Saturday, June 23, 2007

gordon brown an enigma on middle east

“Gordon Brown sets out plan for the Middle East”. This was a typical headline in the British media after the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who takes over as prime Minister from Tony Blair on 27 June, spoke a few days ago of the importance of tackling poverty in the Palestinian territories and called for “an economic road map”. Brown pointed out that the average annual income per head in Gaza is 800 US dollars while in Israel it is $20,000. He confirmed that he still believes in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In reality there was nothing new in Brown’s comments, made after Hamas’s seizure of power in Gaza. He has called for a Middle East economic road map before. It is still not known how he will try as Prime Minister to deal with the Middle East crisis, and whether he still stick as closely to US policy as Blair has. Anger within the Labour Party over Blair’s refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire during the Lebanon war last summer, and his perceived consistently pro-Israeli stance while Prime Minister, put pressure on him from within the party to hasten his departure. It was a major reason for his announcement last September that he would leave his position within a year. And it is still not known how Brown will deal with other issues related to the Middle East, particularly any US plan to attack Iran militarily.

Statements made in Iraq by Brown on his recent visit there were a clear indication of his wish to put a distance between him and the Blair era. Whereas Blair continues to defiantly defend all the decisions he took over Iraq, Brown admitted during his recent surprise visit to Baghdad that mistakes had been made and that he would “learn the lessons”.

One of the main reasons for the sharp drop in the public’s trust and confidence in Tony Blair and his government since 2003 has been the exaggerated and faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that the government presented in its dossier of September 2002. The dossier claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes.

During his visit to Iraq Brown said that he has asked the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, to ensure that in future any intelligence material released to the public is “properly verified and validated”, and that “all security and intelligence analysis is independent of the political process.”

Sources close to Brown said that his visit had confirmed his view that there should not be any hasty changes to the timetable for eventual British withdrawal. However there has been some speeding up, and defence secretary Des Browne told journalists that from next month British troops in Basra will be confined to a single base at the airport. At the same time the British forces will be cut by 500 to 5,000. It is planned that most British troops should have left Iraq within the next 12 months.

The period since 17 May, when it became clear that Gordon Brown would be the sole candidate leader of the Labour Party, and thus Prime Minister, has been a strange time in British politics. There have in effect been two prime ministers. Blair has been on his world farewell tour, trying to polish his political legacy despite the deep stain of Iraq. Meanwhile Gordon Brown has been travelling around Britain carrying out visits in preparation for the day he takes over from Blair.

Brown brings to his new job ten years of experience in government, but he also brings the heavy baggage of the Blair premiership which will be hard to shake off. He faces the challenge of rebuilding confidence in the government and attracting back voters who have deserted Labour, so as to secure for the party its fourth term in office in the general election of 2009 or 2010. He needs to counter the rise of the Conservatives’ leader David Cameron, who is only 40 while Brown is 56.

Although there has been no contest for the Labour leadership, there has been a lively electoral campaign among the six candidates standing for the deputy leadership to replace John Prescott. Prescott is also deputy prime minister, but it will be for Gordon Brown to decide whether the next deputy party leader should also be deputy prime minister.

The six candidates have felt liberated by the imminent departure of Blair to criticise aspects of his premiership. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland and Wales Peter Hain wrote in an article in the New Statesman that whether on Iraq, the reorganisation of the health service, the reform of schools, or civil liberties, “the relationship between Labour and millions of progressive voters has become sour and distrustful.” All six candidates have to varying degrees expressed opinions somewhat to the left of Blair, which has not pleased Blair.

Brown himself remains an enigma. As Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British understanding (CAABU), told Al Hayat: “there is an acute degree of uncertainty even within the ranks of the Labour Party. Although Gordon Brown has been a hugely powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a firm control over British domestic policies for the last ten years, few people are really clear what Gordon Brown the prime Minister will do.”

Doyle adds: “In the foreign affairs field this is even tougher to anticipate. In the carve up of British politics it was Blair who had control over Britain’s international relations and Brown stayed out, hence his low profile on issues such as Iraq and Lebanon. The reality may well be that even Brown is not sure what his foreign policy will be as he, like so many in New Labour, has precious little understanding of international relations albeit outside the economic field.”

Doyle notes that Brown has been busy doing the groundwork for his premiership in the last few years, with his first visit to Africa, Indian Israel and the occupied territories. “Brown may well want to concentrate on domestic issues, conscious of the widespread criticism of Blair’s internationalism and tendency to intervene militarily. However, Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be ignored and there will be acute and sustained pressure on him to steer a different course.”

Nevertheless, one should not expect anything too drastic here. “Brown has a consistent record of interest in US politics and has close relations with the administration. He is thought to be more Euro sceptic than Blair.”

It is expected that in his first 100 days as Prime Minister Brown will announce many new initiatives. He is expected to announce the setting up of a “people’s assembly” to rewrite the constitutional settlement. Brown will also usher in a change in the style of government. There has been much criticism of Blair’s method of government and the way in which he centralised decision making, bypassing the cabinet and parliament. This style of government became known as “sofa” government with important decisions made at informal meetings in Blair’s offices in Downing Street.

One of Brown’s key appointments has been that of former British ambassador to Israel, Simon McDonald, as his chief foreign policy adviser replacing Blair’s adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald. McDonald (46) was ambassador in Israel from 2003 to 2006 and is currently head of the Iraq desk at the Foreign Officer.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that political sources in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction with the appointment of McDonald, a “friend to Israel.” It said the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem “regard McDonald with great esteem”. He is considered one of the most influential foreign envoys posted to Israel, and one well-connected to Israeli decision makers and Israeli political sources said: “It is a signal that Britain will continue its positive policy towards Israel.”

Under Blair’s premiership there has been some resentment within the Foreign Office at the way in which its role was to some extent marginalised by the prime minister and his inner circle. It is said that the Foreign Office greeted Brown’s appointment of McDonald with enthusiasm, as an assurance of the pivotal role of the Foreign Office.

The Jewish community has warmly welcomed Brown’s accession to the premiership. He is close to the chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks and wrote the foreword to the paperback edition of Sacks’ book “The Politics of Hope”. Brown said that the book had had a “profound influence” on his thinking. In February Brown appointed the chief rabbi’s 24-year-old daughter Gilda Sacks as a special adviser. The treasury said Gilda Sacks had been appointed because of her experience in strategic development.

In April Brown addressed the annual lunch of the lobby group Labour Friends of Israel, and was also guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Brown often mentions how he got to know about Israel when he was growing up as a boy because his father, who was a minister in the Church of Scotland, visited Israel twice every year. He told the Board of Deputies of British Jews that he remains “a life-long friend and supporter of Israel... Britain will be a true and constant friend – in good times and bad and we will never compromise our relationship to political expediency.”

The question of boycotts against Israel is currently attracting much controversy in Britain. Brown told the Board of Deputies dinner: “I recoil in revulsion at the prospect of boycotts of Israel and the Israeli academic community.”

Brown is very supportive of the Holocaust Education Trust, and at the Trust’s annual dinner last September he was given a special award. In 2006 he announced a £1.5 million grant to enable the Holocaust Educational Trust to take two students from every UK secondary school and further education college to visit Auschwitz concentration camp.

At the Labour Friends of Israel annual lunch Brown announced that UK Treasury and the Pears Foundation will each contribute £250,000 over three years to the Holocaust Educational Trust for teacher training. He said that “any suggestion the Holocaust will be dropped from the curriculum is nonsense.” He insisted there was a strong and forceful commitment from all parties to fight anti-Semitism.

One of Brown’s closest advisers is Sir Ronald Cohen (left), who was born in Egypt to a family of Jews from Aleppo (his mother, Sonia Doueik, was English). Cohen is known as the “father of British venture capital” and has wealth is estimated at around £250 million. In 2004 he was the fourth largest funder of the Labour Party, and in 2005 he started to fund Gordon Brown’s bid to be the next Labour leader. (Sir Ronald’s third wife, Sharon Harel-Cohen, is the daughter of Yossi Harel, the Haganah member who was commander of the Holocaust survivors’ ship Exodus).

Sir Ronald Cohen is founder and chairman of the Portland Trust, a not-for-profit British foundation that aims to promote Palestinian-Israeli peace through economic development. It works with a range of partners including the British government, EU and World Bank. Brown said at the Board of Deputies dinner: “With others, including the Portland Trust, we are ready to underpin a political road map with an economic road map.”
When Gordon Brown was guest speaker at the Muslim News Awards for Excellence dinner in London in March 2005 he praised the “huge contribution” British Muslims make to Britain’s success. He described British Muslims as “our modern heroes; standing for the highest ideals, bearing burdens, and bringing hope to us all in Britain.”

However, since then life for Muslims in Britain has become much more difficult as a result of the suicide bombings in London on 7 July 2005 and the uncovering of various terror plots. Brown has constantly stressed the need for Britishness and shared British values, and he can be expected to support and develop policies designed to try to combat extremism by decreasing segregation and increasing social cohesion.

Brown is planning fresh anti-terror measures, and he is to revive proposals to increase the length of time a terror suspect can be held without charge from 28 to 90 days. He will call for a review of the laws under which evidence obtained by phone tapping cannot be used in court. But Brown also stressed the need for civil liberties to be upheld, and says courts and parliament will have greater oversight over the proposed anti-terror measures.

Susannah Tarbush

Al Hayat (in Arabic translation) June 22 2007

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