The Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) fringe event at the Party Conference was arguably the best attended for years. It was, perhaps, suggestive of a noticeable shift in Labour Party attitudes towards Palestine.
This was one of four events on Palestine during the week, the others being hosted by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign & Unite; Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP); and a reception by LFPME. Chaired by the Huffington Post's Mehdi Hasan (the former editor of the New Statesman), the LFPME panel included the Rt Hon Peter Hain MP, Rt Hon John Denham MP, Lisa Nandy MP and Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East Ian Lucas MP, as well as Dr Hanan Ashrawi via Skype. They addressed an audience of more than 300 people on what the Labour Party's policy should be for Palestine under the title, 'Securing Peace and Justice in the Middle East'.
Mehdi Hasan is known for his no-nonsense approach to interviewing. He began with the Shadow Minister, asking Ian Lucas how the current Labour Party would be able to turn support for a theoretical Palestinian state into a reality. Lucas responded by highlighting the current stalemate in peace negotiations, together with the 'great deal of concern' that was apparent within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and within Israel itself that the prospect of the two-state solution is fading, and this needs to be confronted. He said that the only way forward was to work with France, Germany and the rest of Europe to find "consequences for Israeli actions" in order to exert pressure on Tel Aviv. Lucas noted Jewish Chronicle columnist Martin Bright's description of Israel's "Big Shrug" when the state is reprimanded by the international community.
The question on many campaigners' minds was obvious: since Ed Miliband's speech at the LFPME reception last year, he hasn't said much on the issue. "Why not?" asked Hasan. "The recognition of a Palestinian state is important," Lucas replied, pointing out that the Labour leader supported such recognition last year but could only do more if and when the party is in government. This echoed Douglas Alexander's speech to the Conference, when the Shadow Foreign Secretary called on the government to take bolder action and claimed that if he was in government he "would not sit on the fence", he "would use his voice and his vote to upgrade Palestinian representation at the UN".
Rising MP and Shadow Minister for Children Lisa Nandy talked about her visit to the occupied West Bank with the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and LFPME, and how she was left 'traumatised' by what she had seen. She repeated Lucas' sentiments, saying that there has to be accountability and consequences for Israeli actions. Ignoring this would, she said, create a bigger problem. Nandy went on to criticise the role of British-based multinationals that were helping to "maintain and perpetuate" Israel's military occupation. She highlighted the role of G4S in providing security to Israeli prisons, where many human rights violations take place against Palestinians, including children, on a daily basis. G4S has said that the company wants to pull out of the contracts as soon as possible. Other companies mentioned were Veolia and Eden Springs water, which supplies water to the Scottish and Westminster parliaments; the speech was repeated at two other events.
Peter Hain said that he has supported the Palestinian cause since the anti-apartheid protests in the seventies and was shocked that support for Palestine wasn't as strong as it had been for the anti-apartheid movement. He said that we need to learn lessons from the failure to resolve the conflict in the Middle East and compared it with the success of the Irish experience, congratulating Sinn Fein and DUP for their commitment to the peace process. In contrast to British policy in the Middle East, the attention given to Northern Ireland by Tony Blair and his government was enormous and consistent "until we got a settlement". An unfortunate choice of words in the context of the Israeli occupation, but Hain insisted that Britain has to demand that the international community "must not stop until there is justice for the Palestinians" as the Palestinian cause is "one of the greatest injustices of the modern age". He added that there should be no preconditions to negotiations and when pushed by Hasan to say what he thought of Blair's advocacy of such terms Hain responded, "I don't think he was right to say that Hamas shouldn't be spoken to. Hamas was elected whether you like it or not. I would say to both Hamas and Israel that if they insist on preconditions… it won't work."
Recalling his visits to the occupied West Bank, John Denham explained that one occasion in particular remains in his mind and highlights the injustices faced by the Palestinians daily. Denham's colleague Ian Gibson had had a severe stroke in Ramallah but when a Palestinian ambulance tried to rush him to a hospital, soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint wouldn't let it pass through. During a more recent visit, Denham recalls asking Palestinians and Israelis what they thought of the two-state solution, but was unable to find anyone who believed it would ever be possible today, not because they accepted the status quo but due to the "normalisation of the occupation", which has been internalised into people's lives. In short, the two-state solution was always seen as a guarantee of an Israeli state, but perhaps the Palestinians had a much more difficult time in deciphering what a Palestinian state could possibly look like without Israel's illegal settlements and daily encroachment on Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Mr. Denham also talked about the EU-Israel relationship and suggested that the cost of the occupation was being met by European taxpayers. In effect the West Bank was being bankrolled by European donations; it was an investment to make progress in the Occupied territory but he questioned what the donations were paying for: "For someone else's illegal military occupation? How can we ask British taxpayers for this?" Mehdi Hasan suggested a bi-national one-state solution to which Denham shook his head, saying, "I don't know." When asked what he thought of the Blair-Brown legacy as a "neutral impartial broker" for 13 years, Denham admitted that Labour had made mistakes whilst in government, mentioning specifically the invasion of Iraq, as well as the non-recognition of "the reality of who has to come to the table" in order for progress to be made in the Middle East conflict.
Veteran Palestinian politician and spokesperson Dr Hanan Ashrawi is an elected member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Palestinian National Council. She suggested that the two-state solution had become impossible due to Israel's illegal settlement activities, but this did not necessarily mean that a one-state approach is the answer. The region, she argued, would have to deal with the long period of occupation, "the continued enslavement of our people and the theft of our resources". According to Dr. Ashrawi, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank remains on course to present it's proposal to the UN General Assembly to upgrade the status of Palestine. Fatah and Hamas reconciliation, she pointed out, is paramount to the success of any future state and the future of the Palestinians.
Similar themes and sentiments were reiterated at other fringe events on Palestine, with panelists at the MAP event stating that the peace process had been used by Israel to encroach further on Palestinian land. Former Labour MP and MAP trustee Dr Phyllis Starkey said that she had no problem with the rhetoric coming from the UK and the EU on illegal settlements, but the lack of action is a big problem.
Labour leader Ed Miliband attended both the LFPME and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) receptions, where he restated his commitment to the two-state solution, condemned rocket attacks from Gaza and promised to push for a just peace whilst in opposition and in government. To the LFI crowd, and in front of the Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub, he condemned the rocket attacks, but admitted that they had differences regarding recognition of a Palestinian state, suggesting that "unless there is determination on both sides to find a way forward then we'll be stuck in the current impasse".
Some conference attendees suggested that Labour Friends of Israel was losing its previously held clout in this forward thinking party which seems to be moving away from a decade of New Labour policies favourable to Israel. However, it remains to be seen how this translates into real policy. Some politicians say one thing in opposition, and quite another thing when in power; Cleggmania anyone?