Labour’s performance in the general election was better than many had expected. That clearly presents a huge challenge to Theresa May, but that should not detract from the problems which Labour still has to confront.
The party secured some stunning victories on Thursday and the parliamentary party has been buttressed by some excellent new talent. Nonetheless, Labour still suffered its third successive general election defeat. If this government remains in office until the end of the parliamentary term, we will have been out of office for 12 years – nearly as long as the 13 years the Tories spent in the political wilderness after 1997 or the 13 years Labour was in opposition after 1951. We cannot and should not be satisfied by such a situation.
The test for Labour now is to move from a highly successful party of protest to a credible party of government.
Our approach towards Israel will be a vital test of whether we can make that transition.
Nobody denies the energy and enthusiasm Jeremy Corbyn displayed on the campaign trail nor the response that engendered, particularly among many young people. The ability to convince and mobilise is an essential one for an aspiring Prime Minister; so, too, is the capacity to represent Britain on the international stage.
UK foreign policy has supported a two-state solution – with Israel safe and secure behind internationally recognised borders alongside a viable, democratic and independent Palestinian state – for the past two decades.This policy – upon which there is a long-standing bipartisan consensus – was endorsed in the manifesto upon Labour fought the election.
It is now time for Mr Corbyn – who has a well-documented and long-standing involvement with anti-Israel activism – to show that, as Prime Minister, he could actually advance this vital cause. To do so, he must be seen as a friend of both sides, sensitive to and aware of the concerns and aspirations of each. He now needs to work urgently to ensure his past actions and associations do not remain a barrier to him being seen as such.
Mr Corbyn remains – alongside Baroness Jenny Tonge – a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; an organisation which appears not to accept Israel’s right to exist. He should reconsider his links with it. No Israeli government will see a British Prime Minister associated with such an organisation as any kind of honest broker.
Mr Corbyn has failed to address adequately the problem of anti-Zionist antisemitism within Labour’s ranks and the deep feelings of hurt and anger that this has caused within the Jewish community. A powerful statement by Labour’s leader on this issue – one that condemns all and any attempts to demonise and delegitimise Israel and thus deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination – would help to turn the page on this highly unfortunate episode. It would also demonstrate one of the most important qualities of a Prime Minister: the ability to bring people together and to call out and tackle unacceptable behaviour, even among their own political supporters.
Mr Corbyn has described Hamas as “friends”. He has also praised their dedication to “the good of the Palestinian people” and to “long-term peace and social justice”. In reality, Hamas is an anti-Semitic terror groupwhich refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist and abuses the human rights of the Palestinians who live under its brutal rule. Mr Corbyn should make clear that, until it abandons violence and accepts Israel’s right to exist, Hamas can play no part in any peace process. This was the policy of the British government towards the PLO; a policy which helped drive them to the negotiating table and the Oslo Accords.
Mr Corbyn has repeatedly defended his meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah on the basis that he wishes to help advance the cause of peace by meeting people from all sides. There is little evidence, however, of his willingness to interact with Israelis with whom he disagrees. Indeed, he even repeatedly turned down requests last year from the Israeli Labor party to visit Israel. So, as a sign of a fresh start, I would urge Mr Corbyn to begin by finding time to sit down with representatives of Labour’s sister party.
During the general election we discovered that he travelled to Tunis in 2014 to take part in ceremonies marking Israel’s bombing of the PLO’s headquarters there in 1985 – an event precipitated by a terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Cyprus. This revelation makes Mr Corbyn’s refusal to visit Yad Vashem last year even more hurtful. Making a visit to Israel’s Holocaust museum one of his first foreign visits after the election would recognise that hurt and indicate a new sensitivity by Mr Corbyn to the Jewish community both here at home and in Israel.
These acts are, of course, symbolic, but they underline an important point: the need for Labour’s leader to show that, as Prime Minister, he will work with and encourage the peacemakers on both sides, not give succor to those who would perpetuate violence and terror.
Joan Ryan is Labour's MP for Enfield North, and chair of Labour Friends of Israel