Ernest Bevin, perhaps Labour’s best foreign secretary, was no ‘friend of Israel.’ He imposed strict limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine after the second world war. But he was a penetrating thinker who parliament in 1947 about the “irreconcilable conflict of principles” between the Jewish desire for “the creation of a sovereign Jewish state” and the Arab insistence on resisting “to the last the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine”. From that truth stems both the necessity of the two-state solution and the difficulty in achieving it.
Hitherto, Labour’s response to that difficulty has been to work with fellow progressives in Israel and Palestine so that the tasks essential to any peace agreement can be completed. First, to encourage Israel to show the Palestinians that it is serious about withdrawal from the territories. Second, to encourage the Palestinians to show Israel that the Palestinian state is not a stepping stone to the elimination of the state of Israel, and that it can withstand a take-over by Hamas.
At Labour Party conference this year there were signs that many in Labour are thinking about giving up on that difficult work for something much easier and much more dangerous – becoming a kind of ultra-left Trotskyist external faction of the Palestinian movement; an isle of rectitude, always on the look-out for a “sell-out” by Abbas, always thinking the revolution is around the corner, if only a particular set of demands would be adopted.
At a packed Labour Friends of Palestine meeting in Liverpool, Fatah’s Husam Zomlot said that the full, untrammelled right of return for every Palestinian refugee ‘to their homes and farms’ was ‘absolutely beyond negotiation.’ He was cheered to the rafters. When he promoted the idea of a reconciliation between Fatah and the fascistic Hamas, and was cheered again. And when the chair of the meeting, New Statesman political editor Mehdi Hasan, opposed Abbas’ UN application as a sell-out of the “9 million or so” (!) Palestinian refugees who have the right of return, he met no challenge. (Israel, note, has 5.7 million Jews who constitute 76% of the population. Israeli Arabs are 20%, and other minorities 4%.)
All this is something new in the DNA of Labour.
By encouraging Palestinian rejectionism and maximalism, by echoing the obstructionism of the pro-Iran Hamas, by stoking the fantasy of a full untrammelled right of return for every last Palestinian refugee, and by finding no place in its heart for the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, these activists are more Palestinian than the Palestinians.
Rather than support progressives in both Israel and Palestine, they want to ban and boycott. Seeing only a morality play of innocent victims and cruel oppressors they propose to break links to the Israeli labour federation, the Histadrut (despite the federation’s groundbreaking agreement with the Palestinian unions in 2008). By deploying polarising rhetoric these activists harm the ability of either side to move towards the other.
The new style of Labour activism avoids an inconvenient truth. If Israel is to take the considerable security risk of giving up control of the Territories, the Palestinians must confine the right of return of refugees to the new Palestinian state, not to a neighbouring state, Israel. Without those twin excruciating compromises we do not have two states for two peoples. Numbers being what they are – the UN calculates the number of registered Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of the 600,000 displaced in 1947-8, to be 4.82 million – we’d have one Palestinian Arab state now, on the West Bank and Gaza (‘Jew-free,’ says Fatah, but let’s bracket that outrage), and later, after ‘return,’ a second Palestinian Arab state in what is now Israel. That’s what all those ‘Free Palestine!’ placards mean. That is why they depict one undivided country from the river to the sea.
In the end members face a choice between two approaches.
There is the approach of Martin Linton of Labour Friends of Palestine. In a speech in 2009 he said “They launched a ferocious and inhumane attack on Gaza as far as I can see just to help win an election.” (no mention of Hamas rockets raining down on Southern Israel, 7000 since 2005) “They killed 1500 Gazans, nearly all civilians.” (Actually, a UN study showed that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in Gaza was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare, despite Hamas using civilians as human shields). And Linton has a policy: Stop giving the Israelis preferential tariffs. Suspend the EU-Israel trade agreement, Reimpose the arms embargo, Investigate the war crimes, Arrest the war criminals, Ban settlement produce.’
Or there is the approach of Stephen Twigg who, as Shadow Foreign Office Minister spent three days across Israel and the West Bank. He was ‘delighted to meet with the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Dr Salam Fayyad, to discuss developments in building state institutions under the PA’s control’ and was ‘was inspired by the work of youth leaders working with One Voice Palestine in Nablus and One Voice Israel in Tel Aviv in their efforts towards fostering conditions for a two state solution.’ Twigg got on with the work of ‘listening to concerns with regards to the need for progress across the board on the Middle East Peace Process from all sides’ while also discussing ‘the need to challenge those who seek to delegitimize Israel’. Back in London he looked forward to ‘meeting colleagues in and outside of Parliament [and] working alongside Israel and the Palestinian people to support the realisation of two states, based on the 1967 borders.’
Linton or Twigg. Which approach will help two traumatised peoples to recognise each other and make peace? Members must make their choice.
Professor Alan Johnson is a member of Labour Friends of Israel. He is Director and Senior Research Fellow at Britain Israel Research and Communications Centre, and writes in a personal capacity.