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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.