Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary stood in sharp contrast to the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) group when she issued an unequivocal condemnation on behalf of the party of the Israeli government’s killing of around sixty unarmed protesters in Gaza earlier this week and the wounding, often maiming, of thousands more.
LFI’s original statement – later deleted after a huge backlash – attempted to direct blame at Palestinians for the deaths of Palestinians from bullets fired by Israeli soldiers:
Ms Thornberry’s read:
Ms Thornberry also made a strong statement in the Commons debate on the issue on Tuesday that could scarcely have been much further from that of LFI vice-chair Louise Ellman:
But Emily Thornberry is also a longtime member of LFI – and there have been increasing calls this week for Labour MPs and peers to end their association with the group. Last night, MP Catherine West announced that she was suspending – although not terminating – her membership.
The SKWAWKBOX contacted Ms Thornberry to congratulate her on her powerful statements – and to ask about her intentions regarding her own LFI membership:
Congratulations on very powerful statements yesterday and in the House today on the Gaza massacre. As you may have seen, there are widespread calls for LFI members and supporters in the party to disassociate themselves from the group because of its initial statement yesterday that was widely condemned as ‘victim-blaming’.
Your statement was also at odds with that made to the House by LFI vice-chair Louise Ellman, in that you stated that protesters posed no threat to Israeli forces, while Ms Ellman claimed that at least some demonstrators were probably hiding guns and knives in their clothing on Hamas’ instructions.
Do you have any plans to end or reconsider your own membership of LFI in view of this week’s events and statements?
Ms Thornberry responded:
Thank you for your kind words about my Gaza statements.
On LFI, I don’t agree with the Tweet they put out yesterday, and I think they were right to delete it.
In terms of my continued membership of LFI, I have been a member of both LFI and LFPME [Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East] since joining the House of Commons in 2005, because I truly believe that the best way to work towards a two-state solution is to maintain dialogue with both sides, even in the most difficult times, and even when it is necessary to be an extremely critical ‘friend’, as I have been over the recent Gaza violence.
I think cutting off that dialogue would be wrong, and ultimately counter-productive, if we want to restore hope of a meaningful peace process and progress towards that two-state solution.
The SKWAWKBOX asked Ms Thornberry whether LFI was the only vehicle by which a dialogue with Israel could be conducted. Her response:
They’re not the only vehicle, of course not, but they’re the official organisation within the Labour Party, so they’re clearly integral to our internal dialogue on these issues, just like LFPME.
The response was problematic because – as the SKWAWKBOX confirmed with Labour HQ – LFI is not ‘the official organisation’, or even an official organisation.
The group numbers Labour MPs among its members – as does right-wing pressure group Progress, for example – but, like Progress, it is not affiliated to, and has no formal standing with, the Labour Party.
A follow-up was sent by this blog, asking for clarification of the sense in which LFI is ‘the official organisation within the Labour Party’ and an aide responded:
Perhaps ‘main’ is a more accurate term than ‘official’, but Emily’s central point doesn’t change – if you want to maintain a dialogue with all sides on this issue within the Labour movement, and especially within the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is helpful to be a member of both LFI and LFPME, and take part in both their sets of debates, as Emily has done since she joined the House in 2005.
As LFI has no formal connection with the party, there is little direct action that Labour as an organisation can take as a result of the group’s comments and stance regarding the killings in Gaza.
Emily Thornberry’s desire to ‘maintain dialogue with both sides’ is certainly sensible and laudable.
However, LFI has acted this week as an apologist for the extra-judicial killing and maiming of unarmed civilians by the government of Israel rather than as a channel of communication and criticism.
It must surely be highly debatable whether it can possibly be the proper vehicle for that dialogue – and whether continued involvement in LFI by any Labour parliamentarian or official can be justified.
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