Can a Labour government change the UK’s Israel-Palestine policy?

Analysis: A clear Labour majority in the UK election is unlikely to change Keir Starmer’s pro-Israel posturing or strategic ambivalence towards Palestine.

Ahead of the UK’s general election, scheduled for July 4, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is expected to win a majority victory. If successful, an immediate foreign policy challenge will be in the Middle East, namely the war on Gaza.

A Labour victory alone is unlikely to transform UK policy towards Israel and Palestine drastically. Throughout much of Israel’s bloody war on besieged Gaza, Starmer has largely aligned with the incumbent Conservative Party in supporting Israel, particularly in refusing to call for a ceasefire and halt arms sales to Israel.

Many will struggle to forget when Starmer claimed on LBC, following Hamas’ attack on Oct 7, that Israel “had the right” to besiege Gaza and cut off water and electricity to its 2 million civilians, thus justifying collective punishment, and by consequence, a war crime.

"Palestine will be a litmus test, for the values of the next British government, and for humanity as a whole" 

Following a backlash over those remarks, Starmer later clarified these comments and said he meant he just supported “Israel’s right to defend itself.” Yet his reluctance to back a ceasefire has created a rift with many traditional Labour supporters, including leftist and British Muslim voters.

According to a YouGov poll in May, 74% of Labour voters in the 2019 election support suspending weapons to Israel, while 86% back an immediate ceasefire – compared to 55% and 73% respectively for the wider British public.

As pressure has mounted over Britain’s support for Israel, amid Gaza’s worsening humanitarian anguish, Starmer, like many European politicians, has changed his tone into expressing concern for Palestinian lives.

However, it’s important to consider whether the horrific scenes in Gaza have genuinely changed his mind over supporting Israel, or if it’s largely optics to placate his critics.
Has Starmer really changed his mind?

Labour unveiled its manifesto on June 13, showing little indication that Starmer intends to shift Britain’s stance from the current government’s position.

While the manifesto claims “Palestinian statehood is an inalienable right to the Palestinian people,” Starmer has notably omitted the immediate recognition of Palestine, backtracking on a pledge from previous Labour leaders Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

Some wonder that Starmer’s vague commitment towards supporting Palestinian statehood merely aims to placate the party’s critics. Yet, the lack of a set date for recognition has raised further doubts about his commitment to Palestinian rights.

This suggests Starmer’s Labour may likely maintain the UK’s vocal support for a stalled two-state solution and an end to Israel’s decades-long occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, albeit with minimal action to back it up.

Moreover, David Lammy, Starmer’s shadow foreign secretary, indicated the UK would respect the ICC’s jurisdiction after arrest warrants were requested for Israeli ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant. However, Starmer hasn’t explicitly stated his government would uphold them.

Instead, he has simply requested Netanyahu “stop” the offensive on Rafah, which shelters 1.2 million civilians and has suffered violent Israeli attacks, including on refugee camps.

Labour’s manifesto calls for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza, yet Starmer has merely called for one that is contingent on the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. That’s different from pressuring Israel for an immediate end to its offensive and subsequent negotiations over releasing captives.

There’s also still hesitancy over suspending arms sales.

Starmer and the manifesto made no mention of suspending weapons sales, despite the latter calling for upholding “international law” in Gaza.

That’s in defiance of the rising legal pressure over the illegality of British arms licenses to Israel since government lawyers have reportedly warned that Israel is breaking international law in Gaza.

“There has been no discernible difference between Conservative and Labour positions on Palestine, which have been characterised by a disregard for Palestinian life, the undermining of international law, and indifference to the sentiment of the British voting public. Both share responsibility for the unfolding genocide in Palestine,” Dr. Sara Husseini, Director of the British Palestinian Committee, told The New Arab.

“Palestine will be a litmus test, for the values of the next British government, and for humanity as a whole,” she added, stressing the need for the UK to uphold its legal and moral responsibilities.
Balancing pressure

Throughout the Gaza war, Starmer has faced opposition from within the Labour Party, not just party members but also MPs and local councillors. In response, he has purged many individuals who are overtly critical of Israel from the party.

Most recently, Labour suspended Faiza Shaheen, a prospective MP, after it emerged that she had previously liked and retweeted several posts on X that criticised Israel, including a video mocking Israel from American-Jewish comedian Jon Stewart.

Meanwhile, Labour caused controversy after appointing Luke Akehurst, a pro-Israel lobbyist and head of the group We Believe in Israel to run as an MP in a safe seat, North Durham.

Akehurst sparked complaints of antisemitism after a video emerged of him suggesting non-Zionist Jews have “abandoned” their Jewish identity, despite Akehurst himself being non-Jewish.

"There is no reason to believe let Starmer will change his shamelessly pro-Israeli stance if he becomes Prime Minister" 

Some may wonder why Starmer has steered Labour in such a drastic direction.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, marked by calls to recognise Palestine, support Palestinian rights, and halt arms sales to Israel, Labour also faced allegations of antisemitism, which partly contributed to the party’s crushing defeat in 2019.

After being appointed leader in March 2020, Starmer immediately set out to revamp Labour’s image. He may claim ‘mission accomplished,’ particularly after the parliamentary lobby group Labour Friends of Israel praised his leadership for making Labour “free of the stain of antisemitism and anti-Zionism” in October 2023.

On a societal level, Labour’s manifesto pledges to reverse the Conservatives’ decision “to downgrade the monitoring of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate.” However, Starmer has faced criticism for conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel within the Labour Party.

Avi Shlaim, Israeli-British historian and Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Oxford is among those who’ve criticised Starmer’s transformation of Labour.

“Keir Starmer is a completely uncritical supporter of Israel. He has described himself as an unconditional Zionist. He denies that Israel is an apartheid state and he’s in favour of continuing the British supply of arms to Israel despite the war crimes it is committing daily in Gaza,” Avi Shlaim told The New Arab.

Shlaim also spoke of Starmer’s “surreal” campaign against Jewish members on the left wing of the party, particularly Jewish Voice for Labour, as well as the 51 members of Labour who are being investigated over alleged antisemitism.

“There is no reason to believe let Starmer will change his shamelessly pro-Israeli stance if he becomes Prime Minister,” he added.

Will Labour change once in power?

Upon taking office as Prime Minister, Starmer would still immediately face ongoing pressure, ranging from the mass protests in London and civil society, civil servants, and the legal sector, to reassess Britain’s ties with Israel.

This pressure will include calls to recognise Palestine, restore funding to UNRWA (the aid organisation for Palestinian refugees), cut arms ties, and scale back diplomatic relations with Israeli leaders. Recently, over 100 celebrities, including actors, singers and authors, have signed a joint letter urging Starmer to “take a stand against the ongoing atrocities committed by Israel” and halt arms sales.

Despite domestic pressure, Britain’s ties with the US will also be an influencing factor. Since October 2023, the UK has doubled down on playing Washington’s ‘junior partner’ role in supporting Israel. Both Starmer and Lammy have also expressed their commitment towards upholding the transatlantic partnership.

The US, Israel’s greatest ally, may look to pressure London to stay in line. Following the ICC prosecutor’s calls for arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant, US Ambassador to the UK Jane Hartley told Politico that a Starmer-led government would likely avoid arresting Israeli officials.

She also praised Starmer for consistently backing US policy on the war.

That can be taken not only as a prediction but also as an expectation from Washington on how Starmer’s government should behave, particularly after Lammy’s split from Starmer over the ICC arrest warrants.

Ultimately, as Starmer may try to avoid substantial deviations from Washington’s lead, domestic developments within the US might be more consequential for Israel/Palestine.

Despite Starmer’s deviation from many voters’ sentiments, especially within Labour’s traditional support base, this alone hasn’t been enough to stop him from becoming PM. That’s largely due to the Conservative government’s plummeted popularity and the UK’s economic woes under their watch, not to mention their own firm support for Israel.

Electoral success of MPs from alternative parties like the Green Party or Liberal Democrats, as well as Independent MPs, may also have an impact on future parliamentary decisions. But, unless significantly pressured, Starmer will hope to continue business as usual regarding Israel and Palestine.

Check Also

Putin’s New War Economy

Why Soviet-Style Military Spending—and State Intervention—Won’t Save Russia In Russia, the tradition of making fun …