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When Hamas attackers killed 1,400 civilians in a series of horrifying raids on October 7, politicians across the West voiced their shock and pledged their backing for Israel.
But as the Gaza conflict has unfolded, with Israeli forces killing thousands of Palestinians, that political consensus has fractured. And across the West, it is politicians on the left of the political spectrum who are struggling the most.
In the U.S., Joe Biden is under pressure from Muslim voters who see his staunch support for Israel as a betrayal. In the U.K., Keir Starmer — who is on course to become the next Labour prime minister — is facing his gravest test so far amid bitter disputes within his party.
In Spain, Pedro Sánchez is trying to cling to power by forming a left-leaning coalition. And in the Netherlands, the war has thrown the left-wing alliance’s campaign into disarray, ahead of an election later this month.
So far there have been two crucial points of tension dividing the left: the case for a cease-fire to allow aid into Gaza and civilians out, and how far leaders should go in criticizing Israel. While left-wing party leaders are trying to walk a fine line, many in their ranks are far harsher in their criticism of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s military operations in Gaza, and much more strident in demanding cease-fires.
“The left globally remains staunchly anti-war,” said Elham Fakhro, at Chatham House. “What we are seeing today is reminiscent of the mobilization against the Iraq War in 2003 and the divisions between populist sentiments and the policies of decision makers on the left, which ended up costing them elections for years to come.
Leaders on the left need to understand the similarities here, the strength of the anti-war sentiment on the ground, and act accordingly.”
The picture varies from one country to the next. But the Israel-Hamas war has upended politics far beyond the Middle East. With key elections looming in many Western countries, the price of these divisions for parties on the left could be severe.
With a steady 18-point poll lead, the U.K. Labour Party has looked like a near-sure bet to win the next general election expected in 2024. But the crisis in the Middle East has created one of the biggest challenges to Labour leader Keir Starmer’s chances so far.
His party is split on whether to call for a cease-fire in Gaza. A third of Labour MPs and some of the party’s most senior politicians — including Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham — are now publicly urging one.
Starmer — who has worked hard to rid the party of its antisemitic reputation — has so far resisted. He gave a speech on Monday where he said a ceasefire now would only “embolden” Hamas to carry out another deadly attack on Israel. But many of his MPs were not convinced.
Privately, many of the politicians and officials who want Starmer to take a more pro-Palestinian position are worried about the electoral impact of his current policy. One Labour shadow minister told POLITICO that Labour was “hemorrhaging Muslim votes massively — enough to lose seats if there was an election tomorrow.”
Over the past month, the American left has suffered a wrenching split over the Israel-Hamas war. Though historically a broad swath of American voters have been pro-Israel, that public support has declined in recent years.
According to a Gallup poll released before the war started, American support had tipped for the first time toward Palestinians over Israelis. Younger voters, who primarily identify as Democrats, are driving the trend. Since the start of the war, protests and other conflicts on college campuses have become part of a national conversation in America.
Jewish Americans, a majority of whom identify as Democrats, have also become more skeptical of Israeli policies in recent years. Here, too, the trend is tied to a generational divide. A Pew survey from before the war found millennial American Jews were the least likely to positively rate Netanyahu’s leadership.
Muslim Americans, who exit polls say tilted toward Biden in 2020, are now threatening to stay home in 2024 over his early support for Israel after the October 7 Hamas attacks. The administration has since spoken out against Islamophobia and expressed sympathy for Palestinian civilians.
The war erupted at an acutely sensitive moment for Spain’s caretaker Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez. After an inconclusive election, he’s trying now to assemble a new coalition government made up of ministers from his party and the left-wing Sumar coalition. That new executive appears split on the right approach to the Israel-Hamas war.
Sánchez’s Socialists have condemned Hamas’ October 7 offensive as a “terrorist attack” and vindicated Israel’s right to defend itself. But they have also decried the civilian casualties resulting from the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and lobbied for a humanitarian cease-fire to avoid further collateral damage.
While Sumar also condemns the attacks, it refuses to characterize Hamas as a terrorist organization. In fact, the group’s spokesperson, Ernest Urtasun, argues that Israel is “responsible” for the violence because it is the result of the “illegal occupation” of the Palestinian territories. Urtasun has also called Netanyahu’s government “extremist” and blasted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for ignoring “the atrocities and war crimes that Israel commits.”
Although Sumar wanted the “unilateral and unconditional” recognition of Palestine to be included in the governing agreement it forged with Sánchez this month, the PM’s Socialists rejected that proposal. The new Sánchez government is heading for a rocky start, on this issue at least.
The left has been fighting over the Israeli-Arab conflict in Germany ever since university students began donning the keffiyeh in a show of solidarity with Palestinians following the Six Day War in 1967.
While those tensions remain, Hamas’ massacre of Israeli civilians has largely muted them — at least for the time being.
Though some leftist politicians have urged Israel to respond to the attacks in a “proportionate manner” and called for a humanitarian ceasefire, few have questioned Israel’s right to forcefully defend itself.
Indeed, all of Germany’s left-wing parties — a group that encompasses the governing Social Democrats and Greens, as well as the far-left Linke party — supported an October 10 parliamentary resolution that expressed solidarity with Israel and condemned Hamas.
“The only place for Germany at this moment is at Israel’s side,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz told MPs after the brutal attacks, a view that is shared across the political spectrum.
That solidarity is rooted in the deep sense of responsibility most Germans feel towards Israel in the wake of the Holocaust. That said, German support is not absolute, as evidenced by Berlin’s decision last week to abstain on a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza instead of rejecting it, as Israel had asked.
For the most part, the anti-Israel sentiment Germany has witnessed since October 7 has emerged from Muslim immigrant communities, which have turned out in large numbers in major cities across the country to protest against Israel. Though authorities have banned most pro-Palestinian demonstrations, some have gone ahead anyway with participants in some cases flying radical symbols such as ISIS and al-Qaeda flags.
Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck of the Greens warned perpetrators would face prosecution and even deportation. “Antisemitism is not to be tolerated in any form,” Habeck said.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s center-left Liberals are struggling with internal division over calls for a cease-fire.
More than 20 Liberal lawmakers joined MPs from the left-wing New Democratic Party, as well as the Green Party, in signing a letter demanding a cessation of hostilities — a position roundly rejected by many other Liberals, including outspoken Jewish MP Anthony Housefather.
Trudeau, a strong supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself, has resisted pressure to advocate for a cease-fire. He and his foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, are talking instead about a “humanitarian truce” to allow urgent aid to reach desperate Gazans.
A firestorm of controversy in Canada’s biggest province has threatened the political career of an elected official.
Sarah Jama, a rookie member of the legislature in Ontario, is in the rare position of not being able to speak in the chamber.
In the days following the Hamas attack, Jama — then a member of the provincial NDP caucus — called for a cease-fire and an “end to all occupation of Palestinian land.”
But she did not condemn Hamas or label the militants as terrorists. She later apologized for the statement, but never retracted it.
Jama was eventually turfed from the NDP caucus by party leader Marit Stiles, who subsequently faced calls to resign from grassroots New Democrats in the province.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government passed a motion to censure Jama, rendering her unable to rise in the legislature until she offers a verbal apology and retracts her initial statement.
In the Netherlands, the Israel-Hamas conflict has cast a shadow on this month’s national elections and a newfound alliance of the Labor and Green parties.
Frans Timmermans, the EU heavyweight who is leading the joint ticket for the left-wing alliance, has been facing heat over his vocal support for Israel. A tweet from the former Labor minister that denounced Hamas’ October 7 attacks, without mentioning the fate of the Palestinians, irked some members of the Green party, which has been more critical of Israel in recent years.
During a party conference in October, the parties attempted to close the ranks by showing a united front. Party members also adopted a motion that focuses on the humanitarian situation in Gaza while still condemning the Hamas atrocities.
Despite attempts at reconciliation between the two parties, Green MP Kauthar Bouchallikht announced shortly after the conference that she was withdrawing her candidacy for the elections, complaining that her party had failed to consider the context of the Middle East conflict.
Fault lines between the center-left and far-left positions on foreign policy run deep in Italy.
The far left has always supported global protest movements, including the Palestinian cause, and the 5Star Movement contains anti-American strands, which are often expressed as pacifism.
The center-left Democrats struggle to adopt a unified position. Before becoming Democratic Party leader, Elly Schlein supported positions sympathetic to Palestinians.
But her party also contains more centrist figures, supportive of U.S. policies. She herself has experienced antisemitic abuse because her father is Jewish. To avoid a rupture she needs to hold a nuanced line.
Asked on television whether she was “with Israel or Palestine,” Schlein responded: “With Israel and Palestine.” She told parliament last week that “Hamas must be isolated” but warned “the Palestinian victims do not count less, there is a line between justice and vendetta which must never be crossed.”
The 5Stars and Democrats were united over support for a U.N. resolution for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce,” which the government abstained on.
But Schlein did not attend a peace march last week where her absence was highlighted by other leftist leaders.
Schlein’s office told POLITICO she had a prior engagement and the PD sent a delegation. Divisions in the Italian left on Ukraine led to the fall of the Mario Draghi government and meant the left lost the last election. Schlein’s arrival reignited hopes of a united left, but these divisions on the Middle East threaten to make it far harder for the left to challenge Italy’s right-wing government.
France has both the largest Muslim community and the largest Jewish community in Europe. President Emmanuel Macron fears the Middle East conflict could trigger violence in France – and for good reason. He has taken care since the Hamas attacks to maintain a balanced position between backing Israel’s right to defend itself and its duty to “respect civilian populations.”
That position has been fairly well received in opinion polls, but it hasn’t won unanimous support among Macron’s troops. Several members of the presidential camp distanced themselves from Macron, which is unusual on international affairs, by calling for “unconditional” support for Israel.
Conversely, far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of France Unbowed, persists in not wanting to describe Hamas as a “terrorist” organization, causing violent debates and re-launching an antisemitism trial that had been brought against him in the past.
His socialist, communist and ecologist allies in parliament, although not entirely speaking with one voice, disassociated themselves from Mélenchon, some of them suspending their participation in joint work on the budget. More than a year after France’s left-leaning parties formed an alliance in the so-called NUPES coalition, divisions on the Middle East war now pose the group’s most serious test.
Kay Steiger contributed reporting.