Palestinian firefighters survey the scene of a house destroyed during an Israeli strike. Photo: Getty
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We single Israel out because we in the west are shamefully complicit in its crimes

The assault on Gaza has been a humanitarian disaster, yet the west's staunch support for Israel continues.

Seventeen members of a single family wiped out in a missile strike. A centre for disabled people bombed. Schools and mosques attacked. Operation Protective Edge has been a humanitarian disaster for the residents of Gaza. This, apparently, is how Israel defines “self-defence”.

The experts disagree. The UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has said the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza raises “serious doubt . . . whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law”. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have gone further, urging the hapless president, Mahmoud Abbas, to make the Palestinian Authority join the International Criminal Court and bring war crimes charges against Israel.

For its many supporters in the west, Israel is being unfairly singled out for criticism. As the country’s former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami angrily said to me in an interview for al-Jazeera English in 2013: “You are trying to turn Israel into a special case.”

According to the likes of Ben-Ami, there are much more vile regimes, and more violent groups, elsewhere in the world. Why pick on plucky Israel? What about the Chinas, Russias, Syrias, Saudi Arabias, Irans, Sudans and Burmas? Where are the protests against Isis, Boko Haram or the Pakistani Taliban?

There are various possible responses to such attempts at deflection. First, does Israel really want to be held to the standards of the world’s worst countries? Doesn’t Israel claim to be a liberal democracy, the “only” one in the Middle East?

Second, isn’t this “whataboutery” of the worst sort? David Cameron told those of us who opposed the Nato intervention in Libya in 2011: “The fact that you cannot do the right thing everywhere does not mean that you should not do the right thing somewhere.” Well, quite. And the same surely applies to criticism of Israel – that we cannot, or do not, denounce every other human-rights-abusing regime on earth doesn’t automatically mean we are therefore prohibited from speaking out against Israel’s abuses in Gaza and the West Bank. (Nor, for that matter, does the presence of a small minority among the Jewish state’s critics who are undoubtedly card-carrying anti-Semites.)

Trying to hide Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians behind, say, Syria’s barrel bombs, China’s forced labour camps or Russia’s persecution of gays won’t wash. After all, on what grounds did we “single out” apartheid South Africa in the 1980s for condemnation and boycott? Weren’t there other, more dictatorial regimes in Africa at the time, those run by black Africans such as Mengistu in Ethiopia or Mobutu in Zaire? Did we dare excuse the crimes of white Afrikaners on this basis?

Taking a moral stand inevitably requires us to be selective, specific and, yes, even inconsistent. “Some forms of injustice bother [people] more than others,” wrote Peter Beinart, the author of The Crisis of Zionism, in December 2013. “The roots of this inconsistency may be irrational, even disturbing, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t act against the abuses they care about most.”

Third, Israel is “singled out” today, but by its friends and not just by its enemies. It has been singled out for unparalleled support – financial, military, diplomatic – by the western powers. It is indeed, to quote Ben-Ami, a “special case”.

Which other country is in receipt of $3bn a year in US aid, despite maintaining a 47-year military occupation in violation of international law? Which other country has been allowed to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons in secret?

Which other country’s prime minister could “humiliate” – to quote the newspaper Ma’ariv – a sitting US vice-president on his visit to Israel in March 2010, yet still receive 29 standing ovations from Congress on his own visit to the US a year later? And which other country is the beneficiary of comically one-sided resolutions on Capitol Hill, in which members of Congress fall over each other to declare their undying love and support for Israel – by 410 to eight, or 352 to 21, or 390 to five?

Indeed, which other country has been protected from UN Security Council censure by the US deployment of an astonishing 42 vetoes? For the record, the number of US vetoes exercised at the UN on behalf of Israel is greater than the number of vetoes exercised by all other UN member states on all other issues put together. Singling out, anyone?

Fourth, the inconvenient truth is that we in the west can happily decry the likes of, say, Assad or Ayatollah Khamenei yet we can do little to influence their actual behaviour. Have sanctions stopped Assad’s killing machine? Or Iran’s nuclear programme? In contrast, we have plenty of leverage over Israel – from trade deals to arms sales to votes at the UN. Israel is our special friend, our close ally.

Yet when Israel started bombing Gaza this month, claiming it was acting in response to incoming rocket fire and was trying to kill Hamas operatives, Cameron merely “reiterated the UK’s staunch support for Israel” and “underlined Israel’s right to defend itself”. And the hundreds of Palestinian dead? Didn’t they have a right to self- defence? There was not a word from our PM. This, ultimately, is the fundamental difference when it comes to comparing Israel’s abuses with those of other “rogue” nations. We single out Israel because, shamefully, we are complicit in its crimes. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

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.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.