British Foreign Secretary David Cameron last visited Israel in November 2023, and though the conflict is no longer the top news agenda item in the Western media, the context could not be more kinetic and volatile. The agenda for discussions with Israel will be marked not by what Lord Cameron sets out to achieve but by what the UK (and US) seek to avoid; in broad terms that is escalation into an all-out regional conflict (dragging in the US and UK) including direct confrontation with Iran, and a potential humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
On the first agenda item, the US was initially slow to respond to the actions of the Houthi’s in the Red Sea given their policy of containment over confrontation. But now that the UK and the US are undertaking rounds of joint strikes on the group, who have in turn vowed retaliation, an escalation of the conflict via Iran’s proxies could prove inevitable whether by accident or intent. The Houthi’s actions could have a global impact, raising prices and inflation by targeting ships. Alongside this, there is sufficient reason to believe Hezbollah may start a war with Israel, through a border invasion or increased rocket attacks on Israeli military or civilian targets. Meanwhile, Hamas, lest we forget, are still not defeated. And who knows if Iraq, Syria or even an Iran/Pakistan skirmish will provide a surprise spark that hurtles the UK and US into a deeper regional crisis. In amidst all of this complexity are the remaining 136 Israeli hostages, for which Israel has reportedly offered Hamas a two-month ceasefire; an offer yet to be accepted.
The second agenda item, though no less important, is how to avoid a famine in Gaza and end the material suffering brought about as the result of the war. On Sunday a record 260 humanitarian aid trucks entered Gaza, the most on any single day since the war started. No repetition of the statistics either illustrating that aid is getting in, or the numbers of hungry Palestinian children, will solve the problem of Hamas controlling the aid and failing to distribute it to the Palestinian people. No politician outside of Israel will criticize international aid agencies for failing to control the distribution of aid or rebuke them for working with Hamas in order to maintain their presence in Gaza. While doing so, they will sit back and let Israel take the blame for their own failings and deny the reality of being governed by terrorists.
Unfortunately, what these agenda items both have in common (apart from both being under the section – what to avoid) is the extent that they are out of the hands of Israel, the UK and even the US to a large extent.
Then we come to what surely can’t be on the agenda for this Wednesday. It’s hard, in any configuration of what is imaginable, that a two-state solution will be discussed. Despite EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s recent summit and subsequent demand that the world impose a solution on Israel and the Palestinians. Why?
- Security – the 7 October attacks were an invasion of Israel and as the war continues the internally displaced people of Israel’s borders means in effect Israel has ceded territory. There is no peace, let alone discussion of a two-state solution, until the security situation resolves (the defeat of Hamas and the pushing back of Hezbollah from Israel’s borders). To many Middle East analysts it looks like Iran started the war everyone is trying to avoid, via it’s proxies, on 7 October.
- Israeli public opinion – the 7 October attacks were disproportionately felt by some of the last people in Israel who passionately believed in a two-state solution. Residents of Kibbutzim pre 7 October collected money for Palestinians, took Palestinians to hospital appointments, and worked alongside them – yet they were the first to be shot, raped, and kidnapped. It’s their babies that had their fingers taken back to Gaza as souvenirs. The people they co-existed with, called neighbors, and worked with, collaborated with the 7 October terrorists to ensure they were murdered, tortured and worse. Having recently visited Israel in January, I heard firsthand accounts from numerous, diverse Israelis who all shared the feeling that the Government can’t protect them – so how would releasing terrorists (like Marwan Barghouti, touted as a potential Nelson Mandela figure) and allowing Palestinians to build a terrorist state on its border, from which to launch further attacks, improve the situation? If Israel no longer believes in its own ability to analyze its enemy, and that all assumptions before 7 October were wrong (including that Hamas could be contained), then a two-state solution is seen as only escalating the risk for Israel.
- Palestinian public opinion – the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has published research which found that 72% of Gazans surveyed supported the 7 October attacks on Israel – within the context of 25% of Gazans (surveyed) having viewed videos of the 7 October atrocities and 16% believing Hamas had committed war crimes. The research also found that support for armed struggle has risen since the beginning of the war while only 34% of Palestinians across Gaza and the West Bank support a two-state solution. It remains a fact that the most electorally popular political movement in Gaza is radical political Islam. Though the received wisdom has become that you can’t bomb away an idea, Israel and its allies know that you can incapacitate one from launching terrorist attacks like 7 October by removing the capability. The political reality of Gaza is that Israel left almost twenty years ago, with no intention of ever going back and that has resulted in a Jihadi enclave in which there exists no Palestinian civil organizations that are not linked to terrorist infrastructure. There is currently no Gazan political leadership that acknowledges Israel’s right to exist and therefore will agree to a Palestinian state next to Israel.
Where does this leave Cameron’s agenda in Israel and the Middle East? There is a great irony that, for Lord Cameron, the first step on the road to a two-state solution appears to be the avoidance of conflict with Iran – the very country bankrolling and training Hamas, the single most violent opponent of this solution. It is Iran who is intent on destroying Israel, financing terror in the region, and who has deployed its proxies with great success since 7 October. For Israel, the containment of Hamas is no longer a credible policy, even if it is a politically convenient one for the US and UK.
Israel can vouch for the fact that there is no reasoning with the ideology of extremist political Islam. The UK, the US and Israel’s other Western allies are unlikely to convince Israel that it would be safer by falling short of dismantling to the fullest possible extent Hamas’s terror capability and infrastructure. Regional players cannot be ignored – as even evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s broadly recognized position that they will only support the reconstruction of Gaza if it is free from Hamas. All of this means that Israel is in for a long war in the Gaza Strip, with probably another nine months to fight counterinsurgency in the north, finish the ground operation in the south, and resolve the hostage situation. Whether the UK and US can avoid being dragged into a broader regional conflict remains to be seen – for that we, and Lord Cameron, may have to ask Iran.