Israel was maintaining a diplomatic silence Tuesday amid reports from the UK that the Liberal-Democrats, a rising force in British politics whose leader has taken highly critical positions on Israel, would seek control of the Foreign Office and several other senior positions if Thursday’s general elections give the party the balance of power in a hung parliament.
Government officials said it would be inappropriate for Israel to make any comment at all on the British elections, in which Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown is battling both the traditional rival Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, and an unexpected third-party challenge from the Lib-Dems under Nick Clegg.
Privately, however, the view in Jerusalem is that it would be deeply problematic for Israel were Clegg’s party to unexpectedly prevail in the elections or, more realistically, fare well enough to deny Labor or the Conservatives an outright majority in the House of Commons. Clegg has repeatedly lambasted Israel for using “disproportionate” force in Operation Cast Lead, slammed the blockade of Gaza and, in an op-ed article last year, demanded that Britain and the EU halt arms sales to Israel.
According to reports in the British press on Tuesday, the Lib-Dems would demand at least six senior ministerial positions as its price for joining a coalition, including the post of foreign secretary, as well as the title of deputy prime minister for Clegg.
Clegg’s well-regarded performance over a series of three live TV debates in the run-up to polling day has been the surprise of the election campaign. It has helped lift the Lib-Dems above Brown’s troubled Labor in several opinion polls, to just a few percentage points behind Cameron’s leading Conservatives, prompting Clegg to assert that he is a genuine contender for the prime ministership. The nature of the British constituency system makes it extremely unlikely that the Lib-Dems could take power, but many polls in recent days have indicated that a hung parliament is likely, which would leave Clegg as the kingmaker, well-placed to demand a high price in return for joining a Conservative- or Labor-led coalition as junior partner.
Clegg’s criticisms of Israel, notably since Cast Lead, have been noted with dismay in Jerusalem, where eyebrows are also raised over his reported connections with certain Arab figures who hold to problematic ideologies. His stance on Iran in the TV debates has also prompted concern, since he was seen to underestimate the dangers posed by Teheran’s nuclear program – in contrast to both Brown and Cameron.
The current British foreign secretary, David Miliband, is not regarded
by Jerusalem as the most supportive such figure in recent memory, but
Israel, runs the view here, would be looking back fondly at Miliband as
a font of pro-Israel empathy were Clegg to succeed him.
Clegg’s most trenchant public criticism of Israel came in an opinion
piece he wrote for The Guardian in January 2009, at the height of
Operation Cast Lead, headlined “We must stop arming Israel.”
“Israel’s approach is self-defeating,” he argued. “The overwhelming use
of force, the unacceptable loss of civilian lives, is radicalizing
moderate opinion among Palestinians and throughout the Arab world.”
Consequently, he urged Brown to “condemn unambiguously Israel’s
tactics, just as he has rightly condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks.” And
he called both to “immediately suspend the proposed new [EU]
cooperation agreement with Israel until things change in Gaza,” and
“halt Britain’s arms exports to Israel, and persuade our EU
counterparts to do the same.”