UK Labour leader ‘welcomes Israel-Arab diplomatic normalization’

Sir Keir Starmer said at a party conference that boycotts of Israel ‘drive people apart’ and said his party was committed to continuing to root out antisemitism.

Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London on July 8 (photo credit: REUTERS/JESSICA TAYLOR)
Britain’s Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London on July 8
(photo credit: REUTERS/JESSICA TAYLOR)

Leader of the UK Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer has said he welcomes the Abraham Accords agreements between Israel, the United Emirates and Bahrain, and that he welcomes diplomatic normalization between Israel and Arab countries.

His comments were made to the Labour Friends of Israel lobbying group during the current Labour Party annual conference, and came following a motion passed by delegates calling for an arms boycott and other sanctions against Israel for its policies toward the Palestinians.

“We must bring people together... not drive them apart with boycotts. That’s the path forward for Israelis and Palestinians,” said Starmer, although it is unclear exactly when his comments were recorded.

“Labour welcomes the Abraham Accords and the growing diplomatic normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This will enhance prosperity and security for all peoples across the region.”

Starmer praised the new Israeli government for including an Arab party, Ra’am, in the coalition, and said that he is “encouraged by the steps the government is taking to repair relations with the Palestinian Authority and its proposals to tackle the terrible plight of the people of Gaza.”

He added that he is seeking to visit Israel as soon as possible, and that he is “committed to doing all I can to continue rebuilding the important bond with our friends in Israel.”

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019 (credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer attend a general election campaign meeting in Harlow, Britain November 5, 2019 (credit: REUTERS / HANNAH MCKAY)

He also noted his work to remove antisemitism from the Labour Party’s ranks, which became an ongoing problem under the tenure of former leader Jeremy Corbyn. He said, however, that “our work to tear antisemitism out by its roots must continue.”

On Monday, the conference approved a motion calling for an arms boycott of Israel, trade sanctions against Israeli settlements, and an implicit call for Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

The motion further demanded “effective measures, including sanctions,” against Israeli policy in Gaza, the West Bank, and in the West Bank settlements, and approvingly recalled the designation of Israel as an apartheid state by trade unions and human rights groups.

The motion was, however, criticized by senior Labour MP and shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, who said it was not balanced and that the party could not support it.

Passage of the motion comes amid efforts by Starmer to combat the antisemitism that took root in the party during Corbyn’s tenure, much of which emanated from far-left, anti-Zionist elements.

“Conference condemns the ongoing Nakba in Palestine, Israel’s militarized violence attacking al-Aqsa Mosque, the forced displacements from Sheikh Jarrah and the deadly assault on Gaza,” read the motion passed on Monday.

“Conference resolves to support ‘effective measures,’ including sanctions, as called for by Palestinian civil society... in particular to ensure that Israel stops the building of settlements, reverses any annexation, ends the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, brings down the Wall and respects the right of Palestinian people, as enshrined in international law, to return to their homes.”

The reference to the “right of Palestinian people... to return to their homes” would appear to be a call for the more than five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants from 1948 to gain entry into Israel.

In a statement to several media outlets, including the Jewish News, Nandy rejected the motion and said the party did not back it.

“We owe it to the people of Palestine and Israel to take a fair and balanced approach that recognizes there can only be peace through a safe and secure Israel existing alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state,” Nandy said in her statement.

“We cannot support this motion. It does not address the issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a comprehensive or balanced way.”

According to the Middle East Monitor, PA President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the motion, saying that it sends a strong message to Israel.

Chairman of the Labour Friends of Israel MP Steve McCabe described the motion as “grossly inaccurate and morally repugnant.” He said it “backs the toxic BDS movement, which singles out the world’s only Jewish state and propagates the apartheid smear.”

He added that passage of the motion demonstrated that there are still too many party members “unhealthily obsessed with Israel.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, a representative organization for the UK Jewish community, said it “wholeheartedly” agrees with McCabe’s statement.

The motion came after a long-standing Jewish Labour MP, Dame Louise Ellman, who quit Labour over its antisemitism problems in 2019, announced she is rejoining the party.

“The Labour Party should never have allowed and tolerated the growth of racism within its ranks,” wrote Ellman in a statement on Twitter.

She added that she is “confident that, under the leadership of Kier Starmer, the party is once again led by a man of principle in whom the British people and Britain’s Jews can have trust.”

Starmer welcomed Ellman back by writing in a tweet that Ellman “showed courage and dignity in standing up against appalling antisemitic abuse,” adding that he is “heartened that her faith in [the] party has been restored enough for her to return to her political home.”

And on Wednesday, during his keynote speech to the conference, Starmer pointed to Ellman in the hall and said “welcome home,” a comment that received a standing ovation by the audience.

Starmer and his party leadership won an important vote at the conference on Monday when party regulations governing its internal disciplinary procedures were successfully changed to create a more independent process and remove the possibility of political interference.

A report in 2020 by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, a statutory body, found that the Labour Party had breached the Equality Act of 2010 through political interference into antisemitism complaints, failing to provide adequate training to those handling antisemitism complaints, and antisemitic harassment of Jewish members.

The rule changes to the disciplinary procedures, requested by the EHRC, are designed to prevent such political interference in the future.

“By implementing the EHRC rule changes, we’ve closed the door on a shameful chapter in our history,” said Starmer following approval of the new regulations.

The new rules were, however, opposed by around a quarter of the delegates at the conference.

Ariella Marsden contributed to this report.