Five days before he faces community leaders and other voters at a keenly-anticipated meeting in central London, Labour’s candidate tackled many of the thorny issues that have coloured his relationship with Anglo-Jewry.
On Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian cleric who has condoned suicide bombings in Israel and who Livingstone has steadfastly defended since embracing him at City Hall in 2004, Livingstone did appear to take at least some account of communal anger for the very first time. He said: “Let me make it absolutely clear that I oppose suicide bombings in Israel or anywhere else. I oppose all violence. I honestly think we had this debate quite extensively four years ago in the run up to the last mayoral election. What people want to know now is how we deal with the very difficult times all Londoners are living through.”
And asked directly if, as he has continually used al-Qaradawi’s stance against al-Qaeda in the Sheikh’s defence, he equally opposes his stance on attacks in Israel, he said: “Yes. I have never said I agree with everything he says. And I want to see an end to all the violence and I want a peaceful, negotiated settlement that ensures the Israelis and Palestinians forge a future based on an equal footing.”
But in what will be viewed as disappointing, but not surprising, by many readers, he failed directly to answer a question on whether he has sympathy with those who’ve claimed he should have apologised sooner for likening a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard. He also failed to show any hint of regret for appearing on, and accepting money from, Iranian state-funded Press TV.
Rejecting claims by his rival Boris Johnson in last week’s Jewish News that he was pitting communities against each other for electoral gain, Livingstone said: “Quite the opposite. My meeting with Jewish Labour supporters was part of an ongoing process of engagement.
“One outcome of the real engagement I have with Jewish Londoners compared to the way the Tories take the relationship for granted is that there is no mention of Jewish Londoners in the Conservative Mayoral manifesto, not a single mention, whereas my manifesto has clear commitments on Jewish culture, community security, addressing the needs of Jewish Londoners. I will encourage unity and dialogue. Look at how I dealt with the terrorist attacks on 7/7. I worked to ensure the city held together. That’s my fundamental approach.”
And on the allegation, since denied, that he hinted Jews wouldn’t vote for him because they were rich, Livingstone clarified that he could “see that the way the conversation unfolded meant an interpretation was placed on what I said that people were offended.
“Controversies like this can lead to people refusing to acknowledge them and getting dug in. That’s why I immediately wrote a response that I hoped would show that the last thing I think is that Jewish people would not vote for me. If I believed that Jewish people won’t vote Labour in this election, and I did not value the opinions and concerns of Jewish Londoners, I would not have spent my evening at that meeting [with Jewish Labour supporters]. I do listen and I heard what people had to say.”
He insisted that he would “work with the London Jewish Forum and other Jewish organisations to ensure the priorities of Jewish Londoners of all backgrounds are taken seriously by London government. Some may accuse me of getting things wrong, but let’s be absolutely clear: I care about what happens in London, and Jewish people are part of London.”
Livingstone added that there had been a “lot of mischief” over claims he would promote London as a “beacon of Islam”. He said: “If I’m elected, my policy will not be to promote one faith or community over another but to promote inter-faith and inter-community dialogue.
“My point about Islam is simply that sometimes demonisation of Islam is used to justify racism towards many Londoners and we ought to collectively agree that this is a bad thing. I want my mayoralty to be at the forefront of encouraging dialogue. I’ve said that if I am asked to come along to Limmud as mayor then I’d be delighted to attend, not least because I know that inter-community and inter-faith dialogue is an important part of that.”
Livingstone’s running mate, Val Shawcross, had criticised him for not apologising sooner for likening the Evening Standard’s Oliver Finegold to a concentration camp guard when he was questioning him after a City Hall event in 2004. Livingstone said he had apologised at a London Jewish Forum reception in City Hall. “There can, no doubt, be an argument about whether I should have done it sooner. But I think most of us, including me, really want to talk about London, and Jewish London, in the here-and-now and look at the future.”
Livingstone also stressed he had “no truck” with the Holocaust denying views of the Iranian government, despite being paid to host a TV show on the regime’s mouthpiece, Press TV, now banned in Britain. “Holocaust denial is one of the most poisonous opinions around,” he said. “The Holocaust was the most terrible racial crime. If I’m elected, I will support the excellent work that is done to make sure no one forgets what happened.
“If I lived in Iran with my political views I would probably have been persecuted. I have no truck with the politics of the Iranian regime. I very much hope we can find a way to avoid a war that could cause terrible bloodshed.”
On the domestic front, in a move that will be applauded by those opposed to boycotts of Israel, he also expressed strong opposition to a call by some performers and writers to disinvite Israel’s national theatre from a Cultural Olympiad event at the Globe Theatre next month. “I disagree with that. I don’t want the Olympics, including the Cultural Olympiad, turned into a political football.”
Meanwhile, he also made clear that he would attend the Guildhall commemoration for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics “if I am invited”.
He added: “I think it’s important to remember what happened and to insist that all athletes are able to participate in the Games free from harm.”
Discussing issues of concern to all Londoners, Livingstone claimed: “I will save the average fare payer 1,000 pounds year. The Tories will raise fares every year. Knife crime, robbery and burglary are up, but the Tory mayor cut the police by 1,700 officers. I will reverse the police cuts.