In Britain, Shockwaves From Israel-Hamas War Are Jolting Domestic Politics

Inside Britain’s Parliament, lawmakers jeered, booed, and stormed out of the House of Commons to protest the speaker’s handling of a vote calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Outside, a crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators projected the slogan, “From the river to the sea,” on to the facade of Big Ben, drawing denunciations from those who view it as a rallying cry for the eradication of Israel.

The chaotic scenes in London last week captured how Israel’s war in Gaza is reverberating far beyond the Middle East. From the United States to Europe, the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants and Israel’s devastating response has inflamed passions, upended politics, and heightened tensions within Muslim and Jewish communities.

The fights are not only over intractable questions of war, peace, and moral justice. In Britain, political parties and the public are not actually that divided over how to respond to Gaza; a solid majority back a cease-fire. Instead, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has also become a cudgel for opponents to brandish against each other.

The governing Conservative Party seized on anti-Israel comments made by a Labour Party parliamentary candidate to accuse Labour of failing to stamp out a legacy of anti-Semitism in its ranks. Labour pointed to disparaging comments by a Tory lawmaker about London’s Muslim mayor as evidence of simmering Islamophobia among Conservatives.

Both parties maneuvered furiously in Parliament over the cease-fire resolution, not because they differed much on the substance but because the Conservatives saw a chance to surface rifts within Labour over Britain’s initial backing of Israel.

“It’s an example of how a really serious issue has been distorted by the prism of party politics in Britain,” said Steven Fielding, an emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham.

In the United States, anger among some Democrats at President Biden’s robust support of Israel fueled a protest vote in Michigan’s primary this week, raising questions about whether the war could alter the outcome of a closely-fought presidential election.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been forced to tack away from his pro-Israel stance under pressure from France’s large Muslim population. In Germany, with its responsibility for the Holocaust, support for Israel has remained a bedrock principle, though the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has recently begun emphasizing the importance of the “survival of the Palestinians.”

The conflict has awakened ghosts in British politics as well: When Lee Anderson, the blunt-spoken Conservative lawmaker, said “Islamists” had “got control” of Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, he was trafficking in the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that flared two decades ago after London was hit with terrorist attacks by Islamist militants.

When the Labour candidate, Azhar Ali, claimed that Israel “had allowed” the surprise attack by Hamas, he rekindled memories of the anti-Semitism that contaminated the Labour Party under its previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The current leader, Keir Starmer, purged Mr. Corbyn as part of a campaign to root out anti-Jewish bias. He also pulled the party’s support for Mr. Ali’s candidacy.

“Because of the Corbyn era, Israel has become part of a culture war in this country in a way that didn’t happen two decades ago,” said Daniel Levy, who runs the US/Middle East Project, a research group based in London and New York.

Mr. Levy acknowledged that many lawmakers were acting out of conviction on Gaza. But the furies of the last two weeks, he argued, were less about the rising death toll or the best way to handle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than about the vexed history and politics that envelop Jewish and Muslim issues in Britain.

For the Labour Party, the next awkward moment in this drama could come on Thursday, when voters in Rochdale, north of Manchester, will elect a new member of Parliament to replace a Labour lawmaker who died in January. Although the party disavowed Mr. Ali, he remains on the ballot and could still win the seat.

But Mr. Ali’s messy late-stage suspension has opened the door to an insurgent candidate, George Galloway, a onetime Labour lawmaker now running as the leader of the leftist fringe Workers Party of Britain. He is appealing to Rochdale’s significant Muslim population with a militantly pro-Palestinian message, arguing that many Britons are “revolted” by Labour’s support for Israel.

“If George Galloway does well enough,” Mr. Levy said, “it will encourage a whole slew of Labour outriders to run on this issue.”

That could give Mr. Starmer further headaches as he prepares for a general election against the Conservatives later this year. But with Labour holding a lead of 20 percentage points or more over the Tories in polls, analysts said it was unlikely that the Gaza conflict would tilt the election’s outcome.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government has also moved its position enough on the conflict to blur differences with the opposition. On a trip to the Falkland Islands last week, his foreign secretary, David Cameron, called for a cease-fire, saying the fighting must stop “right now.”

“David Cameron and Keir Starmer have got the same position on Israel-Gaza, and both have the same position as two-thirds of the public,” said Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a research institute that focuses on immigration, race and identity.

Still, if Mr. Starmer were to win the general election, Israel could pose a lingering problem for him in government. In 2006, Britain’s last Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, staunchly supported Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s invasion of Lebanon. The war went badly, and Mr. Blair was hit by the collateral damage back home.

“Arguably, that was a bigger political problem for Tony even than the Iraq war,” said Jonathan Powell, who was Mr. Blair’s chief of staff.

For the Tories, the Gaza conflict presents a different set of challenges. Like the Republican Party in the United States, it has staked out a strong position in favor of Israel, one that generates little internal dissent. But the Tories are now dealing with fallout from anti-Muslim statements made by right-wing figures like Mr. Anderson and Suella Braverman, a former home secretary.

After the debate in Parliament over a cease-fire, which turned ugly because of a fight over how the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, handled it, Ms. Braverman wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “the Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now.” The police, she said, gave protesters free rein. In such a febrile atmosphere, there are rising worries about threats of violence against members of Parliament.

Mr. Anderson has refused to apologize for saying that Mr. Khan had “given our capital city away to his mates.” Islamists, he said to the right-wing GB News channel, “got control of Khan and they’ve got control of London.”

Mr. Khan called the comments “racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Muslim,” and Mr. Sunak, under pressure from prominent Muslim Conservatives, suspended Mr. Anderson from the party. But now Mr. Sunak is facing criticism from the party’s right wing for punishing a figure popular with some voters in England’s “red wall,” who were critical to the party’s victory in the 2019 general election.

Given the Tories’ woeful standing in the polls, some analysts said there was a good bit of posturing in the furies over Gaza, part of a broader contest for leadership of the party or for visibility after an expected election defeat.

“There are a lot of Tory M.P.’s who are going to lose their seats, so they are looking for media opportunities,” said Ben Ansell, a professor of comparative democratic institutions at Oxford University.

But the appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment also reflects something else: a last-gasp effort by the Conservatives to derail the momentum of Labour.

“If you look at what Conservatives use against Labour, it’s that you can’t trust them because they will be controlled by others,” Mr. Katwala said. “At the moment, they’re switching from ‘woke leftists’ to ‘the Islamists.’”