11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Giving a voice to the voiceless
Jeremy Corbyn, a leading British MP, assesses British foreign policy in the Middle East, the War on Terror, the Anglo-American alliance and dissent within the governing Labour Party in conversation with Omayma Abdel-Latif
Jeremy Corbyn is a dissenter whose mission is, as he likes to describe it, to give a voice to the voiceless. For this to happen, the 51-year-old Corbyn has championed the causes of the oppressed, the underdogs and the colonised. It was no surprise, therefore, to find him as the main speaker at almost every rally held in the British capital to defend Palestinian rights. He is also a member of a group of Labour Party MPs who are leading the opposition to the British government's foreign policy, particularly on Iraq and Palestine.
"Bush's agenda is a terrifying one. I think the next stage is Iraq, and after that comes Iran, Sudan, Somalia and Cuba. What we are witnessing is a new form of colonialism. Bush's administration has rejected engaging the UN in any way other than in humanitarian activities"
"The threat to world stability does not come from Iraq -- it comes from poverty, from the arrogance of the US and the multinational corporations. And it comes from the arms trade"
Corbyn joined the Labour Party at the age of 15. Former chair of the London Group of Labour MPs and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, he served on the Labour Party London Executive from 1979-92. He is also a chair of Liberation, a UN-recognised British NGO.
Al-Ahram Weekly met Corbyn in the territory with which he is most familiar: the British House of Commons in London, where he has represented the Islington North constituency since 1983. There, Corbyn says, more than 50 languages are spoken, with communities originally from the Indian sub-continent to Turkey and Cuba. Refreshingly free of the stiff upper lip that sometimes comes with being a member of one of the world's oldest democratic institutions, Corbyn spoke freely and frankly on many of the issues that are presently preoccupying him.
A few days following that meeting, Corbyn was to embark on a visit to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of the frequent visits conducted by the Campaign for Palestine Group in the House of Commons, of which he is a member. He was also going in his capacity as vice-chair of the House of Commons' Human Rights Group, for perhaps it is in these territories that human rights are more grossly violated than anywhere else.
"I wanted to raise questions with the Israelis as to why they are bombing and occupying the West Bank and Gaza," Corbyn told the Weekly. "Why did they refuse to allow the fact-finding mission to go into the refugees' camp in Jenin? Why are they not allowing the aid agencies to function within these territories? The Israelis have to realise that peace in the region will come through justice to the Palestinian people and not through killing them."
In Corbyn's view, Israeli arrogance and aggression should be met by imposing sanctions on Israel. "The international community should intervene to force Israel to implement the UN resolutions, or else it should impose sanctions -- economic, trade and even military," he told the Weekly.
Admitting that the campaign he has led with other Labour Party MPs to force the British government to impose an arms embargo on Israel has not yet been successful, Corbyn vows to keep up the pressure. Nevertheless, this comes at a time when, as the British newspaper The Observer has recently reported, Britain has been selling military equipment to Israel via America, providing sophisticated navigation and targeting equipment for F16s being built in America for Israel. Israel then uses these F16s in its bombing campaigns against Palestinian civilians.
The issue is causing a row within the Labour Party, and it also casts doubt on the so-called "ethical foreign policy" pursued by the Labour government. Corbyn agrees that British foreign policy at present, particularly with regard to the Middle East, is not "ethical". "I am very critical of the British government's foreign policy," he says, "particularly with regard to the Middle East, and including the continuing punitive sanctions against Iraq, the continued bombing campaigns, the refusal to initiate dialogue with the Iraqis, and above all allowing the Palestinian people to be murdered by the Israeli army."
According to a columnist in one British newspaper, a main characteristic of New Labour's foreign policy is that it is pro-Israel and pro- Zionist. Does Corbyn agree with this view?
"Well there is a close relationship with Israel and with the Israeli government," he says. "But there is also a very interesting and rapid growth movement within the Labour Party in support of Palestine and Palestinian rights. The Palestine Group of MPs is growing quite fast, so there is perhaps a polarisation there. But one has also to look at things from a historical perspective. Throughout my youth, the Labour Party constantly painted an image of Israel as being 'the only democratic country in the Middle East'; however, at no stage would it present it as a society based on the removal of land from the Palestinian people and inbuilt discrimination against the Palestinians. That was not presented, but the image began to change from Israel defending itself against attacks to Israel as an aggressor."
"I think what is interesting is the way in which the politics of the Palestinian question have changed." This change of opinion, says Corbyn, has resulted in a conviction that is now widespread within Western circles that "there is a great awareness now that Israel has violated more UN resolutions than has any other country in the world... whereas Iraq is perversely accused of not allowing UN weapon inspectors and is threatened with bombardment."
How far is British Prime Minister Tony Blair aware of these debates within the Labour Party, and what is his response?
"Blair is aware of these debates, but his response would still be that Israel has the right to defend itself. The fact of the matter is that Israel has never been under attack from anybody, however. One has to look at the figures to see that more Palestinian civilians have been lost than Israelis during the past year. A lot of them were children, a lot were young people, very few of them were bearing arms, but they were bombed. While the Arab Summit in Beirut offered a new deal for the whole region, Ariel Sharon seems incapable of understanding that."
Corbyn says that the British government's pro-Israel policies are best understood within the context of the "holy Anglo-American alliance". This, he says, is a determining factor in shaping British policy in the Middle East.
"I think the overriding view of the British government is the close relationship with the US. The military relationship is very close. Britain does not have an independent nuclear policy. The two countries have close relations through NATO, and the political relations are -- unfortunately -- the most important. There is overwhelming pressure for maintaining this relationship."
"For Tony Blair, the good relationship with George Bush overrides everything else, and this is why I fundamentally disagree with them. They are wrong. I would argue against Blair and his associates that indeed British interests are actually very badly served by this relationship. If Britain is seeking a role in world politics, then we should not do it by supporting George Bush, who seems to have the least worthy views... views that are based on ignorance."
"British interests would surely best be served by recognising Palestine; otherwise, what would be the future of Israel -- decades and decades of a high degree of militarisation and war with all its neighbours, only relying on US aid for its economic survival?"
Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Blair's Middle East policy has been the appointment of Lord Levy as Special Middle East Advisor. Levy, a shadowy figure, has a son who works in the Israeli Justice Ministry, and he maintains close contacts within Israel. Pro- Palestine groups in Britain have complained about Levy's handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict and his views, which tilt in favour of Israel. He is also a chief fund-raiser for the Labour Party.
Corbyn describes this as "a ludicrous position", recalling an incident when Palestinian Authority representative Afif Safiya was at Downing Street in the company of the prominent Palestinian lawyer Micheal Abdel-Messih. Abdel-Messih posed the following question to Blair: "Prime Minister, could I act as your Middle East advisor?" Blair responded by saying that this could cause problems. Abdel-Messih replied that the appointment of Levy had apparently not caused problems, pointing out that Levy's appointment was at least as controversial.
"Blair does not understand that the image Lord Levy presents is extremely damaging in the Arab world," Corbyn comments. "But why should the prime minister have a Middle East advisor in the first place? What is the Foreign Office for?"
According to Corbyn, the question of Iraq is perhaps the most controversial issue threatening the unity of the Labour Party. Last March, when news leaked of a possible imminent US attack on Iraq, 160 Labour Party MPs signed a motion against any attack on the country. Corbyn says that this was the largest number of MPs signing a motion critical of the government in the last five years.
"It was one of the issues that invoked questioning of Blair's capabilities as a leader of the Labour Party, along with his handling of domestic issues. The motion clearly had an effect on Blair, and it prevented him from giving full support to the bombing scenarios as drawn up by Washington hawks."
"But let's not forget that in fact bombing is taking place against Iraq all the time. I have a lot of contacts within Iraqi opposition groups, and there is no support among these groups for the bombing of Iraq. They are not in favour of American and British bombardment, or of forced regime change."
The unreported war in Iraq, according to Corbyn, has been the issue of parliamentary discussions in London, and has been raised by a number of MPs. How has the British government responded to such questions?
"It would simply be the claim that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, and therefore that there has to be a campaign. The evidence they have is apparently none on this. Iraq might have a capacity to develop chemical and biological warfare, but any country in the world could be accused of that. As far as the question of weapons of mass destruction is concerned, one could say that by the same token Israel has got plenty of them," Corbyn added.
Corbyn believes that the Anglo-American campaign against Iraq has "a much wider agenda than the declared one. There is, of course, a wider agenda to be served by the expected bombing of Iraq. After the collapse of the Iraqi regime, they would lay their hands on the huge oil reserves in Iraq. I think the Americans have openly talked about a regime change. They have done it in Afghanistan. Bush talked about it in Cuba, and they talk about it in Iraq. They want to create puppet regimes throughout the world which are ready to supply the necessary raw materials".
Corbyn believes that any attack on Iraq would definitely result in a split within the Labour Party. "We would put more and more pressure on the government not to support this war," he says.
And if Blair comes up with evidence against Iraq, as he did to justify the campaign in Afghanistan?
"Regimes have done this throughout history. The 1956 Suez Campaign was based on lies, and it did result in opposition within the Tory government. Blair has not been seriously challenged so far, but there is a great deal of anger among party members, and Blair has to listen to his party and to his constituencies."
Corbyn has also been critical of George Bush's War on Terror, commenting that "the US believes that it has resolved the situation in Afghanistan. I don't believe it has. I think that what they have done is to create a long-term civil war in Afghanistan. The status of the prisoners in Afghanistan, let alone at Guantanamou, is disgraceful. Bush's agenda is a terrifying one. I think the next stage is Iraq, and after that comes Iran, Sudan, Somalia and Cuba. What we are witnessing is a new form of colonialism. Bush's administration has rejected engaging the UN in any way other than in humanitarian activities."
Does Corbyn think that we are reaching the stage where the UN, together with international law, is irrelevant in the eyes of the world's only super power?
"Not entirely, because the International Criminal Court was launched last week, and there is also pressure from Europe that the international order should be channeled through the UN," Corbyn says. Nevertheless, he is sceptical about Bush's famous "axis of evil" speech, saying that this too threatens world stability.
"The threat to world stability does not come from Iraq -- it comes from poverty, from the arrogance of the US and the multinational corporations. And it comes from the arms trade."
Corbyn believes that a shift has taken place recently in British public opinion on the Palestinian question. "The US media, along with Sky News and BBC News 24, have been giving consistent pro-Israel reporting for the past year. What has changed now is the existence of Al- Jazeera, and the growth of militant public opinion. Also the solidarity movement in the West has begun to change opinions."
However, it is still important for this change in Western public opinion to reach the US, which, in Corbyn's words, "bankrolled Israel, armed Israel and relied on Israel".
"There have been attempts by the Israel lobby to pretend that the whole issue is one of 'Jews versus Arabs', and this was addressed in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign rallies, where we had liberal Jews and Christians, showing them that the conflict is about a simple issue, and that is the right to self-determination."
Letter from the Editor
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