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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel - a great statement on Gaza

As a committee member of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI), I strongly endorse this new statement on the current situation in Israel and Gaza, on LDFI's website:
In light of the events of the past month in Israel and in Gaza, the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (LDFI) believe that it is important to outline our views. It should be borne in mind that LDFI is not a Jewish organisation. It is what its title says: Liberal Democrats who are friends of the State of Israel. Our membership includes people of all faiths and of none.
LDFI does not subscribe to or uncritically support the policies of every Israeli government, particularly not one led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, whose values are quite different from that of the Liberal Democrats. We remain absolutely committed to the State of Israel and her right to live within secure borders and to supporting peace in the region. We believe that this can and will be achieved by negotiation, on the basis of an imaginative two-state solution that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis alike.
LDFI condemns Hamas as the terrorist group it is recognised to be internationally. Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel in both word and deed, and its refusal to accept Israel’s statehood is an integral obstruction to peace. Attacks on Israel by means of both the terror tunnels and the unceasing, indiscriminate missile bombardment are without question intolerable and unacceptable, and have been rightly countered.
The level of casualties in Gaza and beyond is a human tragedy. Hamas’ policy of using the Gazan people as human shields to protect their arms caches around hospitals, schools, densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood and recognised in the UK and internationally. As Nick Clegg, has written, “[Hamas] has shown it is willing to sacrifice its own people for military advantage.” As such, Hamas must bear a heavy responsibility for the tragically high death toll in Gaza to date.
Following the absolute confirmation that Israel will cease all military responses as long as missile fire does not recommence, we call on the UK and international community to bring pressure to bear on Hamas to cease their missile fire indefinitely. This will give way to a period of calm which will allow pause for reflection on all sides. Further aggression and provocation from Hamas will not allow negotiations, led by Egypt, to conclude towards an enduring ceasefire.
What is clear is that any continuation of the situation of the past month will not deliver the Liberal Democrat dual aspiration of removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Furthermore, we call on Israel to demonstrate continued restraint in any targeting of terrorist targets in Gaza. Civilian causalities in Gaza are not just a tragedy but also give Israel’s enemies at home and abroad both political and public relations ammunition to espouse a worrying anti-Zionist and sometimes actually anti-Semitic rhetoric which LDFI finds as deplorable a consequence as the prospect of further hostilities.
The statement has been backed by a letter in The Guardian by a number of senior Liberal Democrats:
 As Liberal Democrats, we are totally committed to the state of Israel being able to live within secure borders, and wish to see the removal of the existential threat to Israel’s security by an internationally recognised terrorist group, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
As recorded by the UN and captured by various international media sources, Hamas’s policy of using human shields to protect its arms caches in hospitals, schools and densely populated neighbourhoods must be understood as the principal factor behind the number of Gazan civilian deaths, and condemned as such. 
Hamas’s commitment to the destruction of Israel and its refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist is a huge obstacle to peace.
We hereby ask that the UK government and the international community call on Hamas to maintain the cessation of rocket fire beyond this current ceasefire. Israel has shown it is committed to a ceasefire subject to an end to the rocket fire; it is now incumbent on Hamas to do the same. This will allow the international community, led by Egypt, to broker an end to hostilities, involving the demilitarisation of Gaza plus recognition and adherence to the Quartet principles, which in turn will lead to the eventual opening of borders and a more enduring peace. 
Sir Alan Beith MP Chairman of the justice select committee and former deputy leader of Liberal Democrats
Lord Navnit Dholakia Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords
Lord Monroe Palmer Liberal Democrat, joint backbench international affairs committee,
Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP for London 1999-2014 
Cllr Barry Aspinall Leader, Brentwood borough council 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Two great Foreign Affairs articles on Israel/Gaza

The American magazine Foreign Affairs has some claim to be the world's leading foreign-policy journal and its readable, accessible style reminds me of The Economist at its best. I'm signed up to a free weekly email offering links to its best articles, and yesterday that email took me to the two (short, non-academic) pieces below. Amid the horrendous din of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian comment, argument and propaganda by which we are all currently being so painfully overwhelmed, the two pieces below are an objective breath of fresh air, and I strongly urge you to read them:

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141834/benedetta-berti/dangerous-disarmament

http://m.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141698/mark-perry/gazas-bottle-rockets?cid=nlc-foreign_affairs_this_week-080714-gazas_bottle_rockets_5-080714&sp_mid=46659115&sp_rid=bWF0dGhldy5oYXJyaXNAaG90bWFpbC5jby51awS2

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Libya and "the Middle East Crisis"

Why must the media call the current Israel/Gaza war "the Middle East crisis"? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a huge region, of which Israel/Palestine is, what, less than 2% - and the Middle East has many crises, not just one. We did not use to call Northern Ireland "the Western Europe crisis"; can we not call the Israel/Palestine crisis precisely what it is - "the Israel/Palestine crisis"? It is indeed a crisis, and so (for example) is the situation in Libya (http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28616843) - is Libya not in the Middle East too? The implication that "the Middle East" is not so much region as a problem (and a problem centring on Israel, to the exclusion of all other problems) belongs far more in a secondary school debating society than it does in the world's newsrooms.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Lib Dem line on Israel/Palestine today

In a party that is, to paraphrase Charles Kennedy, not so much a broad church as a hexagonal cathedral, it is somewhat hazardous to refer to "the party line". That notwithstanding, the Liberal Democrats do (like any other party) have such an official line on issues of the day, and below is the one on "Israel and Palestine" today. Writing here in a personal capacity, I have to say that I strongly agree with the broad thrust of large parts of this:

"Our urgent priority is to stop the bloodshed, restore the ceasefire and work towards a long-term sustainable peace. The Liberal Democrats in Government will concentrate our efforts on securing that object.

"Israel has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks launched from Gaza and targeted at innocent Israelis.

"But we will continue to urge Israel to exercise restraint and make every effort to avoid further civilian casualties. It is vital we work towards an immediate ceasefire.

"We are deeply concerned by the continuing bloodshed in Gaza. It is tragic that so many innocent civilians, including children, have been killed and injured in the ongoing violence.

"The people of Gaza and Israel have the fundamental right to live in peace and security. To this end, we urge Hamas to stop their indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel but also call on Israel and Egypt to lift the blockade of Gaza. It is not in Israel's or ordinary Palestinians' interests to see the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsen."

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Nick Clegg on Israel/Gaza

On his Call Clegg radio phone-in show on LBC today, Nick Clegg (UK Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister) took a question on Israel and Gaza from 'Stephen in Croydon'; I agree with Mr Clegg's answer, and here is the Q&A:

S:         Oh hi, I've got a question for you, an interesting one. If the world was city, Israel finds itself in one of the toughest parts of town, surrounded by countries with little value for life.  If you were the Prime Minister of England, and there was a radicalised terrorist organisation that was now running Scotland or Wales, and they were firing up to 50 rockets every month into your country, would you accept the situation, or feel you had a responsibility to protect the citizens of your country?

NC:      Of course you've got a responsibility to protect the citizens of your country.  And, equally, you have an absolute need, a long term strategic need, to secure the safety of your fellow citizens, by seeking to entrench peace.  At the end of the day, we know, we all know that violence begets violence, and that the greatest security of all that can be provided to our fellow citizens, is to seek for people to live peacefully in co-existence.  But, of course, that means that people who seek to spread terror need to be confronted and combated, and every state has a right to protect its citizens from that.  But, equally, I think it means, certainly in the case of the Middle East, that in the long run, in the long run, however difficult it is, and boy is it difficult, there is no surrogate, there's no alternative to the safety that peace brings.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The death of another young person

The tragic news that the body of a Palestinian teenager has been found near to Jerusalem is deeply saddening, following on so soon from the finding of the bodies of three Israeli teenagers. One can only begin to imagine the deep sadness of the families and friends of all four of these young people. Given that all four appear to have been murdered, I want to see the people responsible brought to justice as swiftly as possible.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Israel's critical Lib Dem friend

Very interested to see the Jewish Chronicle's coverage of a recent visit to Israel/Palestine by Laurence Brass: http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/117732/board-deputies-treasurer-shocked%E2%80%99-visit-west-bank and http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/120089/envoys-support-laurence-brass-israel-criticism-row.

Laurence is a former Liberal candidate who, like me, used to be a Vice-Chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel (on whose committee I still sit, although I write here in a personal capacity) and is the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, although this trip by Laurence to Israel/Palestine (organised by a British group called Yachad: http://yachad.org.uk/) was undertaken by Laurence in a personal capacity.

Israel's critics often say (sometimes disingenuously) : "We criticise Israel because, as friends of Israel, we wish to be candid friends and tell Israel when Israel is wrong - that is the act of a true friend." They also often say (again, sometimes disingenuously): "Why can Lib Dems who are friends of Israel not be critical friends who say something when Israel's got it wrong?"

And you could argue that this is precisely what Laurence has done, given what he says about a Palestinian schoolgirl being taken to hospital with head wounds after apparently being stoned by someone living in a nearby Israeli settlement, and what he says about a rusty car having been dumped in a Palestinian village well, in what Laurence considers to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt the villagers' clean water supply.

As a friend of Israel, am I not allowed to be as disgusted by reports of such alleged actions as I would be by reports of English football hooligans abroad allegedly smashing windows and urinating on the beach? In either instance I would need to hear the facts before rushing to judgement, but would my disgust at the possibility of such behaviour by some Israeli or English people really make me anti-Israeli or anti-English?

Yes, I know that Israel's critics often stray into language that is antisemitic (unlike Israel's enemies, who don't need to stray into such language, as they are already there). I know that Israel's actions attract a massively disproportionate amount of critical attention in relation to other, far more serious things that happen elsewhere in the Middle East and the wider world, and I know that Israeli 'settlers' are demonised and de-humanised in such a way as to suggest that THEY are the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, when that conflict actually existed long before there even WERE any settlers, meaning that they can't be the conflict's root cause, that root cause actually being the Arab world's refusal to accept the existence of the State of Israel on any terms whatsoever - I know all of this, and have written about it here many times.

I also know that, given that Israel has no lack of harsh critics, it doesn't really need additional criticism from those people who are its best friends. I understand the arguments that diaspora Jewish communal leaders (of which the Treasurer of the Board of Deputies is a prime example) can express their reservations to the Israelis in private and ought not to add grist to the mill of Israel's critics in public.

And I know - and this is very important - that Israel does arrest and prosecute those of its citizens who act in the appalling way that Laurence describes, just as such people would be arrested over here: http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.572623?v=B42055F2F0744D1EDC31FD59351A2380.

But...What if Laurence had gone to the West Bank and not criticised Israel, but praised it? What if he had said: "I applaud Israel's rigorous prosecution of those Israelis who sometimes behave badly towards Palestinians" - would the same people who have booed Laurence for criticising Israel have booed him for saying that? I don't think that they necessarily would, and if Laurence's praising Israel would not have sparked allegations that he has failed to behave impartially, then why should such allegations be sparked by his criticising Israel? The blade surely cuts both ways.

What I assume to have happened (and it is only an assumption - I have not spoken to Laurence about this) is that Laurence, who I have known and liked for years, went with Yachad on a one-day trip to the West Bank (http://yachad.org.uk/get-involved/trips/) at a time when he was in Israel (perhaps on holiday) anyway. Having seen what he saw, he said what he said, because that's Laurence, and I'm not going to say that he was definitely wrong to say it. Perhaps it wouldn't work if every Anglo-Jewish leader expressed personal, critical opinions on every detail of Israeli policy all of the time, but I wonder if the world might not end if someone like Laurence does it every now and then.

I note also that, of the distinguished Israelis who have signed a letter (doubtless orchestrated by Yachad) in the Jewish Chronicle supporting Laurence, one (Alon Liel) was the main speaker at Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel's 2011 party conference fringe meeting (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/10/jeremy-browne-on-israelpalestine.html) and another (Naomi Chazan) had the same role in 2010 (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2011/06/liberal-voice-worth-listening-to.html).

Naomi, Alon, Yachad and perhaps even sometimes Laurence are to the left of where I often am (http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-israel-has-no-option-but-to-defend-itself-against-hamas-and-iran-10239.html), but that doesn't deter me from wanting to hear what they have to say. Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel deserves greater credit for centring its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Israelis like Alon Liel and Naomi Chazan, and I'd love it if Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine would centre its fringe meetings on pro-peace, liberal-left Palestinians.

Jonathan Freedland wrote interestingly on such things at: http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/columnists/57850/this-israel-not-one-i-love.

(While I was completing this piece yesterday, the appalling news broke of the discovery of the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers, about whose kidnapping I had blogged previously. Obviously I condemn the brutal murder of these three young people, which I did not discuss in the piece above, as I had not known about it at the time of writing.)