Deputy prime Minister Nick Clegg attempted to open a new chapter in the relationship between the Liberal Democrats and British Jews this week when he emphasised his party’s support for Israel and reiterated the coalition’s pledge to change the law on universal jurisdiction.
He told a lunch held by Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel that he was aware of past tensions, and was engaged in “an operation to clarify misunderstandings”.
He said that although the campaign for justice for the Palestinians remained an important cause, he recognised there had not always been an equal voice for Israel within his party.
“It should always have been accompanied, equally loudly and equally clearly, by an awareness of the security challenges faced by Israel and of the right of Israel to defend itself against the threats that it continually faces.
“I’m not certain that we have always made ourselves clearly heard on this, so let me say it again now: Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats. No other country so continually has its right to exist called into question as does Israel, and that is intolerable.
“There can be no solution to the problems of the Middle East that does not include a full and proper recognition of Israel by all parties to the conflict.”
He said he supported the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows people suspected of war crimes around the world to be arrested in Britain.
However, he did not believe it was right that magistrates should be able to issue “politically motivated” warrants for visiting politicians and military figures. The issue reached a head last December when an arrest warrant was issued for Israeli Opposition leader Tzipi Livni for her role in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
“The issuing of such warrants should be a matter for one of central government’s senior law officers, not for local magistrates,” said Mr Clegg.
His audience at the National Liberal Club included ministers Lynne Featherstone and Norman Baker, former Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws, and prominent Lib Dem peers Lady Neuberger, Lord Carlile, Lord Dholakia and Lord Alliance.
He recognised that antisemitism remained a reality in Britain. “No amount of anger about overseas events can ever justify hostility, let alone hatred towards British Jews,” he said.
On a range of issues Mr Clegg sought to reassure the community. He said he had always defended the right to shechitah (religious slaughter) and always would. On faith schools, he said his party was committed to parental choice. He was also tough on school security, saying: “It is outrageous that there should be such a threat to the safety of Jewish schoolchildren in Britain today.”
He did not mention the LibDem peer Jenny Tonge, whose comments on Israel have alienated many Jewish voters. In February, Mr Clegg removed Baroness Tonge from his front bench team after she suggested there should be an investigation into whether the IDF was harvesting body parts in Haiti during the aid operation following the earthquake.
Nor did he refer to last week’s comments by Lib Dem peer Lord Phillips to a Palestine Solidarity Campaign meeting in Westminster, that America was in the grip of the “Israel lobby” and that Europe was unable to think straight about Israel because of the Holocaust.
Lord Phillips’ remarks are understood to have sparked a rare formal complaint to Mr Clegg by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust. The complaint was followed by a meeting between the three organisations and LibDem Chief Whip Alastair Carmichael.
Read the speech in full here