As the vote count unfolded across the United Kingdom overnight, Nick Clegg, leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, might have been feeling an unusual empathy with Israel.
Clegg’s statesmanlike performances in the three unprecedented TV debates that led up to yesterday’s UK general election vote – facing the eager frontrunner, Conservative leader David Cameron, and the uncomfortable incumbent, Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown – transformed him in the eyes of the electorate.
Clegg’s Lib-Dems, the perennial third-party, over-hyped nuisances in Britain’s traditional two-horse political race, soared in the opinion polls after the first of the debates. And the party maintained its high standing through the second TV encounter, pushing Labor into third place in many surveys, before weakening a little after the third, in the final days of the campaign.
Clegg, the fresh, largely unknown candidate, who had made best use, Obama-style, of new media to broaden his appeal among younger voters, was for a while able to sound almost credible when contending that he was challenging not for a respectable election day showing, but rather for the prime ministership itself.
Since Britain maintains a pure constituency system, however, the overnight vote count will in all likelihood have denied the Lib-Dems what would have been their due under Israeli-style pure proportional representation. It’s one thing to muster a comparable number of votes nationwide to Labor and the Conservatives. It’s quite another, because of the way the constituencies are drawn and the even spread of Lib-Dem votes nationwide, to end up with a comparable number of seats in the House of Commons.
Israel is rightly accustomed to castigating itself over the unworkability of its system, which always produces a splintered vote and multi-partied Knesset, in turn spelling near-paralysis for prime ministers, like Binyamin Netanyahu today, who have to keep four or five coalition partners happy just to retain a parliamentary majority. But from Clegg’s point of view this week, an Israeli-style system would have worked wonders.
ON MATTERS of political substance, rather than electoral modalities, by contrast, the new star in the British parliamentary skies has shown a distinct lack of admiration for Israel.
Although Clegg has said recently that the issue needs to be “considered,” his party has thus far opposed reforms in Britain’s problematic universal jurisdiction laws that, as they stand, leave Israeli political and military leaders vulnerable to arrest in the UK for alleged war crime allegations stemming from Operation Cast Lead, the Second Lebanon War, and other conflicts.
A high profile party member, Jenny Tonge, who now sits in the House of Lords, has twice been sacked from prominent Lib-Dem positions – but not kicked out of the party – for making what were deemed to be unacceptable statements regarding Israel. In the first case, in 2004, she mused that she might have become a suicide bomber if she’d grown up in Palestine; in the second, earlier this year, she demanded an inquiry into absurd claims that the IDF medical and rescue team in Haiti was engaged in organ trafficking.
Speaking about his party’s position on Israel to the Board of Deputies leadership of British Jews last month, meanwhile, the Lib-Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, William Wallace, indicated that he had personally met with Hamas leaders and suggested that “the way forward” toward peace required bringing Hamas into the negotiating process.
But it is Clegg’s own positions that might prove most troubling for Israel if, with the night’s counting over, the Lib-Dems have defied the unhelpful British system and broken the Labor-Conservative stranglehold, doing well enough to deny either of the big two an overall majority.
Jerusalem maintained the necessary diplomatic silence in the run-up to polling day, but there was no mistaking the concern here that Clegg and his Lib-Dems might become the junior coalition partner in a hung parliament, and could even gain control of the Foreign Office – one of the posts the party would reportedly demand.
Foreign secretary Clegg, according to the privately expressed view in Jerusalem, would be quite problematic for Israel. Clegg, who visited “Israel and the occupied territories” five years ago, according to the official MPs’ register, on a trip funded by the Council for Arab British Understanding, is said to have certain Arab contacts with unsavory ideologies. He is perceived to underestimate the threat posed internationally by a nuclear Iran. In recent comments to the Jewish Chronicle regarding the assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud Mabhouh, Hamas’s Gaza missile-importer-in-chief and self-confessed murderer of two Israelis, Clegg declared that while “I understand Israel’s unique security predicament, my view is that this kind of killing would be completely counter-productive to the peace process.”
And then there’s his stance on Gaza.
JUST TWO weeks ago, at an appearance before Britain’s Foreign Press Association, Clegg reiterated earlier condemnation he had made of Israel’s ostensibly “disproportionate” military methods in Operation Cast Lead.
“I remember when I first said that I was shouted down,” he recalled. “I had lots of reaction: ‘How dare you, How dare you, How dare you.’ Everybody now accepts that was a disproportionate use of military force,” he said.
He went on to slam ongoing Israeli policy regarding Gaza, declaring “that it is simply not in Israel’s long-term interests to have – what is it? – 1.5 or 1.8 million people in a state of wretched, grinding poverty in a tiny, tiny slip of land in Gaza seething with ever greater radicalism, extremism and hatred right on your doorstep...
“I, for the life of me,” he continued, “cannot understand why it is in Israel’s long-term interest to keep an almost complete blockade on Gaza, not even allowing glass or cement in to repair buildings.”
Strikingly, in that recent appearance, as well as in an op-ed piece for The Guardian at the height of Cast Lead in January 2009, Clegg went beyond condemnatory statements.
He told the FPA, somewhat vaguely, that “the European Union is entitled to use its economic muscle, which is very considerable in its relationship with Israel, to exercise influence.”
And the EU’s obligation to “reflect our values,” he suggested, “requires some conditionality on the trade agreements and on arms exports.”
But he was utterly explicit in the Guardian. That January 7, 2009, op-ed was headlined “We must stop arming Israel” and carried the sub-head: “Brown has to stop sitting on his hands, halt British weapons exports and insist the EU do the same.”
Clegg began quite sympathetically. “Of course, Israel has every right to defend itself,” he wrote. “It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to live with the constant threat of rocket attacks from a movement which espouses terrorist violence and denies Israel's right to exist.”
But the tone quickly became reproving. “Israel’s approach is self-defeating: 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 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.”
“The government’s own figures show Britain is selling more and more weapons to Israel, despite the questions about the country's use of force,” he complained. “In 2007, our government approved £6m. of arms exports. In 2008, it licensed sales 12 times as fast.”
Stressed Clegg: “I want an immediate suspension of all arms exports from the EU, but if that cannot be secured, Brown must act unilaterally.”
Returning to the issue 11 months later, in December, Clegg was the first signatory to “An appeal for the victims of Gaza” – a letter that appeared in the Guardian’s sister publication, The Observer, signed by close to 30 fellow British parliamentarians. This urged “the British government and the international community to apply meaningful pressure upon Israel,” in order to halt its “flagrant abuse of international law” in Gaza, where “the Israeli government continues to imprison 1.5 million Palestinians and prevent the rebuilding of its shattered infrastructure.”
IN THE recent Jewish Chronicle article, Clegg insisted that “The Liberal Democrats... utterly abhor all forms of racism and anti-Semitism and are in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“The Liberal Democrats,” he asserted, “are friends of Israel, we are supporters of Israel. The mark of a strong friendship is to be prepared to speak out if you believe a friend is acting against their own best interests. When I speak out over Gaza, for example, it is because I genuinely feel that Israel’s policy runs counter to its best interests.”
In similar vein, he told British Reform Jews last month that he was “a huge admirer of the vibrancy and vigor of Israel’s democracy.”
“Like many outsiders to the Middle East conflict,” he added, “I continually hope that leadership will emerge on all sides committed to a coherent long term strategy for peace. At the moment, such leadership is woefully lacking.”
In common with the prevailing view in Jerusalem, British Jews are evidently less than unanimous in accepting Clegg’s professions of Israel friendship. Amid the almost unremittingly aggrieved series of questions put to foreign affairs spokesman Wallace at his meeting with the Board of Deputies last month, there was one that wondered: “How does Liberal party foreign policy square the right of Israel to defend itself with the failure to provide arms? Is Israel supposed to use its bare hands?”
Wallace’s unapologetic response included the following comment: “The question that is regularly put to us is how do we – and by ‘we’ I mean the British, our European allies and others – help to push Israel in the right direction.”
THE BRITISH electorate has given false hope three or four times in the past 20 years to the Lib-Dems in their various incarnations and under their various leaders – setting them up with minor “by-election” successes only to knock them down in the really important general election contests.
But the Britain of election day 2010 was particularly hard to gauge, given the lingering shock of the financial collapse and threat of recession, bitterness over a series of MPs’ expenses scandals, and general disaffection with politics. Cameron seemed home and dry at times and Labor doomed. Then Cameron slipped and Clegg soared. Brown mounted a late rally. The Lib-Debs faded...
Clegg will have woken up this morning – if, that is, he managed to get
any sleep – to discover whether, as in the past, the voters were less
kind to his party than many of the opinion polls had been. Or whether
his improbable dreams of 10 Downing Street were not so wild after all.
Or whether, somewhere in between, he had achieved his more realistic
ambition of denting Labor and the Conservatives sufficiently to deny
either an outright majority.
Such a result would give him the capacity to name a high price for his
party’s coalition support, and so to push for the most important
Lib-Dem demand – a radical reform of the electoral system that could
end the two-party British system once and for all, moving it,
ironically, closer to the unmanageable Israeli system.
Such a result would also leave Nick “We must stop arming Israel” Clegg
troublingly well-placed, from Jerusalem’s point of view, to try even
harder, as his foreign affairs spokesman put it, “to push Israel in the
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