Israelis are calling their leaders fascists. Why can’t British politicians?

What will it take for British officials and other international actors to start taking Israeli leaders at their word and offer any meaningful pushback?

Far-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir takes part in the 'flag march' in the city of Lydd, December 5, 2021. (Oren Ziv)
Far-right MK Itamar Ben-Gvir takes part in the 'flag march' in the city of Lydd, December 5, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

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“Since the election of the fascist Israeli government last December, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinians, including children. Can the prime minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organizations refer to as an apartheid state?”

This should have been a legitimate question for a politician to ask the British prime minister in the House of Commons. But no sooner had Labour’s Kim Johnson asked it of Rishi Sunak last Wednesday afternoon, during an edition of Prime Minister’s Questions, than she was summoned to the office of her party’s chief whip and ordered to apologize.

Within a few hours, Johnson was back in the Commons retracting her earlier remarks. “I was wrong to use the term ‘fascist’ in relation to the Israeli government and understand why this was particularly insensitive given the history of the State of Israel,” she said. “While there are far-right elements in the government, I recognize that the use of the term in this context was wrong. I would also like to apologize for the use of the term ‘apartheid state.’ While I was quoting accurately Amnesty’s description, I recognize this as insensitive and I’d like to withdraw it.”

A key subtext of this episode is an ongoing effort by Labour leader Keir Starmer to cleanse the party of any association with his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, whose term as Leader of the Opposition was marred by persistent allegations of antisemitism that contributed in no small part to Labour’s crushing defeat in the 2019 election. In addition to purging Labour of activists affiliated with the most left-wing, Corbyn-supporting factions of the party — many of them, incidentally, Jewish — Starmer’s efforts to rebuild trust with the British Jewish community, and to restore the party’s reputation among the so-called soft left and center of the electorate, have revolved largely around displaying unequivocal support for Israel.

Jeremy Corbyn (right) and Keir Starmer (left) during the launch of Corbyn's 2019 election campaign, October 31, 2019.
Jeremy Corbyn (right) and Keir Starmer (left) during the launch of Corbyn’s 2019 election campaign, October 31, 2019.

Following the lead of the right-wing media platforms and heads of communal organizations that purport to represent Britain’s Jews, Starmer has bought into the conflation of the Jewish community’s interests with those of Israel. In an interview last year with the Jewish Chronicle, Starmer dismissed the contents of a report published by Amnesty International — the latest in a growing list of Israeli and international human rights groups to echo longstanding Palestinian claims — concluding that Israel is committing the crime of apartheid. Starmer is also quoted as having told the Jewish News that he “support[s] Zionism without qualification.”

But in the name of protecting Jewish sensibilities, Starmer is abdicating his responsibility to see the reality on the ground in Israel-Palestine for what it is, and to mount a much needed challenge to the Israeli government from outside. In failing to stand up to this, he is enabling and perpetuating the violence inherent in Israel’s domination over the Palestinian people, which the new government is threatening to take to new levels.

In little over a month since being sworn in, Israel’s new coalition has set about consolidating the power of the executive and legislature at the expense of the judicial branch. Its radical changes are targeting a judicial system that rarely offered much of a challenge to decades of apartheid and occupation, but did at least maintain its relative independence vis-a-vis the government. The proposed “reform” — which has generated major opposition from Israel’s attorney general, the president, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice, among many others — would strip all meaningful oversight away from the judiciary, eliminating vital checks on the government’s whims.

In addition, the coalition is reportedly preparing to bring forward legislation that would disqualify almost all Palestinian/Arab Knesset members from serving in the Israeli parliament, and ban their parties from standing in elections. This would effectively enable the right wing to dominate in perpetuity, and deprive 20 percent of the state’s citizens — not to mention its millions of non-citizen subjects in the occupied territories — from having any say in their governance. The coalition even sought to shutter the state’s Hebrew and Arabic public broadcaster, Kan, but has frozen this plan to focus its energy on neutering the courts. All these moves — from strengthening authoritarian control to disenfranchising undesired racial groups — are taken straight out of the fascist playbook.

Former Israeli minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon speaks during a protest against Israel's far-right government, Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Former Israeli minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon speaks during a protest against Israel’s far-right government, Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating against the proposed judicial reform every weekend for the past month, in a generally conservative protest movement that talks about “democracy” and “equality” yet seeks little more than a return to the status quo ante. But even the Israeli leaders of this movement have been leveling the kinds of criticism that would earn them rebuke in the current U.K. Labour Party. For example, Moshe Ya’alon, the former IDF chief of staff who allied with Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz in their recent election bids to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu, had no qualms calling the new coalition “fascist” on Twitter.

Such language is not unusual in Israeli politics; in fact, two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have used the “f” word in recent years, long before the current government came to power. But it is not only opponents who are branding it fascist: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich referred to himself as a “fascist homophobe” in a recording published last month.

So what will it take for British officials and other international actors to start taking Israeli leaders at their word and offer any meaningful pushback? Certainly not a slew of well-researched reports from some of the world’s foremost human rights organizations accusing Israel of a crime against humanity. Nor, it seems, a further deterioration of the situation on the ground, with January becoming the deadliest month for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in nearly a decade, settler violence surging, and Israeli officials threatening further escalations. And on the heels of the most lethal year in the West Bank since the Second Intifada, 2023 could even exceed this tally.

There is no horizon for halting this deterioration without serious international pressure. But where will it come from if the likes of Opposition Leader Keir Starmer and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken are unwilling to even diagnose the reality for what it is, or recognize its rulers for what they are?