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Monday, March 4, 2024

Why Labour needs to decide whether to break the consensus on Israel

Why Labour needs to decide whether to break the consensus on Israel


Two developments in the past 48 hours could test the cross-party consensus in Westminster on the conflict between Israel and Hamas: the signal sent by the Ministry of Defence that it is prepared to join the US in launching airstrikes against Houthi sites in Yemen, and statements by the Israeli political and military leadership that the war may take months or even a whole year to complete.

Labour has so far largely concurred with UK government policy, which in turn has largely shadowed thinking inside the White House.

Keir Starmer set out his thinking in a speech on 31 October when he said it was legitimate for Israel to seek to eliminate Hamas and that he opposed a ceasefire “for now” because Hamas would still be capable of carrying out a 7 October-style attack. Despite an internal rebellion, Labour has not in essence altered that view even as the death toll and destruction in Gaza has mounted.

Where Labour has strayed from the government line, it has been on important but ultimately second order issues such as withdrawing visas from those deemed responsible for settler violence in the West Bank. Sometimes Labour’s language has been more stark than the government’s, with adjectives such as intolerable creeping into its lexicon, but rarely attached to a specific policy intended to make the intolerable tolerable.

Labour’s strategic judgment is to reassure Washington that Labour in government will be a responsible ally of a Democrat administration.

It took a former Conservative defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to break the consensus among the main parties when he suggested in a Daily Telegraph article last month that Israel was acting illegally, immorally and might be fuelling the conflict for another 50 years.

Direct British military involvement may spark a debate that has so far been missing at Westminster.

The case for the UK – a trading nation and the home of the international maritime organisation – joining US military strikes in defence of freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is clear: the deployment of multinational convoys to defend commercial shipping and shoot down Houthi drones has had limited efficacy and does not address the growing threat at source.

Set against that is the fact that the Houthis have shown resilience in the face of Saudi airstrikes, and the big unknown: how Iran, which sponsors the group, will react.

The foreign secretary Lord Cameron’s call to his Iranian opposite number, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on Sunday was clearly designed to send a warning to Iran not to help the Houthis further. At a press conference in Tehran on Monday, a foreign ministry spokesperson was contemptuous of the UK’s interference and reasserted Iran’s right to help the Palestinian resistance.

The Houthis themselves meanwhile have vowed to continue their offensive until “sufficient supplies of food and medical materials are allowed into Gaza”.

That once again raises the question of how long Israel’s offensive inside Gaza can continue, and what if anything can be done to increase what the UN has described as “woefully inadequate” aid deliveries into the territory.

On 29 December the UK’s envoy to the UN, Barbara Woodward, said many more Palestinians would die from attacks, disease and famine unless action was taken to “stop this humanitarian catastrophe”, but she did not specify what this action would entail.

UK policy is to back a ceasefire only if it is “sustainable” – defined by Cameron as a ceasefire reached after Hamas can no longer pose a threat to Israel.

This logically means the UK supports fighting continuing for many months, since this was the timeframe given by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday for the Israel Defence Forces to eliminate Hamas. Given the current daily average casualty toll, this could mean thousands more Palestinians dead or injured by the end of February.

On the basis of the evidence currently gathered, and the judgment of senior UN humanitarians such as Martin Griffiths, a war lasting many more months is simply not compatible with preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. He has said in words of one syllable that the guns must stop for aid to flow.

The UK government, one must assume, disagrees and thinks adequate amounts of aid can enter Gaza and be distributed while the fighting continues.

The long-negotiated UN resolution 2720 on aid to Gaza contained clear passages on the need to protect civilians. But since it was passed, a further 1,500 Palestinians have been killed. Refugee camps, safe zones and hospitals have continued to be attacked.

Cameron has made much of the need for a sustainable ceasefire. But the question was already being asked: what is “sustainable” about 1.9 million people now displaced, more than 400 Palestinians being killed or injured every day, fewer than 150 aid trucks entering Gaza a day, and deadly disease about to take hold of already weakened bodies?

With Israeli indications that the war will continue for months, and the rising risk of regional escalation, those questions will be asked with ever greater urgency. Assuming the government position remains unchanged, Labour will need to decide whether the time has come to chart a course of its own.



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