The embattled head of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, expressed regret Monday for calling Islamist terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas his “friends” and rejected former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s remarks that Hitler at one time supported Zionism, but stood firm in his insistence that his party did not foster anti-Semitism.
The British Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee grilled Corbyn on anti-Semitism in Labour, amid growing, unrelated calls for the party leader to step down following his alleged lackluster support for Britain to remain in the European Union.
Corbyn, who was elected party leader in September, previously referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as his “friends,” and had hitherto declined to walk back the remarks. He has repeatedly denied his party has “an anti-Semitism problem,” despite a string of suspensions of party members in recent months over anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments.
“The language I used at that meeting was actually here in Parliament, and it was about encouraging the meeting to go ahead, encouraging there to be a discussion about the peace process,” Corbyn told the committee about his remarks on Hezbollah and Hamas. “It was inclusive language I used, which with hindsight I would rather not have used… I regret using those words.”
He said Hezbollah and Hamas “never were” his friends.
He also called Livingstone’s claim that Hitler supported Zionism for a while “wholly unacceptable and wrong.” Livingstone, a close ally of Corbyn’s, has repeatedly refused to walk back that claim.
Corbyn came under fire last Thursday for appearing to compare Israel to the Islamic State in his own speech in response to the release of the anti-Semitism report.
“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organizations,” he said then, drawing furious responses from Israeli lawmakers.
Corbyn denied that his speech was directly comparing Israel to the Islamic State. Israel’s opposition Labor leader Isaac Herzog, writing in English on Twitter, called the comparison “outrageous, unacceptable and a betrayal of global Labor values.”
He added: “Corbyn represents a position of consistent hatred of Israel.”
Corbyn's suggestion of moral equivalence between Israel and ISIS is outrageous, unacceptable, and a betrayal of global Labour values>>
— יצחק הרצוג (@HerzogMK) June 30, 2016
Corbyn's views represent a consistent hatred of Israel. Like the notorious Ernest Bevin failed, so too will Jeremy Corbyn.
— יצחק הרצוג (@HerzogMK) June 30, 2016
The recent Labour Party report on anti-Semitism made it clear that it wasn’t “overrun by racism,” Corbyn said in defense of his party at Monday’s hearing, insisting that Labour has been at the forefront of all of Britain’s anti-racism laws.
The committee chairman, Labour MP Keith Vaz, expressed concerns that Corbyn was “fostering a period in the party where anti-Semitism exists,” to which the party leader replied that the accusation was “deeply unfair and deeply wrong.”
“It’s absolutely the last thing I want to do,” he said.
“A long time ago there were sometimes anti-Semitic remarks made, when I first joined the party and later on,” Corbyn said. “In recent years, no, and in my constituency not at all.
“I received the reports and thought the best thing to do was set up the inquiry.”
Last week, at the presentation of the findings of an internal Labour anti-Semitism inquiry, Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth stormed out of the event after a Corbyn supporter flung an anti-Semitic slur at her.
Before his election as UK Labour Party leader, then far-left backbencher Corbyn pressed for a boycott of Israel and called on the British foreign secretary at the time to ban Israeli politicians from entering the country, letters from 2010-2015 released last month show.
“Israel’s current actions and victimization of the people of East Jerusalem is an abomination that is totally illegal,” he wrote at the time. “Surely the only logical way forward here is to take concrete action to penalize Israel via the most obvious method.”
On Monday, Corbyn responded to inquiries as to whether he thinks the State of Israel has the right to exist by saying that he and his party back a two-state solution.
Corbyn is currently facing off against his own MPs, who last week overwhelmingly passed a no confidence motion against him, and is refusing to step down as leader.