The current Israeli government “has lost its way,” UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said Thursday, citing the ongoing “occupation” and the “misery” of the Palestinians.
In an exclusive interview with The Times of Israel, the woman who hopes to become Britain’s next top diplomat explained in great detail why she would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state soon after coming into office, why she thinks Israel is not a model for other countries in the region to emulate, and why she won’t buy products from West Bank settlements.
Thornberry, currently on a four-day tour to Israel and the Palestinian territories, also discussed the scandal that led to the resignation Wednesday of a UK minister over undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials, her position on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), and anti-Semitism charges against her Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“We’re critical of the Israeli government. We’re very critical of the Israeli government. Jeremy would be extremely critical of the Israeli government. But guess what? A lot of Israelis are pretty critical of the Israeli government, too,” Thornberry said. “This is part of being friends. We can tell each other the truth. We think the Israeli government has lost its way.”
While acknowledging that Israel is the Middle East’s only open-minded Western democracy, it is not model for its neighbors, she said firmly.
“I love the liberal democracy that is Israel. And it’s in contrast to many other countries around it. But it’s not perfect. And at least one of the reasons is the continued occupation of Palestine, and the misery of the Palestinians. And that is a daily problem that needs to be addressed.”
Thornberry, who hails from Surrey in south east England and has been MP for London’s Islington South and Finsbury since 2005, vehemently reiterated her call, endorsed by Corbyn last week, for the British government to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state, citing the need to catalyze the stalled peace process.
“Clearly we need to have some form of new momentum going, and obviously the recognition of a state is not sufficient in itself, but it can be part of statebuilding,” she said.
“We want to recognize a Palestinian state. We don’t want there to be any ifs or buts; we want to get on with it.”
Thornberry, 57, visited Israel several times in the 1970s and early 1980s. Her father worked as a political adviser to the United Nations in Jerusalem. During her current visit, she was meeting with several MKs from the Zionist Union, peace activists and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Thornberry said she is opposed to BDS but would herself not buy Israeli products made in the West Bank so as not to promote the settlers’ illegal enterprise.The only Israeli government official she is set to meet is Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. She is also scheduled to visit Kibbutz Nir Oz and Israel’s border with Gaza and to receive a security briefing from the Israeli army.
“The occupied territories should not be occupied. It is illegal in international law. Therefore, in my view, I would not, if I was given a choice, buy goods from settlements, because I think it’s wrong,” she said. “And I don’t want to be encouraging the breach of international law. But equally, I want to support Israel. I would buy Israeli goods, positively.”
Thornberry also slammed former UK international development secretary Priti Patel, who on Wednesday was forced to resign over a scandal involving unauthorized meetings she held with Israeli officials during a private holiday this summer.
“I think she was behaving like a silly woman who was just working outside her brief and not being professional,” Thornberry said. “This is a breakdown of central discipline. Any leader worth their salt would sack a minister who behaves like that.”
Added Thornberry: “Frankly, it’s just a very good example of why ministers shouldn’t freelance and why they ought to get themselves advice and understand what their job is, what they can do and what they can’t do, rather than just kind of doing it on the hoof, which she did. It is disgraceful. It is not professional. And if you don’t behave professionally, you go.”
Arguing that Labour and the Conservatives have very similar views on the Middle East, Thornberry, who is a member of both Labour Friends of Israel and Labour Friends of Palestine, said that ties between London and Jerusalem are likely to “remain strong” even if Corbyn comes to power.
According to most opinion polls, Corbyn would easily beat Prime Minister Theresa May if snap elections were called. Given that with Patel, the Tories have lost their second minister in a week, the current government is said to be exceedingly unstable.
“The policy that the British government has towards Israel is entirely in line with Labour Party policy, even to the extent of the recognition of Palestine,” she said. “It is our policy that it should happen sooner rather than later. That’s the only difference, in that the government says: Palestine should be recognized but we won’t say when the date is.”
Thornberry admitted that anti-Semitism exists within Labour, though she argued that the problem in her party is not worse than in British society at large. Corbyn, whom she called a friend, has been fighting racism and anti-Semitism all his life, she said, and is deeply offended by the suggestion that he may harbor anti-Jewish sentiment.
“There is clearly a lot of work to be done, between the Labour Party and the British Jewish community,” she said. “And I am prepared to do whatever it takes in order to be able to open channels again and to see if we can sort this out. We need a bit of movement on both sides.”
Here is an edited transcript of the interview:
The Times about Israel: Let’s talk about Priti Patel. Was it right for her to quit?
Emily Thornberry: Of course it was. It’s just about team playing. So if you’re a senior minister, when you speak, you speak on behalf of the whole government. If you go abroad and you’re meeting other governments and you’re doing it as a government minister, you need to speak to the Foreign Office.
I hope and aspire to be the next foreign secretary. I wouldn’t have this. I wouldn’t have ministers going around the world, freelancing and not doing it under the auspices of the Foreign Office. Also there was actually a Foreign Office minister here at the same time as Priti Patel.
He was actually here on an official visit, while she was here on unofficial visit that nobody knew about, speaking about things that were outside of her brief. And frankly, different to government policy. This is a breakdown of central discipline.
Any leader worth their salt would sack a minister who behaves like that. That that’s how it ought to be, and there should have been no ifs and there should have been no buts about it. She should have gone. I also think that if Theresa May had any authority she would have gotten rid of Boris Johnson, too.
There are reports that May herself knew more about these meetings than she originally admitted. Do you think it’s enough for Patel to step down, or do you think more heads need to roll?
No, I think Priti Patel is responsible for Priti Patel’s behavior. And [Foreign Secretary] Boris Johnson is responsible for his behavior. [An inaccurate comment he made about a UK citizen held in Iran over charges she was trying to topple the regime is said to have deeply complicated her situation.]
If people spent a bit more time on their day brief, like Priti Patel or Boris Johnson, and spent a bit more time thinking about what their real jobs are, as opposed to what it is that they aspire to do, they’d be better at their jobs. And if they don’t have the discipline to do that, they should go.
You attack Priti Patel for violating protocol, for formalities. Was her intention — helping Israel pay for the care it affords to Syrian refugees — okay with you?
As I understand it, she wanted to use the DFID [Department for International Development] budget to give assistance to Israel. And that is outside what it is the DFID is supposed to be about. The DFID is supposed to be about looking after the very poorest. It’s the Department for International Development, so it is not for crisis intervention. It is for international development, that’s the point.
The budget is not to be used for Syrian refugees coming to Israel?
You say they’re coming to Israel. There’s also a question about where that assistance is being given, and it’s not within territory which is recognized by the international community as being Israel. [Thornberry is referring to the Golan Heights.]
There’s a whole load of different problems with it. Frankly, it’s just a very good example of why ministers shouldn’t freelance and why they ought to get themselves advice and understand what their job is, what they can do and what they can’t do, rather than just kind of doing it on the hoof, which she did. It is disgraceful. It is not professional. And if you don’t behave professionally, you go.
How will the episode with Patel impact UK-Israel relations? Is it just a small dent or could it have serious ramifications?
I don’t think it makes any difference. I think, actually, that UK-Israel relations have been pretty stable. And our foreign policy has been pretty clear. And we work closely together, and we have a long history together, and it will continue.
I think she was behaving like a silly woman who was just working outside her brief and not being professional. And that could’ve happened anywhere.
What did you think about the recent events marking the the Balfour Declaration centenary in London?
The first thing is that the Balfour Declaration was marked in London. There seem to be so many debates around all of this stuff. I was asked why it wasn’t a celebration but rather a marking. I said that it’s a turning point in history. And it was an important beginning to the creation of Israel, although obviously it wasn’t the creation in itself. I mean, the creation of Israel came about because of the motivation of large numbers of people who put a lot of work into it. But it was an important turning point.
Within the Labour Party we have been in favor of the establishment of Israel. We can find documentary evidence that Labour was calling for a homeland for the Jews before the Balfour Declaration. It’s been part of our policy throughout. The reason that we don’t celebrate, is, as the government said, that it’s ‘unfinished business.’
Prime Minister May said in her speech last Thursday that it was ‘one of the most significant letters in history’ and that, despite it being ‘unfinished business,’ there is much reason to be proud of it. Do you share that sentiment?
I would say that it is unfinished business. And I would say that it is important that we, at a time such as when we remember 100 years gone by since Balfour, [also remember] it is still a project that needs to be finished. And that is important. It is an important time to actually reassess, and to say: Where have we gone to? What is going to happen next? Where will Israel be in 10 years time, where will Palestine be in 10 years time? Are we going in the right way, have we lost our way?
Jerusalem as a whole cannot, in our view, into the future, in the context of a two-state solution, belong to either Israel or Palestine. We all know that
You have said that the next Labour government will recognize a Palestinian state. Why do you think such a step would be helpful to the peace process?
I think that clearly we need to have some form of new momentum going, and obviously the recognition of a state is not sufficient in itself, but it can be part of statebuilding. Now there’s a great deal of work that needs doing in terms of statebuilding in Palestine: they did not have elections for 10 years; the Palestinians are divided. I am aware of all the issues.
But we ought to be working towards reunification of the political system in Palestine, where they are able to work with one voice. That would be of immense importance, to have elections across the whole of Palestine; that would be enormous. To have a list of who are the voters and who aren’t the voters, to have some kind of democratic accountability, is very important.
The work that you need to do in terms of nation-building, capacity-building of individuals, the development of individuals, is a very important part of this. You need to have that, it seems to me.
And [we need] to be serious about saying, we want a functioning, capable, viable, independent State of Palestine. And we recognize it, and we’re going to work it, and works needs to be done. It’s not enough by itself; indeed, it has to be part of a larger [process] . And until and unless that happens, we don’t get a two-state solution.
On October 30, speaking in the House of Commons, you urged the government to do it now, arguing that the Balfour centenary is the perfect opportunity to recognize a Palestinian state. If the current Tory government is not prepared to take that step, “the next Labour government will be,” you said. If you were to become foreign secretary in the weeks or months to come, you would do it right on the spot, as the first, or maybe second, order of business, or would you wait for an opportune time? As Boris Johnson replied to you at the time, recognizing Palestine is a card that you can play only once.
It’s a good question. If I’m being honest with you, I can’t tell you whether it would be Day 3 or Day 30 or Day 90. I don’t know. But the principle is there. The principle is that the government has said that they will recognize the State of Palestine at some time of their choosing in the future. They said that six years ago; we continue to wait. That is not what we’re doing [in Labour]. We want to recognize a Palestinian state. We don’t want there to be any ifs or buts; we want to get on with it.
There will be lots of priorities. Obviously when we do it, we’ll do in an as effective a way as possible. So, not three minutes walking into the government, no.
Israel says that unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state will not only achieve nothing but that it could actually be counterproductive. A unilateral recognition of statehood, the argument goes, would only disincentivize the Palestinians from coming to the negotiating table. How do you respond to this argument?
Well, it’s just wrong. The Palestinians do not need a state just so that they can be recognized. They need a state so that they have a clearly identifiable, geographical area; so that they have full control of the area within their borders; so that they’re able to get around without there being roadblocks; so that they’re able to get their economy going properly; so that they’re able to take charge of their own land — and they don’t have that at the moment.
We all aspire to a two-state solution. If we aspire to a two-state solution, why don’t we recognize the second state?
They need to live in peace, as Israel does. They need to have an opportunity for their children to do better than they do, just like Israeli people want to. Statehood is not just about Britain recognizing a Palestinian state. It is about being able to put your shoulders down, to be able to get on with your life. And the politics of the situation keeps getting in the way of that.
We all aspire to a two-state solution. If we aspire to a two-state solution, why don’t we recognize the second state? And then we could honestly look at it and say, Why is this is not functioning as a state. There’s a whole range of reasons why it is not functioning properly as a state. Let’s go through them; let’s sort it out.
How does that counter the argument that unilateral recognition disincentivizes the Palestinians from negotiating with Israel?
To become a state is not just so you get recognized internationally. The incentive for becoming a state is that you work as a territory; you have a recognized territory; you are in charge of your own areas; you have proper security that works for you; you have elections; you have proper courts; you don’t have roadblocks; you don’t have another country occupying your land. All of that — that’s what statehood is. It’s not about, ‘Oh is it the Swedes and the Brits who recognize us, hurrah.’ This is not what it’s about.
You mentioned the Palestinians having a state on a “clearly identifiable, geographical area.” Would you, or the next Labour government, recognize Palestine in the 1967-lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, which would mean that Britain considers the Western Wall a part of the State of Palestine?
We would recognize Palestine as within the 67 borders. And we know that Jerusalem needs to be negotiated, and there have been a number of proposed solutions. Jerusalem as a whole cannot, in our view, into the future, in the context of a two-state solution, belong to either Israel or Palestine. We all know that.
So then the question is: How do you [solve this]? In the past people have talked about it being an international city, that there is an international body that takes some role in the regulation of Jerusalem.
This is clearly part of the negotiations, and it has not yet been resolved. But when I speak to politicians, behind closed doors, they always know what a two-state solution looks like. The people are honest. People have been talking about it for decades. And they do kind of know.
There are a few problems, Jerusalem is one of them. There are few things that still need to be sorted out. What we need is people to expend better political capital, to be proactive, to get on with it. That’s what we need, if you ask me. It’s not my country, but that’s what needs to happen in my view.
I think that Israel is a Jewish homeland. That’s very important and that’s what [Israel’s founding prime minister David] Ben Gurion wanted. Ben Gurion also wanted for it to also be a country that recognizes and protects the rights of the substantial minorities that also live in Israel.How do you feel about the demand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for Israel to be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people?
Netanyahu would agree with that: He is in favor of full civil and political rights to non-Jewish citizens. National rights, however, are exclusive to the Jewish people in his view. Is that a position you could get onboard with?
No. My position is what I’ve just said.
What’s your opinion on BDS?
I’m not in favor of boycotting Israel.
Do you have understanding for people who boycott the settlements?
The occupied territories should not be occupied. It is illegal in international law. Therefore, in my view, I would not, if I was given a choice, buy goods from settlements, because I think it’s wrong. And I don’t want to be encouraging the breach of international law. But equally, I want to support Israel. I would buy Israeli goods, positively.
Earlier this week, Joan Ryan MP, the head of Labour Friends of Israel, said the following sentence during a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in the Knesset: “For me, Israel is a beacon of democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East, a model to which its neighbors should aspire.” Do you agree with her statement?
I don’t think it’s a model to which neighbors should aspire.
I think there are many positives about Israel. I am delighted to have a chance to meet [former Supreme Court justice Dorit Dorner] later today. You come from an industry that flourishes in Israel. I love the fact that gay pride in Tel Aviv is as lively as it is.
I love the liberal democracy that is Israel. And it’s in contrast to many other countries around it. But it’s not perfect. And at least one of the reasons is the continued occupation of Palestine, and the misery of the Palestinians. And that is a daily problem that needs to be addressed. And I want my friend Israel to help [address it].
Speaking to the BBC Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped for “continuity” in UK-Israel relations if Jeremy Corbyn were to become prime minister. What would you predict for the future of bilateral ties with your party leader in Number 10?
I think it is likely to remain strong. The policy that the British government has towards Israel is entirely in line with Labour Party policy, even to the extent of the recognition of Palestine. It is our policy that it should happen sooner rather than later.
Jeremy would be extremely critical of the Israeli government. But guess what? A lot of Israelis are pretty critical of the Israeli government, too.
That’s the only difference, in that the government says: Palestine should be recognized but we won’t say when the date is. But I think that the Labour Party’s policy toward Israel is entirely consistent and in line with previous British policies towards Israel.
We’re critical of the Israeli government. We’re very critical of the Israeli government. Jeremy would be extremely critical of the Israeli government. But guess what? A lot of Israelis are pretty critical of the Israeli government, too. This is part of being friends. We can tell each other the truth. We think the Israeli government has lost its way.
Finally, let’s discuss anti-Semitism, which is a concern in Britain generally and Labour in particular.
There’s anti-Semitism in British society. And anti-Semitism changes its nature over years. The Labour Party springs from the heart of British society. And we have anti-Semitism. I don’t think that the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is any worse than it is in our society generally.
I want my Labour Party to be held to higher standards than the rest of British society. A political party on the progressive left should have no room for any of this. And we are made up of people who have been fighting racism all our lives. And Jeremy is one of those.
Some of the things being said about Jeremy, people genuinely believing Jeremy is anti-Semitic, are just profoundly wrong. The problem is that he’s so upset about the accusation that it’s difficult for him to know quite how to deal with it.
When you call him a racist or call him anti-Semitic — that really upsets him profoundly. And that’s how we got to this slightly silly standoff.
But he doesn’t do anything to change the perception that he harbors anti-Jewish sentiments. Why didn’t he show up at the Balfour dinner, for instance?
He doesn’t turn up for dinners. When there was a dinner for the king of Spain — I turned up. The president of Colombia, who is a longstanding friend — I turned up. He got ‘Politician of the Year’ from the Spectator magazine — he sent [Shadow Home Secretary] Diane [Abbott]. He doesn’t do dinners.
He also refuses to give interviews with Jewish newspapers, or to engage constructively with Jewish community leaders. It’s difficult to accept the argument that he’s troubled by his reputation when doesn’t take any concrete steps to dispel it.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done, between the Labour Party and the British Jewish community. Things started to break down under [former Labour chief] Ed Miliband, which I am really sad about. And it got worse, I understand that. And I am prepared to do whatever it takes in order to be able to open channels again and to see if we can sort this out. We need a bit of movement on both sides.