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UK Labour leadership candidates debate Israel-Palestine policy

Left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn stood alone among the four candidates in supporting an arms embargo on Israel
Jeremy Corbyn speaks to protesters following a march against the UK government's spending cuts (AFP)

LONDON - Three prospective UK Labour Party leadership candidates expressed strong support for Israel at a hustings meeting at a Jewish community centre here on Monday, with left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn alone calling for a ban on weapons sales to Israel.

The four candidates standing for the Labour leadership participated in the public meeting co-hosted by the Jewish Chronicle, Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Labour Movement at the JW3 community centre in north London.

Three of the four MPs standing – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – all expressed their strong support for Israel during opening statements at the event moderated by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland.

“I’ve always been a friend of Israel and the Jewish community – that will never change,” bookies’ favourite Burnham told the audience. He added that if he is to be Labour leader, then his first overseas visit would be to Israel.

“[It’s] hugely important that Labour continues to be a friend of Israel,” said current shadow home secretary Cooper, who has also served in the past as shadow foreign secretary. Cooper also said that Labour was not quick enough to condemn rising levels of anti-Semitism in the UK, which took place during Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza last summer.

Kendall, who has been MP for Leicester West since 2011, pledged to “always be a friend of Israel” and denounced as irresponsible last autumn’s non-binding resolution passed in Westminster that recognised the state of Palestine on 1967 borders.

Veteran leftwinger Corbyn, who is widely known for his peace activism, called for the UK to have “relationships with all sections of society in Israel” and stressed the need to have a nuanced view of the country.

“We shouldn’t judge everything to do with Israel through the prism of whatever Benjamin Netanyahu is saying from one day to the next – Israel’s politics is much wider than that,” Corbyn said, who added that he has been on nine visits to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza during his 32 years in parliament.

Corbyn, who has gone from being a rank outsider in the leadership contest to being rated by one poll as a potential winner, also called for “robust discussion” on Israel’s siege of Gaza, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and alleged mistreatment of Palestinian child detainees in Israeli prisons.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

After giving their opening statements the four candidates were questioned on their views regarding growing calls for a full boycott of Israel over its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Kendall was the most vociferous opponent of the boycott, saying she would would fight the BDS movement with “every fibre of [her] being”.

Burnham also said he opposes the “spiteful” boycott movement, to which Cooper agreed, with the Shadow Home Secretary adding that it is imperative that Labour opposes the “counterproductive” BDS campaign.

Corbyn, however, said he would support an arms embargo on Israel and a ban on produce from West Bank settlements viewed as illegal under international law - although Israel contests their legality.

He said that following the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer both sides are now being investigated to see if they have committed war crimes, leading him to question whether it is wise for the UK to be continuing to sell arms to Israel.

“Is it right that we are supplying arms [to Israel] in this situation? Is it right that we are importing goods from illegal settlements across the West Bank?” Corbyn asked.

The MP for Islington North ruled out an academic boycott against Israel and said it is “okay” for products to be imported if they are produced in Israel “proper” – a phrase used by moderator Freedland.

Kendall said that she was concerned the boycott was an initiative to “delegitimise Israel” and insisted the priority must be to battle rising anti-Semitism in the UK.

Corbyn responded by arguing that criticism of Israel must not lead to anti-Semitism and that unity is key in the battle against prejudice of all forms.

“Does questioning the behaviour of the Israeli state towards Palestinians lead to anti-Semitism? No, it mustn’t and shouldn’t,” he said.

“Whether it’s a synagogue or a mosque under attack we must all come together to be as one in confronting it.”

The Balfour Declaration

The candidates were also asked about their views on whether to celebrate the 2017 centenary anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

The declaration was a letter sent in 1917 from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Jewish community leader Walter Rothschild offering the UK’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Freedland said at the event on Monday that the declaration is viewed as a “founding document” of the Israeli state, which was established in 1948 and saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes.

Burnham praised Israel as a “democracy that has a long history of protecting minorities and promoting civil rights” and said that the Balfour Declaration represented “an example of British values in action”.

The MP for Leigh said that he would want to see the declaration's centenary anniversary celebrated with events in “every school” to demonstrate how the UK “played a role in the establishment of a democracy in the region”.

When Freedland suggested not every school would welcome such events, Burnham replied by saying teachers have a duty to teach “British values”.

Cooper said that the declaration was “ahead of its time” in recognising the right for a Jewish homeland and that its 100th anniversary must be celebrated to “mark the pioneering role Britain played in [promoting] the rights of Jewish people to a homeland”.

Kendall also expressed pride at the role played by the UK in the establishment of Israel, pointing to her belief that it is a country which “respects gay rights, has a free media, and possesses a strong tradition of social democracy”.

Corbyn was once again the odd one out. He said: "The Balfour Declaration was an extremely confused document which did not enjoy universal support in the cabinet of the time, and indeed was opposed by some of the Jewish members of the cabinet because of its confusion.”

Talking to Hamas and Hezbollah

An audience member asked the candidates about whether it is appropriate for parliamentarians to host members of groups including the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The question was a reference to Corbyn hosting members of the two groups in parliament several years ago. In a clip that recently surfaced Corbyn referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends” – a comment that has brought the leftwinger criticism due to the groups being viewed as terrorists by many Western nations.

Corbyn defended his outreach to Hamas and Hezbollah, stating that all parties must be engaged if peace is to be found in areas of conflict.

“You don’t achieve progress by only talking to those who you agree with,” he said. “You have to address the rights of everybody if peace is to be achieved across the whole region.”

“Conflicts are settled politically, not necessarily militarily.”

Burnham sharply disagreed with Corbyn’s approach and said that if he were elected Labour leader then he would “sanction” any member hosting meetings that included members of Hamas and Hezbollah.

“No MP in my Labour Party would do that,” he said.

The event ended with the four candidates setting out whether they would support, oppose, or abstain in a Westminster vote on whether to approve the Conservative government’s proposed welfare reform bill.

The bill, if passed, will form part of £12bn cuts to welfare support in the UK sought by the government in time for 2020.

Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall all said they would abstain, in line with interim leader Harriet Harman’s position that Labour should not oppose the bill so as to avoid alienating public opinion.

Corbyn said he would be voting against the bill because he believed it would “increase child poverty”.

The Labour leadership results will be announced on 12 September.

Watch the full debate here:

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