A Labour MP condemned for describing the Israeli government as “fascist” has apologised for her “intemperate” language.
Kim Johnson was criticised by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesman for her “unacceptable” remarks during Prime Minister’s Questions.
The MP for Liverpool Riverside later returned to the Commons to apologise and also withdrew her use of the term “apartheid state” following a request from the Labour leadership.
Ms Johnson said there are “far-right elements” in the Israeli government but noted she was wrong to use the term “fascist” and said it was “particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel”.
She added she recognised the use of “apartheid state” was “insensitive” although she said she was “quoting accurately Amnesty’s description”.
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.
During PMQs on Wednesday, Ms Johnson had said: “Since the election of the fascist Israeli government in December last year, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children.”
After disquiet from 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?”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak replied: “She also 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, the Prime Minister’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.”
Ms Johnson returned to the Commons around two hours later to apologise.
She said: “I would like to apologise unreservedly for the intemperate language I used during PMQs.
“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.
“I would also like to apologise 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.”
Labour earlier 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 & 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 @LouiseEllman’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”.
Karla McLaren, Amnesty International UK’s government and political relations manager, said the UK has “abjectly failed” to hold the Israeli authorities to account for “their grave and systematic breaches of international law stretching back decades”.
She said: “We would call on Keir Starmer, Rishi Sunak and all parliamentarians to read our 280-page report on Israel’s crushing system of apartheid against Palestinians.
“UK politicians should engage with human rights experts on this issue, visit the region to see the brutal reality of Israeli apartheid for themselves, and adopt a principled stance of opposition to all human rights violations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.”