The UN's International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian People — commemorated on 29 November every year since 1977 to remind the world that the question of Palestine remains unresolved — could have been an occasion for Britain's Labour Party leader Sir Kier Starmer to unite his party. But it wasn't. Instead, it was another source of division.
There is something about Starmer's leadership style that blinds him to the obvious. The 58 year old opted to add insult to injury by spending the day with deputy leader Angela Rayner at a conference organised by two of Britain's most prominent pro-Israel lobby groups, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).
It couldn't have looked any worse, but there was a way for Starmer to redeem the situation and show that Labour was still the broad church that it claims to be; a party committed to international law and the advancement of human rights around the world, embodied symbolically in the Palestinian cause more powerfully than any other issue.
The Labour leader could have shielded himself from the allegation that his "slavish devotion to Zionism" had undermined his commitment to the Palestinian cause. It's doubtful if anyone would have begrudged his attendance at the pro-Israel conference despite its provocative timing if he had also spared a few moments to mark the Palestine Day of Solidarity. For thousands of members who are contemplating leaving the party, such a move would have shown that Labour still has space for all marginalised communities.
Starmer's silence spoke volumes, coming as it did within weeks of LFI's very public opposition to Labour Party policy and, predictably, became another source of division. It is now reasonable to ask if his obvious commitment to Zionism and the state of Israel means that he is anti-Palestinian. Furthermore, is he capable of acknowledging the reality of Israel's brutal occupation, and can he be trusted to defend the Labour Party's own position on the conflict that, in line with international law, recognises Israel as an occupying power and calls for the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders?
In a move that would normally trigger a reprimand from the Labour leadership, LFI applied pressure on the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to change the status of Jerusalem. This was not only against Britain's position on the status of Jerusalem, but it was also contrary to Labour's long held stance on the Holy City.
"We cannot understand why the government has listed 'Jerusalem' as a separate country on the travel corridor list. It's completely inappropriate and we call on them to correct this without delay," said LFI in a swiftly deleted tweet, demanding a change in the position on Jerusalem. LFI's sister organisation, Conservative Friends of Israel, and the Board of Deputies piled in against the British government.
LFI's attempt to move British policy in line with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and outgoing US President Donald Trump was quickly condemned by the Palestinian Ambassador in London, Dr Husam Zomlot. "Does this unacceptable position in violation of international law reflect Labour Party policy?" he asked, sharing a screenshot of the deleted tweet. "And if not, will we see Labour Friends of Israel dressed down in public and reprimanded, or is that only the fate of those who call for the implementation of international and UK laws?"
A reprimand from Starmer was, of course, out of the question. Nevertheless, few would have expected the Labour leader to reward LFI in the way that he did by attending the pro-Israel conference while ignoring the Palestinians on the very day earmarked by the UN to remember their situation. The people of occupied Palestine call for nothing less than what is, after all, official Labour policy. LFI, meanwhile, seeks to shift Britain's position towards the extreme far right in alignment with the ruling Likud Party in Israel.
It's baffling to see an experienced lawyer like Starmer in such difficulty. Clearly, former US President Barack Obama was right when he said in his new book, A Promised Land, that politicians face enormous pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. In the US, this means, among others, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "AIPAC's clout," wrote Obama, "could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington — including me — counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors."
Obama observed that even though Israeli politics "had moved to the right" AIPAC maintained its strong support for the Zionist state despite the fact that positions it had taken "were contrary to US policy". Indeed, he pointed out, AIPAC staff and leaders increasingly say that there should be "no daylight" between the two countries. "Those who criticised Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as anti-Israel (and possibly anti-Semitic) and was confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election," said the former US President.
Predictably Obama's criticism of AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby has barely been noted by the mainstream media and reviews of his book, let alone open up a more serious conversation about the far-reaching consequences of what his observations mean for democracy in the US and elsewhere.
Following Al Jazeera's 2017 investigation which exposed how the pro-Israel lobby penetrates many different levels of British democracy, we shouldn't be surprised at Starmer's missed opportunity to create a safe space for pro-Palestinian activism within Labour. The atmosphere within the party is toxic, and against any sympathy let alone support for the Palestinians.
For example, in another swiftly deleted tweet highlighting the extent to which a growing section of the Labour Party has become hostile to any show of solidarity with the Palestinians — a section that seems to be emboldened by Starmer's lack of leadership — Redbridge Labour Party sparked controversy with its response to a tweet by former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
"Solidarity with the Palestinian People #PalestineDay" was Corbyn's message, alongside an image of the Palestinian flag. This, inexplicably, was said by Redbridge Labour to be "anti-Jewish" because "Of all the conflicts in the world the one that is the least harmful and where one side, Israel, has never instigated war or attacks. Antisemitism is rife thanks to you."
Aside from being inaccurate on every level, this illustrated the fact that Labour has descended into a dark place of anti-Palestinian hostility. Local party leaders acted quickly to condemn this tweet in an effort to contain the fallout, but many are rightly asking why an official Labour branch is allowed to spew out misinformation about the Palestine-Israel conflict. More worryingly, it is being asked why some members of the Labour Party automatically equate solidarity with the Palestinian cause with anti-Semitism.
I have no doubt that Labour's unquestioned adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism is part of the problem. Seven of the eleven examples cited in the highly controversial working definition equates criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish racism. Professor David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, is the latest in a long list of people to warn against the wholesale adoption of this so called "international definition".
With his ban of any discussion about Corbyn's suspension, and his inability to muster a word of support for the Palestinian people, let alone condemn Israel's brutal occupation, Starmer must surely bear some responsibility for normalising anti-Palestinian sentiments. If Corbyn can be blamed for the way he that handled the anti-Semitism row within Labour, party members must assume that Starmer is responsible for the division and hostility that has followed the former leader's departure. His silence on the Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People suggests strongly that Obama's problem with AIPAC is indeed mirrored in British politics. Did the Labour leader believe that he would have to pay a high political price for saying something even remotely positive about the Palestinians and thus be judged guilty of what the pro-Israel lobby in this country regards as an "anti-Jewish" attitude?
Should we, therefore, be surprised that under Keir Starmer the Labour Party has become another political home for people with a track record of Islamophobia and those whose views are on the far right like those of Israel's Likud? If he is serious about uniting the party and turning a new page he should not have missed an opportunity as important as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People to demonstrate that Britain's Labour Party is a progressive political force.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.