It’s not all that hard to say, Mr Corbyn — it’s I.S.R.A.E.L
JEREMY CORBYN’S much anticipated party conference speech to the Labour Friends of Israel group has been described as “farcical” after he refused to mention Israel by name.
The Labour leader was heckled as he ended his speech at the LFI reception during the party’s annual conference in Brighton on Tuesday night.
Michael Foster, a Labour parliamentary candidate in the May elections, shouted: “Say the word Israel, say the word Israel,” after Mr Corbyn failed to refer to either the country or LFI by name.
A senior Israel supporter in the party said Mr Corbyn’s approach to the event had been “just astonishing”.
Another Westminster-based Labour source said it had been “further proof he possesses no capacity for statesmanship. He should know the audience”.
One Labour MP said that it would have been better if Mr Corbyn had declined the invitation to speak at the event.
In his eight-minute speech, Mr Corbyn made no mention either of a two-state solution or his previous comments on Hamas and Hizbollah. He also made no reference to his previous calls for a boycott of Israel.
He had been warmly welcomed by the audience, which included supporters from Labour’s Friends of Palestine group.
Mr Corbyn said: “The issue of recognition of Palestine is something that was very important in the last Parliament — it may well come up again.”
He added , “peace, negotiation, dialogue and discussion” were “the right way forward”.
He was cheered when he said: “I hope that means the siege of Gaza, or the restrictions on Gaza, can be lifted. I hope we can make progress that way.”
Mr Corbyn said he wanted to hear all points of view on the issue and pledged to work with any group wanting peace. Referring to his
nine trips to the Middle East, he said he had visited “many places and met many people — some I agree with, some I don’t agree with. I have neutral opinions on lots of things.”
He thanked Britain’s Jewish community for “opening their hearts and opening their doors” to help refugees fleeing violence in the region.
Mr Corbyn said he had tried to set out his “passion and commitment” to fighting for human rights around the world. “That means sometimes you have to be very critical of people for their abuses of human rights. That’s why we have to stand by international conventions,” he added. He also pledged to stand against antisemitism and racism.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn thanked LFI for its work and said: “The relationship, the enduring friendship between our two countries… is one that will endure during the weeks and the months ahead, and one to which I am very strongly committed.”
WHEN JEREMY Corbyn told John McDonnell to wave to the delegates after the shadow chancellor’s keynote speech — not something frontline politicians usually need to be reminded of — it illustrated, albeit in a trivial way, that Labour is now in uncharted territory.
At its helm are two men unused to the rules, responsibilities and rituals that most of those reaching their positions will have learned as they climbed the greasy pole. Having never served on Labour’s frontbench in government or opposition, Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell lack that basic political apprenticeship.
Never was this more apparent than when the Labour leader spoke at the Labour Friends of Israel reception on Tuesday evening without once mentioning the word “Israel”.
In fairness to Mr Corbyn, it was not the first such occurrence during the conference in Brighton. He made it through a pro-Europe event — another cause for which he has little, if any, enthusiasm — without uttering the words “EU” or “campaign to stay in”.
But Mr Corbyn is not just a slightly forgetful guest. At LFI, he remembered to make reference to Palestine and Gaza — although, in what was perhaps intended as an olive branch, he acknowledged when discussing last year’s vote on Palestinian statehood that “there are people in this room that think it was premature”. And as soon as the emotive words “the siege of Gaza” had crossed his lips, he awkwardly tried to soften them, saying “or the restrictions on Gaza”.
Given some of his past fiery rhetoric and distasteful associations, his very appearance at LFI might be seen as progress. His acknowledgement that “everybody recognises the only way forward is through peace, through negotiation, through dialogue and discussion and through recognition of the rights and needs and traditions of all of the peoples of the region” was opaque and bland enough to mean everything and nothing at the same time.
Without ever being clear about where and whom he was talking about, it was only possible to judge Mr Corbyn by what he did not say: no rote reference to Israel safe and secure within its 1967 borders, no mention of a two-state solution. As David Hirsh of Goldsmiths, University of London, noted, Mr Corbyn’s remarks were a display of “studied ambivalence”.
The reality is Mr Corbyn is caught in a trap. Amazingly, given his long association with the Palestinian cause, he chose not to mention it during his first conference address as leader. Instead, he focused his remarks on the Middle East elsewhere: with a strong condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, backing for Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and opposition to military intervention in Syria, on which Labour’s shadow cabinet, let alone the parliamentary party, is deeply split.
The Labour leader wants to win the argument on Syria: for the present, Israel simply isn’t pressing enough for him to pick another damaging fight with his party’s moderate wing.
So, he stays silent: unable to bring himself to utter the measured language about a two-state solution, which — despite Ed Miliband’s condemnations of Israel over Gaza — remained Labour’s policy at the 2015 election.
It is not that Mr Corbyn has too little to say, but too much. Deep down, he no doubt wants to defend every ill-judged meeting and poorly chosen phrase of his past three decades in Parliament. But he knows that he cannot without sparking a firestorm. Instead he leaves it to shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn to restate the party’s existing, balanced position.
Mr Corbyn’s problem, however, is that the one quality both his supporters and critics will willingly grant him is his authenticity. But, to coin the party’s slogan this week, that rests on his reputation for “Straight talking. Honest politics.”
It is indisputable, too, that the huge mandate he won earlier this month was for just that type of leadership. A vote for studied ambivalence it most certainly was not.
Mr Corbyn at LFI