In the wake of Hamas’s bloody and murderous raid into Israel, as Israeli jets pulverise the Gaza Strip in advance of its looming punitive expedition, the Western discourse surrounding the century-old conflict feels both novel and wearily familiar. Familiar in that it feels we have suddenly been transported through a wormhole back to the heady days of The Euston Manifesto, as the righteous bloodlust of the sensible centrists has been awoken once again; and yet novel in that it is now all filtered through the distorting mirror of our social media-fuelled culture war.
The effects are remarkable: though there is no obvious linkage between any of these matters, if I knew your opinions on wokeness or gender issues, or on Net Zero or Covid restrictions, then I could ascertain, with 99% accuracy, your opinions on a distant ethnic conflict in the Middle East. Such is the power of tribalism, though there is no essential reason why the dividing lines should have been drawn in this particular way. The poles could just as easily be reversed, and indeed once they were.
In his memoir, Experience, Martin Amis quotes a letter he wrote home from Oxford in the late Sixties marvelling that “I met an incredible reactionary yesterday who supports the Arabs vs. Israel”, a striking vignette of the lost period when sympathy for the Palestinians was an almost parodically Right-wing opinion, and support for the Israeli socialist experiment was the righteous Left-wing cause. After all, Britain was forced to relinquish the Palestine mandate following a wave of Irgun terror attacks that established the Israeli state and which incidentally precipitated the UK’s last pogrom, in then solidly conservative Liverpool.
During the 1948 war that established both the Israeli state and the Palestinians as a stateless collection of refugees, it was the British-armed, trained and officered Arab Legion that fought the most effective campaign against Israeli forces. Back then, The Spectator, which today can publish a dispassionate consideration of the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, could as a matter of course publish a glowing profile of the Arab Legion’s Bedouin chivalry and élan. In an inversion of Northern Ireland’s modern attitudes to the conflict, the Arab Legion’s Assistant Chief of Staff, Brigadier Ronald Broadhurst — described by the new Israeli state as “a soldier of fortune of British nationality” — would later become Ulster Unionist MPA for South Down at Stormont.
The current dividing lines, then, are largely arbitrary, in a manner that highlights the paradoxes and absurdities of both factions’ Western supporters. Just like Palestinian and latterly Kurdish nationalism for the Left, a bellicose pro-Israel stance is a Western conservative affectation hard to read as anything other than a proxy outlet for muscular nationalist emotions they shrink from feeling at home. The millennial Left, meanwhile, generally hostile to the very notion of borders and welcoming to demographic change through mass immigration, strongly support the Palestinians’ claim to clearly defined, inviolable borders and their right to remain the demographic majority in their own homeland.
Indeed, framed in such terms, Palestine could just as easily be a Right-wing cause, a cautionary tale about the perils of mass immigration. The root of the Palestinian tragedy was, after all, the influx of Jewish migrants, many of them desperate refugees, which altered the country’s demographic balance irrevocably, and of which the establishment of the Jewish state was the natural historical result. Such a reading would easily lend itself to conservative fears over unchecked immigration, and as demographic anxieties become the central driver of European political discontent, younger Rightists could well, like the Nouvelle Droite of the Seventies, find themselves making sympathetic analogies with the Palestinian predicament. In Germany, AfD voters are the only voter bloc not to favour Israel over the Palestinians (though Germany’s dark history of course makes the country a special case). Indeed, the same demographic concerns are the precise reason the One-State solution, along with mass non-Jewish immigration, is unpalatable to the vast majority of Israelis, as it would erode the hard-won Jewishness of the Jewish state.
Instead, British migration anxieties seem to have transferred themselves, in centrist discourse, to socially acceptable discomfort at pro-Palestine demonstrations in London and other British cities. Perhaps, along with Europe’s bloody decade of Islamist terrorism, this is the cause of eroding sympathy for Palestinians and growing self-identification with Israel among the commentary class. Centre-right commentators who a few weeks ago howled at the Home Secretary’s remarks on the failures of multiculturalism, expressing their satisfaction at Britain’s successful experiment with demographic change, now express horror at the results. Multiculturalism, they have suddenly realised, does not mean the creation of a rainbow coalition of disparate peoples who have all suddenly adopted the worldview of an ageing Times columnist. Instead, it means the cohabitation of social groups with passionate, often diametrically opposed, convictions about identity questions of the greatest significance, including ethnic conflicts in far-off lands.
Many liberals who spent the past three decades assuming that such deep emotions would immediately be shed on arrival in Britain, have, perhaps, been misled by their unexamined beliefs in the innate superiority of 21st-century British progressive norms over inherited identities, at a time when the very same liberals raised ethnic and cultural difference to greater political salience than ever before. The social-scientific literature, which British liberal commentators are proud not to have read or understood, is far clearer-eyed. As anthropologists noted back in the Nineties (before New Labour radically increased Britain’s levels of immigration), the British state’s policy of “multiculturalism” was the direct descendant of the colonial practice of indirect rule, maintaining the fragile harmony between rival ethnic groups through the co-option of ideally tame “community leaders” — a form of governance attempted in Mandate Palestine as elsewhere. We see this legacy perhaps most clearly in the aftermath of terrorist attacks or riots, where carefully-chosen “community leaders” flank police officers and the families of the victims to assert the state’s tranquil harmony and quell rumblings of discontent amongst the natives.
Of course, the British state failed entirely to extinguish Palestine’s ethnic conflict in the land itself, retreating in humiliation, and triggering a decades-long war that may now be reaching its bloody culmination. But we must hope its modern-day incarnation will be more successful in Britain itself. The centrist dads who a few weeks ago sang the praises of multiculturalism should count their blessings that they have successfully achieved what they claimed to desire: there is only more of its political results to come.
While it seems almost absurd, given the scale of the approaching catastrophe, to attend too closely to domestic political considerations, current Western discourse is worthy of note. For no apparent reason, the Gaza conflict has become the occasion for the centrist coup against the radical liberal-identitarianism it so long nurtured. Yet for the first time in my life, it seems, American commentary is more sympathetic to the Palestinian predicament than British media. Perhaps the root cause is changing demographics: just as British immigration anxieties manifest themselves through the mirror of the Middle East conflict, the growing confidence and cultural power of America’s Muslim minority is altering the domestic politics of the hegemon. Increasingly tired of foreign entanglements in which America’s record of victory is thin, both the American Left, including younger American Jews, and, to a lesser degree, its radical Right are less disposed to share the unshakeable attachment to Israel that marked their grandparents’ generation.
In Britain, however, it is hard not to read much of the present discourse as a hangover from the Corbyn years. While the elderly communist’s sixth-form anti-imperialism provided cover for genuine antisemites within the British Left and its electorally allied Muslim population, the antisemitism scandal which brought Corbyn down was just as useful a political tool for both the Starmer faction, keen to eradicate vote-losing Left-wing radicalism, as for the Conservative Party. The reciprocal accusations of Labour antisemitism and Tory Islamophobia which ensued possess the unfortunate appearance of mobilising British ethnic minorities against each other for narrow party-political ends. While that is a natural political development in any multi-ethnic democracy, it is a dangerous outcome for national cohesion. But within the context of the current war, the brief Corbyn interlude has had the effect of both parties competing to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty to Israel, and to dampen expressions of empathy for the Palestinian cause.
Yet it is wrongheaded to equate support for the existence of an independent Palestinian state, the claimed policy of Britain as well as of the United States and European Union, with support for the terrorist outrages of Hamas. Waving the Palestinian flag is not glorification of terrorism in itself, even if many of the attendees at the protests — which will surely only grow in scale and anger as Gaza is levelled to the ground — openly or privately support Hamas. The increasingly fervid support for Israel’s Right to do whatever it wishes to eradicate Hamas, and the equating of expressions of support for the Palestinian civilians with terrorism, as in France and Germany, risks punishing the Palestinians — once again — for European political neuroses and anxieties of which they are entirely innocent.
As for the war itself, the omens are not encouraging for anyone. The tragedy of the situation, for both Israelis and Palestinians, is that the logic of their unhappy intertwining led them both to this precipice: just as the Israelis cannot accept the risk of occasional murderous rampages from Palestinian territory, nor will the Palestinians accept that they must be driven from what remains of their land. Neither can act other than as they are: both the weak and feckless internationally recognised Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and the dovish secular liberal Israeli peace wing that bore the brunt of Hamas’s recent terrorist atrocities, are powerless to prevent the conflict culminating in extreme solutions.
In just a fortnight, the scale of Israel’s preparatory bombing has already vastly outpaced the number of bombs dropped by the international coalition against Isis in Iraq and Syria over five years — bombing that ground Raqqa and Mosul into dust. The looming ground assault within Gaza’s densely packed urban fabric will not be easy for Israel, and many casualties on both sides are certain to ensue. As Israel assembles its largest armed force since the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, placing the Gaza strip under siege, as many Palestinians have already fled their homes as in the 1948 Nakba, which drove their grandparents and great-grandparents to Gaza as refugees from what is now southern Israel in the first place.
Where they will go, and whether they will ever return is now a major geopolitical crisis: both neighbouring Egypt and Jordan have announced that they will not facilitate the ethnic cleansing of Gaza in their directions. Yet when Israel eventually conquers the ruins of Gaza, it has no exit plan for how to extract itself. It cannot rule the Palestinians, even if it desired to, and yet it cannot allow Hamas, or an even worse successor, to establish itself in the wake of withdrawal. The logic of the war leads towards the final expulsion of the Palestinians from Gaza, an outcome which, having previously expressed its unswerving support for Israel, the United States now appears anxious to prevent.
While Israeli troops and armour amass on Gaza’s borders, in the north Israeli forces and Hezbollah trade artillery fire and rocket attacks. The scale of the fighting, which a fortnight ago would have been a major crisis in itself, is at present the very least that Hezbollah can afford without committing itself to a full-scale war. Iran’s statements that the coming hours will determine whether or not the Gaza operation becomes a regional war, and Israeli uncertainty at the nature of Iran’s response, have led us to the current uneasy pause at the edge of the abyss.
The deployment of two US carrier groups to the Eastern Mediterranean, along with a Marine expeditionary force, give Biden the means to intervene should Israel find itself embroiled in a war it cannot by itself handle. Yet American intervention in a war that could spread across the Middle East will not be an easy decision for Biden, nor long a popular one. A regional war will weaken the already ailing and overextended American empire further, while the civilian suffering that will ensue will shred what remains of its international legitimacy. Like Britain in the dying days of its own empire, the United States has found itself entangled in an ethnic conflict for which it bears great responsibility, and yet which has no obvious or palatable solution.
For Britain, the correct course of action is easy to divine, which does not mean that our government will follow it. The Israel-Palestine conflict ceased to be a matter for British involvement at midnight precisely on May 14, 1948. Britain has already committed itself to a European war in which the Americans are rapidly losing interest, and in which Israel has remained firmly neutral. Calls to sanction Qatar, the source of the gas on which British homes rely following our divestment from Russian supplies, for its hosting of the Hamas political leadership are merely an example of the worst sort of geopolitical virtue-signalling which characterises our political class.
The Israelis will be able to crush Hamas, slowly and bloodily, but inevitably: if they find themselves overstretched, they have the muscle of the global superpower to call on. There is nothing, beyond vague expressions of encouragement for both sides to respect human rights, that Britain can or should offer. It is doubtful, given the attitude of British centrists so far, that they will be as vocal to host Gaza’s shell-shocked and vengeful coming refugee wave as they have those of previous foreign conflicts: this era of European politics seems to have passed. Instead, the priority for the British government ought to be to ensure the safety of the British population as a whole. In the meantime, antisemitic provocations should be firmly clamped down on, and demonstrations robustly policed to ensure empathy for those suffering in the Middle East does not go beyond legal or moral bounds.
The entire Middle East is poised, steeling itself, at the edge of a war greater in scope and human suffering than almost anyone living has ever seen. With terror attacks shaking Belgium and France this week, and a synagogue firebomb horrifying Germany, the tragedy in the Middle East threatens Europe’s security. Hemmed in by past political failures, all that Britain can do is ensure that the coming bloodshed will not reach our streets.