How the UK's wall of silence gives Israel impunity for its actions
For the past three months, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been convulsed by accusations that his party is not just a critic of Israel and a harbourer of anti-Semites, but actually hostile to British Jews. The most damaging charge electorally is that British Jews no longer feel at home in Corbyn’s party.
Many of those voices are not people who normally have any worthwhile or informed opinion on the Middle East.
Today I asked some of those voices if they would condemn Israel's use of live ammunition to maim and kill unarmed protesters in the Gaza Strip.
I sent them the following set of questions:
1. Do you unreservedly condemn the actions of the Israeli army yesterday?
2. Do you agree with Jeremy Corbyn that international action must be taken in response to the Gaza border killings?
3. If so, what action do you believe should be taken?
4. If Israel behaves with impunity, what non-violent alternative do you believe there is to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?
5. If the US vetoes a UN commission of inquiry into the killings, what pressure do you believe can be applied on Israel by the international community?
6. Do you agree with Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman when he said in April that “there are no innocents in Gaza”?
7. Would you qualify Israeli actions yesterday as “measured” and “surgical” (the words of Mark Regev on Radio 4 this morning)?
I sent these questions to the following people and organisations: the British Board of Deputies of British Jews; Labour Friends of Israel; Joan Ryan MP (chair of the LFI) and Chukka Umunna MP. I sent the same questions to Conservative Friends of Israel.
In all cases I gave a 4pm deadline. By late afternoon, I had not received an answer to a single one of my questions.
There was no response from Chukka Umunna at all.
Nor was there an answer from Joan Ryan, although Labour Friends of Israel sent me an article by Ryan in the Times of Israel.
In it Ryan condemned “the deaths of any innocent peaceful protesters”, described yesterday’s events as “terrible and shocking” and urged Israel to ensure its soldiers exercise restraint.
But she added, “Israel has a right to defend its people and its communities, especially those which are close to its border.”
She blamed Hamas for "hijacking" the protests and turning them in a “new and darker direction”. She suggested the dire living conditions in Gaza are Hamas' fault.
The Board of Deputies, meanwhile, directed me to a full-blooded justification of Israeli policy, which it has published on its website. It said: “Israel is defending its people from repeated violent attempts at mass invasion.” It argued: “The responsibility for the violence lies with Hamas.”
The CFI sent me a bland statement regretting the loss of lives but supporting Israel’s general policy of self-defence.
No one attempted to engage with my questions. There is only one way to describe all of this: a wall of silence.
I don’t think that is good enough.
I am especially baffled by the Labour Friends of Israel’s defence of the Israeli government. In Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel currently has the most right-wing leader in its history.
As far as I can tell, he shares none of the ambitions or ideals of the British Labour Party.
I cannot understand why Joan Ryan and the Labour Friends of Israel should want to send him any support (and why Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry remains a member of LFI in these circumstances is quite beyond me).
The support shown by the Board of Deputies for the Israeli government opens it up to a charge of double standards.
I can only imagine the kind of criticisms which would be aimed at the Muslim Council of Britain if it defended the killing of innocent people - including children - abroad.
I believe that the Board of Deputies needs to ask itself how much in common the Jewish people it represents have with Netanyahu’s government in Israel.
A failure of leadership
But there is a bigger question. I believe this refusal to engage in argument represents a very serious failure of leadership. Organisations like the LFI, CFI and Board of Deputies and senior politicians like Chukka Umunna cannot avoid the debate about the future of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Do they really believe that Israeli forces should have total impunity to maim and kill Palestinians? Don’t they believe that Israel is in any way subject to the rule of law?
What future do they see for the people of Gaza and the West Bank? What is the future of the two-state solution when unarmed protesters can be shot dead by snipers?
If respectable organisations like the Board of Deputies and Labour Friends of Israel refuse to engage, how long is it before we start talking about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?
I would really like to know from them what they think the non-violent alternative to sanctions is, if the impunity that Israel enjoys for its grotesque actions continues.
A wall of silence actively protects the legal, political and economic impunity that Israel enjoys. It also actively mitigates against the resumption of any negotiations. Without pressure, there is no incentive on this nationalist religious government in Israel to negotiate.
The occupation is cheap. Israel’s economy is strong and its army will get all the technology that its own military industrial complex cannot manufacture.
There are no signs from the Israeli government that it is interested in negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state. Indeed, the official position of Likud is that it will never allow this to happen and the largest group in the Knesset promotes a Greater (Eretz) Israel in all of Historic Palestine.
These are policies that directly conflict with those of the British government, and each and every major political party.
A wall of silence actively undermines the search for any resolution to this conflict, be it a one-state, two-state or no-state solution.
How much longer can the charade of “friendly criticism” from Britain carry on? How many more massacres have to take place?
Above all, Labour Friends of Israel needs to reflect on the way it has reacted to the horror in Gaza over the last few weeks.
Does it just want to be a loyal but inert defender of the Netanyahu government, knowing how Israel will use that inertia? Or does it want to be a genuine friend of Israel, helping to find a long-term and humane solution to this longstanding conflict for all sides?
- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: British Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting on February 6, 2017 (AFP)