Matthew Gordon-Banks

Why British politicians cannot speak freely about Israel-Gaza

There has been huge criticism from some quarters in UK about media coverage, especially BBC coverage, of events relating to Israel and Palestine. Equally there has been huge criticism of the Police for not taking action against many people demonstrating in support of the Palestinian community, or simply holding or flying a Palestinian flag. Often it has come from people who in most respects are very decent people. Sometimes they claim it is a Fascist or Leftist stance by the ‘demonstrators’. It almost always comes from those who have little idea about how the current right-wing Israeli coalition government has broken the status quo in Israeli politics and is led by a man in Netanyahu who is clinging to office to prevent having to face huge corruption charges in Court, likely to lead to his imprisonment. There are Parties in power now in Israel who have been excluded one way or another from government before.

It is instructive that many of those people who complain about the BBC or the Police are also anti-Russian and have little idea about why Russia invaded Ukraine. Furthermore it is even more instructive to see how – in a week when a large shipment of rare 155mm artillery shells vital to Ukraine have been diverted to Israel – attention has moved swiftly from Ukraine to Israel. Even allowing for the fact that Ukraine is losing that conflict and Washington and its followers have not yet worked out how to end it in a face-saving way, Israel has been slowly engineering support in key western capitals, in a similar way to China slowly ‘taking over the world’ economically and without military action, for many years.

Notwithstanding the fact that President Biden has a very long history of support for Israel and his administration has a great deal to lose in an Israeli ‘defeat’, over many decades Israel has undertaken a long, very well funded campaign of ‘public and PR affairs’ designed to ensure support for the State of Israel. In UK, the largest Parliamentary groupings are Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel. The same is true in Washington. Ukraine has a big lobby in Washington and London but they pale into insignificance when compared to Israel. In London there is palpable pressure to join either of these organisations or in itself be seen as ‘anti-semitic’.

I found it very hard declining at least three invitations from Conservative Friends of Israel during a five year spell as a Member of Parliament. I love travel and issues relating to international relations but these visits are at best ‘heavily biased’ tours with a ‘rather unbalanced’ programme. I found it especially difficult because the then Director of CFI, Stuart Pollak now Lord Pollak, from whom my invitations were received had relatives in my constituency. My personal relations with him were good. He knew I attended events in the Jewish calendar at both the Orthodox and Reformed synagogues in my constituency. Remembrance Sunday – a big event in a constituency at that time the tenth most elderly in UK – was also a diary issue for me because the two synagogues could never agree! Apart from the huge number of events I had to attend, it required two separate engagements, one at each synagogue, in a busy weekend, in spite of the Jewish community being a very small minority in the town. I am satisfied I did my duty as well as any MP could.

The list of organisations set up in UK and the US, or other organisations ‘infiltrated’, being used to promote an Israeli line is huge. If anyone dares to disagree or question an Israeli policy or action they are frequently accused of being Anti-Semitic; especially people who clearly are not. It is against that background that the UK government and its official Opposition are ham-strung in speaking out in favour of a proportionate response by Israel to the recent attacks by Hamas and avoiding war crimes and genocide. The UK never went in and flattened nationalist areas of Belfast when there was an atrocity for which the IRA claimed responsibility; and the Gaza situation is many, many times worse. If thousands and thousands of unarmed civilians are now killed in Gaza it will be a war crime. Yet let me be clear, I have frequently condemned what Hamas has recently done to Israeli civilians. Anyone doubting this should listen to the normally staunch ally of the West, King Hussein of Jordan. Indeed the majority of the Muslim-Arab world is united in this regard and so too is the ‘Global South’.¬† The pressure exerted on the democratic process which has developed in US/UK over a long time period inhibits many¬† decent politicians urging caution and proportionality, publicly at least.

It is at least worth welcoming a recent modification to UK government advocacy, emphasising humanitarian efforts and their need. Rishi Sunak the Prime Minister has been able to do a good job of urging our Arab friends to do what they can to assist in humanitarian efforts in order to prevent a huge catastrophe. This is in marked contrast to the President of the United States who has allowed himself over many years in the Senate, as Vice-President and now in the White House to be over-extended to the point he cannot easily push back. Neither can he easily be seen as an ‘honest broker’ by the rest of the countries in the Middle East. The Saudi Crown Prince kept US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken waiting all night to see him and then gave him only fifteen minutes in a rather one-sided conversation.

Perhaps the BBC should concentrate on inviting ‘grown-ups’ into its studios like Lord (Peter) Ricketts a former senior diplomat and ex chairman of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, or retired General Sir Simon Mayall who is also a senior advisor on the Middle East at the UK Ministry of Defence. Their experienced and measured assessments might help a nation not at ease with itself about issues they lack a great deal of detail. Hamas cannot be simply eradicated by exterminating the Palestinians Gaza; it requires proportionality.

We need to be tough on Hamas but tough on the causes of Palestinian resentment, otherwise there can be no long term peace.


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