Why won't Andrew Lansley condemn union that banned an Israeli speaker?

By Martin Bright and Anshel Pfeffer, May 3, 2012
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Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has refused to intervene over the withdrawal of an invitation to an Israeli conflict resolution expert to speak at an NHS-sponsored event next week.

The invitation to Moty Cristal, who has advised Palestinian groups and human rights organisations, was cancelled following a demand from the Unison trade union.

Sources at the Department of Health told the JC that Mr Lansley would not make any comment on the matter while pension negotiations with Unison were at a sensitive stage.

Conservative MP Daniel Poulter, an NHS doctor and member of the Health Select Committee, said: "If we have an NHS event, we want the best people to come to them. It is absolutely outrageous that Unison has taken a view purely on the basis that this speaker comes from Israel. Experts from Israel must be able to come here and speak".

Labour Friends of Israel chair John Woodcock MP condemned Unison's position. "Discriminating against Israelis is unacceptable and does nothing to further the goal of peace in the Middle East. Unison should concentrate its efforts on fighting the Conservative-led government's shambolic NHS reforms, instead of pursuing divisive boycotts. Ed Miliband has made clear boycotts are unhelpful, wrong and should be opposed."

Mr Cristal, a member of Israel's negotiating teams with Jordan and Palestine, now runs a consultancy working with corporate and public sector clients. He was due to present a "master-class" on conflict resolution for managers at a seminar held jointly by the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust and Unison on May 8.

On April 27 he received an email from the company organising the seminar, with which he has worked in the past, telling him that his lecture had been cancelled "on the grounds that it is [the union's] policy and also that of the Trades Union Council to support the Palestinian people."

Kevan Nelson, regional secretary of Unison North West, who is understood to be a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, confirmed that "Unison's local representatives at the Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust did request that the decision to invite Mr Moti Cristal to facilitate a partnership workshop on May 8 2012 be reversed."

He said: "It was considered that the decision to invite a prominent Israeli negotiator would be unacceptable, given Unison and TUC policy on the Middle East conflict, the irrelevance of the speaker to working relationships within a local NHS Trust and the inappropriateness of funding an international speaker at times of such austerity, when front line staff in the trust are at risk of redundancy."

Mr Cristal has lectured in Britain on a number of occasions, including one session with the Muslim Council of Britain.

In response to the decision to cancel his lecture, he wrote to the chief executive of the Manchester Mental Health Trust, Jackie Daniel, saying that "in terms of your future bargaining position with Unison, I believe that the last minute cancellation is more of an appeasement, ratherthan a leadership call.

"Values-wise, unlike you, I am confident that the only way to resolve conflicts, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian one, is through effective communication and constructive dialogue, rather than violence or boycotts." A spokesman for the trust insisted that no letter had been received from Mr Cristal.

Amir Ofek, press attaché at the Israeli Embassy in London, said: "The cancellation of a private expert simply due to his citizenship or ethnic identity is a racist policy in every way."

"What is even more shameful is the fact this was supposed to be an NHS-sponsored workshop dealing, ironically, with negotiating and conflict resolution. It seems that those who cancelled it are in urgent need of such training."

A UK government spokesman said: "Britain has a long tradition of tolerance and freedom of speech within the law. It is right that trade unions should be able to express their political views. But this does not justify state discrimination against individuals purely because they are Israeli."

Last updated: 2:02pm, May 3 2012