Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Cameron is at sea in the Middle East

The Daily Star
Tuesday, August 12 2014
By Michael Glackin

When the French philosopher and avowed atheist Voltaire was asked on his death bed to renounce Satan, he famously replied: “My good man, this is no time to be making enemies.”

Like Voltaire, British Prime Minister David Cameron also thought silence was the wisest option when he ignored the chorus of condemnation for Israel’s bloody military campaign in Gaza. Unfortunately, Cameron’s silence only succeeded in rousing his enemies. The prime minister’s failure to condemn Israel’s actions, or offer a view of whether its military response to Hamas’ rockets was “proportionate,” ignited a firestorm of criticism within his own party, with parliamentarians fearing his stance would cost them their seats in next year’s election.

In fact, with just eight months until the next election, the Gaza conflict has suddenly ambushed Cameron in much the same way as the Israeli attack against Lebanon in 2006 ensnared his predecessor Tony Blair, eventually helping facilitate his ouster.

Cameron has steadfastly refused to criticize, let alone condemn, the civilian slaughter in Gaza in which almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have died. Around 400 of the dead are children. Israel has said that 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

For a man who four years ago described Gaza as a prison camp, Cameron has shown apathy to carnage that has led to a minor revolt within his government. Earlier this month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the United Kingdom’s first female Muslim Cabinet minister, resigned from her junior post in the Foreign Office, condemning Cameron’s Gaza policy as “morally indefensible.” Her resignation could potentially weaken Conservative Party support among ethnic minorities in marginal seats in next May’s election.

More worrying for Cameron, the issue has provided a catalyst for a number of his senior colleagues to turn on him, including the government’s former legal adviser Dominic Grieve.

The junior partner in Cameron’s coalition government, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, has also called for a ban on all arms exports to Israel, worth around $14 billion to the U.K., and for direct talks between the Israeli government and Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, whose Jewish father and grandfather escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Britain during World War II, condemned what he called Cameron’s “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.”

If all that wasn’t enough, Cameron’s biggest rival for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the popular Mayor of London, announced his intention to return to parliament in next year’s election. The move is widely seen as a precursor for him to challenge Cameron. Johnson was quick to describe Israel’s military action as “disproportionate” and “ugly.”

But amid the criticism and Cameron’s seeming indifference to the bloodshed, it is worth asking what exactly is British policy toward Gaza, and indeed to the wider Palestinian issue?

The government itself doesn’t seem able to articulate a strategy beyond the usual platitudes of “resolving the issues underlying the conflict,” and a commitment to “a two-state solution,” all of which should be taken with a bucket of salt.

The reality is the U.K. hasn’t uttered a meaningful word of protest in the years that Israel has consistently ignored calls for a dialogue to address the Palestinians’ plight. Having refused to engage meaningfully with the moderates, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has eroded the credibility of the negotiating process, deliberately pushing people toward the extremists whom Israel makes great play of refusing to negotiate with.

The U.K. has been happy to support this subterfuge. Such dialogue that does take place is merely a shroud that can no longer hide the obscenity that apparently no one cares what happens to Palestinians, even when their children are murdered. And in this, British policy toward Gaza is in line with the U.K.’s wider Middle East strategy, which is to ignore all crises and hope either the United States resolves them or that they blow over.

That said, the U.K. is, like much of the West, aware that against the backdrop of an increasingly unstable Middle East, even by the chaotic standards of the region, there is a wider proxy war being fought in Gaza, one with Iran at its center.

That is because the primary regional issue is Iran’s nuclear ambitions, caught between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s desire to trade parts of the program for a relaxation of sanctions and a free hand to increase Tehran’s regional influence, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s apparent desire to trade nothing.

The desperation of Washington to reach a deal with Tehran before year’s end has spooked the West’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They fear the price for an agreement will see Iranian influence expanding at their expense. Like Israel, nothing short of the destruction of Tehran’s nuclear program will satisfy Riyadh and Cairo.

In a deliberate provocation to both countries, Khamenei recently called on Muslims to unite and defend Gaza, a crude attempt to position Iran as a regional leader for all Muslims, despite the earlier cooling of relations between Tehran and Hamas over the Syrian conflict. Iranian backing is crucial for Hamas, for while Qatar and Turkey – both keen to usurp Egypt’s regional influence – are substantial backers of the group, Iran appears to be its only reliable source of arms.

The U.K. sees Iran as a destabilizing influence. Its presence looms large in regional trouble spots – in Iraq, Syria and through Hezbollah in Lebanon too. Against that backdrop, the U.K., like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates and Jordan, is mindful that Hamas’ destruction in Gaza would cut off another potential sphere of Iranian influence in the Arab world.

At the same time, crushing Hamas, combined with the routing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both of whom won power through the ballot box, has the added appeal to a number of conservative Arab regimes of consigning the idea of democracy as a panacea for the region’s ills to the dustbin of history.

The U.K.’s reaction to this is to quietly cheer. For all Cameron’s espousal of democracy when he visited Egypt just weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, he has happily supported the military coup there which ousted the elected President Mohammad Morsi. It also explains Cameron’s silence over Gaza.

What political game plan remains will be centered on trying to re-establish the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The problem, as one politician pointed out to me last week, is that while the recent Palestinian unity government, including Fatah and Hamas, may have delivered a more compliant Hamas, the Gaza conflict makes any compromise much less likely.

Any attempt by Abbas to do business with Israel that did not involve the removal of both the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza will discredit him further in the eyes of most Palestinians.

With that in mind, and if the U.K. is serious about “resolving the issues underlying the conflict” it is surely time the government finally abandoned its refusal to talk to Hamas and bring it into a political framework with Abbas.

Regardless of Cameron’s silence, the bigger picture must surely be to get the gun out of Middle East politics and get all sides talking. As Churchill said, “to jaw jaw, is better than to war war.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

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