One of the last stops on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s short trip to London was the British Library’s archives, where Thursday evening he was allowed a private viewing of the Balfour Declaration. The Israeli Embassy wisely left that part of the visit off the official itinerary handed out to the media.
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The letter sent by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917, promising the British Empire’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” has long been a red rag to the Palestinians and the British anti-Israel movement. They view it as a case of Britain giving something that wasn’t its to give to people who had no right to receive it.
If the organizers of a demonstration against Netanyahu’s visit on Wednesday, which attracted about a thousand protesters and a smaller number of counterdemonstrators, had gotten wind of the Balfour viewing, they probably would have besieged the British Library, paralyzing rush-hour traffic on the main Kings Cross artery.
While Netanyahu was poring over the declaration and other rare books and documents, not far away, the final rally of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party leadership campaign was taking place. Corbyn, a veteran of Labour’s far-left fringe, has emerged as the unlikely frontrunner, outstripping the other three candidates and predicted to win Saturday when the new leader is announced.
Corbyn is attractive to both Labour Party members and hundreds of thousands of left-wingers who have registered to affiliate themselves with the party and vote. This is due to Corbyn’s unabashed socialism, frank and open demeanor (especially when compared to his bland rivals) and radical anti-establishment and anti-American politics that while not representative of the wide British electorate has attracted enough followers on the left to overwhelm the party’s electoral process.
And while most of Corbyn’s rhetoric has focused on domestic matters of austerity economics, nationalization of rail companies and public housing, his rigidly anti-Israel stance throughout his career has also become a major issue. His endorsement of some of Israel’s most virulent critics, including propagators of blood libels and Holocaust denial, has dismayed many in the Jewish community and beyond.
Corbyn has tried to explain his calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” as an attempt to include all sides in a dialogue toward creating peace in the region. But there is no record of him ever engaging in a similar way with the Israeli side. Corbyn claims to abhor all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, but his blind spot on any issue concerning Israel — or the United States for that matter — means he’s oblivious to racism when it comes from his own ideological camp.
Even more worrying to many British Jews is the way Corbyn’s more respectable supporters brush off his serial unsavory associations with some of the worst anti-Semites in Europe as smears of their hero, showing him tolerance they would never award a right-wing politician. From the wilder fringes of the Corbyn camp has come a backlash of anti-Semitism on social media toward anyone daring to raise doubts about his integrity.
While the vocal anti-Israel and BDS campaigns in Britain have always been modest-sized and noisy groups largely on the margins of political life, Corbyn’s almost-certain victory raises the prospect of these groups going mainstream.
For the last 20 years, Labour’s leaders have been staunch defenders of Israel. Tony Blair backed Israel despite a great deal of pressure from the media and parts of his party during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Gordon Brown would regale Jewish audiences of how his father, an ardent Christian Zionist vicar, would regularly visit newborn Israel and then screen his home movies to the family.
Even Ed Miliband, Labour’s first Jewish leader who was seen by many in the Jewish community as being too critical, repeatedly opposed any form of boycott and, somewhat reluctantly, admitted to being a Zionist.
Does Corbyn’s imminent election mean that support for Israel in Britain has now become a one-party issue?
Netanyahu’s visit to London and his meeting Thursday with David Cameron at 10 Downing St. had no major diplomatic purpose save for what Israeli officials like to call “relationship maintenance.” With the exception of Cameron’s support of Barack Obama’s Iran deal, the two prime ministers see eye to eye on most regional and international issues.
Cameron will of course have said at some point in the meeting the standard lines on the settlements being an obstacle to peace, but he’s the last person to put serious pressure on Netanyahu to make significant concessions to the Palestinians.
Not like Blair or Brown
A prime ministerial visit always includes a meeting with the leader of the opposition, but as Labour is currently leaderless, this gesture was absent from the schedule this time. The prospect of Netanyahu, next time he’s in London, meeting Corbyn, who has supported putting Israel’s leaders on trial for war crimes, is all but unthinkable. Some Israeli diplomats joked that the timing of this visit was designed to make sure Netanyahu left before Corbyn’s victory was announced.
Cameron is one of the most pro-Israeli prime ministers in British history and on this at least he is totally aligned with the vast majority of his party. Aside for a tiny handful of “Arabist” MPs, today’s Conservative Party is both massively philosemite and friendly to Israel.
This includes some of Cameron’s closest lieutenants, chief among them finance chief George Osborne, widely seen as Cameron’s probable successor, who spent his Christmas holiday last year with his family in Israel. This included a private meeting with Netanyahu at the prime minister’s official residence.
The first major indication that Israel had become a partisan issue in British politics came last summer when leading Labour figures, including Miliband, demanded that the government denounce Israel’s actions in the Gaza conflict. Cameron and his ministers demurred.
Two months later, Labour voted nearly unanimously in favor of a parliamentary motion calling on the government to recognize a Palestinian state. The Conservatives kept away from the vote, which had no actual significance anyway.
It’s too early to say the days of Labour as an Israel-supporting party are over. Corbyn’s victory probably won’t change the fact that many of the party’s sitting MPs still openly identify as friends of Israel. The consensus in Labour is that Corbyn and his views virtually ensure that the party will lose a third consecutive election in 2020, and he may well be ousted before that happens.
But as fleeting as his success may be, it has for now greatly emboldened the anti-Israel camp and ensured that the Middle East conflicts for the foreseeable future will become partisan issues in Britain as well.