other Western governments as dupes of this Israeli ruse. More conspiracy nonsense.

Poll after poll shows that the moderate majority of Israelis support a two-state solution (the bi-partisan Australian policy since 1948). Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and a more recent convert (with his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza) Ariel Sharon laboured to find a way to get out of the territories without risking Israel’s existence, through a return to the pre-1967 situation with minor modifications. Rabin was assassinated precisely because he was willing to evacuate a large part of the territories. Barak lost office after Palestinian violence (the Second Intifada) caused the failure of the Camp David summit, at which the Palestinians were offered a state covering 95 per cent of the West Bank. Sharon was attacked as a traitor by his former followers when he removed Israeli settlements from Gaza.

Kill Khalid is an ersatz thriller. Mossad assassins, exotic poisons, car chases, high-level diplomacy and international blackmail make up the elements of an improbable but already known story. All that is missing is James Bond’s exploding pen and Maxwell Smart’s shoe-phone. But McGeough has a serious purpose in all this: to expound his contention that Hamas, led by Khalid Mishal, must lead the Palestinians. The book’s assumption is that the bright hopes of the Oslo peace accords were killed off by Binyamin Netanyahu, and that now with the election a decade later of a Netanyahu coalition of Barak (Labor) and Lieberman (Russian Jews), he will do it again! Under Arafat’s leadership, McGeough argues, the Palestinian Authority sank into corruption and incompetence. This opened a political space for the rise of Hamas.

This unremarkable, almost banal argument then jumps to the conclusion (expanded recently on ABC’s Lateline) that Hamas is a nationalist organisation.

Using Kill Khalid as a platform, McGeough has emerged as perhaps the principal Anglo-Saxon advocate of Hamas. Writing in the New York Times, he is savvy enough to admit that Hamas would not abandon its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. “Nonetheless, others to whom he [Mishal] speaks have told me that Mr Mishal has said that when the time comes Hamas will make some of the moves demanded of it by the West.” Is that a sound basis for a shaky Israeli coalition to make such a dangerous and far-reaching move? It is strange that a reporter who has spent so much time in the Middle East and presumably been exposed to the full spectrum of passionate Israelis would have so little empathy or insight that he does not understand that Jewish history would not suggest Israel risk everything on such a chimera.

McGeough’s view that the failure of past peace efforts can all be laid at Israel’s door is plain tosh. If Arafat had accepted the offer made to him by Ehud Barak in 2000, there would be a Palestinian state today. If Hamas had not exploited the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza by using it as a launch-pad for its Iranian rockets, the Israeli electorate would not have elected a right-of-centre coalition.

McGeough is not unsubtle enough not to mention Hamas or Mishal’s connection with the hardline regime of Ahmadinejad in Iran. But Kill Khalid minimises and understates that connection. It is a surprising connection given the hatred between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Indeed as a leader of a Sunni fundamentalist faction like Hamas, it is Mishal’s singular achievement that Hamas is largely armed and trained by the Shi’ite Persians, who strike such fear in the hearts of all Sunni Arab states.

Various media reports of this recent conflict in Gaza ignored what the American call “the game changer”. Iran gave Hamas long-range Grad rockets for January’s conflict and put 900,000 people in South Israel under daily fire. Only repeated good luck and an efficient civil defence, which closed all kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, prevented Hamas and Iran from killing many Israeli civilians. If McGeough ever wandered the streets of Ashdod (230,000), Beersheba (520,000) or Ashkelon (180,000) during the recent war in Gaza he would have heard the Orwellian street PA calling “tzevah adom” (red alert). Reality would be clear, even to him. Things are what they appear to be.

It is all very well to say, “You make peace by talking to your enemies.” That presupposes an enemy who is willing to talk to you. At present even the sharpest critics of Israel believe that Hamas does not want to talk; it wants to establish a Muslim state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. McGeough says Hamas does not really mean what it says in its charter. He portrays Mishal as a latter-day Archbishop Makarios or Jomo Kenyatta rather than a dangerous Iranian proxy distorting Palestinian nationalism. Shlomo Aveineri, an intellectual titan, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University, and a dove, explained in a response to McGeough’s article in the New York Times:

What Mr McGeough did not mention is that Hamas views all Jews, not just Israel or Zionism, as its enemies. Its charter goes to some length to state that the Jews (together with the Masons) were responsible for the French and the Communist revolutions; that they instigated World War I to destroy the Ottoman caliphate; that they instigated World War II to make money out of commerce in war materials; that they control world finance and the media; and that they have established numerous secret organizations to achieve world domination. Some of this is straight out of the anti-Semitic literature of ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and some of it—especially the references to the two world wars—is the original contribution of Hamas ideologues. No Western democracy would tolerate an organization with such views. These are the issues that have to be raised with Hamas leaders by anyone who cares for peace in the Middle East.

Michael Danby is the Federal Labor Member for Melbourne Ports.