Is there a risk of a Christmas war in the Holy Land? Is there anything Britain can do about it?
The answers are: yes and yes.
The ceasefire in Gaza, always shaky, has come to an end. Even when it was on, the two sides played chicken, one using lethal modern weaponry including airstrikes, the other home-made rockets which mostly explode pointlessly but any one of which might cause a bloodbath. These exchanges will probably now escalate. Possibly neither side actually wants a war; if so both sides are taking insane risks. Why? Because in their different ways they are hobbled by politics and unable to risk sanity.
The world's contribution has been to isolate Gaza and hope that Hamas, which won the election there, will collapse and make way for a more biddable Palestinian regime. No serious observer expects that will happen.
On 16 December the Security Council adopted Resolution 1850 on the Middle East conflict – in order, said Condoleezza Rice, to "put the international community on record as believing in the irreversibility of the Annapolis process", a process aimed at establishing a two-state solution in which it is now impossible to believe. The Bush administration kept the Gaza blockade out of the Resolution.
Once in a blue moon a British minister has the opportunity to do something effective for human rights and an ethical foreign policy. One example was Malcolm Rifkind's decision in 1984 to lay a wreath on the grave of the Polish priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko, murdered by the puppet Jaruzelski government. This gesture made a real contribution to demoralising the government and facilitating its replacement by something much, much better.
David Miliband visited Israel and Palestine last month, but not Gaza. It is not too late. To demonstrate our concern at this dangerous situation a British minister should go there now. Why?
The first reason is that a million and a half people in Gaza are living in intolerable conditions. The UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, himself a Jewish American, has described Israel's policies in Gaza as a crime against humanity, a siege "in its full fury" which allows barely enough food and fuel in to stave off mass famine and disease; he has since been expelled from Israel.
On 15 December the "Quartet" (which speaks for Britain, in that we are part of the European member) declared that the provision of humanitarian supplies to Gaza "must be assured continuously". As Tony Blair has admitted, it is scarcely possible to understand the plight of people in a place like Gaza without going there. It is not acceptable that ministers who make our policy should be shielded from reality.
The second reason is that Gaza is an element without which the "peace process" cannot move forward, and so long as Hamas control Gaza they are essential too. There is a close parallel with the "Framework for Peace" agreement signed at Camp David in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, which failed because of the exclusion of the PLO from the process as representative of the Palestinian people. The present negotiating position of Hamas on Israel is not acceptable, just like that of the PLO in 1978, but phrases in our policy statements like "mutual trust" and "shared vision" mean nothing unless all the players are coaxed to the table.
The third reason is that Israel is facing elections, in which the favourites oppose compromise or even reject a two-state solution outright. Throughout the Bush years America and its allies have offered no support to Israelis who are eager to find a way toward peace. So long as Israel's foreign friends give the impression that they do not support peace policies, only warmongers are perceived by the voters as realists.
The fourth reason is of course that the Obama administration has still to show its hand. Both the Russians and the French have made it clear in different ways that they are unhappy with the Israeli/American policy, accepted up to now by the Quartet, of refusal to talk to Hamas. Obama has hinted that he may have new thinking in mind. This is a unique opportunity to give a lead.
The British Government have an important part to play, both because of their historical responsibilities and their understanding of the problem. The British ought to make their own national assessment, not accept the assessment of others. These are not my wise words, though they might well be; they were put to me by the head of the international department of Hamas in Beirut a couple of months ago.
The writer is a retired diplomat and was head of the Near East and North Africa Department of the Foreign Office from 1980 to 1983Reuse content