Sir Keir Starmer’s speech at Chatham House on 31 October set out the Labour Party’s position on the Hamas–Israel war.
He outlined his view that there should be humanitarian pauses to enable the delivery of aid and alleviate suffering – but argued a ceasefire would not be the correct position ‘now’, although he understood why some people are calling for it.
The balance Starmer looked to strike in his speech is indicative of the fraught role that the Israel-Palestine conflict plays in British foreign policy and domestic politics. The war threatens to unpick the party unity Starmer has worked hard to project, in advance of the UK general election expected in 2024.
The more striking theme of his speech was his call for renewed British engagement with the Middle East peace process. He said that the international community has paid lip service to the process for too long, and emphasized his Labour Party would – if it gets into government – work for the cause of Palestinian nationhood and a long-term peace.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy subsequently said Labour would engage in ‘real work’ for a two state solution. But this raises questions for the UK and its role in the world.
A power like the UK cannot be engaged everywhere. If a new Labour government follows Starmer’s statements and seeks greater involvement in the Middle East peace process, it will have to make difficult choices about how to dedicate its resources, political capital and time.
Any UK policy to engage with a renewed peace process will be fraught with difficulty. Reinstating a dedicated minister or envoy for the region would be a strong first step – to focus diplomatic efforts, marshal support and demonstrate a genuinely long-term commitment.
Tilting away and back again
The UK is not as engaged in the Middle East as it was, nor is it currently an obvious mediator there.
The UK Government’s Integrated Review – its 2021 foreign policy strategy – emphasized a tilt to the Indo-Pacific and the threats and challenges from authoritarian or hostile states like Russia and China.
At the time some saw this ‘tilt’ as a move away from diplomatic and military focus on Europe. But in practice the ‘tilt’ was away from the UK’s significant security and diplomatic engagement with the Middle East.
The UK has sought economic ties with Gulf States, continues to have military partnerships in the region, and recently published a roadmap for its bilateral relationship with Israel.
But its diplomatic engagement with the Israel–Palestine conflict has been limited. It axed its dedicated Middle East minister in 2022, only restoring it subsequently as a combined role which also covers South Asia and the UN.
The UK also cut £90 million from its conflict prevention budgets in the Middle East and North Africa.
This summer, the head of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, raised concerns that the UK was neglecting its relations with the region and called for a UK special envoy for the Middle East peace process.
Meanwhile many of the states in the Global South like Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia, with whom the current government has prioritized relations, view the Israel–Palestine conflict through the lens of self-determination and tend to support the Palestinian cause.
Some Global South states have seen the West – including the UK’s – support for Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks as inconsistent with its broader calls for the maintenance of international law, especially in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Problems of coordination
Another difficult question for any UK government seeking to engage more in the Middle East peace process will be coordination with European allies.
Labour has expressed a desire to have more formal foreign policy cooperation with Europe, but it will be hard for the UK to have real effect in the region without a clear European position.
The EU in particular has found it challenging to mount a shared response to the conflict. Countries like Ireland criticized the initial response of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which they saw as too uncritically supportive of the Israeli government’s response to the attacks.
Some EU representatives have also been at odds with or criticized von der Leyen’s response, underlining the difficulty of developing a unified and influential EU foreign policy in the region.
Israel–Palestine is not just a regional conflict but one with international and domestic political resonances.
If a new government seeks to engage more or differently in the Middle East, it will have to balance the views of old and new allies. Influence on any peace process requires consistent presence and long-term thinking, and that may be a challenge for a UK stretched between multiple crises, and with pressing problems at home.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has been in the region visiting Egypt, Turkey and Qatar in attempts to prevent the conflict escalating, and also made a rare phone call to Iran.
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy toured the region last week too, meeting the foreign ministers of Qatar, Jordan and Egypt with the stated intention of pushing for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow the passage of aid into Gaza. Personal meetings like this will be an important step in any new diplomatic effort.
Indeed one step the UK must take if it is to play a part in the peace process is to reestablish a dedicated minister (or, as Lammy and Kearns have recently called for, an ‘envoy’) to focus its efforts, marshal diplomatic resources and improve relationships in the region – and help to signal a long-term commitment to the peace process.
The UK is not a significant enough power to lead that process, and it will be encountering a Middle East that has changed significantly in recent years, with regional states becoming more influential in brokering power in the region.