Lord Wallace, the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader in the Lords, has defended Baroness Tonge’s “over-emotional approach” to Palestinian rights in a wide-ranging address to the Board of Deputies on Sunday.
He explained that she has not been expelled from the party because “we do sadly find the current Likud Party very intolerant of all criticism”.
His remarks prompted a number of Deputies to walk out in protest.
Baroness Tonge was sacked as Lib Dem spokesman on health in February after suggesting Israel should set up an inquiry to refute allegations that its rescue teams in Haiti were trafficking organs from earthquake victims.
Lord Wallace, who is a LibDem spokesman on international affairs, told the Board: “She answered a deliberately provocative question from the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle… I think Jenny Tonge is over-emotional, mistaken.
"She did not say that body parts had been taken in Haiti…She was trapped by a question from the Jewish Chronicle which she should have known better than to answer.”
Baroness Tonge was in fact contacted by a JC reporter, by email, for her reaction to a news story in the Palestine Telegraph, an online journal based in Gaza of which Baroness Tonge is a patron.
In the Question and Answer session, Lord Wallace continued his defence of Baroness Tonge: “I disagree her with 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 to doing something about Gaza.” He then explained that “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”.
Lord Wallace said that the “collective punishment of the Gaza is not acceptable”; that he had met some members of Hamas willing “to accept the legitimacy of Israel”: and that as a democracy Israel should be held to higher standards than “uncivilised countries in the Third World”.
He went on: “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: ‘And what about the Palestinians, are they not to live in Israel?’, because one cannot rub the Palestinians entirely out of the equation …”
On the issue of universal jurisdication, the LibDem peer said: “We are strong supporters of international law and the whole issue of international law does raise major problems for us and 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. So all I can say on that is I cannot and will not satisfy you because I do find – and I can recall Silvan Shalom trying to argue … that Israel should be in effect outside the jurisdiction of international law.
Lord Wallace also criticised what he said was a tendency to label criticism of Israel as antisemitic: “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 antisemitism and it's very important to keep those things distinct…Don’t use the label ‘antisemitic’ to criticise people who criticise Israel. It’s very dangerous and it's not good for the future of the Jewish community.”
He also said that Israel should be held to a higher standard of behaviour than other countries: “We don’t judge Saudi Arabia by the same standards as Israel because Israel was built upon higher standards”.
On the prospect of peace negotiations, he said: “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 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.”
He then suggested that the EU might attach conditions to renewing its trade relationship with Israel. “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.”
Jonathan Hoffman, a Deputy who was present, commented: "There are very few things that unite Deputies, but Lord Wallace succeeded where even the Supreme Court in its JFS judgment failed. There was astonishment at this tirade of mendacious clichés from the LibDems' most senior foreign policy spokesman in the House of Lords (and an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE).”