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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.