How can progressives support those working for peace in the Middle East?

14th January, 2009 8:08 pm

Gaza PictureBy Sunder Katwala

There are two competing histories of the Middle East conflict, two competing narratives of right and wrong, and of political responsibility for the failure of previous peace efforts. Yet there is little secret about how the conflict would finally be settled, if it is to be settled politically at all.

The internet can be a civic space where creative efforts are made to build the mutual empathy on which peace depends. That does happen, but it is much too rare. It is easier to find discussions which descend into claim and counter-claim focused on allocating blame, not building peace. Those who challenge this tendency deserve our support.

Let me suggest five ways in which Labour members and progressives in the UK could try to support those working for peace and reconciliation.

1. Add your voice to calls for a cessation of violence and a fair peace settlement:

Avaaz, the international civic society campaigning group (using a broadly similar model to MoveOn in the United States), has a major petition running to call for “immediate action to ensure a comprehensive ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, to protect civilians on all sides, and to address the growing humanitarian crisis. Only through robust international action and oversight can the bloodshed be stopped, the Gaza crossings safely re-opened and real progress made toward a wider peace in 2009.”

Over 400,000 people have signed the call in just over a week – and a media campaign featuring this support is running to press US politicians to back a fair ceasefire and peace settlement.

Avaaz have previously run a series of imaginative initiatives, including billboards in Israel and Palestine on international support for peace.

The particularly emotive One Million Candles campaign and blog are also getting good traction.

2. Support humanitarian relief for Gaza:

The TUC has launched a Give to Gaza appeal, which states:

“All proceeds will be forwarded through the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) to support emergency humanitarian relief operations carried out by them in Gaza. All trade union relief operations are co-ordinated through Red Crescent in Jordan, Egypt and Gaza and focused on the identified needs of the people affected by the events. The first ITF-PGFTU humanitarian flight is due to leave for Gaza on 08 Jan 2009. The TUC supports an immediate ceasefire by both sides, and the pursuit of a political solution to the problems of the Middle East based on two states”.

3. Get informed:

Reject the view that peace is impossible – and back the international pressure needed from the new US government, Britain, Europe and the Arab world.

The International Crisis Group provides some of the best resources on conflict zones, including detailed analysis of the diplomacy needed to bring about peace in the Middle East.

The many efforts to promote peace and reconciliation within the region include that of the One Voice Movement which has brought together 650,000 people, including broadly equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians.

The change of administration in the United States offers an important opportunity. What steps might they take? There is a long essay on new US Middle East strategy for the Obama administration in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.

Among the best newspapers in the region are Lebanon’s Daily Star and the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. I also recommend Daniel Levy’s Prospects for Peace blog, for clear analysis of future US policy options to promote peace, aimed primarily at the US audience. This is an Israeli perspective on the need for a fair peace settlement, and why that can only happen with deep US and interntional engagement.

A rare publication – in that it can even lead to an optimism about the possibility of a fair peace – is Tony Klug’s paper ‘How Peace Broke Out in the Middle East’ – an imaginative ‘future history’ of how a peace settlement came about. This is a work of fiction, but not a fantasy, and also painstakingly traces how the steps involved have already publicly countenanced by the principal actors.

The Fabian Society published the paper in 2007 and it was widely praised by senior Palestinian and Israeli voices and cross-party foreign policy experts in the UK. (One bitter irony sixteen months later was that Ehud Olmert, just as he became a lame duck prime minister, gave an interview using precisely the argument and language for peace of Klug’s fictional Olmert).

4. Avoid ‘whataboutery’ – raise the tone of the debate when we talk about the Middle East in Britain:

Kudos to Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy for his challenge to the futile ‘whataboutery’, which dominates too much web discussion.

At its most tragic, whataboutery involves using a previous atrocity to justify the next act of violence.

At its most futile, it simply involves being interested only in endlessly discussing the historic blame game, and never how to change the pattern for the future.

One more trivial example is the right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes’ call on his readers to donate to send pizza to IDF soldiers. The childish desire to shock and the tone which treats war, and its civilian casualties, as entertainment goes well beyond his usual scurrilous baiting of the political classes (and I am sure would appal most of those who feel Israel’s actions are, regrettably, necessary).

5. Promote cross-community dialogue in the UK too:

Thanks to Asim Siddiqui and Adrian Cohen for their constructive joint Comment is Free piece, promoting dialogue between Muslim and Jewish communities. It is important to be firm and clear in opposing anti-semitism and anti-Muslim prejudice, but also to ask how British Muslims and Jews could work together.

In a similar spirit, I wish good luck to the newly formed Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East group which Martin Linton MP and others launched with a letter to the Foreign Secretary this month. There is a well established Labour Friends of Israel group.

Though I understand that both are committed to a two state solution, I am sure the two groups will have different analysis of the Gaza and Middle East crisis: there is no reason to fear that debate between colleagues. My modest suggestion would be that they should consider working together on a jointly sponsored event to bring together all of the many Labour Friends of Israel and Palestine, to ask what more the Labour government and party members could do to promote a fair peace settlement.

Finally, I want to be clear that support for a fair peace settlement does not mean being ‘neutral’ or even-handed about every disputed issue.

In one sense, I am firmly in the middle ground of this polarised conflict. I desperately want to see a just and fair settlement which brings peace and security to both Israelis and Palestinians. There remains a solid consensus among most of those working for peace, within the region and internationally about what a settlement would involve, with a secure Israel within its 1967 borders, a viable Palestinian state, and a broader regional settlement.

Personally, I believe Israel’s current military operation is wrong. I believe the Hamas missile attacks are wrong too, and want to see a cessation of all violence. I recognise Israel’s responsibility to protect its own citizens, but believe that this must be undertaken in a way which respects international law and its particular responsibilities to the stateless Palestinians too, and that the scale of civilian casualties can not be justified.

I accept that there are different views about this, including in the Labour Party. (A small minority of MPs believe that, while the conflict is regrettable, Israel’s actions are justified with responsibility for the crisis lying solely with Hamas. Others believe the government and party should be more vocal in criticising the Israeli action). But my sense is that there is a broad consensus in support of the government’s approach, which has been much less controversial than over the Lebanon crisis two years ago, when the government was too slow to call publicly for a cessation of violence, particularly its efforts at the UN and to engage the incoming Obama administration.

This has not been enough to bring about the peace we should all want to see. But this must be a moment to redouble those efforts – and to ensure they are helping to promote peace, not division and polarisation.

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