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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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