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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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UK Grapples With Uncharted Territory As "Red Lines" Crossed In Middle East

Foreign Secretary David Cameron meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday (Alamy)

3 min read

Middle East experts have said that the UK is entering "new territory" in addressing escalating conflict in the region, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron faced with making decisions without precedent.

The UK helped Israel to largely intercept an Iranian attack by hundreds of drones and missiles on Saturday night. G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said they were united in condemning the “reckless and dangerous” attack by Iran’s “despotic regime”. 

But alongside other Western allies, the UK is insistent that Israel should refrain from retaliation. Cameron met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Isaac Herzog earlier this week with the hope of making this case, but on Wednesday said it was “clear the Israelis are making a decision to act”. He added: “we hope they do so in a way that does as little to escalate this as possible”. Netanyahu insisted that while other countries had “all kinds of suggestions and advice”, Israel would “make our own decisions”.

A diplomat working for the UK Foreign Office told PoliticsHome that the Middle East was now entering “fairly new territory” with a “very high” danger of escalation if Israel and Iran engage in direct warfare against each other.

“We will not want to get involved in putting boots on the ground,” they said, but added that “red lines have been crossed in the last few months” by both Iran and Israel.

Expressing their surprise that Iran had chosen to launch a direct attack on Israel – that was ultimately unsuccessful – the diplomat suggested that the big question going forward will be whether further “red lines” are crossed, and whether what is considered a red line will shift across the region and in the eyes of Western countries.

The dispute between Israel and Iran has taken some of the focus away from Gaza temporarily, and the diplomat said that while Israel’s retaliation might be a “slower burn”, Israel could take the opportunity to soon begin an offensive on Rafah, the southernmost town in the Gaza Strip where hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians have sought shelter. 

Sir William Patey, former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Sudan and now co-chair of the Labour Middle East Council, agreed that the Iranian attacks had shifted the focus in the West to the defence of Israel, and that this has – for now – quietened the push for a ban on arms sales to Israel. 

But Patey said this shift in focus would likely only be temporary. “Israel is still saying that they're going to go into Rafah and if they did that, that would create an even bigger humanitarian crisis than there is at the moment,” he told PoliticsHome.

“There's real issues in Gaza with famine and the absence of real humanitarian assistance. So while we're kind of focusing off Gaza for a bit, it will return.”

The Labour Party has been supportive of the UK government’s actions so far, a position which Patey predicted would be likely to continue.

“I don't see any impending red lines [for Labour],” he said.

“They're both absolutely square on the security of the State of Israel, they both want a two state solution, they both want justice for the Palestinians, they both want to end the war in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis. I don't see great scope for Labour [to diverge], as the [general] election will be for domestic issues.”

However, he said Labour would be expected to be consulted if there was a danger of the UK involving itself in a wider conflict. Given Labour was informed over the weekend about the UK’s intervention against the Iranian attacks, the same would be expected for any further developments.

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