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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.