An Israeli tank, part of Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Getty
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Leader: A collective punishment being visited on all Palestinians

The New Statesman view.

For global leaders, foreign crises come not as single spies but in battalions. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by pro-Russian separatists, the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas, the murderous rampage of Isis in Iraq, the perpetual civil war in Syria – all have shaken and demoralised western elites.

Never has the UN Security Council, which is divided along old cold war lines, seemed more irrelevant. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, is an especially forlorn figure, a symbol of the decline of the world’s multilateral institutions.

The graphic images of the bodies of passengers, lying in the wreckage of Flight MH17, have concentrated the public mind on the war in Ukraine. It has been said that Vladimir Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and bolster his nation against western expansionism is a sign of weakness rather than strength. But the ease with which the Russians were able to annex Crimea and enter eastern Ukraine merely reinforces western impotence.

The challenge for the United States and the European powers is to agree a set of policies that would ensure that support for rebel groups such as the one that shot down Flight MH17 has profound economic and political consequences for Russia and its leaders.

Meanwhile, Israel’s long war against the Palestinians goes on. Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming rocket fire from Gaza but, however ruthless and cynical Hamas may be, no state, least of all one that purports to be a liberal democracy, has the right to shell a hospital deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. It can seem at times as if a kind of collective punishment is being visited upon all Palestinians.

On page 24, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, writes that he “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields”. This is an important insight: the Israeli justification for bombing hospitals, schools and a home for the disabled was that Hamas militants were hiding inside the buildings. Even if they were, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of the innocent, who include children.

Before this latest small war, Hamas, corrupt and nefarious, was weak. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the country’s then president, Mohammed Morsi, brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 – had left the Palestinian militant group even more isolated.

Yet the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has served only to bolster Hamas. By killing civilians and destroying homes, the most recent offensives by the Israel Defence Forces may prove to be the greatest recruiting sergeant Hamas could wish for.

If any ceasefire is to be permanent, it must be followed by substantive moves towards a political settlement of a kind that, in truth, has never seemed more unlikely. The economic blockade of Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – must be ended and the 1.8 million people who live in the blighted Strip must be given hope and a sense of possibility, as suggested by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996, writing on page 16.

At present, there is no sign that Israel, its people traumatised by decades of war and by Hamas rocket attacks, is willing to make unilateral moves towards a lasting peace. The settlement building continues in the West Bank and the Likud-led coalition government remains belligerent.

What unites the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East is the world’s powerlessness to resolve them. The UN Security Council is riven and ineffective; the EU cannot agree over what should be done in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the cautious and pragmatic Barack Obama, the US is in retreat from world leadership, exhausted by its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus,” Jeremy Bowen writes in his NS Notebook. “The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.” Such is the weakness of the western powers in an age of insecurity. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain