What would a Corbyn government mean for UK policy towards Israel?

Luke Akehurst

A few days into a general election campaign, Labour will hold a ‘Clause V’ meeting. This confusingly composed group consists of: Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), the shadow cabinet, the parliamentary committee of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh Labour Parties, and the chair and three vice-chairs of the national policy forum (NPF) and eight trade union members of the TULO contact group. It gets to decide which of the policies passed by party conferences by a two thirds majority – the ‘party programme’ – to include in Labour’s general election manifesto.

One area where party conference has given scope for a potentially dramatic policy shift from relatively anodyne text in the 2017 manifesto is Labour’s stance on Israel and the Palestinians. Much has been written about the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and the linkage between it and extreme anti-Israel discourse, but there has been less scrutiny of where Labour’s actual policy stance towards Israel has moved.

The new policy passed at the 2019 party conference was carefully calibrated not to appear extreme, e.g. by never mentioning the word boycott. But it subtly gave the green light to a number of very problematic concepts, and took Labour another step towards the overt anti-Israel stance of Jeremy Corbyn himself.

The motion claimed: “Recent actions by US and Israeli administrations are destroying prospects for peace in Palestine” – a dog whistle message that two states is no longer a viable proposition.

The conference committed to oppose any peace deal “not based on international law and UN resolutions recognising… [Palestinian] rights to… return to their homes”. By making the ‘right of return’ for all Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel a condition for support of a peace deal, as the resolution did, the party signalled it is no longer really interested in the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution as the ‘right of return’ implies both states would have an Arab majority. It is a demand that Israel could never sign up to without committing national suicide. Is Labour really suggesting that approximately five million Palestinian descendants of refugees could move to live in Israel?

The position on an arms embargo was actually more nuanced than one passed in 2018: “stopping any arms trade with Israel that is used in violation of the human rights of Palestinians”. But the new step was to include wording that would allow Labour to put a targeted boycott of settlement produce into its manifesto: “To adhere to an ethical policy on all UK’s trade with Israel, in particular by applying international law on settlements.”

Most alarmingly, it provided scope for a wider boycott policy if trade agreements with Israel do not attach unspecified conditions about Gaza and the West Bank: “rejecting trade agreements with Israel that fail to recognise the rights of the Palestinians”. This has teeth as post-Brexit, trade with Israel would be controlled by the UK bilaterally, not conducted under EU rules. It introduces an ill-defined ethical test that could be used to veto any or all trade deals with Israel.

What is missing from the resolution speaks volumes. No recognition of the Jewish right to self-determination. No mention of Israel being a Jewish state. No mention of Jewish suffering through antisemitism and genocide creating the need for statehood. No mention of Israeli victims of war, terrorism and missile attacks. No recognition of Israel’s legitimate right of self-defence to protect its citizens.

Even though the policy adopted isn’t as radical as it would be expected to be given Corbyn’s own history on the issue and those of his core activist supporters, it is still the most radical anti-Israel platform adopted by a major UK political party, and a significant break from the pre-2015 cross-party consensus.

If Labour wins with these policies in the manifesto, implementation of them would severely damage Britain-Israel relations. They would erode the booming bilateral trade relationship and weaken vital defence and security ties that keep British and Israeli people safe.

The Labour leadership could move back towards the centre of the party if Corbyn loses a Brexit-dominated general election. But with the unions locked into policy positions identical to (or more radical than) the party’s stance; and a multitude of fronts, not least internal antisemitism, on which Labour’s credibility would need to be restored, would a new leader expend any political capital on prioritising reversing the policy changes on Israel?

Luke Akehurst writes this piece in his capacity as director of We Believe in Israel. You can read the extended essay on which this piece is based here.

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