David Rose

Labour's new Palestine policy is a welcome shift from the politics of empty gestures

In government, Labour would 'lead diplomatic efforts' to ensure a lasting peace for both Israelis and Palestinians as 'a matter of priority'


Israeli settlers lift national flags during a protest by left-wing Israeli activists and Palestinians waving Palestinian flags and banners against Israeli occupation and settlement activity in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, on March 17, 2023. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

September 26, 2023 14:48

In this space a few months ago, I commented on an aspect of Labour Party policy that seemed nonsensical: its pledge, inherited from the years when it was led by Ed Miliband, followed by Jeremy Corbyn, to “recognise” a Palestinian state on “day one” of an incoming Labour government. 

There’s no need to go into detail now about why this was so daft - it glossed over local difficulties such as the schism between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank - because, thankfully, the policy has been ditched. 

A newly published Labour National Policy Forum document states: “The Labour Party will work alongside international partners to recognise the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as part of efforts to contribute to securing a negotiated two state solution.”

This still isn’t perfect. It implies that a Palestinian state might be recognised by Britain and other members of the international community before the signing of a final status peace agreement – that is to say, before a state existed on the ground as a functioning institution in any meaningful sense. Needless to say, a deal of this kind currently looks like a distant prospect, and it might be wise to point out that a future British’s government’s role in helping to secure one is unlikely to be critical: what counts are negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Nevertheless, this is a welcome change, as is the new policy document’s insistence that a future agreement must protect the safety and needs of Israelis, as well as Palestinians: both, it says, must be able to “enjoy security, dignity and human rights”. 

Overall, this is a shift from the politics of empty gestures to engagement with reality, although realising the outcome to which it aspires will inevitably be a long and arduous process.

If only the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Christian Muslim Forum, which he hosted at Lambeth Palace at an interfaith event last week, would be similarly realistic. The gathering took place just two days before the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the young woman beaten to death by Iran’s religious morality police for not wearing a hijab – the trigger for months of protests and brutal repression by the regime, which has carried out waves of arrests, torture and executions in order to preserve its stranglehold of the Iranian people.

And yet among Archbishop Justin Welby’s guests was Mohammad Ali Shomali, the head of the regime-controlled Islamic Centre of England from 2014 to19, during which period he was also the personal UK representative of Iran’s antisemitic supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Also attending the event was Mohammed Kozbar, the deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain, who praised Hamas’s founder as a “holy warrior” and met the terror group’s leaders on a visit to Gaza in 2015, as well as inviting an Egyptian preacher who had vowed to “liberate the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem of the filth of the Jews” to the Finsbury Park mosque that he runs.

But it’s Shomali’s presence that really stands out. It’s clear from his own social media posts that he is an assiduous and frequent participant in interfaith dialogue with both protestant and Catholic clerics. Yet for many years he has also been a director of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, which until his death in 2021 was run by Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the most extreme of Iran’s revolutionary leaders. 

Anticipating the murder of Mahsa Amini, Mesbah-Yazdi encouraged acid attacks on Iranian women deemed to be guilty of “improper hijab”, and advocated suicide bombings against Israel. 

According to Iran expert Kasra Aarabi, a director at the think tank and advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, he was also “the principal architect of the doctrine propagated by Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which says Israel and global Jewry must be annihilated in order to permit the return of Imam Mahdi, the 9th-century figure messianic figure whom Shia Muslims believe will reappear one day to wage an apocalyptic war against non-Muslims”.

Needless to say, Welby does not endorse such ideas in any way – although it has to be acknowledged that he posted after the last week’s event that his guests were his “friends”, and has hosted Shomali on at least two previous occasions. 

According to his spokeswoman, “when groups like this meet at events like Thursday’s it does not suggest that everyone is in full agreement on important issues, but it is a chance to explore and work through differences and build trusted relationships”.

Was she really saying that Welby desires a “trusted relationship” with a man such as Shomali, who serves at an institute founded by a man who believed that women whose hair was not sufficiently covered deserved to have acid thrown in their faces.

It that is what the Archbishop thinks, then this represents a flight from reality far more damaging than the misguided policy that Labour has now abandoned.

September 26, 2023 14:48

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