LONDON – Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party Nick Clegg opened a sizable split in the ruling coalition’s policy on the Gaza conflict by calling on Tuesday for a suspension of all export licenses for arms sales to Israel.
Capitalizing on the resignation of senior Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi, Clegg said he not only shared her concerns about such arms sales, he considered them a very serious issue.
“It’s obvious to me that however much Israel has every right to defend itself from those rocket attacks from Hamas, nonetheless the Israeli military operation overstepped the mark in Gaza,” he said. Referring to the “outrageous spectacle of these three UN schools being hit by Israeli military action,” he said it was why he now believed it was time to suspend export licenses to Israel.
Clegg added that he was now working with his party colleague, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable to achieve the suspension.
“It is his department that administers these export licenses and we believe the actions of the Israeli military breach the conditions of those export licenses,” said Clegg. “That’s why we want to see them suspended pending a wider review of whether they should be revoked more permanently in the long run.”
The deputy premier indicated optimism that he would be able to make an announcement on the matter “very shortly.”
“It has taken a little bit longer than I’d like to have this agreed across government,” he said, “but I think it’s very important in response to clearly what appears to be disproportionate military action of Israel in Gaza.”
Cable added that: “We have been making this case inside government but have not yet been able to get agreement for this position. I hope and expect that to change shortly.”
The call was endorsed by opposition Labor Party spokesman Douglas Alexander, who said Wednesday no new licenses should be granted where there are doubts about the end use of the military equipment being exported.
”The government must urgently publish its review into existing UK export licenses to Israel,” he said, adding that it must also provide assurances that the Consolidated Criteria on arms control are “being upheld – which prevents the export of military and dual use equipment, which could be used for internal repression, the abuse of human rights or to provoke or prolong armed conflicts.”
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron – who is on vacation in Portugal – appeared to reject the call. He said a cross-government review of export licenses to Israel was underway following the sustained barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel which prompted Israel to launch Operation Protective Edge.
“Since then no new licenses have been issued for use by the Israeli military,” the spokesman said, adding that “suspending export licenses is not a decision we take lightly and it is right that we examine the facts fully. This is the approach being taken by the vast majority of countries.”