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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder