‘Labour will oppose the BDS bill. It imperils UK support for a two-state solution’

Wayne David
© Leo Altman/Shutterstock.com

Given the horror and despair of the last few months in Israel and Gaza, it is hard to find any cause for hope. But if there is one, it is that the international community can be shocked out of a decade of apathy and indifference towards the realisation of a two-state solution. Once a sustainable ceasefire has been achieved in Gaza, there is an urgent need for a political process towards a lasting peace that has the capacity, conviction and commitment to turn the rhetoric around two states into reality.

But while others take the diplomatic lead, on Wednesday, the UK government will try to pass a bill through the House of Commons that drives a coach and horses through the starting point for any two-state solution.

The BDS bill is riddled with problems and contradictions

Labour has consistently opposed the policy of boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against the State of Israel and always has done, and we recognise that some people have used the cover of BDS to whip up hate towards Jewish people; to seek to hold Israel to different standards from other countries, to question its right to exist, to equate the actions of the Israeli government with Jewish people. That is utterly wrong.

Antisemitism is a scourge in our society that all political parties should stand together in opposing and eradicating. That is why we have consistently put forward an alternative solution to tackle this very real concern.

However, the economic activity of public bodies (overseas matters) bill is a badly drafted law riddled with problems and contradictions. At each stage of its passage through parliament, MPs from all sides – including many prominent Tories like Alicia Kearns and Kit Malthouse – have identified serious concerns: from its draconian restrictions on free speech, its threat to actions in support of persecuted people across the world, to its roughshod approach to devolution.

In diplomatic terms, the most damaging part of the bill is that it treats the Occupied Palestinian Territories as though they were in effect the same as the State of Israel. This runs directly counter to decades of British diplomacy by Conservative and Labour governments alike, and it could not come at a worse time.

The Tories are legislating to breach a UN resolution they voted for

In 2016, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2334 which requires every UN member to distinguish between the territory of the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. That resolution says illegal settlements have “no legal validity” and “constitute a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution”.

Who was involved in drafting this clear and strongly worded resolution? That would be a UK Conservative government in 2016. Similarly, the government’s own advice to businesses investing in the region makes this distinction clear. 

Now the government is legislating to breach the UN resolution it voted for. It is in effect accepting the view of the extreme elements of Israel’s government like Smotrich and Ben Gvir which only last week it was publicly condemning. It is hard to understand how any Foreign Secretary has allowed such a bill to proceed in its current form.

Amid crisis in the Middle East, this approach is inexplicable

This is not an abstract or theoretical point. Gaza and the West Bank are Palestinian land. They are the basis for a sovereign and viable future Palestinian state which, alongside a safe and secure Israel, is the only path to a just and lasting peace.

Long before Hamas’ horrific attacks of October 7th and the intolerable suffering in Gaza since, the two-state solution was on life support. Years of illegal Israeli settlement expansion have chipped away at the viability of a Palestinian state, and driven a dangerous rise in settler violence and forced displacement that has escalated rapidly since October 7th. Meanwhile, Hamas has maintained its avowed commitment to wipe Israel off the map.

At a moment of acute crisis in the Middle East, it is inexplicable that Michael Gove has been allowed to continue with this diplomatically reckless and cavalier approach. The UK cannot hope to be a credible voice for a two-state solution while it legislates against its own foreign policy at home.

Today, Labour will vote against this deeply flawed bill

Months before this bill was laid before parliament, Labour put forward an alternative approach in an amendment to the procurement bill, and we have also tried repeatedly to amend the government’s bill.  We believe public bodies should be able to take ethical decisions, but these must be based on consistent principles applied equally to all countries. Our amendment – rejected by the government – would have ensured precisely that. 

Labour abstained at the previous reading of the bill as we sought to constructively address its deep flaws and offered our alternative solution. But we always made clear we would be forced to vote against it if the problems weren’t fixed.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Throughout the current crisis, Labour has stood completely united with the UK Jewish community in confronting the appalling rise in antisemitism. But rather than take up the sincere offer to build a cross-party consensus on this challenge, the government has refused to modify a single word of the bill. 

The government can still change course. Our offer remains. The next Labour government will be committed to supporting a two-state solution and fighting antisemitism, and today, we will vote against this deeply flawed bill.

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