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Could Jeremy Corbyn really make a positive difference to the Palestinian cause? Open in fullscreen

Imogen Lambert

Could Jeremy Corbyn really make a positive difference to the Palestinian cause?

Corbyn has long supported Palestinian rights [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 December, 2017

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Jeremy Corbyn is renowned for his pro-Palestine views. But how does this translate into Labour policy and will it have any real effect on the greater Palestinian cause?
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has long gained a reputation for being staunchly pro-Palestine. Corbyn is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign group, he has called for an end to "apartheid in Israel", and recently refused to celebrate the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Many have hoped that his surprise ascent to power could mean a radical change in UK policy towards Palestine. 

The response to a tweet last week from Kate Osomar - a member of the Shadow Cabinet - where she appeared to endorse Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) pro-Palestine activist group, indicates that the party has not become as radically pro-Palestine as one might have expected

In the tweet she said BDS works to "end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians", which led Jeremy Corbyn's spokesperson to swiftly put out a statement saying that the leader did not support the activist group's policy and he was happy to buy goods from Israel.

His statement came after a slew of praise for the Israeli Labor Party from his Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry.

"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.

Avi Gabby, the chair of Israel's Labor Party, recently refused to even discuss the removal of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, saying that "Arabs have to be afraid of us".

Nevertheless Thornberry described the party as "a 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, or a denial of its right to defend itself from military assault and terror attacks".

Where being a "leftist" has become a signifier for being "pro-Palestine" - and vice versa - many imagine the reinvigorated Labour movement to be a welcome alternative to the perceived Israel-sympathetic Conservative Party and centrists in Labour, who left-wing critics continue to associate with Tony Blair and his disastrous record in the Middle East. 

Yet Thornberry's statement suggests how little Labour may diverge from a long history of vaguely supporting a negotiated end to the "conflict" between Israelis and Palestinians.
Where being a "leftist" has become a signifier for being "pro-Palestine" - and vice versa - many imagine the reinvigorated Labour movement to be a welcome alternative to the perceived Israel-sympathetic Conservative Party.

Additionally, despite the vocal support for Palestine from sections of the Labour Party, it is worth noting that atrocities committed against Palestinians have actually been frequently condemned  on all sides.

Even David Cameron called Gaza a "prison camp" and a Liberal Democrat MP once said if he was in Gaza he would fire a rocket at Israel. During the 2014 Gaza war, multiple politicians from all stripes repeatedly condemned Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

There has appeared to be a growing consensus over the years of acknowledging Israel's crimes against Palestinians and support for a Palestinian state, in one form or another. Nearly half the British public think the UK should review its financial relationship with illegal Israeli settlements, and there was little difference when the polling is broken down along party lines. 

However, these condemnations from both political leaders and the general public worldwide have done little to subdue Israel's expansionism, which thrives on a narrative of continual persecution and victimhood. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to worsen for Palestinians and settlement building continues.

Therefore, despite Corbyn's reputation as a supporter of the Palestinian cause - shared by many in the Labour Party - if their discourse, echoed by many others, is not matched by action, or any concrete policies - such as endorsing BDS - then what hope can Corbyn bring to the Palestinian cause?  What difference could Labour make? 

Although Corbyn supports targeted action against illegal settlements, we have still not seen concrete proposals from him as Labour leader. And these are especially important questions as Corbyn has attracted support due to his stance on Palestine. This solidarity that - as many have commented on - does not extend to Syria, where he has repeatedly denied the agency of revolutionary Syrians, and has failed to condemn Russian and Iranian imperialism there, in the same way he condemns Israeli oppression.
Although Corbyn supports targeted action against illegal settlements, we have still not seen concrete proposals from him as Labour leader.

But can we brush over these short-comings in other areas of foreign policy due to Corbyn's stance on Palestine?  Many - arguing that these international struggles are inseparable - would say no. But if Corbyn is unable to do as little for Palestinians as he is unwilling to do for Syrians then the question becomes irrelevant anyway. 

These issues pose a larger existential problem for the international solidarity movement, who have spent decades attempting to change policies of their respective governments and leaders. If Corbyn - probably the most vocal supporter of Palestine to ever hold such a prominent political position in the UK - remains obliged to largely maintain the status quo, then how fruitful are these efforts?

Recognising some of these obstacles, Palestine solidarity groups are becoming less centralised and are carrying out "direct action" in an attempt to keep up the momentum of solidarity for Palestine, rather than the traditional methods of writing to MPs and drumming up political support.

Where Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration and enthusiastic support for settlement building has sent the international dimension of the cause back decades, we might start to see that simply international support for the "status quo" - a politically negotiated two-state solution - may seem comparatively progressive.  

In this deteriorating context, prominent politicians worldwide willing to stand up for Palestinian rights becomes all the more important. 

But of course, ultimately the primary hope for Palestine remains with Palestinians themselves who never cease the fight against occupation. And compared to this struggle, the significance of international solidarity movements and sympathetic politicians, will pale in comparison. 

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