Rt Hon Joan Ryan MP
Speech to LFI Annual Lunch 17th November 2015
Chief Rabbi, Deputy Ambassador, friends.
I want to begin today by thanking you all for being here.
The responsibility of supporters of Israel in the Labour Party has become even more important since we last met in June 2014.
LFI’s work is more vital than ever, and your support and generosity makes that work possible.
I want to thank in particular Sir David Garrard and Isaac Kaye, our long-standing lunch sponsors.
I also want to thank all of my parliamentary colleagues who have joined us. In particular:
LFI’s vice-chairs: not just for being here today, but for the ongoing support and commitment you show to our cause.
And Hilary Benn, our Shadow Foreign Secretary and guest of honour today, and Diana Johnson, our new shadow Middle East minister.
Finally, can I pay tribute to my predecessor as LFI Chair, Anne McGuire. Anne and I entered parliament together in 1997 and, a year later, we went on our first LFI delegation to Israel. I’m very proud this summer to have taken up the baton from Anne. Her combination of steel, hard work and tact served LFI well over the past two years.
The past six weeks have seen terror return to the streets of Israel. On behalf of all of us, I would like to ask the deputy ambassador to convey our support and solidarity with the people of Israel at this most difficult time.
The injuries and loss of life among both Israelis and Palestinians are heart-breaking.
The causes of the conflict are complex and we should always avoid seeing things in black and white.
But let us be clear about two things:
First, there is no justification whatsoever for the violence we have seen in recent weeks.
Second, I don’t believe it’s natural for any 13 year-old to take up a knife and stab another 13 year-old as they ride their bikes.
I do not excuse them of responsibility.
But those who spread anti-Semitic propaganda, which incites violence and hatred against the Israeli people, and those who refuse to condemn it as it poisons impressionable young minds, I think they bear responsibility, too.
And they must be held to account. Which is why I wrote to the Prime Minister last month urgently asking the government to take up the issue of incitement with the Palestinian Authority.
This month saw the anniversary of the tragic murder of Yitzak Rabin.
As Isaac Herzog reminds us in his message to our lunch, Rabin reacted to the terrorism which accompanied his efforts to make peace in the early 1990s by saying:
“We have to fight terror as if there were no peace talks, and we have to pursue peace as if there were no terror.”
Rabin died a warrior for peace.
Our role is to act as ambassadors for peace.
Our goal is that of our comrades in the Israeli Labor Party: a solution which sees the mutual recognition of the rights of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples to self-determination, each in a state of their own.
Outsiders cannot, of course, impose peace. Peace will only come from Israelis and Palestinians sitting down together, negotiating hard, and making painful concessions.
Our task is to help support the prerequisites for peace: the stepping stones towards a just and lasting settlement.
To do that, at the forefronts of our minds must always be the question: by our actions and our words, who are we empowering?
Are we assisting those who strive for peace, promote co-existence and seek reconciliation
Or are we strengthening those of violence, those who foster division and reject compromise?
That is why I believe that we must give no comfort to terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah: groups which remain committed to the destruction of Israel, and which undermine daily those on the Palestinian side who seek to make peace.
That is why I believe we must proceed with the utmost caution with regard to Iran: whose expansionist regime funds terrorism, promotes instability and whose Supreme Leader, just two months ago, said that Israel would cease to exist in 25 years.
And that is why I believe that the campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions is not only wrong in principle, but also does nothing to serve the cause it claims to advance.
Wrong in principle, because it singles out Israel for discrimination and delegitimisation.
Wrong in its effects, because it strengthens those Palestinians who believe they have no need to negotiate and compromise.
And reinforces the view of those Israelis who believe the whole world is against them and that they should turn their backs upon it.
But, as progressives, we must do more than say what we are against. We must also provide an alternative.
So this is the challenge that now falls to all Labour friends of Israel.
First, we must be candid friends. Where we disagree with Israeli governments, we must be frank and honest about it. We do not support settlement-building and, as I said to Benjamin Netanyahu when parliamentarians met him during his recent visit, we believe a settlement freeze could be one important element in helping to restart negotiations.
Second, as Labour Friends of Israel, the responsibility to make the progressive case for Israel falls to us.
LFI’s former Chair, David Cairns, was not only one of the kindest, but also one of the wisest, people I have had the privilege to call a friend. In the speech he was due to give on the day he fell ill, he wrote:
“We will never find a just and lasting agreement if we forget or overlook the fact that Israel is the only regional exemplar not just of democracy but of social democracy.”
So, as David urged us, let us remind people of the progressive case for Israel: a state where:
women enjoy equality;
the LGBT community flourishes;
the media is unfettered and critical;
an independent judiciary protects the powerless from the powerful;
trade unions are well organised and strong;
a welfare state supports the poor; and
educational excellence and scientific innovation are praised and pursued.
Finally, we must give those in this country who are dismayed by the lack of peace a constructive, positive channel for their activism.
Instead of boycotts which drive Palestinians and Israelis apart, we must be advocates for all that can bring them together.
So let’s go out there into our trade unions, and urge them to line up behind all those trade unionists in Israel and Palestine who work together day in, day out striving for peace and social justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Let’s persuade businesses to invest in start-ups which link young entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv and the growing Ramallah tech scene.
Let’s see British towns and cities twin with towns and cities in Palestine and Israel, bringing mixed groups of young people together from both parts to visit and spend time with young people in this country.
And let’s stand side by side with those academics, students, artists, musicians, actors and poets who understand that education and culture should cross borders, break down barriers, and help people to recognise their common humanity.
The challenge before us is undoubtedly a big challenge.
But, looking out across the people in this room, I think it is one that, together, we can meet.