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How UK Labour reversed 40 years of progress on Israel and Palestine

Rights groups have declared Israel an apartheid state, but the Labour and Tory parties are now competing to be its best friend
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attending Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) on 23 June, 2021 (AFP)

British politics is lurching backwards when it comes to Israel. Gains won over many decades that made it possible to critique Israel and its belligerent rule over Palestinians are being undone almost overnight - and on both sides of the supposed political divide.

A rash of recent incidents illustrate how quickly the rot has set in: 

Gains won over many decades that made it possible to critique Israel and its belligerent rule over Palestinians are being undone almost overnight

• Both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties vehemently denounced a street protest this month against Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s hard-right ambassador to the UK, a champion of its illegal settlements and denier of Palestinian history. 

Senior politicians from each side of the aisle claimed the protest was antisemitic and, in a moment of peak cognitive dissonance, an attack on free speech.

• Then, last week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer shared a platform with Hotovely in support of Israel. He blurred the distinctions between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, referred to Israel as a beacon of democracy in defiance of his own party’s recent motion declaring it an apartheid state, and denounced all activism in favour of boycotts, even those targeting Israel’s illegal settlements.

• And shortly afterwards, in a move promoted by senior figures in the party as “tackling antisemitism”, the Conservative government announced moves to outlaw Hamas “in its entirety”, including its political wing, and threatened anyone offering its leaders a platform a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Notably, Labour appears to have had said nothing officially against the ban - what little its frontbench team has said supports the designation of Hamas as a terrorist organisation, even though it represents a huge chunk of Palestinians living under a seemingly endless belligerent Israeli occupation.

The significance of this all-out, bipartisan assault on the rights of Britons to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people needs to be put in a historical and political context. 

Hard-won victories

The victories that are now being so quickly reversed were hard-won over decades. 

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, activists began to challenge the media’s widespread presentation of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as benevolent and enlightened. The realisation that the occupation was ugly and brutal was finally driven home by Israel’s policy of “breaking the bones” of Palestinians who participated in the mass, non-violent uprising against the occupation that began in 1987. 

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That trend coincided with the increasing visibility of a boycott movement against Israel, similar to the one that targeted apartheid South Africa. Similarly, there was a growing awareness that Israel had been aided by vigorous lobby groups that sought to shield it from criticism in major western capitals.

After Israel stymied the Oslo peace talks in 2000 and then savagely suppressed a second Palestinian uprising, the focus shifted to Israel itself. Questions were raised for the first time about whether there might be inherent political, legal and moral problems with a state declaring itself “Jewish” - defining itself in ethnic and religious terms

This long, slow process culminated in reports earlier this year by two major human rights groups - one Israeli (B’Tselem), the other international (Human Rights Watch) - that classified Israel as an apartheid state. 

For a brief moment, it looked like the debate about Israel had finally attained a degree of lucidity. 

Countervailing pressure

But inevitably there were countervailing pressures. 

Working with the British establishment and the billionaire-owned media, pro-Israel groups scored a major success against Jeremy Corbyn, after his election as Labour leader in 2015. A stalwart champion of anti-racist causes, Corbyn was pilloried as an antisemite for backing justice for the Palestinians. His successor, Keir Starmer, suspended him from the party.

On the back of that campaign, pro-Israel groups were able to push through a new definition of antisemitism - one originally advanced behind the scenes by the Israeli government - that switched the focus away from protecting Jews from hatred to protecting Israel from criticism.

Decades of small victories in support of justice for Palestinians soon unravelled. 

The result? Today’s national conversation about Israel sounds more like a throwback to the 1980s. Israel’s apartheid character, its vigorous lobby and support for a boycott are all off the table. But worse, Labour, like the Conservative party, is once again reluctant even to criticise the occupation.

That was underscored earlier this month when both parties fervently denounced a protest faced by Israeli ambassador Hotovely outside the London School of Economics. After giving a lecture, she was hurried to a waiting car as onlookers shouted “Shame on you!” and “Free Palestine!” 

There was good reason why the protesters were outside the LSE. Hotovely holds extremist views even by the standards of Israeli politics.

Her appointment as ambassador last year was so controversial that many hundreds of British Jews took the unprecedented step of openly opposing it. Last month, Na’amod, a Jewish anti-occupation group, staged a silent protest at an event marking Hotovely’s first year, holding placards saying "racism isn't kosher" and “stop hosting Hotovely”. 

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Before she became ambassador, Hotovely had served as Israel’s first settlements minister. Like the rest of the Israeli right, she sees these illegal, Jewish-only colonies as a weapon to dispossess Palestinians and deprive them of any hope of Palestinian statehood. 

Hotovely is openly Islamophobic and denies the history of the Palestinian people. Last December, she called the Nakba (Catastrophe) - the well-documented expulsion in 1948 of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by the newly declared state of Israel - an “Arab lie”

She supports hardline racial purity groups, such as Lehava, that try to stop relationships between Jews and non-Jews. And she flaunts a religious Jewish supremacism that claims title to all of historic Palestine. In a 2015 speech, she rejected a two-state solution, saying: “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that.” 

The Israeli ambassador had not responded to an MEE request for comment by the time of publication.   

Wounded feelings

Liberal Jewish community leaders were appalled at the prospect of Hotovely becoming ambassador. Jeremy Beecham, a Labour peer, warned that her appointment would “do nothing to win friends in the UK - or indeed any other reasonable country”. 

And yet, how wrong that assessment looks now. Hotovely is not only embraced by Jewish leadership organisations, she is treated as a respected ally by both the Labour and Conservative parties. 

A delegate holds up a placard while Labour leader Keir Starmer gives his keynote speech on the final day of the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton, on the south coast of England on September 29, 2021
A delegate holds up a placard while Labour leader Keir Starmer gives his keynote speech on annual Labour conference on 29 September 2021 (AFP)

The possibility that her feelings might have been wounded by a protest apparently trumps the fact that her political policies have helped to blight the lives of millions of Palestinians.

Predictably, Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed “disgust” at the protest, equating it with antisemitism: “Antisemitism has no place in our universities or our country. I will continue to do everything possible to keep the Jewish community safe from intimidation, harassment & abuse.”

An attack on Hotovely is not an attack on British Jews because Israel does not represent British Jews. The British government does. Israel represents Israelis

It should hardly need pointing out that protesting against the racist views of an Israeli government official has nothing to do with antisemitism, or making the Jewish community unsafe. 

Patel’s assumption that Hotovely represents British Jews - and the implication that she is in the UK to help protect them - is itself antisemitic. An attack on Hotovely is not an attack on British Jews because Israel does not represent British Jews. The British government does. Israel represents Israelis.

And yet, that obvious point similarly eluded the Labour party. Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, called Hotovely’s treatment “appalling”, labelling the protests “an attempt to silence” her. While Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, echoed Patel in smearing the protesters: “Antisemitism has no place in our society.” 

Shameful speech

Days later, Labour leader Keir Starmer offered more support to Hotovely, sharing a platform with her at an event staged by Labour Friends of Israel, a lobby group inside his party that uncritically supports Israel. 

It was a shameful speech that turned the clock back, as though nearly 40 years of research exposing British and Israeli historical crimes against the Palestinians had never occurred. 

The speech’s main themes were also in open defiance of a motion passed by his own conference two months ago declaring Israel an apartheid state and demanding sanctions against Israel’s settlements. 

Starmer claimed credit for Labour for the colonial tradition that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain’s promise to aid European Jews in colonising and dispossessing the native Palestinian population. He noted: “From our earliest days - even before the Balfour Declaration - we backed the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”

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Echoing Hotovely, Starmer appeared to deny the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the new Israeli state in 1948. He spoke of the founding generation that oversaw those systematic expulsions as “comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom”.

Starmer glibly dismissed Israel’s destruction of hundreds of villages in 1948 and the planting of forests over Palestinian homes to prevent any return as making “the desert flower” - a piece of historic Zionist spin only the Israeli right still clings to.

He proudly embraced this Nakba denial as “Labour’s tradition”. Referring to a book of essays on Israel by leading Labour figures published 50 years ago, he said he was “determined to restore” that intellectual heritage. 

Ignoring the work of B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch classing Israel as an apartheid state, as well as his party’s recent conference motion, Starmer celebrated Israel instead as a “rumbustious democracy”, with a “commitment to the rule of law”. That would be news to Israel’s large internal Palestinian minority. Hotovely party’s 2018 Nation-State Law formally gives them second-class rights. 

Israel’s 15-year blockade of Gaza and intermittent destruction of its infrastructure under the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine, sending the overcrowded enclave back to the “Stone Age”, was reduced by Starmer, in passing, to a “humanitarian crisis” that Israel was supposedly going to “tackle”. 

Manichean view

Like his predecessors, Starmer had an “aspiration” - but little more, it seems - for the creation of a Palestinian state that Israel has worked all out to stop for more than half a century. But, he argued, those who prioritised the struggle to liberate Palestinians from Israel’s occupation were in the grip of a “Manichean view” preventing them from being “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace”.

What they were instead, Starmer strongly implied, was “antisemitic” - a word littered throughout his speech.

Labour Party supporters protest against the expulsion of party members accused of anti-Semitism outside the party's National Executive Committee meeting in London (Reuters)
Labour Party supporters protest against the expulsion of party members accused of antisemitism outside the party's National Executive Committee meeting in London (Reuters)

The Labour leader coined a term - “anti-Zionist antisemitism” - which seemed designed to conflate criticisms of Israel’s state ideology of Jewish supremacism with racism towards Jews. That supremacism, remember, was the reason two leading human rights organisations classed Israel as an apartheid state.

The conflation puts Starmer firmly in the camp of the most fanatical wing of the pro-Israel lobby, which has sought to silence Israel’s anti-Zionist critics in the party, from Corbyn down, by suggesting they are secret antisemites. 

Such a conflation is the driving force behind a continuing purge of left-wing Labour members accused of antisemitism, many of them Jews who supported Corbyn. In recent days, the party has expelled Graham Bash, an anti-Zionist Jew and Labour member of 50 years, and Jo Bird, a Jewish councillor in the Wirral for Labour.

In his speech, Starmer stated: “Anti-Zionist antisemitism is the antithesis of the Labour tradition. It denies the Jewish people alone a right of self-determination.” 

Judged by the logic of his own position on self-determination, Starmer could also be accused of expressing anti-Palestinian racism

That statement rightfully elicited angry responses from left-wing British Jews, such as journalist Rivkah Brown. She called the Labour leader “an antisemite”, explaining: “In his not-so-subtle conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, he implies that all Jews want a nation-state, and those of us who don't must hate ourselves.” 

Indeed, Starmer appeared to be arguing that self-determination for Jews could be expressed only in collective (religious or ethnic) terms, and that it had to be rooted in the state of Israel, despite Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to make that “Jewish self-determination” possible. 

Judged by the logic of his own position on self-determination, Starmer could also be accused of expressing anti-Palestinian racism. For decades, Israel has both denied the Palestinians a state of their own and refused to share a state with them. In doing so, Israel has intentionally made self-determination in the region a zero-sum matter. Israel has behaved as if there can be either self-determination for Jews or Palestinians but not both. And yet Starmer made clear that he sided with Israel in this supposed battle between two self-determinations. 

It did not end there. Echoing his earlier argument against “anti-Zionist antisemitism”, Starmer accused those behind the boycott movement of “targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state”. 

He thereby implied that it was antisemitic for Labour delegates to vote - as a majority did - in favour of a boycott of the settlements as a tangible, non-violent way to punish Israel for refusing to engage with peacemaking.

Silent assent

The Conservative government, meanwhile, seems determined to block any prospect of Middle East peacemaking - and Starmer’s Labour is offering no pushback. 

Last week, Patel, the home secretary, announced a fresh crackdown on Hamas, one of the two largest political movements representing Palestinians, declaring it a terror organisation “in its entirety” - that is, including its political wing. Any Britons engaging with its political leaders - as Corbyn did in the past - now risk a lengthy jail sentence. 

Labour appears to have condoned Patel’s tarring of a huge chunk of the Palestinian people as terror supporters. 

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Neither party responded to MEE request for comment.

This latest move slams shut the door on efforts to emulate the peacemaking of Tony Blair between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. A peace accord was signed in 1998 only after Blair enticed all parties, including Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, to the negotiating table

After he was appointed peace envoy to the Middle East in 2007, Blair met Hamas leaders in a bid to replicate that success. 

But for today’s Conservative and Labour parties, putting pressure on Israel to make any kind of political concession to the Palestinians is off the agenda. Instead, as Starmer revealed in last week’s speech declaring Israel a “true friend”, Britain’s priorities are the benefits derived from “bilateral trade of more than £8bn” and “security and intelligence cooperation” in the Middle East.

For Starmer, it seems, the Palestinians and their supporters within his party are an impediment to that friendship blossoming further. For Palestinians, that means the political gains won from decades of struggle and solidarity have all been undone.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook
Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net