We are approaching year four of the war on Jeremy Corbyn, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has joined the fray. In an intervention for which Corbyn’s enemies won’t thank him, Netanyahu accuses Corbyn of laying a wreath at the graves of terrorists, and of comparing Israel to Nazis.
This is a blunder. The media was picking over the conflicting accounts of what Corbyn was doing at a Tunisian government-organised conference, which included a memorial for those killed in a widely condemned 1985 Israeli air strike. It was alleged Corbyn laid a wreath at the grave of a PLO leader who helped plan the killing of Israeli athletes forty six years ago. Along comes Netanyahu, a person very recently involved in mass killing, to lead the charge.
And he confused his lines. It was not Corbyn who compared Israel to the Nazis. That was Hajo Meier, a Holocaust survivor reflecting on his own experiences on Holocaust Memorial Day. Netanyahu, who once claimed that Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews but was goaded into it by Palestinians, is not in a good position to argue with Holocaust survivors.
The Israeli PM is fluffing an attack that was unlikely to work anyway. Since he took the leadership of the Labour Party, the line has been that he’s an anti-British weirdo who doesn’t bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem, and – most egregiously – is mates with terrorists. The extraordinary list of allegations might even destroy another politician merely by being repeated so often. But, unlike Netanyahu’s blunderbuss rhetoric, they have usually relied on a degree of productive ambiguity.
Consider the old IRA allegations. The word that most frequently came up in this offensive, which reached boiling point during last year’s election campaign, is “links”. It was sufficient to allege that the Sinn Fein leaders he met were in the IRA, maybe throw in the word “treason”, and let imagination do the rest of the work. The Sun ran a front page after the Manchester Arena bombing saying Corbyn had “Blood on His Hands”. The story, nothing to do with Manchester, rehashed the IRA allegations spiced up with thin testimony from a notoriously dodgy ex-IRA informant.
It didn’t work. Nor did outright lies. The attempt to incriminate Corbyn as a communist spy was a disaster. No amount of equivocation – “the questions have been asked, the questions need to be answered” – could save Brexit minister Steve Baker from a public roasting by the big beast of Tory broadcasters, Andrew Neil.
The attacks over allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party are more effective because they strike at the anti-racist conscience of the left, but don’t alter the underlying situation. Labour still hovers around forty per cent in most polls. They can smear Corbyn, but so far they can’t change the fact that millions of people want what Corbyn’s Labour, alone, is offering.
Why did nothing work? Why won’t the latest attack work? For Corbyn’s core supporters, his record has never been a drawback. Whether opposing apartheid, campaigning against Pinochet, defending Irish republicans, or supporting a Palestinian state, his alliance with the oppressed is one of his most attractive qualities. He has an activist record unmatched by any other politician. He doesn’t just talk: he means it.
Beyond the core support, most of Britain has moved on from the Cold War mentality. Good Friday is twenty years old. Martin McGuinness, who once launched an insurgency against the British Army, has been in government. Theresa May sent condolences when he died, and sent the Northern Ireland secretary to his funeral. The British state has accepted some responsibility for its own crimes in that war, and accepted the legitimacy of some of the other side’s claims. That is how peace processes work. No one, even the depressed Protestant backwaters from which I hail, wants to go back to war. So Corbyn can’t be stained by association with people who it is no longer acceptable to dehumanise.
Not all peace processes work. The Oslo Accords failed, as Israeli settlements expanded. Nonetheless, we saw PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who waged a violent struggle against Israeli occupation, sitting down with the US president and visiting Downing Street. When he died, a long list of dignitaries showed up for his funeral, including the British foreign secretary. Most politicians now claim to agree with the principle of “land for peace”, and a Palestinian state. And Israel’s brutal actions in the West Bank, Lebanon and Gaza, have tilted opinion sharply against it.
And that’s why Netanyahu is in the worst possible position to lead this attack. He condemns Corbyn for laying a wreath. In return Corbyn calmly points out that Netanyahu has just murdered over a hundred unarmed protesters while passing racist legislation that even some of his long-standing supporters dislike. Who’s going to win that one? Corbyn, hands down.
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