AnalysisIn a Starmer campaign video, a huge Palestinian flag is seen

New Labour boss is no Corbyn, but unlikely to reverse party’s anti-Israel stance

Keir Starmer expected to avoid internal debates on Middle East as much as possible; his foreign policy chief, by contrast, is known as a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Newly-elected Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, April 5, 2020 (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)
Newly-elected Labour Party leader Keir Starmer arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, April 5, 2020 (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

Keir Starmer, the new head of the British Labour Party, is expected to establish a much warmer relationship not only with local Jews but also with the Jewish state. As opposed to his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who was viciously critical of Israel, Her Majesty’s incoming leader of the opposition is said to be generally well-disposed toward the country.

However, Starmer, 57, is unlikely to undo the anti-Israel policies his party adopted during the Corbyn era, several Jewish community sources familiar with Labour politics told The Times of Israel this week.

In September, the Labour conference overwhelmingly endorsed calls for the immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood and a freeze of UK arms sales to Israel. One resolution passed urged the party to “adhere to an ethical policy on all UK’s trade with Israel, in particular by applying international law on settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” which some interpreted as a tacit call for a boycott of products made in West Bank settlements.

As opposed to Corbyn, Starmer, whose wife Victoria Alexander is Jewish and has family members in Tel Aviv, has no history of public statements on the Middle East conflict. He is not expected to spend much energy on this area, people familiar with his career estimated, and exceedingly unlikely to get into fights with his political base over efforts to remove calls for Palestinian statehood or arms embargoes from Labour’s agenda.

“He supports a two-state solution, and like almost all politicians from the center-left he has a soft spot for the underdog, which in the context of the Middle East conflict often means the Palestinians,” one source said. “There is no doubt that he is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than to the Israeli position.”

Like all Jewish communal sources interviewed for this article, he was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was hoping to forge a positive relationship with Starmer in the weeks ahead.

Delegates at the Labour Party’s conference in Liverpool hold up Palestinian flags during a debate on September 25, 2018, as leader Jeremy Corbyn looks on from the podium. (AFP Photo/Oli Scarff)

In one of Starmer’s campaign videos, a huge Palestinian flag can be seen as the narrator talks about promoting “peace and justice around the world with a human rights based foreign policy.”

“I am pretty sure this wasn’t entirely coincidental,” a member of Britain’s Jewish leadership said.

The new leader of the opposition — a former director of state prosecutions — places great importance on human rights and the rule of law, and this will likely be reflected in his foreign policy, including in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to several analysts.

Within the UK’s center-left, Starmer, who is a member of the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, can be placed somewhere in the middle, between the pro-Israel camp and the anti-Israel camp, several people interviewed for this article said.

“It’s clear that he’s no Corbyn. But he is definitely closer to Ed Miliband [who headed Labour between 2010 and 2015] than to Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” one source said.

Blair and Brown — the last two Labour prime ministers — were considered very sympathetic to Israel.

Britain’s opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, passes a glass of water to Keir Starmer Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union as they wait to speak during their election campaign event on Brexit in Harlow, England, November 5, 2019 (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

As soon as he was elected to replace Corbyn on Saturday, Starmer, who represents London’s Holborn and St Pancras areas in parliament, began making overt efforts to repair Labour’s reputation among Britain’s Jews, apologizing for virulent anti-Semitism in the party and vowing to root it out. Fighting Jew hatred in Labour is likely to remain one of his key priorities for the coming months, analysts said.

“Once the coronavirus pandemic is over and members of staff can return to work, I will be closing the Labour Party’s offices for a day and inviting representatives of the Jewish community to come in and facilitate a day’s training on anti-Semitism,” he wrote in an editorial published in the Jewish Chronicle on Tuesday.

“I will leave no stone left unturned in the fight against anti-Semitism. That is my promise to the Jewish community,” he vowed.

It isn’t realistic to expect the reversal of the policy changes Corbyn brought in of settlement boycotts and an arms embargo

His early and full-throated declaration of war against anti-Semitism does not mean that he will invest the same energies in reversing some of the Israel-critical policies his party recently adopted, however.

“Whilst all this is likely to be cause for comfort for those of us who care about anti-Semitism, those of us who support Israel shouldn’t expect dramatic shifts in party policy, and a return to the heyday of the Labour leadership’s warmth towards Israel shown by Blair and Brown,” Luke Akehurst, a former member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, wrote in Fathom magazine.

“It isn’t realistic to expect the reversal of the policy changes Corbyn brought in of settlement boycotts and an arms embargo, because Starmer will have other policy priorities; won’t be looking for confrontation on foreign policy at party conferences as he will want to emphasise unity and carry the left-wing of his own support base with him; and won’t have the votes to win any fights on these issues,” he went on.

“But we can expect a return to some kind of normality in terms of Labour’s relationship with Israel, and with the fragmented remains of Labour’s sister parties there.”

Several people interviewed for this article said it was likely that Starmer — who said he considers himself a Zionist, in the sense that he “believes in the state of Israel” — would make the Jewish state one of his first foreign destinations, once the coronavirus-related travel restrictions are lifted. “He wants to visit Yad Vashem and meet with center-left politicians in Israel,” one source said.

The shadow foreign minister

While Israeli politicians, including Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Labor chief Amir Peretz, as well British friends of the Jewish state, welcomed Starmer’s election, some voiced concern over his pick for foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy.

Candidates for leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, with from right, Emily Thornberry, Lisa Nandy, Jim McMahon who is attending in place for candidate Kier Starmer, and Rebecca Long-Bailey, during the Labour leadership hustings in Nottingham, England, Saturday Feb. 8, 2020. (Jacob King/PA via AP)

Nandy, who last year also called herself Zionist because she backs the Jewish people’s “right to national self-determination,” is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause.

“She could be more than problematic for Israel,” one source said.

In December 2018, upon assuming the chairmanship of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, Nandy vowed to oppose the “blockade of Gaza and the illegal occupation” of Palestine, criticized British arm sales to Israel and appeared to endorse the so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees that left Israel after its creation in 1948.

Earlier this year, she reaffirmed these and other anti-Israel positions, publicly backing a policy statement issued by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Her association with this organization, which critics consider extremely unfair in its criticism of Israel, was criticized by supporters of the Jewish state, including within her own party, who argued that a Palestinian right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state and thus incompatible with the two-state solution.

Hesitant to wade into the Mideast controversy himself, Starmer may want his foreign policy chief to take the lead on this issue, according to a prominent British Jew who has long known the Labour chief.

“Starmer will always take a balanced and appropriate view for a person in his position,” he said. “If he’ll be prime minister in a few years, he would not recognize a Palestinian state. But he may have a foreign secretary who does.”

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