Britain is staking its claim
Some call him "Gordon Brown's Dick Cheney", he is defined as the British prime minister's confidante and considered to be a politician with influence on the Labor Party and government policy. Douglas Alexander, 40, is also a key figure to understanding the new government in London, to comprehending the prime minister's global policies, and to grasping Brown's mottos, including "vision for change" and "hard-headed internationalism."
As the wonder-boy of British politics, Alexander has been put in charge of one of the prime minister's most favorite priorities: the international development portfolio. Both Brown and Alexander believe that they can use this to fix the world, or at least improve it. Last week Brown unveiled his plan for this policy arena, which is based on seven "emergency development" goals covering such areas as poverty, education, health and sanitation. He also announced that he would begin talks with 20 major multinational corporations, including Google, Vodafone and Goldman Sachs, with the aim of establishing cooperation in achieving these emergency goals.
Brown's conceptual doctrine fits Alexander's idealism. Even as a child, he was preoccupied with weighty global matters. While his friends were romping on the beach, Alexander chose to listen to a speech delivered by former German chancellor Willy Brandt in Glasgow. Brandt was speaking about poverty in Africa, and Alexander often says that his ardor to provide aid was ignited back then. As a student he traveled to Kenya, within the framework of a special project to build a school. "I entered politics to change the world," he said after joining Brown's cabinet, adding that the portfolio he was awarded means he now has the means to further that goal.
Brown and Alexander, together with Foreign Minister David Miliband, intend to place "development" smack at the center of Britain's international policy. They consider economic progress as key to solving even the thorniest political problems. This, for instance, is true for Iraq and Afghanistan, which Prime Minister Brown visited last week; and also for Palestine, where Brown sent his youthful International Development secretary and ally.
Alexander bore a triple message on his visit last week to the Palestinian Authority and to Israel: to lay Britain's stake and show presence; to encourage the parties participating in the renewed peace process; and to criticize one of the parties -- Israel -- for creating obstacles en route to the grail that is a final peace agreement.
In an interview with Haaretz, Alexander says that his visit was designed to show the importance London accords to the process that began at Annapolis. The visit was timed to coincide with the critical period between the summit and the first post-Annapolis meeting between Israelis and Palestinians, which was held last Wednesday, and before the meeting of donor nations in Paris this week -- whose British delegation will be headed by Alexander.
But Alexander didn't come here just to make statements. At his meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and with the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, the secretary presented them with a 243-million pound ($500 million) contribution Britain means to give the Palestinians over three years, depending on progress in the peace process. "As friends of the Palestinian people and as friends of Israel, we believe that the process begun at Annapolis is vital and worthy of our support, not only political but economic as well," Alexander says.
A senior political source in Israel says the secretary's visit corresponds with Brown's intention to demonstrate a prominent British presence on the ground. "Brown wants to demonstrate an active foreign policy in the Middle East," says the source. "He won't be satisfied by the mere presence of his predecessor and today's Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, in the region."
Brown's assertiveness is also evident in his decision to appoint Michael Williams, an assistant to former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, as his special envoy to the Middle East. Alexander himself says that he does not see Brown's conduct as a battle over prestige with the former prime minister. He speaks of "tight cooperation" with his friend and former boss, Blair, who was the first prime minister to bring Alexander into the cabinet, and he says that he likes and even admires the former prime minister. He believes that Blair's capacities could bring about more economic development and help lay the foundations for the future Palestinian nation. In the final analysis, Alexander says, Blair's actions and those of the British government complement each other.
Just like Blair, Alexander views the roadblocks in the West Bank as a big obstacle to Palestinian economic development. And like Brown, he grew up in a religious household in Scotland and does not hesitate to use a moral tone to justify his policy: He took advantage of his meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to protest the plan to build 300 housing units in the Har Homa settlement and to express his concern lest "the opportunity created at Annapolis be missed."
Furthermore, Alexander turns Israel's demand that the Palestinians stop all forms of terrorism as a precondition for the peace process on its head. "Israel is committed to the first stage of the road map," he says, and it is therefore incumbent upon it to halt all settlement activity.
Given present-day conditions, could a permanent agreement be reached by the end of 2008? To meet the Annapolis schedule, Alexander says, what's needed are goodwill, determination, imagination and courage on both sides. He already found all these characteristics in Abbas and Erekat.
End of the poodle era?
Last month Brown gave his first foreign policy speech. He spoke of "hard-headed internationalism," referring to a borderless global society; to a multilateral world, not one with a single superpower; a world of united nations, not of unilateral adventurism; a world that battles poverty rather than radical Islam.
Pundits hastened to link his speech to his July visit to Camp David, where he met with U.S. President George W. Bush. His chilly body language said it all: there will be no more British poodles for Bush. The dog wasn't wagging its tail any more. It was turning its back on its owner and setting off on its own path.
The change was demonstrated by Brown's decision to withdraw all British soldiers from Basra, Iraq, by Christmas. It was also evident in the speech Alexander delivered in Washington last July, where he called for the establishment of new alliances based on shared values.
Alexander denies having had any intention of criticizing the Bush government in his speech. "The speech wasn't anti-American or anti-Bush. The main point of the speech was the importance of international development and how it fits into diplomatic work," he says. "The main idea was that international development can't be unilateral, where we take out own positions and impose them on other countries; but rather that we should make it a multilateral process where everyone who is involved and affected should have a say." He also notes that when Brown served as cabinet member in 2003, he supported sending British forces to Iraq, and hints that he wouldn't have acted differently than Blair, had he been in his shoes at the time.
Jerusalem tends to accept Alexander's explanations. The difference between Brown and Blair boils down to style, not substance, local officials say. The conduct of Brown's government was designed merely to assuage public opinion, which hadn't forgiven Blair for his part in the bungled war in Iraq. As for relations with Israel, London seems to be warming.
Alexander is short, blue-eyed, baby-faced. He is surrounded by an entourage of about 10 aides and consultants who give him that "favorite" status in cabinet. Some might say his serious expression and rapid-fire responses throughout the interview are meant to contrast his physical profile.
He declines to draw links between the recent American intelligence report on Iran and the intelligence on Iraq before the war, which proved to be far off the mark. But he clarifies, "The latest report does not change our basic position that the international community should approve stricter sanctions against Iran."
He won't comment on the interpretation of some that the report puts an end to military options against Iran, but does say firmly: "As long as Iran continues its uranium enrichment program it will continue to pose a threat to the region. We will push for a third UN Security Council resolution imposing further sanctions on Iran because we cannot stand aside while Iran continues its proliferation-sensitive activities."
Last month Foreign Minister Miliband visited Jerusalem and declared that he would take advantage of Israel's 60th anniversary to upgrade strategic relations between the two countries. Alexander supports the initiative and is especially keen on expanding cooperation between Israeli hi-tech firms and London's financial markets, and Britain's hi-tech economy in general. How does that sit with his country's public opinion, which is among the hardest on Israel throughout Europe? How does that fit in with British initiatives to boycott Israeli academia and goods? Or with the lively debate on Israel's right to exist and the fear of the long arm of British justice among some top Israeli security officials? When it comes to these matters, Alexander is evasive and ostrich-style, shoving his head firmly into the sand. I don't know that Britain, he says, and immediately adds that Britain's relations with Israel are multiform and strong, and have the potential to further strengthen. That is the main mission for both countries in the years to come, he concludes.
The Jewish scandal
Alexander's visit to Israel took place at the height of a scandal involving illegal donations to Britain's Labor Party. The affair rocked the party and prompted theories about a Jewish and Israeli conspiracy in the kingdom.
It all started two weeks ago when the Mail on Sunday revealed that Jewish millionaire David Abrahams had secretly donated 600,000 pounds, or $1.4 million, to the ruling party through front-men. Abrahams, who admitted to the donation, said that the Laborites who knew of his donations included Jon Mendelsohn, Brown's chief money-raiser and a Jew as well.
Speaking with the Jewish Chronicle two weeks ago, Abrahams said he had acted covertly because he didn't want to link "Jewish money" to the Labor Party. Later he claimed that his words had been taken out of context but did say that the conduct of the British press proved that he was right to fear that his donation would be considered part of a "Jewish conspiracy."
Most of Abrahams' wealth comes from real estate business. He is considered a major benefactor to both education in Israel and to Jewish education in Britain. He also has close ties with some Israeli politicians. The British media didn't miss any of that, nor the fact that until 2002 he had been deputy leader of the "Friends of Israel in Labor" organization, which aims to bring elements in the party closer to Israel.
In a piece headlined "Hunt for 'mystery benefactor' in Gordon Brown's donations scandal," the Daily Telegraph published a picture of Abrahams shaking hands with former Israeli ambassador Zvi Hefeitz. The hint was loud and clear: The illegal donations originated in Israel. Some voices in the British media linked the donations to Tony Blair's pro-Israel policy.
As this and other scandals lowered Labor's approval ratings to 13 percent below the conservative opposition, Jewish elements expressed grave concern about repercussions affecting the Jewish community. A senior political source in Israel told Haaretz that he feared bilateral relations could suffer, too. "It will certainly make it harder to raise funds, attract investors, and organize meetings and visits," he said.
Douglas Alexander's name also arose in the context, through his sister, Wendy Alexander, a Labor leader in the Scottish parliament, who is also suspected of receiving an illegal donation. Asked about the ramifications of the scandal, Douglas Alexander says the government must remain constantly alert to the possibility of anti-Semitic outbursts. But he has faith in interfaith dialog and in the close inter-community relations being forged in Britain.
He chooses to praise the "efficient and impressive" advocate of the Jewish community, none other than Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose last book - a controversial tome about multiculturalism in society - Alexander is currently reading. He also has warm words for other members of the Jewish community who, he says, are making a terrific contribution to modern life in Britain. Moreover, he is confident that the bilateral relations between Israel and Britain will not suffer in the aftermath; they are as strong as ever, he says.