“If a Labour ethical foreign policy can’t tackle or encompass Palestine, then it is not fit for purpose.”
By Hugh Lanning, Labour & Palestine
The election of Israel’s most right-wing Government ever under the resurrected Netanyahu makes yet more important the reaction of the international community. Is there ever going to be a tipping point when Western governments stand up to Israel’s pressure and say ‘enough is enough?’ Judging by the response of the British Labour Party in recent times, the prospects are not good.
Much lip-service is paid to an ethical foreign policy – dating back to Robin Cook’s honourable attempt at developing such an approach in the late 1990’s. So, what would an ethical Labour foreign policy look like? The cynical would say that the first challenge for Labour would be to have ethics and secondly a policy. In contrast, the Tories have both, namely the self-preservation of Western neo-liberal globalisation – or to put more simply – to look after the rich and their interests.
Palestine would not be the central or sole focus of an ethical foreign policy, but it should be both a priority and a litmus test. If a Labour ethical foreign policy can’t tackle or encompass Palestine, then it is not fit for purpose. Simply doing what the US, Israel, the City and the far-right want doesn’t work or pass any test by which Labour should behave, although you could easily think that is where the Party is taking its lead from.
A truly ethical foreign policy would have three pillars – ethics, decolonisation and non-violence. First, ethics – the basis should be to use international law as the ethical framework. It might be nice to contemplate alternatives, be it revolutionary or socialist, but as a first step international law is a low bar to which Labour should aspire to advocate.
In doing this Labour should take account of the nature and scale of the breach – not cherry-pick the popular or the easy. Nor will it be able to respond to every and any type of breach. But, using Israel as an example, its list of breaches is long, extensive and serious – the Occupation itself, the Wall, Settlements, the annexation of Jerusalem, its treatment of children and prisoners and the growing evidence of it being guilty of the crime of apartheid.
However, we should recognise that international law is a Western, orientalist construct – so how do you select how and where to act? A frequent question from supporters of Israel is ‘why Palestine?’ – why don’t you pick other countries?
Therefore, the second pillar of an ethical foreign policy should be De-colonisation – a principle to determine how and when to be pro-active and possibly intervene. Blair developed the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’, which went from Kosovo, through Sierre Leone to Afghanistan, ending up in Iraq.
The problem with such a framework is that it is the West determining how, where and when to intervene. De-colonisation has been described as “deconstructing and dismantling neo-colonial ideologies regarding the superiority of Western approaches and working toward a redistribution of power that was accrued because of colonisation”. We should use decolonisation to determine whose side we are on and whose solution we support – is it positive or negative on that scale of the redistribution of power?
In addition, it is important to take into account what the British role has been and what the colonial legacy is. In the case of Palestine, we ruled it between the wars, gave it away from Balfour onwards, stood by whilst the Nakba took place and armed and financially supported Israel then and now. If we owe reparations to any country – Palestine is high up that list.
It should not be our solution, but to support outcomes wanted by the self-determined, indigenous groups – in this case by the Palestinians. Self-determination being pre-eminent, it could take many forms – aid, trade or maybe keeping away, not supporting its oppressors.
Blair’s doctrine was used as a justification for war, which leads to the third pillar of an ethical foreign policy – non-violent methods. Solutions should not be based on force and military interventions. South Africa showed what can be done – there are a wide range of options that can be used. In a globalised economy there are plenty of sanctions and economic levers that can be applied, as is called for under international law.
It is not for nothing that Israel is targeting and trying to demonise the international growing ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions’ campaigns – it is because they are potentially effective non-violent methods that could be used to bring about compliance with international law. BDS should be applied, not banned. We are a rich western country, that doesn’t mean we should aspire to be a global, military power spending billions of much-needed resources on what we euphemistically call ‘defence’.
In considering what is to be done, it is also important to consider what is doable, what is the UK role, and what are the priorities. But principles alone are not enough, it is not simply having the right policy. We need to build a mass movement within and without the Labour Party that would support a government taking a radical approach. We saw during Truss’s brief reign the powers that can be unleashed when the British establishment feels its interests are threatened.
Labour & Palestine is building and seeking to energise pro-Palestine support within the Labour Party. Our challenge is to both win support for a progressive ethical foreign policy and, then, to keep up the pressure to have it implemented. Palestine shows the problem is not a Labour Government being too radical, rather it is it walking away and ignoring the issue. The passing of resolutions at successive party conferences and in many CLPs has shown that the support is there within the Party. Over the coming months Palestinians are going to need support to combat the onslaught they are facing from a rampant colonial settler movement intent on stealing their land, heritage and freedom.