In this week’s New Statesman: What is Israel thinking?

Jason Cowley reports from Tel Aviv, Phoebe Greenwood on the ground in Gaza. PLUS: Books of the Year as chosen by Ed Miliband, AS Byatt, Rowan Williams, Colm Toibin and many more.

“The events of the past week have proved, once again, that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says this week’s New Statesman Leader.

The acknowledgement that Israel has the right to defend itself should not preclude criticism of its actions. As the former foreign secretary David Miliband observed, “self-defence is not the same as smart defence”. Rather than weakening Hamas, the assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 135 Palestinians, an estimated half of them civilians, has strengthened it.

The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, would be wise to acknowledge that Tel Aviv can barter a lasting peace only by relying on smart diplomacy, not draconian militarism:

Israel’s ultimate security depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just settlement for refugees. Should Mr Netanyahu continue to obstruct any progress towards this goal, he will condemn his country to perpetual war.

Jason Cowley: The endless war

Jason Cowley reports from Israel after five days travelling in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and theWest Bank. The New Stateman’s editor offers insight into the current conflict and the long war against the Palestinians, which seems to know no end:

Tel Aviv is a city in shock, in a traumatised country that seems never to be fully at rest or peace – nor will it ever be while the occupation of the West Bank, which was seized from Jordan during the 1967 war, and the building of settlements there continue. The Gaza Strip, where as many as 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs live in desperate poverty, remains besieged and effectively isolated from the rest of the world . . .

Israel is never more united than during war or conflict. The polls indicate considerable support for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (who just happens to be preparing for a general election in January) and for [Operation] Pillar of Defence.

...Under Operation Cast Lead, the name given to the three-week assault on Hamasin the winter of 2008-2009, Israel launched a land invasion of Gaza and as many as 1,400 Palestinians were killed in air and ground attacks, many of them civilians. The Palestinians have their own name for what happened – the “Gaza Massacre”. The question being asked while I was in Israel was this: would the Netanyahu government dare to launch another ground invasion this time around?

...In spite of the terrible risk of bombing Gaza from the air and sea, the Israeli government believes its actions are morally justified because – it says – it acts only in response to aggression and provocation from militants and “targets” its enemies with “surgical” precision, using the most sophisticated missile technology rather than operating a policy of indiscriminate rocket fire. But its intentions are not merely those of self-defence. “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages. Only then will Israel be calm for 40 years,” said Eliyahu Yishai, minister of internal affairs in the Likud-led coalition government.

Cowley meets Husam Zomlot, a senior Fatah official, in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. Zomlot says that Netanyahu has made “a grave miscalculation of the international mood” and he hopes for a more united future for Palestine:

He lit a cigarette and leaned towards me in his chair. “[Netanyahu] did not expect the response from Hamas he got – he did not expect them to fire at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

. . . Zomlot, who was educated at the London School of Economics and Harvard, was born and grew up in Gaza. “It used to be like a mini-Beirut. I have seen pictures of my mother in a miniskirt. It was very liberal, very liberated. Radical ideas flourished: communism, leftism. The national liberation movements were born there. Things began to change with the first intifada. Now, we have the siege, economic meltdown, hopelessness, helplessness. Hamas are in control of the education system. They were becoming very unpopular but now, because of what’s happened, their popularity is soaring.”

Like many secular nationalists, Zomlot mourns the fragmentation of the once-united Palestinian cause. He insists that Gaza must not be lost to the Islamists and, rather than being absorbed into the Egyptian sphere of in­fluence, must remain part of any future sovereign Palestinian state, with a clear, open land route across Israel linking Gaza and the West Bank, as would have to be agreed under any two-state solution.

They discuss Mohammed Morsi, the newly elected Egyptian president, who has proved to be “a flexible and pragmatic leader”.

“He’s not just a politician like Netanyahu, he’s a statesman,” Zomlot said . . .

“Morsi can bring Hamas on board,” Husam Zomlot said, as he lit another cigarette. “He offers hope to us all. But Israel must understand this – what is happening in Gaza is not a war. War happens between two armies . . . war does not happen between a state and an occupied people. Call it murder, call it an assault, but don’t call it war. Gaza is not a free territory. It is the sole responsibility of the occupier to provide responsibility for the occupied.”

Yet not one Israeli to whom I spoke, from the left or the right, agreed with this. The message from inside Israel was one of profound and unyielding unity. “There can be no peace,” it is said, “until Hamas stops trying to kill us,” irrespective of the context in which Hamas acts or the suffering of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

 

Phoebe Greenwood: As the shelling persists, Gazans hide at home

In our lead story in Observations, Phoebe Greenwood reports from inside Gaza, where 139 Palestinians (30 of them children) have been killed in the escalating conflicts of the past week. Amid the human devastation, it appears a ceasefire is yet to take effect:

On the evening of Tuesday 20 November, as the Gaza Strip held its breath to see if the rumoured ceasefire would take hold – first at 8pm, then midnight, then 2am – the bodies of more children, dead and injured, crashed through the doors of the emergency unit at Shifa Hospital. The heaviest bombardment of the war so far ran into the early hours of the morning of 21 November, with no sign of the promised truce. Apache helicopters hovered in the sky near the morgue, the air thick with the stench of burning plastic, as the hospital filled to capacity . . .

On the streets of Gaza City, the air hums noisily with the whine of Israeli drones and the chug of electricity generators running through the daily 18 hours of power cuts. Few are reassured by Israeli claims of “precision”. Most shops on the main streets are closed, their owners at home with their families. After nightfall, the streets are deserted. People are terrified. The only people still operating at full capacity are taxi and ambulance drivers, militants and journalists.

[Avital] Leibovich [spokeswoman for the Israel Defence Forces] tells news teams that Israel has taken pains to avoid killing civilians but when Hamas uses children, women and journalists as “human shields”, civilian losses are unavoidable. Seven days into the war, most of the Palestinians killed have been women and children.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Fran Abrams: The end of innocence

The scandal of child abuse and neglect in Britain has been a fixture in the public awareness for centuries. In an essay weighing historical cases and legislation against today’s fears and anxieties, Fran Abrams asks: who is most responsible for keeping our children safe – parents, or the state? She begins:

Scandal. The newspapers full of stories about child abuse going unchecked. Campaigners, determined to shine light into areas that had hitherto remained murky. Not November 2012, but October 1888. John Tobin, “a hard-working man” who “generally got drunk on Saturdays”, had been brought to a magistrates’ court in the East End of London, accused of leaving his two-year-old son, Daniel, filthy and starving in a pitifully cold family home. Neighbours testified that they had often been forced to throw food through a window to Daniel and his four siblings . . .

The recent history of childhood can be seen, if you like, as an ongoing battle between two opposing ideological camps. On the one side have been ranged those who subscribe to a sort of post-Renaissance notion of the child: that he or she is a vulnerable innocent, in need of ever greater protection. On the other side have been those who lean towards the pre-Renaissance view that children are somehow flawed – even evil – and in need of correction. And while the pendulum of public opinion has continued to swing between these two extremes over the past 120 years, most of the legislative travel has been in one direction.

 

Rafael Behr: Has Cameron realized that Tory government is not our default setting anymore?

The Conservatives are no longer the go-to party of government in today’s Britain, argues Rafael Behr. David Cameron managed only a hung parliament after failing to beat a very beatable Gordon Brown, and now he urgently needs to identify a new strategy:

Measured in general election victories, the only successful Conservative leader from the past quarter of a century is John Major. It must be sobering for David Cameron to examine the conditions that last produced a Tory majority and be transported back to April 1992, a time when most British people had never held a mobile phone.

...After the economy, the two items that Conservative strategists say would make the biggest difference to their chances of a majority are redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries to address a perceived pro-Labour slant and overcoming suspicion among ethnic minorities that the Tory party isn’t for them.

The first of those objectives looks far-fetched. Nick Clegg has sworn he will thwart boundary changes in retaliation for Tory obstruction of House of Lords reform . . . The second goal is only slightly less ambitious. Opinion polls show an irrefutable correlation between not being white and not voting Conservative. That holds even for second- and third-generation immigrants whose views might otherwise neatly align with Conservative policy . . . It is a long process demanding discipline and consistency from all candidates. There is always the hazard that a rogue racist outburst undoes months of conciliation . . .

The Tories’ fear of Ukip, their difficulty in reaching out to minorities and their resentment of the current parliamentary boundaries – which is partly displaced annoyance at the shortage of supporters in densely populated urban areas – are different expressions of one big demographic discomfort. It is the painful realisation that conservative Britain doesn’t automatically vote Conservative any more.

Cameron’s 2015 bid is shaping up to have pretty much the same message. Currying cosmopolitan favour alienates his party faithful, while pandering to grass-roots reaction sabotages his credentials as a moderate. That leaves only the assertion that Britain should vote Conservative because, well, in times of great uncertainty, that is the obvious thing to do.

For people like Cameron and Osborne, it surely is. Yet there aren’t enough of them to deliver a majority. The Tories are not the default setting for British government any more. It isn’t clear the Prime Minister has noticed.

 

In the Critics: Books of the Year Special

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the magazine’s friends and contributors – including Ed Miliband, AS Byatt, Rowan Williams, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin and Laura Kuenssberg - choose their books of the year. Read more in our “In the Critics this week” feature here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496