Wednesday 20 December 2023

Depart Markedly From Western Norms

When Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October, the scale and brutality of its assault won the Jewish state one of the most powerful, if intangible, weapons in any country’s arsenal: international sympathy. For the first time in many decades, Israel could plausibly be viewed as a victim, and the international community broadly accepted both Israel’s moral right and political compulsion to extirpate Hamas from Gaza.

Just over two months later, and the poles have been reversed: the sheer scale of civilian fatalities in the Gaza war has caused even Israel’s closest allies to blanch. On Saturday the UK Foreign Secretary published a joint op-ed with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, observing that “too many civilians have been killed” and calling for “a sustainable ceasefire”. More pressingly for Israel, US President Joe Biden has warned that its “indiscriminate bombing” has meant that the country is “starting to lose [international] support”.

The proportion of civilian deaths already vastly outpaces America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the comparable air-led Coalition campaigns to root out Isis from Raqqa and Mosul. Around 25,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, including around 5,000 Hamas fighters according to Israel: roughly one-sixth of the group’s total numbers. Indeed, the proportion of civilian deaths is higher than the average for even the bloodiest 20th-century conflicts.

More of Gaza has been damaged or destroyed than the RAF managed in the bombing campaigns against Dresden and Cologne, now bywords for indiscriminate aerial bombing. According to US intelligence agencies, almost half of the munitions used have been unguided bombs, perhaps because Israel is storing up its guided munitions for potential use against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

While Israeli military casualties have been lower than anticipated at the beginning of the war — with only 129 soldiers killed in Gaza so far — the staggering scale of civilian deaths is in itself a strategic millstone for Israel. As pressure for a ceasefire builds, the US is urging Israel to transition to a lower-intensity phase of the conflict “in a matter of weeks, not months”. The risk for Israel is that, as well as eroding international legitimacy for its response to the 7 October atrocities, the scale of civilian deaths will force the IDF to call a halt to its campaign before it achieves its war aims of destroying Hamas.

Could things have been different? The only viable alternative solution for Israel would have been to accept a higher level of IDF casualties, in a ground-led operation in which aerial bombing would have been used sparingly, against targets of tactical opportunity. This would have followed Coalition practice in Raqqa and Mosul, though even then the two cities were largely levelled, with civilians killed in their thousands. Yet more carefully calibrated use of air power could have reframed the international debate away from the current binary between a total ceasefire and total military victory, affording Israel more space to conduct its campaign towards a successful conclusion.

Even here, however, success would depend on the IDF’s attitude towards preventing civilian harm. The killing this weekend by IDF ground troops of Israeli hostages waving a white flag and the “murder” by Israeli snipers of two Catholic women in a church compound highlights that either IDF rules of engagement or the level of training undertaken by its conscripts depart markedly from Western norms. As a consequence, civilian suffering may soon allow Hamas to claw back a bloody victory from the edge of military defeat. Disastrous for Palestinian civilians, the IDF’s seemingly lax attitude to target acquisition may be seen by Israelis, within a few weeks, as “worse than a crime, a mistake”.

And Aaron Bastani writes:

In recent decades “pragmatism” has been the preferred maxim for those of a centrist persuasion — in word if not always in deed. Pragmatism with public finances. Pragmatism with public sector reform. Pragmatism with housing.

But in the UK, there is one area where pragmatism doesn’t exist: foreign policy. Because while purported “common sense” at home is in order, when it comes to overseas our politicians demand that we think in grand, often overtly ideological terms. This has led to entirely avoidable, self-inflicted disasters, ranging from occupying Afghanistan to removing Gaddafi.

The bloodshed in Gaza, and its unfolding consequences, threaten a similar kind of disaster. In recognition of this fact, both Foreign Secretary David Cameron and his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock called for a “sustainable ceasefire” last weekend. This isn’t substantially different from before — with any ceasefire still being permissible only after Israel destroys Hamas. But even rhetorical shifts matter, particularly when events move so quickly.

With the Tories on the ropes, and Keir Starmer almost certain to become the next prime minister, this all raises an important question: what would a Labour government do? “Pragmatism” would dictate, surely, that after the hardest period for living standards since the 1950s, and with inflation now falling, avoiding further price rises (caused by shipping route blocks in the Red Sea) is the priority. “Common sense” would determine that, after the catastrophes of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is obviously foolish to confront an asymmetric actor in their backyard when an alternative remains available.

And yet it may well be that the emerging prudence of the British state gives way to more bluster, with a Labour government more disposed to abstract “principles”. Cameron has called for a “much more surgical, clinical and targeted approach when it comes to dealing with Hamas” while Rishi Sunak has said too many civilians are being killed. Starmer, meanwhile, has said nothing remotely similar — and declared in November that a ceasefire would only freeze the conflict. Ditto Wes Streeting, Secretary of State for Health, who was incredibly lightweight while discussing the issue over the weekend.

Presumably, for them, the interests of the wider region, or Europe, or Britain, are irrelevant. Maybe hundreds of thousands of Gazans being displaced and coming to Europe as refugees doesn’t matter. Maybe they simply haven’t thought about it.

There is, of course, another explanation. Namely that because demands for a ceasefire are viewed by many as supportive of Palestine, and therefore “Left-coded”, Labour’s leadership is eager to overcompensate in the opposite direction. Why else would Starmer let 10 frontbenchers, including Jess Philips, lose their jobs after voting for an SNP motion last month? That was avoidable and unnecessary, but Labour — as will likely prove to be the case in government — is eager to show its Atlanticist credentials on foreign policy.

Jeremy Corbyn may no longer lead the party, but his legacy means Starmer will overcompensate on issues where his predecessor sought to make waves — namely foreign policy and public ownership. For all the protests, the electoral consequences of that may touch a dozen seats at most. Far more important, however, is that it is a deeply unwise approach to foreign relations in an increasingly dangerous and fragmented world order. Beware the self-appointed pragmatists in politics. They often think the least.


  1. A sign of the times, the old Corbynite Bastani hedging his bets more than the Tory realist Roussinos.

    1. I do not know what Starmer has promised Bastani, but expect a lot more of this sort of thing.