20 January 2009
By Michael Glackin
Despite the criticism at home directed at the UK’s Labour government for its stance on the Israeli offensive in Gaza, the UK’s Mideast policy has little impact; the policy that matters is on the other side of the Atlantic.
"Most of my family were killed in the Holocaust. In Poland, my grandmother was shot dead in her bed by a German soldier. She was too ill to get up you see, so he shot her. But none of that justifies Israel murdering Palestinians."
Sir Gerald Kaufman, veteran Labour Member of Parliament and former minister was talking to me just before he had to rush off to take part in a parliamentary debate on the latest Gaza conflict late on Thursday afternoon.
Kaufman, who is Jewish, is a long standing supporter of Israel, though a vociferous critic of both its current government and of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. But Kaufman is not blind to the Real Politik of the Middle East. He voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq, and more recently voted against a parliamentary investigation into the war.
During Thursday's three hour debate he told parliament the Israeli government was "cynically exploiting the continuing guilt from gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians". He said the Israeli claim that 500 of the 1,000 Palestinian victims of the conflict were militants "was the reply of the Nazi" and added: "I suppose Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants."
The debate revealed how out of step the UK government's inertia on the continuing violence is with parliamentarians of all political parties. It also follows two weekends of demonstrations in most of the UK's major cities against the Israeli offensive.
Opposition Conservative MP Hugo Swire, who chairs the Conservative Middle East Council and also supported the invasion of Iraq, called on the government to open talks with Hamas. He insisted the elected Hamas administration in Gaza had a more democratic mandate than Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has of course ruled by decree for the last two years and the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah has not met for more than a year.
Another Conservative, former Northern Ireland minister Michael Ancram, said he had spoken to Hamas leaders who were willing to acknowledge the existence of Israel, but added Israel's actions made it harder for moderates to win support.
In addition to several calls for economic sanctions against Israel, a number of MPs called on the government to recall the UK ambassador from Israel and expel the Israeli Ambassador from the UK.
But lively as the debate was, it is extremely unlikely to have any impact on what passes for government policy on the conflict.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband missed the debate because he was visiting India. But speaking in parliament earlier in the week he insisted the ill fated UK authored UN resolution calling for a cease fire was evidence of the government's hard work and commitment to solving the conflict despite the fact that it was ignored by both sides and only passed after America agreed to abstain rather than use its veto. If this kind of abject failure is how the government measures success I'd hate to see what it considers failure.
Miliband firmly ruled out severing diplomatic ties or imposing sanctions, insisting that would simply isolate Israel. He also ruled out talks with Hamas. He did call for abuse allegations made by both sides to be investigated, although he neglected to say who should investigate them.
Israel has twice bombed United Nations buildings in Gaza during this offensive – insisting missiles had been fired from the premises, something the UN vehemently, and it seems quite rightly, deny. Therefore it is unlikely Tel Aviv will consider a UN led investigation to be entirely impartial. Mind you, considering the UN's long running probe into former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri's murder has so far yielded little, this may be a good thing. For the record, the Foreign Office had no idea who would carry out such an investigation either.
Meanwhile, as the violence in Gaza intensified, Quartet Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair was busy accepting the presidential medal of freedom from outgoing US president George W Bush for his support in the war on terror – a phrase Miliband poured scorn on during a speech in Mumbai this week.
Yet for all the criticism of the government, it should be remembered the UK is a bit player in all this. For that matter so too are the Palestinians. Israel has the support of the world's only superpower, and in reality, as the last eight years have shown, it doesn't have to talk to anyone outside of Washington. Hence Hamas - whose electoral success represents Palestinians anger at the failure of anybody to do anything about their plight - and with it Gaza, remain beyond the Pale.
The obscenity here is that Israel is well aware that negotiations with a weakend and all but bankrupt Abbas, such as the now dead in the water Annapolis talks, are pointless. Having been ousted from Gaza, Abbas' authority is now seriously under threat in the West Bank. Annapolis, which Abbas supposed would lead to a comprehensive agreement with Israel by the end of 2008, has instead led to the death of at least 292 children in Gaza since the offensive started, none of whom voted for Hamas in the last election, along with the death of more than 700 adults.
Will this change when the new administration starts work this week?
The former Northern Ireland minister Ancram made a telling point during the parliamentary debate when he said peace in Northern Ireland was only achieved when the White House became heavily involved and former US senator George Mitchell took charge of chairing the talks process. He called on incoming president Barak Obama to make a similar commitment to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the government here will continue to watch and wait until Israel decides its time to stop hostilities. Welcome to 2009.
Michael Glackin is a journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.