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What impact would a Corbyn win have on Israel?

  • Paula
The British Labour Party’s recently released election manifesto promises that should its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, win this week, it would immediately suspend the sale of arms to Israel that are “used in violation of the human rights of Palestinian civilians”. It also promises to immediately recognise a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution in which a secure Israel would exist alongside a secure and viable Palestine.
by PAULA SLIER | Dec 12, 2019

Naturally, Palestinians have welcomed the announcement. But Israeli leaders are keeping mum. Only the country’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, when pressed in a recent Israel Army radio interview, admitted that the Israeli government had not discussed the election or the future of intelligence and security ties with the United Kingdom (UK) should Corbyn, the veteran pro-Palestinian campaigner, become its leader. The Labour leader is accused of harbouring anti-Semitic views and embracing Israel’s enemies.

Katz said, “I won’t meddle in internal elections but I personally hope that he won’t be elected, with this whole wave of anti-Semitism ... I hope the other side wins.”

Katz played down the prospect that Israeli security relations with the UK – that include intelligence sharing over Islamist militant activity – would necessarily be downgraded if Corbyn took office.

“Leaders don’t harm their country’s own interests so fast. But we will, of course, discuss these things if they occur,” Katz said.

Even if Corbyn doesn’t win, it’s worth looking at the election manifesto of one of the UK’s two main political parties – and what, if anything, it means for Israel.

The manifesto outlines a host of foreign policy promises by the Labour Party, but lacks some of the more extreme policies about Israel it passed at its September conference.

One new policy (which was passed at its conference) is to “immediately suspend the sale of arms” to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, and to Israel for use against Palestinians. The singling out of only these two countries for an immediate restriction on arms sales indicates that Corbyn views Saudi Arabia and Israel as morally comparable to each other and morally worse than all other countries. It would be laughable – except that he’s serious.

The wording is also very unclear. To say that the UK will not sell Israel weapons that are used in violation of Palestinian human rights doesn’t say which military and security equipment Israel can legitimately use to deal with what she regards as terrorist threats and which fall foul of this definition.

The probable result is that the Israeli army won’t bother trying to buy British arms in future. As it is, it purchases very few from the UK, totalling less than £10 million (R194.5 million) a year. By comparison, the UK buys hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Israeli drones, missiles, and targeting pods for the Royal Air Force. A large part of the British armed forces is trained by the Israeli army. The UK has more to lose in this arrangement than Israel.

As for recognising Palestine, two-thirds of the world’s countries already recognise a Palestinian state. The UK is no longer a leading global power, so it doesn’t make that much of a difference if another country recognises Palestine or not. Such recognition, however, would be symbolic in that it would signal a break on the issue between the UK and much of western Europe. With the exception of the Swedes, most of western Europe is against Palestinian-state recognition, believing it to be premature. For Palestinians, recognition is a blessing as they don’t need to compromise to reach a negotiated deal or start negotiations in return for one of their key demands.

The reality, however, is that countries’ recognition of Palestine has done very little to change the situation on the ground.

To most Israelis, while the UK elections are interesting, they don’t dominate front-page news. Those I speak to wonder about Corbyn’s anti-Semitism, and whether more British Jews will make aliyah in light of it. One question I was asked a few times was whether, should the Labour party lose, people will come out and say that it’s because of the Jews.

“It doesn’t matter where in the world you are,” an elderly Israeli said, “even in what is supposed to be one of the most advanced countries today, the UK, there is anti-Semitism and Jews are blamed for everything. If Corbyn isn’t elected, they’ll blame the Jews, and if he is, they’ll still find a reason to blame us.”

Should the Conservative Party win the largest number of seats as predicted, it’s not clear whether it will attain an absolute majority. Recent British elections produced a hung parliament, requiring the formation of a coalition like in Israel.

For Corbyn, even if Labour wins fewer seats, it will be an opportunity. Conservative leader Boris Johnson has warned that Corbyn could strike a deal with the Scottish National Party, which is demanding a second referendum on Scotland’s independence. This, too, has the echo of Israeli politics in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that his rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz would collaborate with the non-Zionist Arab Joint List.

There is another debate taking place in the UK that is similar to one being held in Israel – the question of whether or not the election system reflects people’s will. In Israel, parties need to pass a 3.25% threshold to enter parliament. In the UK, it’s a winner-take-all system, and some are now questioning the fairness of it.

An unknown in these elections is who traditional British voters will vote for? Talking to Brits, many tell me they will vote strategically, not necessarily for the party their parents, grandparents, and until recently, they voted for. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called this “the weirdest election of my lifetime”.

What’s not weird, but strikingly true, is that regardless of who wins the election, there is a limit to what the UK, with its lack of serious influence around the world, can do today. The anti-Semitism issue isn’t a major factor in how people will be voting. The bigger issue is what kind of country British voters want to have.

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