David Lammy shaping Labour's Gaza response through Middle East trips

UK's shadow foreign secretary has made four visits to the region in six weeks to gather views on de-escalating rising tensions

David Lammy, the UK Labour Party's Shadow Foreign Secretary gestures as he meets with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Beirut, Lebanon. AP
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The UK's shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has become the face of Labour’s evolving stance on the Israel-Gaza war as he travels the region hoping to show the empathy and leadership that is demanded by his hosts on all sides.

The lawyer and author turned politician has stepped up his criticism of the war after four visits to the region in six weeks in an attempt to de-escalate tensions and help pave the way for a two-state solution.

His position presents a challenge to foreign secretary Lord Cameron, who has sought to recalibrate the Conservative government’s unwavering support for Israel in the war’s first weeks.

“We look with huge concern at the civilian loss of life in Gaza,” Mr Lammy told The National. "Everyone has said to me that the role that the UK can play, because of its relationship with Israel but also with Lebanon and the wider region, is important.

"We do not want to see an escalation of violence," he said, a point he stressed last week on a visit to Lebanon. “I’m here because of regional concerns about the escalation of violence that we are seeing in Gaza at this time, to understand better what diplomatic steps can be brought to bear,” he added.

“Britain has very significant role to play in the Levant area, where we have a historic relationship and we are hugely respected,” he said.

Labour has been divided over leader Keir Starmer’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza, in response to the Hamas attacks of October 7.

But the party has since appeared to change its tone, with Mr Lammy criticising the “intolerable” death toll in Gaza in December, and calling for an immediate “humanitarian truce,” in parliament last week, with the backing of Mr Starmer.

The truce would act as a stepping stone towards ending the conflict with a “sustainable ceasefire”.

Mr Lammy's meetings during the Israel-Gaza war may forge the foreign policy priorities for a future Labour government.

He was also in Israel to meet with President Isaac Herzog and then foreign minister Isaac Cohen, after calling for a longer “pause” to the conflict, and he travelled to Jordan and Egypt to meet the Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi and his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry.

In Bahrain for the Manama Dialogue, he met with Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, foreign minister of Oman.

In his shadow ministerial role, Mr Lammy has visited the UAE and held talks with Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and was on the ground during Cop28 in early December.

Weeks into the war, he met a Palestinian community displaced by settlers in the West Bank, and travelled to Doha to speak to Qatar’s prime minister about the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. As Labour increasingly positions itself as a government in waiting, the meetings are seen as a vital bridge between regional leaders and a potential incoming UK government.

Lebanese tensions

Last week, Mr Lammy was in Beirut to try to de-escalate rising tensions between Israel and Lebanese militia Hezbollah. He had previously met people living on the northern border of Israel, who had been rehoused owing to weeks of Hezbollah missile attacks on Israel.

Tensions rose to new highs after an Israeli air strike in the capital which killed Hamas deputy Saleh Al Arouri, followed by the killing of a Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon.

He also met with members of its caretaker government: Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Abou Habib and speaker of the House Nabih Berri, the leader of Lebanon’s Amal party.

There, he called for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was made during the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006, and under which Hezbollah would have to withdraw from the border to create a demilitarised zone.

“I’m here to understand better what diplomatic steps can be brought to bear to see a de-escalation,” he told The National after his meetings.

“I’ve been discussing … how we can see an implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 and the request from Israel that they move Hezbollah back to the Litani river,” he said.

“My role is to see both sides de-escalate and show restraint,” he added.

"We do have to find a negotiated agreement that will enable both countries to move forwards," he said

But instead of a people mobilised by Hezbollah’s call for resistance, he came face to face with Lebanon’s crumbling state and economy.

“The country is still in a very fragile place,” he said, having visited what remains of the Beirut port after the devastating blast on August 4, 2020.

“It’s clear to me that nobody wants war. Nobody wants to see an escalation,” he said.

“I’m confident that Hezbollah, too, don’t want to see an escalation of violence. I hope that diplomacy can win out and that we can calm nerves,” he said.

He highlighted the “huge challenges” that Lebanon had faced in recent years, including an economic crisis which drove more than 80 per cent of the population into poverty.

Mr Lammy has supported the UK's recent air strikes on the Houthis in Yemen, but stressed it was important for parliament to be able to "scrutinise" the government's decision. He plans to question Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about it during the next sitting on Monday.

Legal expert

Before taking on the foreign affairs brief in 2021, Mr Lammy – a former barrister who was Harvard Law School’s first black British student – was best known as a campaigner on race and equality issues.

His Lammy Review into inequalities in the justice system raised alarms that Muslims were over-represented in the UK’s prison population, in what he said risked “becoming a source of social division”.

Mr Lammy has been MP for Tottenham since 2000. His latest book Tribes (2020) explores social divisions in the UK, drawing on memories of his own upbringing.

As a backbench MP he cited fears of radicalisation when he voted against air strikes on ISIS in Syria in 2015, saying civilians would be killed and “a new generation of extremists will come up from the vacuum”.

After a failed bid for the London mayoralty, Mr Lammy joined the shadow cabinet when Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader in 2020. He was promoted to shadow foreign secretary the following year.

Before the war erupted with Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7 last year, Mr Lammy had been critical of both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, objecting to the settlements in the West Bank, and to Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel.

After speaking out against anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks, he said in 2021 that he regretted having nominated Jeremy Corbyn for a spell as leader that was plagued by allegations of hostility towards Jews.

Last year he accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of “behaving like a terrorist organisation” as he called for the guards to be proscribed in Britain in the wake of their crackdown on women’s rights protesters.

Updated: January 16, 2024, 9:03 AM