LFI chair: Labour needs to rethink its Middle East ideas

Chris McAndrew, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Labour Friends of Israel chair, Steve McCabe MP, has written the below article for the Jewish Chronicle. Click here to read the original.

The obsession with Israel-Palestine means my party has neglected other vital issues

The past decade has seen a series of momentous events sweep the Middle East: the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war and the rise of IS, Iranian expansionism and the Abraham Accords.

Throughout all of this, however, the focus of a large and influential section of the left has remained obsessively and exclusively focused on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But seeing the Middle East solely through the prism of this conflict distorts and narrows our perspective; crucially, it prevents us from engaging with current realities in the region.

Labour Friends of Israel’s new pamphlet, The New Middle East: A Progressive Approach, is designed to help redress this imbalance.

Under Keir Starmer, Labour is once again an aspiring party of government ready to approach this with the kind of constructive, open-minded and forward-looking mindset that characterised Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s time in office.

With an election years away, Labour does not need detailed policy prescriptions but it does require broad principles as it develops its new thinking. We argue that there are five key ones.

First, Labour needs to recognise that the principal threat to peace and stability and obstacle to progress in the Middle East comes from Iran. Iran has ruthlessly exploited the power vacuums and instability which followed the Arab Spring to pursue regional expansionism. The dire consequences are all too obvious in Syria, Lebanon and the Yemen. Coupled with its nuclear ambitions and ballistic missile programme, confronting Iran’s ability to wreak further chaos and devastation — including the terrifying prospect of a regional nuclear arms race — must rest at the heart of a future Labour government’s Middle East policy.

Second, it is imperative that the forces which produced the Abraham Accords receive steadfast international encouragement. This is not an alternative to the pursuit of a two-state solution. Instead, as Koby Huberman, co-founder of the Israeli Regional Initiative Group, has argued, the goal should be a “regional roadmap towards implementing a negotiated regional package deal with the two-state solution at its core”; international diplomatic efforts should be reengineered and refocused to allow for “gradual, reciprocal, partial and parallel progress in both the Israeli-Palestinian track and the Israeli-Arab states track”.

Third, the thwarted hopes of the Arab Spring underline the fact that the dictatorships and autocracies which dominate the region have stifled the civil society institutions upon which any successful democracy ultimately rests. A Labour government will rightly want to encourage democratic forces and values in the region. But that requires providing support and assistance for policies and initiatives which foster the development of those civic society institutions — including a vibrant media, independent judiciary and free trade unions — which underpin, and are a vital prerequisite to, successfully functioning democracies.

Fourth, Labour must 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. Those suffering under Iranian imperialism in Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus — as well as the people of Iran who have endured four decades of repression — should concern the left as much as the undoubted plight of the Palestinian people. And we should remember that that plight isn’t just the result of Israel’s actions: the impact of the theocratic rule of Hamas and the corrupt authoritarian Palestinian Authority receives scant attention on parts of the left.

Finally, Britain’s soft power — including a restored international aid budget — should be deployed to support peacebuilding efforts in the region. The proposed International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, modelled on the highly successful International Fund for Ireland and which would pump huge investment into civic society projects which promote peace, conflict-resolution values and coexistence, is the perfect illustration of such an initiative. A Labour government committed to furthering solutions, not taking sides, should take up this cause and work with our European and American friends and partners to make it a reality.

Britain must be a force for good in the world. In the spirit of the historic tradition of Labour internationalism, we should never be afraid to champion and defend the positive role the UK can and should play in the Middle East.