18 - 03
During a sometimes heated hour-long event on Monday – a gathering which was part of efforts by the party to reconnect with Anglo-Jewry following a series of controversies involving senior party figures – those international hot potatoes were among a wide range of issues on which the Lib Dem leader was quizzed by readers of the paper.
But the event – initiated by Jewish News columnist Fiyaz Mughal, who advises Clegg on interfaith issues – was dominated by questions over the party leader’s own critical words of the nature of Israel’s military action. In January, it led him to call for the EU to suspend a proposed new cooperation agreement with Israel “until things change in Gaza” and for Gordon Brown to halt Britain’s arms exports to the country.
When pressed on the subject during the event at Local Government Association House, he insisted it was the “overwhelming nature” of the IDF’s action with which he took issue. “Israel has and should retain the right to retaliate to unacceptable provocation and attack from thousands of rockets being lobbed into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip,” he said. “So the principle of military action is one that I don’t dispute for a minute. I am very clear, Hamas I regard as a terrorist organisation…I think its views on Israel are abhorrent.”
But as well as pointing out that Israeli military commanders conceded they wouldn’t be able to stop all rockets, he said he believed the nature of the operation in December and January was not in Israel’s own security interests. “The effect of the deployment of such overwhelming force seems to me to lead directly to further radicalisation amongst large parts of the Palestinian community, a legitimisation of Hamas and a marginalisation, a weakening of moderate mainstream Palestinian opinion particular ly the leadership in Ramallah.”
While Clegg said he was cautious about dispensing advice to Israeli leaders, he pointed to conversations he had had with senior figures in the Northern Ireland peace process who say ” the only way to beat the extremists and the terrorists is to drain the swamp of support they have in the community in which they find themselves’.
He added: “If economic isolation, political isolation or military bombardment could have worked, I would suggest it would have worked by now. And I see no evidence that it is working…As both an admirer of Israel and a friend of Israel that frustrates me immensely, that a strategy which doesn’t work is being pursued constantly, constantly, constantly.”
Turning his attention to domestic issues, the Lib Dem leader spoke of the importance of people going out to vote in the forthcoming European elections in order to prevent the BNP making gains and addressed controversial comments by Baroness Jenny Tonge and Chris Davies that had caused friction between the party and community members in recent years.
Would he be willing to withdraw the whip if similar sentiments were repeated? “I’ll always be prepared to withdraw the whip from colleagues who cross the line,” he told the audience. “I made it quite clear that neither Chris Davies nor Jenny Tonge speak for the party on the issue of the Middle East and never will. I don’t for one moment accept their allegations… Both Jenny and Chris know what my views are, they know how strongly I feel about what they have said in the past.”
Describing Durban I as an “absolute scandal”, Clegg said: “I’ve noticed that Canada, the United States, Israel and now Italy have all decided to withdraw from Durban II because they feel that Durban II will be a repetition of Durban I.
“My own view is that if there’s any risk of that happening we should withdraw as well. I think the United Kingdom has no place whatsoever in legitimising a repeat of what was a wholly biased partial anti-Israeli rant.”
Congratulating the Jewish News on “an excellent evening”, Board of Deputies President and event chair Henry Grunwald said: “Whether or not he changed the views of those who questioned him about Israel he answered all their questions head on and clarified his views on this important issue.
“He will have impressed all those present with the way that he answered all of their questions on so many topics so fully and frankly. I particularly welcome his very clear statement about withdrawal from the Durban review conference.”
Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel Chairman Monroe Palmer admitted that he had been worried “about a meeting that could have been confrontational, but in fact what happened was a frank and helpful exchange of views”.
Ed Fordham, the party’s parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, who helped to organise the event, added: “I think this is part of the Liberal Democrats reconnecting with the Jewish community. This isn’t a one-off event. It’s part of a series of initiatives.”
Clegg told the Jewish News after the event: “I really welcomed the opportunity to have a vigorous debate with members of the Jewish community about issues important to them.
“It was clear to me from this event, that readers of Jewish News and the Liberal Democrats have many shared values which I hope to build upon in the coming weeks and months.”Clegg Tackles Your Questions by Justin Cohen