Ed Miliband’s Israel problem, by Dan Hodges

Ed Miliband has an Israel problem. Or, depending on your perspective, Israel has a problem with Ed Miliband.

The response to the foreign affairs section of his conference speech was dominated by Iraq. His brother’s angry reaction, which in truth reflected David’s personal antipathy towards Harriet, as much as his distaste for that particular passage, led the news bulletins. But it was the section on Israel that reverberated.

“The new generation must challenge old thinking”, he said. And duly hurled down the gauntlet. There needed to be international pressure on Israel over the ending of the moratorium on settlements. The attack on the Gaza flotilla was wrong. Israel must accept and recognize, in actions not just words, the Palestinian right to statehood. The Gaza blockage must be lifted. He would “strain every sinew to make that happen”. He would, of course, always defend Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.

The contrast between the tone and specifics of this passage, and that struck by his predecessors, is striking. Gordon Brown opted for silence on Israel and Palestine in his first conference speech as leader. Tony Blair’s stance was characteristically unambiguous. Described by Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, at the time of his resignation as “a true friend of Israel”, Blair responded to the flotilla incident by stating that while there should be an investigation: “When it comes to security, I’m 100 percent on Israel’s side. Israel has the right to inspect what goes into Gaza”.

Be under no illusion. If Ed Miliband had delivered that speech as prime minister, rather than leader of the opposition, the United Kingdom would now be embroiled in a major diplomatic row with Israel. As it was, the Israeli ambassador was moved to seek him out on the Saturday evening of conference, and express concern at the tenor of his comments. Jonathan Arkush, senior vice-president of the board of deputies of British Jews said, “”His speech singled out Israel for criticism and lacked balance in relation to the Middle East”. He added, “I felt that the conference was an uncomfortable place for any supporter of Israel”.

Louise Ellman, a leading member of Labour friends of Israel responded, “It was very disappointing that his conference speech criticised Israel without mentioning Hamas rocket attacks on civilians. It’s important for Ed to show he is even-handed on the Middle East”.

According to some sources, the passage on Israel was initially more balanced, but heavily, and poorly, edited on the evening before. Others put it down to inexperience. “It was naïve, not intentional”, said one senior member of the Jewish community.

Not according to other sources close to the Miliband camp. “There were some sections of the speech which were intended to draw a line. Like Iraq. There were others that reflect themes Ed intends to develop. The passage on Israel and Palestine was one of those. He’s thought about this at length. He feels very strongly about it”.

To many in the Labour party, Ed Miliband’s change of attitude to Israel is welcome. “Our policy has been to use a carrot and stick with the Palestinians, but offer only the carrot to Israel. That’s got to change”, said one long standing opponent of the Blair/Brown approach.

Fine. But if he’s going to change tack, he needs to do so carefully. And his conference speech was clumsy.

Even had Ed been developing well-articulated positions, the balance of his speech would have courted controversy. Given that this was the first time most people had heard him articulate a position on the Middle East, it came across as one sided, and simplistic.

The passage on the flotilla was especially misjudged. The death of nine peace activists was an outrage, and rightly condemned. But to use that one incident to frame almost a century of conflict was crass. A recent survey found that one in five Israelis has lost a friend or family member to terrorism. Tragedy is not the preserve of either side in the conflict, and Ed’s speech needed to reflect that.

This is big politics. “He’s in danger of making himself irrelevant”, said one observer close to the Israeli diplomatic community. “There’s an active process going on at the moment, and unless he sharpens up, the Israelis will walk away. He won’t be taken seriously”. That’s certainly a risk, although part of Labour’s problem has been grasping that we are now in opposition, not government. Ed has more space to work in, and it is right that he should use it. But the marginalisation of Labour’s foreign policy would ultimately feed through to the wider electorate.

As would lasting damage to the party’s relations with the Jewish community. At a cold political level, in recent years Labour has benefited from ground support and funding. Alarm at Ed’s comments means both are now at risk.

There is also a complex interrelationship between both Jewish and Muslim communities that requires careful calibration. The extreme right is already trying to drive a wedge between these two important parts of Labour’s constituency. Witness Nick Griffin’s perverse efforts to present himself as pro-Israeli, and the flaunting by EDL thugs of Israeli flags. Politicians of all persuasions must tread softly. Ed’s speech has been viewed by many Jewish supporters as aiming a kick at the china.

And there is another complication. Ed Miliband’s Jewishness holds much greater significance for the Jewish community than it does for Ed Miliband himself. “When he spoke to the Labour friends of Israel reception he didn’t even mention that he was Jewish”, said one guest, “It was as if it didn’t matter”.

That’s not totally accurate. The passage in his conference speech where Ed talked about his family’s flight from Nazism was obviously heartfelt. And it’s impossible to believe that anyone brought up in an environment so full of historical and political discourse would not have that element of their heritage embedded within their consciousness.

But it is equally true to say that Ed Miliband’s ethnicity appears to play little part in his politics. When asked about the significance of working for a Jewish candidate for Labour leader one of his aides responded, “None. David’s much more Jewish than Ed is”.

Another advisor said, “When you discuss foreign affairs with a lot of Jewish politicians, it shapes them, from both a liberal and a conservative perspective. You obviously get a very pro-Israeli position from some. But even with those coming at it from the other side, there’s often a sense of guilt or even self-anguish about their stance. I’ve never had that with Ed. It just doesn’t seem to figure in his thinking”.

Expectations that Ed Miliband would automatically follow the ultra-supportive Brown/Blair line on Israel were always presumptuous. Nor were they a reflection of the prevailing mood within the Jewish community, which had invested more of its hopes, and its votes, in his brother. The idea that he would publically embrace his own Jewishness, given his agnosticism, and that of his parents, was also unrealistic.

But sensitivity and diplomacy are important elements of leadership. During his first venture into foreign affairs they were absent. He must not forget to pack them again.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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5 Responses to “Ed Miliband’s Israel problem, by Dan Hodges”

  1. Tim Sewell says:

    Like many social democrats I instinctively take the side of Israel in many matters and strongly support its right to self defence. However, to gloss over its occasional outrageous acts is to single it out for special treatment just as much as those who condemn it for every minor transgression while ignoring those of its enemies.

    At the end of the day, like any democracy, Israel has its fair share of tyrants and demagogues who take comfort from uncritical support by those, like this Labour party, who should in fact be taking exactly the approach hinted at by Miliband – encouragement of progressive actions, strongly stated disapproval of anti-democratic ones.

  2. Emma Burnell says:

    It was extremely forward thinking of the Israeli ambassador to seek out Ed Miliband on the Saturday of conference expressing concerns about the tenor of remarks he wasn’t to make for three more days.

  3. Dan Hodges says:

    Emma, you’re right of course. It was Tuesday, not the Saturday when he made the speech and the Israel reference.

    Though I’m sure the Israeli ambassador is a very forward thinking chap…

  4. Maxy says:

    I would like to see Ed Miliband speaking out more on the Palestinian question. The ZIonist wing of the Labour Party has managed to poision the debate on Israel so that any ciriticism leads to charges of ant semitism. Which fair minded person with no axe to grind would support the actions of Israel in the war on Gaza. Elman has had her time and it is high time that the true progressives in the Labour Party stand up and be counted. Why should the Labour party be held hostage to what is a minority Zionist position. No truly democratic state would behave as Israel does. How come there is no debate within the Labour Party on the intention to declare statehood by the Palestinians in September. Ed should be supporting the Palestinians on this.

  5. Andrew Smith says:

    It is refreshing to see the Labour Party being led by an individual who is capable of seeing the extreme injustices done to the Palestinian people and seeking some real change. I feel that Ed Miliband instinctively empathises with the underdog whether it’s at home or abroad and this used to be one of the great strengths of the Labour Party historically. I look forward to a more balanced foreign policy developing as the months go by.

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