Labour’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians should not be dictated by PSC

Delegates hold up Palestinian flags during a debate at Labour party conference, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)        (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images via Jewish News)
Delegates hold up Palestinian flags during a debate at Labour party conference, 2018. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo credit should read OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images via Jewish News)

Bizarre as it may seem, the Jewish community may have reason to be cautiously optimistic about Labour’s leadership election.

The “continuity Corbyn” candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, trails Keir Starmer after the second stage of the contest, nominated by only 164 CLPs (Constituency Labour Parties) to his 374 and 72 for Lisa Nandy’s insurgent campaign.

At the huge hustings meeting held by the Jewish Labour Movement last week Nandy wowed the crowd with her answers on antisemitism and whether she was a Zionist, helping her to win JLM’s nomination with 50.9% of the vote. Starmer gave solid answers, even if he was reticent to describe himself as a Zionist.

But this weekend both Nandy, the current Chair of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, and Long-Bailey signed a set of three pledges produced by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). Starmer has yet to respond.

The pledges read:

  • “To oppose any proposed solution for Palestinians, including Trump’s ‘deal’, not based on international law and UN resolutions recognising their collective rights to self-determination and to return to their homes.
  • To adhere to a consistent ethical UK trade policy, including in relation to Israel, in particular by applying international law on settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and stopping any arms trade with Israel that is used in violation of the human rights of Palestinians.
  • To oppose the government’s proposed restrictive legislation regarding procurement and investment and, if that is passed, to promise that a future Labour government would make it a priority to rescind laws which restrict the globally recognised rights to freedom of expression and association to campaign for ethical trade policies.”

What’s the problem?

Prospective leaders of any major party shouldn’t be having their stance on Israel and the Palestinians dictated by the PSC, an organisation that has never committed to a two state solution, never accepted Israel’s right to exist, leads the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) campaign in the UK, and has failed to deal with antisemitism in its own ranks.

The pledges say nothing at all about Israel or two states.

In fact, the first one undermines the concept of two states with a reference to a complete right of return. We know from its campaigning that PSC don’t mean a symbolic settlement of this issue with small numbers of Palestinians returning to Israel, and compensation for others, it argues for the absolute right to live in Israel of all descendants of Palestinian refugees, about seven million people. This would mean Israel ceasing to exist as a Jewish state. There would be two Palestinian states, not two states for two peoples.

The call for an arms embargo is not qualified or specific, it just says “any arms trade” so would ban the export of British kit that the Israel Defence Forces needs for counter-terrorism, e.g. detecting improvised explosive devices, and also stop the UK buying Israeli kit that saves the lives of British soldiers.

“Trade policy … applying international law on settlements” is code for a boycott of goods from and companies operating in the settlements. This sounds cleverly targeted, but in practice means boycotting the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, boycotting Coca Cola and AirBnB and bin collection contractor Veolia because they operate in settlements, boycotting every Israeli bank and state institution as they operate there. It is basically a full boycott of major Israeli companies.

Overturning the new anti-boycott laws means a free pass for councils and universities to alienate Jewish residents and students by boycotting a country they feel an affinity with.

If Starmer or Nandy win, the Labour Party will start to tackle antisemitism in a more determined way. But asking Labour just to quit being antisemitic, whilst giving them freedom to be as anti-Israel as they want to be, is both confused and unnecessarily defeatist.

The wellspring from which much of the antisemitic poison in Labour was drawn was extreme forms of anti-Zionism which delegitimise Israel, demonise it, and deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination.

Supporters of Israel should be demanding that the Labour Party’s new leadership doesn’t just tackle antisemitism, it needs to disassociate itself from overt anti-Zionists and reverse the policy changes Corbyn brought in of settlement boycotts and an arms embargo.

We should be calling for a return to the bipartisan support for Israel and the two state solution that characterised the Blair and Brown Government, so that people who care about Israel can vote for Labour or Tory depending on what they think about social and economic policies here in the UK.

The PSC has no place writing the foreign policy agenda of any major party in the UK, its policy platform and its behaviour highlight how it is one of the root causes of the problem Labour has been grappling with for the last five years. As long as it continues to exert such a powerful influence, Labour will remain unelectable.

About the Author
Luke Akehurst has been the Director of We Believe in Israel since 2011. We Believe in Israel is a broad coalition of over 19,000 supporters of Israel. Outside of work he was a Councillor in Hackney in East London for 12 years, has stood for Parliament twice and served on the Labour Party National Executive Committee. He was previously an award-winning Director at global PR company Weber Shandwick.
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