Legal assessment of Israel’s actions in Gaza risks being subsumed in Tory row | Conservatives

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A legal assessment by the UK Foreign Office of whether Israel is in breach of international humanitarian law in Gaza risks being subsumed in a Conservative row over the party’s loyalty to the country, and by rival judgments on the damage to British interests in the wider Middle East if the UK is not seen to distance itself from Israel’s methods.

Judging by the last Tory leadership contest, in which Liz Truss courted votes by promising to transfer the UK embassy to Jerusalem, there is a good chance Israel will feature in any leadership debate after a predicted general election defeat this year.

For weeks there have been grumblings among pro-Israeli Conservative MPs, sometimes expressed in private meetings with the foreign secretary, Lord Cameron, that he should dial back his criticism of Israel and accept that if it is in the UK’s strategic interest for Hamas to be defeated, lives may have to be lost due to the war.

It does not help that many of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Conservatives are on the party’s right and Cameron is seen as a centrist in a party that laid modernisation to rest with his resignation in 2016.

Israel has been seen as a touchpaper issue for years, even if one does not need to go to the lengths former Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan did by telling LBC on Thursday: “The time has come to flush out those extremists in our own parliamentary politics and around it, some of whom have been at the very top of government or have been.

“They have never been called to account by journalists and asked, “Do you agree with your own party and condemn illegal settlements?”

He added: “Conservative Friends of Israel has been doing the bidding of Benjamin Netanyahu by passing all proper processes of government to exercise undue influence at the top of government.” A senior Tory official subsequently said Duncan would be investigated for the remarks under the party’s disciplinary process, and Jewish groups accused him of using antisemitic tropes.

The instinctively pro-Israeli mood on the Tory benches was reflected during the last Commons statement made to MPs on Gaza by the Foreign Office minister, Andrew Mitchell, on 26 March. Many Tory backbenchers expressed alarm that British diplomats had backed a UN security council resolution that they felt unjustifiably de-linked a ceasefire from the release of Israeli hostages. Mitchell did his best to placate them, and senses the centre of gravity inside his party may be shifting away from the politics of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Signs that the issue may become part of the discussion about the future direction of the Tory party came when former home secretary Suella Braverman, just back from a visit to Israel, told the BBC’s Today programme Israel is “absolutely not” in breach of international humanitarian law, the basis on which any arms export control decisions would be taken.

She said: “The suggestion itself is absurd and, frankly, an insult to Israel, who have been going above and beyond the necessary requirements to ensure that civilian casualties are limited, to ensure that aid is received on to the Gaza Strip and distributed.

“I have seen evidence myself, in terms of very up-to-date photographic evidence, of plentiful food packages and trucks of food, water and medicines getting to the people of Gaza.”

Her assessment directly contradicts what Cameron has been saying in public about aid distribution and allegedly what Sunak said in a private call to Benjamin Netanyahu this week. It is noticeable that Cameron was reluctant to engage on the issue of Gaza at the Nato foreign ministers’ meeting.

Once spoken of as a contender for the Tory leadership, more recently Braverman has been billed as a backer of a potential bid by another former home secrtary, Priti Patel.

Patel was sacked as international development secretary by the then prime minister Theresa May in 2017 after she was accused of trying to run a parallel foreign policy on Israel, and had not been wholly truthful about the extent of her unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials.

One of Patel’s chief rivals for Tory leadership is likely to be Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary and the woman who through her office ultimately formally decides if arms exports licences should be suspended. She is another strong defender of Israel, and is currently negotiating a free trade deal with the country. She told Sky in November: “We’ve always said that Israel should abide by international law, and that appears to be what they have done.”

Badenoch spoke at Israel’s 75th anniversary event in London last year, where she vowed public bodies would be banned from disinvesting in Israel, legislation that is currently in front of the Lords. The idea was largely the brainchild of Michael Gove, who is likely to support Badenoch for the leadership, despite a recent falling-out over a non-political issue.

One thing the last six months in Gaza has shown is that both sides tend to locate the evidence that suits their ideology.

There is also politics inside the Labour party over this issue. Keir Starmer, an opponent of the Iraq war in 2003 and at the time a barrister in Doughty Street chambers, backed freedom of information requests for the full legal advice supplied by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to be published on whether a second UN resolution was required before going to war.

That advice was finally published in full on a Downing Street website in 2005. Starmer’s role in securing the publication explains his current push for the Foreign Office to publish the legal advice on Israel arms exports. The custom and pratice that such advice is private to ministers has not held sway with him, so long as the issue is of sufficient importance.

Starmer’s call for the advice to be published also acts as a convenient unifying position for his divided party, since it allows him not to come to a definitive view himself on whether Israel has breached international law.