Israel's policy is an invitation to disaster

The country needs to remember that self-defence is not the same as smart defence.

So much has changed in the Middle East in the last couple of years. But it is uncanny how the events of the last week in Gaza have echoed the last war in Gaza – in 2008. Then, as now, US elections were recently behind us, Israeli elections were on the horizon (then Binyamin Netanyahu was the challenger, though, as now, Ehud Barak was Defence Minister), and the conflict was not predicted by the experts. Then, as now, the debates about "proportionality" were an offence to our intelligence. There is another parallel. After the killing and shelling is over, both Israeli and Hamas leaders will think they have won. In the Middle East, history repeats itself first as tragedy, and then as tragedy.

Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander was ahead of the government in the UK in calling for a ceasefire, and for the UN Secretary General to visit the region to broker one. It is an irony that the world is holding its breath for the diplomatic effort – and restraint – of President Morsi in Egypt for the ceasefire that could save lives. The contrast with 2008, when President Mubarak was alleged by Israeli politicians and thinkers to be privately supportive, is striking.

In 2008, the phrase of the moment from the Israeli government in respect of rocket attacks was "intolerable". And if you visit Sderot, and talk to people there, life under the shadow of rocket attacks is miserable. But self-defence is not the same as smart defence. Certainly not if it compounds the problem. And if you believe that the fundamental problem for Israel is the diminishing prospect of an independent, viable, contiguous (West Bank plus Gaza) Palestinian state, whose creation triggers the normalisation of relations with the whole Arab world as per the Arab Peace Initiative, then the resort to war in Gaza is dangerous in at least three ways. The loss of life and property fuels hatred. The bombing marginalises the Palestinian Authority, and its President, who are Israel’s notional negotiating partners. And it entrenches the separate legitimacy, authority and status of the "government of Hamas" (apparently Ehud Barak used this phrase) in Gaza. It only makes sense if a two-state solution is dead and buried.

In 2012, the war probably also complicates the drive to build an effective coalition to heave Assad out of power in Syria, which in turn strengthens Iran. Little wonder a much decorated Israeli military chief, Efraim Halevy, wrote in the Financial Times yesterday about Israel needing a strategy not a war.

The truth is that the policy of "Gaza last" – pretend it doesn’t exist, ignore the political and socioeconomic realities on the ground, wish Hamas away – is an invitation to disaster. The policy of siege has funded Hamas through the tax they impose on the transfer of goods through the tunnels, while it has held back the people from the economic and social fulfillment that so many fervently seek. (In that context, note the promise of $250m for reconstruction from Qatar just a couple of weeks ago). Neither siege nor bombing is going to topple Hamas. In fact, Israel depends on Hamas to exercise security control in Gaza, and control the rockets from Islamic Jihad and other more radical groups. Egypt needs Hamas to control the border into Sinai, where various extreme groups want to mount attacks on Israel.

I sincerely hope that further loss of life is averted. Foreign policy is meant to be about stopping people killing each other. But there needs to be more. Without radical thinking, the two-state ideal will be gone – if we haven’t passed the point of no return already.

That means Palestinian politics needs to be reconstituted, across the West Bank/Gaza divide. The global consensus on what a two-state solution means – 1967 borders etc – needs to become the parameters around which negotiations are structured. The Arab world, led by a newly pivotal Egypt, needs to be played in (it is not properly represented by the Quartet). And to repeat something I tweeted last week (and I noticed John McCain mused about this too), President Obama needs his own Presidential envoy, and who better than Bill Clinton. Some people thought this was frivolous. It is deadly serious.

In January 2009, I spent three days at the UN authoring the peace resolution. Its central promises – stop the flow of arms and open the border crossings – have not been fulfilled. There are no winners from that.

This piece originally appeared on David Miliband's blog.

 

A Palestinian man inspects a damaged building following overnight Israeli air strikes on the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.