(photo credit: REUTERS)
LONDON – Ed Miliband’s Labor Party started its four-day annual conference in Manchester on Sunday, the last showcase opportunity prior to next May’s general election, with serious question marks about its leader’s approach to Israel Miliband, a self described “atheist Jew,” has long had what he once called a complicated relationship with Israel.
He will walk a tightrope of his own making, one that many of the UK’s estimated 300,000 Jews will observe with concern, after having lurched from proclaimed friendship with the Jewish State to criticisms, especially during the recent Gaza war, that have sorely tested the friendship and support of Jewish voters.
Miliband has never been shy of referring to his family’s history, with constant reminders of how his parents survived the Holocaust, and – from time to time – praise for Israel for providing a safe haven for his grandmother.
Jewish communal leaders have made strenuous efforts to engage with him, and when he spoke at the Community Security Trust’s annual Dinner in the spring, he went out of his way to praise their efforts and spoke of his journey to his Jewish roots.
Even then, however, Israel hardly got a mention.
When he chose to make Israel the destination of one of his first trips as opposition leader, there was optimism he might begin to understand Israel’s dilemmas better, and so it appeared when he spent four days with his wife visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in the days before Passover.
His specially crafted speech to Labor Friends of Israel’s annual lunch in June gave many in the Jewish community and Israel optimism that he now “got” Israel, even if he still had strong criticisms of its settlement policies. And, it was duly noted, in a speech to a Jewish and Israeli-related audience, he, for the first time, spoke more about Israel than the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. There he pledged to remain a “friend of Israel,” and he made reference to “the deeply personal journey” he had made to Israel a few weeks earlier.
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Yet, barely six weeks later, Jewish hopes were dashed by his strong line against Israel during its war to defend itself against Hamas. Yes, he understood Israel had a right to do so, but Miliband voiced very strong views that were highly critical of the manner it accomplished this, including the use of ground forces.
Almost in passing, he condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, but in effect he was saying, Israel may have a right to defend itself but it was not entitled to exercise that right given the effects of that military operation.
Fast forward to the Annual Conference.
As is traditional, the Labor leader attends two receptions – one the night before his keynote speech to the conference (which always is held on a Tuesday afternoon), organized by Labor Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, and the second the following night, at the Labor Friends of Israel conference reception.
He usually makes a brief speech at both and, if time permits, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander contributes a few lines too.
What he says, however, will be listened to very carefully. His leaning towards the Palestinians cause – even if it is in Hamas-dominated Gaza – which he gave vent to during the Gaza war, will be like sweet music to the very vocal Pro-Palestinian lobby Monday night.
What he will say to a still somewhat shell shocked pro-Israel rally on Tuesday night remains to be seen.
In a move that raised eyebrows among interested parties on both sides of the Middle East fence, it has been reported that a Labor Party Parliamentary candidate has been suspended after sending a message that Israel was “evil” and even suggested the Islamist terrorist group Isis should attack the country.
According to the Sunday Times
, Vicki Kirby, Labor’s candidate in Woking, posted anti-Israeli comments on her Twitter feed, claiming Hitler might be the “Zionist God.”
The paper added that one post on Kirby’s Twitter account read: “We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher.” Another read: “I will never forget and I will make sure my kids teach their children how evil Israel is!” It also was reported that Kirby supports a boycott of Israeli products, but Miliband, made clear at the LFI Lunch in June that the threat of boycotts of Israel was the wrong response. ”We do and we will resolutely oppose the isolation of Israel.”
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