However hideous the optics of Jeremy Corbyn holding the wreath, his verbal response to the ensuing furore may be worse.
But let’s not start on too gloomy a note. The good news is that finally, if sketchily, his memory is recovering. Previously, he insisted the Tunisian ceremony he attended four years ago was solely in honour of Palestinians killed by an Israeli air strike on the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985.
He now remembers that flowers were also placed at the grave, next to which he was photographed standing, of members of the Black September terrorist organisation which killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
“A wreath was indeed laid,” he belatedly recalls. “I was present when it was laid. I don’t think I was actually involved in it.”
One admires the consistency. Not thinking has defined his approach to antisemitism since Ken Livingstone launched this absurd political sideshow in 2016. His lack of thought enabled a minor local irritant to grow first into a moderate factional difficulty, then a major national problem, and now a global crisis.
Yesterday, the New York Times gave it a prominent slot on its online front page. Hours later, Benjamin Netanyahu entered the fray, inciting a lively exchange with Corbyn on the ancient forum for debate between international statespeople known as Twitter. What he possibly misidentified as Corbyn’s “wreath-laying”, Bibi tweeted, “deserves unequivocal condemnation…”
Whatever Corbyn imagines, no aspect of this inexpressibly complex argument is a zero sum game. The fact that Israeli forces have killed more than 160 Palestinians, many of them children, in Gaza since March certainly demands “unequivocal condemnation”, as he counter-tweeted. But it doesn’t exonerate him from censure for going to that ceremony, or at least for remaining at it once it became apparent that killers of Israeli civilians were among the honoured dead.
And while the fact that Netanyahu is a serial liar of Trumpian blatancy, a brutal bully and a laureate of apartheid, and one of the monsters of the age which makes him a man anyone would be proud to call their enemy, it doesn’t make him wrong about this.
Only Corbyn cultists will blind themselves to that. There are plenty of those, as the comments beneath this article will attest. But by a factor of 40, they are not plentiful enough to give him a parliamentary majority. For that, Labour requires a leader with the capacity to think clearly about how to deal with a sustained assault on his sympathies and character.
What it has is an ostrich. The assumption that this will blow over if he buries his head for long enough persists, to judge by the muffled response from beneath the sand.
It feels like an intrusion into private grief to analyse his words. But to anyone who regards a Labour government as desirable, or imperative, this is a public grief which obliges them to scrutinise him as closely as those who are manipulating the row in the Tory interest. A slavish friend to Corbyn is no friend at all. The last amplification system he needs right now is a Greek chorus parroting him within an echo chamber.
So what can he mean by “present … but I don’t think I was actually involved”? In a Seinfeld episode, The Limo, George and Jerry snaffle a courtesy car at JFK when George pretends to be a passenger, O’Brien, who they know missed the flight. What they don’t know is that O’Brien is a Hitler wannabe, and the limo is taking them to a neo-Nazi rally.
Had they made it to Madison Square Gardens, they would have been present but not involved. Did Corbyn pull a similar stunt at Tunis airport, later being too paralysed by shock to scarper when the penny dropped?
By his own words, this is unlikely. “I was there because I wanted to see a fitting memorial to everyone who has died in every terrorist incident everywhere,” he has declared. If he is seriously claiming he went to a fitting memorial to the terrorist who killed them to see a fitting memorial to the Israeli athletes who died in the terrorist incident at Munich … well, what can you say about that?
Having had 15 months since the first report surfaced to get his story straight, the best he can manage is a smattering of gibberish and a gruesome exchange of bodybag tit-for-tattery with the revolting Netanyahu.
For the second time in a week, I can’t avoid the lurch into the bleeding obvious. Britain has far, far bigger worries than the prehistoric Jew hatred of a minuscule cabal within the party which just eight years ago elected a Jew, by a whisker over his Jewish brother, as its leader.
It was already late in the day for the incumbent to start thinking, and it’s even later now that a pretty floral circle in his hand looks so incongruously sinister. But think about it he must. Whatever it takes – a long, frank, beautifully written speech acknowledging his naiveté and insensitivity; a penitent’s trip to Yad Vashem; his circumcision, broadcast live and unanaesthetised, on the Western Wall – he must do what he can to escape the gravitational field of this preposterous sideshow, rise above it, and turn his thoughts to rescuing his country from impending catastrophe.
As an explanation for Tunis, it is laughably wretched enough. But if “present … but not involved” remains his attitude to Brexit, as it has been since the referendum campaign, he will have a political epitaph to go with the wreath.
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