Warsi's Resignation: U.K.'s Mideast Policy Won't Change, but It's a Bad Sign

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A file picture taken on October 3, 2010, in Birmingham, shows then Chairman of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The resignation of Sayeeda Warsi, senior minister of state in the British Foreign Office, has hardly sent shockwaves through the ruling Conservative Party. Baroness Warsi took a principled stand over what she called in her resignation letter the “morally indefensible” policy of Prime Minister David Cameron's towards Israel's actions in Gaza.

She is the first member of that government in the four years of its existence to resign on a point of principle, but many in London believe that her resignation is as much a result of her greatly diminished influence and political prospects as her views on Gaza. But while her departure will probably have no effect on British policy, which has been largely supportive of Israel in recent weeks, it does reflect how divisive support for Israel has become in the British public sphere. It will also stoke the debate on whether Israel should face war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court.

The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Warsi, a lawyer and single mother from Yorkshire, appealed to the leaders of the Conservatives by representing a number of sectors in which they lack supporters - Muslims, women, northerners. She failed in her single bid to get elected to parliament but was fast-tracked instead through the House of Lords and became a member of the shadow cabinet in 2007. After the Conservatives came to power in 2010, was appointed party co-chairperson and a member of cabinet, Britain's first female Muslim Cabinet minister. She failed, however, to impress in government - and two years later was demoted to the new post of Senior Minister of State in the Foreign Office and Minister for Faith and Communities.

Last month, Cameron made a major reshuffle of his cabinet. Though Warsi kept her position, the new cabinet (of which she was no longer a voting-member since 2012) is more right-wing and Euro-skeptic. Her previous boss, William Hague, who in the past blamed Israel of acting "disproportionately" in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, was replaced by Phillip Hammond, seen as a much more robust supporter of Israel. Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who was more open to Britain's partnership with international courts such as European Court of Human Rights and the ICC, also left.

Warsi herself had also been expected by some to leave. In her resignation letter - along with her criticisms of British arms sales to Israel, the lack of clear condemnation of Israel's actions in Gaza and the fact that Britain isn't pushing for Israel to be investigated by ICC - Warsi also criticized the new makeup of the cabinet.

Warsi's positions on Gaza were hardly surprising for those who recalled her saying on BBC Radio 4 in 2006 that Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections "is actually an opportunity and I think that’s the way we’ve got to see it. When groups that practice violence are suddenly propelled into power through a democratic process they get responsibility and responsibility can be a tremendously taming factor." In recent days, she had been continuously tweeting her feelings on the Gaza situation - one tweet in which she wrote "If there is a community meeting or protest in relation to #Gaza happening near you I'd like to know, please tweet me the details" - to which the spokesman of the Israeli embassy in London, Yiftach Curiel tweeted in response: "Would you also like to know about protests against Hamas rockets and terror tunnels? #IsraelUnderFire."

The response to Warsi's resignation from the leaders of her party bordered on the dismissive. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne called her decision “disappointing and frankly unnecessary.” Her direct boss, Foreign Secretary Hammond, said it was "rather surprising" she had chosen to resign just when the ceasefire in Gaza was finally coming into effect. He described the kind of condemnation of Israel she demanded "megaphone diplomacy" and said "it is more important to achieve the result."

Prime Minister Cameron was more courteous, expressing in his response to her letter of resignation his"regret that we were not able to speak about your decision beforehand." He also wrote that "the situation in Gaza is intolerable" and that "we have consistently made clear (to Israel) our grave concerns about the heavy toll of civilian casualties and have called on Israel to exercise restraint," but stopped short of criticizing Israel.

Israeli diplomats have in general been satisfied with the support from the Cameron government over the last month, though in recent days, as the civilian death-toll in Gaza rose, there have been more expressions of concern over Israel's tactics. The government announced on Monday that it would be reviewing arms export licenses to Israel, but made it clear that this was not an embargo, just a review of whether British arms were being used against civilians. As Israel buys annually less than 10 million pounds of military-related goods from Britain (while Britain is currently spending close to a billion pounds on Israeli drones), this has not raised much concern in Jerusalem.

But while Warsi's resignation will have no effect on current British policy in the Middle East, it is a signal on how divisive Israel is now in the UK and the conflict's detrimental influence on Jewish-Muslim relations in Britain. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets each weekend of the last month in angry anti-Israel demonstrations, in which many of the participants were members of Britain's large Muslim community. At the same time, anti-Semitic incidents have doubled in England. While the Conservatives, with a few exceptions on the backbenches, have barely wavered in their support, the other parties have been much more critical. Labour Leader Ed Miliband, who only a few months ago made an emotional trip to Israel and the West Bank which included a tour of Sderot on the Gaza border, said over the weekend that the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza is "wrong and unjustifiable" and called Cameron's "silence" over it "inexplicable." Labour's shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said that "most reasonably-minded people across Britain will agree with the sentiments expressed by Baroness Warsi in her resignation statement." Warsi was also the minister in charge of Britain's relations with the ICC; now that she's left the government, there will be even less support from within for investigating Israel's alleged war crimes at The Hague, but the political and public demands for such a step will only increase in Britain.

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