Martin Linton says Western inaction equals complicity in the malign policies of the new extreme right government in Israel
To the outsider it must look as though there are two wars going on in Israel/Palestine. On the one hand, the war in the West Bank between settlers and Palestinians over land, and on the other hand, a war between the Netanyahu government and the relatively ‘liberal’ half of the population over Netanyahu’s attempted top-down coup d’état which effectively castrates the Supreme Court and gives dictatorial powers to the prime minister.
The two wars appear unrelated, involving different groups of people. Very few Palestinians joined the protesters who blocked the motorways in Tel-Aviv, and only a very few ‘liberal’ Israelis ventured into the West Bank villages that were being ransacked by settlers. Yet they are related. Netanyahu’s war on the Supreme Court has a dual purpose: firstly, to clear the ground of legal obstacles to the de facto annexation of the West Bank, and secondly, to give Netanyahu legal immunity from the corruption charges he has been fighting in the courts.
Within Israel, these wars have split the country along a San Antonio faultline that runs between, on one side, settlers, ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalists, and on the other, the secular middle-of-the-road self-described ‘liberals’ whose concern is to protect Israel’s threadbare – many would say illusory – claim to be a democracy.
In the West, however, everyone claims to be on the same side, supporting the two-state solution and condemning both the comments of minister Bezalel Smotrich, who called for the village of Huwara to be “wiped out”, and the proposed laws removing the powers of the Supreme Court to overrule the Knesset.
However, we in the West have our own San Antonio fault dividing opinion roughly into halves. On the one side are people who condemn what is happening but will do nothing about it. On the other side, there are those who not only condemn but are prepared to take action. If you like, hypocrites versus idealists.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the West are all in the first category. They believe that if they do nothing, nothing will happen. But they are wrong. Doing nothing is seen by the Israelis as granting immunity. It emboldens the state, its soldiers and settlers to be ever more brutal towards Palestinians. It is the prevarication of the West that causes the deterioration.
There is an urgent need for Western governments to take account of this. For decades they have claimed there is “nothing we can do”. This is clearly wrong. The West, acting together, could easily exert enough pressure on Israel to stop the settlements, the evictions, the land theft. On the rare occasions when real pressure has been tried, it has worked.
Macron told Netanyahu in early February that if he went ahead with his so-called judicial reforms, France would be “forced to conclude that Israel has broken away from the prevailing perception of democracy”. In March, the White House described Smotrich’s comments as “irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting”. Biden finally overcame his reluctance to get involved. He summoned the Israeli ambassador, telling the press: “They cannot continue down this road. I’ve sort of made that clear.”
Sunak was the last to react. In March, he was shaking hands with Netanyahu on the steps of Downing Street, having invited him over to sign a 20-page “UK-Israel Roadmap” and issued a press release with only the mildest, most oblique reference to “the importance of upholding the democratic values” in relation to the “proposed judicial reforms in Israel”.
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP support recognition of Palestine and a ban on settlement trade. The Labour Party has promised to recognise Palestine “immediately” on winning an election, but while Labour Conference has voted for the use of sanctions, including a ban on settlement trade, the leadership is not committed to any specific action.
The imminent publication of the Government’s anti-boycott bill will give Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy an opportunity to turn the situation around, but it remains to be seen whether they will take it.
There are a few Conservative MPs who call for stronger action. When MPs were queuing up at question time to ask the Foreign Secretary for evidence that condemning Israeli actions had even the slightest effect, Sir Desmond Swayne, a former aid minister, pointedly asked him, “Does there come a time when simply raising issues is not enough?”
Swayne made the point even more eloquently in a Commons debate on Israeli evictions from a Bedouin village in 2019. Faced with a minister who roundly condemned the evictions but proposed no action, he said, “By our refusal to act we make ourselves complicit, don’t we?” That is the truth. We are complicit. Not by our actions but by our inaction. The UK could take action. It is arguably the country best placed to take action. Many smaller countries would follow a UK lead. The UK could become part of the solution. At the moment, we are a part of the cause.