The Labour Party conference marked a watershed moment for the Palestine solidarity movement in the UK. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), which distributed hundreds of flags that day, noted that it was the first time in living memory there was a debate on Palestine at a Labour Party conference.
Amid this sea of Palestinian flags, party members voted almost unanimously to end UK arms sales to Israel, as delegates transformed one of the party’s biggest events into a day of solidarity with Palestine. This motion was also significant in that it used the word “Nakba” to (accurately) describe the 1948 expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from historic Palestine by Zionist militias.
Yet, as I reported, not everyone was happy. Despite the fact that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran Palestine solidarity activist, some members of the shadow cabinet are not on board with his progressive, anti-imperialist foreign policies. Emily Thornberry – who would become Britain’s foreign minister if Labour were to win an election tomorrow – attempted to void the motion. In backroom meetings, she and her people exerted enormous pressure for it to be rewritten.
Not only did Thornbury demand that the word “Nakba” be removed, she wanted to remove the call for an immediate freeze in arms sales to Israel. Instead, she would commit only to a “review”. Such a “review” is worse than meaningless – in fact, it is a clever smokescreen. It is a way to placate outrage over Israel’s crimes among Labour activists while simultaneously kicking the issue to the side. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual with Israeli war crimes.
Back in 2010 a previous Labour government launched a “review” of UK arms licenses to Israel. A few minor changes were made, but before long it was mostly back to business as usual. Nothing changed. Labour activists must not allow this to happen again.
Thornberry’s deceptive tactics failed in this case. Thanks to the fact that the delegates who proposed the motion were well briefed by the PSC, they were able to stand up to Thornberry’s heavy-handed intervention. The motion went forward to the conference without being watered down – if anything, it was actually toughened up.
But the reality is that should Labour come to power, Thornberry will be calling the shots on the UK’s foreign policy. Unless the Labour movement holds her to account, there is every chance she will live up to her previously-stated, veiled promise to continue arms sales to Israel. Thornberry’s positions are essentially Zionist ones, as demonstrated in a pathetically grovelling speech to Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) in 2017. It was probably drafted for her by LFI itself, amounting to a series of talking points typical of Israeli propaganda. In its essence, it was a speech that could have been given by almost any Israeli politician.
Not only did Thornbury smear and slander the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as basically racist – labelling it “bigotry” – she echoed classic Israeli racism and the anti-Palestinian colonial myth that there was no civilisation in Palestine before Israeli “pioneers” arrived and “made the deserts bloom”. Thornberry then, like so many others, is a liberal Zionist posing as a socialist. Liberal Zionists often claim to support “both sides” in the “Israel-Palestine conflict” – as if the coloniser and the colonised are both equally to blame. They claim to support the Palestinian people, even while doing all they can to undermine the Palestinian struggle.
There is a tell-tale phrase that such “supporters” of Palestine use in their milquetoast criticisms: “The Netanyahu government”. Expansion of the settlements is blamed on “the Netanyahu government”. Israel’s new, racist “Nation State Law” is blamed on “the Netanyahu government”. The Israeli army’s murdering of children and unarmed protestors are blamed on “the Netanyahu government”.
Lo and behold: Thornberry herself used this phrase during her speech to the Labour Party conference. Even while slandering her own party as a hive of anti-Semitism, she claimed in passing to “support the Palestinian cause” and said she condemned “the Netanyahu government”. Yet her actions attempting to ruin the Palestine solidarity motion speak louder than her words.
In the wider Labour movement, and even in some parts of the Palestine solidarity movement, it is a lesson that needs to be learned: the problem of oppression in Palestine is not caused by the Netanyahu government alone. Israel’s Labour governments also carried out massacres and ethnic cleansings of Palestinians. They too enacted racist laws against Palestinians. The Zionist “left” founded the system of Israeli apartheid. This continues to this very day.
Netanyahu may well be Israel’s Trump, but then leader of the Israeli Labour party – Isaac Herzog – warmly welcomed Donald Trump to power after he won the 2016 US election. The current leader of the Israeli Labour party – Avi Gabbay – is an openly anti-Arab racist leading an openly anti-Palestinian party.
Israeli apartheid would not end were the Israeli Labour party, by some miracle, to come back to power. Rather than limit our criticisms to “the Netanyahu government,” it is better to attack the system – Israel’s apartheid regime that rules over the entirety of historic Palestine – and focus the struggle against that.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.