Labour is divided over Israel and Palestine – as prime minister, Keir Starmer has a difficult line to tread.

Policy briefings suggest Keir Starmer is keen for Britain to play a more proactive role in the pursuit of peace. Zuma Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Policy briefings suggest Keir Starmer is keen for Britain to play a more proactive role in the pursuit of peace. Zuma Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

09 July 2024

Writing in The Conversation, Dr James Vaughan from the Department of International Politics examines the challenges faced by the new Prime Minister to bridge the divisions in Labour over Israel and Palestine.

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, the Labour party has a complex historical legacy. Prime Minister Keir Starmer is acutely aware of the lessons of the past, particularly from when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader, about the ability of this conflict to pitch the party into a state of antagonistic self-destruction.

Since 2020, Labour’s consistent line has been that it has fundamentally changed when it comes to antisemitism: British Jews should no longer be afraid to see it as a credible party of government. Polls show that a majority of Jewish voters now support Labour, which suggests this messaging has largely worked.

The Corbyn years were marked by levels of anti-Zionist radicalism not seen in the Labour Party since the early 1980s. The situation was exacerbated by a tendency on the part of some grassroots members, party officials and even MPs to lapse into antisemitic imagery and themes.

The process of shifting Labour away from that era has implications for Starmer in how he shapes Britain’s approach to the Middle East and the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel.

In the election build-up, it was argued that anger at Labour from the left would cost it seats in a number of constituencies where rival independent candidates prioritised Gaza as campaign issue. Starmer’s campaign strategists rightly calculated that Gaza was not a key election issue for the vast majority of voters.

However, despite George Galloway’s defeat in Rochdale, it appears the issue of Gaza did influence the outcome of some tight races. In Islington North (Corbyn’s seat), Bristol Central, Dewsbury, Blackburn, Leicester South, Birmingham Yardley and Ilford North, Labour candidates were either defeated or run close by pro-Gaza independents and third-party candidates.

Pressure to act

Starmer has upset many on Labour’s left for his lack of speed in pressing for a ceasefire and an influx of humanitarian aid into Gaza since Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023. Reasonably, though, he worried about associating the Labour party with the far left, whose response to the events of October 7 has been deeply controversial.

Labour’s election manifesto emphasised the need for a ceasefire in Gaza. On the question of Palestinian statehood, however, the party retreated from its 2019 pledge to offer immediate, unilateral recognition. Instead, Starmer has argued that statehood recognition should be part of a British contribution to a renewed peace process, in view of achieving a two-state solution.

Now he is in power, Starmer’s challenge is that this formula of moderation and caution is unlikely to satisfy his own backbenchers. This will be tested if, as seems likely, the war in Gaza continues and progress towards a revived two-state solution fails to materialise.

Policy briefings emanating from the Labour Friends of Israel group suggest Starmer is keen for Britain to play a more proactive role in the pursuit of peace. This includes creating an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace (a mechanism involving the US, EU, members of the G7 and the Arab League), possibly within the first 100 days of a Labour government.

Yet even the most optimistic observers of the war – of which there are few – remain sceptical that rapid diplomatic progress is likely, given the attitude of Hamas and the policies of Israel’s current prime minister and cabinet.

It is doubtful that Starmer will allow any return to Corbyn-era rhetoric and policies. Yet it does remain conceivable that pressure for a tougher line against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will shape policy.

It has been reported that the new Labour government will drop a legal challenge to the ICC that would delay its decision on issuing an arrest warrant for Netanyahu over alleged war crimes.

During the election campaign, Corbyn-era shadow minister Fabian Hamilton claimed at a campaign hustings that British arms sales to Israel would be halted by a new Labour government. This has noticeably not been confirmed by the party leadership, but foreign secretary David Lammy is expected to review the legal advice given to Rishi Sunak’s government in May that there was no clear risk arms sales to Israel would lead to a breach of international law.

Starmer will seek to ensure that Britain stays in step with the US under President Biden. This might mean targeted sanctions against Israeli extremists, up to and including those in government. But it might well be balanced by actions against Israel’s regional enemies, not least a move to proscribe Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation.

Since the 1960s, Labour leaders have preferred to make policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of a European crowd, or in conjunction with the US. Starmer’s ability to hold to this pattern could be affected if Donald Trump wins a second presidential term, or by the continued rise of the far-right in Europe.

The limits of British power

In any event, a sense of perspective is crucial. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are automatically inclined to pay attention to British interference in their affairs.

Meanwhile, Starmer faces massive domestic economic and social policy challenges. It is unlikely he will risk reopening Labour’s internal divisions with radical action on a conflict that is, after all, only one of many ongoing international crises and humanitarian concerns.

In that sense, it is appropriate to recall the influential Labour figure Richard Crossman’s warning, in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, about the limits of British influence. Crossman, wrote his friend and biographer Tam Dalyell, thought that British politicians lived in an “embarrassing” state of post-imperial delusion in “forever demanding emergency statements from ministers” and “discussing ways in which Britain could shape the future of the Middle East”.

Much of the history of Britain’s entanglement in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation has been shaped by contradictory pledges, broken promises and perceptions of betrayal.

There is much to be said for talking about justice for the Palestinians, security for the Israelis, and peace for the region. But there is some danger in pretending that Britain’s ability to determine the course of events in the Middle East is greater than it truly is.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.