Boycotts are to the left what Trump’s unilateral support for Jerusalem as the capital is to the right, argues Richard Angell
Peace in the Middle East – or the lack of it – has been thrown to the front of people’s minds as the United States’ president’s determination to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel dominates the headlines. The sad truth is this means the world’s major superpower has recoiled from its role as a broker for peace in the region. When politicians in both Israel and Palestine need little excuse to put political expediency before peace, Trump has gifted those who do not want a two state solution – of which Jerusalem as a shared city is integral – a gift. Good comrades have made this case with passion recently. Others are, understandably, angry. Many more just despair.
The British government has been typically weak in its response – which is why it is so important we show that we stand against Trump’s politics when he visits the United Kingdom next year. The opposition’s stance, meanwhile, has been astutely reasoned, raising hopes that Labour’s attitude to the Israel-Palestine conflict was improving.
At last month’s Labour Friends of Israel lunch, for instance, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry condemned boycotts of Israel in unequivocal terms. Talking about our sister party there, she said, ‘Theirs is a positive vision of how a Labor-led government can build a more peaceful, more prosperous and more progressive future both for Israel and its neighbours.’ She said this focus was ‘constant rejoinder to all those who somehow believe that opposition to the policies of an individual Israeli government can ever justify a hatred of the nation and its people, or a boycott of its products, its culture or its academics … That sort of bigotry against the Israeli nation has never been justified and it never will be.’
The strength of Thornberry’s comments was a welcome surprise – although this position is not new for our party. When Bill Rammell was the Labour government’s universities minister he was asked about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which has had support from sections of the student politics movement for some time. I remember his answer clear as day: boycotts leave the forces of peace on both sides despairing and those against peace cheering. They embolden the extremists in Palestine, the repugnant right in Israel and make dialogue more difficult.
Now, how much clout Thornberry has in shadow cabinet may be tested.
Kate Osamor, the shadow international development secretary used a five word tweet to show her support for the boycott Israel movement. This is as frustrating as it is wrong.
The fact is there is an uncomfortable focus on Israel for boycott, when many other countries that have governments with terrible records on democracy, human rights and unlawful military invasion suffer no such sanction.
Osamor should reflect on Thornberry and Rammell’s words; BDS is no route to peace. Labour’s values, as stated in Clause IV, state we build the world we want to see through the ‘strength of common endeavour’. This should be our guiding principle – bring people together to resolve their problems. ‘Solidarity, tolerance and respect’ commits Labour peace for both sides not victory for one side or the other.
There is, of course, the other side of the coin. These values apply equally to Trump’s counterintuitive pronouncements on the Israel capital, which have been condemned by progressive Zionists such as Labour Friends of Israel. Boycotts are to the left what Trump’s unilateral support for Jerusalem as the capital is to the right. They play to the gallery and the committed few but make the stated outcome – a two state solution – harder still.
Labour needs to live by its Clause IV values not pander to a militant few. Focusing on peace is the only option for an alternative government worth it’s name. Osamor has a hugely important role in shaping Labour’s foreign policy. She should shut the door on boycotts.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell