UK's tactics over the report could hurt Obama's MidEast mission

Who would have thought that white phosphorous would become the issue to unite Gordon Brown and David Miliband, after a year of tension between Downing Street and the Foreign Office?

But the two rivals have found common ground over Israel’s use of the controversial smoke-producing substance during the war in Gaza earlier this year.

Brown and Miliband are furious at what they see as Israel’s use of white phosphorous as an offensive weapon against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, rather than as a diversionary screen for their soldiers, as Israel has claimed. I understand the British government urged the UN to made the issue central to its investigations.

Judge Richard Goldstone’s report for the UN Human Rights Council makes the charge in the strongest terms. In paragraph 39 it states as fact that “the Israeli armed forces directly and intentionally attacked Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City and the adjacent ambulance depot with white phosphorous shells”. In the following paragraph it notes that this and a similar attack on Al-Wafa Hospital in eastern Gaza marked a “violation of the prohibition of attacks on civilian hospitals, in both cases”.

But a visceral reaction to the effects of white phosphorous does not entirely explain the tactics of the UK government at the UNHRC session on the Goldstone Report in Geneva last Friday.

The resolution accusing Israel of war crimes was easy to reject. Peter Gooderham, the UK’s Permanent Representative for the UK Mission in Geneva, stated at the time: “Neither the report nor the resolution reflected the right of Israel to protect its citizens or paid sufficient attention to Hamas’s actions.”

So why not simply vote against it? The UK would not have been alone. Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine opposed the motion along with the United States.

The explanation is that Prime Minister Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were involved in last-ditch negotiations to persuade Israel to initiate an independent inquiry and begin discussions about humanitarian aid to Gaza and Israeli settlements. A letter from Sarkozy and Brown was drafted , but Israel got cold feet.

The failure to vote at all is seen in Downing Street as a principled position, but it smacks of a classic Gordon Brown fix.

For some time now David Miliband has claimed that UK government policy in the Middle East is geared to making it easier for Barack Obama in his negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians. UK negotiators will now argue that the American president has been given the ammunition he needs to argue that there is significant opposition to the report.

Now British efforts will concentrate on directing the issue away from the UN General Assembly and a repeat of Geneva’s “theatre”.

But by pushing Obama into a position where he may have to use his veto to shoot down calls to prosecute Israel in the Security Council, the British government has risked seriously undermining the US president’s position in the Arab world.

The two great intellects of the British government may have found common cause, but they have been too clever by half.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010