Is the state of Israel its own worst enemy?

Some brief thoughts on this morning’s breaking story in the Middle East.

The late Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban famously remarked that "the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity". But it is the Israelis who never miss an opportunity to score own goals, to be their own worst enemy.

Why on earth, during a period of relative quiet in the Middle East "process" (let's be honest: it is not a "peace process"), would the Jewish state send armed Israeli commandos to attack a convoy of ships carrying aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip, and those, too, ships linked to the Turkish government, perhaps Israel's only stalwart ally in the Muslim world? (Sky News is now reporting that Israel has warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey. The end of a beautiful friendship?)

I can imagine pro-Israel lobbyists holding their heads in the hands this morning as they watch the news, wondering how they can spin their way out of this latest atrocity. Claiming, as Israel has done, that its soldiers were attacked with knives and axes will not do. Nor will unleashing the silver-tongued Mark Regev on to the airwaves as the Israelis did this morning on the Today programme, help them either. Regev has been exposed, time and again, as being economical with the truth. (On an amusing side note, if you play "Google predicts" with Regev's name, the only option that comes up in the Google search box is "Mark Regev liar".)

By the way, check out this page on the BBC website. Notice anyone's name missing from the list of international figures reacting to the Israeli attack? Yep, our new Foreign Secretary, William Hague. There seems to be radio silence from the Foreign Office. Meanwhile, according to al-Jazeera, "Turkey, Spain, Greece, Denmark and Sweden have all summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their respective countries to protest against the deadly assault."

As the Tory-supporting columnist Peter Oborne noted in his controversial Dispatches TV documentary on Britain's pro-Israel lobby, the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) group has a great deal of influence inside the party, and Hague himself has been subjected to pressure from it in the past. So perhaps, as the well-connected Tory blogger Iain Dale pointed out in a recent discussion show on al-Jazeera that he and I participated in, our Foreign Secretary intends to be "much more pro-Israel than his predecessor David Miliband".

Let's see . . .

UPDATE: Here is William Hague's official statement (via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website):

I deplore the loss of life during the interception of the Gaza Flotilla. Our Embassy is in urgent contact with the Israeli Government. We are asking for more information and urgent access to any UK nationals involved.

We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way, because of the risks involved. But at the same time, there is a clear need for Israel to act with restraint and in line with international obligations. It will be important to establish the facts about this incident, and especially whether enough was done to prevent deaths and injuries.

This news underlines the need to lift the restrictions on access to Gaza, in line with UNSCR 1860. The closure is unacceptable and counterproductive. There can be no better response from the international community to this tragedy than to achieve urgently a durable resolution to the Gaza crisis.

I call on the Government of Israel to open the crossings to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza, and address the serious concerns about the deterioration in the humanitarian and economic situation and about the effect on a generation of young Palestinians.

I like the line about "the loss of life", as if the people on those ships died in a natural disaster, or from heart attacks, rather than from Israeli gunfire. Notice also that Hague's first criticism is, implicitly, of the people who were killed ("We have consistently advised against attempting to access Gaza in this way...") Pathetic.

UPDATE 2: The US blogger Glenn Greenwald gives his take on the attack here. He writes:

It hardly seemed possible for Israel -- after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade -- to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes. But by attacking a flotilla in international waters carrying humanitarian aid, and slaughtering at least ten people, Israel has managed to do exactly that. If Israel's goal were to provoke as much disgust and contempt for it as possible, it's hard to imagine how it could be doing a better job.

He adds:

The one silver lining from these incidents is that the real face of Israel becomes increasingly revealed and undeniable. Not even the most intense propaganda systems can prettify a lethal military attack on ships carrying civilians and humanitarian aid to people living in some of the most wretched and tragic conditions anywhere in the world. It is crystal clear to anyone who looks what Israel has become, and the only question left is how will the rest of the world -- beginning with their American patrons -- will react.

I wouldn't have used the phrase "silver lining" but, nonetheless, he has a point.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.