By Leon Rosselson
On 28 November, Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, delivered a speech to Labour Friends of Israel Annual Lunch in the presence of the Chief Rabbi and Mark Regev, the Israeli Ambassador. Her speech was … How can I put it? Sycophantic? Obsequious? Nauseating? Uninformed? Delusional? Absurd? All those?
Mosaic of the Tree of Life
She swims in with reminiscences of a romantic visit to Israel and the West Bank in 1982 with her husband (her boy friend at the time). Nearly all the places she actually mentions — Nablus, Bethlehem, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jordan Valley, the Ummayad Palace, The Damascus Gate, the Mosaic of the Tree of Life — are either in occupied Palestine or, if in Israel, like the Crusader Belvoir Fortress and the stronghold of the Druze above Jaffa, have nothing to do with the Jewish state. The only specifically Jewish site she mentions is the Wailing Wall. So what is the point of this story? That this land has a history and a culture that long predates the founding of Israel? That there are two peoples making claim to this land and one is oppressing and occupying the other? You must be joking. Astonishingly, when she recalls telling her husband’s Jewish grandmother about all those non-Israeli places that had impressed her, and ‘about the cafes we’d visited, the beaches we’d walked on, the food we’d eaten’ (Arabic, doubtless) and sees the grandmother shedding tears, the lesson she learned was: ‘the same lesson that the late, great Elie Wiesel tried to teach the world — that for the Jewish people, you do not have to live in Israel for Israel to mean the world to you’.
What chutzpah! Like a good Zionist, she deletes the Palestinian narrative, annihilates the history and culture of ‘the other’ and subsumes it all under one romanticised mythical Israel. And does she really not know that, for many Jews, Israel means injustice, oppression and the betrayal of Jewish values?
She then trawls through the history of the Labour Party’s support for Israel, makes the obligatory mention of the Holocaust and antisemitism, which she claims is on the rise everywhere, and, straight out of the Zionist propaganda handbook, praises the pioneers in the moshavim and kibbutzim ‘who made the deserts bloom’. Of course, the Labour Friends of Israel lunch is not the place to remind the audience that Israel is founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of the indigenous population and that the moshavim and kibbutzim were built on the ruins of Arab villages. But does she have to be quite so servile?
It gets worse.
She contrasts Israel’s democracy with the repressive governments in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. With her colonialist mindset, she’s a sucker for all that ‘villa in the jungle’ guff. Israel, an outpost of Western democracy in a desert of backwardness. It doesn’t occur to her that a Jewish state that privileges one section of the population over another on the basis of religion or supposed ethnicity, that legally discriminates against 20% of its population and excludes them from full citizenship, cannot be a democracy
Bedouin villages in the Negev are demolished to make way for Jewish settlements. 14,000 Palestinians have had their residency revoked and been forced out of East Jerusalem. So what? Thornberry knows that Israel is a democracy because, unlike in Egypt and Iran, it allows a Gay Pride demonstration and doesn’t put people in prison for going on strike. True it does put young men and women in prison for refusing to serve in the IDF, since you can’t be a conscientious objector in Israel, but she wouldn’t want to spoil anybody’s lunch by mentioning that. A militarised ethnocracy would be a more accurate description.
Her fawning flattery of the Zionist state continues to the end of her speech. But the most interesting part — and the most delusional — is her assessment of the cause of the conflict and her — and the Labour Party’s — policy for resolving it. The problem, she makes clear, is not the nature of the Zionist state, of course not. The problem is this particular government, the Netanyahu government, with which ‘I have profound differences’. The Israeli government must cease settlement-building, she says. But Netanyahu has vowed not to do that. So how will change come about? Certainly not by boycotts. Perish the thought. But do not despair. The opposition Labour Party, led by Yitzhak Herzog and Avi Gabbay, will ‘assemble a coalition which will replace that government (i.e. Netanyahu’s) after the next election’. This is so mind-blowingly stupid I can’t believe a serious politician would make such a statement.
What is the Israeli Labour Party? Actually, there’s no such thing. It is now a coalition called Zionist Unity. Back in the good old days, it was MAPAI (Workers’ Party of the Land of Israel), the party of the Nakba and Ben Gurion, until he stormed out in a huff. It governed the country, occasionally changing its name and its coalition partners, from 1948 to 1977. It was a social-democratic party with a welfare state agenda but hard-line on foreign policy and on the treatment of its Arab population who were under military rule until 1966. It launched the attack on Egypt, which initiated the 6 Day War, and planted the first settlements in the occupied territories. It lost power in 1977 to Begin’s right-wing Likud, largely because Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi immigrant population got fed up with being discriminated against. It went into coalition with Likud in 1984 and was mainly responsible for Israel’s harsh, criminal response to the first non-violent intifada. ‘Break their bones’ as Rabin, then Defence Minister, famously said. It won the 1992 election, just in time for the Oslo accords and the peace negotiations. When these failed, because what Israel was offering didn’t even reach the minimum that the Palestinians required, its leader, Ehud Barak, (of ‘the villa in the jungle’ fame) destroyed Israel’s peace camp by blaming everything on the Palestinian leadership and declaring that Israel had no partner for peace. (Last August, Barak complained that not enough credit was given to Labour Party leaders who ‘consolidated and led the settlement enterprise for a decade’.)
Since then, it has twisted and turned, formed different coalitions, lost members, tried out different leaders and dwindled into irrelevance, empty of principle and policy. An Israeli contact called the party ‘quite ridiculous’. It is a joke party, the sister party of the Jewish Labour Movement. In the 2009 election, it polled 9.9 per cent of the vote. It currently has 24 out of 120 members of the Knesset.
And what are its policies with regard to the occupation? Its previous leader, Yitzhak Herzog, trying to out-anti-Arab the anti-Arabs on the right, declared that he ‘understands the Arab mentality’ and ‘I want to keep a a Jewish state with a Jewish majority’. This is feeble stuff which is why he was voted out and replaced by another nonentity, Avi Gabbay. Gabbay previously served in Netanyahu’s cabinet. It shows. He announced that he opposed discussing the removal of a single West Bank settlement. Because ‘the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews, God promised it to Abraham’. He told a meeting of party activists that ‘the Arabs have to be afraid of us … They fire one missile — you fire 20. That’s all they understand in the Middle East.’ He maintained that he would never form a coalition with the Arab list in the Knesset and declared that the one Palestinian MK in the party would not be allowed to stand for the next election because he refused to celebrate the Balfour Declaration. To polish his progressive credentials, he supported the government’s solution to the refugee problem — the asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who have fled war, torture, hunger and are now contaminating the purity of the Jewish state: pay the government of Rwanda 5000 dollars for each refugee they take; pay each refugee 3,500 to leave voluntarily and put them in prison if they refuse.
this is the leader, this is the party that is going to remove 800,000
settlers from the West Bank, end the siege of Gaza, allow Palestinians
their human rights and bring about peace? Oh Emily, Emily, how can we take you seriously?
In other words, none of the Israeli political parties who are either part of the current ruling coalition, or who could feasibly lead an alternative one, support a solution based on international law and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, sovereignty, and return. (Ben White The Independent)
So where does this leave Labour Party policy? In La-La land basically. It was never anything more than a balloon with peace talks and two-state solution scrawled on it and nothing but hot air inside. Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel has punctured that balloon irrevocably. It’s all very well cheering Corbyn’s promise to end the oppression of the Palestinians but without a credible policy to back it up, it’s meaningless. And recognising the state of Palestine will annoy Netanyahu, which I suppose makes it worthwhile, but achieve nothing else.
The two-state solution is dead. So what other solution is there based on justice, human rights and international law? Gideon Levy, Israel’s dissident journalist (he now needs police protection), has outlined it clearly: a single secular state where all have equal rights, regardless of religion and ethnicity. If Gideon Levy can risk his life advocating that, the Labour Party can face the hostility it would doubtless get by making that its aim. As a first step it should fully support BDS as the only non-violent action that could put pressure on Israel. Of course, none of this will happen with a Foreign Secretary who sees the world through the distorting lens of the Israeli propaganda machine.