Below is a speech I gave today about the Israel-Palestine conflict to pro-peace Jewish student activists.
Wes Streeting MP
‘Avoiding the Path of Least Resistance:
Standing Our Ground on the Territory Where Peace Can be Built’
Speech to the Yachad Student Conference
Golders Green, London
12th September 2019
[Check Against Delivery]
I’m very proud to be here today addressing a Yachad audience.
Like Yachad, I believe in Israel’s right not just to exist, but to flourish; I stand against those who seek to defame it; and I support Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution.
Like Yachad, I believe the two-state solution is in peril and worry of the consequences for the hopes, dreams and ambitions of the Israeli and Palestinian people I have come to know.
Like Yachad, through my work in Parliament I have not chosen the path of least resistance. We sometimes find ourselves attacked from both sides. But in a world that’s becoming increasingly populist and polarised it is even more vital that there are those of us prepared to stand our ground on the territory where peace can be built if political leaders can find the courage to do so.
Given this is a student conference, it seems appropriate to start where my interest in this conflict began: the student movement.
When I went up to Cambridge University I knew next to nothing about Israel or Palestine. My first experience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came with a motion to my students’ union council put forward by a member of the Socialist Workers Party, proposing an academic boycott of Israel.
I was instinctively opposed. As a point of principle, academic boycotts seemed to me to be antithetical to the entire notion of the academy. In practice, the idea was repulsive. Would it mean the expulsion of Israeli academics from our universities? Or Israeli students? Would it mean an end to research collaboration between academics? Or programmes bringing together Israelis and Palestinians on British campuses? The motion was defeated, but it was part of a much wider campaign being waged across universities.
My second was the following year when, as students’ union president, I received a phone call in the middle of the night from a member of my executive who was in floods of tears. He’d heard the news that rockets were raining down on Haifa, near where his parents lived. He wasn’t able to reach them and he feared for their safety. In the end it transpired that they were safe and well, but it was a powerful and personal insight into the pain that the conflict inflicts on Israeli families.
But it was the NUS conference of 2005, which opened my eyes to the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. I was standing for election to the NUS National Executive that year, which turned out to be the worst year for Labour Students at NUS since the organisation was founded. Our Labour Government had voted to increase tuition fees to £3,000, which made us pretty unpopular, but NUS conference that year was mired in controversy over leaflets that had been handed out by the General Union of Palestinian Students about Zionism, which was full of classic antisemitic tropes – from reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the claim that Lenin was Jewish. The failure of the organisation to properly respond to the concerns of the Union of Jewish Students led to the resignation of three Jewish officials including a woman on the NUS National Executive Committee called Luciana Berger.
Those were formative years for me. Through those events and the work I went on to do with the Union of Jewish Students – both on tackling antisemitism on campuses and leading the campaign against academic boycotts – I learned a great deal about Israel and Palestine, about modern antisemitism and how it manifests itself on the left. Little did I appreciate then how important those lessons would prove to be for the work I do today.
I first visited Israel in 2005 with UJS, as part of their Young Political Leaders Programme. It was in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, which still loomed heavily in the psyche of the people we met. Though we were not able to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to their credit the organisers put together a programme that gave us the chance to meet a wide range of people – Israelis, Palestinians, academics, politicians, students, families on both sides who had lost loved ones in the conflict.
My abiding memory of that visit was being struck by the complexity of the people, the place, the history and the conflict. It was a far cry from the simplicity of the slogans and the placards appearing on the campuses of British universities denouncing Israel as Apartheid, as a simple case of the oppressor versus the oppressed, and as Western Imperialism. Most powerfully, I remember meeting the Parents Circle Family Forum and wondering how it was that Israelis and Palestinians with cause to hate one another were able to sit together, united in grief and determined to pursue peace and reconciliation, while debates on British campuses were too often dominated by an ugly, disrespectful and often ill-informed discourse, usually from hard left groups more interested in selling their newspapers than bringing about peace.
I was also struck by a glimmer of hope given to me by a Palestinian opinion pollster – I hope I have clung to ever since – that a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians shared a belief that a two-state solution, a State of Israel alongside a State of Palestine, was the means to end this seemingly intractable conflict.
I believed then, as I believe now, that Israel has a right to exist, to flourish and to defend itself. That Jewish people have a right to self-determination in the same way as everyone else. That Israel should be held to the same standards on the international stage that we would hold ourselves, or any other democratic country.
Israel is among our most important friends and allies. It is a young country with ancient roots. Its achievements, particularly in science, technology and education are remarkable.
I have friends in Israel and I am a friend of Israel.
My first visit to Palestine, or the Occupied Palestinian Territories, came shortly after my election as a Member of Parliament. In February 2016 I visited the West Bank on a delegation of Labour MPs with Medical Aid for Palestinians and CAABU.
It was not such a happy visit. The realities of the ongoing occupation by Israel are grim. I visited an Israeli Military Court which could barely be described as justice. I visited a Bedouin village, Khan al-Ahmar, which was threatened with demolition and forced relocation and saw the impact this is having on the school and community there. Since my first visit to Israel in 2005, the pace of Israeli settlement expansion has left the map of the West Bank resembling Swiss cheese. We weren’t able to enter Gaza, because it is deemed too unsafe for visiting parliamentarians, but the conditions there constitute a humanitarian crisis. The work of international aid agencies are a sticking plaster and insufficient to deal with the scale of the senseless suffering.
The end of the occupation will only come about through peace talks, negotiation and compromise. But in the meantime, Israel has responsibilities under international law as the occupying power. The threats to Israeli security, from rocket attacks, knife attacks and incitement to violence against Israelis, cannot be justified – nor can they be used to justify the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements, the needless demolition of Palestinian homes or the treatment of Palestinian people, particularly children, through the military court system.
Good friends of Israel are honest friends. The Israeli occupation isn’t simply an intolerable infringement on Palestinian human rights, but a threat to the very principles upon which the State of Israel was founded. And in a week where the Prime Minister has stated his intention to annex large parts of the West Bank if he emerges victorious in the election, Israelis and their friends should ask where the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu will lead.
Israel is justifiably proud of being a democracy, with an independent judiciary, equal civil rights, a free press and a vibrant civil society. But those principles are being slowly eroded by the Israeli right through measures like the Nation State Law and attacks on human rights organisations like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. They strike at the heart of Israel’s democratic character and the social democratic principles upon which the state was founded. As I told the Deputy Ambassador, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should regard these organisations as an asset to their work, not a hindrance; because however much the Israeli Government might find the criticism levelled by these NGOs on the international stage uncomfortable, they’re also an advertisement for a country that is democratic and pluralist. Clamping down on human rights activists is something we might expect from Israel’s neighbours, not the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’.
Let’s consider further, where the death of the two-state solution might lead. A one-state solution means the death of Israel as a democracy or as a Jewish State. Demography means that the Arab population will quickly outstrip the Jewish population. Already we’ve seen the unedifying spectacle of Netanyahu claim that Israel is “not a state for all its citizens” and President Rivlin warning that attempts to legalise illegal settlements on Palestinian territory will make Israel look like an Apartheid State.
I have never described Israel as an Apartheid State, because it is inaccurate and the status of the occupation affords Palestinians rights under international law and keeps the prospect of the Palestinian state that was promised alive. But it is hard to see how a One State Solution doesn’t end in two systems, violence and bloodshed.
So my criticism of the policies of the Israeli right are made in defence of Israel as a democratic, inclusive, pluralist Jewish State.
And my criticism isn’t limited to the Israeli Government. I don’t intend to dwell on the past this afternoon. We could spend hours debating how we got to this point, the many missed opportunities, the failure of political leadership and who is to blame. Sufficed to say Israelis and Palestinians have poor political leadership in common and there is plenty of blame to go around. In a week when sirens have sounded across Southern Israel, the presence of Israel’s missile defence system doesn’t make rocket fire from Gaza any more tolerable or excusable. The violence perpetrated against Israel – the rockets, the knife attacks, the tunnels – with the backing of Israel’s regional enemies is a threat to its citizens that no government could or should tolerate. We have seen too often the double standards applied to Israel that are not applied to any other country in the world. We would never tolerate such attacks on our citizens and we cannot expect the Israelis to tolerate such attacks either.
It is hard to see a lasting peace with the Palestinians that doesn’t involve talks with Hamas, but it is also impossible to build a lasting peace so long as Hamas has the destruction of Israel and antisemitic hatred burned into its charter.
These are difficult, challenging and complicated issues, so I remain dismayed by the quality of debate in this country that sees one of the most intractable conflicts in the world reduced to simple slogans and, worse still, a debate in which people pick sides as if they were picking a football team.
Sadly, this trend isn’t limited to student politics.
When it was announced that I would be speaking at your conference today, the Likud Herut UK twitter account said:
‘Israel bashers enlist the support of Israel bashers. Or to put it another way – [Breaking the Silence], [Yachad] [Wes Streeting] birds of a feather and what an ugly flock they are.’
When I called out AirBnB for posting listings in illegal settlements, I was denounced as a ‘..fraud. More like Corbyn-lite’ – a charge I am quite unaccustomed to!
When I said that the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar should result in targeted sanctions against settlements, because settlement expansion in Area E would be a death knell for the two state solution, I was told I had ‘joined the ranks of BDS’ and had ‘faux campaigned against antisemitism’.
Sadly, such criticism wasn’t levelled from anonymous cranks, but mainstream figures. When I chaired a Labour Friends of Palestine meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the Jewish Chronicle wrote that it was incompatible with my position as chair of the APPG on British Jews – a charge they later withdrew, presumably because they realised that such a baseless claim was a gift to those who claim that antisemitism is used as a false flag to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.
I’m afraid this is all at the milder end of the criticism I receive that’s related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much of it comes from people who claim to be pro-Palestinian, but whose actions – and often racism – deeply undermine the Palestinian cause. Just this week I have been described as a ‘Zionist backstabber’. In the past I’ve been accused of being a ‘Zionist shill’, asked ‘how many shekels are you paid by the Israeli government?’ and accused of mounting a ‘witch hunt’ and ‘zionist smears’ in relation to my work combating antisemitism in the Labour Party. What I receive is nothing compared with the abused directed as Jewish women in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Which brings me onto a painful topic: the cesspit of antisemitism within the Labour Party. Antisemitism on the left has been a historic problem. Antisemitic conspiracy theories about powerful, wealthy elites exerting influence on our politics have long-corrupted the far left. And they are taking hold, not just with those who perpetrate them – knowingly or unwittingly – but with those who see them, hear them, read them, but do not recognise them as antisemitic.
Antisemitism on the left and within the pro-Palestinian movement isn’t just abohorrent on its own terms, it actively undermines the Palestinian cause. Criticising Israel isn’t antisemitic, but too often the language, imagery and tactics are. And while there are many decent people motivated by human rights and a desire for peace, including all of us here in this room, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a global movement that seeks to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel.
As I have tried to show with my own work in Parliament, it is perfectly possible – and I would argue necessary – to criticise the Israeli government and to do so without being a massive racist.
Our failure to tackle antisemitism within the Labour Party doesn’t just strike at the heart of who we are and what we stand for as a political party or just undermine our standing with the voters, it also undermines our credibility on the international stage.
The UK has a historic responsibility towards the Palestinians. Our country, indeed my Party, played a central role in the creation of the State of Israel, but the State of Palestine remains an unfulfilled promise. But a future Labour Government will not be able to play the role it needs to play unless it has credibility with both sides. Our credibility with the Israelis – including the progressive left and the peace movement – is just one of many casualties of our failure to tackle antisemitism within our ranks.
It can sometimes be tempting just to walk away from this debate altogether. As a backbench opposition MP I sometimes have to remind some of my constituents, who often write to me with strongly held views on both sides, that there is only so much that I can do. It can bring untold grief, not least from pro-Israel rightwingers, who imply that my interest in this conflict is some swivel-eyed obsession with the world’s only Jewish state, ignoring both my criticism of a wide range of countries – including our own – on human rights grounds and the fact that my interest in this conflict was sparked by leading the fight against campus boycotts!
But I have no intention of walking away. I have friends in Israel and Palestine. I have seen the fear in the eyes of friends who have run with their toddlers to shelter from rockets and the tears in the eyes of the teacher who fears her school will be demolished. I have also seen the hope and possibility of peace in the majority who still believe that peace can be won and those who already sit down together to discuss how it might be built.
So I use my platform as best as I can by holding our Government to account to play a positive and constructive role in bringing about peace, by meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and representatives, by amplifying the voices and achievements of pro-peace activists and organisations and by trying to promote a better, more constructive and anti-racist discourse here at home.
This is not the path of least resistance, but it is the ground where peace can be built and it is up to your generation and mine to make sure it happens.