Covid forced Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy to halt Israel trip

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INTERVIEWShadow foreign secretary

Covid forced Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy to halt Israel trip

EXCLUSIVE: Shadow foreign secretary discloses new plans to visit the country with party leader next year and her ‘robust’ exchanges with Israel’s UK ambassador

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer
Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was forced to postpone a scheduled visit to Israel with shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy after he tested positive for Covid last month, Jewish News can reveal.

The pair had both planned to honour pledges made during the Labour leadership contest to visit the Jewish state at the earliest opportunity.

But it emerged that Starmer had contracted Covid on October 27 – just days before he and Nandy were due to fly to Israel for a trip that would have included a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Speaking exclusively to Jewish News, Nandy, 42, confirmed: “We had scheduled that trip for a couple of weeks ago – and then Keir got Covid.

“We were all set. We had been working with the Embassy and the Consulate to get our plans in place.

“I was particularly keen to visit Yad Vashem. I’ve been to Israel before, but never to Yad Vashem.

“Keir was also really keen to make the visit to Israel as well. One of the other things we have planned to do was to meet with young Israelis and young Palestinians.

“That generation, I think, often gets drowned out in the debate.”

Sir Keir Starmer speaks during the community’s Labour leadership hustings, alongside Lisa Nandy (Credit: Marc Morris)

The Labour frontbencher confirmed that plans were now in place to reschedule the trip, at which she and the leader were scheduled to hold meetings with Israeli and Palestinian political heads.

In a revealing interview, Nandy spoke out on why the Labour Party had immediately backed Home Secretary Priti Patel’s move to proscribe Hamas in full in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

She also explained why she was so quick to condemn the protesters who had attempted to threaten and intimidate Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely when she spoke earlier this month at the London School of Economics.

Despite her support for the ambassador’s right to speak without intimidation, Nandy revealed she and Hotovely have had “robust and frank disagreements on most things.”

Tzipi Hotovely, Israeli Ambassador to the UK, speaking at Labour Friends of Israel

After expressing her “heartbreak” over the murder of 26 year-old Eli Kay in Jerusalem on Sunday, Nandy said she wished to make it “absolutely clear” Labour under Starmer and herself had “no time for Hamas.”

But she confirmed Labour was in favour of recognition of a Palestinian state as a means of sparking dialogue to work towards an eventual two-state solution in the Middle East.

And in a swipe at Boris Johnson’s Tory government, Nandy also claimed her party was best placed to tackle major global issues such as the on-going crisis with Iran and with regards to pressuring the Chinese government over allegations of genocide against the Uyghurs.

Shadow Foreign secretary Lisa Nandy speaks on stage at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Picture date: Monday September 27, 2021.

If Jeremy Corbyn had infuriated the community with his reference to his “friends” in Hamas, there was no room for pleasantries towards the Islamic terror group under the new Labour leadership.

As the Home Secretary urged the support of “all in this House” for the proscription of the political, as well as the military wing of Hamas, Nandy confirmed ahead of Wednesday’s debate on the motion that Labour was giving the move its support.

Speaking from her Westminster office, she told Jewish News: “We think this is absolutely the right thing to do.”

I had seen the messages circulating on social media that were designed to frighten and intimidate her from being able to speak

It was not the first move by Nandy to win the approval of many in the community. Earlier this month she had been quick out of the blocks to condemn the small group of hardcore anti-Israel activists who had attempted to stop the Israeli ambassador from taking part in a debate on the LSE campus.

“I had seen the messages circulating on social media that were designed to frighten and intimidate her from being able to speak,” said the Wigan MP of her decision to issue a statement condemning the actions of the protesters on Twitter.

“I’d also seen the images of her being chased to her car by a small number of people on the demo, with security having to act.

“This is not the way to treat diplomats in this country. I thought it was unacceptable and that needed to be said by the official opposition party.

“That is why I tweeted very quickly about what happened.”

But when it comes to discussion about political issues Nandy says “it won’t come as any surprise to anyone” to learn she has “significant disagreements” with the Israeli envoy.

“But I’ve always been of the view that the right way to approach politics, if you are interested in politics and not just protest, is to have debate, have discussion, and make those views known.”

Nandy, who was handed her current role after Starmer became leader, revealed she had met with Hotovely on more than one occasion and they had engaged in a “fairly robust and frank exchange of views about most things.”

She said while Labour had on one occasion raised concerns about the supply of Covid vaccines into Gaza, Hotovely had “raised some concerns about Labour’s recent past.”

Nandy says she is privileged to be in a role where she has access to people in many countries whose governments take stances her party does not agree with.

But critically, she stresses her fundamental belief in the role of dialogue and politics to resolve situations.

“I was really struck by the criticism I got from some after I said what had happened to the ambassador was unacceptable,” she says.

“Some people were suggesting this was Labour’s front-bench saying people did not have the right to protest.

“It couldn’t be further from the truth.

I was really struck by the criticism I got from some after I said what had happened to the ambassador was unacceptable

“People have every right to protest peacefully, but she (Hotovely) also has the right to speak without fearing violence or intimidation.

“But some of the people who praised me for saying this were the very same people who attacked me for going to the debate about BDS.”

In 2019, Nandy had attended a Labour conference event put on by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, in which the founder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti had spoken via video link.

Some in the Jewish community immediately condemned her decision to appear on the same platform as the BDS leader – even though Nandy spoke of her dislike of boycotts.

Omar Barghouti (Source: Screenshot from Youtube interview with the Guardian)

Ironically, she now says “some of the people who attacked me for standing up for the ambassador’s right to speak are the same people that were praising me for going to the BDS event.”

Nandy added: “If you are not prepared to be in the room having those uncomfortable discussions you never change things.

“For me there is something quite existential about this for Labour.

“The radicalism that some people preach is not matched by a radicalism of doing what it takes to bring about change.”

Last week, with Nandy in attendance, the Labour leader had delivered a generally well-received speech to a packed hall in Westminster at the annual Labour Friends of Israel reception.

Starmer had offered a damning critique of “anti-Zionist antisemitism” in a 30 minute long address, his first in-person speech to many in the room since becoming leader.

Nandy says she “didn’t disagree with a word” Starmer said.

Sir Keir Starmer speaking at LFI (Blake Ezra Photography)

She said the leader was well aware that within the room at the LFI event were individuals who had experienced “the worst” of antisemitism within the Labour Party itself.

But the Labour frontbencher says she is aware that some in the Jewish community, while encouraged by the changes in the party, are not yet ready to vote Labour in any election yet.

“It takes time to rebuild trust, we knew that,” she opines. “I think Keir has shown, especially with his work around antisemitism, and with the rule changes at conference that he is serious.

“I think we have come a long way in a short time. I’m not expecting people to miraculously turn around and say they are voting Labour.

“But if they are looking at us again, I hope they like what they see and that sometime in the future they might be able to support us again.”

She then adds that “with no disrespect to Ed Miliband for the first time in decades I think we have a candidate who people can imagine becoming PM.

“The times I speak to Keir and I speak to David Evans about the antisemitism problem, they want to sort it out.

“They don’t want to use this as any kind of proxy for an ongoing war within the Labour Party.

“They are very interested in how we get to government, not how we carry on attacking each other.

“The public are entitled to look to us as a party that is serious about winning power and is relentless in our pursuit of power in order to change lives in this country and play our role in the world again.”

Nandy also speaks passionately about her belief that Labour in government could as she has previously suggested act as an “honest broker” in forging talks between moderate Israeli and Palestinian voices.

“I think we have a duty to do so,” she says. “We are a small country, but also a significant one.

A Palestinian boy looks behind a wall separating Jewish part and Palestinian part of the West Bank. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“We have had eleven years of a Tory government that has retreated from the world. I think people want us to be a reliable international partner again. We had a history and involvement in Israel/Palestine.

“That gives us a responsibility to be part of a solution, to do what we do to try and move that forward.”

She says for the Palestinians in particular the current government is no longer viewed as an “honest broker.”

I was one of the backbenchers who pushed very hard in 2014 for Labour to recognise Palestine because I believe that the only way that you get a solution to this ongoing and heart-breaking dispute is to bring people together as equal partners around the table. I think recognition of Palestine is an important part of that

Amongst Israelis, Nandy says this has also been their view up until recently of Labour.

Nandy says that while Labour have much in common with the government’s approach to Iran, she is critical of the Tories antagonistic approach to our European neighbours, and our failure to stand firm alongside the United States on the growing menace of Tehran.

On issues such as hostages, this failure to present a unified force only serves to embolden the Iranian regime, she argues.

Nandy also expressed disappointment that new foreign secretary Liz Truss had yet to put any real pressure on the Chinese government ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics over continued human rights abuses and allegations of a genocide against the Uyghurs.

Liz Truss speaking at CFI’s event at the Conservative Party Conference 2021 (Credit: Board of Deputies)

As former chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, Nandy admits she is also aware of “anxiety” amongst some on the left, including Jewish activists, that Labour has moved too far to appease those who support Israel, as a result of the attempt to resolve the antisemitism crisis.

She expresses regret that Israel/Palestine became an issue at the centre of the “factional war” that engulfed the party.

When the Israeli government is deemed to be doing wrong, such as when former PM Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to annex sections of the West Bank, she says Labour actually took a tougher stance than ever before.

She adds: “I was one of the backbenchers who pushed very hard in 2014 for Labour to recognise Palestine because I believe that the only way that you get a solution to this ongoing and heart-breaking dispute is to bring people together as equal partners around the table.

“I think recognition of Palestine is an important part of that.”

Nandy returns to Starmer’s speech at the LFI event, his reference to co-existence projects, and his condemnation of on-going settlement projects in the West Bank.

“Unless you create space in the middle for dialogue, we are never going to resolve this. Instead what you do is push more people to the extremes, and I think that’s what we’ve seen with the rise in support for Hamas,” she says.

“We are in favour of recognising Palestine – but we are not in favour of Hamas. I want to be absolutely clear about that.”

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