LONDON // Delegates representing Britain's 6.5 million trade union members cobbled together an awkward show of unity yesterday afternoon and agreed to boycott Israeli goods produced in settlements in the occupied territories.
The decision on the last day of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual convention in Liverpool was an uneasy - and, to many, unsatisfactory - compromise reached at the last minute after more than two days of acrimony. Originally, the motion put to the conference by the Fire Brigades' Union called for a consumer boycott of all Israeli products and a statutory import ban on goods produced by Israeli companies in the occupied territories.
It also demanded an end to arms sales to Israel and the suspension of official links between British and Israeli trade unions. The hard-hitting motion, backed by Britain's two biggest unions with more than 2.3m members, was due to have been voted on after a debate on Wednesday. But that vote had to be suspended until yesterday after the GMB, the country's third largest union with more than 600,000 members, vociferously opposed the move and said its members would ignore any boycott.
Behind the scenes, Gordon Brown, the prime minister, whose party receives millions of pounds in funding each year from the trades unions, was understood to be putting pressure on TUC leaders to tone down the original motion because he feared it could produce a diplomatic "nightmare", according to union sources. As two union leaders squared up to each other in Liverpool in a name-calling, finger-pointing row over the issue, the Israeli Embassy in London got in on the act, condemning the motion and saying that it would harm Palestinian as well as Israeli workers.
In the end, delegates opted for what one described as "a fudge", calling only for a boycott on goods produced on settlements in the occupied territories and not a much wider and, potentially, far more significant boycott of all Israeli goods and an end to arms exports. Delegates at the congress backed a motion - agreed after hours of intense, behind-the-scenes negotiations - that condemned the continuing blockade of Gaza and the Israeli military operations that resulted in the deaths of 1,450 Palestinians.
A statement accepted by delegates read: "To increase the pressure for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories, and the removal of the separation wall and illegal settlements, we will support a boycott of those goods and agricultural products that originate in illegal settlements through developing an effective, targeted consumer-led boycott campaign." Mick Shaw, the president of the Fire Brigades' Union, had argued that the original motion would put pressure on Israel to end the Gaza blockade and engage the Palestinians in peace talks.
"One of the most effective ways is boycott," he said, "which means an end to the arms trade and sale of settlement goods, suspension of the EU-Israel trade agreement, and a targeted consumer boycott." The move, however, was rejected outright by the GMB leadership, whose members are drawn from a wide range of industries, from the food sector to manufacturing and public bodies. Paul Kenny, the president of the GMB, described the motion as "incredibly divisive" and said that it was "way beyond the logic of where we should be".
He added: "There is no mandate for this motion and we believe that it would be counterproductive and cut off communications with our trade union colleagues in Israel." Talya Lador-Fresher, Israel's deputy ambassador in London, went on the BBC to say that if the original motion were accepted, it would not help prospects of peace in the region. Accusing the firemen's union of starting a fire when it should be putting it out, she said: "Boycotts will not bring the peace process forward. It will only harm workers in our area.
"It will harm both Palestinian workers, 50,000 of which are working in Israel and the West Bank, and it will also harm Israeli workers. It may even backfire and harm British workers in this country because boycotts have a tendency to work both ways." However, Hugh Lanning, the chairman of the London-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: "Israel's brutal and horrific war on Gaza in December and January shocked trade union members worldwide.
"The trade union movement has a responsibility to increase the pressure on Israel in order to bring peace and justice to the region. This includes a targeted, consumer boycott of Israeli goods." The British move follows policies adopted by other European trades union movements in the wake of the Gaza invasion. In May, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, whose members constitute more than a third of the nation's workers, called for an international boycott of Israel if it did not reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Irish trade unionists have also said that they plan to launch a boycott of Israeli goods later this year, while the Scottish TUC is adopting a "rights-based approach, supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel and encouraging investment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories". firstname.lastname@example.org