Labour, Conservatives and the quest for a Palestinian state

First published by the Middle East Eye on 5/10/2017

As the 2017 conference season in the UK comes to a close, Palestinians can only hope that a future Labour government will recognise their pursuit of justice and freedom

The annual conference season for the political parties in the UK has been in full swing. The Labour pParty held what has been widely reported as a highly successful conference last week.

In contrast to Labour’s conference, the Conservative conference has been widely reported aslacklustre. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the star in Brighton, where the conference was held, while Prime Minister, Theresa May, was left looking over her shoulder at possible rivals for her job.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, seen as her main rival, made a typically rousing speech in which he talked up Britain’s standing in the world and how it will succeed in going global post-Brexit. Though his subsequent comments on Libya once again brought calls for him to be dismissed.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not figure in his remarks.

UK foreign policy

It was left to the government’s international development decretary, Priti Patel, to criticise the Labour leader for failing to condemn the “terror his friends in Hamas have unleashed upon the Israeli people and not once did he condemn or confront his supporters who have launched a wave of anti-Semitism, bullying and abuse against anyone who does not subscribe to their extremist views”.

It sounded as if she was only addressing pro-Israel supporters in the conference hall rather than offering a way forward. May also accused Corbyn of “allowing anti-Semitism and misogyny run free in his party”. Again no mention of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.

In his keynote speech, Corbyn, a long-standing campaigner for human rights, said: “We must put our values at the heart of our foreign policy. Democracy and human rights are not an optional extra to be deployed selectively.” And while he criticised Saudi Arabia and Myanmar for human rights abuses he added that: “We should stand firm for peaceful solutions to international crises.”

While such words are popular with his audience, the biggest cheer on foreign policy issues, however, came when he broke a two-year silence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by appealing to the conference “to give real support to end the oppression of the Palestinian people. The 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict.”

Although this appeal cheered the Palestinians and their sympathisers, it did not, however, go down well with the ardent supporters of Israel within the party. However, both sides must have noted that he omitted from his speech an important promise made in the now famous Labour manifesto. It committed a Labour government “to immediately recognise the state of Palestine”.

Recognising Palestine as a state is a tangible action that a Labour government can take to demonstrate its commitment to support the Palestinians and their rights, a move which the Conservatives refuse to take. Recognising Palestine also would simply be implementing a decision taken by the British Parliament in 2014 following the Israeli war on Gaza.

The Labour leader’s two-year silence on the Palestinian issue can reasonably be attributed to the vicious attack he has faced since his election at the hands of the pro-Israel lobby both within and outside the party.

The prospect, though judged unrealistic at the time of his election as leader in 2015, of a committed supporter of Palestine and equally outspoken critic of Israeli policies entering 10 Downing Street as British prime minister sent the pro-Israel lobby into panic mode.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds up a cough sweet after suffering a coughing fit whilst addressing the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 4 October (Reuters)

The definition of antisemitism

Accusations of major anti-Semitism in the party were made. In response, Corbyn immediately commissioned an inquiry into anti-Semitism charges appointing respected lawyer and human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti to lead it. The inquiry concluded: “The Labour Party is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.”

The inquiry and subsequent report were not adequate as far as the pro-Israel lobby was concerned. The lobby’s response was to conflate anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.

new definition of anti-Semitism, that went beyond the widely understood accusation of “hatred of Jews because they are Jews” was needed to shield Israel from criticism. This came in the form of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Issues related to Israel figure prominently in the examples given by the IHRA to explain the definition, thus making it possible to accuse critics of Israeli policies of anti-Semitism.

This definition was adopted by the government, the Labour Party and a number of local authorities. It is now being used regularly to throw accusations of anti-Semitism around despite a legal opinionwhich described it as “unclear and confusing and should be used with caution”.

The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) are two organisations that work within the Labour party to influence its policy in support of Israel. LFI members were furious that the Labour leader did not address their fringe.

This year the JLM proposed a rule change that will tighten explicitly the party’s stance towards members who are anti-Semitic or use other forms of hate speech, including racism, Islamophobia, sexism and homophobia. The rule change was adopted, with the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle reporting: “The changes mean Labour members could face expulsion and other punishments for Jew-hate.”

However, the rule change means the IHRA definition could be used to accuse individuals criticising Israel of anti-Semitism and they could then be suspended or expelled. The pro-Israel lobby becomes the gatekeeper on what is acceptable criticism and what crosses their lines.

However, the rule change did not go unchallenged.

The emergence of a new group, the Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), representing Jewish socialists who support Palestinian rights, provided some pushback against the pro-Israel lobby in the party.

Two of its members spoke against the rule change but more significantly spoke for parts of British Jewry that the JLM cannot claim to represent. The importance of the emergence of JVL cannot be overemphasised. In future, the Labour Party cannot develop policy that might impact on British Jews or policy on Israel and only speak to the JLM. This should bring a fairer representation of Jewish views than in the past.

As the 2017 conference season ends, the Conservatives continue with business as usual in supporting Israel and paying lip service to the suffering of the Palestinians, while there is hope that a Labour government would act to support the Palestinians in their quest for justice and freedom. For Palestinians that cannot come quickly enough.

– Kamel Hawwash is a British-Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a longstanding campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is vice chair of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  He appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com and tweets at @kamelhawwashHe writes here in a personal capacity.

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

Photo: Britain’s opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges his audience prior to giving his keynote speech at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, September 27, 2017 (Reuters)

Pro-Israel positions likely to continue with new British landscape

First published by the Arab Weekly on 2/7/2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May

There are ques­tions with regards to what effects the snap elections have on British foreign policy towards Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, won 318 seats in parliament but that was eight seats short of the major­ity needed to allow her to form a government. She is looking for support from North Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which secured ten seats.

Although still in opposition with 262 seats, the Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, fared much better than expectations when the elections were announced in April.

An examination of the various parties’ policies on the Palestin­ian territories and Israel reveals that Labour, in its own words, is “committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East based on a two-state solution — a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.”

It advocated “both an end to the (Gaza) blockade, (Israeli) occupation and settlements and an end to (Palestinian) rocket and terror attacks.” Significantly, Labour pledged to “immediately recognise the state of Palestine” if it formed the next government.

The Liberal Democrat’s policy on the issue was similar. How­ever, it supported recognition of the independent state of Pales­tine “as and when it will help the prospect of a two-state solution.”

The 2017 general election saw Britain’s first MP with Palestinian heritage, Layla Moran, secure a seat in parliament for the Liberal Democrats. Before the election, she spoke of how her Palestinian background made her interested in engaging in politics.

She pointed to the influence of her great-grandfather, who told her that Jerusalem was once a place “where you had Jews, Christians and Muslim communi­ties coming together, who were respectful of each other,” as quoted by the New Arab. “That’s the kind of vision I want for the world, where differences are respected and we are open and tolerant of each other’s views,” she said. “I continue to believe that a society like that is possi­ble.”

With only 12 MPs in the House of Commons, the Liberal Demo­crats will have limited influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Scottish National Party stated that it would “continue to work with international partners to progress a lasting peace settlement in the Middle East, pursuing a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine” but did not commit to recognition.

The Conservative manifesto made no mention of the conflict and neither did that of the DUP.

It will be the Conservative Party, with its longstanding policy of supporting a two-state solution to the conflict and its stance that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal, that will rule.

However, the Conservatives’ long-standing support for Israel will only be strengthened by the agreement with the DUP. The Northern Irish party is also a supporter of Israel.

On hearing of a possible agreement, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Jonathan Arkush said this would be “positive news” both for Britain’s Jewish community and Israel.

The DUP is staunchly pro-Israel. In the vote requesting the British government to recognise a Palestinian state in 2014, the party’s MPs opposed it.

As Britain digests the outcome of a truly extraordinary general election, one thing can be guaranteed. In the year Britain and Israel celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, despite repeated requests by the Palestinians that it should be apologising for its effects on them, Britain will continue to take pro-Israel positions.

That is, of course, unless another general election is called on account of government dysfunction and Labour wins a majority in parliament.

The UK’s Major Political Parties Failed the Palestinian People and therefore the Israeli People

The UK bears a major historic responsibility for the predicamentd of the Palestinian People. Not only did it occupy historic Palestine between 1920 and 1948, it made the infamous Balfour Declaration in 1917. This promised Palestine to the Zionists without consultation with the Palestinians or even world wide Jewry.

But 67 years after British troops left Palestine and the Palestinians to face Zionist Jewish terror, where do the current major political parties stand on justice for the Palestinians? This is a particularly important question just after Israel’s appalling attack on Gaza which left over 2,000 Palestinians dead, over ten thousand injured and Palestinain homes and infrastructure devastated. It is estimated it will cost over $5 billion to rebuild Gaza but other estimates are as high as. $8 Billion.

Israel is suspected of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide in the 51-day attack on Gaza, which was launched on the for text of Hamas ordering the kidnapping and killing of three young Israeli settlers in the South of Hebron.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to set up an investigative committee into the potential war crimes. The UK was one of the nations that abstained on the vote together with other EU countries.

That was a bizarre decision. From the outset of the recent Attack on Gaza, the ruling coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said clearly that Israel was entitled to ‘self defence’ against the rockets fired from Gaza, although the Government failed to note that it was Israel that started the conflict when it started attacking Gaza, after three settlers were abducted in South Hebron. Also, just what borders is Israel entitled to defend?

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Nevertheless, as the extent of the death of civilians, especially children began to emerge, Britain tempered its support for Israel ever so slightly by saying it must operate within international Law and international humanitarian law. Ok, so Israel was ‘entitled to self defence’ as long as it was operating within the law but when a investigative committee was to be established to check that this was the case, Britain abstained. This was at best illogical but at worst encouraged Israel to commit further atrocities as it felt it could point to the abstentions and try to discredit the Committee as established by the ‘usual suspects’.

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As the death toll in Gaza mounted, calls were made by protestors for Britain to stop its arms trade with Israel. The claim was that Israel was either using or had the potential to use British supplied arms and components against the civilian population it occupies. This did create some tensions in the coalition and eventually the Liberal Democrats ‘won’ a concession to suspend twelve licenses if Israel returned to ‘substantial’ action in Gaza. This never materialised, even though Israel did attack Gaza after that announcement.

I recently read Labour Leader, Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour Friends of Israel, which he delivered in June of this year? It really is worth reading, if you want to handstand the extent of the influence of the pro-Israel Libby on the political elite in the UK. This was delivered before the Israeli onslaught first on the West Bank and the 51-days of El it heaped on Gaza.

This was a speech pandering to the lobby. It reminded me of many sickening speeches made by presidents and other senior Administration officials to AIPAC. A kind of annual report on what they have done for Israel in the previous year to ‘get the lobby off their back’ and to ensure continued funding.

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It is quite telling that Miliband did not use the word ‘occupation’ once or refer to Palestinian rights. He did not even say explicitly that the settlements are illegal. His remarks about his own personal links with Israel as a Jew with family there taken with his clear uncritical support for Israel do not augur well for actions to force Israel to comply with International Law.

Conservative Friends of Israel boast that 80% of Conservative MPs are members. You wonder who the other 20% are as they are hardly and stories critical of Israel or its policies.

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Home Secretary, Rt. Hon. Theresa May MP addressed this year’s reception of CFI in Parliament hitch the CFI website called “staunchly supportive of Israel” and asserting:

“”I – and the whole British Government – will always defend Israel’s right to defend itself.”

It is worth re-stating the threats faced by Israel because they are considerable. There are the familiar but deadly threats from Hamas and Hezbollah. The collapse of Syria that has spawned ISIS and threatens to destabilise Lebanon and Jordan. The instability of the wider region. And the threats issued to Israel by Iran. No democratic government could, in the face of such danger, do anything but maintain a strong defence and security capability and be prepared to deploy it if necessary. That is why I – and the whole British Government – will always defend Israel’s right to defend itself.[…]
When Israel faces the full range of threats I have just listed, when Israel faces enemies that are intent on its very destruction, when Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields for its rockets, when there are thousands of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, it is easy to talk about a two-state solution but almost impossible to know how to move towards one.”

Remember this was after Israel’s terrorist attack on Gaza. Again just like Miliband’s speech to Labour Friends of Israel you could be excused for not realising that Israel occupies Palestine or the extent of carnage that Israel brought to Gaza.

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The Liberal Democrats would appear to have better policies on the conflict but are part of a coalition which changed Jurisdiction to allow suspected Israeli war criminals access to the UK without fear of arrest for their suspected war crimes.

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All in all, the UK’s major political parties have failed the Palestinian people and only a major shift away from allowing Israel impunity to sanctioning it will place them in the peace camp that will end the occupation and lease yo freedom for Palestinians.

On the 13th of October, back bench MPs gave secured a boring debate calling for the recognition of a Palestinian state. It would be logical for their to be unanimous support for it, based on everyone’s (as far as I know) claim a two state solution is the way to achieve peace.

Ar their forthcoming conferences, the message from delegates should be that they must vote in favour of this motion. There should then be a cross party move to declare that the UK recognises Palestine.

This would be the first step on the path the UK must take to correct the historic wrong which started with the 1917 disgraceful Balfour Declaration.

Nothing less than this will convince the British Public that marched on their hundreds of thousands in Kily and August that their Government is listening.

By failing the Palestinian people, I contend the British political parties are failing the Israeli people, for peace will only come to them, when justice comes to the Palestinians.