Labour can be ambitious in its Middle East policy

If Labour wins the next general election, the political and economic landscape of the Middle East will look rather different than when Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street in 1997.

Although already faltering, much optimism still surrounded the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was on the verge of winning the Iranian presidency. And only two Arab nations – Egypt and Jordan – maintained diplomatic relations with Israel.

Today, direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians seem a distant prospect; Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes continue to grow in strength, while its neo-imperialist influence – exercised through proxy armies such as Hezbollah – has vastly expanded throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords process has seen the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco normalise ties with Israel, with speculation growing that Saudi Arabia may soon join them. At the same time, while the human rights situation remains parlous in many of the region’s authoritarian regimes, research suggests a youthful population is emerging that rejects religious fundamentalism and women’s exclusion in favour of jobs, growth and peace.

The challenges and opportunities presented by this new Middle East are the focus of LFI’s new publication: “Britain and the Middle East: priorities for the next Labour government”.

It reflects a return under Keir Starmer and David Lammy to the internationalist tradition which guided Labour governments from Clement Attlee to Gordon Brown.

Much has changed since we left office in 2010. The Conservatives’ low aspirations for our country have left Britain weaker on the world stage and less confident in its ability to help affect progressive change.

But we must not forget the fundamental strengths which Britain maintains. In terms of military, economic and diplomatic power, the UK remains an important global player. We remain one of only five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Despite the cuts imposed by the Conservatives, the UK’s soft power – exemplified by the BBC, British Council and the international aid budget – is substantial.

In the Middle East, these assets are supplemented by particular strengths. The UK has good relations, based on strong historic ties, with both Israel and much of the Arab world. These ties are reinforced by shared security concerns and strong economic bonds. Additionally, the Northern Ireland peace process over the past 30 years provides Britain with conflict-resolution experience, skills and insights.

So how can a Labour government best utilise British influence in the region?

First, while the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains at an impasse, that’s no excuse for inaction. In 1986, during the darkest days of the Troubles, the International Fund for Irelandlater described by Britain’s chief negotiator, Jonathan Powell, as “the great unsung hero of the peace process” – was established. It laid the civic society foundations for the peace process, promoting the values of reconciliation and coexistence, and building strong constituencies for an agreement.

In opposition, Labour has endorsed an International Fund for Israel-Palestinian Peace. In government, it should prioritise investment in people-to-people projects and host a meeting with our international partners to agree the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.

Second, a Labour government should also support steps towards the establishment of a viable, democratic and independent Palestinian state through renewed investment in the Palestinian Authority. This state-building investment should be linked to measures to end incitement and improve Palestinian governance and human rights.

Third, as part of a series of steps designed to narrow the parameters and foster confidence, a Labour government should also support a settlement freeze. This step must be accompanied by, and be part of a process involving, reciprocal confidence-building measures on the part of the PA and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia.

Fourth, Labour should seek to deepen the burgeoning bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel – pursuing the adoption and implementation of a free trade agreement and enhancing military and security ties – and oppose the effort to demonise and delegitimise the Jewish state.

Finally, a Labour government should work to promote regional peace, security, and democracy. That means countering the threat posed by Tehran. A Labour government should, as it is pledged to do, proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation; shut down Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological centres in the UK that have been consistently propagating Islamist extremism and expel the supreme leader’s official representative in Britain; and establish a task force for identifying and sanctioning Iranian regime oligarchs, elites, and proxies in the UK, just as it has in relation to Putin’s regime.

As the fiscal situation allows, a Labour government should begin reversing cuts to the international aid budget and examine new ways to strengthen civic societies. Trade unions, for instance, don’t just advance the rights of workers, they’re also strong bridges across sectarian and religious divides. A Labour government should work with the TUC to establish a fund which supports independent trade unions in the region.

This agenda – one rooted in Labour values and traditions – can command support from across the party and use Britain’s influence in the region for good.


If you enjoyed this piece, read more about the future challenges and opportunities for Labour’s future foreign policy in Fighting Goliath: The Global Stakes in Ukraine.