Shadow cabinet set for battle over Israel

November 24, 2016 23:19

When, just under a year ago, Ed Miliband attempted to whip his MPs to back unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, he was defied by one-third of his frontbenchers.

On Israel, at least, Jeremy Corbyn looks set to face a rather less rebellious shadow cabinet than his predecessor. Around Labour's top table, the number of senior figures willing to stick their necks out for the country is much reduced: some, like Ed Balls and Jim Murphy, were felled by the electorate in May, while others - such as Rachel Reeves, Ivan Lewis, Tristram Hunt, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall - have either refused to serve or been sacked by the new leader.

Of last October's rebels, only Labour Friends of Israel vice-chair Michael Dugher remains in place, although, as Shadow Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, he is well removed from the contentious foreign and national security briefs.

Nonetheless, supporters of Israel are bolstered by the arrival in the shadow cabinet of Tom Watson, the now hugely powerful deputy leader.

Mr Watson, who abstained in last October's vote and is a vice-chair of Trade Union Friends of Israel, is robustly anti-boycott. His stance was shaped by both his background in campus politics - Labour Students, in which he was a key player in the early 1990s, has long allied with the Union of Jewish Students - and his political apprenticeship at the hands of Ken Jackson, pro-Israel leader of the old AEEU union, and John Spellar, the West Midlands MP who leads Labour's right-wing traditionalists.

Alongside Mr Dugher, Mr Watson will find an ally in Luciana Berger. A former director of Labour Friends of Israel, she replaces Ivan Lewis as the only Jewish member of the shadow cabinet.

They will have powerful foes in Corbyn allies such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell - who last November was promoting a campaign in his constituency to boycott Israeli goods - and shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott, who supports an arms embargo against Israel.

The role of honest broker on Israel policy will be played by Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn. A former international development secretary, he, believes one observer, is one of the few people around the shadow cabinet table who will concern themselves with how a Corbyn-led Labour party might actually govern.

Mr Benn, who abhors gesture politics and opposes boycotts, will try to defend the status quo and avoid the development of crude anti-Israeli policy. His effort will likely draw support from other centrists such as John Healey, Vernon Coaker, Gloria De Piero and the new Shadow Health Secretary, Heidi Alexander. In May, she signed We Believe In Israel's "Fairness for Israel Charter".

The problem, however, is that with hard-left fires being lit across the party, Labour moderates will struggle to douse them all. Labour MPs will fight Mr Corbyn on Trident renewal and Britain's membership of Nato and the EU. Ejected from the shadow cabinet, the party's backbenches now have rather more vocal supporters of Israel. The problem, however, is that there may not be enough of them.

November 24, 2016 23:19

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