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British-Israel Relations: “The Intransigent Israeli?”

Archives of the British Foreign Office (FCO/17 1554)

This archive document is a candid report to the British Foreign Office by its then ambassador in Tel Aviv, Sir Ernest John Ward Barnes (John Barnes). Barnes served in Israel between 1972–1975—a period spanning the efforts to promote a ceasefire to the War of Attrition, the Rogers Plan, the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent Disengagement Agreement.

Being a professional diplomat, Ambassador Barnes followed the British tradition of reporting his observations to the Foreign Office. This document provides insight not only into what he, himself, thought about the Israeli–Arab conflict but also, indirectly, into the conventional wisdom of that era regarding the “peace-loving Arabs and intransigent Israelis.” Barnes’ key observation, as is evident in the document, was that Israel is more flexible than meets the eye; however, for historic reasons, the Jewish state must remain vigilant. The arguments raised by Barnes will look familiar to the observer of Israel’s relations with the international community in 2009: the double standard regarding Israeli actions vs. those of its enemies; the seeming lack of understanding in the West of the fatal consequences of an Israeli strategic defeat; Israel’s amateurish public diplomacy; the lack of appreciation of all Israeli concessions; and the expectation that Israel, as the stronger party, should offer more concessions.

Undoubtedly, the document reflects the time in which it was composed—four years after the Six-Day War. The author, a career diplomat, was witness to the events that led up to the outbreak of the war and mentions them in his letter. To him, therefore, Israel remains the “offended party” and not the aggressor. It would be hard to find a diplomat in service today who was active then and personally recalls the events leading up to June 1967; therefore, much of the background that Barnes mentions may be seen by a modern diplomatic observer as historical trivia at best, but certainly not relevant to Israel’s current political positions. Perhaps one of the causes of the cognitive dissonance and frustration with which many Israelis regard Western diplomacy can be attributed to the disparity between, on the one hand, Israel’s view, formed (as Barnes points out) by the experience of the Holocaust and reinforced by Arab efforts to destroy the State of Israel, and on the other, the prevailing Western notion of Israel as a powerful entity under no existential threat from whom most of the concessions must be demanded.

View archive document [PDF]

Sources: World Jewish Congress. Author Shmuel Bar is Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, IDC Herzliya.