The Labour leader’s U-turn is returning UK politics to an era of make-believe peacemaking – a stalling tactic as Palestinians are starved and slaughtered
Israel’s government is widely understood to be the most extreme in its history, stuffed with religious bigots and self-declared fascists, and is currently carrying out a genocidal, scorched-earth policy against the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who needs the slaughter to continue to keep himself out of jail, has boasted that he is more determined than ever to prevent a Palestinian state from emerging.
Gaza’s destruction, in which more than 100,000 Palestinians have so far been either killed or seriously wounded, and two-thirds of the enclave’s homes pounded into ruins – appears to be integral to that strategy.
And yet, extraordinarily, Keir Starmer, Britain’s opposition leader, has chosen this moment to declare that, from now on, the Labour Party’s policy on Palestinian statehood will be dictated to it by the pariah state of Israel.
Reversing Labour’s stance under his two predecessors, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, who promised to immediately recognise a Palestinian state on winning power, Starmer told a meeting last week that such recognition would occur only as “part of a process” of peace talks involving Israel and other states.
Some 139 nations have recognised Palestine as a state at the United Nations, but Britain – as well as the United States – is not among them.
Labour’s shadow Middle East minister, Wayne David, expanded on Starmer’s remarks to explain that Israel would have a veto. A two-state solution would only ever come to “fruition in a way which is acceptable to the state of Israel. That is the way to bring about peace.”
Starmer’s Labour is insisting that Israel remain firmly in the driving seat, even as Gaza is made uninhabitable and its population subjected to an entirely man-made famine – and when Palestinians need international solidarity more desperately than ever, while Israel needs to be hit with tough sanctions, not endless indulgence, to end its genocide.
Treated like fools
Starmer has not just broken with a decade-old Labour policy. He has abandoned his own declared support for Palestinian statehood.
In the summer of 2021, as Israel engaged in one of its regular bouts of violence against Gaza, the Labour leader pressed the prime minister of the time, Boris Johnson, to lobby for recognition of a Palestinian state at that year’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
Starmer noted that Palestinian statehood was the only way “to stop the expansion of illegal settlements” designed to pre-emptively eat up the territory needed for such a state. It was, the Labour leader added, also the way “to get a meaningful peace process back up and running”.
Why are the Palestinians less entitled to statehood now that Israel is carrying out genocide on part of their territory? Buoyed by the destruction of Gaza, Israel’s Jewish settlers are rampaging across Palestinian territory in the West Bank even more aggressively than they were in 2021.
Three years ago, international recognition of Palestinian statehood, according to Starmer, was the cudgel needed to get an intransigent Israel talking. Now the Labour leader treats a Palestinian state quite differently, as an obstacle to negotiations.
The order is being reversed: statehood, according to Starmer’s new position, can only come about through peace talks, even though Israel utterly rejects any talks with the Palestinians.
Starmer is treating his party and voters like fools.
Last weekend, in an apparent effort to placate growing discontent, Starmer called Netanyahu “wrong” for rejecting Palestinian statehood. But that only served to underline the utter depravity of his new policy.
Making the same point to the Jewish Chronicle last week, David acknowledged that the Israeli government was resolutely opposed to ending its decades-long military occupation of the Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Palestinian statehood would therefore “require a different mindset from leading politicians in Israel”. That would happen “over a long period of time”, with “many complex issues to be sorted out”, said David.
Starmer and his ministers appear not to have noticed that, on average, 250 Palestinians are being killed by Israel each day in Gaza, with many more likely to starve to death. They may not have the luxury of waiting “a long period of time”.
But Israeli officials will be delighted with their veto. If their genocidal statements are any indication, they believe things will be considerably simpler once some two million Palestinians are either dead or ethnically cleansed, dispersed to the far corners of the globe.
Appetite for genocide
Starmer’s Labour is back to joining the ruling Conservatives – as well as Washington – in resuscitating the make-believe “peace process” politics of three decades ago, as though the past 30 years never happened.
The more “moderate” Israeli politicians Labour wants to cultivate simply do not exist. Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. He has presided over so many rightwing coalition governments – each more extreme than the last – precisely because the ultra-nationalist right is hugely popular with Israeli voters.
And though Netanyahu may be in personal political trouble – chiefly for failing to stop Hamas from breaking out of the Gaza prison on 7 October – he is not some outlier in his fervent opposition to Palestinian statehood. He is fully in the mainstream.
What the past three months have proven decisively is that there is zero appetite in Israel for an agreement of any kind with the Palestinians, even with the quisling Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. Quite the reverse. There is fervent support across the Israeli political spectrum for wiping the Palestinians out.
Benny Gantz, the opposition leader to Netanyahu, who now serves in his war council, is helping to oversee the bombing and military siege that is starving Palestinians in Gaza.
President Yitzhak Herzog, formerly leader of Israel’s supposedly leftwing Labor party, has declared that no Palestinian in Gaza is innocent, making him effectively cheerleader-in-chief of the genocide.
When even “moderate” Israeli politicians back genocide, who does Starmer imagine he is going to engage with in Israel for peace talks? Or is his real goal to let Israel do as it pleases indefinitely?
The reality is that Starmer has simply given a cynical makeover to the position he announced immediately after the 7 October break-out – when the nature of Israel’s genocide began to take shape.
Starmer threw his weight behind the “complete siege” announced by Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, that has denied more than two million Palestinians food, water and power. Even though famine and lethal diseases were the inevitable outcome, the Labour leader described the policy as “Israel’s right to defend herself”.
Collective punishment is expressly illegal under international law.
When quizzed on whether he approved of Israel cutting off telecommunications to Gaza, effectively plunging the enclave into darkness as Israel intensified its slaughter, he said he felt unable to “adjudicate on each and every issue”.
And yet, notably, Starmer felt quite capable of adjudicating on – and naming – the Russian military’s crimes after it invaded Ukraine, and demanding that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “face justice” at the Hague.
Israel is known to have killed at least 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza so far – a majority of them women and children, with many thousands more under rubble. Israel has destroyed almost all critical infrastructure, including the health sector. And yet no one in the Labour leadership dares refer to these actions as war crimes, let alone genocide.
It was not always thus. Starmer, in his earlier role as a high-profile human rights lawyer, understood only too well that what Israel is doing today qualifies as genocide.
At a 2014 hearing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), he made the case that Serbian forces had carried out a genocide in besieging the Croatian city of Vukovar for three months. He described a city reduced to rubble, enduring a “sustained campaign of shelling, systematic expulsion, denial of food, water, electricity, sanitation and medical treatment”.
Compare Keir Starmer's statements on the siege of Gaza with his arguments at the International Court of Justice in 2014, where he argued that the Serb siege of Vukovar was a case of genocide.— Nicholas McGeehan (@NcGeehan) November 28, 2023
A thread on Starmer, international law and Gaza. pic.twitter.com/lu0X6sgXfB
Those are the very conditions being inflicted on Gaza, but this time on a far greater scale.
Four years ago Starmer was also unhesitant in terming Serbia’s 1995 slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica an “inhuman genocide”. Those crimes, he added, should “help us find the courage and conviction to stand up and say, never again”.
How quickly Starmer’s “conviction and courage” have failed him in Gaza.
A blank cheque
This is all of a pattern with Starmer and his team.
The Labour leader rejected calls for a ceasefire when many tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties could have been avoided. Even now he insists on a “sustainable” ceasefire that has become code in Washington for allowing Israel to keep the slaughter going for as long as it wishes.
In a similar vein, he hung leftwing Labour MP Zarah Sultana out to dry last week after she confronted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the House of Commons.
She urged Sunak to listen to government officials and “de-escalate” spiralling tensions in the Middle East, which have led to Britain and the US striking Yemen over Houthi attacks on Red Sea ships. She pointed out that de-escalation could only be achieved through an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
Sunak responded with dog-whistle Islamophobia, telling the Muslim MP she should “call on Hamas and the Houthis to de-escalate the situation” – and thereby implying that she was their representative in the UK.
Characteristically, Starmer no more came to Sultana’s defence than he has Gaza’s.
Labour Party officials have been warned not to attend Palestinian solidarity marches, and its branches are reported to have been banned from debating issues related to Israel or Palestine. Dozens of Labour councillors have quit over Starmer’s position on Gaza.
This week a Labour MP, Tahir Ali, was forced to apologise, under pressure from party whips, after accurately describing Sunak as having “blood on his hands” for approving the sale of weapons to Israel despite receiving advice from the Foreign Office that Israel was breaking international law in its attack on Gaza. A Labour spokesman said Ali’s remarks were “clearly inappropriate”.
Now, having approved of the Israeli government’s siege, Starmer is giving Israel a blank cheque to keep the Palestinians stateless indefinitely, unprotected from Israel’s genocidal impulses.
Lisa Nandy, his shadow international development secretary, led a march against antisemitism in Manchester at the weekend. The protest’s barely veiled message was that opposition to genocide in Gaza is driven by Jew hatred.
Standing next to Nandy was Britain’s chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who used a column in the Sunday Telegraph to make that point explicitly. The headline declared: “Accusing Israel of genocide is a perverse moral inversion”.
This is the same Mirvis who earlier this month extolled “our heroic soldiers” – apparently unaware that they are Israeli, not British, soldiers – for doing the “most outstanding thing possible” in destroying Gaza.
Arms sales complicity
Equally, Starmer has done nothing to hold the British government to account – the very purpose of an opposition party – for its continuing supply of weapons to Israel.
Last week, Middle East Eye reported that David Cameron, the foreign secretary, had approved arms sales despite his officials repeatedly raising “serious concerns” through November and December that Israel was breaking international law.
That makes Starmer as complicit as the British government in Israel’s crimes against humanity in Gaza – and in genocide too, should the ICJ at the Hague back South Africa’s pending case against Israel.
Indeed, the Labour leader may have been among those named in a criminal complaint filed last week to the Metropolitan Police by a UK group identifying senior British politicians as complicit in Israeli war crimes.
The Met’s war crimes unit was already gathering evidence on Israeli leaders and Britons who have travelled to Israel to take part in potential war crimes, as part of an existing investigation by the International Criminal Court.
The International Centre of Justice for Palestinians has asked that the Met’s investigation be expanded to include British politicians, public figures and commentators who may have “aided and abetted” Israel’s crimes in Gaza through support, encouragement or incitement.
Starmer’s indecent political manoeuvring over the past three months has only made clearer what has long been true: that the “peace process”, and its proclaimed two-state goal, is viewed by western establishments entirely cynically. It is nothing more than a diversion and stalling tactic.
Once, support for two states provided a necessary cover story: of good intentions behind which Israel could hide its bad faith as it stole the very land that was supposedly about to serve as the basis for a Palestinian state.
Now, support for two states is providing the cover story as Israel commits genocide. The aim is to distract western publics from what is staring them in the face: that an Israeli state levelling Gaza and seeking to ethnically cleanse its population is not in the business of conceding Palestinian statehood.
A Palestinian state, viable or otherwise, will happen only if Israel’s hand is forced. Anything less is simply time-wasting as Israel eradicates the Palestinian people under cover of fighting Hamas.
This week, China indicated that it might call Washington’s bluff by using its seat on the Security Council to insist on “concrete steps” – rather than endless talks about talks – towards “full membership for Palestine in the UN”.
Should Beijing follow through, Washington, with a veto at the Security Council, would be forced to show whether it really is serious about advancing a two-state solution.
Starmer’s seriousness would be exposed too.
In truth, his complete abandonment of the Palestinians at a moment when they are being butchered and starved has done even more damage to Labour than Tony Blair did in backing Washington’s illegal 2003 war on Iraq on false pretences.
Blair hollowed out Labour as a vehicle for advancing an ethical foreign policy. Starmer has hollowed it out as a vehicle for even mobilising opposition to the horrors of genocide.
Starmer has thereby set the stage for a toxic brew of alienation, bitterness and despair that will destabilise British politics for the foreseeable future.
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