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Glum Boris keeps it bland on Israel

How refreshing it would be to have political leaders who simply said what they were thinking

    Boris Johnson briefly addresses the Board of Deputies' Balfour reception (Photo: Gary Perlmutter)
    Boris Johnson briefly addresses the Board of Deputies' Balfour reception (Photo: Gary Perlmutter)

    If I had a pound for every parliamentary debate on Israel and the Palestinians I had sat through, and another pound for every backbencher’s decent, earnest, well-made but ultimately completely pointless intervention, I would have enough for a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv.

    You might ask how I would survive, on arrival at Ben Gurion and subsequently decamping to Frishman beach, deprived of the opportunity to hear what the honourable member for South West Wiltshire or Sunderland Central thinks about settlements, developments in aviation or the lack of impetus in bilateral peace talks.

    This was a question I asked myself on Monday as I sat on the press benches, listening to Boris Johnson and a couple of dozen MPs in the Commons raising exactly those points to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration.

    The Foreign Secretary was uncharacteristically sombre. No histrionics, no Latin-laden jokes, just careful, bland responses to questions asked in good faith.

    Don’t get me wrong — there were some impressive interventions from across the house. Luciana Berger’s inquiry about the disgusting treatment of Israeli judokas in Abu Dhabi last week, where their flag and national anthem were banned as they collected medals, was pointed and topical.

    The SNP’s Philippa Whitford, who has spent considerable time working as a doctor in the Palestinian territories, compared — unfavourably — her latest visit to the West Bank to her 18 months in Gaza in the early 1990s. It was a brilliant example of what MPs can bring to Westminster: first-hand experience, life-long dedication to an issue, and a measured approach.

    Philip Hollobone, a Tory MP, was the only one in 54 minutes of debate to raise the “wholescale ethnic cleansing of Jews from Arab and north African countries, starting in 1948”. An admirable intervention, and all the more significant given the almost complete absence of this angle in modern Middle East discussions.

    Minutes later, at the Board of Deputies’ excellent cross-party Balfour reception — held in the splendour of the Speaker’s House — Mr Johnson chatted politely to Maureen Lipman before rehashing two minutes’ worth of his earlier Commons statement for a new crowd.

    What would Lord Balfour have made of all this? Did 19th-century-born foreign secretaries spend their evenings looking out over the Thames, surrounded by actresses, backbenchers and rabbonim scoffing mini bagels, sushi and kettle chips?

    Layla Moran in action in the Commons debate on Monday evening (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)
    Layla Moran in action in the Commons debate on Monday evening (Photo: Parliamentlive.tv)

    I spent much of the evening brimming with frustration. Good people, great event, interesting debate — and more sleight of hand than a Tommy Cooper show.

    On matters of genuine global importance — such as the aforementioned settlements, or the recognition of Palestinian statehood — what do we get? Platitudes, well-rehearsed lines repeated ad infinitum. No wonder Boris looked glum. How much he must have wished to speak his mind.

    It was the impressive Lib Dem MP, Layla Moran, the first person of Palestinian descent to sit on the Commons’ green benches, whose words had the most impact. “This is not a game,” she told the Foreign Secretary.

    How refreshing it would be to have political leaders who simply said what they were thinking and offered straightforward answers to straightforward questions, be it on matters of sexual harassment, expenses, Brexit, or intractable foreign policy issues.

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