The British and Israeli Labour parties are sister parties and founding members of the Socialist International. The parties share core values in their commitment to social democracy. The time has come to rejuvenate the historic links between the parties for the sake of social democracy in both countries and for the cause of peace in the Middle East.
These links date back to well before the founding of the state to the days when many of the leaders of Labour Zionism were based in London. Chief among them was Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion, founder of the social democratic Mapai party which dominated the early years of the state and evolved into the Israeli Labour party, and Israel’s second prime minister Moshe Sharett.
In 1920 Ben Gurion and Sharett were sent to London to establish a branch of Poale Zion, the socialist Zionist Movement, and in that same year they managed to persuade the British Labour party to allow Poale Zion to affiliate. Ben Gurion and Sharett became, in effect, affiliated members of the party. Poale Zion, now known as the Jewish Labour Movement, is still the only Socialist Zionist movement to be affiliated to a major political party in the western world.
The apex of relations between the two parties occurred during Harold Wilson’s premiership. Wilson had a real passion for Israel. He is the only British prime minister to have sent his son to live on a kibbutz, to experience socialism in practice, and the only British prime minister to have written a book devoted to Israel, The Chariot of Israel, Britain, America and the state of Israel.
Wilson’s Labour governments also contributed to Israel’s security in a big way by selling Israel the Centurion tanks that represented a key factor in ensuring Israel’s victory in the Six Day war of 1967 and the state’s survival in the Yom Kippur war of 1973.
In 1973, Wilson, together with the overwhelming majority of Labour members of parliament, voted in the division lobby of the House of Commons against Edward Heath’s Tory government’s proposal to place an arms embargo on Israel during the war and to refuse permission for American jets to refuel on route to Israel with much-needed supplies.
David Owen wrote in his autobiography, Time to Declare, that the decision to refuse to supply shells for Israel’s Centurion tanks was: ‘The most cynical act of British foreign policy since Suez. It showed not just the Arab influence within the Foreign Office, but a total lack of principle in standing by one’s commitments. It was a craven act which had everything to do with the threat of being cut off from Arab oil.’
In 1975 Wilson ensured that the United Kingdom was on the right side of history when he instructed the British ambassador at the United Nations to vote against the infamous ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution at the UN general assembly. This motion was a by-product of the cold war and was later repealed in 1991. Wilson recognised, like many socialists before him, such as Nye Bevan that Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and represents the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, the right of the Jewish people to be in control of its own destiny.
In more recent years the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown expanded economic relations with Israel. An example of this was the Britech fund established jointly by Blair’s first government together with Ehud Barak’s Labour-led government, and which was Israel’s first joint research and development programme with a European country. Trade is booming between the two countries with bilateral trade last year at £5.1bn, and this boom in trade has its antecedents in the governments of Blair and Brown. Indeed, the UK is now Israel’s largest export market outside the United States.
And, naturally, as a Labour member of the Knesset and a social democrat who greatly admires Britain’s National Health Service, I am particularly pleased to note that one in six prescriptions issued by the NHS are medicines which are made in Israel.
An incoming Miliband government would further expand the economic relations between the countries. In 2012 the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, established the UK-Israel Economic Dialogue, to look at further ways to enhance and expand economic cooperation between the two countries, and the aim is to hit the ground running after the next election.
We need to build on the excellent work Labour Friends of Israel is doing in building bridges between our parties. There should be more exchanges between Labour MPs and Labor members of the Knesset on a whole range of issues, including economic approaches, electoral strategies and generally exchanging views in our common endeavours against rightwing governments. My party leader Isaac Herzog, who has deep roots in Britain, is keen for this to happen. We share, after all, the same social democratic values of combining economic efficiency with social justice, reducing economic inequalities, a fairer distribution of wealth, full employment, the provision of affordable housing, and offering opportunities to as many people as possible. Labour councillors in both countries should also meet to discuss how we can improve local services and strengthen local democracy.
The Labor party is rebuilding in Israel. We intend to double our party membership, to deepen and have a more visible presence in Israeli society and to become a real alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led government which we are vigourously opposing day and night. Shamefully, on Netanyahu’s watch there has been a massive increase in inequality with Israel now having the highest rate of poverty of any OECD country. Only a Labor-led government with Herzog as prime minister will reduce poverty in Israel, reduce income inequality, increase affordable housing, and make Israel a more just and fairer society to live in.
Both Labour parties share the goal of seeing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the two-state solution, a secure Israel living next to a prosperous state of Palestine. The best way Labour party members in the UK can help the Israeli peace camp advance this goal is not by passing one-sided resolutions, or supporting discriminatory boycotts, but by engaging with progressive forces in both Israeli and Palestinian societies, like One Voice, an organisation dedicated to bringing Israelis and Palestinians together.
The goal of peace in the Middle East will be better served if there are Labour governments in both countries. I look forward to the day when, voters willing, the Labour parties are leading both of our great nations. In the meantime, let’s strengthen the ties between our two parties. Let’s work together for the good of both Britain and Israel.
Hilik Bar is a member of Knesset, deputy speaker of the Knesset, and general secretary of the Israeli Labor party
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