Leader: Netanyahu risks condemning Israel to perpetual war

Despite the latest ceasefire, there is no way clear to peace. And there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the days following Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari, history appeared to be repeating itself in the Middle East. As in 2008, when Operation Cast Lead was launched, Israel seemed poised to mount a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, with huge civilian casualties certain to result. The Israeli interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, spoke of sending Gaza “back to the Middle Ages”. No less chillingly, Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, served notice of its intention to resume suicide bombings in Israel. “We’ve missed the suicide attacks. Expect us soon at bus stations and in cafés,” it declared in a propaganda video. That, at the time of going to press, both sides have pulled back from the brink is due largely to the efforts of the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, who has shown himself to be a pragmatic figure capable of exerting leverage over both Israel and Hamas.

The past week’s events have proved, once again, that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The acknowledgement that Israel has the right to defend itself should not preclude criticism of its actions. As the former foreign secretary David Miliband has 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 Islamist group has enhanced its claim to be the pre-eminent defender of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the attacks have further marginalised the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s ostensible negotiating partner, which has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

That there have been mercifully few Israeli casualties has more to do with Hamas’s limited weaponry and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system than it does with any restraint on the Palestinian group’s part. Yet although nothing justifies the rocket attacks on Israel, one cannot ignore the context in which they take place. Since Hamas assumed administrative control of Gaza in 2006, Israel has maintained a draconian and illegal blockade of the strip which has immiserated its 1.7 million residents, 80 per cent of whom are dependent on humanitarian aid.

It was no coincidence that Operation Pillar of Defence was launched as the Palestinians prepared to seek observer status at the United Nations through a vote in the General Assembly on 29 November. Avigdor Lieberman – the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which has recently merged with Likud, the party led by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu – has claimed that the Palestinians will be “destroying the chances of peace talks” if they pursue their campaign for UN recognition.

Yet, through its own actions, Israel has already come close to doing so. In defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, the Likud-led government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to the point where there are now more than 550,000 settlers, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 10 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable Palestinian state recedes further.

Mr Netanyahu will use the strength of Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which does, to argue that he has no “partner for peace”. He would be careless to do so. 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.

A Palestinian mourns the death of a relative. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.