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British Jews uncertain on gov’t

LONDON – With Britons uncertain of how the country’s first coalition government since World War II will go about governing, the country’s Jewish community appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.

During the campaign, many Jews expressed alarm at Liberal Democratic positions on Israel.

News Analysis

Now party leader Nick Clegg, who last year called for a European arms boycott of Israel, is Britain’s deputy prime minister. And William Hague, the Conservative Party leader who during the 2006 Lebanon war called Israel’s military response to Hezbollah’s attack “disproportionate,” is the new foreign minister.

What influence that will have on British foreign policy is, like much about the new government, a political unknown.

The new prime minister, David Cameron of the Conservative Party, has been a strong backer of Israel. It is one of the many issues on which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have fundamental philosophical differences. Others include how to trim the country’s deficit and bring spending under control.

“With so much on the government’s plate, Israel — along with foreign policy in general — will be put way on the back burner,” said Robin Shepherd, foreign policy director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank and author of “Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel.”

“Given that both parties in the coalition will be preoccupied with the economy and that the Conservative Party has shown no real interest in the Middle East anyway, the British Foreign Office will find itself in an immensely powerful position to influence the direction of policy,” Shepherd said. “In other words, the Arabist-oriented bureaucracy is likely to inherit a lot of power by default as top politicians attend to other matters.”

Candidates affiliated with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats said the Jews should not worry.

“I don’t think the Jewish community has anything to fear,” said Robert Halfon, a Jew and prominent figure in Conservative Friends of Israel who won a parliamentary seat last week for the Conservatives representing Harlow, north of London.

Matthew Harris, a Liberal Democratic candidate in Hendon who finished third in a race won by the Conservative candidate, said, “I think British Jewry will be pleasantly surprised by this government, and particularly by the quality of the five Lib-Dem cabinet ministers that will be taking up their posts. Whether on faith schools, security, and even Israel, I think people will find the Lib-Dems and this coalition to be broadly supportive of Jewish interests.”

For the time being, official Jewish bodies made do with issuing pro forma statements congratulating the new government.

The country’s Jewish umbrella group, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, put out a statement saying it “warmly welcomes the new prime minister, David Cameron, and his coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat government” and that it “looks forward to a constructive, fruitful working relationship with Mr. Cameron, his cabinet, and his wider team, together with a continued, regular dialogue with politicians of all parties and key civil servants.”

Jeremy Newmark, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, told JTA, “As a strategic body, it is not our role to provide a running commentary on a government that has yet to finalize its cabinet and set out key policies.”

Leaders of various Jewish organizations are hoping the candidates’ pledges to the Jewish community, made in interviews with the country’s main Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, will hold fast.

Both Clegg and Cameron promised support for security for the community. Clegg pledged to put 3,000 more police officers on the streets, and Cameron backed the funding of security around Jewish institutions, including schools.

Both candidates also said they backed changes to the current “universal jurisdiction” legislation, which allows British magistrates to issue arrest warrants for visiting foreign politicians and military staff. The law has been used to target Israeli officials and soldiers for alleged war crimes, in some cases scaring away Israeli officials from visiting Britain.

Cameron and Clegg also have spoken out forcefully against anti-Semitism.

Jews also were trying to assess how the government’s priorities for cutting spending would affect domestic Jewish interests.

“It’s too early to know how a deficit reduction program will impact on funding for state-supported Jewish schools and social services,” said David Seidel, a community organizer in Brighton and a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “Ditto for the final outcome of the new government’s policies generally, as well as whether the government can remain stable.”

In post-election analyses, it appeared that the Jewish community, like the rest of Britain, swung Conservative in last week’s vote.

JTA

 
 

Miliband’s positions on Israel concern UK Jews

LONDON – Less than three weeks after Ed Miliband was elected the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jewish concerns are growing about how his views will shape the policies toward Israel of the party favored by most British Jews.

Jewish political observers are talking about a possible new reality in Labour in which Miliband, the first Jewish head of the 110-year-old party, will deviate from the solidly pro-Israel stances of former prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, also of Labour.

The concerns were stoked when Miliband, in his keynote address to Labour’s annual conference in Manchester earlier this month, told party members that they must “strain every sinew” to end Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. Though he said he “will always defend the right of Israel to exist in peace and security,” Miliband also said Israel’s “attack on the Gaza flotilla was so wrong.”

“It was very disappointing that his conference speech criticized Israel without mentioning Hamas rocket attacks on civilians,” Louise Ellman, a Labour member of Parliament from Liverpool and chairwoman of the Jewish Labour Movement, told the Jewish Chronicle, the main Jewish newspaper in Britain. “It’s important for Ed to show he is evenhanded on the Middle East, and the first things he must do are support the universal jurisdiction legislation, show he is opposed to boycotts, and support a negotiated peace agreement.”

The universal jurisdiction legislation is a proposed law pending before Parliament that would restrict the application in Britain of arrest warrants issued elsewhere on the ground of “universal law” — essentially removing the threat that visiting Israeli leaders would be arrested on war crimes charges.

Miliband, 40, surprised pundits last month by beating his older brother, former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, 44, in the race for Labour leader. He was the first party leader elected since Brown resigned after losing the race for prime minister.

After Miliband’s Manchester speech raised Jewish eyebrows, a spokesman declined to answer questions that the Jewish Chronicle had for Miliband about Israel, foreign policy, or his plans to meet Jewish leaders.

“These are serious issues requiring serious answers,” one Labour insider explained. “Ed’s not about to make up policies on the fly just to answer a reporter’s questions. Moreover, there are a significant number of pro-Israel members of his shadow cabinet.”

At the “fringe” meetings held at the Labour Party conference, where elected party leaders can speak directly to supporters’ concerns, Jews got a mixed message from Miliband.

At the Labour Friends of Israel meeting, Miliband said he considers himself a friend of Israel and that “I take incredibly seriously the issues of peace and security.” He called for the condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks and affirmed his support for a two-state solution while saying that any questioning of Israel’s legitimacy is “just totally unacceptable.”

But Miliband also issued a statement to Labour Friends of Palestine suggesting that trade policy could be used as a coercive tool against Israel. The message said, “The major instrument for influence at our disposal in relation to the Middle East is trade policy. I am against blanket boycotts of goods from Israel. But Israel, and all countries in the region, must live up to the commitments they have made to respect human rights as part of trade agreements. The EU must be tough enough to ensure that these commitments mean something.”

Officially, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the country’s main Jewish umbrella body, welcomed Miliband’s election, emphasizing his opposition to boycotts “which discriminate by targeting Israelis.”

But Jonathan Arkush, the senior vice president of the organization, told the Jewish Chronicle that he was worried.

“His speech singled out Israel for criticism and lacked balance in relation to the Middle East,” Arkush said.

Israeli Embassy staffers in London said they would give Miliband “the benefit of the doubt” and adopt a “wait-and-see” policy. Miliband’s perceived policy unknowns have left analysts to scour his personal biography for clues.

At the party conference in Manchester he spoke openly of growing up the child of Jewish refugees. His late father, Ralph Miliband, fled Poland and the Nazis in 1940 and later became a Marxist, a professor at the London School of Economics, and one of Britain’s most celebrated left-wing intellectuals.

Miliband’s mother, Marion Kozak, 75, escaped mass murder and deportations in Poland and fled to Belgium, where she was hidden by a Christian family. She eventually immigrated to London and became a long-standing supporter of groups like Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

By contrast, Miliband’s older brother, David, the former foreign secretary, has an established track record of pro-Israel engagement. In the brothers’ race for Labour leader, David Miliband won the backing of more rank-and-file party members, members of Parliament, and members of the European Parliament. But the trade union vote went to Ed, helping to push the younger Miliband over the top by 1.3 percent of the vote.

It is Miliband’s dependence on trade unions, which are seen as having anti-Israel policies, that has Jewish communal leaders worried. Among his supporters during the Labour leadership campaign was Unite, which in June passed a motion “to vigorously promote a policy of divestment from Israeli companies.” Unite also supported a motion reaffirming a boycott of goods produced in the west bank at the Trades Union Congress conference.

While Labour figures insist that Miliband will not be swayed by union positions on Israel, Robin Shepherd, the author of “A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel,” thinks that analysis fails to account for Miliband’s baseline political values.

“Miliband comes from left of the Labour Party, which is instinctively hostile to Israel, and if he becomes prime minister, like all others, he will defer to the interests of the Foreign Office and the European Union, both of which have that as their default position as well,” Shepherd, the European director of a British think tank, The Henry Jackson Society, told JTA. “I don’t see a lot of maneuverability there.”

In an Op-Ed in the Jewish Chronicle, foreign policy analyst Martin Bright warned of dark days ahead for friends of Israel.

Miliband’s “condemnation of the Iraq invasion,” Bright wrote, “could not have given a plainer indication that the new leader intends to make a clean break on foreign policy with the New Labour past. Labour Friends of Israel will now have to play a dissident role within the party, something it has not had to do for the best part of two decades.”

JTA

 
 
 
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