As we celebrate new Middle Eastern democracy, let’s not forget the old one

by Michael Dugher

When interviewed this morning on the Today programme, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, said he “very much applauded the Egyptian people” but he warned that the “uncertainty” in Egypt created vulnerabilities for Israel and the wider region. Yesterday, on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, quartet envoy, Tony Blair, described the events as a “pivotal moment” and urged the West to engage with supporters of democracy and help countries evolve and move in the right direction. Significantly, he said that progress could unblock the Middle East peace process and be of “huge benefit”.

This cautious, yet hopeful, outlook comes after William Hague’s tour of the region last week. I was in Israel at the time and Hague’s ill-judged intervention, where he seemed unwilling to back the Egyptian pro-democracy protesters, while at the same time calling Israel (the only democracy in the region) “belligerent”, was viewed with a mixture of despair and resignation. Hague’s inept and insensitive comments reinforced the perception, wrongly in my view, that the UK and Europe have slid into a position of hostility towards Israel and therefore are unable to play their part as honest brokers in the peace process.  Regrettably, Hague’s intervention can only serve to diminish the UK’s influence in the region.

Israel is feeling anxious, and understandably so. There is a famous phrase that “Israel lives in a difficult neighbourhood”. It values the hard-fought peace deal it signed with Egypt over thirty years ago and doesn’t want Egypt to press the reset button. As the Economist’s Lexington pointed out last week, peace between the two countries was made between leaders, not people, and the newly-enfranchised Egyptians could demand that their new government put more emphasis on the Palestinian cause.

This may well be true to an extent. But the suggestion that Egyptians’ first impulse will be to elect an extreme Islamic leadership that would immediately jeopardise its relationship with Israel is probably wide of the mark. It is clear from the reports that have come out of Egypt over the last few weeks that the majority of the protestors on the streets are not from the religious Muslim Brotherhood, but are young, secular moderates who are more interested in fighting for less corruption and more jobs than worrying about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Danny Ayalon pointed out this morning, the problem is not democracy in Egypt but interference from the “negative forces” from outside, notably from Iranian agents who do so much to destabilise Iran’s neighbours.

While there is great uncertainty, the spread of true democracy in the region can only be a good thing. After all, democracies don’t tend to go to war against each other. It is also an opportunity for Europe to talk less and do more. Change in the region is an opportunity for the UK and Europe to play a bigger role in helping to drive forward the peace process and galvanise regional support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if we are to succeed in playing a more significant role, we need to do more to gain the trust of both the Palestinians and Israelis. Part of this will involve nailing the myth that Europe is somehow becoming increasingly anti-Israel.

Last week, I attended the international Herzliya conference in Israel and took part in a debate with the Israeli deputy prime minister about the peace process and Europe’s relationship with Israel. I was struck by how many Israelis felt they were losing support in Europe and how they spoke with shock – understandably so – when they hear of proposed trade union boycotts of Israeli goods or the threat of arrest for visiting Israeli politicians in the UK.

It is true that the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become more polarised in recent years, with an increase in anti-Israel sentiment in some quarters, particularly within some sections of the unions and on university campuses. More worrying is the increase, as the community security trust highlights so well, in the number of anti-semitic attacks in the UK.  Organisations such as the Palestine solidarity campaign continue to challenge Israel’s very existence.

But aside from the extremism, the lack of progress in the peace process provides a difficult backdrop.  At the conference last week, I was in agreement with much of what the leader of the Israeli opposition and former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, had to say in criticising the current Israeli government for failing to show sufficient leadership on the peace process. Progress has stalled because of a failure of leadership in the Palestinian side too. Their response to events in Egypt was to announce that long-overdue elections will take place in September. Both sides need to re-join the negotiating table.

What characterises the vast majority of public opinion here in the UK is not so much a widespread hostility to Israel, but more a genuine lack of understanding of the situation. Here, like elsewhere in Europe, public perceptions of Israel are almost entirely generated via images in the broadcast media. It is hard to explain the subtleties and complexities of over 60 years of history in 60 seconds of TV news. For the vast majority of people in the UK, Israel is seen almost exclusively through the prism of the Middle East peace process, or lack of it. This does mean that pro-peace, but not anti-Israel, campaigners in the UK need to be constantly filling in the gaps in people’s knowledge and explaining the context. It also means we need to make progress on the Middle East peace process fast.

Anti-Israel voices in the UK still speak only for a minority. The bonds that tie Israel with the UK are about strong economic links, but they are also as much about shared values – not least a commitment to parliamentary democracy – and shared culture. Barack Obama – who, in his desire to mend America’s relations with the Islamic world, has been tougher on Israel than many US presidents – describes the “special relationship” between America and with Israel as being founded on “shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests”.  The same might equally be said for the UK. And the lack of progress on the peace process is abused by extremists here in the UK who use the issue as a recruiting sergeant to Islamic extremism in Britain, something that directly threatens our security at home.

Jeremy Bowen on the BBC this morning talked of “a different landscape” in the Middle East, but warned of “smouldering dangers”.  So in celebrating the emergence of democracy in Egypt, let us monitor closely developments in the region and hope that moves towards democracy are also accompanied by a new drive for peace in the region. If the UK, including the foreign secretary, can grow up a bit, we ought to have a role to play in that. But with all the talk of the spread of democracy in the Middle East, we shouldn’t forget that one country in the region already has it – Israel.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East, a shadow defence minister and vice-chair of the Labour friends of Israel.

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4 Responses to “As we celebrate new Middle Eastern democracy, let’s not forget the old one”

  1. John Conner says:

    “Israel is feeling anxious”
    Exactly what part of Israel feeling anxious, do you meant Jewish Israel or Palestinian Israel, I think the answer will be very different to the different groups and the statement obviously means non-palestinian, as the palestinians will probably welcome the recent developments. To say we have a shared culture is niave, the Israel culture is dominated by religion and is not a secular society, its a society filled with mistrust and deep seated hatred on both sides. When was the last time the UK bulldozed houses, to cleanse an area, ignored international pressure and carried on treating a sizeable minority as second class citizens? Should the UK build a wall to keep the unwanted at bay. And as for agreeing with Tzipi Livn, is this the war mongering woman who does not come to the UK in case of arrest? Your article is one sided and viewing Israel through rose tinted glasses, which without US money and support would probably not survive

  2. Colin Adkins says:


    Surely you cannot deny after recent leaks that Israel intends to stretch out negotiations until they create the last fact on the ground and colonise all of Israel/Palestine and/or make a Palestinian state unviable.

    Why have Americans or Russians who happen to be of Jewish faith have a greater right to return to Israel/Palestine than Palestinian Arabs who were forced out of the country in the last fifty years?

    Does the insecurity felt by Israeli Jews jusitify the racist discrimination perpetuated against Palestinian Arabs by the Israeli state and many settlers on the West Bank?

    I like you question the tatic of boycots. I say this with some authority as I worked for the Anti-Apartheid Movement for five years. But many progressives who support Israel appear to be a left face of a hegemonic project to colonise Palestinian lands. Prove them wrong and deliver facts on the ground for the Palestinans and the boycott calls will diminish believe me.


  3. Maxy says:

    .The idea that there is widespread support for the state of Israel is completely untrue. That a Labour MP thinks he can get away with peddling this untruth beggars belief. Numerous surveys have been carried out over the years which show widespread support for the Palestinians across Europe. The problem with the Labour Party is that the Zionist wing still prevails with the result that fourteen years in office brought us no nearer to establishing a two state solution. The recent rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah is symptomatic of the failure of the international community to bring about the two state solution. Ed Miliband is right to question the previous approach of the LP but how far he will be able to overturn their influence is debatable. Israel is not above criticism and hiding behind the skirts of anti Semitism does not work anymore. Ed Miliband should throw his weight behind support for the declaration objective of the Palestinian people at the UN in September

  4. Maxy says:

    Israel a democracy.!!!! ARe you having a laugh???

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