For friendship's sake

For friendships sake

At the height of Operation Cast Lead, several anti-Israel marches took place through London and other European capitals. To try and inject balance to the debate I gave some media interviews explaining the facts about the mauling Sderot had been taking for years. Once back in my House of Commons office, I anticipated volumes of hostile e-mails. What I did not expect, however, was that the e-mails were actually evenly split, for and against Israel. Equally unexpected was an opinion poll, published shortly afterwards, which showed that almost as many Britons supported Israel's action as disapproved, despite the horrific images of civilian suffering that were flooding the air waves. The impression that many Israelis have of uniform hostility among Europeans to the State of Israel is false. Certainly it is true that there are many politicians and people across the continent only too happy to believe the worst of Israel. True also is the rise of anti-Semitism, especially in Eastern Europe, which politicians in these countries do shamefully little to combat. BUT ISRAEL has friends in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom. Recently, press coverage was given to moves by UK Trade Unions to institute a boycott of Israeli goods, but little attention was paid to the fact that the original hard-line proposal was actually replaced by a more moderate position. Much of the credit for this should go to the dedicated members of the Trade Union Friends of Israel in the UK. Most readers of The Jerusalem Post will never have heard of this organization, or of the Friends of Israel groups that exist within both the ruling Labour and opposition Conservative Parties. Yet these groups are flourishing, and working hard to ensure that the debate on the Middle East is fair and balanced, and that Israel's legitimate concerns are represented in public discourse. There is no British version of AIPAC; here Labor and Conservative Friends of Israel do not coordinate strategy, nor share resources. This is no bad thing. I am a Labor Member of Parliament who happens to be a friend of Israel. As a politician of the centre-left I would love to see my comrades in the Israeli Labor Party flourish again, and I yearn for the days when Israel was seen as a social democratic cause. However, being a friend of Israel does not, and cannot mean being a friend of everything that every Israeli government does or has ever done. As citizens of a vibrant democracy this is not a standard that self-respecting Israelis would hold themselves to, so it cannot be expected of foreign friends. Israel's Ambassador to the UK jokes that whenever anyone introduces themselves as a "friend of Israel" he dons a flack jacket. So, as a friend of Israel who has proven himself to be so in the House of Commons as well as in the BBC studios, let me say this: it is becoming increasingly difficult for Israel's friends to make our case. The expansion of settlements; disturbing accounts of Palestinians stripped of their rights in east Jerusalem; a deteriorating situation in Gaza; all of these make it harder for Israel's friends to be heard when we speak about the threat of Iran, Hamas and the unfair double standards Israel is subject to. We will robustly defend Israel when it is maligned unfairly, but please do not ask us to defend the indefensible. Many Israelis may be tempted to shrug off such warnings; as long as the Americans remain committed, what does it matter if support dwindles elsewhere? This would be a grave mistake. Firstly, it would be to abandon the idea that Israel's cause is just; that fair-minded people of goodwill everywhere can feel solidarity with the plight of a country that is the only meaningful democracy in its region, a beacon of free-speech and the rule of law, menaced by fanatical enemies committed to its destruction. Secondly, to believe that as long as the Americans are on-side little else matters may be real-politik, but it is dangerous. America's patience may be great, but it is not inexhaustible. Obama will probably be around for another seven years; to dismiss him as naïve, and batten down the hatches until another Bush inherits the White House is not a strategy, it is folly. So for the sake of its many friends around the world, but even more for the sake of its children and grandchildren, Israel should demonstrate once again that it has justice and righteousness on its side, not just might and strength. Embrace every opportunity to advance the cause of a lasting peace and if others do not respond, so be it; but by its actions let the world see once more that the moral high ground belongs, unequivocally, to Israel. The writer is a Labor member of Parliament, former government minister and past chair of Labor Friends of Israel.