If none of the United Kingdom’s three major parties wins a parliamentary majority in today’s elections—as many commentators predict—one casualty may be the country’s already shaky relations with Israel, which are likely to go from bad to worse if Nick Clegg, the charismatic 43-year-old leader of the Liberal Democrats, is given control of the foreign ministry in a deal that brings his party into a governing coalition.
Touted as the fresh face of British politics after his strong performances in televised debates with Labor leader Gordon Brown and Conservative David Cameron, the Cambridge-educated Clegg is also the face of an increasingly undiplomatic British disdain for Israeli policies that often crosses the line into open incitement against the Jewish state.
In at least two parliamentary districts with a high concentration of Islamic voters Liberal Democrat candidates distributed leaflets calling for Britain to “stop arming Israel.” One leaflet features photograph of a dead child being carried through the streets of Gaza with the words “The world watched in horror …”
While the Liberal Democrats also printed flyers intended to woo Jewish voters, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that when it comes to emotional attacks on Israel, the party is taking its direction from its leader, who is likely to become deputy prime minister, in a position to put one of his people in as foreign secretary (and control other cabinet posts) in any coalition government.
Writing in the Guardian in January 2009 about the then-ongoing conflict in Gaza, Clegg insisted that Brown, the prime minister, “must stop sitting on his hands. He must condemn unambiguously Israel’s tactics,” which Clegg characterized as disproportionate. He demanded “an immediate suspension of all arms exports from the EU,” adding that “if that cannot be secured, Brown must act unilaterally.” Clegg also called for the European Union to suspend trade agreements with Israel.
Later that year, after delivering a lecture on anti-Semitism, Clegg was surprised to learn that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Clegg asked, “Is the idea of Israel as a Jewish state something new?” Afterward, a spokesman explained that Clegg misunderstood, thinking Netanyahu was suggesting Israel should be solely Jewish. He pointed out that “Nick is a very good friend of the Jews.”
Clegg was also the lead signatory of a letter to the Observer by a group of MP that claimed Israel was “imprisoning” 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.
Clegg’s personal vehemence on the subject of Israel is hardly unique among the leadership of his party. One of Israel’s most virulent critics among British lawmakers is Baroness Jenny Tonge, who was fired from her job as Clegg’s health spokeswoman in the House of Lords after calling for an inquiry into allegations made by the online Palestinian Telegraph that Israeli solders were not rescuing survivors of the Haitian earthquake but rather stealing and trafficking their organs. Clegg said her comments were “wrong, distasteful and provocative and have caused deep distress to the Jewish Community.” He went on to say he did not believe Tonge was anti-Semitic or racist.
This was not the first time the baroness was fired over her views on Israel. In 2004 she said she could see herself becoming a Palestinian suicide bomber, an opinion that didn’t prevent her from being made a peer. Two years later she was reprimanded for saying that “the pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips.” After meeting the head of Hamas she described him as “shrewd, plausible and actually very likable.” Tonge is still listed by the Lib Dems as one of the party’s Middle East experts.
Questions are also asked about some of the company Clegg keeps. London’s Jewish Chronicle reports he was a guest of honor at a fundraising banquet in November organized by Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi-British billionaire who was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2003 for taking illegal payments from a French oil company, Elf Aquitaine, and who was also implicated in the Tony Rezko scandal that was glancingly linked to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Auchi, who funds the notoriously anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic Middle East Online, also donates money to charities connected to Hamas. He is also a major financial supporter of George Galloway, the British leftist politician who made his name through his steadfast support for Saddam Hussein and for his attempts to deliver money and aid to the Hamas government in Gaza.
The views expressed by Clegg and Tonge are hardly at variance with how Britons appear to perceive Israel. You have only to watch the weekly BBC audience-participation current-affairs program Question Time to experience the strong anti-Israel bias. During the Lebanese conflict with Hezbollah, I was approached at a party by a woman who first asked if I was Jewish, and then asked, “Why are you bombing innocent people?” I pointed out that I wasn’t, but she made little distinction between an American Jew and the Israeli government.
For some time, Britain’s union movement has been at the forefront of anti-Israel action. The TUC—the British equivalent of the AFL-CIO—is the biggest single donor to Gordon Brown’s Labor party. It is linked to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s boycott of goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which distributes the leaflet “Would You Buy Stolen Goods?”
Last week, Scotland’s union federation voted to endorse a boycott disinvestment from Israeli companies, and sanctions against Israel.
Later this month Britain’s largest academic trade union will consider moves to further an Israel boycott, as well as to sever relations with the Israeli union movement, Histadrut . Also on the University College Union agenda are motions calling for a boycott of Israeli academics.
David Hirsh of Engage, a group of academics and unionists that campaigns against the boycott effort, says it’s not new and that the organization’s leadership “continues to allow anti-Semitic ways of thinking to pollute the union and to degrade our solidarity.”
What’s most depressing about the specter of Nick Clegg taking over the British foreign ministry is not that his views on Israel are so radical but that they are increasingly mainstream. Gordon Brown’s government has not, as promised, changed the law to allow Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and other Israeli politicians to visit the United Kingdom without being arrested as war criminals. Foreign Secretary David Miliband took a hard line on Israel, expelling a Mossad officer in retaliation for the forging of U.K. passports by the alleged hit team that killed a Hamas agent in Dubai and refusing to let Israel send a replacement until it owns up to the forgeries.
Would Israel find a better friend in Conservative leader David Cameron? Perhaps, but he too has shown ambivalence. “Unlike a lot of politicians from Britain who visit Israel, when I went, I did stand in occupied East Jerusalem and actually referred to it as occupied East Jerusalem,” Cameron proudly says. “The Foreign Office bod”—the British equivalent of “guy”—“who was with me said most ministers don’t dare say [that].”
As Melanie Phillips, a Jewish Daily Mail columnist and strong supporter of Israel, suggests in her blog, “Those who hope that a Tory government led by David Cameron would be less hostile to Israel than the current UK Labour administration and less likely to swallow Arab propaganda should take note of Cameron’s comments.”
During the pre-election televised debate on foreign policy in which Clegg first impressed British voters, any mention of Israel, the Palestinians, or what each candidate would do to foster a peaceful settlement was conspicuously absent. It would appear the three prime ministerial contenders were solidly in agreement on all of these questions, with no need for further discussion or debate.
Larry Miller is a correspondent for CBS and NPR. He has lived in London for 35 years and has covered nine U.K. elections.