How carnage in Gaza is reshaping Britain’s foreign policy

How carnage in Gaza is reshaping Britain’s foreign policy

Palestinians find their home city unrecognizable in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. (AP)
Palestinians find their home city unrecognizable in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. (AP)
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After the terror of Oct. 7 and Israel’s immediate response, there were those who predicted that a prolonged conflict with Hamas, as an episode in the seemingly irresolvable issues between Israel and Palestinians, might this time be different in character from previous ones, and have a more profound impact overseas than in the past.

They were right. Not only were the Hamas brutality and Israel’s reprisals more intense than ever before, but the world that watched was different too. With graphic scenes of violence, sometimes verifiable and sometimes not, viewed no longer through only the prism of mainstream news but now from many more sources, the impact of war was always likely to produce more agonized responses than in the past from those who witnessed them vicariously.

But it was also recognized that there would be a wide international political as well as human impact, as Western demographics, following steady and increasing migration, had changed, and that new voices and influences were finding their way to national stages, media, pollsters and politicians: and this in a year of elections that will determine not only national destinies, but also international relationships. One parliamentary by-election in the UK has already been decided solely on the Gaza issue, returning the maverick pro-Palestinian politician George Galloway to the House of Commons.

There have always been domestic political disagreements in the UK over policy toward Israel and Palestine, but, as in the US, the current conflict is taking these to new levels. In the past two weeks we have begun to see a rift on Israel in the ruling Conservative Party that is genuinely unprecedented, and — bearing in mind it retains the levers of foreign policy for up to a further nine months before a general election it is expected to lose — may have a direct bearing on that policy.

Recent administrations’ support for Israel has been deep. The Conservative government were strong supporters of the Abraham Accords, and the Palestinian cause has historically struggled to get its voice heard in the party, with few public advocates.

Foreign policy since 2010 reflected this. Despite noting, and “expressing concern” frequently over the advance of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, and voicing still deeper concern and calling for investigation of incidents of the Israeli army’s live fire at the “right of return” protests in 2018, no consequential action followed: and despite misgivings, including doubts among ministers, there was unity over decisions taken.

The UK’s signals are clear: Israel will not have unconditional support for what its current hard right-wing government might wish to do next

Alistair Burt

This unity is now being seriously stretched. First, David Cameron’s tenure as Foreign Secretary is marked by a stronger tone of difference than ever before with the way in which Israel is exercising its “right to self-defense.” That he raised in February the possibility of recognizing a State of Palestine not at the conclusion of a bilateral negotiation between the parties but as a unilateral UK catalyst, was a departure from previous policy. This was followed by a statement on April 7 that support for Israel was “not unconditional,” as the debate about a possible suspension of arms sales from the UK gathered pace, in light of the huge civilian casualties in Gaza and the Israel’s killing of UK aid workers.

A rebuff to this calibrated strengthening of the UK’s position has been seen at high levels. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden had to deny differences between Downing Street and the Foreign Office. But former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, echoed by leading right-wing newspapers, has taken a staunch position supporting the conduct of the Gaza war by Benjamin Netanyahu and calling a potential ban on arms sales “shameful” and “insane.” Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, known to have Conservative Party leadership ambitions, made a high-profile visit to Israel to demonstrate her support. Both she and Johnson made the case that questioning support for Israel would only encourage its enemies, who were also the UK’s enemies. There is support for this from a number of commentators and the right of the Conservative Party.

These very public clashes represent a previously unheard-of difference of opinion inside the governing party. A change in how Israel is seen may have profound consequences — a UN vote this month in favor of an immediate ceasefire was a demonstration of Cameron’s influence and sense of direction, and both this government and a potential Labour successor will have to take note of a movement of sympathies for what must follow the Gaza war. The UK’s signals are clear: Israel will not have unconditional support for what its current hard right-wing government might wish to do next, but there is more than one path to a future of justice and security for Israel and Palestine.

There should also be no mistake on the bigger picture. Israel’s public impunity from almost any criticism from UK society may have gone, but there remains no lack of UK resolve to support Israel in the face of existential threat or unjustifiable terror.

Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. X: @AlistairBurtUK


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