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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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