Faulty towers and building bridges: the year in politics

Rowed back over Gaza: Cameron

Rowed back over Gaza: Cameron

The political year ended with the miserable spectacle of two members of Parliament being forced to apologise to the Jewish community for their actions: one for peddling the ancient antisemitic libel of the "dual loyalty" of Jews; the other for attending a Nazi-themed stag party.

There was much discussion in Westminster circles about who was worse: Labour's Paul Flynn for accusing the UK's first Jewish ambassador to Israel of disloyalty or Conservative Aidan Burley for not acting when friends toasted the Third Reich over dinner at a French ski resort.

Mr Flynn's language was decidedly medieval in its evocation of fears of Jewish duplicity, whereas Mr Burley's friends celebrated the perpetrators of more recent atrocities. Neither should have a place in a 21st century democracy. It is right that their parties acted to persuade Flynn and Burley to apologise to the UK's Jews. But it remains shocking that these two mainstream politicians couldn't see for themselves the repellent historic resonances of their actions.

Other backbenchers also found themselves in a terrible muddle when they tried to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia based on the highly successful APPG on Antisemitism run by the redoubtable Labour MP John Mann. This should have been a straightforward affair and an important step in the fight against anti-Muslim hate crime. Unfortunately, however, the group chose the avowedly anti-Zionist organisation "i-Engage" to act as its secretariat. This led to the resignation in February of founders Lord Janner and Conservative MP Kris Hopkins as co-chairs of the group. Amid bitter recriminations, Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes initially stuck by i-Engage but was eventually forced to abandon the controversial organisation after Conservative and Labour MPs raised concerns. The APPG has now been relaunched without its anti-Zionist partner. Meanwhile, a year of important work has been wasted.

Alistair Burt gained reputation as honest broker

One backbencher who deserves credit for his efforts is the Conservative MP for Harlow, Robert Halfon, whose work on the funding of British universities from oppressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa received plaudits from across the political spectrum.

Mr Halfon, whose own grandfather was forced out of Libya by the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1960s, was instrumental in exposing the full scale of the relationship between the Gaddafi regime and the London School of Economics. The director of the LSE, Sir Howard Davies, was forced to resign in March after it was revealed that his institution had received a £1.5 million donation brokered by Saif Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan dictator.

But Mr Halfon did not stop at the LSE. The workaholic MP turned his attention first to Liverpool John Moores University and saw off libel threats to reveal the institution's links to the Libyan regime. He then investigated his own alma mater, Exeter, which received funding from across the Middle East, and raised questions about a research centre which had been forced to apologise for "serious errors" in its work. In all, he raised queries about donations to 100 academic institutions.

Throughout the year, Mr Halfon's party did its best to persuade the community that it was a friend to the UK's Jews and a stalwart supporter of Israel. In March, David Cameron told the Community Security Trust that he would not rest while Jews in Britain felt under threat. He also appeared to row back on previous comments about Gaza being a "prison camp" by saying that Israel was right to search shipping coming into the Hamas-controlled territory.

The threat of arrest warrants being issued in the UK for Israeli politicians and military personnel accused of war crimes continued to rumble on throughout the year. But the Coalition stuck to its commitment of reforming the law on universal jurisdiction.

In September the Police and Social Responsibility Bill received the Royal Assent. This required the Director of Public Prosecutions to give his consent before any arrest warrant is issued. In October, Israeli opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni visited the UK partly to test the new legislation. However, Foreign Secretary William Hague was forced to give her visit "special mission" status after an application was made for her arrest. We may not have heard the last of the universal jurisdiction saga.

September also saw the UK government pull out of the so-called Durban III anti-racism conference after the personal intervention of David Cameron. The event had been organised to mark the tenth anniversary of a conference that had singled out Israel for attack.

In the same month, the Coalition government was faced with one of its toughest foreign policy decisions when the President, Mahmoud Abbas, decided to ask the UN to formally recognise Palestinian statehood. While the US pledged in advance to veto any Security Council decision on the matter, the UK decided to keep its powder dry until November when it announced it would abstain in any vote.

One politician whose profile grew during 2011 was Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, who was given an unusual degree of direct control over policy.

As a prominent member of Conservative Friends of Israel, it was always clear where Mr Burt's sympathies lay. However, over the year he developed a reputation as an honest broker who was prepared to talk tough to Israel where he felt it was being intransigent.

Mr Burt demonstrated his pragmatic credentials during the Arab Spring when he recognised that the new order across the Middle East was likely to bring Islamists into government. He said it was important to distinguish between Islamists who supported democracy and peace in the Middle East, and those who did not. Speaking to the JC, he said: "What's important is not the labels. Within the Arab world, the label 'Islamist' covers a range of attitudes towards democracy. What we should all do is judge people on their actions as well as their words."

On the other side of the political divide, 2011 marked the relaunch of Labour Friends of Israel as a membership organisation under the chairmanship of David Cairns MP. In March the organisation announced its renewed commitment to what it called the Progressive Case for Israel. Tragically, David Cairns himself was unable to see this work come to fruition, dying in May at the age of 44. His final essay in defence of Israel was published by LFI in November.

In the aftermath of the Blair-Brown years, the Labour Party and the wider labour movement appears to be going through an identity crisis over its relationship with Israel that goes right to the top of the party.

Paradoxically, Labour's first Jewish leader has struggled to establish his credentials with the community. He spent most of the year explaining why he had chosen to criticise Israel in his leadership acceptance speech without condemning Hamas terrorism.

He was making some headway when he decided to back the Palestinian bid for statehood in the run-up to the Labour Party conference. This apparent sop to the party's left wing was another sign that Mr Miliband intended to break with New Labour, which had always been staunchly pro-Israel.

However, a month later, the Labour leader used the LFI lunch to emphasise his family's close links with Israel, which gave refuge to his grandmother. Risking the wrath of the party's left he told the gathering: "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the state of Israel."

If the Labour leadership continued to be schizophrenic on Israel, the trade union movement's hostility intensified. The University and College Union has often led the way within the boycott movement and in May it voted to distance itself from the European Union's working definition of antisemitism in the belief that it prevented the open discussion of Israel. This led to the threat of legal action from Ronnie Fraser of Academic Friends of Israel who accused the UCU of "institutional antisemitism".

The UCU furore was followed in September by the decision by the TUC to review relations with the Histadrut, the Israeli Federation of Labour, which marked a historic breach with fellow trade unionists. At the same time the TUC reaffirmed its support for the boycott movement in partnership with the Palestine Solidarity campaign. Trade Union Friends of Israel described the move as a "discriminatory policy".

But one political event above all others will continue to have consequences for the Jewish community and supporters of Israel, and that is the Werritty Affair. When it became clear that the activities of the self-styled adviser to Defence Secretary Liam Fox had been funded by pro-Israel Tory businessmen, the spectre of Jewish conspiracy theory loomed over British politics. Jewish businessmen Mick Davis, Poju Zabludowicz and Michael Lewis were known to be furious that they had been represented as "lobbyists" when their donations had been solicited by figures at the highest level of the Tory Party.

And so we return to the comments of Labour MP Paul Flynn, who tried drag UK envoy Matthew Gould into the scandal by suggesting that meetings he held with Mr Werritty and Dr Fox in some way sinister. Why sinister? Because Mr Gould is Jewish and must therefore have been in league with Mr Werrity's neo-Con and Zionist backers to bomb Iran. Sadly, 2011 will be remembered as the year in which the ancient poison of antisemitism bubbled up into mainstream British politics.

    Last updated: 12:43pm, December 29 2011