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The Israel-Hamas war has left Britain divided

Politicians in the UK are nervous to speak about the conflict – but if ever there was a time for calm public debate it is now.

By Andrew Marr

These are times in which we shouldn’t first turn to historians or political commentators, but rather to poets, such as WB Yeats and WH Auden – of whom more on shortly. We are walking into dangerous days, during which many seem determined to drive the rest of us towards insane binaries. Do you stand with the Jews or with the Arabs? Are you with Hamas or Benjamin Netanyahu?

Answer. Come on! From hate-swollen faces marching in anti-Semitic demonstrations to the self-righteous harangues of mainstream media commentators, the terrorism of Hamas is doing exactly what it was always meant to do. The torture, the burning alive, the decapitations are deeply distressing to witness, and have turned conversations into rows around the world.

[See also: The Middle East on the brink]

So, before looking at the political consequences of the crisis for Britain – perhaps its least important aspect – it feels right to restate the obvious. The ideology of Hamas, as of Hezbollah, is both evil and impossible. It is to wipe out the state of Israel, the only Jewish homeland in the world, and to expel or murder any Jews left behind in pursuit of Islamic theocracy. It must never succeed.

The ideology of the extremist parties and individuals in Netanyahu’s cabinet is also wrong. It is to keep pressing against Arabs on all sides: an ever-expanding, geographical violence that never concedes that the land of “Greater Israel”, which they believe was promised by God, can be shared equally with, or belong to, any non-Jew, until the entire Arab Palestinian population accepts Jewish sovereignty. Some of its members deny the existence of a Palestinian people, some are disciples of an extremist ideology that has called for the expulsion or killing of Arabs. This element of Israeli society must never succeed.

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Yet liberal, democratic Westerners are today being bullied into a flat, either/or choice. If you stood in London and heard the chant “From the river to the sea” – which is a call for the eradication of Israel – and someone were to call this “a beautiful thing”, they would be blandly glossing over the great number of deaths, echoes of the Holocaust and potential nuclear war that the statement represents. This is the reality of the Iranian theocratic state.

Or it might seem that if you want to stand in fellowship with Jewish British citizens and against anti-Semitism, you must stand with the Israeli government and applaud cutting off electricity to two million people who had the temerity to be born in the wrong place, and the air strikes around their hospitals. You must yearn for a ground invasion. You must dehumanise the other.

No. Obviously, no. Any sane discussion about the future of the Middle East can only take place in the space between this deranged binary. And unlike Israel itself, this is a spacious space. It sprawls, this political land, across the vociferous, disputative but determined Jewish and Israeli political opposition to the Netanyahu government; and the non-extremist, anti-Hamas parties and voices of the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states.

Reaching beyond the binary means reaching above ancient religious doctrine: politics, done correctly, may eventually defang religion. The future, if it is not to be catastrophic, must involve disarmament, significant aid to impoverished Arab populations, an end to settlement expansionism, and the ultimate sharing of land and civic spaces across two states. This can only come after peace and security. It is a future in which both Hamas and Zionist extremism have no place.

You may say this is impossible – but, I ask, what is your alternative? There is hope. As I write, the frantic shuttle diplomacy of the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken (with President Joe Biden, at the time of writing, due to visit Israel), appears to be opening up the possibility of humanitarian corridors through the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. So far, Iran is watching and spewing words only. If Biden and Blinken, backed by two US carrier fleets, are able to avert cataclysm by drawing in the help of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it will be the most consequential act of diplomacy in modern times.

Politicians in London must start talking to forces inside Israel beyond Netanyahu’s cabinet. We need better conversations with Egypt, Fatah, Jordan and the Israeli opposition, and a major international aid programme. How developed is Labour’s foreign policy network beyond Europe? That is, suddenly, an important question.

[See also: PMQs today: Keir Starmer reaches a careful balance on Israel]

In Westminster, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer made a point of appealing both to British Jews and Muslims. Rightly, because there are fanatics about. Two Jewish schools in London were recently vandalised with red paint. Naive and bloodthirsty propaganda intertwines. I give you Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

While it is impossible to guess the immediate future, the potential for a catastrophe that will rock the world and transform our politics remains potent. Presently, comparisons with the spring of 1914 don’t sound entirely barmy.

If ever there was a time for calm deliberation it is now. Yet all this is taking place in an untrustworthy media age when, because of AI deepfakes and wicked manipulation of images, we simply cannot trust our eyes. Did Israel really attack Gaza with white phosphorus munitions, as has been claimed but the Israeli military denies?

Social media feeds us vignettes from the street – such as people ripping down posters that show images of kidnapped Israelis – that are designed to anger, divide and stop us thinking clearly. Thank goodness for the mainstream media that continue to edit and fact-check content.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

Yet this isn’t the time for uncontroversial journalism. We are told not to connect the history of Israeli occupation with the foul terrorism unleashed by Hamas. But without context, without explanation, all we are left with is a chaos of inexplicable human evil from which there is no political exit. I quoted Yeats. Here’s Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”, written at another ominous moment: “I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

Most MPs I have spoken to recently seemed alert to the danger of political unravelling here. Hamas supporters on the streets are doing incalculable damage to Muslim communities across Britain. British political leaders have been reactive – horrified, cautious, unwilling to move beyond glib and nervous verities. But beyond the short term, it is not enough – and it would not have been enough for previous generations of political leadership.

This feels more dangerous for the British left than for the right. Polling by YouGov suggests that, although the majority of the UK adults polled support both sides equally or are undecided, support for the Palestinian cause is greater among Labour voters than for the Israeli one (the opposite is true of Conservatives). The gap is wider among younger voters – 39 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds sympathise with Palestine and 11 per cent do with Israel .

Although Starmer has vigorously shoved the anti-Semitic left out of the party, Labour politicians are feeling the heat about their support for Israel far more intensely than Tory ones. There has not been enough emphasis from Labour on the humanitarian consequences of a Gaza invasion, and two Labour Muslim councillors have already quit the party over Starmer’s position on Gaza. The hard right, inevitably, sees an opportunity. Suella Braverman reportedly suggested that waving a Palestinian flag may be a criminal offence. Extremist parties are mobilising on the streets. It isn’t a huge jump to see a fevered anti-migrant and Islamophobic backlash ahead.

It is a great mistake to believe that we are an island. If we are on the edge of war, we should never forget that wars tend to upend everything we think we know about politics. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

[See also: Israel, Gaza and a war without limit]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts