What can we expect from Britain’s new Labour Party leader on Middle East issues?

Last Saturday, Britain’s Labour Party crowned Sir Keir Starmer QC as its leader. The former lawyer and head of the Crown Prosecution Service takes over from Jeremy Corbyn, who has been vocal on British foreign policy in the Middle East. Corbyn actively opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, military strikes in Syria and the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya; he has described officials from Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”; he has spoken in favour of improving relations with Iran and criticised British involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen. On Israel and Palestine, Corbyn campaigned against Israeli offensives against the people in the Gaza Strip as a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, but rejected boycotts of Israeli goods.

After five years of Corbyn at the helm, Labour has ushered in a new era. Based on past experience, what can we expect of Starmer in his approach to the Middle East?

One of his election pledges was “no more illegal wars”, a clear reference to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Starmer was a fierce critic of the invasion and joined protesters who were demonstrating against it. As a lawyer specialising in international human rights at the time, he wrote an article in the Guardian questioning the legal basis for the use of force:

“If the attorney general’s advice is that force can be used against Iraq without a further UN resolution, he must fully explain how the legal difficulties… are to be overcome,” insisted Starmer. “Simply to argue that the interpretation of resolution 1441 accepted by all the other security council members except the US and the UK should be abandoned in favour of military action won’t convince anybody. Flawed advice does not make the unlawful use of force lawful.”

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Starmer has consistently argued against illegal wars, and as part of his leadership election pledges he promised to “put human rights at the heart of foreign policy” by promoting a Prevention of Military Intervention Act, which would only permit lawful military action with the support of the House of Commons. In an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show in February, Starmer told the presenter that, “I would pass legislation that said military action could be taken if first the lawful case for it was made, secondly there was a viable objective and thirdly you got the consent of the Commons.”

Despite the anti-illegal war rhetoric, Starmer has appointed Lisa Nandy to his team as Shadow Foreign Secretary. The Stop the War Coalition has called this “disappointing” due to her mixed voting record on military intervention.

Starmer has also promised to review all British arms sales and made a manifesto pledge in last December’s General Election to suspend the arms trade with Saudi Arabia over humanitarian suffering in Yemen. What’s more, he tweeted in support of the decision by the Court of Appeal in June 2019 to declare UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, and appears set to continue the party’s hostility towards the Kingdom.

Similarly, Starmer has criticised America’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and stuck by a longstanding party line calling for closer ties with the government in Tehran.

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Given the debate that has embroiled the Labour Party over accusations of anti-Semitism in recent years, Starmer appeared keen to neutralise this issue during hustings prior to the election in December. During the subsequent leadership contest, Starmer was moved to say that he would “tear out this poison by its roots” immediately; he then used Saturday’s acceptance speech to apologise to the Jewish community.

He followed this up on Tuesday with an article in London’s Evening Standard, saying that he wanted to “acknowledge the pain and hurt” caused by the Labour Party to “Jewish people” in recent years: “The principle of what I want to achieve is clear: if you are anti-Semitic, you cannot and should not be in the Labour Party. No ifs, no buts. I will leave no stone left unturned in the fight against anti-Semitism. That is my promise to the Jewish community.”

On the same day, the Labour leader met with the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to discuss anti-Semitism and sent a goodwill message to the community preparing to celebrate the festival of Passover, a move which Jewish community leaders praised.

Despite hefty coverage of anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the leadership election – which was to be expected – Starmer’s views may actually be more nuanced. During a JLM hustings event in February, he explained that he would not describe himself as a Zionist but, “I understand, and I sympathise, and I support Zionism”. He rejected Donald Trump’s very pro-Israel “deal of the century” earlier this year and called the so-called peace plan “a farce”. The new leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is also a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME).

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Indeed, the launch video of his party leadership campaign implied support for the Palestinian cause by showing images of Stop the War marchers holding Palestinian flags as the voiceover stressed that, “We can promote peace and justice around the world with a human-rights-based foreign policy.” This was clearly an image chosen to suggest but not actually define Starmer’s position.

This is going to be a tricky issue for the new Labour leader, and he is likely to tread carefully. That there will be shift in the party’s position is clear, with a return to some kind of pre-Corbyn status quo in terms of Labour’s relations with Israel, although there will probably be no reversal of the policy changes regarding settlement boycotts and arms embargos introduced by Starmer’s predecessor.

During the leadership campaign, Starmer, along with all other candidates, signed both sets of policy pledges put forth by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism respectively. However, he later refused to sign a set of pledges produced by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign which called for the new leader to commit to root the party’s policies towards Palestine in international law, and to recognise the right of return as well as the right of self-determination for Palestinians. This refusal to support international law as the basis for a peace deal is rather worrying given his legal pedigree, especially in human rights.

Although Sir Keir Starmer has already moved to tackle anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, his term of office begins in the midst of an international health crisis that, for the foreseeable future, is likely to take precedence over foreign affairs. While what we have seen and heard so far gives us an idea of his thoughts, we will have to wait to find out where he stands in practice on issues across the Middle East: words are easy, but it will be his actions which define his leadership.

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