Keir Starmer’s Israel/Gaza Chatham House speech* this week was like the curate’s egg – good in some parts but certainly not in others.
It was implicitly, quite rightly, very critical of Israel – while at the same time still failing to develop an objective non-partisan analysis and way forward.
He quite rightly condemned the 7 October Hamas attacks (in which over a thousand Israelis civilians were killed) – and equally rightly described those appalling attacks as “terrorism”.
And yet, he describes the situation in Gaza (in which around 7000 Palestinian civilians have been killed by the Israelis), simply as “a humanitarian catastrophe”.
He says quite rightly that “Israel must submit to the rules of international law” and that the Palestinian people “must be protected”.
Although he didn’t directly condemn Israel for their war on Gaza, he did say that “food, water, electricity, medicines and fuel” need to be delivered to Gaza; that “innocent lives” need to be preserved, and that Gaza’s hospitals “must be protected”; and that “siege conditions haven’t [been] lifted”. What’s more, he went on to implicitly criticise Israel by pointing out that much of that “hasn’t happened” and that that is “unacceptable” and “cannot continue”.
Again, in an implicit rebuke to Israel, he said that “every step must be taken to protect civilians from bombardment”. He even stated that “Palestinians must not be forced to leave their homes en masse”.
Starmer gave no suggested measure to incentivize Israel
And yet, at no stage, in his very progressive-sounding speech, did he even tentatively suggest the sort of measures that would be required to persuade Israel to take his advice (and similar advice coming from around the world).
So, in essence, the speech was long on pious statements – but very short on any hints as to what would be needed to ensure that Israel takes heed.
Tragically, he provided not a single suggested measure to incentivize Israel to pull its horns in.
Indeed part of Starmer’s speech did the absolute opposite.
Starmer rejected calling for a ceasefire
In line with Israel, he rejected the idea of calling for a ceasefire and instead called for a temporary “humanitarian pause” to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered.
That’s a false dichotomy – because it would surely be possible to call for a humanitarian pause and to advocate that, during that pause, negotiations for a more permanent ceasefire should be held.
Starmer says he doesn’t “at this stage” want to call for a ceasefire because that would leave Hamas “with the capability to [again] carry out the sort of attack we saw on 7 October”.
But that is not an accurate or a particularly wise thing to say.
It’s not accurate because Israel certainly has the technology and the ability to massively strengthen security along Gaza’s land and sea borders to ensure that 7 October–style Hamas raids never happen again – and to ensure that Hamas isn’t in future able to import sophisticated rockets and rocket guidance systems and other weapons.
As Hamas tragically proved, Israel’s defences along the Gaza border were simply not physically or technologically robust enough.
And Starmer’s current dislike of advocating a rapid ceasefire was unwise because it in effect endorsed what both Israel and Hamas seem to want. Israel wants revenge and destruction (and the lengthy war that that will involve) – and Hamas planned for (and clearly wants) to politically and geopolitically weaponize Israel’s lethal blind vengeance in order to create as much anti-Israel hatred as possible within the Arab world and beyond and to stop Israeli/Arab rapprochement and to try to provoke a regional war.
All three of those things are categorically surely not what Starmer wants – and are categorically not in Israel’s interest, nor in the Palestinian people’s interest nor in the West’s interest.
Playing into the hands of extremists
What’s more, by opposing a ceasefire (and thus, in effect, helping to potentially prolong the war) Starmer is unwittingly playing into the hands of extremists in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps and into the hands of Iran and Russia – and probably China.
Iran almost certainly wants Israel to gain as bad a reputation as possible – so that it’s arch enemy, Saudi Arabia, can no longer think of establishing an alliance with Israel. What’s more the longer the war goes on, the more support Iran and its allies will garner from Middle East public opinion.
The Kremlin, the other beneficiary of a long war, has had no fewer than three very top-level Moscow meetings with Hamas over the past 20 months – and no doubt sees the conflict as a very welcome way of diverting the West’s attention from (and military investment in) Ukraine. What’s more the war could, in various ways, increase the chances of a Trump victory in next year’s U.S. presidential elections, and that too would almost certainly weaken Ukraine and delight the Kremlin.
Thus, strategically and geopolitically, the very last thing that the West and the world in general wants is a long war.
So in effect helping to prolong it by opposing a cease-fire is not in Britain’s interests, nor in any other major countries (except perhaps Iran, Russia and China).
The extremist ideas
In his speech, Starmer quite rightly spoke of Israel’s “right to self defence”. The Israeli leadership seems to imagine that they can destroy Hamas – but they don’t realise or don’t want to realise that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are not in themselves the number one problem. Rather it is the extremist ideas that they embody which are the problem.
Indeed, if Israel does destroy them organizationally, they will almost certainly simply be replaced by an equally problematic or even worse extremist movement. Military action seldom stops the survival or evolution of ideologies.
It’s easy enough to kill humans through military action – but ideas (however awful) are not quite so mortal. (We need to learn from what transpired in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere).
Indeed the hatred, which killing and maiming tens of thousands of people generates, will sadly aid those ideas’ survival and evolution.
What’s more, Hamas is not just located in Gaza they also have lots of personnel in the West Bank and in Lebanon and – and, as the bombing worsens, many of their top Gaza people will almost certainly simply escape via their secret cross-border tunnels to Egypt and, from there, elsewhere.
All that means that Israel’s stated war aims are probably unachievable and counterproductive.
Western politicians should not be encouraging the Israelis by opposing a cease-fire.
Although Starmer’s speech sounded progressive, the anti-ceasefire political position it revealed is probably not sustainable, especially if the slaughter in Gaza continues and expands as a result of continued bombing, malnutrition and potential epidemic disease.
*Full text of Keir Starmer’s important Chatham House speech: