Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Going Green for Palestine, Israel and Judaism - Micah goes to the Polls

According to the Jewish Chronicle, statistically at least, I should be voting Conservative and returning David Cameron to Downing Street on Thursday 7 May. Certainly if I care about the State of Israel.

It's a message that Cameron, and his supporters at the JC, have buttressed in the closing days of the campaign with a new interview with the paper once again endorsing Israel's military action in Gaza last summer. "As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks - that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself."

The sub text is that Cameron is good for Israel and therefore the natural choice for British Jews in next week's General Election.

But what if I do care about the State of Israel, and the state of Judaism and the plight of the Palestinians too? And aren't there other shoes Cameron should try on?

So what's an apparently conflicted Jew supposed to do as Britain goes to the polls?

Unlike most of those who bother to look at party election manifestos, it wasn't the front pages and the big ticket pledges that I went to first.

Instead, I headed straight to the back pages and the foreign policy sections. It's not that I don't have a view on managing the deficit, funding the National Health Service, immigration controls, university tuition fees or the future of welfare services, I certainly do. But after four years of blogging on the topic, Israel/Palestine has become my litmus test for party political integrity. It's through that measure that I've decided to make my decision on how to vote in this General Election.

It didn't take long to realise that the manifesto commitments by the Conservatives and Labour (the only parties with enough national support to lead a government) are pretty much interchangeable. 

Both can be summed up as follows:

- Commitment to a two-state solution
- Condemnation of Jewish settlement building on the West Bank
- Criticism of Hamas
- Support for diplomatic negotiations

The third biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, who could once again hold the balance of power in the new Parliament, also tick all of the above in their policy position.

However, if you look carefully, you can spot some nuance in the wording of the manifesto positions that reflect significant differences of opinion just below the apparent cross-party consensus.

The Conservatives emphasise "...robustly defending the right of Israel to protect its security..." which we know from last summer, and from Cameron's latest interview, means an unwillingness to criticise Israel's assault on Gaza.

Labour talk about "... a secure Israel alongside a viable and independent state of Palestine...". That sounds like a code for insisting that any two-state solution must leave the Palestinians with a connected land mass, borders they are allowed to defend and sovereignty in East Jerusalem. All of which Israel, even on a good day, would not accept.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats "... condemn disproportionate force used by all sides." Which means they think Israel did go too far last summer but they'd rather not say so in quite those words.

Ed Miliband's position on Israel, and consequently his relationship and standing with the Jewish community in Britain, has been fascinating (and rather depressing) to watch.

In 2012 he wrote in the New Statesman "I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?".

It was refreshingly honest but the "complexity" has not done him any favours with the Jewish community. Last year, within weeks of his first official visit to Israel, he found himself criticising David Cameron for supporting the Jewish State in its disproportionate use of force:
"... the prime minister is wrong not to have opposed Israel's incursion into Gaza. And his silence on the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel's military action will be inexplicable to people across Britain and internationally." 
Then in October he rallied his MPs to support a non-binding Parliamentary resolution recognising a Palestinian State.

Consequently, the Jewish community in Britain, according to the Spectator magazine, is finding it hard to back Labour despite Ed being on the brink of becoming the first Jewish Prime Minister (if you don't count Benjamin Disraeli whose father had him baptised a Christian).

It looks like staunch support for Israel has become the benchmark of Jewish loyalty in which case Ed has failed the test. The Jewish community has decided that the Old Etonian Cameron is a better friend to us than the North London state educated Miliband. Who would have imagined it?

The Liberal Democrats, like Labour, have a strong pro Palestinian wing with a few MPs who often find themselves in hot water for daring to speak up for them.

As for the Conservatives, even they have some principled voices on the subject despite being the only party at Westminster without a Friends of Palestine grouping. Last August Baroness Warsi, a Foreign office junior minister, resigned from the government over Cameron's "morally indefensible" refusal to condemn Israel over Gaza.

But my difficulty with all three main parties is that when it comes to their official party platforms none of them is prepared to acknowledge that the dynamics of the conflict have changed radically. So much so that their policy approaches look hopelessly disconnected from reality.

The Israeli government has no interest in peace talks with the Palestinians. It proved that to Barack Obama and John Kerry last year. It has no interest in stopping Settlement expansion on the West Bank either. In fact, quite the opposite. Meanwhile, newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu's belief in a two-state solution is a bit like those lines from the Smiths' song 'Death of a Disco Dancer':
Love, peace and harmony?
Love, peace and harmony?
Oh, very nice
Very nice
Very nice
Very nice
But maybe in the next world
Maybe in the next world.
And with no diplomatic or economic cost to their strategy of 'conflict management', why should Israel change?

Every opinion poll suggests, and every commentator agrees, that this election is the most difficult to predict for decades. In all likelihood we will have another 'hung parliament' with neither Cameron or Miliband able to govern alone. That means that electoral support for the smaller parties becomes far more significant with the opportunity for them to punch about their weight.

All of which brings me to the Green Party.

The Greens already have a good track record in challenging widespread denial and inaction about a situation staring all of us in the face. Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity but we carry on regardless tinkering at the edges of our economic policies without any risk to disturbing the status quo.

Israel is a lot like climate change. Nobody wants to face up to the reality and take the tough decisions. And like climate change, there are plenty of people still happy to deny that there is very serious problem to deal with.

The Greens are the only party contesting elections in all parts of Britain that are tackling both of these issues head on without worrying about upsetting the political status quo or the paid lobbyists. In the Green's manifesto we finally see the word 'just' enter the policy lexicon on Israel along with the recognition that the dispute has become one of 'human rights'.

Here's their wording:
"We seek a just, sustainable and peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, based on mutual recognition of the rights to independent statehood for Palestinians and Israelis. We condemn human rights violations by both parties and the oppression and disproportionate use of aggression by the Israeli government against the people of Gaza."
But then there's this pledge which puts their policy into a whole different league.
“We seek to suspend the EU–Israel Association Agreement."
You may have never heard of the EU–Israel Association Agreement but it's worth millions of euros a year to Israel through preferential trading arrangements. It's also meant to be contingent on Israel upholding human rights (which it demonstrably fails to do).

The Greens are the only party willing to cross the line and treat Israel the way we treat other nations that habitually break international law and disregard human rights. The monetary impact of scrapping the EU Agreement is less significant than the political signal it would send to Israel from Europe. The Greens also want to see the end of the Gaza blockade and an arms trade embargo from Britain until the situation improves.

Their position on all the major topics of this election, from the deficit to immigration, is informed by the pursuit of a just society and a view of humanity obligated to be responsible custodians of the planet. That sounds like the Judaism that I inherited and was taught in my youth. 

Finally, there is a political party that has remembered what a compelling vision is meant to look like. 

That doesn't mean we get there next week but at least we know we are trying to get somewhere worthwhile.

So I intend to stay true to the position I've written about over the last four years. Micah will be casting a vote for the Green Party candidate standing in the Skipton & Ripon constituency in North Yorkshire. It will be a vote cast in favour of a just resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, one that's in favour of human rights and in favour of sanctions and boycotts to get us there.

With their support spread evenly but thinly across the country the Greens may only win one or two seats. But what's important is that their policies, from climate change to Israel/Palestine, are breaking open the space of acceptable and rational political debate. A significant popular vote for the Greens across the country will provide increasing airtime and column inches to matters that are only becoming more urgent.

That can only be good for Britain, for the Palestinians and Israelis and the rest of the planet too.