Hilary Benn

by Justin Cohen

The Labour Party must “take on” those who delegitimise Israel, Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn has said.

The comments came during Labour Friends of Israel’s annual lunch in Westminster, during which he also spoke personally about his family’s links to the country.

He hailed the Jewish state as a “hi-tech centre” with a “vibrant democracy”, adding: “Our future relations must be built on cooperation and engagement, not Israel of Israel. We must take on those who seek to delegitimise the state of Israel or question its right to exist.” He didn’t refer directly to the BDScampaign, though Labour has previously expressed opposition to “general” and academic boycotts of Israel.

His appearance came amid ongoing concerns over Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term criticism of Israel, expressions of support for arms and economic measures against Israel and description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”.

Benn condemned the recent attacks on Israelis going about their business and insisted the Government has “a duty to protect its citizen from this terrorism”.

Following a minute’s silence for the victim of Paris, he told the 250-strong gathering: “Whether it is Paris, Tel Aviv, Beirut of Ankara, the scourge of terrorist violence affects us all and we must stand against it.”

He told guests, including 60 parliamentarians and a several frontbenchers and former frontbenchers, that leaders should strain every sinew in the pursuit of a two-state solution. “There should be an urgency about the serach for peace rather than the shrugging of shoulder which says: We tried, it didn’t work. All of us should be concerned there is no peace process at the moment. For the Palestinians, this is a time when hope is absent. Lack of hope breeds despair and worse.”

Benn also spoke about his grandmother Margaret’s “love” for Israel, whose name was given to a library at the Hebrew University. He revealed how, during a visit in the 1940s, the Council of Christians and Jews member had collected water from the River Jordan because she wanted her grandchildren including himself to be baptised with it.

LFI parliamentary chair Joan Ryan said the responsibility of Israel supporters in labour had become all the more important over the past year, while chair Adrian Cohen insisted the party should not be abandoned despite the much-discussed challenges.