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The difficult question Hammond must answer

    Philip Hammond: sympathetic to Israel
    Philip Hammond: sympathetic to Israel

    Philip Hammond is still taking his first baby steps as Foreign Secretary, but there is one question he needs to learn to answer. And quickly.

    Does he consider Israel's use of military force against Hamas to be disproportionate?

    On the Today programme on Tuesday he was asked the question three times and three times he dodged it. This is not good enough.

    It is hard to imagine a more difficult start for Mr Hammond: the war in Gaza has coincided with the installation of an extremist Islamic state in parts of Iraq and the deterioration of relations with Russia following the Malaysia Airways disaster in Ukraine.

    But in such unstable times it is imperative that we know where the Foreign Secretary stands on this most fundamental question.

    Israel watchers have noted a change in tone since Mr Hammond took over from William Hague in the July reshuffle. It had become plain that Mr Hague had grown weary of the conflict and deeply irritated by Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

    Following the failure of the vote to intervene in Syria, Britain was fast looking like it had no Middle East policy at all. Mr Hammond was quick to visit Israel and has been seen as sympathetic towards the country in his early statements.

    But he should have been better briefed to answer what is, after all, a banker question for interviewers on this subject.

    There are a number of ways he could have approached this. He could have argued that Israel is absolutely right to protect its people from attack from Islamist militants and that Hamas must bear full responsibility for the loss of life in Gaza.

    He could have pointed out that any comparison between the necessarily well-equipped army of a democratic nation in a dangerous neighbourhood and a terrorist organisation such as Hamas is clearly absurd.

    He could have said that Hamas advertises its war crimes and explicitly targets the homes of Israeli citizens.

    Alternatively, he could have said that the devastation in Gaza and the level of civilian deaths, including those of children, was completely unacceptable. He could have said, yes, the Israeli use of force is disproportionate and the international community will no longer tolerate it.

    Instead, Mr Hammond opted to repeat the mantra that Israel is undermining its support in the West.

    This may be true, but the new Foreign Secretary needs to move beyond statements of the obvious if he is to establish himself as a respected voice in the region.

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