Thursday, 30 April 2015

Britain's General Election and Israel-Palestine

[This piece was written one week before the UK went to the polls.  In the event, British pollsters were proved to be just as unreliable as Israeli ones, if not more so.  Their unanimous predictions of a so-called "hung" parliament - that is, no party gaining sufficient seats to form a government - were proved disastrously wrong.  The Labour party was decisively beaten and the Conservatives secured an overall majority.  The main conclusion I draw in the following piece, I stand by.  The new British government is the best outcome the general election could have produced for the Middle East as a whole, and Israel in particular.]

On May 7 the United Kingdom goes to the polls.  For the past five years Britain has been governed by a formal coalition – most unusual for the UK, although commonplace in other democracies.  The general election held in 2010 failed to provide either of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, with a clear majority of parliamentary seats.  As a result the Conservatives negotiated a formal deal with the centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, that provided a workable administration. 

The current general election campaign, which kicked off formally on March 30, has been gathering momentum. The usual swathe of opinion polls, attempting to provide a temperature chart of voter intentions, have consistently shown Conservative and Labour virtually neck and neck.  Their pretty unanimous prediction has been a further “no clear majority” for either party not that over-much confidence should be placed on them.  Given the recent Israeli general election which left the pollsters with much egg on their faces, pre-election opinion polls need to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

However, assuming that they are indeed accurately predicting the outcome, the UK is about to be faced either with a new coalition, or with a minority government sustained by some less formal arrangement with one or more of the smaller parties.  Given the range of permutations, how would possible future governments vary in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?  On the face of it, not at all, for in every one of the main party manifestos – tucked away at the very rear, of course – each UK political party asserts its allegiance to the near-global consensus on the issue, namely the two-state solution. 

However, this apparent unanimity is not all that it seems, for it hides wide variations in the actual stance of the main parties on Middle East politics in general, and the Israel-Palestine dispute in particular. One, for example, openly supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Several ascribe the failure to achieve a two-state solution to Israel and its settlement expansion.  Not one identifies any failure of goodwill or intention on the Palestinian side. The realities are perhaps best demonstrated in a poll of British Jews commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle, the UK’s leading Jewish journal.  No less than 69 percent said they would support the Conservatives; only 22 percent would vote Labour.

Current prime minister David Cameron enjoys substantial personal support among the Jewish community – not surprisingly, because he has consistently advocated close relations between Britain and Israel.  Back in 2012, just as during his visit to Israel in March 2014, he was fulsome in his praise: “Israel has got more start-up businesses per head than any other country.  How do they do it?  It’s about the aspiration and drive of its people…So we want to work much more closely with Israel.”

Labour party leader Ed Miliband, on the other hand, despite his Jewish origins, is distrusted.  The Jewish community recalls how, in October 2014, he tried to force every Labour member of parliament to vote in favour of recognizing the state of Palestine – and was forced to back-track in the face of opposition from within his party.

Other political parties participating in the general election got barely any recognition from this poll of Jewish voting intention – scarcely remarkable, since around 73 percent of those polled said that it was the political parties’ attitudes to Israel that were “very” or “quite” important in influencing how they would vote.  And despite the universal kowtowing by Britain’s political parties to the god of the “two-state solution”, those attitudes vary widely.

The manifesto of the Liberal Democrats, the largest of the smaller parties in the last parliament, asserts that they “remain committed to a negotiated peace settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which includes a two-state solution.”  It continues: “We condemn disproportionate force used by all sides…We condemn Israel’s continued illegal policy of settlement expansion, which undermines the possibility of a two-state solution.”  Their leader, Nick Clegg, then deputy prime minister, spoke out against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in July 2014.  Coming close to accusing Israel of breaching international law, he said its response to the Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza was "deliberately disproportionate"., and accused Israel of imposing a "disproportionate form of collective punishment" on the citizens of Gaza.

Or take the Greens, one of the more prominent of the smaller parties. Their manifesto proclaims: “We seek a just, sustainable and peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel conflict based on mutual recognition of the rights to independent statehood for Palestinians and Israelis.  We condemn human rights violations by both parties and the oppression and disproportionate use of aggression by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza.  We seek to suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement.”  The Green Party officially supports the BDS movement, and its leader, Natalie Bennett, openly backs the boycott of Israeli artists, musicians and academics.

A dominant feature of this UK general election campaign has been the rise and rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP).  In an inexplicable turn of events, ever since suffering a resounding defeat by 10 percentage points in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence, the party has gone from strength to strength.  Opinion polls indicate that they are likely to wipe out the Scottish Labour Party in the forthcoming election, thus depriving Labour of its 50-odd Scottish seats.  The SNP is more socialist in its policies than the Labour party – which has itself veered leftwards since the balmy days of Tony Blair – and the result of a 50-odd contingent of SNPs entering parliament could mean that a minority Labour government would have to depend on their support.

The SNP manifesto states simply: “We will call on the next UK government to pursue a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine and to support the formal recognition of a Palestinian state.”  The party’s track record, however, demonstrates its adherence to the anti-Israel policies of the extreme left-wing.  As commentator Douglas Murray observed last year: “the most rabid forms of anti-peace, anti-Israel activism seem to have become part of the SNP agenda.”

It seems pretty clear that the most desirable outcome of the UK’s general election from the Palestinian point of view would be a Labour-SNP-Green liaison of some kind. The pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel feeling rife in those parties would exert enormous pressure on a future British government. On the other hand Britain’s Jewish community and Israel would benefit from any outcome which placed the Conservative party in the driving seat an outright Conservative victory, a Conservative-led coalition or a minority Conservative administration. 

        Britain’s future Middle East policy hangs in the balance.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 April 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 May 2015:

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