Israel doesn't agree with Nick

Cleggmania is bad news for supporters of the Jewish state


The great joy of being a third party in British politics is that the detail of policy pronouncements mostly goes unremarked in the media. The surge in Liberal Democrat support, after Nick Clegg's winning performance in the first of the leadership debates, changed that.

There has been a concerted effort to examine every aspect of policy. When it comes to the Middle East the portents are not encouraging. Clegg is a long-term critic of Israel's policies and led the charge to denounce Israel and impose sanctions during the 2009 Gaza war.

In an inflammatory opinion-page article in The Guardian in January 2009 he called on Labour to "condemn unambiguously Israel's tactics" and called for an immediate arms boycott by Britain and the EU.

The language in the Lib Dems manifesto on the Middle East does not suggest that the party's policies have changed very much over the last year. The party supports a two-state solution but goes on to condemn "disproportionate use of force by both sides".

The Lib Dems have heavy baggage — not least the legacy of Jenny Tonge

That looks innocuous enough until one recognises that "disproportionate" was the word most bandied about by the critics of Israel's Gaza campaign. The manifesto goes on to urge Israel and Egypt to ease the Gaza blockade. The Lib Dems don't seem to have noticed that this already is happening.

There is enough in Lib Dems' views to give hope to those who want to see British foreign policy tilt back towards Europe and away from the Atlantic alliance. Writing in the Independent, columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown noted that Clegg's party "has alone stood up for fundamental human rights and liberty and was steadfastly against the depraved Bush/Blair war in Iraq".

Some insight into the Lib Dem position on the Israel-Palestine conflict can be gleaned from its Friends of Palestine website. There is much admiration for the work of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), an organisation whose main job it is to keep the "refugee" issue alive. However, a post by Andrew Baldwin, following an all-party visit to the region last month, does note that drawings on the wall of an UNWRA school depict Israelis only in terms of Apache gunships and F16 jets which "cannot be good for future peace plans".

Clegg and his party have some heavy baggage to carry. Not least is the legacy of Baroness Jenny Tonge who, in February, was summarily sacked by the leader as health spokesman in the Lords after she called for an inquiry into allegations that Israeli soldiers were involved in organ trafficking in Haiti. Clegg described her remarks as "wrong, provocative and distasteful". But what the Liberal leader never explained is what Tonge was doing back on the Lib Dem front bench in the Lords in the first place.

The Guardian notes she became a peer in 2005 despite regularly running into controversy over her views on Israel. She was first sacked from the front bench in 2004 when she flirted with the idea of becoming a suicide bomber.

A Haaretz dispatch from London on the UK elections contemplated the possibility of a hung Parliament in which either Labour or the Tories need Lib Dem support. It reported "Israel lobbyists rolling their eyes and clutching their heads at the thought of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg as foreign minister".

It is quite remarkable that half way through a lacklustre election campaign that Clegg and the party's economic spokesman, the level-headed Vince Cable, have emerged as the country's two most popular politicians. As part of a government, of whatever colour, they would have the ability to bring about an anti-American tilt in British foreign policy.

This might inevitably mean a less favourable attitude towards theJewish state. Such an electoral outcome would heap the pressure on Britain's next ambassador, Matthew Gould, who is due in Tel Aviv this autumn.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 4:51pm, May 21 2010

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