A picture taken from the Israeli border shows the sun setting over the Gaza strip. Photo: Getty
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A reply to Jason Cowley on Gaza

Alan Johnson responds to the NS editor’s article about Israel, Gaza and the left.

I write in reply to Jason Cowley’s blog in which he referenced my Daily Telegraph blog about Jon Snow.

My blog claimed that Jon Snow has three illusions about Hamas: he thinks Hamas are a negotiating partner-in-waiting being ignored by Israel, but they aren’t; that Hamas grew as a popular reaction to the blockade, but it didn’t; and that the ordinary people Snow talks to in Gaza can speak freely about Hamas, but they can’t.

I also suggested that these delusions were rooted in some tendencies found on much of the liberal left – what US social democrat Paul Berman called its “rationalist naivete” and what Natan Sharanky identified during the cold war as its tendency to blur the line between democracies and totalitarian / authoritarian states and movements.

How did Cowley critique my argument? Not, I suggest, by meeting its full force and rebutting it, that’s for sure.

First, he “spun” the debate to make his opponent sound like an idiot and the argument very easy for himself. “It shouldn’t be a question of either you support Israel, no matter what it does, or you are on the side of the Islamists,” wrote Cowley. “Ah,” the reader is supposed to say, “this Johnson thinks everything Israel does should be supported and he is having a go at Snow because he is willing to criticise Israel – boo!”

The trouble with Cowley’s argument is that my blog was about Snow’s illusions in Hamas, not his criticisms of Israel. More: every issue of Fathom, the online journal I edit, carries criticisms of Israel. Fathom readers are introduced to sharply critical perspectives on the occupation and the settlements from Ahron Bregman, Raanan Alexandrowicz, Sayed Kashua, Dror Moreh the director of The Gatekeepers, the Palestinian activist Hitham Kayali and others. Fathom showcases the full spectrum of political views about Israel, including those of the peace camp. Cowley ignores that and pretends I am a crude Israel Firster.

Second, Cowley reminds me that “We should care about all of the innocents [killed in the various Middle East wars]” implying my blog did not. Actually, on this point my blog praised Snow: “His broadcasts reflect the anguish of millions who identify with his passion about the ‘innocent children too broken by battle to survive’.”

Third, Cowley responded to my claim that it was not the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that caused the Hamas rockets (“The one begets the other” Snow had tweeted) but the other way round, not by challenging the accuracy of the claim itself, but by some sneering: “Well, useful to get that learnt, as Philip Larkin wrote.”

Larkin’s line is about a man who reduces a complex personal experience – the poem is about a failed romantic relationship of seven years and 400 letters – to a trite “lesson”. I guess the implication is that I reduced a complex historical experience to a talking point. But I did not. I was challenging a tendency on the left to reverse cause and effect so that our understanding of the conflict in Gaza, and what is needed to end it, is utterly distorted. Elsewhere I have set out the sequence of events after the 2005 disengagement more fully. Unfair, on the basis of one paragraph in one blog, to dismiss me as Larkinian Man.

Fourth, Cowley criticises me for not writing a different blog about a different subject. I wrote a blog about Jon Snow’s political illusions in Hamas but Jason criticises me for not writing about something else, the humanitarian plight of the Gazans. Again, it is feels like I am being framed rather than engaged in debate. “Never once does Johnson mention the conditions inside Gaza... Nor does Johnson condemn the shelling of schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled in Gaza. Why not?” Well, because it was a blog about Jon Snow’s “disabling illusions about Hamas” not about the terrible plight of the Gazan people. As far as the blog touched on that plight, as I say, I was full of praise for Snow.

Would it be fair of me follow suit by pointing out, with much finger wagging, that Cowley’s own article does not mention the terror tunnels? Would it be fair to ask the rhetorical question, “Cowley does not condemn the murder of Israelis or the traumatisation of Israeli childhood. Why not?” No, it would not be fair.

Fifth, Cowley says I do not mention the occupation as I have “no wish to discuss the facts on the ground”. Well, I edit a journal devoted to the facts on the ground. I have written policy papers, addressed overseas think tanks, and toured campuses making the case for “two states for two peoples”.

One last point. About some troubling habits of mind on parts of the left, I found Cowley’s response to be intellectually complacent. Move along, move along, nothing to see here. But there is a lot to see. Today, there are forms of anti-Zionism that demonise Israel and fuel hate, from the academic theory of Judith Butler and Gianni Vattimo to the historiography of Shlomo Sand, from the popular street phenomenon of the “quenelle” to the ugly rise of “Holocaust inversion”.

Oppression is no guarantee of political goodness or even of political decency. It can breed its own pathologies, and it can be, it often is, exploited by people who have no leftist commitments at all. The militants who act in the name of the oppressed are sometimes the agents of a new oppression – ideological or religious zealots with totalising programs and a deep contempt for liberal values. And then they should be met with hostility by leftists the world over: because they don’t serve the interests of the people they claim to represent and because they don’t advance the cause of democracy or equality. But often, instead, our illusions are regnant.

That’s what my blog about Jon Snow and Hamas was about.

Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, and the editor of “Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.