The horror comes home

In Britain, the assault on Gaza has provided a dangerous rallying point for both the hard left and t

As the the dust and white phosphorus settle over Gaza, two questions present themselves immediately. What happens if the rockets fired on southern Israel stop? And what if they continue?

If they stop, Israel will feel fully justified in its strategy of a combined air and ground assault on Gaza, which left an estimated 1,300 dead, many of them women and children. If they continue, as appears to be Hamas's suicidal intention, the ­Israeli army and air force have already shown what the consequences are likely to be.

International opinion is largely irrelevant here. The Arab world remains paralysed by its internal divisions, while western leaders have expressed their horror at the brutality of the war. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and this may yet happen. But it will make no difference to the Israeli government's ­position. When I travelled to Israel earlier this year, there was a clear consensus among the government advisers, soldiers and political analysts I met that Israel was doing the west's dirty work for it by containing Hamas. It is certainly the case that its citizens have been in the front line in Sderot and other southern cities.

It is also true that the Hamas government in Gaza has been utterly reckless with the lives of its citizens. From the outside, the grotesque tally of the dead (over 1,000 versus 13 Israelis) looks hideously unjust. But from inside Israel and Palestine, there is another way of looking at it (and this is bleak, indeed): which side did best in protecting its own people?

Israel will now argue that the neutralisation of Hamas makes the prospects for a genuine peace based on a two-state solution more likely. Perhaps that's true. It really is impossible to know at this stage.

But even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas represents a strain of totalitarian Islamist thought akin to fascism, what happened in Gaza cannot be justified. Even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas must be defeated as a military force, this was not the way to go about it. Even if you accept, as I do, that Hamas used women and children as human shields, this does not mean that the terrorist organisation should take the entire blame when Israeli weapons kill innocents.

When I wrote a piece for this magazine last May called "The great betrayal", intended as a critique of the British left's attitude to Israel, it turned out to be one of the most controversial articles I had written. It ­argued that some opposition to the Zionist state on the left was only explicable as anti-Semitism. I described the Israel-Palestine conflict as "a terrible faultline on the British left". The piece was seen in some quarters as over-sympathetic to Israel, but it contained the following important paragraph: "On the face of it, the answer to my question [Why does the left hate Israel?] is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question." Now there is a new low point. However, before we assume that everyone agrees with the left consensus that Israel is to blame, it's worth looking at the recent Sunday Times/YouGov poll, which showed that 39 per cent blamed both sides equally and 24 per cent blamed Hamas. Only 18 per cent blamed Israel.

No one denies that what happened in Gaza is horrible, not even the Israeli government. I was struck by an interview during the conflict, on Radio 4's Today programme, with Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister's tough-talking foreign press spokesman. Asked whether he had any doubts when he saw the results of Israeli bombing, he answered: "Yes, of course I do." Over the past few weeks, Britain's most passionate supporters of Israel have been forced to search deep into their consciences.

On 6 January, when Israel hit a UN school in Gaza, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom) issued the following statement: "Israeli voices are indicating that there was a hidden weapon store in the school, but clearly there can be no defence of civilian casualties."

In Britain, the main consequence of the Gaza War has been to provide a rallying point for the motley alliance of totalitarian sympathisers of the hard left and Islamic radical right. It is not the responsibility of the Israeli government to consider the consequences of their actions on the rise of militant Islam in Britain and Europe. But the dangers are real. The Islamist tendency represented by self-appointed representatives such as the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain was on the retreat. The Gaza War has given them new life, as shown by their prominence in the recent demonstrations, and across the media.

Whether the Hamas rockets stop or not, either outcome will be used to justify the unjustifiable

It is telling that Ed Husain, author of The Islamist and one of the most effective opponents of Hamas sympathisers in Britain, issued a statement calling on the British government to intervene with ­Israel. "The UK government cannot seek to win hearts and minds across Muslim communities while failing to stop Israel from murdering Palestinians en masse," he wrote. More worrying, in a way, is the renewal of an official narrative of compromise with Islamism, as demonstrated by David Miliband's peculiar intervention during his trip to Mumbai where he warned: "The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common, and the more we magnify the sense of threat." The uncomfortable fact is that many of these groups do have a unifying ideology, which is anti-Enlightenment, anti-women, anti-gay and anti-Semitic.

I have written widely about the Islamic radical right in Britain and I have always been depressed at the size of the ­psychological space occupied by the Palestinian struggle in the minds of young British Muslims. It has always seemed ­peculiar that bright and politically committed members of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community are so particularly concerned with the alleged abuses of the Israeli government. If half the energy expended by the south Asian diaspora in ­defence of the Palestinians was spent campaigning for justice and political transparency in Pakistan and Bangladesh, then the prospects for reform in those countries would be vastly enhanced.

To return to my original questions: what happens if the Hamas rockets stop? And what happens if they don't? The ­awful truth is that either outcome will be used to justify the unjustifiable, whether that is the killing of Israeli innocents by Hamas terrorists in the name of resistance, or the bombing of Palestinian innocents by the Israeli military in the name of ­national security.

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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.