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Wreathgate recalled in light of the war on Gaza

SOLOMON HUGHES looks back at 2018 and the Corbyn wreath-laying controversy — a complete sham that also smeared the West’s now-preferred negotiating partner, the PLO

BIG events in Britain are often accompanied by ritual denunciations of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: when the Times editorial accused Keir Starmer of “vacillation” and “panic” over Labour’s Gaza policy, they had to preface the criticism with a swipe at Corbyn, under whom they claim Labour had “plumbed” into “squalid moral depths.”

This is a pretty common phenomenon: when the current, centrist-dominated political scene comes up with more austerity, hunger and war, the centrist pundits have to spit out a ceremonial denunciation of Corbyn before they start to worry about whether the system is really working.

Haunted by the fact that an alternative, socialist response to these crises was recently popular, they feel they must exorcise the ghost of Corbynism before admitting the system isn’t working.

But when it comes to Gaza, allied hopes for a solution rest heavily on the very people they denounced Corbyn for hanging out with.

Western plans for a way out of the Gaza war rely heavily on the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)-led Palestinian Authority (PA).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this month, calling for “Palestinian-led governance, and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority” as a mid-term solution to the conflict.

The PA has run the limited self-governance of West Bank territory since the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. It is dominated by the PLO and the Fatah party.

Since 2007 Gaza has been run by the newer Islamist party Hamas: both the PLO and Hamas fought their way into politics over the decades through a mix of armed actions, from terrorism to mass uprisings.

While Israel wants to wipe out Hamas for their bloody massacre which sparked the current war, Blinken’s argument is that a long-term deal must be negotiated with a Palestinian partner to settle the dispute, and that partner is the PA.

Labour MP David Lammy echoed Blinken, arguing: “The Palestinian Authority plays an essential role in the West Bank, is an important partner to Britain and is essential to any long-term negotiations towards a political settlement and a two-state solution.”

Recent Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s, have not encouraged the PA over Hamas: instead, they squeezed the PA with settlements and other pressures while allowing Hamas to grow in a “divide and rule” strategy that turned out to be playing with fire.

The PLO-led PA might be the flavour of the month now, but the press decided they were just evil “terrorists” when they wanted to have a pop at Corbyn.

From 2018 onwards, Corbyn was repeatedly accused of backing “terrorists” by the press for joining Tory and Lib Dem parliamentarians on a visit to the PLO HQ in Tunis in 2014.

Corbyn laid a wreath for PLO members who were killed in widely condemned Israeli bombings and assassinations. Bizarrely this was interpreted as Corbyn supporting the killers of the “Munich massacre” — when the Palestinian militant Black September group kidnapped and murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

This story ran and ran in the press, even though it made no sense at all. The PLO does not commemorate the Munich attack, so the idea that Corbyn, secretly, decided to go against his host’s wishes and honour the Black September group while in Tunis is nonsense, and there is no evidence for it.

Both the PLO and Black September said that the two organisations were separate. The actual Black September members who carried out the Munich attack are buried in Libya, not Tunisia.

The outlandish claims that Corbyn was secretly honouring the Munich massacre rested on the presence of two PLO graves in Tunisia — those of Salah Khalaf and Atef Bseiso — who the Israelis claim were “behind” or “organised” Black September.

But Khalaf and Bseiso denied these charges. Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, wrote an autobiography. The introduction plainly states “Abu Iyad vehemently denies that he was ever chief of Black September.” Iyad and Khalaf were assassinated by a more violent breakaway from the PLO who thought he was too much of a compromiser.

Bseiso was the PLO’s liaison with Western intelligence agencies — the PLO guy who negotiated with the CIA, so a key figure in US attempts to work with the PLO. He was assassinated in Paris in 1992, most likely by agents from the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, who wanted to prevent the PLO from building good relations with the US and the West in general.

Israel’s claims that Bseiso was also “behind” Black September can be seen as an attempt to justify their agents assassinating PLO people in France.

The main point of the graveyard ceremony in Tunis was for Corbyn and other politicians to lay a wreath for PLO members who were killed when Israel bombed the PLO HQ in Tunis in Operation Wooden Leg in 1985.

Up to 71 PLO members-in-exile were killed in the Israeli air raid on Tunisia, which was very widely condemned: even US Republican president Ronald Reagan said the attack “cannot be condoned.”

Some claim that the PLO were behind Black September and Munich, and the Khalaf and Bseiso’s denials were just a cover story — but really that’s not relevant; the point is that the PLO does not commemorate Black September, so the idea that they or Corbyn secretly held a pro-Munich massacre event makes no sense, though this did not stop the papers endlessly reporting this is what had happened.

Right now, all the Western powers believe a long-term settlement will involve Israel doing a deal with the PLO for a two-state solution. Those same powers are worried that Netanyahu won’t do this and will instead destabilise the West Bank as well by backing illegal, violent settlers there.

But the “wreathgate” attack on Corbyn meant not only spreading a tall story about Black September, but it also meant supporting Netanyahu, who was quoted as a reliable source in the “wreathgate” story, and overlooking or whitewashing the kind of reckless Israeli acts — like the 1985 Tunis bombing or the 1992 Paris assassination — that stand in the way of any kind of settlement like a two-state solution.

Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter at @SolHughesWriter.

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