Sunday, February 25

Israel’s assault on Gaza is exposing the holes in everything liberal politicians claim to believe | Nesrine Malik

Something odd is happening. A sort of glitch or malfunction. Liberal politicians who refuse to call for a ceasefire in Gaza or halt support for Israel’s assault are no longer making sense, and increasingly seem as though they are going through a crisis. Garbled language and contradictory statements are becoming common among establishment figures. When Keir Starmer was asked if cutting off water and supplies are actions that fall within international law, he said on live radio that Israel “does have that right”. Then, his party claimed he never said this at all. When Starmer said that Labour would not recognise Palestine unilaterally, his own shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, told the Financial Times that Labour would consider it.

Nowhere are these contradictions clearer than when politicians express unequivocal support for Israel’s actions while also expressing concern for civilians in Gaza. In a post on X, Lisa Nandy, the shadow international development secretary, appeared to support the suspension of funds to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, because “allegations this serious demand a serious response”, while also “seeking reassurances” from the prime minister that aid could still be provided. I had to read her statement several times to try to understand what she was getting at. Meanwhile, David Cameron said he was “worried” that Israel may have broken international law, but that this did not change the UK’s stance on exporting weapons to Israel. Riddle me that.

You might call this tendency Schrödinger’s policy. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that 7 October could not be taken as licence to “dehumanise” others, but his government chose twice to invoke the right to bypass Congress and provide more weapons to Israel.

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This dissonance is a product of attempting to reconcile an irreconcilable position. The facts are simply too stark for anyone to confront them while plausibly continuing to support Israel’s actions in Gaza. So politicians instead resort to contradictory and sometimes wild explanations to avoid calling out these actions or demanding that anything should be done about them. The results border on derangement, such as when Nancy Pelosi told CNN that while some protesters are “spontaneous and organic and sincere”, calling for a ceasefire means giving voice to “Mr Putin’s message”. And if that wasn’t enough, last year, she told pro-Palestine protesters to go back to China, as that’s where “their headquarters is”.

‘Please come’: Hind Rajab, six, found dead in Gaza almost two weeks after call for help – video

Spokespeople are on the ropes. When asked what message Joe Biden had for Arab Americans who are concerned about Gaza, a White House spokesperson said the president was “heartbroken” and also believed “Israel has the right to defend themselves”. Heartbroken Biden appears to have given up altogether, cracking under the effort of pretending his country’s Middle East policy is fruitful or even coherent. He has admitted that strikes against the Houthis aren’t working. “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes,” he told journalists.

It’s an honest summary at least, and it encompasses the position that Israel’s allies have shown towards Gaza. Is it working? No. But it will continue. And that’s that. Because the war passes no tests. It’s not consistent with liberal principles, and it’s not even logical in terms of security. The Middle East is the most unstable it has been in decades, and the conflict is making political life increasingly volatile at home, particularly in the US and the UK. Two parties of centrist “grownups” have positioned themselves as alternatives to chaotic and corrupt rightwing competitors in a crucial election year, and are now worried about losing support, and regularly have to fend off the heckles from pro-Palestine protesters.

This strange inability to respond appropriately to Israeli aggression is about more than Gaza. Events there have exposed the flaws in an entire model of politics and the assumptions that underpin it. If liberalism cannot offer a moral and stabilising form of governance, then what is it for? In the midst of such a historically bloody and disruptive conflict, if liberalism shows no ability or desire to protect civilian life, regional security and its own electoral prospects, then its mission-defining claims of principle and competence collapse.

When a less safe world becomes an acceptable price to pay for loyalty to allies, the west’s claim to authority as a political and military custodian of law and order looks increasingly tenuous.

Once that authority is gone, the system is rocked from within. The mainstream political consensus on Israel and Palestine long held that Israel’s actions ought to be staunchly supported, and that the plight of Palestinians is either paralysingly complex or – at worst – the fault of their own terrorists. That consensus is now being challenged, not only by faceless protesters, but from within the bastions of liberal media. In recent weeks, both CNN and the New York Times have been reportedly riven with internal discord after some employees deemed their coverage too credulous and sympathetic to Israel’s actions.

Gaza has become the expression of a legitimacy crisis for an Anglo-American political class who preside over already fragile systems that deliver less and less to their populations, and whose main offering is that the alternative is worse. Things may look stable, but underneath lurk managed discontents about costs of living, diminished social mobility and the ravages wreaked by rightwing governments to which centrists provide no real answer.

As the writer Richard Seymour once said: “If a crisis erupts in politics we can be sure that it’s overdetermined by the accumulation of contradictions elsewhere in the structure. Individual crises might be manageable, but what’s deadly is the way in which all of these contradictions feed back on each other.”

The political response to Gaza may seem obstinate and imperious, yet what lies behind it is not strength, but weakness.

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