Jeremy Corbyn Could Learn Some Statesmanship on Palestine

Will the UK Labour leader remain a pro-Palestinian protestor, shunning leftwing Israeli Jews but engaging with Hamas? Or can he develop the political maturity and integrity needed to become a real force for change?

Azriel Bermant
Azriel Bermant
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UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on stage during a debate on Palestine called at the Labour Party's annual conference. Liverpool, UK. Sept. 25, 2018.
UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on stage during a debate on Palestine called at the Labour Party's annual conference. Liverpool, UK. Sept. 25, 2018.Credit: Stefan Rousseau,AP
Azriel Bermant
Azriel Bermant

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s longheld antipathy towards Israel and his pro-Palestinian activism is hardly unprecedented in Western politics. Why is it, then, that his stance, and how he expresses it through word and deed, attracts so much controversy?

Are his views the problematic issue, or the dogmatism they expose? What is it about how he speaks and acts concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict that leads many to conclude he is acting in bad faith? 

>> On Israel-Palestine, Jeremy Corbyn Is No 'Peacemaker' | Opinion

One way of interrogating this issue is to compare Corbyn with the intriguing precedent of another British politician known for his overt criticism of Israel and sympathy for Palestinian statehood: a politician who also attracted condemnation and was accused of anti-Semitism, but managed to move past a rigid Manichean view of the conflict to become a potential mediator between the sides, and extolled as a statesman of integrity and honor – a role that seems far away, indeed, from Corbyn’s current position. 

It may seem unlikely, but that precedent comes from the other side of the political spectrum – the right-wing. The distinguished Conservative statesman, Lord (Peter) Carrington, who died this July, was long reviled by the British Jewish community and by the Israeli government.

As defense minister in the 1970-1974 Heath government, Carrington had overseen the controversial British decision to prevent arms suppplies from reaching Israel at its time of need, during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. 

In 1975, when the Conservative party was in opposition, Carrington met with Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat, which caused great anger in the Jewish community; this was long before his renunciation of terror. Interestingly, in a private conversation with him in 2008, Carrington described to me his impression of Arafat from that meeting: "Slippery and like a limpet." 

By 1980, Carrington had become a hate figure both for Israel’s government and the Jewish community in Britain. 

As foreign secretary in the government of Margaret Thatcher, he played a key role in promoting the landmark EEC Venice Declaration of June 1980. Israel’s prime minister at that time, Menachem Begin, was furious that the European communique called for the PLO to be involved in an eventual peace settlement, in spite of its continuing support for terrorism. 

Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin meeting UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. London, 25 May 1979.Credit: GPO

Carrington was singled out as the chief culprit. He was insistent that Britain had to recognize the right of Palestinians to self-determination, which Begin viewed as an existential threat to Israel.

Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador in London from 1979 to 1982, believed that he was influenced by the aristocratic class to which he belonged, and cabled Jerusalem that Carrington "does not like us particularly….this is part of the tradition to which he belongs, in which every person needs to know his place, including Jews and the Jewish State." 

Thatcher’s private office was flooded with letters from the Jewish community calling on her to get rid of Carrington. Israel’s officials were instructed by Argov to avoid expressions of warmth in their communications with Britain’s foreign secretary.

Carrington was heckled throughout an address he made to a Jewish audience in London. After that address to the British Board of Deputies of British Jews, in the autumn of 1981, Carrington was told in the vote of thanks: "Much of what you said made us shiver in our bones." 

Thatcher and Carrington had a fierce argument over his suggestion that a more balanced approach was required towards the PLO. An angry Thatcher turned to him and said, "Your foreign policy is going to lose me the next election, and it’s going to lose me Finchley!" Carrington responded, "If you think British foreign policy should be decided on whether you lose Finchley, you can find a new foreign secretary!"

And yet, Carrington showed courage in facing and engaging with his detractors. He decided to visit Israel in March 1982. He had to put off two prior planned visits because the hostility he faced was so great.

Carrington acknowledged that he was arriving in Jerusalem "with the reputation of having two horns and a forked tail." But he realized that he would not make headway in the minefield of the Israeli-Arab conflict if he didn’t engage with the Israelis. 

The most significant moment of Carrington’s visit to Israel was his difficult hour-long meeting with Begin at the Knesset. The British foreign secretary tried to convince the Israeli prime minister of the importance of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. 

Begin banged his hand on the table and said that he would never negotiate with PLO terrorists who were determined to destroy Israel. Carrington responded by pointing out that Britain had negotiated with numerous people who had once been considered as terrorists, including Kenyatta in Kenya and Makarios in Cyprus. Carrington was just about to add Robert Mugabe’s name - when Begin interrupted him, and said with a smile, "Not me, I hope."  

Then-MP Jeremy Corbyn marches from Downing Street to the Israeli embassy in support of Palestinian demands that the Israeli government stop the bombing of Gaza. 19th July 2014 Credit: © keith wells/Demotix/Corbis

Britain’s ambassador to Israel at the time, Patrick Moberly, noted that the Israelis were surprised to find that they warmed to him. Recently released papers in London and Jerusalem show that the Israelis actually saw the visit as a success.

But there was a sting in the tale. Carrington resigned his position as foreign secretary within hours of returning from Israel, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, an event for which he decided to take responsibility. The tragedy was that he was just beginning to win his Israeli critics over. 

It is indeed hard to imagine Corbyn achieving this, and there are important differences that can’t be glossed over between the two personalities. 

Carrington served in government, while Corbyn is the leader of the opposition. Carrington was a polished diplomat who possessed charm in spades: diplomacy, charm and tact are not Corbyn’s forte. 

Significantly, Corbyn has viewed Israel’s establishment as an illegitimate enterprise, although he has belatedly expressed support for the right of Israel to live within secure and recognized boundaries as part of a two-state solution. Yet many are skeptical whether he really believes it. 

Like Corbyn, Carrington believed that the Palestinians had suffered an injustice, as a result of the establishment of the State of Israel. However, Carrington also admired Israel and its people, but viewed the conflict as a major irritant which damaged British and Western interests. It was the actions he took to try and address the problem which earned him great distrust and hostility in Jerusalem.  

Cuff links featuring an image of Jeremy Corbyn in the style of Che Guevara on sale at the Labour Party's conference in Liverpool, UK. September 24, 2018.Credit: \ PHIL NOBLE/ REUTERS

Corbyn declined an invitation from the then leader of Israel’s Labour party, Isaac Herzog, to visit Jerusalem in 2016. When he visited, quietly, in 2010 as an MP, he shunned Jewish Israelis in favor of meeting Hamas representatives. This April, the current Israeli Labour party leader Avi Gabbay announced in April that he would cut off ties with Corbyn because of his attitudes on Israel and anti-Semitism. 

The troubling revelations over his support for Palestinian terrorism and his past association with notorious anti-Semities has torn Britain’s Labour party apart, providing relief for a deeply vulnerable Conservative government that is itself deeply divided over a shambolic Brexit policy.

Thus far, the British leader of the opposition has preferred to play the role of protest politician and has avoided the messy compromises that are part and parcel of diplomacy and statesmanship. 

Corbyn would do well to learn from the dignified, principled example shown by Carrington. He should go to Israel and start by rebuilding ties with Israel’s Labour leadership. It may be a case of too little, too late, but such a visit would at least suggest that Corbyn is finally growing up. 

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Twitter: @azrielb

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