The progressive imperialism of Keir Starmer’s Palestine policy

12 June 2021

2:57 AM

12 June 2021

2:57 AM

There are two ways to look at Sir Keir Starmer’s call for the Prime Minister ‘to press for a renewed international agreement to finally recognise the State of Palestine’ at the G7 summit. The first is cynical: that the intended audience was not the government benches or the international community, but the voters of Batley and Spen, currently weighing up whether to elect another Labour MP in next month’s by-election. At the 2011 census, almost one in five residents were Muslim and knowing what we know about how progressives view religious and ethnic minorities, it is not a stretch to assume Sir Keir was merely electioneering.

This mindset, which sees British Muslims not as individuals but as a voting bloc, and one defined by events a continent away, is not all that different to how Labour thinks about British Jews. Not only is this kind of sectarianism inimical to social cohesion and national unity, it is regressive in the way that so much progressive identity ideology seems to be.

The other explanation for Sir Keir’s intervention is idealism: he sincerely believes in a Palestinian state, that unilateral recognition by foreign capitals is the way to achieve it, and the G7 is the best forum to expedite the process. Sympathisers with the cause of Palestinian statehood are frustrated by the lack of progress toward that goal, and are impatient for the end of injustices and indignities they believe it will bring. It’s hardly worth pointing out that it is not the international community standing in the way of statehood, nor even the Israelis, but the Palestinian leadership which has so far rejected every offer of peace and sovereignty made by Jerusalem.

Nor would it do much good to suggest that, even if a Palestinian state could be achieved, and even if it was governed by a moderate faction, and even if there was no civil war or coup, and even if Iran didn’t try to turn it into a proxy state, and even if it didn’t simply continue its war against Israel, a discredited Palestinian governing class would have to pull off an economic, social, technological and infrastructural miracle to give its citizens comparable prosperity, living standards and opportunities to that of Israelis. Progressives look at the West Bank and see the presence of Israel as the reason for the absence of Palestine. Nothing would debunk this myth quite as rudely as the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sir Keir’s motives are probably an amalgam of cynicism and idealism, but the latter is where the trouble comes in. Progressives may see unilateral British recognition of a Palestinian state as a century-late penance for the Balfour Declaration — Emily Thornberry said as much in 2017 — but it is in fact a continuation of the same map-carving mindset. Britain knows best and if the natives can’t see it’s for their own good, they will eventually come round. It is progressive imperialism, but imperialism all the same.

There is an enduring myth, fashioned by Arabist historians and naively echoed by Zionist advocates, that Britain has always been the great champion and protector of Zionism. There have been aspects of Zionism to British governments, policies and intellectual traditions but for the most part Britain has been either uninterested in or hostile to Zionism. Even when philo-semitism and proto-Zionism were at their height in Britain in the 19th century, arguments made for Jewish self-governance in the Land of Israel were utilitarian or patrician.

The Spectator was advocating Jewish settlement of Palestine 15 years before Theodor Herzl was born, advising the Ottoman Empire that it would be ‘a gainer in every way were it to invite the immigration of such colonists’ because ‘the Jews would form the nucleus of an industrious, orderly population; consisting of men who have been trained to live as citizens — who know the value of domestic peace assured by laws’. Yet Palestine, it argued, was not to revert to being a sovereign Jewish polity; the settlers would merely be granted ‘considerable immunities’ by the Ottomans and England.

Thirteen years after Herzl’s death, the magazine was still at it, with a 1917 editorial titled ‘Palestine for the Jews’ predicting ‘a little Jewish State in Palestine would serve as a rallying-point for Jews all over the world, and it would confer a benefit also on the Christian and the Moslem worlds, which are equally interested in the Holy Land and its undying religious memories’. Again, even as The Spectator spoke of ‘the revival of Palestine as a Jewish land’, it was at pains to say Jewish settlement must be ‘under the supervision Great Britain, our Allies, and America’ with order ‘maintained by some form of international control’. Far from Zionism, the motive was more strategic:

‘From the British standpoint, it is essential that Palestine should no longer be in Turkish or German hands; but it is neither necessary nor desirable that we should become solely responsible for the administration of the country.’

Palestine needed a little Jewish state not because it was the homeland of the Jews but because it was a headache for the Brits.

I don’t draw attention to these articles to scold The Spectator for espousing the attitudes of the day, or for advocating exactly the sort of protectorate early Zionists envisioned. That the magazine editorialised, and editorialised so early on, for a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael is to its immense credit. I simply observe — marvel, really — at how little has changed in the intervening years. Then as now, right as left, Britain speaks about Israel in a proprietorial tone.

Why isn’t Sir Keir demanding the Prime Minister use the G7 summit to press for a renewed international agreement to finally recognise Taiwan, Catalonia or Kurdistan? This isn’t intended as whataboutery; I’m sincerely asking why. One reason is because China, Spain and Iraq would simply say ‘No’, and privately would use somewhat tighter language. Another is that these countries might well turn the tables and call for the UK to grant the Scots another referendum on independence; the United States to concede statehood to Indian reservations or voting rights to Puerto Rico; and France to end its colonial rule in Guiana, Polynesia and Martinique.

But the likeliest answer is idealism and, again, it is a troubling form of idealism. Progressives support various independence and liberationist struggles around the globe but in the Palestinian cause they cast themselves as the heroes and consequently aggrandise the significance of the conflict and their own role in resolving it. Palestine is theirs (just as Israel is theirs) and they must be its saviour.

If you believe a Palestinian state is the answer to the conflict, as I do, this kind of secular messianism does nothing to advance it, not least because it jams both Israel and the Palestinians into an international policy framework in which what ought to work, at least in the eyes of remote participants, takes priority over what does work in the experience of the people on the ground. Progressive imperialists long for a solution but not half as much as they long to be the solvers. They want their Palestinian state more than they want a state for the Palestinians.

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