Is UK's Labour shifting back to a pro-Israel stance?

Is UK's Labour shifting back to a pro-Israel stance?
6 min read
11 Sep, 2017
Comment: Labour may be forced to adopt a pro-Israel position, despite its new pro-Palestinian leadership, writes Tom Charles.
A group of Jewish men argue with protesters over Palestine [AFP]
Alarm bells are ringing over a potential shift in Labour's Middle East policy. A report by the party's National Policy Forum (NFP), to be debated at the Labour's annual conference later this month, appears to move Labour's position on the Israel/Palestine conflict back to its traditional pre-Jeremy Corbyn, pro-Israel stance.

The 2017 NPF report contains a "commitment to a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution: a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine".

But missing in action are the following policies that featured in the 2017 general election manifesto: An end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza; an end to Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian land; an end to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank; pressure for meaningful negotiations to bring about a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, and the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state.

The NFP report is in stark contrast to Labour's popular manifesto, published in May, with regards the Middle East and is indicative of the long-standing influence of pro-Israel pressure groups at work within the party. With Labour leading in the polls, the internal party debate on its support for Palestinians could have far-reaching implications for UK foreign policy.

National Policy Forum

The NPF is a body made up of representatives from all the major sectors of the UK labour movement, including constituency parties and regions, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies.

The NPF acts as a route for ordinary party members to influence party policy.

It plays a key democratic role in shaping the Labour Party's policy agenda: NPF representatives review submissions received via the Labour Policy Forum website, and discuss them in the relevant Policy Commissions. In this way, the NPF acts as a route for ordinary party members to influence party policy.

For the many or the few?

Labour's manifesto pledges on Palestine had marked a sharp departure from the party's time-honoured support for Israeli dominance of the occupied territories. While Labour was always in favour of a two-state solution, and under Ed Miliband had supported Palestine's bid for symbolic recognition as a state, the party has never followed through with policies that would challenge the status quo in the region.

Post-war Labour governments were staunchly pro-Israel, and this remained the case despite the atrocities committed at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 and into the 1990s. It was only when Israel unleashed Operation Cast Lead on Gaza in 2008/9, with Gordon Brown as Labour prime minister, that a significant dissent started to take place within the parliamentary Labour party.

Jeremy Corbyn, a leader of the UK's anti-war movement, was at the forefront of campaigns for justice in Palestine, but until his election as party leader in 2015, he and other sympathetic MPs were kept at arm's length from influencing party policy, despite popular support for the Palestinian cause. Indeed, on Middle East policy, the party has traditionally been dominated by pro-Israel politicians, interests and pressure groups.

Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), which in the past has enjoyed wholehearted support from Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, has continued to seek to work against, rather than with Corbyn's leadership, despite his unassailable position.


Pro-Israel factions within the party hailed the NPF report as a "success" and the Jewish Chronicle quoted a "senior Labour source" as claiming the report had returned the party to a "classic Labour Zionist position".

Like LFI, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) is a group that works closely with the Israeli embassy in London, and is a member of the World Zionist Organization, which aims to increase illegal Jewish settlement on Palestinian land. LFI and JLM have sought to compromise Corbyn since 2015, using false claims of antisemitism, and the JLM were caught in an Al-Jazeera sting that exposed their role in Israeli interference in UK democracy.

Read more: Undercover investigation reveals Israeli infiltration of UK student movements

Raising the alarm at the NPF's report has been a new Labour group, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL), which will launch at Conference and will call for the amendments made to Middle East policy not to be put to a vote.


The excitement coming from these pro-Israel Labour groups, like the JVL's respective anxiety, may all prove premature however. Anny Cryer, NPF chair, has said that the election manifesto was "unanimously agreed" at the party's Clause V meeting in May this year.

Cryer said it's "truly a shared document, based on the views of the party as a whole" and it is likely the NPF consultation was underway long before the manifesto was agreed, which could explain the soft line on Israel. The last public submission on Israel/Palestine on the NPF website was in 2016, months before the election was called.

There is nothing to prevent Corbyn or Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry sticking to Labour's manifesto approach to Palestinian rights.

The two documents are formulated differently, the NPF report being led by Labour headquarters, while the manifesto is initiated by the party leadership and the shadow cabinet, and is therefore a more reliable guide to party policy when in power.

Additionally, the international section of the Policy Forum report is voted on as one piece at Conference, the Israel/Palestine section will not be voted on separately, nor will its contents be binding. There is nothing to prevent Corbyn or Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry sticking to Labour's manifesto approach to Palestinian rights.

The way is open for Corbyn and Thornberry to reinforce their stance on Palestine in their speeches, and show a contrasting approach to that of the Conservatives and DUP, both of whom are staunch advocates of Israeli dominance.

New Election     

In the event of another general election, the progressive Labour policies on the Middle East are likely to remain in the updated manifesto. This would leave pro-Israel claims of "success" based on the NPF report to look like mere grandstanding. With such an outcome, the familiar pattern of pro-Israel dominance of Labour foreign policy would look less formidable.

Much of the Israel lobby's success within the party has been based on the notions that it is powerful, fanatical and well-connected. It is possible that some of this has been illusion, maintained by rote repetition that built up a fear of going against these interest groups. The reality of power is that they were unable to stop the publication of a progressive Labour position on Israel/Palestine in the Labour manifesto, based on international law and the need for justice to bring about peace.

The 2017 Labour Manifesto was the publication of what is realistically politically achievable by the party. The National Policy Forum report appears to row back on what is seen as doable in the Middle East. But Labour under Corbyn is in the non-linear process of changing Labour, so that its claim to be an international socialist party can be manifested in policy, and bring profound change to the UK's role in the world.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.