When my old friend Sunder Katwala was head of the centre-left Fabian Society he had one of his many bright ideas.
Tired of the sniping and bitterness that had poisoned the debate over the Middle East in Britain, he suggested that no senior Labour politician should appear at a meeting held by Labour Friends of Israel unless it was jointly held with Labour Friends of Palestine.
This was a typically ingenious and generous proposal from a man who went on to found British Future, a think-tank calling for a more enlightening debate on immigration and race in this country.
Holding joint meetings was a nice idea but it failed to recognise the necessarily sectarian nature of these groups. What is more, within Labour, the Israel-Palestine conflict has always been a proxy for the war being fought in the party itself. During the Blair years, for instance, it was often felt that support for Israel (and particularly, Labour Friends of Israel) was a short cut to preferment. More recently, Labour Friends of Palestine has enjoyed the support of senior Labour figures as the leadership has sought to distance itself from the New Labour years.
At the Labour Party conference
in Brighton, and at next week’s Conservative gathering in Manchester, I know there will be the same old debates on the fringes. In recent years Labour Friends of Israel has done well to reinvent itself as a membership organisation explicitly committed to the two-state solution. In turn, Labour Friends of Palestine (and the Middle East) has made a push for respectability and unquestionably entered the mainstream of the party.
It’s time to merge them with the pro-Palestinian groups
On the Conservative side, the landscape is very different, but equally political. Conservative Friends of Israel is a sophisticated part of the Tory social scene that plays a significant role in cementing the relationship between the two countries.
Under the present leadership, to be Conservative is to be a friend of Israel, so CFI events at conference are there to reassure Israeli guests and the UK Jewish community.
Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel is the smallest of political tribes. It has worked hard to protect Nick Clegg from embarrassment at the hands of his party’s worst knee-jerk, anti-Zionist tendencies. But it remains the very definition of a fringe group.
The debate has become so ossified that I now believe the time has come for a step beyond Sunder’s suggested joint events for the Friends groups. They should simply merge. If it is the case that all three parties are genuinely committed to the two-state solution there really should be no need for separate groups. Whatever party we support, aren’t we all friends of Israel and Palestine now?