Jeremy Corbyn’s address to Labour Friends of Israel has been described as “better received, better intended, better prepared” by the state’s deputy ambassador, a year after he failed to even mention the country in his first speech to the group.
The Labour leader named the Israel five times and gave a clear commitment to a two-state solution and to tackling anti-Semitism in the party at one of the busiest fringe receptions of the party’s Liverpool conference.
He also hailed Shimon Peres as an “enormous giant of Israeli politics”, saying: “His Nobel peace prize with negotiations with remarkable, a huge achievement and should surely be the basis on which we try to bring a permanent, long-term peace two-state solution in the whole region and specifically between Israel and Palestine”.
In marked contrast to last year, he went out of his way to hail the work of LFI in “building awareness of the different dimensions of the Middle East conflict” and specifically its chair Joan Ryan – who later revealed the leader’s office were looking to set a date for his first meeting with the group since he took office.
Corbyn – who wished the audience a ‘Shana tova’ – added: “I’m genuinely glad to be here today to come together to campaign for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestinians.” The parliamentary motion recognising Palestine which he backed was “an important step” on the road to a solution, he suggested.
Domestically, he thanked those in the community who had been in contact with his team about the “anti-Semitism that does exist within society, that had feared its violent ugly head in various places and helped to advise us on how we deal with anti-Semitism.
“The Labour Party is not a home for anti-Semitism in any form and I do not intend to allow it to be be. We will continue to oppose it in any way it raises its head. The Labour Party must be an anti-racist party and specifically opposed to any form of antisemitism anywhere in our movement.”
It came after Michal Biran MK, of Israel’s Labor party, asked how a progressive party had allowed itself to become a home for any anti-Semite. “As long as you keep fighting antisemitism we stand with you. As long as we keep on fighting for peace and social democracy I expect you all to stand with us, she told hundreds of attendees including a host of MPs and a number of Palestine activists .
And she drew sustained applause for comments aimed directly at the leader standing metres away. “Hamas are not friends of the cause of peace and coexistence,” she said.
“They are not freedom fighters. They do not have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart. They are antisemitic terrorists that praise the murder of children. They are part of the problem, not the solution. Please, Jeremy, don’t give Hamas legitimacy they have not earned and do not deserve. Instead hold out the hand of friendship to Israeli progressives.”
Deputy ambassador Eitan Na’eh said Corbyn’s speech was “better received, better intended, better prepared with better understanding of the sensitivities” than a year ago. The speech also sent a message to “his supporters to talk about the issue with knowledge”, he hoped. One party source said it was progress from “a low bar”.
Ryan told the Jewish News: “The whole party should welcome a very strong commitment to a two-state solution. We don’t want to be living in fear that we’re going to have to fight some battle in the party for a commitment to that two state solution.
“He was much closer to the wider view of the Labour Party whereas he was not near it last year. I hope it signals a deeper understanding. Perhaps it’s a new chapter in the relationship. We don’t know.”
But she added: “We don’t have to be grateful and congratulate someone for saying the right thing. We expect the leader of the party to say these things on two-state solution and antisemitism.”
Luke Akehurst, director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of the party’s national executive committee, said: “It’s a shame he didn’t make this speech this time last year. His underlying beliefs won’t have shifted – you can’t unmake 30 years of politics on this issue – but given where he came from it was a carefully drafted speech that had appropriate wording in terms of the way it addressed core issues in the Middle East and the way it addressed antisemitism. My initial sense was there was not much one could find to criticise in what was said.”
In his speech, Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev reminded delegates that it was Labour that first recognised the right to Jewish national self-determination, months before the Balfour Declaration.
“In the following years 1917-1945 at Labour Party conferences support for Zionism was expressed on no fewer than 11 separate occasions. In doing so labour proudly embraced a progressive internationalism, it was standing in solidarity with the Jewish people in righting a historic wrong”.