Netanyahu’s Corbyn problem

In the furore over Labour's leader, Israel's actual interest in targeting him is neglected.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 August 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking via live video conference at Washington Summit of Christians United for Israel. July 23, 2018. Michael Brochstein/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Over several months, claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and its leadership have persisted and caused intense controversy. A less explored aspect is the view of the matter held by Israel's government, and especially by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. His direct entry to the fray via Twitter was widely reported, but less so has been Israeli foreign policy and security thinking in relation to Jeremy Corbyn and the "problem" he represents.

The immediate context to this is the war in Syria and Iran's prominent role. A few days ago Iran's defence minister Amir Hatami met his Syrian counterpart General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub in Damascus. They agreed a further period of close military cooperation, thus confirming Iran's continued support for the Assad regime in the face of frequent Israeli airstrikes against its units in the country. The meeting, in part a deliberate response to Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, was observed closely in Jerusalem.

It has been said of Israel that the country is “impregnable in its insecurity” (see "Israel's security trap", 5 August 2010). Its relatively confident mood at present derives in part from the policies of its one key ally, the United States, Trump's decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem having had great symbolic value. Saudi Arabia's confrontation with Iran, and in turn Riyadh's reliance on Washington in prosecuting the war in Yemen, are also reassuring to Israel. Underlying Israel's tight connection to the US is a strategic bond which includes many joint weapons programmes and the long-term presence of operational US military personnel within Israel.

In the United States itself, pro-Israel advocates remain robust and effective, despite continuing opposition from some liberal Jewish groups. Among these advocates are huge numbers of Christian Zionists, who tend to be more assiduous in voting than the population as a whole and also most commonly support Republican candidates (see "Trump, Pence, Jerusalem: the Christian Zionism connection", 14 December 2017). .

A marker for current attitudes is the “Israel has won, so get real” stance of influential lobby groups such as the Middle East Forum  led by Daniel Pipes. The message here is clear: in the contest between Israelis and Palestinians, the former is the victor – and there will never be a two-state solution. In this view, any talk of peace can only mean that Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories, and elsewhere, must accept whatever Israel decides about their future. That is the reality and there is no alternative.

This approach, welcomed by Binyamin Netanyahu's government, is a further boost for Israel's security establishment. Even the turmoil in Washington doesn't cause undue upset, for in the unlikely event of Trump's disappearance from the scene he would be succeeded by an evangelical Christian and even more fervent pro-Israeli figure, vice-president Mike Pence. Two terms of Trump followed by two of Pence – fourteen more years – would be Israel's perfect scenario. That may be pushing things: but with the situation looking so favourable now, why is there any need to be concerned about Jeremy Corbyn?

A wanted man

From Jerusalem's angle, the reasoning at work may have more to do with Corbyn’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause than with the need to support Jewish communities in the UK. After all, cool analysis of the British political scene would suggest that current uncertainty will persist, the chances of a general election before 2022 are high, and in those circumstances Corbyn could well get to Downing Street.

That scenario will worry Netanyahu, but is it sufficient for his government to intercede in British politics? There is some evidence that it is proving so; Israeli human-rights activists, the advocate Eitay Mack for example, are making freedom-of-information requests to seek concrete information.

The relevant agency involved is considered to be the strategic-affairs ministry, a government department set up in 2006 whose main function is to minimise threats from, primarily, anti-Israel movements abroad. The department has focused largely on supporters of Iran and the Palestinians, and on countering the international BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions). A Labour government in the UK led by Jeremy Corbyn would boost this movement, whatever official policy might then be. For that reason alone, the strategic-affairs ministry is likely to be fulfilling its duty to the state by helping any opposition to Corbyn. It may be many months or even years before the extent of such help becomes clear.

What of the situation in Britain? Independent assessments of anti-Semitism tend to suggest that, overall, Labour supporters are less likely to hold such views than Conservative supporters, and that anti-Semitism among Labour supporters may actually have declined in the first two years since Corbyn was elected leader. 

The evidence is certainly not fully comprehensive, and polling does show that the Jewish community sees a bigger problem in the Labour Party than in other parties.  But whatever the full picture, if the Labour Party is fully committed to human rights then it should be forceful in its opposition to anti-Semitism within its ranks.

So great is the relentless print-media campaign against Jeremy Corbyn in recent months that it might be expected by now to have significantly damaged Corbyn and his party. There is not very much evidence for that; rather, most Labour party members appear to be consistently supportive. But if Corbyn does need anything to cement his popularity, some would argue that it's a really nasty tweet. Not from Binyamin Netanyahu – but from Donald Trump.

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