Keir Starmer has said he is a friend to Palestinians – but his latest speech doesn’t square with that

The renowned film director Ken Loach says he was expelled from the Labour Party for expressing support for many of those suspended over the alleged antisemitism issue, calling it a witch-hunt (AFP)

Richard Burden

The Independent  /  November 18, 2021

Sir Keir was right to signal once again that there is no place whatsoever for antisemitism. But I was disappointed by other statements in his address to Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).

In his speech to the annual lunch of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) this week, Keir Starmer said “true friends will always be frank.”

He is right about that. So as a Labour member for over 40 years and having been a Labour MP for 27 of those, I want to be frank about what he said in that speech.

Labour’s leader was right to use the opportunity to signal once again that there is no place whatsoever for antisemitism either in Labour or in society as a whole. When he moved to talking about Israel and Palestine, however, the speech went rapidly downhill.

Sir Keir declared himself to be both a friend of Israel and a friend of Palestine. Fair enough. Unfortunately, few Palestinians reading the speech are likely to feel that there was much equality in the friendship he showed to them.

There was just one passing mention of the Israeli occupation. Yes, he said he wants to see a Palestinian state alongside Israel but there was no mention of Labour’s longstanding commitment to recognize the state of Palestine when elected to government. He declared himself opposed to illegal Israeli settlements, but there was no urgency in his words; no acknowledgement of how in changing the map of the West Bank, settlements are destroying any practical prospect of a two state solution being realized. He condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a response to Israel’s actions but he was silent about whether or not he thinks it is ok for British companies to trade with illegal settlements.

Just days after JCB were found to have breached OECD human rights guidelines over the use of their machines to destroy Palestinian homes by the watchdog UK National Contact Point (UK NCP), this was a serious omission. Speaking frankly, words of support for a two state solution sound pretty hollow if you say nothing about what practical action the international community should take to bring it about.

But it is not just in policy terms that Palestinians will feel the glaring inequalities in the Labour leader’s speech. It is also in the attitude it showed to them as a people. I could barely believe he quoted approvingly Harold Wilson’s claim in the 1960s that it was Israeli social democrats who “made the desert flower.” How will that sound to the families of Palestinian farmers who were expelled when Israel was created in 1948, to those who have lost their lands in half a century of settlement building since the 1967 or who right now are facing attacks destroying their olive harvest?

And where was the frankness about Israel’s government that a true friend should show? Sir Keir vowed continued support for Israel’s “commitment to the rule of law” but I am unlikely to be alone in questioning how illegal occupation is compatible with such a commitment. As the rule of law should be universal, though, would it have been too much to expect Sir Keir to voice support for the International Criminal Court’s current investigation of alleged war crimes committed by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and elsewhere?

When he went on to praise the influence of Labor ministers to Israel’s new government, moreover, would it not be the action of a true friend to call out that same government’s designation – only a few weeks ago – of six respected Palestinian civil society NGOs as “terrorist organizations”? International and Israeli human rights groups as well as United Nations spokespeople have all done so. Why was it so difficult for Labour’s leader to join them when he had the platform at LFI?

Sir Keir went out of his way to condemn what he described as “Anti-Zionist antisemitism.” When anti-Zionism does indeed embody racism, it should of course be condemned as should all manifestations of antisemitism. What was not clear from Sir Keir’s speech, however, is whether he now subscribes to the view promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu and others that Anti-Zionism is intrinsically antisemitic. If he does, he would do well to read a 2019 article by Jewish Currents Editor Peter Beinart about the folly of such generalizations.

But you don’t need to oppose Zionism to recognize the importance of speaking out against injustice in Israel and Palestine. Here in the UK, Yachad describes itself as the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement for British Jews. Along with others in the Jewish community, it plays an increasingly important role in demonstrating how active opposition to occupation and advocacy for Palestinian equality are a key parts of friendship to Israel.

I hope that in future, Labour’s leader will show equal frankness and courage in his own friendship to the peoples of Israel and Palestine.

Richard Burden was Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield 1992-2019; he also chaired the Britain-Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group between 2001 and 2019; he is Vice Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East