INTERVIEW Rishi Sunak: Labour trying to ‘bully’ Israel on Palestinian recognition

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INTERVIEW Rishi Sunak: Labour trying to ‘bully’ Israel on Palestinian recognition

Defiant prime minister tells Jewish News he has 'not wavered' in his support for Israel as poll suggests a clear lead for Labour in communal voting preferences

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media after the launch of the Scottish Conservative manifesto at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh, while on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Monday June 24, 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media after the launch of the Scottish Conservative manifesto at the Apex Grassmarket Hotel in Edinburgh, while on the General Election campaign trail. Picture date: Monday June 24, 2024.

Rishi Sunak has accused  Keir Starmer’s Labour Party of attempting to “bully” Israel into early recognition of a Palestinian state.

Speaking to Jewish News as the election campaign enters the final straight, the prime minister accused Starmer’s deputy Angela Rayner of “saying just a few weeks ago that Labour would recognise Palestine very quickly”.

Under his leadership, Sunak promised, the Conservatives “would never use such an approach to bully Israel when it faces such a great threat to its security”.

With polls showing a dramatic dip in support for the Tories ahead of the 4 July election, the prime minister stressed that he has “not wavered” from supporting Israel’s right to defend itself after the 7 October Hamas atrocity.

“It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve not wavered from it,” Sunak told Jewish News this week. “That’s what you’ll get from me. I am not a fairweather friend.”

Rishi Sunak at CFI reception

In a defiant interview, Sunak said he was only too aware of the opinion polls suggesting Starmer’s Labour were heading for a resounding victory in the rapidly approaching election, called early by him.

Meanwhile a poll by the respected firm Survation of the community, published last week had shown that while Sunak and the Tories still had more support than Labour, Starmer’s party had picked up a surge of support from the Jewish electorate. A second survey conducted by the Institute for Policy Research had even suggested more British Jews would now vote Labour rather than Tory next month.

“There have been many polls, and I’m sure they’ll be more this coming week,” said Sunak, “but the only one that really matters is the one on July 4th.”

He then stressed his own focus was on “making people see the very clear choice at this election – continue to have your taxes cut under the Conservatives or face significant tax rises under the Labour party.”

The prime minister argued that since becoming leader he had made considerable progress “cutting tax for people at every stage of their lives, abolishing national insurance for the self employed, abolishing stamp duty for first time buyers, the triple lock plus for pensioners.”

He claimed Labour would “just hike people’s taxes” and that he “did not want that to happen.”

But asked to address the clear concern that some in the Jewish community now had with both him and the record of his party, Sunak said:  “For the Jewish community I’d say just look at our record.

“I have been a consistent friend to the Jewish community. I’m also a defender of Israel’s right to defend itself. I will continue to do both those things.

“You’ve seen that over the past eight or nine months, particularly when things have become very difficult.”

Lord Cameron on latest visit to Israel

Sunak seemed to be aware that some of his party’s most staunch supporters in the community had been concerned by the approach taken by the foreign secretary over Israel and the fight against Hamas in Gaza, especially when in January David Cameron himself appeared to propose the recognition of a Palestinian state ahead of the conclusion of any peace process with Israel.

The prime minister also suggested that Cameron’s proposal on Palestine recognition was in fact taken in a way “not as it was intended.”

He continued: “Neither the foreign secretary nor I believe this is the right way with Palestinian recognition, while Israel is not secure. We would never as Conservatives use such an approach to bully Israel when it faces such great threats to its security.

“And, David’s been very clear recently , as you saw, whether it was over making sure we have a robust process on arms exports and licensing., whether it’s his comments on the ICC. You can see very robust support for Israel and its right to defend itself. The priority is that the talks are on-going and its important we give them space to conclude.

“We all want to see a deal that gets the hostages out, aid in, and allows for a pause. But as David Cameron has said, it is Hamas who started this war, they should be the ones seizing the opportunity to secure a deal. not blocking it. That’s the best way to stop the fighting.”

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak

Sunak continues to be scathing of Labour leader Starmer, particularly over his time serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet.

The previous evening Starmer had appeared at a leaders debate hosted by The Sun newspaper, where he had suggested that by expelling the former leader he had taken the most serious action possible in dealing with his former boss.

But the PM refused to accept this explanation. “He’s incredibly opportunistic,” Sunak said of Starmer. “He serves when it is in his political intertest, but when it isn’t.”

The PM adds: “This is a guy who supported Corbyn nor once, but twice. He went out of his way to say, in his words, he would be a ‘great prime minister’ .

“That’s Jeremy Corbyn who led an institutionally antisemitic party, the Labour Party investigated by the EHRC. Corbyn who described people in Hamas as ‘friends’.

“I think its appalling. And you know what. There were other members of the senior Labour team who made a principled decision, which I respect, not to serve.

“Keir Starmer was not one of them. Many members within the Labour Party decided not to serve because they had principals. They saw it wasn’t right. But Keir Starmer did. And when it didn’t suit him anymore he decided not to. It tells you everything you need to know about him.”

Pressed again to accept that unlike Corbyn, Starmer could always be views to be someone who is a patriot, and who would hold the same view as him on issues such as support of NATO, Sunak claimed: “You mention NATO, if Keir Starmer is prime minister he will show up at the NATO summit in July, and the first thing he will have done is cut defence spending from our pledge to increase it.”

He added: “In July if he goes to the summit as prime minister, instead of us having a leadership position in NATO and being able to encourage others to invest more as we’ve done in the past, he’ll be at the back of the room having been the person to cut defence spending.”

Sunak also continued his attack on Labour over Palestinian recognition, ignoring the party’s manifesto commitment to only recognise a Palestinian state at a time when Israel’s security could be guaranteed and as part of an “international process.”

David Lammy at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

He accused foreign secretary David Lammy of “actively working” on moves for earlier recognition of Palestine, adding: “Now is not the right moment for Palestinian state recognition, while Israel is not secure.”

He said that while Starmer may attempt to portray himself as a friend of Israel “every time I’ve been in parliament he can say what he wants to me, by the remaining hour of my statement you’ve just got Labour MP after Labour MP queuing up to bash Israel.”

He also claimed that Labour planned to cut spending on defence and security at a time when they world “is a more uncertain place than its been since Cold War.”

Sunak claimed only his party had the know how “to keep everyone safe, to protect us from an axis of authoritarian states, Russia Iran, North Korea, China, and their proxies like Hamas and the Houthis.”

But Sunak appeared to accept that there were some long-time Tory voters who where saying that while they could not vote Labour, they would likely not vote at all on July 4, with issues such as the election date gambling scandal proving the final straw.

“I absolutely understand and appreciate people’s frustrations,” he says. “But this election is so important, it’s determining the future of our country, and which government is going to decide our future.

“If they don’t show up to vote what they are going to see is Keir Starmer in No 10 with a blank cheque to do what he wants, and the exact opposite of what they care about.”

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