It sounds like a tempest in a teapot, but it could bring down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party – and that could end up meaning that Britain doesn’t leave the European Union.
It started last Saturday with a photograph in the Daily Mail (a newspaper that regards Corbyn as the Devil’s second cousin) of the Labour leader laying a wreath in a cemetery in Tunisia four years ago. He had laid it, said the Mail, at a memorial to the Palestinian terrorists who planned the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who never misses a chance to portray Europe as a cauldron of anti-Semitism, immediately tweeted: “The laying of a wreath by Corbyn on the graves of the terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre deserves unequivocal condemnation from everybody – left, right, and everything in between.”
Corbyn replied at once on his own Twitter feed: “What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.”
Fair comment, perhaps, but that is not what a prudent British politician would choose to say when the Israeli prime minister has just accused him of anti-Semitism.
Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, but he could be described as anti-Zionist. It’s not an uncommon position among British politicians who joined the Labour Party in the ’60s and ’70s: admiration for Israel and close ties with the sister Labour Party that dominated Israeli politics.
Corbyn is also on the hard left of his party, which means that he has never met an anti-imperial, anticolonial, or anti-capitalist cause that he did not like. That’s how he found himself attending the “International Conference Friday 17 August 2018 12 on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression” in Tunisia four years ago. And once there, he went along when they all laid a wreath.
The conference was officially linked to the devastating Israeli air strike on Tunis in 1985, which killed 80 senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, members of their families, and Tunisian civilians. Corbyn doesn’t speak either French or Arabic, the two dominant languages in Tunisia, and presumably thought that’s what the wreath-laying was about. So he took part in it.
In fact, the wreath was laid in memory of a different bunch of Palestinians, members of the Black September group, who had helped to plan the Munich outrage and were later assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents.
What Corbyn should have done when the Daily Mail broke that story was to admit all and make a grovelling apology. It would have been humiliating, but he would have survived.
He didn’t do that.
Corbyn has never had the support of most Labour members of parliament. It is becoming plausible to think that he might lose the leadership – especially as he is the main reason Labour doesn’t enjoy a big lead in the opinion polls over the Theresa May’s Conservative government.
Which brings us to Brexit. The current stalemate in British politics which has paralysed negotiations for a sensible post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, risks ending next March in a disaster in which the UK crashes out of the EU.
Recent opinion polls show a small but growing majority of voters would vote “remain” in a second referendum, but neither party will back such a referendum.
If Labour had a different leader, all that could change – and Corbyn is in deep trouble.