Document:Why Starmer picked a controversial pro-Israel lobbyist for a safe seat

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Campaigning/deliberating on 28 May 2024
The self-proclaimed Zionist activist Luke Akehurst has called the UN 'antisemitic' and backs Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank

Disclaimer (#3)Document.png Article  by Imran Mulla, Peter Oborne dated 4 June 2024
Subjects: Keir Starmer, Luke Akehurst, Israel lobby, Chris Bradburn, North Durham, Faiza Shaheen, Chingford and Woodford Green
Source: Middle East Eye (Link)

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Why Starmer picked a controversial pro-Israel lobbyist for a safe seat

Since the start of Israel's assault on the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, global indignation towards Israel has shifted from a simmer to boiling point.

The death toll in Gaza has edged past 36,500 and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court now seek a warrant for the arrest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in connection with alleged war crimes.

Meanwhile, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has announced: "Let us be clear. Israel is committing Genocide in Gaza."

The response from Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has left longstanding supporters of the party puzzled.

In the past week, it has parachuted one of Britain’s leading Israel lobbyists into a safe parliamentary seat, without consulting local members.

Labour voters in North Durham are already displaying anger that an outsider should be imposed without consultation. "He’s got nowt to do with our area," complained one supporter on Facebook.

According to another, Akehurst would not answer questions at a meeting of the Durham North Constituency Labour Party at Pelton Community Centre on Sunday afternoon.

A provocative move

Many will consider this a provocative move at a time when many Labour activists are already appalled by what they see as Keir Starmer’s support for Israel's war on Gaza.[1]

To summarise the facts: Late last week the Labour Party, acting without consultation, picked the pro-Israel lobbyist Luke Akehurst as candidate for the safe seat of North Durham.[2]

This move flagrantly contradicted Starmer's pledge, made during his leadership campaign, that "we should end the National Executive Committee (NEC) impositions of candidates. Local Party members should select their candidates for every election".

Akehurst, who lives in Oxfordshire, has no apparent links in the North East.

According to Byline Times journalist, Adam Bienkov, Akehurst has deleted more than 2,000 posts from his account on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

But some of Akehurst’s posts survive. They echo the Israeli government's talking points.

Two years ago, Akehurst was asked if he regarded the UN as antisemitic because the UN Security Council (of which Britain is a member) ruled that "Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity." Akehurst answered "Yes."

Last November, he said that the "major West Bank settlement blocks" should become part of Israel as part of a land exchange with Palestine, adding that he wants the Golan Heights "to remain part of Israel".

The establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, according to a recent UN report, amount to a war crime.

A factsheet published by Akehurst’s organisation, We Believe in Israel, in 2016 described a UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement activity and calling for its cessation as "problematic".

Double standards

Akehurst, who has been photographed wearing a "Zionist shitlord" t-shirt, sits on Labour’s National Executive Committee - which is able to choose parliamentary candidates under selection rules approved by Labour only last year.

At the time of writing, a crowdfunder set up by Labour activist Gary Spedding had raised nearly £3,000 to "adequately oppose Israel lobbyist Luke Akehurst in North Durham.”

Akehurst has been a Labour activist since the age of 16 and served as a Labour councillor from 2002 until 2014. Under Corbyn’s leadership, he worked as secretary of Labour First to oppose Corbynism. Since then, he has been a strong supporter of Starmer’s leadership.

From 2011, Akehurst has also been the director of We Believe in Israel, which describes itself as a “movement to support Israel” and aims to “support a grassroots network of supporters of Israel in the UK".

The organisation says it supports a “negotiated two-state solution” and opposes “efforts to delegitimise Israel through tactics such as lawfare and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”

"The Lobby", a 2017 Al Jazeera documentary, showed footage of Israeli diplomat Shai Masot calling Akehurst a "great campaigner" and "one of the best in the inside" of Labour.

We Believe in Israel told Al Jazeera that "while it was not controlled financially or otherwise by Israel, it worked with a range of stakeholders including the Israeli embassy”.

The selection of Akehurst opens Starmer to the charge of operating a system of double standards.

"I am standing here to win, to beat the Conservatives, to finish what we started"

A stark contrast is found in Labour’s treatment of Faiza Shaheen, ex-candidate for the marginal London seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, and Akehurst in North Durham.

Just as Akehurst was imposed without consultation, Shaheen was stripped of her candidacy without consultation or any opportunity of appeal.

She was deselected as the locally chosen Labour candidate on 29 May, while Akehurst was imposed the following day.

Shaheen appears to have been punished for liking social media posts, some of which were from over a decade ago before she had joined Labour. One was from a Green Party candidate in 2014 announcing he was standing for Hackney Council. Another post, also from 2014, expressed support for boycotting Israeli goods over Israel’s bombing of Gaza.

She also liked a post in which former shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, defended Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, the co-founder of Jewish Voice for Labour, over her suspension by the party for saying she was "uncomfortable" with seeing fellow members suspended over accusations of antisemitism.[3]

Incendiary and offensive

Yet, Labour has shown no concern about Akehurst’s troubling social media history.

His posts are far more incendiary and offensive than the posts Shaheen was disciplined over.

The post that has received the most publicity in coverage of Shaheen’s deselection was from 12 May and said: “Every time you say something even mildly critical of Israel, you're immediately assailed by scores of hysterical people who explain to you why you're completely wrong, how you’re biased against Israel."

Enough to kill off Shaheen’s political career in the Labour Party.

But Akehurst described the Great March of Return - a peaceful protest movement in Gaza in 2018-19 - as being "where groups of terrorists armed with guns, knives and explosions tried but failed to break through the Gaza border fence to perpetrate exactly the same type of atrocities that happened on 7 October."

No questions asked by Labour high command, even though this was not the assessment of the United Nations.

According to the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the events:

"More than 6,000 unarmed demonstrators were shot by military snipers, week after week at the protest sites by the separation fence.
"The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognisable as such.
"Despite some acts of significant violence, the Commission found that the demonstrations did not constitute combat or military campaigns."[4]

MEE asked the Labour Party whether Akehurst’s view that the UN was antisemitic, and that major settlement blocks should become part of Israel, represent party policy.

By the time we went to press we had received no answer.

Middle East Eye also tried to reach Akehurst through his new constituency of North Durham, but he proved elusive.