It is hard to look at world events today and feel hopeful. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the Hamas orgy of violence on October 7th (again) bring to mind Irish poet WB Yeats’ words from 1919’s The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.
For all the horror we have seen, and continue to see, progressives should resist falling into despair. But we must understand though that while the fighting is today confined to a small area of Gaza, the crisis it has precipitated affects more and more people and states. It is a widening gyre.
A ballistic missile fired from Yemen was intercepted on its way to the Israeli city of Eilat. I’ve recently been in Iraqi Kurdistan whose territory was once used by Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missile attacks on Israel. Shia militia have recently targeted American assets there. Kurds know how their peace is fragile.
De-escalating the conflict, preserving regional peace, and saving the lives of Israelis and Gazans requires us to seek feasible means of ending the suffering by asserting both Israeli and Palestinian rights.
One-sided agitation may fan the flames and convince Israelis, under the awful leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu (whose days in office are numbered), that they are alone. Such loneliness will not make them back down. The common wisdom I heard in Israel in 2014, during the last Hamas missile war, is that Israel needs only lose once – every conflict is existential.
Western Leaders are acutely aware of this, which seems to have drawn them relatively unanimously to a policy of dialogue with Israel. But the lack of a decisive condemnatory message is causing protest on the streets of many of their capitals.
This is mostly motivated by genuine anguish about the deaths of innocent civilians. But sadly wherever there is a protest there is a hard-left infrastructure that is disinterested in stopping conflict and looking to capitalize and recruit. They lead the chants “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and are followed by concerned citizens, naively unaware that this could spur genocide and exodus.
The worst are handmaidens for racist and misogynistic extremism. They peddle baseless assertions such as “Apartheid Israel” or accusations of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” Israel is not a country free of discrimination and racism, but this level of exaggeration is sinister and motivated by a desire to delegitimise one side of a conflict that can only be resolved by two sides coming together. It is anti-peace.
Toxic and casual antisemitism is part of the brew too. But neither entirely explains the scale of protest. The rapid and often unchallenged spread of amorphous theories from the academy to mainstream politics and corporate life put Israel alone in the dock and disdain its people.
Yascha Mounk identifies “the rise of a new set of ideas that put simplistic identity categories at the centre of how to see the world – and end up distorting our ability to comprehend it.” He cites a definition of racism “that blinds people to injustices against any group that is perceived to be dominant. It divides the world into simplistic categories of oppressors and oppressed, of whites and people of colour, of colonisers and the colonised – and then concludes that any kind of cruelty is justified on behalf of the marginalised.”
It is this context that makes it so hard to imagine taking badges, placards, and leaflets adorned jointly with Palestinian and Israeli flags damning the Pogrom and advocating a two-state solution. We would get short shrift or worse. It is these intellectual frameworks that allows mass deaths in Syria, repression in Iran, and genocide of the Uighurs to pass unmarked by similar protest.
Progressives should retrieve universalist aspirations based on common humanity, respect, and class in a huge battle to define a decent left, and as the German Green Vice Chancellor has ably done and as we did before.
This is not some abstract plea. Universalism is not an airy metaphysical doctrine. It is the fundamental condition for lasting peace, as I know from my time working on Northern Ireland (for two decades).
In many ways that conflict set a template for current debate in the UK. Some activists seized on a picture of the conflict that, while it had wilting grains of truth, didn’t reflect the developing reality. They demonized what they dubbed an artificial, illegitimate, and Orange statelet, ignoring the British governments steady retreat from Unionist domineering.
The far left supported republican paramilitaries. They sowed illusions of their progressiveness and excused vile and sectarian methods as the actions of the oppressed. Concerns for Catholics and anger about British military actions such as Bloody Sunday were legitimate. But there was also a deep superficiality about the history as some fought from a safe distance to the last drop of someone else’s blood.
Their Troops Out Now demand would have given free rein to the IRA. One-sided agitation sustained IRA delusions that armed struggle could overcome majority wishes to stay in the UK or seek peaceful change. Leftists scorned and spurned unity based on class and common humanity.
Again, though it is important to acknowledge the pain felt by both sides. Incorrect suspicions of Irish people here as a fifth column was appalling and rightly sparked backlashes. I once chided the Beckenham Tory MP in the Telegraph for crassly suggesting that Ireland should pay compensation for IRA actions. Some had a sneaking regard for “the boys,” as a small minority did in America, but most Irish people opposed the IRA and wanted peace.
Other countries played a major role through the International Fund for Ireland as could one for Israel/Palestine peace now.
The IRA was eventually defeated by adroit political, economic, and security measures as well as broad British/Irish peace campaigns, with trade union heft, that delegitimised paramilitarism and in which I was heavily engaged. The intellectual defeat of “anti-imperialism” allowed Labour to secure the Belfast Agreement.
It ended an intractable conflict between ancestral voices on narrow ground – Great Hatred, Little Room.
The two state solution of a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state remains the only rational answer. All is not lost. Friends who know Saudi Arabia well describe a rapid pace of reform and it has not abandoned rapprochement with Israel.
Tom Friedman describes a moment “comparable to 1945 or 1989” and the hope for “…a new, more pluralistic Middle East built around Palestinians, other Arabs and Israelis focused on strengthening their people’s resilience for the future and not their resistance to each other and to the West.” The stakes are incredibly high.
Should things go right at the next election Labour has a gargantuan task in helping turn bloodshed into peace and reconciliation. The party must, therefore, convincingly uphold its analysis and principles for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians and keep proving that it is fit for office. Keir Starmer has passionately delivered that.
The call for a ceasefire is an understandable cry of grief and concern but is not realistic for now, as Bernie Sanders recognises. It would allow Hamas to reload. Degrading and deterring its ability to repeat rape and rampage is a legitimate goal and allow 200,000 internally displaced Israelis to return home.
Humanitarian pauses to support innocent Gazans and upholding international law are also vital. Feel the pain of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Back a two-state solution. Focus on how the people of Gaza can be helped to rebuild their society after Hamas.
Anything less could dangerously roil the Middle East and the world for decades to come.
For more on foreign policy, see Gary Kent’s previous piece, Conferences and Conflicts: Why Labour needs clarity at home and abroad.