Recap: Launch of The New Middle East: A Progressive Approach

LFI last week launched a major new publication examining the changing shape of the Middle East. From the growing threat posed by Iranian expansionism to diplomatic shifting sands and demographic changes, The New Middle East: A Progressive Approach is an important contribution to Labour’s foreign policy development.

Launch event

  • The pamphlet was launched at an online event last Tuesday, hosted by our chair Steve McCabe MP.
  • Panellists included several of the pamphlet’s chapter authors: Michael Herzog (Washington Institute), Moran Zaga (Mitvim) and John Lyndon (ALLMEP), as well as Labour’s shadow Middle East Minister Wayne David MP.
  • Following contributions from each panellist, a fascinating Q&A session covered topics as wide-ranging as the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations, the prospect of future diplomatic normalisation, and the impact of the pandemic on the region.

Principles for a progressive foreign policy

Opening the event, LFI chair Steve McCabe MP surveyed 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. Reflecting on these huge changes, and echoing The New Middle East‘s core recommendations, he said: “Seeing the Middle East solely through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict distorts and narrows our understanding of thus vast and diverse region”.

Steve also set out four key principles for a progressive foreign policy:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Threats from Tehran

Retired IDF brigadier general Michael Herzog, now of the Washington Institute, spoke about what Iran’s expansionist ambitions mean for Israel and the wider region, and how Labour foreign policy should respond. “We have seen Iran working through proxies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere to build up a formidable military front on Israel’s doorstep”, he said. Reflecting the changing axis of power rivalry in the region, Michael noted how “there has been pushback against Iranian expansionism across the Arab world, including in countries where Iran has a presence by proxy”. Particularly with reference to the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal, Michael insisted that “we cannot look at missiles, regional tensions and nuclear ambitions strategy” – a nod to President Biden’s calls for a “longer and stronger” deal. He concluded by saying that “The bottom line of my analysis is that we need a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Iranian challenge.”

Regional solutions to regional challenges

Next, Dr Moran Zaga of Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies discussed the diplomatic revolution that is taking place in the Middle East, and what this should mean for progressive foreign policy.

  • She began by saying that “LFI set me a very interesting challenge in my chapter: to consider how regional challenges in the Middle East are being solved following the Abraham Accords”.
  • Echoing the theme running throughout the pamphlet, Moran explored how “the Abraham Accords and diplomatic normalisation allow us to rethink the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside the traditional box”, illustrating how Israel’s new relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan could make room for future progress in relations with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world.
  • Further discussing what diplomatic normalisation actually means for everyday Israelis and Arabs, she noted how “interactions with Israelis are cultivating a new layer of civil society in the UAE and Bahrain. This could represent the seeds of greater liberalism in these countries”.
  • Moran’s conclusion was clear: “The rift in the Middle East today is not Sunni v Shia or Jewish v Arab. It is moderate v extremist”. This is a conclusion that The New Middle East calls for progressives to both recognise and grapple with in formulating foreign policy.

Building peace

John Lyndon, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), spoke next, discussing his and Huda Abuarquob’s chapter on the need for major international investment in peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians. “Civil society”, John made clear, “will play a critical role in the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, in the form of intercommunal organisations, youth groups, education initiatives and other coexistence projects that bring everyday Israelis and Palestinians together. “We need new thinking and new ideas to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, John continued, echoing the pamphlet’s key theme of the need to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in much broader, more creative terms. “Peacebuilding needs to happen on a much larger scale”, he argued, in order to deal with the fact that “both Israelis and Palestinians suffer from a lack of understanding of the lived experiences of the other”. The most important proposal in this area is the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace – of which, John said, “LFI has been the biggest champion in Great Britain”. You can read more about LFI’s campaign for the International Fund here.

Labour’s foreign policy future

Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Middle East, Wayne David MP, joined us as the final panellist, in which he discussed what contributions The New Middle East would make to Labour’s foreign policy development.

  • “This pamphlet looks at the bigger picture: what is needed as a firm bedrock for future peace, and the future of the wider Middle East”, Wayne summarised, reflecting on the pamphlet’s calls for a much broader view of the region away from an obsession with Israel.
  • “We must move beyond simplistic sloganizing and fingerpointing on complex foreign policy issues”, Wayne asserted, welcoming the pamphlet’s calls for Labour to move away from the obsession with Israel that developed under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
  • As Labour moves towards formulating policy as a prospective party of government, Wayne made clear that The New Middle East “makes a huge contribution to the next steps of Labour’s foreign policy development”.

Questions and Answers

Following the individual panellist contributions, the digital floor was opened to attendees to submit their questions.

Q: Where will controls on militias and proxies fit into future agreements on Iran?
Michael Herzog: Given the opaque nature of Iranian support, this is easier said than done. Having said that, international actors can apply pressure and the issue definitely needs to be explored.
Wayne David: The example of Yemen shows how important it is to counter Iranian proxies in warzones.

Q: What role would a re-established DFID play in Labour foreign policy?
Wayne David: The decision to scrap DFID has trashed our international reputation. Development aid should be at the centre of our foreign policy, including in peacebuilding efforts as John Lyndon and ALLMEP have set out.

Q: How can we overcome prejudice, extremism and violent rhetoric on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
John Lyndon: Peacebuilding projects are absolutely essential here, as the example of Northern Ireland demonstrates. We need to change attitudes as much as we need to reignite negotiations between the parties.

Q: How can the UK encourage further Israeli-Arab diplomatic normalisation?
Wayne David: Labour supported the Abraham Accords and we are pushing the government to make further normalisation take place. Normalisation is a precursor to wider peace and prosperity.

Q: How has the pandemic influenced relations in the Middle East?
Moran Zaga: Israel has extensive experience of humanitarian diplomacy. Israel and the UAE are working together to promote research and vaccine distribution.
John Lyndon: Like the environment, coronavirus has reminded people in the Middle East how interdependent they are. Multilateral forums and frameworks are needed to deal with many of the region’s challenges, with UK support.

What happens next

If you missed the launch event last week, you can now watch a recording of the event here. You can also read the pamphlet itself here.