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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Britain's Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, heading home after a 36-hour visit to Israel, mounted a spirited defense of the British media on Monday, declaring that it generally presents all sides of the conflicts raging in this region and is "more balanced" than critics in Israel contend.
Rammell, whose first Israel visit was timed to highlight his government's opposition to the University College Union's (UCU) boycott Israel initiative, rejected the notion that British public opinion was being skewed against Israel, in part, by a lack of fair coverage from here.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post just before flying back to London, he acknowledged that Britons were "not always" getting a fair picture, but overall, he said, "we've got a media in Britain that is open, [and] that does try to present in most cases, not all, all sides of the argument."
Specifically, he noted that he had been reading the Guardian since he was 16 and cited two (Jewish) columnists, Jonathan Freedland and David Aaronovitch (who is now with the Times), who regularly penned articles "broadly supportive" of Israel, adding that "from time to time you've had pro-Israel editorials" in that newspaper.
Asked whether the British media had distinguished for viewers and readers between the freedom of access enjoyed in Israel, as opposed to much of the Arab world, he said that, during the Second Lebanon War, "I can certainly recall last summer some of the reporting did actually make clear that 'we are under greater restrictions to report what is happening from the Lebanon than in Israel.'"
In an interesting formulation when criticizing the UCU's boycott initiative, Rammell said, "I respect their right to make that call, but I think that tactically it's wrong."
He elaborated that "it will do nothing to help the peace process, in fact the reverse" - in that it would "entrench the position of people who want to take a hard line."
Rammell added that, "None of that means that there aren't issues that we do want to address with the Israeli government, about free movement of [Palestinian] students as an example, about tax revenues going to the occupied territories. But," he went on, "the idea that you try to further those concerns through a boycott is completely counterproductive."
The British government's message, he said, is that "education has got to be part of the solution to the peace problem, not a means to divide people... If there is anywhere that progressive voices should come together to actually try and creatively see a way forward, it is within the world of academia."
Rammell said he did not believe there was a coordinated campaign against Israel in the UK, and that he would "bet an awful lot of money" that the UCU's boycott call would not ultimately come to fruition. He said the union's leadership was embarrassed by it, that the UCU's secretary-general opposed it, and that the union now planned a series of debates on the issues prior to some kind of vote at which he was confident it would be rejected.
"The UCU has always had a small vocal group of, for want of a better phrase, ultra-left activists... I don't in any sense think that [the UCU's boycott call] is the majority view of academics or trade union members within universities or colleges."
He noted that "virtually every editorial in a newspaper in the last two weeks has condemned the union in very, very robust terms," and that "I certainly don't think that, in terms of the views of the vast majority of British people, they are anti-Israeli."
During his visit, Rammell met with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Minister for Welfare and Social Services Yitzhak Herzog, as well as leading academics.
He also met in east Jerusalem on Monday with al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh.
Rammell said he did not envisage British foreign policy on this region shifting as a result of the transition from Prime Minister Tony Blair to his successor Gordon Brown, and that the Labor government would continue "to try and inject urgency and momentum into the peace process" with the "focus on the two-state solution."
Britain would not talk to the PA's Hamas government unless or until it recognized Israel, renounced terror and accepted previous agreements, he said. "The Palestinian Authority and all its members need to recognize that those commitments on renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel need to be the starting point."
But he held out hope that Hamas, or some within it, would yet moderate. "Time will tell," he said. "I genuinely don't think that positions are set in tablets of stone forever and a day."
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