More than three years since becoming Labour leader, last week Ed Miliband made his first official foreign trip — to Israel.
He could hardly have chosen a more critical moment to arrive, with the peace process in turmoil. But, in an interview at the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem, he was careful not to be drawn on his prescriptions for the diplomatic impasse.
“I want to be very clear, I’m here to learn, not to lecture. The way the challenges need to be resolved is direct negotiations between Israel and the representatives of the Palestinian people.” Beyond that, he said very little of substance on the peace process.
Neither was Mr Miliband interested in putting much space between himself and Prime Minister David Cameron, who was in Israel less than a month earlier. “We have a bipartisan approach on these issues, so I think it’s important we have a unified position,” he said, before delivering the standard support for the two-state solution.
He said he thought Britain should have voted in favour of upgrading the Palestinian Authority’s status at the UN — “to strengthen moderate elements” — instead of abstaining. However, he refused to state a position on the recent decision by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to join international treaties unilaterally.
More than anything else, the Labour leader was anxious to stress his personal ties to Israel. He was filmed hugging his family members on the kibbutz — including his aunt, Sarah Ben Zvi — and being handed documents on his grandfather’s death in the camps.
“I come here as somebody with deep affection for Israel because of my family history. I come with deep admiration of Israel but also an acute sense of not only the sensitive time we are in but also the huge challenges Israel faces, and that’s why it’s so important that we support the peace process.”
But did he feel that he had to emphasise these ties in part because some in the Jewish community suspect his sincerity? He did not want to dwell on that criticism. “There are different people with different views. I have a very good relationship with the Jewish community in Britain and I’m very proud of my link with the Jewish community.”
Mr Miliband was eager to talk about how he engages with Israel through his family story, mentioning “a grandma who lived here, who came here after the war, and Israel gave her sanctuary and cousins and other relatives who are here. So I come with an understanding of what Israel provided my family and that it is a homeland for the Jewish people, not just in theory but, in my family’s case, in practice.”
At this point, he was asked to clarify whether he saw himself as a Zionist. He did not deny he was, but could not quite bring himself to say the Z-word.
How would a Miliband government act on issues such as the EU guidelines on refusing funding for Israeli bodies that operate across the Green Line, and the demand to label settlement goods?
He agreed that he favoured labelling because it “is about giving more information to the consumers. But it’s a different set of things. One is about consumer information, so consumers can make a decision. The other is about boycotts. I don’t think boycotts are the answer, I think dialogue is the answer.”