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As delegates grappled with the outbreak of conflict in Gaza and Israel, the Labour Party's annual conference turned the spotlight on the leadership's Middle East policy, with spokesmen stressing a future government would "up the UK's game" in engaging and tackling regional issues.
Wayne David, the party's shadow minister for the Middle East, told fringe meetings the Abraham Accords set the stage for future deals between Israel and nations across the Arab world, as he shared his hope those agreements could pave the way for a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr David said the current fighting was “terrible because that cuts across many of the positives in the Middle East over the past few months”. Hamas is determined to “turn the clock back” to the old order in the Middle East in which Israel was ostracised, before the signing of the Abraham Accords, he said.
Mr David recently visited Saudi Arabia and Oman and was struck that officials there were surprised at his willingness to engage in fresh dialogue. He called on UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government to up its game in the region and forge stronger ties to Middle Eastern nations.
On the issue of how the UK should deal with an Iran that has fostered links with Hamas for decades, he said there was a strong case for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be proscribed a terrorist organisation. He referred to British intelligence that has suggested the IRGC has made attempts on the lives of a number of people in the UK.
John Lyndon, executive director of the Alliance for the Middle East, also spoke at a fringe event. He said the Abraham Accords gave the scope to change attitudes and lay the groundwork for improving the prospects of millions of young people in the region.
“It’s one of the few dynamic and transformative and positive things that happened in recent years and it’s yet to be seen how it’s going to play out and how it relates to Israel-Palestine,” he told the audience.
He said the current violence was “incredibly traumatic” and many Israelis have equated the shock to that of the Arab–Israeli War of 1973.
“You don’t know how these events reorder international priorities in geopolitics,” he said, pointing out that a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Egypt following the war in October 1973.
“What I would say could make a change are the Abraham Accords,” Mr Lyndon said. “And they will be there now, with a different suite of incentives and disincentives that existed before August 2020,” he said, referring to when the historic agreements were announced.
The landmark deals, brokered by Donald Trump’s US administration, led to relations being established between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
Mr Lyndon said the historic partnerships have not only offered hope of other governments in the Middle East forging ties with Israel, but have improved the prospects of young people in the region.
“I was in Abu Dhabi back in the spring and I did an event with Israelis and Palestinians on stage with me at AGDA [the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy] in front of trainee, Emirati diplomats ... and I had to pinch myself,” he said.
“The idea was impossible a few years ago.
“We had a very full, comprehensive discussion about the Middle East and it was very open.
“It just makes you realise how things that you think are permanent, immovable geopolitical realities can shift very, very quickly.”
Up until now, he said, the people-to-people civic dimension has not existed but because of changing attitudes in the Middle East towards Israel there is a “real opportunity” for change and for peace.
“The UK could really lead with the relationships it has in the GCC to graph that out, to make it a core component to learn the lessons of failed diplomatic agreements with Egypt and Jordan that really lacked that element, the people-to-people dimension.”
Mr Lyndon said despite the chaos engulfing Israel and Gaza and the lack of certainty over how long it could drag on, he remains optimistic that both sides can reach a peace deal at some point in the future.
“That is maybe a more positive way to look at what may happen in the years to follow these very, very dramatic few days in Israel.”
Labour MP Virendra Sharma told The National the Abraham Accords could prove to be “one of the ways” to bring about a lasting solution to the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.
After Mr Trump brought Israel together with Bahrain and the UAE to seal the 2020 treaties, Mr Sharma said the world now needs a similar enabler. “The UK should tell both sides they need to come together to talk,” he said. “Not talking is unacceptable.
“What is happening now is so sad.”
Labour Friends of Israel last week published a list of Middle East priorities on which it would like a Labour government to concentrate.
The group offered 26 policy recommendations, including measures designed to advance the creation of two states – Israel and a Palestinian state – as well as counter Iranian threats and challenge anti-Israel bias in international institutions.
In their latest pamphlet, the group said Labour should support a freeze on the buildings of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Diana Johnson, the group’s vice chairwoman, said a Labour government should take steps towards the establishment of a Palestinian state through renewed investment in the Palestinian Authority “which would be linked to measures to end incitement and improve Palestinian governance and human rights”.
Other demands for a Labour government include dealing effectively with Iran, strengthening Britain’s soft power in the Middle East and taking the lead to challenge international institutions that “demonise and delegitimise Israel”.
The LFI also said the UK-Israeli trade relationship should be made stronger and London should become a key global partner for progress in the Middle East.
Learning from the past is also key, the LFI said, stressing that an incoming Labour administration will face challenges different from those which confronted the party in 1997.
It is not yet known if Iran was directly involved in helping Hamas launch its attack on Israel but Tehran’s support for the terrorist group is well known.