Why the Israel lobby fears it's losing Labour

Why the Israel lobby fears it's losing Labour
Comment: The consolidation of a left-wing, pro-Palestinian leader's power, has been bad news for Israel's supporters in Labour, writes Hilary Aked.
4 min read
18 Dec, 2017
Shadow international development minister Kate Osamor recently indicated support for BDS [Anadolu]
The year 2017 was a bad one for the UK's Israel lobby, book-ended as it was with damaging scandals exposing its dubious practices.

In January, the broadcaster Al Jazeera released an undercover investigative documentary which exposed an Israeli embassy employee, Shai Masot, plotting to "take down" veteran minister Alan Duncan due to his (very moderate) support for Palestinian rights. 

Israel's ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, was forced to apologise and - to paint the disgraced Masot as a "bad apple" who'd "gone rogue", rather than acting on orders from the top - Regev sent him back to Israel.

Then last month, the exposure of Priti Patel's secret meetings with Israeli minister Gilad Erdan - arranged by Conservative Friends of Israel stalwart Stuart Polak - led to her being forced to resign as international development minister.

These two public controversies turned out to be connected, when Masot's name appeared in Israeli government records suggesting he attended meetings involving Conservative Friends of Israel and Gilad Erdan. He may well, therefore, have worked for Erdan's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is responsible for fighting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

But while these scandals both involved the ruling Conservative party, Israel's support base within that party remains secure. By contrast, within the Labour party the Israel lobby has been quietly losing influence for some time.

The UK's Israel lobby remains terrified by the prospect of a Corbyn government in 2018

Masot himself was filmed admitting as much by Al Jazeera's undercover reporter, saying of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI): "Not a lot of young people want to be affiliated. For years, every MP that joined the parliament joined the LFI. They're not doing it any more in the Labour party."

Meanwhile, Priti Patel's opposite number in Labour, shadow international development minister Kate Osamor, recently indicated support for the BDS movement for Palestinian rights on Twitter. This presents not only a marked contrast with her Conservative counterpart, but also with fellow members of the shadow cabinet.

For instance, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has previously called BDS 'bigotry'. 

Yet Corbyn declined to endorse any such language and while Osamor's tweet provoked a minor outcry from supporters of Israel within Labour, Corbyn refused to attack or sack his close ally for her stance, as some demanded.

A spokesperson for Corbyn did tell the press that he was "not in favour of a comprehensive or blanket boycott" of Israel. However, it was also simultaneously made clear that Corbyn does support "targeted action", for example against settlement produce.

Evidently, this is far from a complete disavowal of boycott tactics, even if it stops short of advocating a complete embargo.

Notably, in 2015 Corbyn had gone further, expressing support for an end to arms sales to Israel and even a boycott of Israeli universities involved in military research. He also remains a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which backs BDS.

Thus unsurprisingly, the assurances given will only minimally assuage Zionists' fears. The UK's Israel lobby remains terrified by the prospect of a Corbyn government in 2018.

Illustrating this most clearly is a recent report by major pro-Israel lobby group BICOM. Produced following the shock hung parliament election result that firmly secured Corbyn's place at the helm of the party, it speaks of a potential "major realignment" between Britain and its "traditional" Middle East allies and predicts that a Labour government would exert a "chilling effect" on UK-Israel relations.

The lobby's fears reflect the concerns of the Israeli government, with whom Labour relations are already decidedly chilly. Earlier this month, Gilad Erdan unambiguously implied that the Labour leadership was anti-Semitic.

BICOM's report reveals the real reasons that a Corbyn-led Labour is a terrifying prospect for Israel: His longstanding and uncompromising support for Palestinian refugees' rights.

The report predicts that a Labour government would exert a 'chilling effect' on UK-Israel relations

Other recent developments trouble the Israel lobby too.

There are signs of pushback against the purges of Labour members critical of Israel and Zionism, for example; the expulsion of academic and activist Moshe Machover was reversed at the end of October.

Taken together, the rejuvenation of internal party democracy through grassroots campaigning and the consolidation of a left-wing, pro-Palestinian leader's power, has been bad news for Israel's supporters in Labour.

The BDS issue will be the litmus test to watch.

As Trump, Israel and the Conservatives move ever further right, we may well see more senior Labour figures moving left to support a boycott for Palestinian rights.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

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.