Crackdown by UK Labour leader on left-wing rival will subdue critics of Israel in his party ahead of Israel’s annexation move
Middle East Eye – 29 June 2020
The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey from the UK shadow cabinet – on the grounds that she retweeted an article containing a supposedly “antisemitic” conspiracy theory – managed to kill three birds with one stone for new Labour leader Keir Starmer.
First, it offered a pretext to rid himself of the last of the Labour heavyweights associated with the party’s left and its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Long-Bailey was runner-up to Starmer in the leadership elections earlier in the year and he had little choice but to include her on his front bench.
Starmer will doubtless sigh with relief if the outpouring of threats on social media from left-wing members to quit over Long-Bailey’s sacking actually materialises.
Second, the move served as a signal from Starmer that he is a safe pair of hands for the party’s right, which worked so hard to destroy Corbyn from within, as a recently leaked internal review revealed in excruciating detail. Despite the report showing that the Labour right sabotaged the 2017 general election campaign to prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister, Starmer appears to have buried its contents – as have the British media.
He is keen to demonstrate that he will now steer Labour back to being a reliable party of government for the neoliberal establishment. He intends to demonstrate that he is the Labour party’s Joe Biden, not its Bernie Sanders. Starmerism is likely to look a lot like Blairism.
A peace pipe
And third, Long-Bailey’s sacking provided the perfect opportunity for Starmer to publicly light a peace pipe with the Israel lobby after its long battle to tar Corbyn, his predecessor, as an antisemite.
The offending article shared by Long-Bailey referred to Israel’s documented and controversial role in training and helping to militarise US police forces. It did not mention Jews. By straining the meaning of antisemitism well past its breaking point, Starmer showed that his promised “zero tolerance” for antisemitism actually means zero tolerance of anyone in Labour who might antagonise the Israel lobby – and by extension, of course, the Israeli government.
By contrast, back in February Rachel Reeves, an MP on the party’s right, celebrated Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the UK parliament and a well-known Jew hater who supported the appeasement of Hitler. None of that appeared to bother the Israel lobby, nor did it dissuade Starmer from welcoming Reeves into his shadow cabinet weeks later.
Doubtless, the move against Long-Bailey felt particularly pressing given that this week the door will open to the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu annexing swaths of Palestinian territory in the West Bank in violation of international law, as sanctioned by Donald Trump’s “peace” plan.
Corbyn joined more than 140 other MPs last month in sending a letter to the British prime minister urging “severe consequences including sanctions” on Israel should it carry out annexation.
Starmer, by contrast, has voiced only “concerns”. Sidelining the gross violation of international law annexation constitutes, or the effects on Palestinians, he has weakly opined: “I don’t agree with annexation and I don’t think it’s good for security in the region.”
It looks like Starmer has no intention of doing anything more than feeble handwringing – especially when he knows that the Israel lobby, including advocacy groups inside his own party like the Jewish Labour Movement, would move swiftly against him, as they did against Corbyn, should he do otherwise.
Sacking Long-Bailey has offered the Israel lobby a sacrificial victim. But it has also removed a potential loose cannon from his front bench on Israel and annexation-related matters. It has sent an exceptionally clear warning to other shadow cabinet ministers to watch and closely follow his lead. He has made it evident that no one will be allowed to step out of line.
A smooth ride
All three audiences – Starmer’s own MPs and party officials, the billionaire-owned media, and the Israel lobby that claims to represent Britain’s Jewish community – can now be relied on to give him a smooth ride.
His only remaining challenge will be to keep the membership in check.
Starmer understands only too well the common policy priorities of the various audiences he is seeking to placate. In fact, the article Long-Bailey retweeted – and which led to her ousting – was highlighting the very interconnectedness of the problems these establishment groups hope to ringfence from examination.
The article published in the Independent was an interview with Maxine Peake, a left-wing actor and Palestinian solidarity activist. As Long-Bailey shared the article, she called Peake, one of her constituents, “an absolute diamond”.
Peake had used the interview to warn: “We’re being ruled by capitalist, fascist dictators.” Establishment structures to protect capitalism, “keeping poor people in their place”, were so entrenched, she wondered how we might ever “dig out” of them.
Those who rejected Corbyn in the 2019 general election because he was seen as too left-wing, she observed, had no place complaining now about an incompetent Conservative government there to serve the establishment rather than the public.
Her brief, offending comment about Israel – the one that has been widely mischaracterised as antisemitic – was immediately prefaced by Peake’s concern that racism and police brutality had become globalised industries, with states learning repressive techniques from each other.
She told the interviewer: “Systemic racism is a global issue. The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”
The Palestinian lab
Starmer and the Israel lobby both wish to deflect attention away from the wider point Peake was making. She was referring to Israel’s well-known role in helping to train and militarise other countries’ police forces with so-called “counter-terrorism measures”. Israel has been doing so since the early 1990s.
As Israeli journalists and scholars have noted, Israel has effectively turned the occupied Palestinian territories into laboratories in which it can refine oppressive systems of control that other states desire for use against sections of their own populations.
But Starmer and the lobby chose to hoist Long-Bailey – via Peake’s interview – onto the hook of a single unprovable assertion: that Israel specifically taught Minneapolis police the knee on the neck chokehold that one of their police officers, Derek Chauvin, used for nine minutes on George Floyd last month, leading to his death.
Peake was right that Israeli security services regularly use that type of chokehold on Palestinians, and also that Israeli experts had held a training session with Minneapolis police in 2012. All that can be proved.
The specific claim that this particular chokehold was taught on that occasion, however, may be wrong – and we are unlikely ever to know, given the lack of transparency regarding Israel’s influence on other police forces’ strategies and methods.
Such opaqueness and a lack of accountability in police practices is the norm in Israel, where the security services treat Palestinians as an enemy – both in the occupied territories and inside Israel, where there is a large minority with degraded Israeli citizenship. US police forces, on the other hand, profess, often unconvincingly, to be driven by a “protect and serve” ethos.
In taking action against Long-Bailey, Starmer, a former lawyer known for his forensic skills, made a telling, false allegation. He told the BBC that the Peake interview had indulged in antisemitic “conspiracy theories” – in the plural. But only one Israel-related claim, about the knee on the neck chokehold, was made or cited.
Further, Peake’s claim, whether correct or not, is patently not antisemitic. Israel is neither a Jew nor the representative of the Jewish people collectively – except in the imaginations of antisemites and the hardcore Zionists who people the Israel lobby.
More significantly still, in condemning Peake, Starmer wilfully ignored the wood as he pointed out a single tree.
Israeli scholar Jeff Halper, a veteran peace activist, has documented in great detail in his book War Against the People how Israel has intentionally positioned itself at the heart of a growing “global pacification industry”. The thousands of training sessions held by Israeli police in the US and around the world are based on their “expertise” in repressive, militarised policing.
Tiny Israel has influence in this field way out of proportion to its size, in the same way that it is one of the top 10 states – all the others far larger – that profit from the arms trade and cyber warfare. Every year since 2007, the Global Militarisation Index has crowned Israel the most militarised nation on the planet.
A senior analyst at the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper has described Israel as “securityland” – the go-to state for others to improve their techniques for surveilling, controlling and oppressing restive populations within their territory. It is this expertise in “securocratic warfare” that, according to Halper, has allowed tiny Israel to hit way above its weight in international politics and earned it a place “at the table with NATO countries”.
Western bad faith
It is on this last point that the Labour left, including many of the party’s half a million members, and the Labour right decisively part company. A gulf in worldviews opens up.
Along with the climate emergency, Israel symbolises for the Labour left some of the most visible hypocrisies and excesses of a neoliberal global agenda that treats the planet with slash-and-burn indifference, views international law with contempt, and regards populations as little more than pawns on an updated colonial chessboard.
Israel’s recent history of dispossessing the Palestinians; its unabashed promotion of Jim Crow-style ethnic privileges for Jews, epitomised in the nation-state law; its continuing utter disregard for the rights of Palestinians; its hyper-militarised culture; its decades-long occupation; its refusal to make peace with its neighbours; its deep integration into the West’s war industries; its influence on the ideologies of the “war on terror” and a worldwide “clash of civilisations”; and its disdain for international humanitarian law are all anathema to the left.
Worse still, Israel has been doing all of this in full view of the international community for decades. Nonetheless, its crimes are richly subsidised by the United States and Europe, as well as obscured by a sympathetic western media that is financially and ideologically embedded in the neoliberal establishment.
For the Labour left – for Peake, Long-Bailey and Corbyn – Israel is such an obvious example of western bad faith, such a glaring Achilles’ heel in the deceptions spread on behalf of the neoliberal order, that it presents an opportunity. Criticism of Israel can serve to awaken others, helping them to understand how a bogus western “civilisation” is destroying the planet through economic pillage, wars and environmental destruction.
It offers an entry into the left’s structural, more abstract critiques of capitalism and western colonialism that it is otherwise difficult to convey in soundbites to a uniformly hostile media.
The problem is that the stakes regarding Israel are understood by the Labour right in much the same way. Their commitment to a global neoliberal order – one they characterise in terms of a superior western civilisation – stands starkly exposed in the case of Israel.
If the idea of Israel is made vulnerable to challenge, so might their other self-delusions and deceptions about western superiority.
For each side, Israel has become a battleground on which the truthfulness of their worldview is tested.
The Labour right has no desire to engage with the left’s arguments, particularly at a time when the climate emergency and the rise of populism make their political claims sound increasingly hollow. Rather than debate the merits of democratic socialism, the Labour right has preferred to simply tar the Labour left as antisemites.
With Corbyn’s unexpected rise to lead Labour in 2015, that crisis for the Labour right became existential. The backlash was swift and systematic.
The party’s right-wing scrapped the accepted definition of antisemitism and imposed a new one on Labour, formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), to ensnare the left. It focused on criticism of Israel rather than hatred or fear of Jews.
The Jewish Labour Movement, a pro-Israel group, was revived in late 2015 to undermine Corbyn from within the party. It was all but sanctified, even as it refused to campaign for Labour candidates and referred the party to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for a highly politicised investigation.
The Labour right openly conflated not only the left’s anti-Zionism with antisemitism but even their socialist critiques of capitalism. It was argued that any references to bankers or a global financial elite were code words for “Jews”.
After this lengthy campaign helped to destroy Corbyn, the candidates to succeed him, including Long-Bailey, opted to declare themselves Zionists and to sign up to “10 Pledges” from the Board of Deputies, the UK’s main Jewish leadership organisation. Those demands put the board and the Jewish Labour Movement in charge of determining what antisemitism was, despite their highly partisan politics on Israel and their opposition to democratic socialism.
The problem for the Labour right and Israel’s lobbyists, and therefore for Starmer too, is that Israel, egged on by Trump, is working overtime to blow up the carefully constructed claim – supported by the IHRA definition of antisemitism – that Israel is just another normal western-style state and that therefore it should not be “singled out” for criticism.
Israel is on a collision course with the most fundamental precepts of international law by preparing to annex large areas of the West Bank. This is not a break with Israeli policy; it is the culmination of many decades of settlement activity and resource theft from Palestinians.
This is a potential moment of crisis for those on the Labour right, who could quickly find themselves exposed as political charlatans – the charlatans they always have been – by Israel’s actions over the coming weeks and months.
Starmer has indicated he is determined to tightly delimit the room for criticism of Israel within Labour as the annexation issue unfolds. That will leave him and the party free to issue their own carefully crafted, official condemnations – similar to Johnson’s.
Like Johnson, Starmer will play his allotted role in this political game of charades – one long understood and tolerated by Israel and its UK lobbyists. He will offer some sound and fury, the pretence of condemnation, but of the kind intended to signify nothing.
This has been at the heart of UK foreign policy towards a Jewish state built on the theft of Palestinian land for more than a century. Starmer has shown that he intends to return to business as usual as quickly as possible.