Labor’s British and Australian leaders are out of step with progressive opinion on Israel

Oct 17, 2021
Palestine flag feature
(Image: Unsplash)

Keir Starmer and Anthony Albanese express support for Israel while leading parties whose wider membership support the Palestinian cause. It is time for these leaders to back the party rank-and-file.

Last week saw the publication of a short book by Monash University Publishing, namely John Lyons’ Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment. The theme of the book is that in reporting on matters pertaining to the Israel-Palestine issue, the Australian media are substantially intimidated into not reporting by the local Israel lobby.

John Lyons, for six years The Australian’s Middle East correspondent, based in Jerusalem, former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and currently head of investigative journalism at the ABC, is well qualified to speak on the issue. I, for one, applaud his courage in doing so. I also note Bob Carr’s supportive comment in Pearls and Irritations.

I am the author of The Case for Palestine, published in 2014 by Wakefield Press. For a number of years I was chairperson of the Adelaide-based Australian Friends of Palestine Association. I wish to proffer support for Lyons’ theme by reference to a current story, of clear relevance to Australian voters, which has simply been ignored by our press.

The story begins at the 2018 ALP National Conference in Adelaide. The party adopted a resolution that in government the ALP would recognise the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders — an act, by the way, largely dictated by international law through UN Security Council resolutions 242, and 2334, to identify just a couple. At the March 2021 conference in Queensland, the party platform was said to have been amended somewhat by calling on the next Labor government to treat the issue of Palestine as an ”important priority”.

Unfortunately Anthony Albanese appears to have been unaware of these conference votes, recently addressing a Zoom meeting hosted by the executive council of Australian Jewry and obsequiously expressing opposition to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel’s settler-colonial policies leading to apartheid, and restating Labor’s support for a negotiated two-state solution. Such a comment is inane given Israeli Prime Minister’s Naftali Bennett’s widely publicised admission that Israel will never agree to a Palestinian state.

To continue the story, we cross to the United Kingdom. The UK Labour Party has seen turbulent times in recent years.

The current leader, Sir Keir Starmer, was preceded by Jeremy Corbyn, said to be contentious; indeed, an anti-Semite. Anyone who knows anything about Corbyn would know that there couldn’t be a racist bone in his body, such is his commitment to equality and socialist policies.

He is and was certainly a long-standing Palestinian supporter. That does not make him a racist. He is, as is any other informed person, entitled to put weight on the UN Charter, the Hague Conventions, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and so on. However, he necessarily became the total focus of the Israeli lobby in the United Kingdom, supported, as here in Australia, by the Murdoch press.

Corbyn was replaced by Starmer, an unapologetic supporter of Israel. However, to their credit, the rank-and-file membership of the Labour Party, somewhat akin to their Australian counterparts, were not prepared to back down, believing, as they are clearly entitled by international law to do, that Palestinians are entitled to self-determination and a sovereign state of their own.

We come to the 2021 UK Labour Party conference in Brighton in late September. A composite motion was passed easily. Here is the motion:

  • Conference condemns the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarized violence attacking the Al Aqsa mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza.
  • Together with the de facto annexation of Palestinian land by accelerated settlement building and statements of Israel’s intention to proceed with annexation, it is ever clearer that Israel is intent on eliminating any prospects of Palestinian self-determination.
  • Conference notes the TUC 2020 Congress motion describing such settlement building and annexation as ‘another significant step’ towards the UN Crime of Apartheid, and calling on the European and international trade union movement to join the international campaign to stop annexation and end apartheid.
  • Conference also notes the unequivocal 2021 reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch that conclude Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid as defined by the UN.
  • Conference welcomes the International Criminal Court decision to hold an inquiry into abuses committed in the occupied Palestinian Territory since 2014.
  • Conference resolves that action is needed now due to Israel’s continuing illegal actions and that Labour should adhere to an ethical policy on all UK trade with Israel, including stopping any arms trade used to violate Palestinian human rights and trade with illegal Israeli settlements.
  • Conference resolves to support “effective measures” including sanctions, as called for by Palestinian civil society, against actions by the Israeli government that are illegal according to international law; in particular to ensure that Israel stops the building of settlements, reverses any annexation, ends the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, brings down the Wall and respects the right of the Palestinian people, as enshrined in international law, to return to their homes.
  • Conference resolves that the Labour Party must stand on the right side of history and abide by these resolutions in its policy, communications and political strategy.

The motion was adopted, overwhelmingly, in defiance of Starmer’s position. Starmer has sought to play down the issue of Palestine since replacing Corbyn. Indeed, he indirectly categorised the motion as “appalling anti-Semitic abuse”. The vote is not binding on the Labour leadership, but sends a clear message to that leadership. Whatever it is, it is a resounding slap in the face to Starmer. Starmer is seen as having colluded in a media and Israel lobby campaign to conflate support for Palestinian rights — a Corbyn signature policy — with anti-Semitism.

Observers have noted the damage done to Starmer’s position. That position can best be summarised by his own words that he ”supports Zionism without qualification”. Those words do not sit well with the motion’s reference to Israel as an apartheid state.

Of course, to acknowledge the difficult position that Starmer is in. On the other side he faces a Israel lobby, cock-a-hoop after its successful undermining of Corbyn. But Starmer must look beyond political expediency, to what is right. And international law dictates that!

One well-respected observer, freelance journalist John Whitbeck, with columns in a multitude of the world’s significant newspapers, has opined: “One may hope that Labour’s current leader, the ultra-Zionist Keir Starmer, will now feel obligated to resign”.

Whatever, the Brighton conference motion (resolution) is a landmark shift in British politics which should evidence, as well, a global shift in attitudes towards Israel.

And so, how has it been reported in the Australian press?

To my knowledge, not at all. I find it hard to believe that it does not have significance of some moment to Australian readers. Let us consider what other stories have been promoted by the Australian media over the past two weeks — consider: an economic crisis in Lebanon, the doings of the Taliban in Afghanistan, drug wars in Columbia, refugees on the US-Mexican border. I do not suggest that Australian readers not be informed of these no doubt important stories.

I ask you, reader, to compare them and their import, with the story that I have just outlined. The Australian and UK Labor parties have too much in common to ignore the significance of the motion for the coming Australian election. Is the ALP to continue, as Albanese suggests, to tow the Israeli-lobby line?

Which party, if any, will informed Australian voters be able to vote for?

That is my case. It is also John Lyon’s case. His thesis is 100 per cent supported. Australian press: get your act together.

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