Anti-war activists are at the ready as imperial rumblings indicate a new phase for the region, writes Lindsey German
The alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, against Iran, is reaching crisis point again following the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister by the Saudis may well presage war between Israel and Iranian ally Hezbollah in Lebanon
This new crisis is, in effect, a continuation of the war over Syria, which has been raging for over half a decade and whose current phase is ending with the defeat of ISIS. The policy, followed by the western powers and their Middle East allies, especially Saudi Arabia, has failed in that they have not succeeded in overthrowing Assad.
The war is now continuing by other means - in Syria for sure, where Turkey is intervening directly against the Kurds, and the US has provided the air cover necessary for the Kurds to defeat ISIS on the ground. But the reason for increased Israeli and Saudi aggression towards Iran and its Hezbollah ally is the recognition that the Syrian war has not resolved the question of who is dominant in the region. The Saudis and Israelis are determined to resolve it now, and they are heartened by the backing of Donald Trump.
The first casualties are likely to be the people of Lebanon. Israel wants revenge for the defeat it suffered in 2006. It is talking about a much more fierce air war. But such a war is likely to draw in wider forces, including Russia and Iran, with potentially devastating consequences.
The role of the US and UK in this cannot be overstated. In particular, the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to, among other things, the rise of Iran as a central power in the Middle East and the growth of ISIS as a major force in the country from 2007. Those of us who opposed that war predicted that the consequences would last for decades. Sadly, that was true. I notice Tony Blair is urging full backing for Israel and Saudi in a war over Lebanon, on the grounds that these are the two ‘modernising’ countries in the region. Really? Actual modernisation would, of course, start with the end of colonial and imperialist intervention and control in the region. Not something I can imagine Blair being very keen on.
With any war, attempts are made to win public opinion to ‘our’ cause, and no doubt there will be much of this from the British government. Always we are told that anti-war campaigners are siding with the enemy, and that the enemy is much worse than our side. We should really have enough experience by now to know that the new Hitler never is quite that, that wars in opposition to brutal dictators don't end brutality and dictatorship, and that those of us who oppose the wars aren't supporting Russian repression, religious rule or women having to cover their heads. We're just opposing war, and we don't think the failings of Britain's enemies justify the unleashing of further hell on the people of the Middle East.
Patel's visit: about politics, not the ministerial code
There is a great deal of talk about Russian interference in other countries’ governments and political processes. Yet the blatant interference of the Israeli government in Britain's politics has been reduced to a question of protocol. It is much more than that. It is true that Priti Patel's holiday adventures are a blatant breach of the rules governing ministers’ conduct. It is also true that the official visit of another minister, Alastair Burt, was totally sidelined by her meetings with a range of people from the Israeli Prime Minister down.
But Patel's freelancing is about the whole of Israeli politics and its relationship to Britain. Let's consider some of the different elements. She has long wanted to shift the fairly miserable amount of aid that Britain sends to Gaza, and wants, incredibly, to channel it to the Israeli army, the IDF. To this end she visited an IDF hospital in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was part of a delegation there last year, so there's obviously a pattern here.
One of the items for discussion by Patel in Israel was anti-Semitism in British politics. This is part of the wider attempt to link criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and to use it in particular to attack Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left. Already there has been some success by the Israeli government in rolling back support for the Palestinians by this means. The direct intervention by Israeli ambassador Mark Regev in political debate, for example recently in Manchester University, shows how important this is politically.
More widely, the Israeli government puts a lot of effort into winning support among politicians. Labour Friends of Israel is a stronghold of the Labour right. The Tory equivalent is clearly growing in political importance (its representative Lord Polak accompanied Patel on her visits) and it too contains many of the Tory right who sympathise with many of Donald Trump’s policies (as does Patel herself).
The speech from Emily Thornberry on the anniversary of the Balfour declaration was, to put it mildly, deeply disappointing in this context. It is also frightening given the wider context of the Middle East outlined above. Supporting Israel in this way has very dangerous implications. In particular, Labour MPs and those on the left should not be lulled into an uncritical attitude. Israel has displaced the Palestinians, is busily building illegal settlements and has occupied considerable areas of Palestinian land illegally since 1967. It is allied with the greatest military power in the world and the most reactionary and highly armed regime in the Middle East. Opposing this should be at the heart of Labour politics.
Time to put them out of their misery - and us out of ours
I don't know what it looks like up close but I find it fairly excruciating watching Theresa May from afar. She can barely sack a cabinet minister for fear of the whole shambles collapsing, she can't get a vote through parliament without the support of the DUP, her MPs keep abstaining because they don't want Labour to win a vote. She is bullied by Johnson and Gove to keep to hard Brexit, while the EU27 don't hide their contempt for her or her government, and do their own share of bullying from the other direction.
Her latest plan to fix in law the leaving date from the EU seems both reckless and pointless - reckless in that she will struggle to get it through parliament, and pointless in that it almost certainly won't be met. But most of her considerations are internal and obsessed with balancing Remain and Leave forces in the Tory party.
Meanwhile, the rest of us struggle on with falling wages, costly privatisations, a failing NHS and a housing crisis which the Tories do nothing about. There is no real government and in so far as it does anything, it doesn't benefit ordinary people. Putting May out of her misery and having an election would also help put us out of ours, because we would have the chance to vote against these policies and for ones which put public services, jobs, and housing as priority.
The recent yes ballots for industrial action, in unions such as CWU and PCS, the growing levels of combativity in particular workplaces, and the plethora of protests on the streets all point to the possibility of change. I will be protesting before the budget next week as part of the People's Assembly day of action where we'll be calling for the Tories to be sacked. They deserve nothing less.
Europe: a tale of double standards
An estimated 60,000 marched in Warsaw in support of right wing and racist ideas, with clearly a hardcore of fascists at its centre. Keeping Europe white seemed to be a dominant slogan. The far right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim discourse is as strong as it has been for many years in large parts of Europe. Austria and Germany have both seen relatively big wins for far right parties, and Hungary and Poland have governments which lean towards the far right. This alone should temper the view held by liberals and some of the left in this country that the EU represents a bastion of liberalism and open-mindedness.
As worrying is the complicity of the EU over the appalling behaviour of the right wing Spanish government towards Catalonia. Ministers are imprisoned and an arrest warrant sworn for the leader of the Catalan parliament. This is treated, not as a major breach of legal and humanitarian rights for those involved in politics but, as an internal Spanish affair. It isn't. It should concern all of us, as should the actions of the EU which belie its image of liberalism.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December