Keir Starmer condemns Labour MP for calling Israeli government ‘fascist’

Kim Johnson MP (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)
Kim Johnson MP (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)

Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesman has condemned Labour MP Kim Johnson’s description of the Israeli government as “fascist”.

During PMQs on Wednesday, the left-winger referred to the election of “the fascist Israeli government in December last year”, saying there has been “an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children.”

After disquiet across the Commons, Ms Johnson added: “Can the prime minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organisations are referring to as an apartheid state?”

Labour leader Sir Keir’s spokesman told reporters the Liverpool Riverside MP would be asked to apologise for her “unacceptable” remarks, and it is understood that the party’s chief whip spoke to the MP.

Ms Johnson later said sorry in the Commons, saying she wanted to “apologise unreservedly for the intemperate language” she had used.

She added: “I was wrong to use the term ‘fascist’ in relation to the Israeli government and understand why this was particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel. While there are far-right elements in the government, I recognise the use of the term in this context was wrong.”

The left-winger also apologised for the use of the term apartheid state. “While I was quoting accurately Amnesty’s description, I recognise this is insensitive and I would like to withdraw it.”

Earlier, in the Commons, Mr Sunak said the Labour MP had “failed to mention the horrific attacks on civilians inside Israel as well”.

“It is important in this matter to remain calm and urge all sides to strive for peace, and that is very much what I will do as prime minister and in the conversations that I have had with the Israeli prime minister.”

After the session, Mr Sunak’s spokesman was asked whether Ms Johnson’s language had been appropriate. The official replied: “No, that’s certainly not the UK government’s position. The prime minister highlighted that the killing of innocent civilians.

“The important thing, as the prime minister said, is for people to remain calm and to use moderate language and take an appropriate and considered approach in dealing with what is a very difficult issue.”

Sir Keir’s spokesman denounced the use of both the terms “apartheid” and “fascist”, saying many will have taken offence at the latter in particular. He told reporters: “As a first step we would obviously want her to withdraw the remarks that she used for sure.”

Asked whether Mr Sunak should have condemned Ms Johnson’s language, the spokesman said: “That’s a question for the prime minister. All I would say is that if Keir Starmer had been answering that question he would’ve made clear that he regards that language as unacceptable.”

Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as leader of the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in Israel’s history at the end of December. The region has seen an alarming spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence in recent weeks.

Labour said that, while there are “specific disagreements” in any relationship between countries, the party values a strong working relationship with Israel.

“We obviously see the relationship with Israel as an important one for us bilaterally. We want to have strong relations with the government of Israel,” said the spokesman.

“Obviously there are always issues in any bilateral relationship where you have disagreements between countries, but fundamentally the relationship between Britain and Israel is one that we value.”

He added: “I don’t think using the sort of language that was used in PMQs today is helpful in achieving that.”

Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge called Ms Johnson’s language “dangerous”. The veteran former frontbencher, who is Jewish and had relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, tweeted: “This language is unacceptable and dangerous.

“With violence escalating in recent weeks, this careless remark only makes it harder to bridge the divide. Not to mention a complete insult to Louise Ellman’s legacy.”

Jewish politician Dame Louise Ellman quit Labour in 2019 over antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but rejoined the party in 2021, saying it has a leader in Sir Keir in whom “Britain’s Jews can have trust”.