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Middle East at the Labour Party Conference

May 29, 2014 at 11:14 am

Whilst Palestine was the main theme of the Middle East debates at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this year, Ed Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander repeatedly returned to the influence they had exerted on the Syria issue.

At the beginning of September, following a chemical attack that killed over 1000 in Syria, debates on military intervention were heard across the corridors of Westminster. Whilst David Cameron and Nick Clegg were keen to support military action, Ed Miliband led the opposition against the rush to war.

During this week’s party conference he used the opportunity to remind delegates of the leadership he had shown.

At the Britain and the world debate Alexander said that it had fallen to Ed Miliband to speak for our nation when Cameron and Clegg wanted to rush to military action. “It was Labour’s leadership that prevented a rush to military action.”

Douglas added that we should support force where we must, yet we should support diplomacy where we can. He rejected “knee jerk interventionism” and “knee jerk isolationism.” British people are weary of conflict and the economy is fragile. He called on the Labour party and its members to support “progressive internationalism.”

At the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) reception, Ed Miliband addressed the group’s MPs and supporters, reaffirming that he believed it was right to say no on Syria. He said he had learnt the lessons of Iraq and had taken the right stance on intervention.

He went on to say that amongst the turmoil in Syria and events in Kenya, “we must not forget the plight of Palestine.”

To an overflowing room, Ed Miliband spoke about the optimism he felt after his meeting with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority two weeks ago in London. He said that he believed there are obstacles, but whatever they are we should support the plight of the Palestinians.

Alexander said that if we can find peace between Israel and Palestine then it could bring about developments in the wider Middle East. The voice that was the most compelling for talks was Abu Mazen when Alexander met him two weeks ago. He described him as never having been more optimistic.

Douglas Alexander went on to say that last year although there was no peace or process at least now there was a process. He also said that Abu Mazen was deeply grateful for the Labour Party’s support of the Palestinian bid at the UN. He reaffirmed the Labour Party’s support for the bid.

Ian Lucas, MP, shadow Middle East minister, said this is the issue most critically raised across the Middle East, describing current talks as “urgent, vital and essential.”

Dr. Naabil Shaath, senior Palestinian official and former foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, said that Arab society is beginning to build a new democratic mould in the Middle East. In Palestine they’ve struggled for a long time to make peace work.

The reception was preceded by a busy fringe meeting that discussed the reality of the two state solution. Whilst the Labour Party leadership echoed support for the two state solution during the conference, the LFPM fringe debated how achievable such a solution actually was.

Khaled Al Sabawi, founder and president of MENA geothermal and TABO Palestine and an outspoken critic of current Palestinian politics, said that the Palestinian economy is unsustainable. He argued that we shouldn’t get caught up in the one state, two state debate as the reality on the ground meant that Palestinians are already living in one state. “I want my rights and that’s the most important thing,” he added.

Al Sabawi believes Palestinians are victims of racism by the people who were victims of racism. He also suggested that to help, British citizens can send letters to MPs, unions must rally together and the UK government should support civil disobedience.

Lisa Nandy MP, shadow minister for education, said that it was vital to support Palestinian statehood and that she didn’t think the two state solution was dead, because where else could one go? But she did think it would die if businesses and governments didn’t act responsibly.

Nandy pointed out that there were still settlements goods in supermarkets. “British business shouldn’t be complicit with illegal activity in the settlements.” But she said she would not support a full ban at this stage.

Nandy said that the Israel Palestine conflict is not an equal situation. When she visited the West Bank last year, she met a lot of children being brought up angry. The only contact they have with people living ‘on the other side’ is when they are humiliating Palestinians.

The next day the conversation about the two state solution continued when Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) asked what the left can do to support a two state solution. Anne McGuire MP and chair of LFI said that as a country and party we need to engage more so we can educate ourselves on the territories.

She pointed out on more than one occasion that the media never reports Israel’s “good news” and that we need to educate ourselves outside of what we hear from some media and commentators. She argued that there was a progressive case for Israel citing free trade unions, equal rights for women and LGTB communities.

Hilik Bar MK and general secretary of the Israeli Labour Party said we live in a country that for 65 years has been fighting for its existence. Bar said that Israel has had numerous wars with their neighbours and faced terror inside the country but they’re trying to live in peace because this is the Zionist dream.

In spite of the “craziness,” Palestinians are trying to sit down and make peace with Israelis. Bar hopes that the talks will develop and Israel will do all that it can. He concluded that Israel will never allow any other solution than the two state solution, let’s hope peace happens sooner rather than later.

Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman and Dermot Kehoe CEO of BICOM were the last two speakers on the panel and talked about what the left could do to support a two state solution. Cowley said that though the left were hard on settlements they were not hard on terrorists.

A one state solution could be the end of a Jewish, democratic state or the beginning of a de facto apartheid state. He argued that the left needs to be more nuanced. Kehoe agreed and said that the left should not align themselves with voices of reaction and should not support boycotts.

Ed Miliband echoed similar calls when he told the LFI that he did not support a boycott of Israel. This was despite the fact that during the Britain and the world debate, Martin Linton former MP, had advocated for a boycott of settlement produce and clarified that this was not an anti-Israeli policy, but an anti-settlement policy.

There were a number of other Palestine fringes during the week including a meeting by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) where Katy Clark MP talked about the murky world of the arms trade. She pointed out that on a list of 27 countries of concern, Israel had the highest value of arms exports from Britain, suggesting this made the UK complicit in the repression of Palestinians.

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) also held an event where Cathy Jamieson MP and Peter Hain MP addressed another packed room calling on greater advocacy for the Palestinian cause. Hain said that unless the politics are solved, there will never be enough aid.

The question of aid to the Middle East continued on the other side of the conference in the context of Syria. Rushnara Ali MP, shadow minister for international development in the Middle East, said that humanitarian intervention in Syria requires leadership and we need to make sure the international community keeps the pressure on.