Lib Dem Lord Wallace: His controversial Q&A in full

The full text of the Q&A answered by Lib Dem deputy leader in the Lords William Wallace, who was questioned by members of the Board of Deputies.


Lord Wallace

Lord Wallace

Q: Melvyn Benjamin, Hendon United Synagogue:
The Liberal Party, for many years was always considered to be very sympathetic so far as the Jewish community was concerned and certainly under the leadership of Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe that pertained. Since Jeremy Thorpe left the political scene, the perception amongst the Jewish community is that the liberal party tends to be less sympathetic so far as the community is concerned, particularly in relation to Israel and the Middle East. The failure to suspend the whip from Jenny Tonge did not sit well with the Jewish community. Would you be prepared to comment on the the Liberal Democratic policy on Israel and the Middle East particularly so far as this community relates to it?

Gladly. Our position on the Jewish community has not changed. Our position on Israel has changed. The position of Israel has changed and that is part of the problem which Israel now faces.

And if I may just give you a couple of anecdotes which show you the problems which we are struggling with and one of the reasons why I will defend Jenny even though I think she goes over the top on a number of occasions.

I was accused of being anti-semitic at a large conference last Spring by Uzi Arad as it happens who is Mr Netanyahu's national security adviser. I questioned his interpretation of what had happened in Gaza as his description was that the Gaza incident is now behind us.

I suggested that it wasn't entirely behind us and it was more than an incident and in front of a large crowd of parliamentarians from several European countries he went for me and ended up accusing me of anti-semitism.

Now that is part of what has gone wrong with the Israeli government and its attitude to criticism. As a critical friend of Israel – and one has to be a critical friend of Israel now – that makes it very difficult for those of us who want to provide support but not unquestioned support, not support for example which says international law does not apply to Israel. It has to apply to Israel.

Let me give you another example: We met, quite a few of us from our international affairs team, a visiting group of Knesset members some while ago from several different parties and one of our first questions was that we don't understand what Israel's long-term strategy is. This was treated as a hostile question. I mean they ought to have been able to answer that. Israel has to have a long-term strategy for survival.

Survival implies long-term security and as you well know – I gather Benny Begin was talking about commitment to a greater Israel last week in which Israel holds on to everything including the Golan Heights. That means survival based on continuing, in fact endless conflict.

So Israel's long-term security we argue depends on finding an accommodation with its neighbours and an accommodation with the Palestinians. That is not anti-Israeli.

We could spent a great deal of time on this. Of course it takes two to tango although if I may say so having met people from both sides – and I really do have to say to you the current Israeli Government is extremely bad at putting a case across.

On the question of Jenny Tonge, she lets her emotions run away with her or most recently she answered a deliberately provocative question from the editor of the Jewish Chronicle who is very much not a friend of my party, indeed is very clearly hostile to my party, in a way which I think she was unwise to do so but the reason why we resist expelling her from the party is that we do sadly find the current Likud Party very intolerant of all criticism.

I'm telling you the way that it looks to us and it does seem to us that Israel's long-term security depends on achieving a two-state solution. If you disagree with that I think you are jeopardising Israel's long-term security and the tragedy of Israel at the present moment is there are many people who want a greater Israel whatever all of the neighbours think.

Q: Jonathan Hoffman, Woodside Park Synagogue:

You were defending Jenny Tonge. Jenny Tonge said about the Jewish Lobby, the supposed Jewish Lobby, ‘I think they’ve got their grips on our party’ I don’t see how you can defend that.

She also alleged that the Israeli doctors who so bravely went to Haiti in order to do good, were plundering organs – a disgusting comment. I don’t believe anybody civilised could possible defend that comment.

Secondly, your party leader Nick Clegg who seems to bestride a colossus since last Thursday in the minds of some, wrote a piece in the Guardian Comment is Free saying that Israel had the right to defend itself but that we should put an arms embargo on Israel. How does Liberal party foreign policy square the right of Israel to defend itself with the failure to provide arms? Is Israel supposed to use its bear hands?

Q: Richard Cooper

Do you understand that because of the history of the Jewish People and in particular what happened in the 20th Century, we as Jews have absolutely no trust in the will or the ability of the nations of the world whether embodied by the UN, or any other group, to protect us from murderous Antisemitism we have formed the State of Israel in our ancestral homeland and we as Jews will do whatever is necessary to ensure that if - and I hope it is an if not a when – but if there is ever another wave of murderous antisemitism anywhere in the world there will this time be a place for Jews to go where they can defend themselves and most importantly they are not beholden to any other people.

Q: Roy Lewis, Sheffield Hebrew Congregation

I am a newly labelled fundamentalist. I’m also a member of the Hallam ward and therefore one of Nick Clegg’s constituents, a seat held by a former member of the Jewish community in Sheffield.

The question is how does the Liberal Party intend to promote community harmony when it does not approve of well founded faith beliefs of many individuals whether they be Muslim, Jewish, Christian or whatever?

Do you intend to stamp on the rights and the beliefs and the faiths of individuals for the benefit of what the Liberal Democrat party thinks is correct or approves of.

Ian Morris, Yeshurun Hebrew Congregation Cheadle

Unfortunately Lord Wallace you’ve really confirmed what many of us have thought about the Liberal party for some time. So let me ask you some different questions and see if we get a more positive response. You said in your address that you’re against special privileges for any particular faiths so I would like to know what your party’s attitudes are on three issues. First of all, do you give unequivocal support to the practice of Shechitah, do you give unequivocal liberty to Jewish people to practice circumcision and what is your attitude to the proposed amendment on Universal Jurisdiction?

I disapprove of the views, we disapprove as Liberals of the views of a great many people but it's not our job to use any action of the state to do anything about it. That's what tolerance means; that's what toleration means.

We all live in a society in which we should be actively disagreeing with each other. I disapprove very strongly of the views of Professor Dawkins who I regard as a secular fundamentalist and I live with people who are, and I'm regularly attacked by people who are strong Roman Catholics.

I personally disagree with their views but it's not a matter for any state action. That's what being in an open society is about and I hope you all agree at least with that.

On the question of Israel let me say a number of things which I hope you will accept. When the questioner said that Israel has to live not beholden to other people, the current existence of Israel depends on the unqualified military and financial support of the United States.

If you follow what General Petraeus' briefing was to the US Administration some weeks ago in which he was saying that the unqualified support for Israel which the United States gives endangers other American interests across the Middle East and Asia, that ought to concern all those of us who want to see a secure Israel in a peaceful Middle East and that is very much what I want to see.

Now I recognise fully everything you've said about the historical legacy because it's been said to me and to many of the others many times very passionately and one understands absolutely the historic record but also recognise that the problem with the displacement of the Palestinians is real.

I've had one of the leading Jewish members of the House of Lords say to me very vigorously: “But why cannot a Jew live in any part of Israel freely whenever they wish?”
To which one has to ask the question “What about the Palestinians, are they not to live in Israel?” – because one cannot rub the Palestinians entirely out of the equation.

There are those within the Israeli Government who would be quite happy to do so. I think and my party is committed to negotiations for a two-state solution that has to involve some Israeli withdrawal …

[I think unless we go back from a position where as Barak said publicly some weeks ago where Israel is in danger of moving beyond the possibility of a two-state solution then Israel is in real danger.

So I simply wish to repeat, I say this as a critical friend of Israel, I think the policy of the currently government is mistaken for the long-term security of Israel. Israel cannot survive through the next two/three generations unless it achieves peace with its neighbours and that involves hard negotiation but if it only can be achieved by continuing conflict then the future of Israel itself eventually becomes questionable. That's the set of issues.

On circumcision, I have no problems with circumcision at all and I don't see why any of us should have so. I happen myself to be circumcised for purely I think what were then fashionable medical reasons which come in and out on various occasions.

There are all sorts of good arguments on health grounds which are again now being made, but that's a matter of private choice and not of state intervention.

On universal jurisdiction we are strong supporters of international law and the whole issue of international law does raise major problems for us.

The way in which the Goldstone Report was handled by the Israeli Government did raise a number of problems for many of us including many of my Jewish friends within Liberal Democrats.

At present an arrest warrant can be provided on the application of an individual without the consent of the Attorney General whose consent would be needed if a prosecution were to be brought.

I should admit I'm not fully briefed on that but my instinct is that we would be in favour of limiting what are clearly in some respects very tendentious prosecutions by particular lobbies and that the Attorney General should have the right to intervene.

On Shechita, it’s another issue on which my party is divided. We have our own strong animal rights and Green people.

I myself hold the Liberal view that the state should intervene in as limited a way as possible and ritual slaughter is acceptable within the normal conditions that one should apply about cleanliness and minimum suffering to the beast and so on.

I have survived in Bradford politics through a period in which the whole question of Muslim ritual slaughter was used by the Conservatives in Bradford as a means of attacking the Muslim community and in which Liberals attempted to hold the line between the Conservatives and others and I have to say suffered from both sides but we would as always as Liberals we support as far as possible diversity and choice and minimum state intervention.

On the question of the arms embargo, we are concerned about what is happening within Israel. I read the English version of Ha'aretz on a regular basis. I know that there are many within Israel who are actively concerned themselves and the question that is regularly put to us is how do we help to push Israel in the right direction?

I'm doubtful of the arguments for an arms embargo because Israel itself is now a major manufacturer of arms and indeed a major exporter of arms.

If you were asking me a difficult question I would say the much more difficult question is about the Israel-EU trade relationship which is coming up for renewal and whether or not the EU should unconditionally renew that or whether there should be some negotiation on the conditions for that.

We have all of us got to grasp the issue of what we do about the Palestinians, what we do about Gaza and how we begin to get back to a negotiated settlement. I very much hope that we are beginning to get back there but I have to say each of the Israeli politicians and Ministers I have met over the last eighteen months have not inspired me or my colleagues with enormous confidence that they are committed to this.

Q: Eric Moonman, Belsize Square

You don’t seen to have taken on board the whole question of why a lot of people, Jews and Christians, are troubled by the comments of individual members of the Liberal Party. We can’t dismiss it – you can’t dismiss it.

There is an election coming up in a very short time, your answers have not been helpful on this. If you want to support Jenny Tonge, that’s up to you but the message that will go out from this meeting is your ambivalence and I think that’s bad for a politician and I think it also means that you haven’t even given credence to the great concerns, not about Israel, we take that on board but what have you said about antisemitism?

I don’t know what your brief has been but it’s been a disappointment to me as one person who’s also had parliamentary experience. I wouldn’t have given this presentation.

Q: Marie Bauer, Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation

My Lord, I’ve just come back from Israel where of course people are very concerned and they’re bothered about the two state solution and I’m surprised that people here including yourself do not realise that England settled that in 1921 when Jews were Palestinians as well and England gave 78% of the land of Palestine to the Hashemites and it’s now called Jordan and in fact the Palestinians, the Muslim Palestinians did once try to take it over but King Hussain didn’t like the idea. Why has the word forgotten about that? That is the two state solution, Israel and Jordan.

Q: Barry Kafka, Southgate Progressive Synagogue

I’m actually from Northern Ireland where an unusual peace treaty has occurred but the key thing was that Gerry Adams was prepared to talk to the opposition. In the case of the Palestinians, I’ve read, in English albeit, the charter of Hamas and I doubt if you could really say that they’re truly prepared to talk to us. That’s the question, have you taken that into account?

Q: Paul Edlin, Glasgow Representative Council

Actually my question is very similar to that one – basically, how do you make concessions to people whose objective is not compromise, but the elimination of the State of Israel.

Q: Flora Frank, British Emunah

I just want to ask you a question. Why don’t the British government understand the very heart of Israel? The way you’ve been speaking, shows that you really don’t understand a thing. I live in Israel a lot, I’m actually an Israeli, living in this country at the moment for family reasons and I go to the West Bank very often – it’s not the West Bank, it’s Yehuda Ve Shomron – and I think its extremely important that English people and internationally understand what is actually going on in Israel.

The people who live in Yehuda and Shomron are in fear of their lives, we’re worried that somebody is still going to shoot at us or throw stones at us, this is how we live.

Jenny Tonge doesn’t understand this she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and a lot of the government don’t know what they’re talking about. I just want to remind you that we’re the only true democracy in the Middle East, we’re a model for every country in our warfare, the way we conduct ourselves, the way we behave towards the Palestinians, I’ve seen it, I’ve been to hospitals there, a high percentage of Palestinians in the hospital, hardly any Israelis. Wonderful, that’s how it should be, nobody gives us credit for this.

Nobody realises what Israel is doing for the Arabs in Israel and why are such high standards expected of us and not of other people?

We are the people of the Torah and we have high standards but why are different standards placed on us indiscriminately. Why are we judged differently to everybody else.

We give back thousands of Palestinian prisoners and we’re still waiting for one Gilad Shalit to be released and nobody cares about that.

I was brought up to believe that Israel deserved our support because it was a democracy and part of the civilised world and that we should therefore judge Israel by higher standards than the uncivilised countries in the Third World.

It just seems to me if Israel abandons the argument that we should judge Israel by higher standards then it would be in danger of forfeiting the support which it gets from other democratic countries.

Now you really do need to take that question on board. Of course one expects – I mean I am appalled by the easy support that the West gives to Saudi Arabia – a deeply corrupt country with all sorts of problems that will eventually break down into some sort of deeply unfortunate revolution – but we don't judge Saudi Arabia by the same standards as Israel because Israel was built upon higher standards and you should not abandon that. You should not say: Don't judge us any better by different standards than you judge Saudi Arabia.

To Eric Moonman: Anti-semitism is a very serious issue and a very serious problem. I was born in 1941. I've met many of those who had come over on the trains. I've known many of them – some are still alive and some are still my friends. I'm very conscious of that.

We need to be extremely careful however and unfortunately some people within the Israeli Government and sometimes I think the Jewish Chronicle are not careful to distinguish between criticism of the Israeli Government and its policies and anti-semitism and it's very important to keep those things distinct.

We have to be able to criticise. The government of Israel has been I think deeply mistaken in a lot of the things which it is doing without being accused of anti-semitism. I have to say …

There have always been those on the right of American politics who abused anti-Americanism as a way of trying to shut up people, to bully them into submission by questioning their patriotism.

Don’t use the label anti-semitic to criticise people who criticise Israel. It's very dangerous and it's not good for the future of the Jewish community. We need to keep these things separate because anti-semitism is a different horrible thing which we have.

On the question of survival and more than that, we have to be concerned about overall peace in the Middle East and about the security of Israel.

I've lived through a period in which those who support Israel have said: “If only we'd get rid of Iraq then everything will be fine.”

And when the Iraq regime was changed they said: “Well actually we need Iran as well – and by the way we can't talk to Syria even though the Syrians are willing to talk to us because we don't want to give back the Golan.”

That's not to me a sensible strategy. Survival is not sufficient as a strategy. The assumption is that all of your neighbours will continue to be hostile then Israel will continue to be insecure. So one has to find a way round that one – and that's the beginning of a dialogue.

Next the question of: “Yes but they don't want to talk to us.”

My good friend and colleague, John Alderdice has worked a great deal in Gaza and in the West Bank with people who start by questioning the legitimacy of Israel as such. John and others hold very firmly to the view from his bitter experience in Northern Ireland of being spat on by both sides that if you want to achieve peace you have to talk to people you don't like and people who don't accept the terms of your debate as well as the people you do like.

That's been a very painful process in Northern Ireland. I find Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams deeply contentious people but sadly they were part of what we had to do to bring Northern Ireland together and we have now almost got beyond the violence.

There are those within Hamas – and I'm sorry to tell you I have met one or two of them in Damascus – who are willing to accept the legitimacy of Israel in a two-state solution and do want to begin negotiations, not the whole of Hamas – that's always the situation.

When one looks at the history of the IRA and others one knows how painful it is for groups that have been opposition and terrorist to begin to move down the road towards a negotiated solution but that has to be the way forward. It's very difficult. It will need a lot of outside help and we should be ready to provide a lot of outside help but that is in my opinion the way forward.

And you want me to say something about Jenny Tonge: I think Jenny Tonge is over-emotional, mistaken.

She did not say that body parts had been taken in Haiti when the Jewish, I'm sorry, I have checked this exactly. She was trapped by a question from the Jewish Chronicle which she should have known better than to answer and I have asked her deliberately on this and was I think unfortunate.

She is no longer one of our front-bench spokesmen. I disagree with her on a whole host of things but I would defend her rather over-emotional approach to the rights of the Palestinians and her deep commitment doing something about Gaza. I also know that she has very good relations with her local Jewish community in Richmond Park, well some of them have told me this …

I'm sorry, I recognise that we will continue to disagree about a large number of things. You ask me however to be intolerant towards other members of my party with whom I disagree and on this deeply contentious issue of how Israel and the Palestinians come back together there is a great deal of hard talking to be done.

And let me be hard to you – the collective punishment of the people of Gaza is not acceptable and I hope that you from all of the best of Jewish idealism and Jewish community will eventually accept that. We have to move towards negotiations.

Your commitment to Israel and the future of Judaism ought again to commit you to the future of a negotiated settlement because that is what Israel needs not just to survive but to flourish.

I know well about Sderot - I have not been there – but I'm conscious of Sderot; nor have I visited Gaza myself.

You ask me do I think what is happening in terms of further settlement in the West Bank is justifiable at the present moment? There are faults on both sides. …

Can I answer this in a different way? The question of who started which is at the root of a great many conflicts. I have found myself in the last four weeks talking to people from both sides of the Cyprus conflict and disappointing both sides in the Cyprus conflict each of whom believes the other started it. I shall later this evening be talking to a large group of Kashmiris who want me to say that it's all the Indians' fault and I shall not say that.

If we spend all of our time - and in the Cyprus conflict they do spend all of their time – arguing about who started it then we don't move forward.

I remember an early visit to Northern Ireland in which my Catholic guide's first statement was: “It all started to go wrong in 1601.”

Unless we can get beyond arguing whose fault it was and move on to how do we find a solution we will not find a solution and I think you all know that and I think you all, as concerned for the future of Israel as you are, know that we have to find a way of reopening negotiations, of finding a place for the Palestinians, of recognising that Jerusalem is a Holy City to three different faiths – I'm sorry, it is a Holy City to three different faiths – and that if we are to find a just solution for all those concerned in a world in which Jews will not be an endangered group we have to find a way forward to a peaceful Israel in a peaceful Middle East. Thank you for listening to me.

I've talked to many Jewish groups as well as others. I'm very well aware of how you all feel and why …
As I say, my wife and I once went to a Jewish wedding at which we were taken on as part of the family of the bride because as her father said he did not have many relations for reasons that he hoped the other family, a very large family of St Johns Wood had arrived in Wootton in the early 1890s, would understand. He and his wife and his cousin had come over on the trains in the 1930s. Most of the rest of his family had disappeared.

I'm very conscious of where you are all coming from and what deep memories, anxieties, that brings with it - we've all lived through that – but we've also got to find a way of making sure that our children and our grandchildren are secure whether they are living in Britain or in Israel or in France or the United States or wherever. That's where we have to be moving towards and please, we have to get beyond arguing who started it all.

Thanks.

Last updated: 3:27pm, April 22 2010