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Home ยป Israel Gaza: How Much Trouble Is Keir Starmer In Over Middle East Stance?

Israel Gaza: How Much Trouble Is Keir Starmer In Over Middle East Stance?

Image source, PA Media

By Chris Mason

Political editor, BBC News

On the horror in the Middle East, and in particular whether there should be a ceasefire in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, the prime minister and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have the same position.

Israel has a right to defend itself, they argue, and neither use the word “ceasefire”.

The Scottish National Party has a different position: they do advocate a ceasefire.

Sir Keir, alongside the prime minister, is arguing there should be “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid into Gaza and people out.

But that is not the same as a ceasefire, even though it would involve the firing ceasing for some period of time.

There is a growing sense of discomfort, and in some instances anger, within the Labour movement about Sir Keir’s position.

It is seen by some as too pro-Israel a position, with insufficient expression of concern for the Palestinians.

One hundred and fifty Muslim Labour councillors have written to Sir Keir saying he should call for an immediate ceasefire. By our calculations 19 Labour councillors have resigned from the party over this.

It is worth putting that in perspective: there are about 6,500 Labour councillors across the country. And 37 Labour MPs have also said publicly they want a ceasefire.

Sir Keir is trying to calm things down – meeting people within the party virtually and in person, acknowledging differences of opinion and listening.

Or, to put it bluntly: trying not to make a difficult situation worse.

An interview he did a few weeks back on LBC definitely made things worse for him. When asked if it was appropriate for Israel to cut off water and power to Gaza, he said: “I think Israel does have that right.”

He has since claimed what he meant to say was Israel had a right to defend itself.

Sir Keir now appears to be doing all he can to reassure rather than provoke members of his own party.

He has met around a dozen Muslim Labour MPs to hear their concerns. He later said “it is clear that the amount of essential aid and utilities getting into Gaza is completely insufficient”.

Those close to the Labour leader say it is essential he acts as he would as prime minister – and this is what we are seeing. And conflict in the Middle East always provokes extremely strong reactions – which he is listening to.

One senior figure told me Labour had to be unequivocal “about terrorism from Hamas, just as we’d expect it from allies if it happened here”.

They added that having done that Keir Starmer now needed to work out how he calibrated his position with what was happening in the region.

“Can Labour really carry on not calling for a ceasefire, even if Israel go in and totally flatten Gaza?” they asked.

Another longstanding figure in the party wondered if Keir Starmer had given adequate thought at the outset to how things might change and how exposed that could leave him. And how scrupulously careful he had to be with his language every time he said anything on the topic.

There are whispers around Westminster about whether any shadow ministers may resign over this. Let’s see.

And where does all this leave support for Labour in places with a greater affinity with the Palestinians than there may be elsewhere, particularly towns and cities with significant Muslim populations?

This is a test of leadership for Sir Keir. And one where the current fissure in the Labour movement could yet widen as the conflict in the Middle East escalates.