Analysis: Tories mend fences as Labour digs holes

Party conferences revealed shifting attitudes to Israel

By Martin Bright, October 7, 2010

Change is always unsettling and this season of political conferences has ushered in all the uncertainty that inevitably follows a general election. Fringe meetings at the Conservative Party conference were infused with an atmosphere of near- panic as desperate lobbyists scrambled for the ear of ministers, while trying to second-guess the coalition plans in advance of the comprehensive spending review.

The nervousness is understandable, but in a whole series of policy areas affecting the Jewish community there is every reason to believe the Tories have been as good as their word in the run-up to the election.

Middle East minister Alistair Burt used a Conservative Friends of Israel fringe to announce that the government will introduce legislation to amend the law on universal jurisdiction in the next parliamentary session. Home Secretary Theresa May has made it clear that extremist Islamists will no longer be tolerated regardless of whether they openly espouse violence. It is also likely that she will take back responsibility for tackling extremism from the Communities' Department.

At the Department for Education, Michael Gove has long been a champion of Jewish faith schools. As he told the JC last week, he remains receptive to ideas from the community on reversing last year's court ruling on Jewish school admissions.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, sometimes seen as cool on Israel, was a popular guest at a well-attended CFI reception at conference. His speech to conference was carefully calibrated to emphasise Britain's role as a critical friend in urging the Israelis to hold back on settlement building.

Every reason to believe the Tories have been as good as their word

There remains the embarrassing matter of the Prime Minister's "prison camp" comments about Gaza. But there has been a sophisticated spin operation to minimise its impact and calm nerves. Indeed, one pro-Israel Conservative went as far as to suggest that the leadership was so mortified at the error that it was now keen to make amends by proving its commitment to Israel in other areas.

In recent years it has been impossible to put a cigarette paper between the two main parties on policy on Israel and the Middle East. Since the election of Ed Miliband, Labour's first Jewish leader, this is no longer the case. Mr Milband's speech to Labour conference last week condemned Israel's attack on the Gaza flotilla without the usual stock reference to Hamas violence. His condemnation of the Iraq invasion could not have given a plainer indication that the new leader intends to mark a clean break on foreign policy with the New Labour past.

Labour Friends of Israel will now have to play a dissident role within the party, something it has not had to do for the best part of two decades.

On domestic policy, everything depends on the shadow cabinet appointments. John Denham and Sadiq Khan have both been touted as possible shadow home secretaries and would likely bring in a more conciliatory approach to Islamist radicals.

The Lib Dems won few friends in the Jewish community during the election and issues such as universal jurisdiction, faith schools and anti-terror legislation could yet open up fissures in the coalition. The Jewish community may prefer to ignore the Lib Dems, but it will do so at its peril.

Minister: we may increase Gaza aid

International Development Minister Alan Duncan has expressed his frustration at being unable to speak to Hamas to facilitate the delivery of British aid to Gaza.

Mr Duncan, who leads on the Middle East at the Department for International Development, told a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham this week: "Even NGOs have to tread very carefully not to fall foul of the law. Any work is complicated by the proscriptions against working with Hamas."

The minister was pressed repeatedly on the issue at a meeting hosted by the New Statesman magazine on aid policy and Gaza.

He emphasised that the question of whether or not to talk to the terrorist organisation was "a hyper-sensitive issue", adding that Britain had to work within the law set by the European Union.

"We have to work to deliver our aid within the existing rules. We have to accept that as the background," he said.

Mr Duncan, who is regarded as something of a dissident on Middle East issues went further, saying that if Hamas was required to recognise Israel, "the quid pro quo is that Israel should admit that the occupation of the West Bank is illegal".

In the face of cuts across government, Mr Duncan said that discussions on aid were ongoing and that aid to Gaza would be increased if possible.

Conservative Friends of Israel moved quickly to distance the party from the minister's comments.

"That's just Alan Duncan," said one CFI source. "He does not speak for the leadership."

Last updated: 5:17pm, October 7 2010