Labour needs new ways of thinking about the Middle East

by Jonathan Todd

It is argued that the Palestinians have two options: to support Hamas, terror and destruction, or support Abbas, negotiations and statehood. Which may mean Israel also has two options: work with the Palestinians if they back Abbas and frustrate them if they don’t.

It might, however, be thought that they both have third options, which are variants on these options. In the Israeli case, this would be the “do nothing” option, perpetuating a status quo that doesn’t deliver peace but, notwithstanding the recent murders of teenagers and continued rockets from Gaza, largely secures security in an unstable region. For the Palestinians, this third option would be violence beyond the control of Hamas, driven by even more extreme ideology.

Some contend that Hamas is as extreme as they come and that suggestions to the contrary only obscure the responsibilities held by the Palestinian Authority for the maintenance of order. Yet closer scrutiny of Gaza, supposedly under the control of Hamas, reveals possibilities further beyond the pale than them.

As much as the extent to which the Palestinians have options beyond Hamas can be debated, the viability of the status quo as an Israeli option is perilous. The democratic and Jewish character of the state depends upon a two-state solution. Recent discontents increase the plausibility of a third intifada, which would shatter the security that Israelis may have grown complacent in presuming attaches to the status quo. This intifada would be more likely if the Palestinians were to back more extreme options than Hamas, underlining the combustible incapability of the Israeli and Palestinian third options.

Abbas is the crucial pivot for both sides around which a brighter future could form. If the Palestinians could back him in making the painful compromises necessary for negotiations to advance, Israelis support reciprocate in backing their government in making the painful compromises that they too will need to make for negotiations to succeed. Yet, appallingly, it’s hard to disagree with Prospect Editor Bronwen Maddox when she concludes that recent tragedies make this less likely than it already was.

Let’s, though, play a thought experiment and imagine Maddox is mercifully wrong. Would a two-state solution be the key to a broader regional peace?

Having seen the region’s sectarian fault lines brutally exposed, it strains credulity to conclude anything other than, sadly, not. The Shia-Sunni divide, argues Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, is a war through proxies waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia. This seems to me the fundamental dynamic in the region. It is within this vortex, rather than the Israel-Palestine conflict, that much of the region can be explained.

Yet Blair, Labour and Palestine, Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11, Toby Greene’s exhaustive study, recently published in paperback, reminds us that those holding these conflicting views were united a decade ago in thinking that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would produce a broader regional peace.

Blair, according to Greene, adopted a ‘confrontationalist’ approach to the challenge of political Islam, which was in contrast to the more ‘accommodationist’ instincts of many within Labour, who tended to see the anti-Western sentiments of Islamists as driven by specific political grievances that could potentially be ameliorated. The two-state solution, for the ‘confrontationalists’, would undermine political Islam as a beachhead of liberal democracy and values in the region, while, on the ‘accomodationist’ view, it would resolve Israel’s historic injustices, undercutting the motivation of the political Islamists.

These divergent views are largely captured in the question of Dr Neill Lochery, quoted by Greene in his introduction, whether Israel was the front line against global terror or was at the root cause of it. If, like the ‘confrontationalists’, we think that terror is defeated by the spread of liberal, democratic values then we think the former. In contrast, we think the latter if we see terror as being a response to particular injustices, which ‘accomodationists’ tend to see Israel as a key perpetrator of.

In the decade since these divergent views convulsed the Labour party, it has become increasingly obvious, as demonstrated by my thought experiment, that Israel is neither of the things that Lochery’s question invites us to conclude. It is neither the root cause of violence in the Middle East, which is more involved with the rolling conflict between Shia and Sunni, and nor would democratic statehood for both Israel and Palestine, at least in the near term, seem likely to be a powerful enough pull to substantially diminish this violence.

For Israelis and Palestinians peace and dignity through a two-state solution remains an urgent priority. To the extent that we are able, Labour should seek to play a constructive and even-handed role in this process.

We should not, however, overstate our capacity to influence this or the broader implications of it coming to a happy conclusion. It’s marginal significance to the wider region, as well as some of the sharpest dilemmas in British foreign policy, is exposed in the lack of clarity over whether it is forces aligned to Shia Iran or Sunni Saudi that most warrant confrontation or accommodation. Labour needs to move beyond the ways of thinking that Greene does much to illuminate.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut 

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3 Responses to “Labour needs new ways of thinking about the Middle East”

  1. Henrik says:

    While it’s heartening to see some sensible and constructive geopolitical thinking from the Labour Party, it’s slightly depressing to reflect on the somewhat less informed and considerably more prejudiced approach to geopolitics in the wider Party.

    Labour, unfortunately, has a major credibility problem with Middle Eastern issues, from at least two perspectives – the first, clearly, the enthusiastic rush to war in 2003 (for the avoidance of doubt, I had no particular issue with the removal of Saddam Hussein, but was dismayed at the mendacity of the justification and appalled at the astonishingly, criminally negligent failure to plan for the post-war occupation) – and the second, the dirty little secret of the Left, the sometimes blatant anti-Semitism (often presented as anti-Zionism) of the enlightened folk who somehow see common cause between Labour and radical Islam.

    Labour as an avowedly internationalist party seems not to be thinking about international issues at all, any more than it devotes any serious thinking to defence, security or the maintenance of the common weal. If there is a Labour national security strategy, it’s a well-kept secret. If there is a Labour foreign affairs strategy, it’s an even better-kept secret.

    Concentration on domestic issues and narrow managerial stuff about budgets and the economy, the health service and education is vitally important, of course it is, but, just as Labour is signally failing to tell me a compelling story of how things would be better with them at the helm, how my life would improve, I’m not hearing anything at all about the Labour view of our place in the wider world and how we would try to protect our interests and promote better outcomes for all.

  2. swatantra says:

    The only solution is the forced and imposed dissolution of the State of Israel and the introduction of a One Palestile for all Jews Muslims Christians and Gentiles based on power sharing along the lines of Lebanon and Northern Ireland. There is no other solution despite what Tony Blair and the other prevaricators and friends of Israel Palestinians Christians and Gentiles say. Otherwise we will be taking about this problem created by partition into the next millenium that is if the Zionists and Islamists haven’t brought on Armargeddon by thn. It’s an absolute disgrace that this situation has been allowed to continue through misplaced view by those funding the Jews ie the Americans and those funding the Palestinians ie the Saudis and assorted do gooders here and there.

  3. Henrik says:

    @swatantra: “… by those funding the Jews”

    We have a winner.

    Now type that again with any other racial or ethnic group and read it back to yourself.

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