Analysis: LFI launches The New Middle East: A Progressive Approach

LFI this week launches a major new publication on the changing shape of the Middle East. From demographic changes to diplomatic revolutions, and the growing threat posed by an expansionist Iran, The New Middle East: A Progressive Approach is designed to contribute to the evolution of Labour’s foreign policy development.

What’s in it

  • The LFI publication contains contributions from politicians, academics and policy specialists in the Middle East and the UK.
  • Speaking ahead of the launch this evening, LFI chair Steve McCabe said: “This is an important contribution from LFI to the timely debate on the future of Labour’s foreign policy approach towards the Middle East. Recent years have seen an obsessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the Labour party, which has obscured our ability to respond to the seismic shifts taking place in the wider region. This pamphlet is a useful corrective to that problem, laying out many of the ongoing changes and the principles necessary for Labour’s foreign policy to match its aspirations as a responsible party of government under Keir Starmer.”
  • The launch event will be held on Zoom event at 6pm tonight, featuring a number of contributors, including Wayne David, shadow minister for the Middle East and North Africa; John Lyndon, executive director, the Alliance for Middle East Peace, and Huda Abuarquob, regional director, ALLMEP; Moran Zaga, policy fellow, Mitvim (the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies); and Michael Herzog, international fellow, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy). The event will be chaired by Steve McCabe. Registration details below.

Look beyond Israel: principles for a progressive foreign policy

Opening the pamphlet, Steve McCabe surveys the massive changes which have swept the Middle East over the past decade: the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State, Iranian expansionism and last summer’s ground-breaking Abraham Accords.

“Seeing the Middle East solely through the prism of the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians distorts and narrows our perspective; crucially, it also prevents us from engaging with current realities in the region,” warns LFI’s chair.

With a general election still several years away, Labour does not need a detailed prescription for how in government it would handle every issue facing the region, McCabe believes. Instead, he argues, it should, adopt a series of principles as it begins to develop its thinking. These might include:

  1. Support democratic forces and values in the region and the development of the civic society institutions – including a vibrant media, independent judiciary and free trade unions – which underpin, and are a vital prerequisite to, successfully functioning democracies.
  2. Adopt a policy of consistency – supporting the rights of oppressed groups throughout the region, whether women in Saudi Arabia, journalists in Egypt, Palestinian political activists or the LGBT community in Iran – with equal passion and commitment.
  3. Approach the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in an even-handed, fair and proportionate manner. Encourage both sides to avoid unilateral steps which damage the prospects of a two-state solution. Develop policy responses which outline constructive steps to improve the situation on the ground whilst always recognising that a resolution to the conflict ultimately requires direct negotiations between the two parties.
  4. Deploy Britain’s soft power – including a restored international aid budget – to support peacebuilding efforts in the region. Britain can and must be a force for good in the world. In the spirit of the historic tradition of Labour internationalism, we must always remember and defend the positive role the UK can and should play in the Middle East.

Be more Biden

In her contribution, LFI’s chair in the House of Lords, Baroness Meta Ramsay, says Labour can learn from Joe Biden’s balanced and constructive approach to the Middle East.
His campaign for the presidency and his approach since taking office “demonstrate a progressive, pro-Israel agenda which Labour should study carefully as it seeks to craft its own policies towards the Middle East,” she argues. She cites in particular the president’s handling of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. “In place of rhetorical grandstanding, the president used his credibility with the Israeli government to engage in quiet diplomacy thus helping to broker a ceasefire” she suggests. “His rejection of megaphone diplomacy may not bring the acclaim of social media, but it delivers results.”

The threat from Tehran

A major theme of the publication is the need for progressives to recognise the threat posed by the Iranian regime and to respond accordingly.

  • “Iran is prominent among the drivers of regional instability,” suggests Michael Herzog, former head of strategic planning for the IDF, in his chapter. “Unlike other destabilising actors, such as the jihadi groups (Islamic State, al-Qaida), it is a powerful state actor with significant capabilities that pursues nuclear and regional ambitions and cultivates armed proxies, equipping them with advanced weapons including huge arsenals of rockets.”
  • Herzog lays out three elements to the Iranian threat: its nuclear programme; its regional agenda; and its missile programmes.
  • While the 2015 nuclear deal significantly rolled back Iran’s nuclear programme, it did so only for 10-15 years. Following that period, most limitations on Iran’s programme are lifted by a series of “sunset” clauses, allowing the Islamic republic to become a nuclear threshold state, capable of swiftly crossing the threshold towards nuclear weapons, at the time of its choosing. Herzog agrees that diplomacy is the preferable route to tackling this challenge but cautions that, for this to work, “the US administration, supported by European allies, should maintain pressure and build deterrence. Their policies towards Iran should include significant disincentives alongside the incentives offered in the negotiations”.
  • Herzog charts the manner in which Tehran has sought to exploit the turmoil that has swept across the region since the Arab Spring, filling the power vacuums and establishing itself as the dominant power. Over the past five years, it has embarked on a long-term strategic project to create a contiguous zone of direct influence – the so-called Iranian “land bridge” – spanning historical Mesopotamia and the Levant toward the Mediterranean. These efforts have been based on an active presence on-the-ground, directly and through proxies such as Hamas; influence over weakened and dependent governments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; the development of military infrastructure; domestic subversion in these theatres; and initiatives to expand economic leverage.
  • Herzog also details the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile programme – the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East – which would serve as the main delivery system for a nuclear weapon but are also a central tool in its regional power projection. But, he warns, the this threat isn’t confined to the Middle East: Iran is “developing the technology (including through its space programme) to manufacture long-range ballistic and inter-continental missiles capable of covering the whole of Europe and possibly reaching the US”.

The Abraham Accords: not all about trade

Moran Zaga examines the huge potential strategic, economic and environmental benefits presented by the Abraham Accords. According to a RAND report published this spring, an optimistic scenario, based on a deepening of regional economic ties and integration, might lead to an additional $1tn in economic activity over a decade. But, beyond trade, Zaga notes, strengthened bilateral ties between Israel and its regional neighbours offers the opportunity to tackle significant social and environmental regional challenges, such as climate change, desertification and food security. She also raises the prospect of such ties promoting greater religious tolerance, people-to-people collaboration (including between Jewish and Arab Israelis), and potentially greater liberalisation in the Gulf states.

The Middle East “youth-quake”

Emman El-Badawy’s chapter focuses on demographic changes in the region, highlighting the fact that two-thirds of the Middle East’s population is now aged 35 or younger.

  • These younger generations, she argues, offer the potential, though by no means the certainty, of becoming “a pivotal force for shaping a progressive approach to the region; one that is centred on economic prosperity, social modernisation and technological innovation”.
  • “They can, and should, be at the forefront of progressive thinking about priorities and a sustainable Middle East strategy. But they are not an easy answer or a chance for a simple ‘system reboot’ in a region of competing interests and ideologies,” El-Badawy, director of the Tony Blair Institute’s Extremism Policy Unit, notes.
  • She digs deep into regionwide surveys to build an evolving picture of today’s Arab youth: “religious but less tolerant of the politicisation of religion than older generations; more likely to want to emigrate; tired of pervasive corruption in their societies; united in their support of region-wide anti-government protests and hopeful about the possibility of positive change resulting from them; critical of poor governance, rising prices and the lack of jobs, while maintaining high expectations for education and employment as they search beyond traditional jobs; disinterested in elections and political process and more likely to see them as rigged or unfair compared to older generations; embracing the digital and technological revolution; and increasingly interested in social enterprise, volunteering work and tech-based solutions”.

“The choice of comrades”

Gary Kent, secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan, uses his chapter to argue that Labour should seek to adopt a policy of consistency towards human rights abuses. He cites Italian politician and novelist Ignazio Silone’s phrase – “the choice of comrades” – to suggest that “Labour, in opposition and in government, should, of course, talk with governments, but we should also seek to amplify the views of allies and like- minded actors.” “These should include the likes of trade unionists, Saudi women’s activists and Iranian dissidents,” Kent argues. “We should support self-determination, talking about the impact of Israel’s occupation on the Palestinian people. But we should also talk about Hamas’s atrocious human rights abuses, especially towards women and LGBT people, and the Palestinian Authority’s heavy-handed attitude towards dissent and journalists.”

Investing in peace-builders

John Lyndon and Huda Abuarquob of the Alliance for Middle East Peace use their chapter to argue for the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. LFI has led the campaign in the UK for the fund, which is modelled on the highly successful International Fund for Ireland, and which would invest in peace-building work in Israel and Palestine.

  • The IFI has been hailed at the “great unsung hero” of the Good Friday Agreement by Jonathan Powell, the UK’s chief negotiator, and began work during the darkest days of the Troubles in the mid-1980s.
  • “Once started, it catalysed a sustained, long-term effort to build relationships, economic development, interdependencies and trust between unionists and nationalists,” write Lyndon and Abuarquob. “Funding more than 6,000 peacebuilding projects for a population at the time that was just over 1.5m, it transformed the civic landscape, and changed the political boundaries that politicians operated within, as well as the incentive structure they responded to. Before long, participation in these programmes became a right—and eventually a rite of passage—for young Catholics and Protestants, rather than a privilege enjoyed by a tiny minority.”
  • But while the international community has invested $44 per person in civic society peace-building work in Ireland over the past 30 years, only $2 per person has been funnelled into similar work in Israel-Palestine.
  • Peacebuilding projects which bring Israelis and Palestinians together are “fragile, chronically underfunded and often the victims of attacks from extremist actors and politicians,” the authors suggest. However, independent studies consistently show that the projects foster conflict-resolution values in participants, as well as promoting trust, coexistence, and reconciliation. An international fund, Lyndon and Abuarquob argue, should scale projects “exponentially as a prerequisite of any real strategy to achieve a genuine peace in the region”.
  • Hopes for the fund have grown following the passage in the US late last year of the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. The legislation, which received strong bipartisan support, will invest $250m in coexistence projects in Israel-Palestine, as well as in Palestinian economic development.
  • “Perhaps most critically, the legislation allows for international partnership and multilateral cooperation, with seats on an advisory board available to US allies,” write the authors. “This opens up the potential for the pooling of not just resources, but also legitimacy, expertise and personnel. Moreover, further expansion of this project opens the door to it becoming a truly international fund, with the US contribution via MEPPA ensuring that it is at a scale that matches the depth of the problem it seeks to address.”