Zionist Keir Starmer at Odds With His Own Party

Photograph Source: Chatham House – CC BY 2.0

“I support Zionism without qualification”.

– Keir Starmer, statement to Jewish News, February 2020

“Israel must always have the right to defend her people”.

– Keir Starmer, October 2023

To use a Britishism, the Labour party leader Keir Starmer has got his knickers in a twist over the Israel-Hamas conflict.

At the end of the recent Labour Party annual conference, Starmer gave a round of media interviews. On LBC radio the politician who had been a human rights lawyer said something that would have landed him in the proverbial soup with his teachers in an Intro to Law class: “Hamas’ actions are terrorism and Israel has the right to defend herself”. He added: “Israel has the right” to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians. “Obviously, everything should be done within international law”.

Withholding power and water from noncombatant civilians amounts to a collective punishment forbidden by international law, so Starmer’s rider that “everything should be done within international law” was moot and downright contradictory.

As his own party began to protest at the Zionist Starmer’s dishonesty, it took him several days to come up with a lame clarification: ‘It is not and never has been my view that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines”.

Meanwhile, Israel was bombing Gaza to smithereens, and posters went up in Labour areas with significant Muslim electorates, naming Labour councillors who were toeing Starmer’s line on Gaza and calling on local voters not to vote for these Starmerites in forthcoming elections.

Starmer has not called for a ceasefire or truce (as the UN has done), instead backing humanitarian “pauses” to help aid reach Gaza. He said through a spokesperson that such “pauses” would make humanitarian support possible “without stopping Israel taking action to disable the terrorists who attacked them in the first place”.

This ”softly softly” approach towards Israel has split Labour down the middle. Around 20 town and city councilors have left the party in protest at Starmer’s failure to call for a formal ceasefire. In Oxford, Labour lost control of the city council when 9 of its councilors resigned from the party. Three senior Labour figures—Sadiq Khan (London mayor), Andy Burnham (Manchester mayor), and Anas Sarwar (Scottish Labour leader)– called for a ceasefire.

In Westminster, 39 Labour MPs, including shadow minister Imran Hussain, signed a parliamentary petition calling for an “immediate de-escalation and cessation of hostilities”, while dozens of Labour MPs have said publicly they want a ceasefire. Starmer toeing the line taken by the US, EU, and the Tory government may be too much to stomach.

Starmer, renowned for his tin-ear when it comes to politics, attempted to defuse the situation by holding a virtual meeting between his leadership team and Labour council leaders.  He also went to a mosque in South Wales, where he tweeted a demand for the return of hostages. Stung by this evidence of Starmer’s real priorities, the mosque issued a statement repudiating his views on Gaza. Starmer then made his third U-turn after an ITV interview, in which he denied supporting Israel’s right to cut off water and food (a lie), and by issuing an open letter to councilors in which he said with palpable insincerity how much he felt the plight of the Palestinian people, before repeating his call for a “humanitarian pause” in the bombing, something which the prime minister Rishi Sunak had already done a few hours before.

Starmer is in something of a dilemma.

Nearly all the above-mentioned Labour politicians represent areas of the “red wall” with large Muslim electorates that Labour needs to win back in the next election if it is to beat the Tories. Starmer has shed a boatload of members (over 200,000 of them and their fees) since becoming leader, and has attempted to overcome the ensuing financial shortfall by pandering instead to wealthy donors, many of them Zionists. Several of his colleagues have followed suit. Pleasing Zionist donors does not go down well with Muslim voters, while condemning Israel in order to retain the Muslim vote alienates Starmer’s Zionist donors.

Starmer, like Biden, insists that “Israel has the right to defend itself”. On the specific matter of international law, this is not a legal right. Israel, an aggressor because of its two-decade-long siege/blockade of Gaza, cannot claim “self-defense” to justify its violence against armed resistance to this illegal siege/blockade. When a Nazi claimed that Germany attacked Russia in “self-defense” during WW2, a judge at the Nuremberg Tribunal said:

“One of the most amazing phenomena of this case which does not lack in startling features is the manner in which the aggressive war conducted by Germany against Russia has been treated by the defense as if it were the other way around. …If it is assumed that some of the resistance units in Russia or members of the population did commit acts that were in themselves unlawful under the rules of war, it would still have to be shown that these acts were not in legitimate defense against wrongs perpetrated upon them by the invader. Under International Law, as in Domestic Law, there can be no reprisal against reprisal. The assassin who is being repulsed by his intended victim may not slay him and then, in turn, plead self-defense”. (Trial of Otto Ohlendorf and others, Military Tribunal II-A, April 8, 1948)

This principle– an aggressor can’t legally claim “self-defense” as a justification when it exacts reprisals on those who resist the aggressor– is central to international law.

Starmer’s problem over Gaza blends into a wider predicament—opinion polls indicate consistently that voters loathe the Tories, but don’t at the same time love Starmer and his party. Equivocating over Palestine-Gaza is not likely to help his cause.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.