Previous issues
Contact Us

Spring 2002 cover

National Observer Home > No. 54 - Spring 2002 > Articles

Watersheds in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Max Teichmann

One can carbon date the origins of a conflict like the Arab/Jewish disputation back to the First Cause, if one has the time and the misplaced energy. Or one can select a particular stage in the process - an event, a re-positioning of forces, or the appearance of new actors bearing fresh formulae and legitimising symbols - as constituting a watershed, even the watershed, signifying differences of kind, rather than of degree, in the dynamics of the conflict from that time onwards. Thus, for example, in studying German history, in particular the Holocaust or its legitimising agent Nazism, one can start one's examination with the birth of the Nazi Party in 1923, or one can apply diagnostic skills from the appearance of Martin Luther. A heroic generaliser like Goldhagen might like to start with Tacitus or Russell Crowe.

For practical purposes, the Arab/Jewish imbroglio can be dated from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 - though one can see the point of starting with the appearance of Zionism, the implications for many Jews of the Dreyfus Case, and the appearance of the bitter, and unfinished, debate between Jabotinsky and his followers and other Jewish groups, such as pre-war Polish Bundists.

But after Balfour, things really did change. World War One, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, confronted the West - particularly the British - with the problem of what to do with these Arab territories, particularly Palestine. The answer for the British apropos Palestine was the Balfour Declaration. I will be suggesting that this was no solution; nor have any acceptable answers been found for settling down the remainder of the post-Ottoman Middle East, either.

One can produce a distillation of secondary sources, documents, announcements, treaties, official histories and ongoing commentaries. Or one may have had the good fortune to have spent years in the area, as an observer, spending time in both Arab and Jewish parts, and frequently meeting political and military actors, both past and present. It would be advantageous in discharging such a role, I think, not to be a Jew or a Muslim. I have no such expertise, so the question does not arise. But Jewish or Muslim I am not.

Rather, I have chosen to proceed along another path again - starting from 1970 and recalling what our local Jewish people and publicists were saying, much of it to me, recalling how what it was they said and believed changed over time (as it changed in other diasporas). Simultaneously, Israel's perceptions and accounts of itself also changed, greatly, from 1970 onwards.

It is convenient to begin with an evening's discussion with the then Israeli Ambassador to Australia, Moshe Errell, and a group of Jewish people, a number of old friends, sometime in late 1970.

Jews at that time had reason to be pleased with themselves and, being human, showed it. They had won a remarkable victory three years earlier against a potentially formidable opposition; and in six days, with few casualties, for them. Defeat would have been a catastrophe.

They were still enjoying that sense of triumph, and I was already starting to fear that this national and cultural self-adoration might harden into triumphalism. Not like the Brazilians still gloating over their World Cup victory three years later but something more - psychologically institutionalised, possibly proceeding to tunnel vision, and Hubris.

The Israelis were now in occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. They had taken East Jerusalem from the Jordanians and declared that this was something non-returnable and non-negotiable. Although East Jerusalem - the Old City - had been largely occupied by Arab Palestinians for a very long time, there was, according to most Jews, in reality, only One Jerusalem.

Jerusalem had been historically the capital of the Jews, and was now the capital regained. The political and legal centre of the state of Israel was moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to join its religious and cultural counterparts. So, over the ages, Jews have turned east and prayed "Next year in Jerusalem".

But such ringing affirmations are catching, and the Palestinians are now saying the same - with, I imagine, the same totalistic, exclusionist ambitions. With such competing claims, one side must lose.

But, also Christians, and ex-Christians who have been living and praying in Jerusalem for nearly 2,000 years, who see Jerusalem as their Holy City, as they called Palestine the Holy Land (and some still do) surely must have a stake in what happens to the city, its Holy Places and its inhabitants, and a right to be counted in. For too long, Christians have been spoken for by their bankers, soldiers and diplomats and oil men, which is one reason why the Pope has been making his diplomatic and religious presence felt in the Holy City. This Christian interest and a right to involvement, so long as the ultimate status of Jerusalem remains undecided - as it now does - should continue after the exit of John Paul II.

It may be that the disinterment of the various allegations against Pius XII and the barbed, pseudo-historical fishing expeditions asking "Just how anti-Semitic is/was the Catholic Church, the Vatican, etc? Are Christians intrinsically anti-Semitic?" are warning shots across the Pope's barque.

To return to that 1970 meeting with the Ambassador: he laid out the Israeli position (his was then the Labour Government). Israel had no claims on these territories (as distinguished from Jerusalem) and no joy in being in military occupation. But neither were Israelis prepared to sit by while the new terrorist organisation, the P.L.O., went about its business killing people, and terrorising Jews and Arabs alike. Nor should the rest of the civilised world remain indifferent. Only when Israel felt total military security, and her neighbours stopped calling for the destruction of Israel, could she risk returning the territories occupied after the Six Day War. And the Palestinians had to establish authentic, democratic institutions committed to peace.

None of us had any objection to this, but I expressed that night a few caveats which have become more significant with the passing of time.

My principal concern was that in order for rank-and-file Palestinians to repose any trust in the Israelis and for their fear and resentment to recede (for many of these Arabs had been expelled from their ancestral lands and turned into refugees in camps in Jordan, the Lebanon and the West Bank/Gaza area), Israel must show an intention not to alienate further Palestinian land. That is, she must keep her hands off those areas remaining to the Palestinians. For, if new Jewish settlements were to start rising in the West Bank and Gaza, then the Palestinians would know that Israel, even under Labour, was not genuine. As we all knew, settlements had been going up for the previous few years (since the Six Day War). Jerusalem either did not have the means to demolish the illegal settlements and return the settlers to Israel, or did not want to.

The Ambassador was not really pleased with the caveats, and his cheerful aura receded for a time. He said even if Israelis had not put up a single settlement after 1967 the problems would still remain. The Palestinians were too much under foreign influence, principally other Muslim societies, and many Palestinians had not renounced the right to recover territory lost after 1948. Indeed, many would not settle for anything less than the reoccupation of Israel itself, with the Jews put in the sea. And surrounding Arab states felt the same. Not one of them recognised the state of Israel. (Some years later when Egypt under Sadat did this and made a separate deal with Israel - a détente - Sadat was denounced as a traitor. He was murdered by members of his own bodyguard as a punishment. He had persuaded Egyptians to defect from the holy struggle against Israel.)

Here I note that I had been using the term Palestinian - but this was a term official Israeli language did not allow for. And many, if not most, diaspora Jews agreed in denying this description of the people living in the West Bank and Gaza as being Palestinians. There was no distinctive Palestinian culture, they said, or history, and no political institutions - hence no unique Palestinian identity, unlike the identities of Egyptians, Turks, Syrians, Algerians and others.It was a political figment - and no basis for a separate state.

I replied to the Ambassador's comments that if a group felt they were different from others and were not Jordanians or Israelis or just a collection of Muslim Arabs, but a coherent, mutually-supportive group, then one should take them at their word and not treat them as deluded or mendacious. They were Palestinians.

(Indeed, many kultur nations, such as Jews, Gypsies and Kurds, did not have a state, some having lost it through conquest, while others had never had it. But all of them wanted a state and felt they had a right to it. This is in part the history of nationalism and the history of Israel.)

I did not get very far with that on this occasion or many others, but in the end the evidence for there being a Palestinian nation forced the term into general usage. This initial Jewish refusal to take the separate identity of Palestinians seriously, reminded me of the refusal of many Arabs to concede that there really was an Israeli nation. Many Jews were not and are not Israelis, whereas the Middle Eastern Jews were and are.

That soiree ended with general goodwill. The Ambassador thought me wrong at many points, but no matter, and we all hoped that the Jews and Arabs would be able to live in peace as co-Semites. Someone like Netanyahu or Sharon would have been considered an extremist: as a politically gauche ideologue.

Well - there we were and here we are. Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister before Sharon, has recently had an exchange of views in the New York Review of Books with Benny Morris and counterposed to Robert Melley and Hussein Agha (11 June 2002 and issues following).

Barak is still angry with what he feels is the duplicitous behaviour of the Palestinians, particularly Arafat, towards himself and Clinton in the course of the July 2000 Camp David conference, organised and mediated by Clinton and attended by Palestinian and Israeli leaders. It ran for two weeks but was an utter failure. The Intifada restarted in September and is still running.

In the course of this conference, Barak and Clinton produced a set of proposals which made quite unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians who refused them almost without proper discussion. At that point, many Jews here and in Israel gave up on the Palestinians and accepted Sharon's attitudes. The bombing of Israeli citizens has simply confirmed their move away from sympathy for the Arabs.

But Barak has also said some very interesting things that resonate with my 1970 conversation. He has indicated that the historic mistake made by Israel was in 1977, with Begin's settlement campaign in heavily-populated areas where Arabs dwelt and had dwelt for many years. This was the mistake that set the two races on what became a permanent collision path.

But elsewhere in the series, Barak suggested that 1967 was when the historic mistake occurred - after the Six Day War. He says, "Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights." He recalls David Ben-Gurion going on television 1 June 1967 arguing for the immediate withdrawal from all the territories occupied in the Six Days War in exchange for peace - all, except East Jerusalem.

Barak said that at that time he and most of his peers were contemptuous - the Old Man (Prime Minister 1948-53 and 1958-63) was suffering from "mental weakness or subconscious jealousy of his successor". But, says Barak, one now understands "that he simply saw more clearly and farther than the leadership at that time".

Barak and virtually all Israeli public figures do not intend to go back to 1948, although he accepts the description of the Arabs of "the catastrophe": "The shattering and exile of a whole society. Thousands of deaths and the destruction of hundreds of villages." And out of that came the Palestine refugee population which has cursed Middle Eastern politics ever since.

Barak believes that Arafat and the 1948 generation and descendants numbering close to four million are "the main political tool for subverting the Jewish state". This may be so, but Arabs feel the "catastrophe" as a great moral enormity, a situation of injustice calling for redress; a psychic wound which will refuse to close or heal until treated. Or, seeing we are talking of psychological wounds as well as physical ones - requiring reparation for a great past injury which pains and festers still.

Jewish people understand such human responses and demands for reparation, very well.

It is this chapter of the story which Israel and her friends refuse to read but which for Palestinians is the vital gap in every formula for a final, definitive settlement. Maybe there cannot be such a happy end: only step-by-step progress. But time, the temper of the combatants, the rising and spreading anger of Muslims everywhere, make this step-by-step process over recent years a spectacular failure, a hazardous enterprise just as likely to inflame as placate.

Barak thinks this 1948 generation of ejected Arabs with their properties seized, will soon die out - it will take a decade or two more. And "the salmon complex" - the desire to return to the original breeding ground - will disappear with them. But this seems a most unlikely outcome to me, and the sentiments are somewhat insensitive. The Jews, over 2,000 years, retained that salmon complex, often under unbelievable pressures to abandon it, and to assimilate. In the end, they did find a stream which led them to the old spawning ground of their dream. One may call it the Balfour Declaration. Why should their fellow Semites be any different, with Palestinians passing on their memories and grievances to their children and their grandchildren, as have the militant Irish and - the Jews? This is natural.

The experiences of 1948 have been followed by a succession of dispossessions and occupations and humiliations which have produced new salmon to join and replace the old. Ben Gurion was right.

Palestine's Arabs now see a continuum starting with Balfour in 1917 and stretching until now and beyond. In that continuum they see the West and the Jews engaged in a conspiracy to cleanse them ethnically by one means or another. And the constant, even accelerated spread of Jewish settlements and the remorseless alienation of Jerusalem, prove to them that their only option is the use of force. Many Muslims outside the area agree, and are doing what they can.

This is one reason - does one need more than one? - why Americans should be so concerned at the appearance and possibility of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the hands of enemies of Israel who are now enemies of America. And, whether the Europeans like it or not, of the Europeans.

Citizens of Israel now occupy 40 per cent of the West Bank and much of Gaza, and more settlements were built (with 22,000 new settlers) under Barak, than under his predecessor, Netanyahu. Barak's defence was that only thus could he keep his right-wingers at bay. Very possibly - but it is the same excuse often made by Arafat: "He has to act tough and refuse to make deals, in order to keep the extremists at bay." If it is said, and it often is, that this means Arafat is useless as a negotiator, then the Israelis have the same problem. Israeli politicians seem to be in the same position as Palestinians, handcuffed.

Nevertheless, Arafat's rejection of the Barak/Clinton proposals was a disaster. It was a watershed. Barak risked his whole political career and the credibility of his government and Clinton also invested much of his reputation to broker a peace and at least remove the pretext for further bloodletting.

The consequences have been a counter-revolution in Israel's power structure and in her perceptions of the motives, short, medium and long-term of her opponents. Voices for peace have virtually died away in Israel, though everyone realises that peace is necessary.



Sir Walter Crocker was born in rural South Australia in 1902. His great-grandparents all came from the West of England, except for the Brays who were from Norfolk and were partly descended from Sephardi Jews. According to Crocker, his father was "an almost perfect physical specimen" whose seven children were also fit and strong. There were many times in Crocker's life that it was just as well that he was tough and endurable. His early schooling, both primary and in Peterborough High School, was "of the excellent kind provided by the old un-Americanised South Australian Department of Education". As a boy he read The Magnet and, like many other young Australians, had Billy Bunter, Bob Cherry and the other boys at Greyfriars School as part of his cultural world.1

His parents, "strongly British in sentiment" and self-styled "English colonials", wished that South Australia had remained a province of Britain. When young Walter was awarded a "new" Australian flag as a school prize, his father told him he regretted the abandonment of the Union Jack as the flag of Australia. Yet his parents were strongly opposed to the jingoistic pressure group in Adelaide which succeeded in changing the name of Petersburg to Peterborough and obliterating other German names. His parents introduced him to "conscience politics", from which he never wavered. During the war years he, like his parents, combined strong patriotism with detestation of the "mounting war hate and irrationality, an anonymous mass psychosis". In his historical studies, he came to dislike the South African War and the triumphalist imperialism associated with Joseph Chamberlain, and later mimicked in Australia by "the Welsh demagogue" Billy Hughes, for whom he acquired a lifelong distaste.

At fourteen Crocker went to Adelaide to the preparatory section of the School of Mines, not yet part of the University of Adelaide, to which he progressed when eighteen. He went on to Balliol College, Oxford, and Stanford University. He remains proud of the provincial culture of the Adelaide of the early twentieth century, especially its musical life and intellectual standards. Mawson, Wood-Jones, Darnley Naylor, and Bragg were then professors in its university and Crocker found that South Australian students had a high reputation in Oxford.


Crocker enjoyed his years at Balliol. Long weekend walks around the Oxfordshire villages led by Kenneth Bell, his tutor, punctuated weeks of intellectual stimulation in which A. D. Lindsay, Master of Balliol, played a leading part.

Many of Crocker's contemporaries who later became famous, such as Alec Douglas-Home and Hugh Gaitskell, were not outstanding at Oxford. Lionel Curtis, full of altruism and concern for international good causes, influenced his career path. As a result of spending time with people like Curtis, Crocker formed what he has now come to regard as too sanguine a view of the concern felt by the British as a whole for the rest of the world, including the British Empire itself. He was disappointed that Gilbert Murray, then Regius Professor of Greek and perhaps the most famous Australian of his time, expressed no interest whatever in Australia.

Among people who influenced Crocker when at Oxford was an elderly Quaker lady, Mrs. Ellis of Scalby in Yorkshire, whose late husband had been a prominent Asquithian Liberal. Despite the losses of war, the England of the 1920s was still confident that it had developed the best civilisation this imperfect world had known. It took as great a pride in its writers and creative artists, scientists and engineers, as in its explorers and worldwide empire. It took the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler to shake that confidence, although the systematic denigrators, led by Lytton Strachey, were already eating at its moral foundations. Crocker's admiration for most, though by no means all, things British was perhaps enhanced by visits to France, where he found, among much to admire, far more selfishness, discourtesy, chauvinism and intellectual fakery than in Britain.


In 1928 Crocker went for two years to Stanford University as a Fellow of the (British) Commonwealth Fund. He was struck by the contrast between the Stanford students, many of them puritanically-minded, "working their way through college" and eating in huge cafeterias in which they were served mainly by other students, and life in the Oxford colleges. The buoyancy of Stanford exhilarated him at a time when America was approaching the height of the stock market boom. Herbert Hoover was a local Stanford man and had huge local support in his successful presidential campaign. After the slump, the "Engineer of Prosperity" was turned upon as a fraud. Crocker was impressed by the intellectual energy of Stanford, apart from its Education School

At Stanford he made radical friends such as Murray Luck, Sherwood Eddy and Norman Thomas, then Socialist candidate for the American Presidency. In America he came to dislike "professional Irishmen" and "professional Indians" who made a good living from inflated accounts of British misdeeds in their native lands, and "professional Englishmen" who sought to impress with exaggerated versions of what Americans called the "British accent". From Hearst and McCormick he learned how vile the yellow press can be, the Ford Works in Chicago showed him that Chaplin's Modern Times was not much of an exaggeration, and New York revealed to him how witty and clever many Jews are and how much some other groups hate them.

When at Stanford, Crocker intended to become a demographer, and he specialised initially in East Asian demography. After his two years in the United States, he went to Japan, where he finished The Japanese Population Problem, which forecast that population growth in current Japanese political conditions might lead to aggressive expansionism. It was praised by H. G. Wells but did not make Crocker's fame or fortune. He returned to Britain via Siberia and Russia, where "hunger and dirt were the main trials", even for a traveller who had prudently taken with him a supply of dry biscuit, chocolate, cheese and raisins. The trains were slow and frequently broke down. In Moscow he did not see a single smiling face.


Soon after his return to England, Crocker joined the British Colonial Service in Northern Nigeria, thanks in part to Sir Ralph Furse, a friend of his old Balliol tutor, Kenneth Bell. Furse embodied all the qualities of courage, intelligence and integrity he admired most. He was based in Kano, the capital of the Hausa, whose language he mastered more quickly and thoroughly than the European languages he spoke. All his extensive travel was on horseback in a countryside like that of the Bible. He found most of the Hausa cheerful, good-natured and tolerant, many adventurous and enterprising. Hausa women were renowned among neighbouring peoples for their looks and liveliness. Also impressive were the British District and Assistant District Officers. The British Colonial Service had a few ignoble careerists and back-biters, but most of its officers were imbued with the best of the public-school spirit and sought to serve rather than line their own pockets. As a result the system of "Indirect Rule" developed by Lord Lugard worked fairly well, much better than its successor regimes. Far from inflicting upon the populace double exploitation, the system enable westernisation and modernisation to take place at a moderate and digestible rate under the joint auspices of traditional and imperial authorities.

Crocker spent six or seven weeks out of every eight over huge areas inhabited by the Hausa, Tiv, Idoma, and the nomadic cattle-rearing Fulani. It was a hard life: malaria, dysentery and chronic malnutrition all helped to ensure that less than half of his colleagues lived long enough to draw a pension. Hard-drinking was the destructive solace of many, but he was resistant to the temptation. He recognised here a civilising influence of Islam, especially in regard to alcohol. The Islamic areas he supervised had had few cases of violence and none of murder or rape during his time. There was no lack of violence, however, during the building of the Kauna-Minna Railway, for which he was the responsible Political Officer, Tribal groups employed on the scheme, such as the Berri Berri, Yoruba and Gwari, were often in group conflict after minor individual disputes about gambling and women. He late came to wonder why Islam so often intensified in intolerance during the last half century as urbanisation and higher education increased, whereas Christianity, broadly speaking, has became tolerant and liberal, perhaps to excess.2

When first in Nigeria, Crocker met missionaries he admired, such as the discordant siblings, Walter and Ethel Miller, but he sympathised with Lugard's view that Christian missions usually caused needless strife. Later in life, especially when he learned of the courage of Christian converts among the Kikuyu in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising and realised that the Western influences, both good and bad, were bound in time to penetrate Africa, he became more favourable to Christian missionary work. In 1934, after a severe bout of malaria, he decided to resign from the Colonial Service. He felt highly critical of some superior officers, but later, after he realised that the opportunists and time-servers there were far fewer than in most other occupations and places, he wondered whether this had been a right decision.3


In 1934 Crocker took a post in the International Labour Office, part of the League of Nations apparatus in Geneva. He had been appalled at the losses suffered during the First World War and believed that the League might help to prevent another war. He recognised later that he "turned out to oversimplify things", but he never regretted that he had done his best to make the League work.

The recently appointed head of the I.L.O., Harold Butler, was a high-minded and intelligent Englishman who disliked scenes and failed to fight hard enough for even the most vital of causes. Butler was succeeded by an American, John Winant, whose tenure of office led Crocker to wish Butler had remained in Geneva. Winant had a striking patrician appearance and had been elected three times as Governor of Vermont. He was an expert on the American Civil War and, presenting himself as a Lincoln for the twentieth century, was considered by Republican leaders as a possible presidential challenger to Roosevelt. Crocker, as his Chef de Cabinet, found Winant ignorant of the work of the I.L.O. and too idle to learn about it. Winant was also rude and inconsiderate to subordinates. Close acquaintance with Winant helped to make Crocker sceptical of American politicians, although he never imagined that so untrustworthy a man as Clinton could ever become American President.

Crocker still believes that with greater resolution in a few key posts, the League and the I.L.O. might have had a much greater effect. There were far more self-seeking officials in Geneva than there had been in Nigeria, with Avenol, Secretary-General from 1933 to 1940 in the lea, but the delegates were usually worse than the permanent officials. Many delegates became almost full-time residents of Geneva and reduced their life expectancy by eating and drinking far too much. Geneva was full of high-minded idealists, cranks and crooks. Crocker tells of two opposed groups of feminists: one demanding special protection laws for women, the other insisting that every such law is unfairly discriminatory against women.

Geneva was then a fine city in which to live, and the Swiss as a whole impressed him with their sobriety, good sense and physical energy. However, journeys into Italy and Germany filled him with increasing alarm at the weakness of will of the French and British governments. In this situation, Crocker became a night-bird and a left-winger. The first did not last long and left him with a detestation for nightclubs and saxophones. The attraction of left-wing thought lasted somewhat longer. His new friends included Andrew Rothstein, Balliol-educated correspondent for the Moscow Tass, the sister of Palme Dutt, the leading British communist intellectual, and Nicolle, leader of the Popular Front government in Geneva between 1936 and 1939. In the winter of 1937-8 Crocker decided to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, but an American friend who preceded him to Spain sent back reports of factionalism and disintegration and advised him to stay in Geneva. Crocker joined the Left Book Club, although in later years he regretted its widespread influence and wondered how he had let himself be blinded by intellectuals such as Gide, Wells, Romain and Shaw to the evils of Soviet policy. He had for a few months great hopes of the Labour Party, but its strongly pacifist elements helped to ensure that Britain rearmed at snail's pace and so encouraged Hitler and Mussolini.

Crocker believes that, if the League had focused on Europe, where it exerted influence, rather than diffusing its attention over continents it could hardly affect one way or another, and if Britain and France had been firmer in 1936-7, much later suffering might have been avoided. Later he appreciated just how difficult had been the choices faced by Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, a man for whom he felt sheer hatred in the months before war began. The Nazi-Soviet Pact and opposition to the war against Germany of some of old Left friends, loud in peace in their anti-fascism, revealed clearly the differences between the venial faults of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Attlee, and the wickedness of the totalitarian powers and their ideologies. When he left Geneva to volunteer for service in the British Army, some of his old Geneva friends derided him for helping to prop up British imperialism.

When the European war broke out in 1939 Crocker was in Japan, trying unsuccessfully to persuade the militaristic government to pay its debts to the I.L.O.. He returned to Geneva to complete his Far Eastern mission and then prepared to go to England to join the armed forces. He had not driven far into France when the great German break-through took place to the north and huge numbers of refugees were fleeing south and west. He managed to reach the coast at Bordeaux and to board an already overfull boat which took him to Falmouth.

At War

Whilst awaiting enlistment, Crocker stayed at Balliol with the Master, A. D. Lindsay, through whom he was put in contact with an officer recruiting for a new para-military cum intelligence unit. He was accepted and went up to the western highlands of Scotland for intensive and ferocious, in some cases sadistic, training in dirty tricks and sabotage. Before the end of training, however, he was summoned to London where Quintin Hogg, Lindsay's opponent in the famous Oxford by-election of 1938, interviewed him. Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, recruited him for a special operation in Ethiopia, but in the meantime he was to supervise ship loading at London Docks at the height of the Blitz. He never reached Ethiopia because the maverick Wingate was given control of operations in Ethiopia and rejected all the recruits made by his predecessor. Crocker found himself bound once more for West Africa.

Crocker was sent to work in the murky world of intelligence. The Vichy French forces were expected to attack British possessions in West Africa, whilst Freetown was a key link in British communications, as, out at sea, German submarines and warships were a grave danger to British shipping. As chief of army intelligence and counter intelligence, he soon found as many problems with rival British and Free French, and later American, agencies as with Vichy and German intelligence. In a milieu made familiar by Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge, he became doubtful whether much useful information was being provided even by his own operations, let alone those of free-wheeling romantics, whose funding often remained a mystery and whose activities made neutrals and allies doubt the prospects of British success. Crocker was sent to the Belgian Congo in 1942 to wind up an inefficient British Military Mission. He had also to build a communications line between the Congo and the Nile, since it was feared then that Rommel might seize Egypt and British forces would have to fall back on the Sudan. This did not come to pass, so none of Crocker's efforts there were of much avail. However, he met the remarkable Governor of the Belgian Congo, Pierre Ryckmans, and was decorated by Belgium for his gallantry when a small plane in which he was flying over equatorial forest caught fire.

After a spell back in England, mainly spent in topographical work, he was sent out again to West Africa, this time to Dakar to work with our new French Vichy allies. He was able to check on the accuracy of intelligence reports two years earlier when Vichy had been the local enemy.

Although Crocker encountered much courage, self-sacrifice and decency during the war years, he had no doubt that civilisation had been deeply eroded and that Britain's former position in the world had gone for ever. He feared, too, that the wickedness of the Nazi, Fascist and Japanese regimes might discredit even non-totalitarian forms of conservative thought, whereas the evils of Stalinism left radical thought largely unscathed. He disliked wartime hero worship of Churchill, although he failed to note that this could not have been so very deep, given the results of the 1945 General Election. Later in life, his opinion of Churchill improved, partly because of the affectionate character of the Winston-Clementine correspondence and partly through Clare Sheridan's testimony to his high artistic abilities.4

The United Nations

After the war Crocker returned for a few months to South Australia and recharged his batteries as he worked with his father on their Parnarnoo sheep station. In 1946 he accepted an invitation from the United Nations Secretariat to become first Chief of its Africa Section. He found the United Nations had all the vices and weaknesses of the League of Nations in magnified form, but few of its virtues. It was "a talking shop of unprecedented size and futility, spawning a huge, ill-disciplined, ever-growing and costly bureaucracy . . ." Overcrowding became worse as the United Nations staff expanded from 300 to 3000 officials within the first six months of his appointment, and continued to increase. In early days it took on average three people to do in the United Nations what one did in the League of Nations, not itself highly efficient. As time went on, far more than three were needed. The Norwegian Trygve Lie, the first United Nations General Secretary, proved an inept leader, but a great boaster. Among other early success he claimed was "to have solved, in less than two years, a crisis which had been more or less acute for the last 2000 years", that of Palestine. Lie was proud, too of the United Nations’ solution to the Kashmir problem.5

Crocker disapproved of placing the United Nations in New York. Its first home was in a former armaments factory, and subsequent locations were little less of a travesty, and depended much on the influence of property developers. Many U.N. delegates suffered severely from the racial discrimination against non-white people still common in American life in the 1950s. Most of the early officials were American, mostly from the East Coast and many of them Jews. Very few had earlier experience of international organisations, or of the recent war.

Crocker concluded that Israel would not have been created in the form in which it emerged had the United Nations been placed elsewhere than in New York, the centre of feverish activity of the well-organised Zionist lobby. He sympathised with the sufferings of the Jews under Hitler, but could not see how that justified dispossession of Palestinian Arabs. The anti-Arab campaign was first presented as an anti-imperialist movement directed principally against the British, who wished anyway to give up the Mandate and leave Palestine. The second stage was to denounce the "Arab invasion of Israel". In the post-war years the Jewish lobby had a fervent friend in the Soviet Union. Thus the Jews had both super-powers on their side, as well as Evatt, at the time critical decisions were made.6 Crocker admired Harry Truman, but deplored his announcement in May 1948, despite concurrent debate in United Nations about the future of Palestine, that the United States would henceforth recognise an independent state of Israel. Truman wanted the Jewish vote in the forthcoming presidential election, but was also influenced by his old partner in Independence, Missouri, Eddie Jacobson, "a passionate Zionist" according to Dean Acheson.

Not only were Count Bernadotte, Lord Moyne and many others thought hostile to Israeli interests murdered by Zionist terrorists in Palestine, but intimidation was practised on U.N. staff in New York. Crocker was appalled by a full-page manifesto in The New York Times under the name of the playwright, Ben Hecht, addressed to Irgun and the Stern Gang:7

"Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railway train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts."

Crocker was well aware that the Palestinian Arabs were also deceitful and willing to break peace arrangements, and that Western policies today cannot be based on the way in which the state of Israel was created, but he has found insufferable the self-righteousness of many Jews on Palestine-Israel conflicts.

The Australian National University

Life in the United Nations in New York so depressed Crocker that in 1949 he accepted an invitation from Sir Douglas Copeland, its first vice-chancellor, to return to Australia to take the Chair of International Relations at the new Australian National University in Canberra. Crocker subsequently regretted this decision, although he does not suppose he would have been much happier had he accepted another offer to become Professor of History in the University of Adelaide. It did not take him long to realise that Copeland and other promoters of the A.N.U. had exaggerated its merits and had no clear idea of what they wanted, except to tempt Howard Florey and Mark Oliphant back to Australia. Crocker admired Oliphant for his exertions after leaving Thebarton High School at fifteen but considered he was listened to with excessive respect on matters in which his knowledge was shallow.

The A.N.U.'s library and research facilities were for many years very poor and its main distinction the high salaries paid to a generally mediocre academic staff. Crocker spent much time in committee work that was largely fruitless, although he was able to block a number of schemes that would have made the institution even worse. The consolations were that he made good progress in his studies in international affairs, enjoyed the semi-rural atmosphere of Canberra, and profited from the company of several colleagues in medicine and science, although not from many in social sciences.

Australian Diplomat

When R. G. Casey first invited Crocker to become Australian High Commissioner in India, he declined, because he felt he had given the A.N.U. too little service, but persistent renewals of the invitation and the failure of A.N.U. to improve led him to accept in 1952. He served as Head of Mission in India, Nepal, Indonesia, Canada, Holland, Belgium, East Africa (including Ethiopia as well as Kenya and Uganda) and Italy. Although his eighteen years as a diplomat were of absorbing interest, he soon abandoned any hope of influencing Australian foreign policy or persuading his political superiors to be less subservient to American policy. He opposed anti-Beijing policies and warned against support for authoritarian leaders simply because they seemed to be solidly anti-communist. Many vaunted anti-communists, such as the Emperor of Ethiopia, turned to the Soviet Union for further arms and alms as soon as they did not get everything they wanted from the West. On the positive side was Lord Casey's success, in which Crocker played an important part, in developing the Colombo Plan and making Australia better known in South and South East Asia.

Indian life both fascinated and appalled Crocker.8 He felt elevated by contacts with Rajagopalacharia, "the most striking human being" he had met, J. P. Narayan and Krisnamurti, but was constantly aware of colour and caste consciousness, subservience of women, shameless beggary, and deceit and corruption at nearly every level of life. One Indian leader was actively spreading the lie that Britain was inciting East Africans against Indians at the same time he was importuning every influential Briton he met to help him get his son into Cambridge. Crocker saw through the pretence of peacefulness adopted by Nehru and his successors and correctly forecast India's development of nuclear weapons.

Indonesian corruption was even more extensive than Indian.9 In addition Indonesia was a dangerous place for diplomats, several of whom were mobbed and beaten-up and one, the German Ambassador, killed. A milder complaint was that Indonesian officials who promised to attend a function often failed to attend or attended accompanied with a host of relatives and friends all expecting a meal. The crafty and lecherous Sukarno took the lead in Third World cajoling for expensive personal presents, as well as "Aid" which went into his pockets and those of his cronies. He destroyed the economy and polluted the younger political elite around him. Crocker also deplored the way in which the United States, despite Sukarno's support of Japan during World War II, long supported him as the most plausible alternative to communism in Indonesia. Crocker feared that Sukarno might use the West "Irian" issue to consolidate his power by populist anti-imperialist rhetoric against the Dutch. In consequence he favoured handing over the then Dutch New Guinea to Jakarta. He came to conclude that he had been wrong in this, although even in retrospect it remains difficult to decide which was the greater and which the lesser evil in the choices open to Australia.10

Although the Marshall Plan, apart from its unfair exclusion of Britain, and the Colombo Plan, to which Australia made massive contributions, both worked well, Crocker found that by the late-1950s more aid was abused than used. In Indonesia he frequently found expensive machinery and tractors provided from Aid money lying around, scarcely used. Third World politicians preferred cash or credit to goods, although sales of most Aid items could be diverted without too much difficulty to their private accounts. Nehru, who was not corrupt, constantly had offers of hydro-electrical schemes, fertiliser plants, docks, etc., thrust upon him on his travels. The same happened with Sukarno, who was corrupt.

As High Commissioner in East Africa, Crocker also found ample evidence of fraudulent use of Aid money and political hypocrisy nearly equal to that of Sukarno. Crocker never changed his mind on opposition on international grounds to Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia in 1936, but he admitted that Italian rule generally benefited Ethiopians, and that Eritrea, much longer under Italian rule, was the only part of the new Ethiopia that was clean or orderly. Haile Selassie, no less a dictator than Mussolini, used most Aid money to buy weapons but also made indignant conference speeches, once in company with the Pope, on the evil of diverting wealth into armaments. In the former British East Africa, the new rulers vied with each other in the speed in which they could undermine the economies they had inherited. White settlers were given a hard time, but Indian ones a good deal worse.

Crocker admired the speed with which the Netherlands recovered from German occupation and the loss of Indonesia. Its constitutional monarchy seemed stable and its diplomats were mannerly and intelligent. Luns, the Foreign Minister and a gifted raconteur, was a good friend, as were Pieter Geyl the historian and Paul Rijkens of Unilever. The musical life of the Dutch cities was very high. However, whilst Crocker was at The Hague, Dutch governmental expenditure began to rocket and the country was affected badly by the youth cults sweeping the Western world. In Spaak Belgium had a Foreign Minister of even greater ability than Luns. Crocker believes that if Spaak had become its first general secretary, as the British had hoped, the United Nations might have enjoyed greater success, but the Russians, supported by Evatt, blocked Spaak's chances.

Although beset by problems of disunity, crime and misgovernment, Italy proved the most congenial of Crocker's diplomatic posts. The language, tolerance of human failings, and industriousness of most Italians, and the beauty of much of the countryside, if the road traffic could be avoided, outweighed for him the inefficient bureaucracy, slowness and uncertainly in the administration of justice, and widespread political corruption.

Life as a diplomat, whether at the United Nations or in an embassy, grew worse as the numbers rapidly increased of sovereign states and their representatives. Wasteful and useless receptions and cocktail parties multiplied: whole regions, let alone villages, could have been fed at the cost of diplomatic activity in a single capital city. The general level of intelligence and integrity among diplomats fell; some used their immunities to engage in smuggling, even of very dangerous commodities. In any case, as the number of diplomats expanded, air travel and speedy systems of communication gave governments rapid contact with a wider world and reduced their need of diplomatic advice, very little of which they were inclined to follow. Many Australian Foreign Ministers spent far too much time on their travels, without engaging seriously with any significant issues, as did many state politicians.

In 1970 at the age of 68, Crocker retired from the diplomatic service. He farmed for some years in the Alma Hills, but on moving to the city of Adelaide he accepted appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia.

Portents for the Future

Crocker did not become hail-fellow-well-met in retirement any more than in youth, and thus he stood in sharp contrast to the typical Australian public figure. It would be hard to find an Australian so far removed from the larrikin "Ocker" type, and his critics consider him aloof and over-fastidious. He disdains the excessive attention Australians pay to sport and derides the very notion of a "footballing great". He once admired the A.B.C., but regrets the way that, following the B.B.C. in Britain, it has suffered sharp cultural decline. Although its advocates extol it as a protection against Americanization, Crocker considers that the A.B.C. bears great responsibility for Americanising, indeed Clintonising, Australia. Genuflection by politicians and educationists before our debased pop music and cinema industries appals him. He deplores, too, the continuing collapse in university standards, especially in the arts and social sciences. He dislikes the prevalence of the worship of sex, money and power in Australia, on all sides of politics, with Labor politicians such as Bob Hawke among the worst in cultivation of the ostentatiously rich and immoral. Fascination with wealth and vice has become worse as Australians have rejected most forms of traditional hierarchy.11

Crocker has been saddened by the way in which generous impulses are often reduced to Buzz Words and sometimes perverted to evil ends. "The Stolen Generation" is among the Buzz Words he most resents: compassion for the continuing wretchedness of many Aborigines has been twisted into hatred of those men and women who tried hardest to integrate and assimilate Aborigines more fully into Australian life, so that they might share its benefits. In West Africa he approved of the French policy of sharing the best of French culture with Africans, and he acknowledges the improvements in morality and civility that Islam brought in its train when it overcame primitive animism. He deplores the way in which grants of Land Rights have reduced the willingness of many Aborigines to work.

Crocker deplores the way in which Multiculturalism, too, has become a mindless "Buzz Word", which implies that there are no limits to capacity for cultural diversity and no need for immigrants to accept the common core of values on which our civil society is founded. He has known many people of high spiritual quality who were Buddhist, Muslim and of other many other religions, and is well aware of imperfections in Christianity, but he believes that Christian teaching remains as close as we can get to spiritual understanding and that much that is best in our way of life is the product of various strains in Christian tradition. He regrets the way in which ethnic hatreds have been imported into Australia. He considers the Howard government to have been mistaken in risking the enmity of Indonesia, with its 200 million population, by backing the claims to independence of East Timor. But he applauds John Howard's determination to stop illegal immigration into Australia.

The distrust of American political leaders he acquired after World War II remains with Crocker. He is concerned by their apparent belief that major wars may be winnable without massive use of ground troops.

Some have tagged Crocker as "right-wing" or "conservative", but he remains above simple labelling. In 1972 he signed an open letter calling on Australians to support Whitlam's challenge to MacMahon, although later he entertained regrets at that decision. Although he considers Sir Thomas Playford the most able state premier he has known, he also liked "old" Labor people such as Chifley, but not Evatt, in Canberra and Wright and Corcoran in Adelaide. He judges people by their personal qualities and voted for Bob Catley, the A.L.P. federal candidate for Adelaide, against the Liberal Trish Worth.

Among Australian politicians of his time, Menzies naturally looms largest. Crocker acknowledges his considerable capacities and dignity, and the absence of corruption in his administrations, but considers that he was too compliant to American pressure, failed to ensure an adequate political succession in his own party, and underestimated Casey, with Paul Hasluck by far his most capable and estimable colleague. Both Casey and Hasluck disdained the cutthroat competitiveness and double-dealing which seem necessary for political success in Australia, and no doubt in many other places. Menzies's personal initiatives in international affairs generally proved dismal failures, although they were much less dangerous than the schemes of Evatt, increasingly afflicted by "megalomania, resulting in mental decay at the end".12 Crocker has little regard for Malcolm Fraser's willingness to diminish Australian sovereignty and reduce its capacity to defend itself against invasion or illegal immigration.

Much of his pessimism about the world around him today is modified by the advances made by the human race. Within his own lifetime, medical advances have greatly reduced the pains suffered in day-to-day life. The universe has also expanded enormously in our minds, with telescopes such as that at Mount Wilson built and microscopes penetrating the former surfaces of life. Given the disasters our ancestors overcame, from ice ages to plagues such as the Black Death and the world wars of the twentieth century, Crocker would not have us concede to despair.


1. For his early life see Crocker, W., Travelling Back: The Memoirs of Sir Walter Crocker, 1981, South Melbourne: Macmillan, Chapter 1.

2. 2002, interviews with the author.

3. See Crocker, W., Nigeria: A Critique of British Colonial Administration, 1936, London: George Allen and Unwin for his views soon after resignation from the British Colonial Service. See (1947) On Governing Colonies: Being an Outline of the Real Issues and a Comparison of the British, French and Belgian.

4. 2002, interviews with the author.

5. Crocker, W., Australian Ambassador: International Relations at First Hand, 1971, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, pages 77-82.

6. 1971, op. cit., pages. 92-7.

7. 1971, op. cit., page 101.

8. See Crocker, W., Nehru: A Contemporary's Estimate, 1966, London: George Allen and Unwin, esp. pages 110 et seq.

9. 1971, op.cit., pages 14-18.

10. 2002, interviews with the author.

11. 2002, interviews with the author.

12. 1971, op. cit., page 113.

National Observer No. 54 - Spring 2002