As the UN brokered ceasefire seems be taking hold in southern Lebanon both sides have begun to assess their behaviour during this short but difficult conflict. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, has said that if he could have foreseen the carnage, which followed the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, he would never have ordered the operation. While in Israel there is increasing public disquiet about the way both the Government and military handled the crisis. As the participants take stock of their conduct, it is probably time for the Conservative Party to quietly do the same. For while party politics pale against the events central to this discussion the Party must recognise that a real opportunity was squandered. The conflict offered a chance to show that in the realms of foreign affairs the Conservatives are not only fit to lead the country but also to represent it on the international stage. Yet this chance was left to swish by eliciting nothing more than the provocative yet ultimately meaningless word 'disproportionate'.
None of this should be misconstrued as a polemic against Israel, though the failings in her response are central to the debate. Essentially they are two fold:
- First, the Israelis squandered the political capital available to them from being in the rare position of being seen by her neighbours as the victim rather than the aggressor. There can be no long term solution to Hezbollah without public support particularly within Lebanon. They had this and wasted it with a reactionary and ill considered response.
- Secondly, by launching an operation with the precise aims of freeing the kidnapped soldiers and stopping Hezbollah rocket attacks, they imposed stringent and unrealistic war aims on themselves. Whereas, for Hezbollah to succeed they merely had to survive. They did and are widely seen as the victors while Israel’s fabled military reputation lies in disrepair. The long term consequences of this may prove severe.
To claim that Israel’s response was ill considered and poorly executed is not a rejection of her right to defend itself. In fact, it is a sentiment being expressed throughout Israel today, and which has led Ehud Olmert to order parallel investigations into the political and military handling of the crisis. Indeed, these investigations highlight the Conservative Party’s failure to articulate concern over Israel’s response. The Party had a chance to prove that it alone has the intellectual vigour and integrity so vital in foreign affairs, yet this was stifled by excessive caution. An opportunity on a global scale was lost.
The political gains to be made were heightened by the vacuum in the current Government. With the Prime Minister under orders to stand aside for Condoleezza Rice, Brown missing in Scotland, Beckett somewhere in a caravan and Prescott under house arrest there was no one to explain Labour’s policy to the country; let alone the intricacies of why an immediate ceasefire would have been meaningless. Entrusting foreign affairs to the Conservative Party should be part of the natural order, however the Party failed to pick up the mantle.
On a party level a different opportunity was lost. And that was to define the make up of the front bench. At the moment the resurgent Party is David Cameron. This was a chance for other figures, notably William Hague, to enforce his personality, objectiveness and clarity of expression to the country. He should have enjoyed the chance to portray himself as the future foreign secretary in-waiting rather than as an occasional media pundit.
None of this is to criticise Israel’s right to defend itself or mitigate Hezbollah’s responsibility for starting this conflagration. Rather it is to emphasis that the role of the Conservative Party must be to provide leadership to the country and direction to the rest of the world. It can only do this if it is prepared to stand up and state the facts with clarity and credibility no matter how unappealing they may be to some quarters. It is only by doing this will the Party demonstrate that it is ready to exchange the political wilderness for Government.