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The uncomfortable truth is that the UK is powerless to stop Israel in Gaza

Ending arms sales to Netanyahu would be a cathartic but ultimately cosmetic act

A billow of smoke rises over buildings after an Israeli strike in Rafah (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

When things are awful enough, we cling to the illusions of control. This can manifest in big ways and small ones – from unreasonably shouting at a nurse when a loved one is dying in hospital, to campaigning for some change to the law or for justice after a death, so that even the most senseless of things can have some meaning.

This is the most human of reactions, and one from which many good initiatives have sprung. But our natural instinct to cling towards control can often lead us towards a mere illusion of it, an impetus to feel like what we do matters and the world is not as unpredictable (and terrible) as it often is.

Six months after the October 7 attacks and Israel’s relentless, horrifying reprisals for it, that cycle of illusory control is playing out across the world, largely in the form of protests. Some of those protests are antisemitic and cross clearly into the realms of hate crime, but most of those marching around the world are motivated simply by the horror of what we are all witnessing and a desire to see that stop.

If they function as catharsis, or as a register of horror at what is happening in Gaza, the protests have their place – but laying behind virtually every one of these protests around the world is an even deeper futility than those of any protests (the overwhelming majority of which achieve little to nothing).

The reality is that almost no entity in the world can do much, if anything, to change the actions of the government of Israel – and so the targets of most protests and most anger are being asked to take actions that simply lie outside of their power. There is a truth that is painful even to acknowledge, because none of us like impotence, but it is simply that there is nothing anyone in the UK can do to change what Israel is doing.

Campus protests show up the gap between the anger – even ferocity – of protests and their distance from anything of real substance. Reporting in The Atlantic on the Stanford campus shows how protests and rising hate incidents are driving students apart, with those on all sides feeling unsafe.

These protests have led to the university’s mild-mannered interim president being displayed in effigy form, drenched in blood, as a sign of his apparent culpability for the events in Gaza. The university has been “charged with genocide” by its students, using the logic that because Stanford has a considerable endowment which it invests it is funding Israel and its military.

This has resulted in demands at Stanford and around the world for universities to divest themselves of such holding – with the complication that students rarely bother to first check if these actually exist. In the case of Stanford, for example, the endowment has no direct holdings in either Israeli companies or in US arms manufacturers. Even if it did, selling them would have no actual effect on Gaza.

What is harder to intuitively believe is that most countries also have absolutely no sway on Israel – at least under its current political leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu knows he is vanishingly unlikely to win another election, and so he has every reason to cling on to power now, which means holding his current coalition with the far-right and their settler supporters. The only government upon which Israel relies upon for military support is the USA, and Netanyahu has shown virtually zero willingness to listen even to them, beyond the bare minimum.

Calling for the UK to position its public diplomacy differently, then, is a cosmetic act – no-one thinks it would result in any difference to what happens on the ground. In general, diplomats dislike making cosmetic statements, as once they’ve started it becomes very hard to stop – which in turn makes it difficult for other nations to tell when a diplomatic statement is serious or not. Protestors wonder why governments won’t call for things just because they wouldn’t happen: this is the good version of why not.

After a while, it becomes more-or-less known that the government either can’t change the behaviour of Israel, or that it won’t happen. That leads to the natural next ask, that we at least end our involvement in whatever is happening – which generally takes the form of asking for an end to arms sales to Israel.

That is a perfectly reasonable ask, but a largely meaningless one: despite the UK being a top ten arms exporter globally, we sell almost nothing to Israel. Since 2008 we have sold just over £500 million worth of restricted military equipment to Israel – much of it military equipment as opposed to bombs or munitions.

Last year we sold just £42 million worth of arms to Israel. By all means, we could stop doing so, but it would be a complete irrelevance in all directions. US military aid to Israel was at least $3.8 billion a year even before the October 7 attacks happened. Our sales are barely even a rounding error in the total.

Nothing the UK does will factor in what happens next, and so any protest targeted at a UK institution is by its definition a futile one, pointed in the wrong direction. That will be unlikely to stop any of them happening, but it does mean the horror of Gaza turns into pettier, smaller, but more nearby rows – and perhaps that is the point.

The fact of our lack of control over any of this should also not blind us to that over which we actually do have agency, and that is in our own response and our own communications. The UK has a world-class diplomatic service and a legal system that is genuinely highly rated and regarded across the world.

Our government’s legal determinations over the actions of Israel’s government and military are relevant to the UK debate and to the global diplomatic process. If such advice has been produced, there is no legitimate reason to keep it from the British public, nor the wider world.

We can control almost nothing about Israel/Gaza. That should not stop us doing the right thing in the very limited areas in which we can.

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