Analysis

U.K. Labour Party’s Vote on Israel and Palestinians Is an Empty Gesture From a Spent Political Force

Conference members said Palestine was their fourth most important priority, but the party faces far more pressing problems – like its unelectability

Britain's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sits on stage, during the Labour Party's annual conference at the Arena and Convention Centre (ACC), in Liverpool, England, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018. (Stefan Rousseau/PA via AP)
Stefan Rousseau,AP

The debate at the U.K. Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool on Tuesday afternoon was an astonishing sight.

The entire hall was waving Palestinian flags, among cries of “Free Palestine.” In a show of hands, a motion to condemn Israeli policies – calling for an international commission on the recent killings in Gaza, a freeze on arms sales to Israel and the recognition of a Palestinian state – passed in a near-unanimous show of hands.

Palestinian activists hailed it an unprecedented recognition of their cause, but was the event really connected to the situation in the Middle East?

Delegates hold up placards in support of Palestine at the Labour Party's conference in Liverpool, Britain, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
\ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

The move to hold a conference debate on Palestine came two weeks after Labour’s National Executive Committee was forced to climb down from a previous decision to add various qualifications to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

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The changes to the IHRA definitions were ostensibly to allow “freedom of speech” to members criticizing Israel. But the outcry from the Jewish community over it being a “watering-down” of the definition, coupled with a series of revelations regarding party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s past statements, dominated the British media over the summer and forced the NEC to capitulate.

The Palestine debate was an attempt by the Corbynists to show they could still say whatever they liked about Israel and, as some saw it, a “gaslighting” of the Jewish community.

Not only was this the only foreign policy issue debated at any length during the conference, but in a preliminary vote by party members on their agenda priorities, Palestine came fourth – outstripping issues of far greater relevance to British citizens such as the Brexit process (on which Labour is split) and the crisis-stricken National Health Service.

It certainly didn’t reflect the priorities of the British public, and not even Labour voters. The Palestine debate was an exercise in virtue signaling by the party’s ascendant hard left – a demonstration of their newfound grassroots power over the weakened moderate wing, dismayed by the summer’s outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment and the seeming indifference of Corbyn to what was being said in his name.

A man wears an Arsenal Football Club kippah as he walks through the hall at the Labour Party's conference in Liverpool, Britain, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
\ HANNAH MCKAY/ REUTERS

Anyway, it was hardly a debate. There were no dissenting voices or anyone trying to present Israel’s position, save for one delegate complaining of double standards – because stewards had previously prevented members from flying European Union flags in the hall – and a kippa-wearing member saying he would be voting in favor of the motion, but that there should be condemnation of other governments like Russia and Syria as well.

One conspiracy theorist was allowed onstage to say how “the campaign of slurs and accusations” had been “orchestrated” by the pro-Israel lobby. They predicted that “as the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government gets ever closer … the list of people being denounced for being anti-Semitic, often obviously just for being proponents of Palestinian rights, will stretch all the way from here to Jerusalem.”

But does Labour’s Palestine debate have any real relevance to the situation in Jerusalem? Or is it simply yet another sign of the deepening turmoil within the party?

Even taking the motion that passed at face value, it is largely meaningless. There have already been calls for setting up an international commission over the Gaza Strip border protests – backed by the secretary-general of the United Nations, no less – and Israel has simply ignored them. Labour has voted in the past to recognize a Palestinian state, so nothing new there either.

The third element of the motion, freezing British arms sales to Israel, is largely declarative, as Israel does not acquire any major weapons systems from Britain – just a few things that could easily be bought elsewhere. In fact, as far as arms sales go, British acquisitions of Israeli drones, missiles and airborne systems crucial to British operations – as well as most British military-flight training, which has been outsourced to an Israeli-led consortium – is more than tenfold the value of British arms bought by Israel.

Even if it did contain any concrete proposals, the chances of this nonbinding motion ever becoming government policy are vanishingly small. Corbyn’s Labour is in the opposition, with the next parliamentary election still four years away. And even while facing the most shambolic Conservative government in history – a government incapable of agreeing on how to deliver on the Brexit referendum – it is still incapable of overtaking the Tories in the opinion polls. Under any other leader, Labour would be leading the Conservatives by a wide margin.

The prospect of a 73-year-old Corbyn entering Downing Street as prime minister in 2022 remains a remote one. It is much likelier that a breakaway group of moderate Labour members, who cannot in all honesty campaign for a Corbyn government, will fatally split the Labour vote.

The only realistic scenario of a Corbyn victory is if Brexit proves such a long-term economic disaster that it renders the Conservatives unelectable. But in that case Britain will be too weak and its government’s domestic agenda too pressing for it to have any serious foreign policy agenda.

Britain’s international influence has never been as limited as it is now. It holds virtually no sway over events overseas – certainly not in the Middle East. A post-Brexit wasteland ruled by Corbyn’s cohorts may be an inspiration to the radical left, but it would be totally ineffectual on the world stage.

The disappearance of solidarity for Jews in a party that was once their dependable political home is a worrying development for the local Jewish community, but again will have no impact on Israel.

In fact, as far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned, a hostile British government is a bonus as it serves his “siege mentality” narrative and will help his campaign undermine European policy in the Middle East.

The mutterings about a “Mossad plot” being behind the wave of revelations about Corbyn’s past anti-Semitic associations (as if the Mossad long ago identified Corbyn as a potential leader and made sure he would routinely be in the company of terror supporters and Holocaust deniers) are not only racist and outlandish. They also ascribe a hugely exaggerated importance to Britain’s standing in the world.

It is understandable that the Palestinian lobby is encouraged by the Labour Party’s endorsement of its campaign. But it does nothing to alleviate the Palestinians’ current isolation. This is not about them, anyway. It is empty gesture politics within a party tearing itself to death.