Israel lobby takes back the Labour Party

Labour’s shadow foreign minister Lisa Nandy now openly supports Labour Friends of Israel (LFI - Twitter)

Asa Winstanley

The Electronic Intifada  /  October 9, 2021

Last week at the UK Labour Party’s annual conference, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign celebrated a victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Delegates overwhelmingly passed a motion explicitly condemning Israeli apartheid and calling for sanctions, including an arms embargo.

That was certainly an achievement.

Especially considering that at least 120,000 members have left or been driven out of the party since right-wing leader Keir Starmer took over last year. Labour membership rolls are plummeting amid Starmer’s purge of the left and Palestine solidarity campaigners.

But Labour’s right-wing leadership immediately made clear it would ignore the new resolution.

In a press statement, Labour’s foreign affairs spokesperson Lisa Nandy said the leadership “cannot support this motion” because it did not approach the “conflict” in “balanced way.”

To reinforce the point, Nandy turned up the next day at Labour Friends of Israel’s annual reception, where she was roundly applauded.

That night Starmer also signaled his intent to ignore the democratically expressed wishes of his own members.

“We must bring people together,” he said, “not drive them apart with boycotts.”

Starmer spoke in a video message to Labour Friends of Israel, a group that acts in close, secret collusion with with the Israeli embassy in London.

Starmer also endorsed the so-called Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration, normalizing ties between Israel and several regional dictatorships. Those deals, under which goods from Israeli settlements are being exported to the United Arab Emirates, have been universally condemned by Palestinians.

In truth Starmer has been signaling his intent to overturn Labour’s Corbyn-era policy of supporting an arms embargo on Israel since he first took over as leader last year.

His video message was played at the Labour Friends of Israel reception, but this reporter watched it later via Facebook, having been once again denied a press pass to cover the conference.

The room was in a triumphant mood. And no wonder.

This year’s conference marked the happy reunion of the Israel lobby and the Labour Party leadership.

Due to the pandemic, this was the first in-person annual conference since Jeremy Corbyn – a veteran Palestinian rights campaigner – stepped down as leader at the end of 2019.

Stage managed

Speakers at the Labour Friends of Israel reception vehemently opposed the motion passed by delegates. They were outraged that it accurately used the word apartheid to describe Israel’s racist regime imposed on Palestinians.

But for the lobbyists, the leadership’s eagerness to undermine the members’ wishes, as well as several other events at the conference, more than made up for it.

On the same day the motion passed, in an obviously stage-managed move, veteran Israel lobbyist and former Labour lawmaker Louise Ellman announced she had rejoined the party.

In 2019 Ellman – then chair of Labour Friends of Israel – quit the party, explicitly to sabotage Corbyn’s chances in that year’s British general election.

“Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to serve as our prime minister,” she said, accusing him of “tolerance of anti-Semitism.”

After Corbyn was elected party leader by members in 2015, the Israel lobby spent years defaming him as a racist. They did so in alliance with British corporate and state media and the Labour Party establishment, including most of its lawmakers.

This played a major role in his downfall.

Starmer grovels to Israel

In his video message, Starmer also praised LFI’s “important work” and said he was “encouraged” by the new Israeli coalition government, in which the leader of the Israeli Labor Party holds a minor ministerial position.

What Starmer did not mention is that the new Israeli coalition is led by far-right racists such as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – who infamously boasted that he has “killed a lot of Arabs” – as well as interior minister Ayelet Shaked.

Shaked in 2014 approvingly reposted on Facebook a call for genocide of Palestinians, including of women chillingly described as giving birth to “little snakes.”

In her current role, Shaked has been systematically denying reunification to Palestinian families, despite the lapsing of a racist law banning Palestinian citizens of Israel from living with their spouses from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – a glaring example of the apartheid denied by Labour Friends of Israel.

The star of the show at the LFI reception was Ellman, who was cheered to rafters. In her speech, she called the motion urging that Israel be held accountable for its crimes “disgraceful,” claiming it supported a “pernicious and morally perverse boycott.”

Ellman said it showed that there are “still too many in the party” who are “obsessed” with “demonizing Israel.”

She once again revealed the real agenda behind the propaganda about “Labour anti-Semitism,” saying that the “bigots” who oppose Labour Friends of Israel have now “been defeated.”

Ellman’s message was clear: The real “anti-Semitism” is support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israeli racism – which she smeared as “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.”

Zionism is Israel’s racist official ideology. It represses, expels and kills Palestinians in their own homeland simply because they are not Jewish.

Ellman’s successor as LFI chair, little-known lawmaker Steve McCabe, opened the evening by introducing Israel’s new deputy ambassador to London, Oren Marmorstein.

The Israeli spoke for less than a minute, saying nothing of consequence. But more significant was how McCabe welcomed him as “our new deputy ambassador from Israel.”

This might have been a mere slip of the tongue, but it was more likely an unconscious signal that LFI still thinks of itself as a front group for the Israeli embassy.

The London ambassadorship was taken over last year by far-right racist Tzipi Hotovely, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which Labour Friends of Israel claims to oppose.

In 2017, undercover filming by Al Jazeera caught Labour Friends of Israel’s current executive director Michael Rubin admitting that his group was a front for the embassy.

“We work really closely together,” Rubin said. “But a lot of it is behind the scenes.”

Rubin was talking to an undercover reporter who he thought was a pro-Israel activist.

“We do work really, really closely together,” Rubin explained. But “publicly we just try to keep the LFI as a separate identity to the embassy.”

Rubin also privately admitted to the undercover reporter that his group was able to obtain funding from the Israeli embassy via Shai Masot – an Israeli spy who was ejected from the UK after his activities were exposed by Al Jazeera.

Masot had recruited the undercover reporter, “Robin,” to launch a youth wing for Labour Friends of Israel. Rubin was caught telling the reporter: “Shai spoke to me and said the Israeli embassy are able to get a bit of money which is good.” Rubin explained that Masot was “happy to sort of help fund a couple of events, so I don’t think money should be a problem.”

Lobby control of membership

While Palestine solidarity activists at the conference were busy organizing for the motion on Israeli apartheid, the Israel lobby was focused on a bigger prize.

This was a motion giving them an effective veto over Labour membership eligibility.

It was among a series of rule changes to increase top-down control of the party.

The openly expressed aim of the right and the Israel lobby is to ensure that a popular movement such as the one which brought Corbyn within a hair’s breath of Downing Street in 2017, can never again win control of the Labour Party.

By three-quarters of delegates, the conference adopted the leadership’s plan for a new supposedly “independent” complaints process on allegations of anti-Semitism.

But in reality, as we reported in May, Labour’s so-called “advisory board” on anti-Semitism is dominated by the Israel lobby.

With the now all-pervasive fear of expulsion, many delegates probably felt they had little choice but to wave the motion through.

And indeed the lobby’s predictable response to those who voted against – accusing them of anti-Semitism – showed this fear was justified.

Luke Akehurst – a hard-right Labour activist whose day job is heading an Israel lobby group – described leftish group Momentum as disgraceful and “fundamentally not serious about tackling anti-Semitism” after it opposed the rule change.

Ironically, Momentum itself helped to fuel the fabricated anti-Semitism crisis against Corbyn. But of course – as many at the Labour grassroots warned them – that did not stop Momentum from being smeared as “anti-Semitic” by the Israel lobby.

Charlotte Nichols – a Momentum-backed candidate turned Labour lawmaker and former shadow minister for Starmer – chose this year’s conference to come out in support of the Israeli embassy front group by posing for photos at the LFI stall with Michael Rubin himself:

Akehurst’s attack on Momentum was contained in an article written for lobby group BICOM.

He also welcomed changes to the process for electing a party leader that would “firmly shut the door … through which Jeremy Corbyn and his mass of supporters” marched in 2015.

Akehurst dismissed with contempt the Corbyn-era membership surge as “flotsam and jetsam washed in from the mailing lists of single-issue pressure groups like the [Palestine Solidarity Campaign].”

As well as quashing hopes the motion against Israeli apartheid would be implemented, Labour’s shadow foreign minister Lisa Nandy spoke at the Labour Friends of Israel’s reception.

She was among several of Starmer’s leadership team to genuflect before the Israel lobby during the conference.

Nandy, a long-time opponent of Palestinian rights, was also a leading critic of Corbyn.

At the reception, she was applauded for her pro-Israel rhetoric and for undermining the motion supporting Palestinian rights.

“You’ve stood alongside me and I will always, always, always stand alongside you,” she gushed, adding that the Corbyn years had been a “nightmare.”

The Israel lobby’s grip on the Labour Party establishment now looks unassailable.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London