Israel’s unexpected friends in Parliament

"Not Jewish, with few Jewish constituents, yet these MPs are allies of the Jewish state"

By Marcus Dysch, September 3, 2013
Veteran LIberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith says he admires Israel’s “vibrant democracy” (Photo: PA)

Veteran LIberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith says he admires Israel’s “vibrant democracy” (Photo: PA)

There is a commonly-held belief among Israel supporters in Britain that the Houses of Parliament are a hotbed of seething anti-Zionist sentiment from which no political good can come.

A number of high-profile incidents and the regular raising of parliamentary questions and early-day motions which attack Israel have bolstered that feeling in recent years.

But less well-publicised is that a dedicated troop of MPs and Peers, from all parties, frequently put the case for the Jewish state and press the government to act more favourably to one of Britain’s leading trade, military and political allies.

While the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Slaughter, Caroline Lucas, and Bob Russell receive praise from pro-Palestinian campaigners, work on the other side of the debate can go unacknowledged.

What may be surprising is that the vast majority of Israel advocates in Parliament are not Jewish and represent constituencies that are home to few, if any, Jewish voters.

Friends of Israel groups in Westminster are thriving — the Conservative group is one of Parliament’s largest, the Labour equivalent has considerable support from party leader Ed Miliband’s front-bench team, and the views of the small Liberal Democrat group’s members are regularly heard by the party hierarchy.

So when there are no votes up for grabs, and no obvious reasons for picking one side or the other, what motivates these politicians, and what is their constituents’ response?

For Conservative MP Andrew Percy, defending Israel “seems to be the right thing to do. I’ve always had a general interest in the Middle East because it’s the centre of so much of our history.

“It’s a hostile environment being pro-Israeli but it’s a very small number of people who claim it’s an apartheid state. We have to remember we are never going to beat those people, so let’s concentrate on talking about Israel’s positives.

“The education side, its contribution to health services, the high-tech industries, the increasing growth in business between Britain and Israel — that aspect of it is important.”

Such is the Hull-born MP’s dedication, he is now taking Hebrew lessons.

Mr Percy’s Brigg and Goole constituency in east Yorkshire is home to just a handful of Jewish voters. But his allegiance has not had a negative impact, he said.

“I’ve never had a letter or communication from a constituent — bar one tweet from someone — that was negative about Israel. In fact, I’ve had the opposite — when I’ve spoken about Israel I’ve had letters from Christian constituents who are big supporters.”

Mr Percy has repeatedly lobbied the Department for International Development on aid money paid to the Palestinian Authority that ends up in the pockets of Palestinians in Israeli jails. There is, he said, “a small team” of Tories who have been “very tough” on this and other issues.

For Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dems’ longest-serving MP, defending Israel is a commitment which goes back as far as the Suez crisis and Six-Day War.

Conservative MP Andrew Percy is so enamoured, he is taking Hebrew lessons

Conservative MP Andrew Percy is so enamoured, he is taking Hebrew lessons

Sir Alan was first elected in the Berwick-upon-Tweed seat in 1973, and 40 years later is now the president of Lib Dem Friends of Israel.

As a Methodist, he feels a strong connection to the Holy Land. “The Old Testament and the prophets are a living part of my heritage, as they are of the Jewish community. It doesn’t automatically transfer to a support of Israel, but it’s a positive feature.”

Voters’ impressions that his party was squarely in the anti-Israel camp and a “lost cause” are false, he said, despite a number of controversial cases involving Lib Dem MPs and Peers, such as David Ward and Baroness Tonge.

Sir Alan, who is retiring at the next election, said: “Nick Clegg has done a lot to rebuild confidence in the Jewish community. From a Friends of Israel point of view I feel much more comfortable with the current leadership. LDFI itself has built up into a stronger organisation than ever before.”

He said the party had “internal debates” and “lively exchanges” on matters relating to Israel and the Palestinians. As a result there are opportunities for positive work to be done.

“Along with my colleagues like Lord Palmer I am able to defend Israel on a Liberal Democrat stance,” he said.

“There are people within the party who take a strongly pro-Palestinian stance but do so for perfectly respectable reasons. You can have a proper discussion with them to help them understand why Israel has to take some of the decisions it does.”

Sir Alan used to joke with Lionel Kopelowitz that the former Board of Deputies president’s holiday home in the Berwick area made him the MP’s only Jewish constituent.

There has been only “limited comeback” from constituents opposed to Sir Alan’s support for Israel.

“It’s mainly from well-intentioned church groups who have genuine sympathy for the Palestinian people but who haven’t thought through the very serious implications of some of the ideas they are attracted to regarding Israel.

“One of the reasons I am so strongly supportive of Israel as a nation is because it is a vibrant democracy in which a range of views, even on the most sensitive issues, is aired and exchanged.”

That view is echoed by Labour’s Michael Dugher. He is the party’s vice-chair and holds the same position in the Labour Friends of Israel group.

The Barnsley East MP said his eyes had been opened to the country’s positives during his first visit in 1997.

He explained: “When you engage with people about Israel the best thing you can do is take them there and let them see for themselves that Israel is not just a country, it’s an idea that we are fighting for.

“There’s a serious side to it as well. There are our shared values. We have worked very closely on big issues like fighting antisemitism and racism and Islamist extremism. When I was first working on these in the mid-1990s they did not get the national coverage they should have had. That work is even more important today than it was 20 years ago.”

Mr Dugher said his support was born out of friendships with Jewish colleagues dating back to his time at university and as leader of the Labour student movement.

He does not agree with the suggestion that a majority of the British public is hostile towards Israel, but admitted that the perception of Israel remains a sore point.

“Israel does not loom large in the minds of most people in Britain. It’s a small country, quite far away. Their only exposure to Israel is through the prism of the peace process or the conflict,” said Mr Dugher.

“That’s perfectly legitimate — it’s a world news story — but it does skew people’s impressions. They don’t get to see the democracy or the thriving economy and high-tech industry. We are trying to get that message across.”

Last updated: 2:55pm, September 3 2013