Britain is in the throes of a general election.  The nation goes to the polls on July 4.  All the indications are that the Labour party will sweep the board with a resounding win, and that its leader, Sir Keir Starmer, will be Britain’s next prime minister.

   On June 13 the party published the manifesto on which it is fighting the election.  Amid a plethora of domestic and international policy commitments, the manifesto turns briefly to the Middle East.  “Palestinian statehood,” it declares, “is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people. It is not in the gift of any neighbour” [in other words, Israel], “and is also essential to the long-term security of Israel.”

  The manifesto commits a future Labour government to recognizing a Palestinian state “as a contribution to a renewed peace process which results in a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”

   Appalled by the Hamas attack of October 7, Starmer stood shoulder-to-shoulder with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, US president Joe Biden, and most Western political leaders, in proclaiming Israel’s right to defend itself.  His stance was not acceptable to two entities he faces on his own political terrain.  One is the powerful hard-left element within his party that, since taking over as leader from Jeremy Corbyn, he has managed to disempower and partially subdue.  The other is the strong Muslim presence in some Labour-held constituencies.

    Labour’s pro-Palestine component began to assert itself on October 7 itself, with scattered voices approving the Hamas attack.  The collateral civilian deaths and casualties arising from the IDF campaign was enough for the party’s support for Israel to begin to slide.  For a few weeks the official Labour line was to call for humanitarian pauses in the fighting, a position that was not anti-Israel enough for some, and prompted Labour resignations in councils and from its parliamentary front bench.  Finally, on February 24, Labour policy officially changed to a call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.  

   Then came the first test of electoral opinion in the UK since October 7.  On May 2, 2024 local elections took place across the country to select councillors, mayors and other local government representatives.  The results, no doubt to Starmer’s dismay, indicated that Labour’s position on the Israel-Hamas war had dented its support in Muslim areas

  The BBC analyzed 58 local council areas where more than 20% of the residents identify as Muslim. It found that Labour’s share of the vote had slipped by 21% on 2021, the last time most seats were contested.

Ali Milani, chair of Labour Muslim Network, said Labour’s positioning on Gaza “is going to have a serious electoral consequence.  If I was a Labour MP in Bradford or Birmingham or Leicester or parts of London or Manchester [strong Muslim areas],  I would be seriously concerned.”

This is the background to the recognition pledge contained in the Labour party manifesto.

The composition of British society is changing fast.  In 2011 some 2.7 million UK citizens  identified as “Muslim”, making up 4.9% of the total population.  By 2021 overall numbers of self-identifying Muslims had reached 3.9 million, forming some 6.5% of the UK total   That is a constituency that Labour clearly believes cannot be ignored electorally, especially those areas where Muslims congregate to form a majority of the local population,

   By comparison the total number of people self-identifying as Jews in the UK in 2021 was about 270,000, making up some 0.42% of the total population. 

    The stark figures do not, of course, tell the whole story as regards political clout.  As in any society, British Jews punch well above their weight in the many and varied fields they engage in, while all political and social organizations formally abhor antisemitism or any form of discrimination based on ethnic, racial or religious grounds.

   The main difficulty with statements about Middle East affairs from concerned, but uninvolved, parties is the lack of flesh on the bones of advice.  For example, no one who has recognized Palestine as a sovereign state is able to define its borders, while advocates of the two-state solution when speaking of borders usually refer vaguely to the situation just prior to the Six Day War.

On June 5, 1967 the whole of the West Bank and east Jerusalem was controlled by Jordan, while Gaza was part of Egypt’s Sinai region.  This position had remained unchanged since the Israeli, Jordanian and  Egyptian armies stopped fighting during the course of 1949.  Then, for nigh on twenty years, Jordan and Egypt retained control of the land they had conquered after attacking Israel in 1948, yet neither separately nor together did they make any move to establish a Palestinian state.

In the Six Day War Israel reconquered these areas, as well as a great deal more.  Once in Israel’s hands, the West Bank and Gaza somehow morphed into “occupied Palestinian land” (which no-one previously claimed them to be; indeed West Bank Arabs remained Jordanian citizens until 1988).  The idea of an Arab Palestine has since become a political reality.

Labour’s recognition pledge takes no account of the fact that the Palestinian leadership is currently divided between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, that Palestinian opinion heavily favors Hamas, that the PA as a whole, as well  as its leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, are regarded as corrupt and are deeply unpopular.

On the other hand, the argument that eventually recognizing a Palestinian state would somehow be to reward Hamas for its bloodthirsty attack of October 7 does not hold water.  The two-state solution is the last thing Hamas desires.  If it were ever established, it would represent a bitter blow to Hamas’s fundamental purpose – to eliminate Israel altogether.  As far as Hamas, and its  fundamentalist supporters are concerned, establishing two states would be like a red rag to a bull.  The fight to eliminate Israel would continue unabated.   

Unlike the recent moves by Ireland, Spain, Norway and Slovenia which recognized the non-existent Palestinian state outright, the Labour commitment to recognizing a Palestinian state is nuanced.  It will occur as part of a peace process, and as such echoes the position outlined in January by Lord Cameron, the UK foreign secretary.  Palestinian statehood should be part of a process, he declared, and recognition would come at what has been described as “an appropriate time in peace talks”. 

By adopting this more considered position, Starmer is certainly risking alienating both his left wing and his Muslim constituency.  It is a fine line he is treading.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."