The Israel-Hamas War Is Dividing Europe’s Left

A political hot potato singes progressives across the continent.

Individuals gather in Paris for a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people.
Individuals gather in Paris for a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people.
Individuals gather in Paris for a demonstration in support of the Palestinian people on Nov. 2. Sara Kontar/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images

Israel-Hamas War

The war raging between Israel and Hamas is horrifying much of the world, but European left-wing leaders have an extra reason to wish for the bloodshed to come to an end as soon as possible: The conflict is proving a political hot potato that’s exacerbating internal rifts, jeopardizing already fragile alliances, and threatening to exact a heavy price in the next elections.

The war raging between Israel and Hamas is horrifying much of the world, but European left-wing leaders have an extra reason to wish for the bloodshed to come to an end as soon as possible: The conflict is proving a political hot potato that’s exacerbating internal rifts, jeopardizing already fragile alliances, and threatening to exact a heavy price in the next elections.

With the progressive electorate torn between shock at the slaughter of 1,400 people by Hamas militants inside Israel in early October—the worst single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust—and outrage at the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians by Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, in countries like France, Britain, and Spain, left-wing parties find themselves mired in damaging rows over how to qualify Hamas’s actions and how forceful Israel is entitled to be in its military response.

The conflict “is highlighting the differences between the radical left and the social democrats,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist from Sciences Po university in Paris. “It’s blowing up the left,” he said.

Nowhere are progressives as divided over the issue as in France. There, the far-left France Unbowed, which last year formed an uneasy coalition with more moderate (and much smaller) parties such as the Socialists and the Greens, infuriated its allies when it qualified Hamas’s attack as an “armed offensive,” talking about “war crimes” committed by the militants but refusing to describe the Islamist group as a terror organization. Then, as the death toll in Gaza continued to mount, France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon sparked more backlash by using what many saw as subtly antisemitic language—in a country that since the beginning of the conflict has experienced an explosion of antisemitic acts, with over a thousand offenses and hundreds of arrests. Mélenchon strongly rejected the accusations, but as a result of these rows the left-wing alliance has been put on hold, with few believing it can be revived.

Mélenchon is seeking to reinforce his image as the standard bearer for the oppressed, with an eye on France’s large, and often poor, Muslim population, Rouban said. But in reality, France Unbowed “is cornering itself into the periphery of the political field, [coming across as] a radicalized group that doesn’t hesitate to engage in all sorts of provocations,” he said. Polls suggest Mélenchon’s popularity is in free fall. “I don’t see how he can still hope to win a presidential election after this,” Rouban said.

France is hardly the only place where the left is in trouble. In Britain, Labour leader Keir Starmer ruffled feathers within his own party when he said that Israel had the right to withhold electricity and water from Gaza as part of its response to Hamas’s assault. One month into Israel’s relentless bombing campaign, Starmer is calling for temporary humanitarian pauses, but he’s still not backing a long-term cease-fire, arguing that it would “embolden” Hamas. Senior Labour figures have openly challenged Starmer over what they see as an excessively pro-Israel position, with dozens of Labour city councilors resigning over the issue.

Starmer’s stance partly has to do with the scars left by the antisemitism scandals that plagued Labour a few years ago. Starmer has long presented himself as an unequivocal friend of Israel and sought to underscore a difference between himself and his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely accused of not doing enough to tackle antisemitism in the party. Now, he needs to remain coherent with that image, said Richard Johnson, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.

But with Muslims living in Britain being 14 times as numerous as Jews, Starmer’s defense of Israel also brings “a certain amount of electoral peril for Labour,” Johnson said. In recent weeks, Britain has seen some of the largest pro-Palestinian rallies in Europe, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets again on Saturday to demand an end to the bombardment of Gaza.

In Spain, meanwhile, socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had to leap into damage control after one of his ministers, the leader of the far-left Podemos party, Ione Belarra, said Israel’s military campaign amounted to “genocide”; its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, should be prosecuted for war crimes; and Spain should cut diplomatic ties with the country and impose economic sanctions. The remarks sparked a furious reaction by the Israeli Embassy in Madrid, forcing the Spanish Foreign Ministry to clarify that Belarra does not express the government’s official views on foreign policy and that Spain recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself within the limits of international law.

The row came at a delicate moment for Sánchez, who is struggling to put together a coalition large enough to continue to govern following inconclusive elections in July. “I don’t think you can find any members of government in other EU countries who say what Podemos is saying about Israel,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Madrid bureau. “It’s a very uncomfortable position for Sánchez,” he said.

And it’s not just Europe. U.S. President Joe Biden, who has expressed strong support for Israel’s campaign to crush Hamas, is also walking a tightrope, with liberal members of his own Democratic Party and Muslim Democratic voters demanding a cease-fire and polls showing his popularity among Arab Americans already dwindling. The administration’s stance has also stoked unease and sharp dissent from the diplomatic corps. In recent days, Biden started calling for brief humanitarian pauses in Israel’s military operation, but Netanyahu has so far resisted the pressure.

To be sure, the war between Israel and Hamas isn’t fracturing the left everywhere. In Germany, Die Linke, which belongs to the same group as France Unbowed in the European Parliament, unequivocally condemned “Hamas’s awful terror attacks,” largely aligning itself with both the center-left coalition in power and the conservative opposition in Berlin.

Even where rifts are running deep, they may be a lesser problem than they seem. In Britain, with the exception of more than a dozen Muslim-heavy constituencies, “the calculation of the Labour leader’s office is that this is not going to be a major issue in the next election,” Johnson said.

In Spain, Podemos has long sparred with Sánchez over foreign-policy issues, such as the supply of military aid to Ukraine, but so far it has been loath to trigger a government crisis over those disagreements. “They bark a lot, but I don’t think they bite,” Torreblanca said.

But the war isn’t only dividing the left; it’s also emboldening the right. Nationalist leaders across Europe are referring to Hamas’s brutality to back up their hard-line views on Islam and immigration at home, while playing up their opponents’ ambiguities and boosting their own credentials as government material.

Spanish far-right leader Santiago Abascal is keen to paint the image of a government besieged by leftist radicals, while at a rally for “Western values and Israel’s existence” held in Milan over the weekend, Matteo Salvini, the deputy of Italy’s post-fascist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, lashed out at “confused” left-wingers who “defend the terrorists.” In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally has been quick to express support for Israel’s military campaign, using the crisis to further distance itself from its own antisemitic past—embodied by founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who famously claimed that the gas chambers were a “detail” of history.

While left-wing firebrand Mélenchon is trapped in his role of maverick, National Rally has taken another major step toward “normalization,” according to Rouban. “There used to be two populisms in France. Now there’s only one, and it’s on the left,” he said.

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris.
Twitter: @MicheleBarbero

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