The British Labour / Israel Dinner Date
As the British Labour party leadership desperately tried to contain the fallout from the Falkirk fixing scandals last week, with allegations flying around that both candidates had broken party rules, every politician, journalist and Labour activist was offering their views on who was at fault and what should be done. Next, allegations were made first by Labour Uncut, then by The Sun, that Unite activists had tried to deselect Blairite shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. It was in the shrill noise and raucous denunciations of ‘uber-Blairites’ trying to wreck the party and ‘militant lefties’ trying to make it unelectable that Douglas Alexander’s alarming speech to the Labour Friends of Israel’s annual lunch went completely unnoticed.
The annual meeting of the Labourite branch of the UK’s Israel lobby was well-attended as ever. Senior shadow cabinet members present included Ed Balls, Stephen Twigg, Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander himself, who was delivering the keynote address, a role that Ed Miliband has performed in previous years, when he addressed a room that also included Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and Tessa Jowell.
Whilst Miliband had been hesitant in the past on announcing full-throttle support for all Israel is and does, Douglas Alexander wooed supporters in Labour’s latest desperate scramble with the Tories to impress the Israel lobby. In his speech Alexander said, ‘I do not want Israel’s existence to be tolerated or simply accepted, but recognised and celebrated.’ He made no mention of the illegal occupation, nor the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are presumably supposed to celebrate the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, Israel has reserved over 90% of its land for Jewish use only, and pursues ‘discriminatory policies’ that include forced evictions and home demolitions of indigenous Bedouin.
Douglas Alexander made no mention in his ‘celebrations’ of a state which has detained 40% of Palestinian men in its jails since the military occupation began in 1967 and regularly tortures and abuses prisoners, whilst reserving 40% of the occupied West Bank for its illegal settlements, which now contain over half a million Israeli Jews. No mention of Israel’s crimes was made.
Not only was Douglas Alexander prepared to sing the praises of the only state in the Middle East in possession of illegal nuclear weapons, but then proceeded to threaten Iran if it were to consider doing the same. Alexander’s comments that, ‘all options remain on the table’ were meant to soothe the tempers of Israel’s supporters, who demand a constant fortress mentality regarding any external threat, real or perceived, as a mask against their own gross violations of international law against the Palestinians.
Alexander has attempted to present himself as a foreign policy progressive in the past, writing in The Guardian to call for tighter regulations for British arms exports, hilariously claiming that elements of the US arms export criteria should be adopted by the UK, and not mentioning Israel once in the article. This is unusual, given that the US funnels $3bn a year in military aid to Israel, although Alexander is right that Britain needs some tightening in its regulations. His Labour predecessor David Miliband had to admit that British weapons were used in the slaughter of 1,400 Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, an attack Amnesty International and the UN condemned for war crimes.
There is in fact a very long history of collusion between Zionists and the Labour party, and one that shames the working-class origins and socialist sentiments of the latter, whilst making a mockery of the humane pretensions and ‘Jewish democracy’ of the former. For many years Zionist mythology held that Britain, and foreign secretary Ernie Bevin in particular had conspired to destroy Israel during its war of independence. Oxford-based Israeli professor of international relations, Avi Shlaim has demonstrated otherwise, writing, ‘Bevin indirectly helped to ensure that the Palestinian state envisaged in the U.N. partition plan would be stillborn.’ Bevin and Labour actually achieved this by allowing the Arab Legion to consume the Palestinian portion of the West Bank, but discouraged it from attacking Israel. Shlaim continues, ‘Bevin felt that if Palestine had to be partitioned, the Arab area could not be left to stand on its own but should be united with Transjordan.’ Thus, Labour’s imperial policy was instrumental in forming Israel and obliterating the newly-formed Arab Palestine in 1948.
In his highly-acclaimed The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, the Israeli professor Ilan Pappe has documented how Hugh Stockwell, a British army officer, actually allowed the ethnic cleansing of Haifa by removing the buffer zone of British troops between the Jewish paramilitaries and the 75,000 Palestinians in the city, who Stockwell then encouraged to leave.
The complicity of Labour governments in that initial injustice is a damning mark against Clement Attlee’s halo that makes him the most mythologised of all Labour prime ministers. The actions of men like Bevin and Stockwell helped Jewish paramilitaries ethnically cleanse 700,000 Palestinians from the country between 1947-9, a cruel and barbaric operation well-documented in David Ben-Gurion’s diaries as a deliberate attempt to create an ethnically pure Jewish state. The conspiracy by a Labour foreign secretary to prevent a Palestinian state coming into being was completely lost on Douglas Alexander. His speech noted how, ‘as a student of 20th century history, I recognise the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as a moral necessity.’
As Alexander said in his own speech, ‘It is customary for politicians at events like this to affirm their belief in Israel’s right to exist.’ He went on to do so, ‘unequivocally’, but made no mention of Labour’s complicity in Israel’s brutal crimes in the past. Prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both members of the Labour Friends of Israel, and as journalist David Cronin notes, “With Tony Blair at the helm, Britain’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became virtually indistinguishable from that of the United States.” Labour actually allowed arms exports to increase during the brutal repression of the Second Intifada, whilst failing to criticise Israel’s wars in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-9.
This unscrupulousness amongst Blairites like Alexander, Murphy, both Milibands and the many Progress-aligned MPs such as Twigg, Flint and Byrne is what has helped drive so many trade unionists and political activists away from Labour recently, in a time when the Trade Union Congress has endorsed the boycott of Israeli settlements. There is a sense that change may be coming, with reports that as many as 80 Labour MPs are now members of Labour Friends of Palestine, who endorse some limited sanctions.
My father often tells me about his days campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, and how he was successful in pressuring Lancaster University to award Nelson Mandela an honorary degree in the 1980s, enduring the taunts of the Federation of Conservative Students and their ‘Hang Mandela’ badges. Today, the regressive supporters of apartheid policies are not only to be found in the Conservative party, with 80% of its MPs ‘Friends of Israel’, but also in Labour.
In spite of the UN Human Rights Council accusing Israel of apartheid and even ethnic cleansing, much of the Labour movement are resistant to the kind of direct action, in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, that were used to such great effect in South Africa. It is not for the soul or the moral cleanliness of the Labour party that we should seek justice for the Palestinians by opposing Israeli oppression. It is for the dignity of the Palestinians themselves that we should press forward on the great moral issue of our time. This is the injustice they have suffered under for half a century, and it’s time we recognised it, as Douglas Alexander might say, ‘unequivocally.’
James Elliott is a British journalist.