When the Liberal Democrats entered coalition negotiations with the Conservatives five years ago (how far back in time that now seems!), we in the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine (LDFP) were full of foreboding. We knew the legendary lobbying influence of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and how they packed a punch that was even more formidable than the Friends of Israel groups in the other parties. Did the Tories not include the likes of Michael Gove, the columnist in The Times who had foamed at the mouth as he banged the war drum in the run up to the Iraq war?
Thanks to Gove, the Tories competed with Tony Blair to lead the charge to invade. (It was my disgust at the invasion of Iraq that convinced me to become a Liberal Democrat, but that is another story). Gove also used his column in The Times to attack attempts to make peace in Palestine, and to abuse peacemakers by likening them to those who appeased the Nazis:
“Whether it is the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan or the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s Arab League-sponsored plan, there is a quack’s cabinet of patent salves always on offer to apply to the Middle East’s agony. But all such treatments, like the snake oil peddled by Al Haig in 1982 and the ‘clean’ dismemberment which Chamberlain and Daladier administered to Czechoslovakia in 1938, can only cause the infection to take yet more virulent hold. For each of these ‘peace plans’ rewards terror by ratifying the gains secured by violence and reinforcing the message that the West is too weak to resist aggression.” [The Times, 2 April 2002]
I had personal experience of Gove’s deeply unpleasant rhetoric, and also of his ignorance. At an Intelligence Squared debate on Palestine at which he was a speaker, I suggested Israel should remove its settlements because they were illegal under international law. He snapped back that this would make the West Bank judenrein. In response to this vile invective, Rashid Khalidi, who was sitting on the platform beside him, reacted with great dignity and calmly pointed out that Jews would be free to become citizens of an independent Palestinian state.
So it was with considerable trepidation that we learned the Lib Dems were going into coalition with the Conservatives. In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the Liberal Democrats had forged a coherent and comprehensive policy on Palestine which had been debated and overwhelmingly agreed at a party conference in 2009. This policy included a call for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement until the blockade of Gaza was lifted. That call is still our party’s official policy, and I do not think it has been made by any other party in the UK. We also demanded a review of the terms of the association agreement in the light of Israel’s failure to meet its human rights obligations, and a halt to arms sales to Israel. Our policy also stressed that international law should be at the heart of attempts to reach a settlement, and the basis for establishing each party’s rights in the negotiations. We felt justly proud of what our party had achieved. By entering into coalition, were we going to throw all this away?
Looking back now, I have no doubt entering the coalition was the right decision (although I’m also sure some of my colleagues in LDFP disagree). Gove and his ilk were sidelined on foreign affairs, and I feel pride that, on Palestine, we had counterbalanced the influence of the nasty streak in the Tory party. The backwoodsmen of the Tory right were shunted off in other directions, and pragmatic people like William Haig and Alistair Burt were given the relevant ministerial posts (although they eventually both stood down). Other influential Tories like Alan Duncan, Crispin Blunt and Baronesses Warsi and Morris had views virtually indistinguishable from the Liberal Democrats on Palestine. We could work with them and we saw a way forward.
Our first big test was on universal jurisdiction. The Board of Deputies pressurised the main parties to change the law so that Tzipi Livni (she who had expressed the hope that the Israeli army would “go wild in Gaza”) could visit London for diplomatic negotiations without fear of arrest for war-crimes charges. With cross-party support, this legislation was always going to pass, despite the stalwart efforts of Baroness Jenny Tonge who was silenced on a procedural technicality when the issue was debated in the Lords.
LDFP lobbied our party effectively on universal jurisdiction. Thanks to our position in the coalition government, the Lib Dems were able to water down the legislation. It had been originally intended that the Attorney-General’s consent would be needed for an arrest warrant to be issued. This was changed so that the consent was required from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). I understand credit is due to Nick Clegg personally for this change. The Attorney-General is political appointment. The DPP is meant to be independent. We were nervous whether he or she would be sufficiently so, and wondered what would happen when, after the legislation was passed, Livni duly visited London for the diplomatic discussions. Yet we were to be vindicated. Despite the change in the law, there was still sufficient concern that an arrest warrant might be issued and served on her that the FCO was forced to grant her “special mission status” – a certificate granting temporary diplomatic immunity. Such a certificate would not be (or ought not to be) forthcoming for a private visit. Our hard work lobbying had had some effect. Well done, Nick!
During the Gaza war last year, Nick Clegg was the first party leader to criticise Israel and Vince Cable put a block on some arms sales that he judged could be used for aggression rather than defence. Sadly, the Tory cabinet ministers were not seriously interested in restraining Israel. While they regularly condemn continued settlement activity, they simultaneously send signals to Netanyahu that they won’t do anything about it.
Fast forward to the recent debates on recognition of Palestine in the Commons and Lords. Lib Dem parliamentarians played a major role in both. The Commons debate was led by a Labour MP, Graeme Morris, but the contribution of Lib Dem MPs like John Hemming and Bob Russell to securing the debate was also important and should not be overlooked. Lib Dem backbenchers were granted a free vote. An overwhelming majority of them voted in favour of recognition (only one voted against – and he is retiring at this election). The debate in the Lords was both secured and led by Lord David Steel, a former leader of our party and the patron of LDFP.
Cameron’s response to the Commons vote on recognition was shown in his reply to a question from David Ward MP – that passionate Lib Dem supporter of Palestinian rights. Cameron said that recognition should be “part of the negotiations that bring about a two-state solution. That is what we all want to see – a state of Israel living happily and peacefully alongside a state of Palestine – and that is when we should do the recognition.” In other words, Cameron showed he was willing to give Israel a veto over Palestinian statehood regardless of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. Even after Netanyahu let his mask slip, Cameron famously congratulated him on his election victory. This led to a retort from Nick Clegg in his LBC phone-in programme, and highlighted an important difference between the views of the two men. Clegg said: “If he [Netanyahu] carries out his threats to basically rule out a two-state solution and expand illegal settlements then I think the world, including the British parliament would have no option, inevitably, but to recognise a Palestinian state.”
Of course, we in LDFP would have liked our party and its leader to go further, but we are also proud of our achievements as Liberal Democrats in government. Politics is the art of the possible, even if it often seems to be two steps forward and one step back. Do you give up and let fools and knaves take over instead? No, Russell Brand, you do not. There is no doubt that in our party the debate on Palestine has been won. Not only are we in favour of recognition of Palestine (and of leading in Europe on this issue), but whether we are in opposition or part of another coalition government after the election, we look forward to taking the struggle for Palestinian rights further. We shall also be linking it with the wider struggles in the Middle East such as the plight of the peoples of Syria and Iraq. Make no mistake about it – all these issues are linked. Our betrayal of the people of Palestine and failure across the decades to stand up for their rights have come back to haunt us. This betrayal and failure are among the major causes of the threats that face our world today.
If you wish to use your vote to advance justice for the Palestinians and peace, justice and stability in the Middle East more widely, I would urge you to consider voting Liberal Democrat on Thursday 7 May.
John McHugo is chair of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and the author of A Concise History of the Arabs and Syria: A Recent History.