Jeremy Corbyn caused controversy on Tuesday night when he failed to mention the word “Israel” in his address to LFI’s annual party conference reception.
At the end of the Labour leader’s eight-minute speech – in which he defended the vote to recognise Palestine last October and called for the lifting of the “siege of Gaza” – Corbyn was heckled by former parliamentary candidate Michael Foster. Foster shouted: “Say the word Israel. Say the word Israel”.
Speaking to a packed room of over 500 people in Brighton at one of the largest fringe meetings of the entire conference, Corbyn eluded to his past meetings with representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, saying: “As you know, have taken an enormous interest in the affairs of the Middle East for a very long time; I’ve been nine times on visits; I’ve visited many places in the region and met many people – some I agree with, some I don’t agree with, some – I have neutral opinions on lots of things. But it’s also about dialogue and about how you bring about that long-term dialogue and that is what I want to see”.
During his speech Corbyn also recognised the plurality of opinions within the Labour party on the question of recognition of a Palestinian State, saying “I know there are people in this room that think it was premature. There were some in this room who supported it. 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. That surely has to be the right way forward.” He went on, however, to call for the “siege of Gaza, or the restrictions on Gaza” to be lifted, although made no reference to Hamas’ rocket attacks or attempts to rebuild its terror tunnels.
Corbyn also delivered a firm message against racism and antisemitism. He said: “We have to stand for equality in our society, we have to stand absolutely against racism in any form, be it Islamophobia, be it anti-Semitism, be it far-right racism. Any kind of racism or discrimination is fundamentally wrong.”
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, who also addressed the reception, stressed the need for mutual recognition as part of an eventual settlement. Benn reiterated Labour party’s commitment to support a two-state solution for two peoples, calling for “a safe and secure Israel alongside a safe and secure Palestine”. Benn also used his address to highlight the enduring nature of UK / Israel relations and called for them to be strengthened in the years ahead. He thanked LFI for its work towards achieving a two-state solution.
Speaking in response to Corbyn, Israeli Labor MK Erel Margalit said that the size, scale and level of debate at this conference was a model that Israel’s Labor party aspired to emulate. Margalit called on Corbyn “to be loud and clear in condemning Hamas, condemning Hezbollah and condemning the extreme forces in the Middle East – and support Israel and the moderate forces who are willing to fight the extremists together”. Margalit noted that, “The Palestinian Authority is an ally” and that they too “are struggling with the extreme militants of Hamas that are undermining the very chance of a peace settlement”.
Margalit’s concerns were echoed by his colleague from the Labor Party, Michal Biran MK, who also attended conference. Biran noted that moderates in the region needed the support of the Labour party. In an op-ed in the Guardian, Biran added that “Delegitimising the State of Israel is a declaration of war… against the only place in the Middle East that holds free elections.”
Also addressing the audience was Eitan Na’eh, chargé d’affaires at the embassy of Israel in the UK, who warned against efforts aiming at boycotting and delegitimising Israel that he described as an “affront to the building of bridges needed for peace”. The senior diplomat also used the opportunity to reiterate the Israeli government’s call for peace talks with the Palestinians.
LFI Parliamentary Chair Joan Ryan MP responded to Corbyn’s speech saying: “Over the coming weeks and months, we will continue to reiterate our belief that the only way to ensure a two-state solution is through direct negotiation, compromise and strengthening the voices of those committed to peace and co-existence. Boycotts, violence and the delegitimisation of Israel can, and should, play no part in that process. As Hilary Benn made clear last night, the friendship between Israel and Britain is one that will endure and it is one to which Labour remains steadfastly committed. I have written to Mr Corbyn and we seek dialogue with him. It’s essential he understands and recognises the complex realities Israel faces and that we as a party play a full role in supporting moderate Israelis and Palestinians”.
The Jewish Leadership Council said the new leader’s attendance at the LFI event was “a welcome step”. However, a Board of Deputies spokesperson said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to mention Israel by name at the event does seem bizarre and it does raise concerns. However, there is the possibility it might just have been a genuine oversight. It is certainly one of the matters we will be raising when we meet him.”
In addition to the Annual Reception, LFI organised a panel discussion on the two-state solution in partnership with BICOM. The panel discussion was chaired by Joan Ryan MP who was joined by Erel Margalit MK, James Sorene (BICOM), Mike Gapes MP and Sarah Sackman.