By Tom Charles
Palestine and Israel were not mentioned when UK foreign, defence and Middle East policy was up for debate in the latest televised leaders’ debate, with the seventh May general election looming large.
Despite Palestine not being a current hot topic, it is worth taking a look at the starting points of the smaller parties when it comes to Palestine / Israel. The Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Green parties have made direct, televised offers to work with the Labour party, who are unlikely to win a parliamentary majority in May. Alliances with these smaller parties are available to Labour leader Ed Miliband, and he may take advantage of these to keep the Conservative party out of power. Miliband was wise not to accept any of their offers immediately, but it is almost certain that to become prime minister he will need their help.
The Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg was absent from the televised debate (as was Prime Minister David Cameron), are presumably not adverse to a deal with Labour either. They will be looking for a way to maintain their power despite their plummeting popularity. The Lib Dems are widely loathed, but if the Conservative party vote declines, it may be that Labour and the Liberals are able to scrape enough seats together to form their own coalition. This would save Miliband from having to deal with the SNP, a party committed to Scottish independence and the breakup of the UK.
On the face of it, a Labour-Liberal pact might seem like good news for the Palestinians. Last year, as Israel pounded Gaza, Clegg called for direct talks with Hamas and the suspension of UK arms sales to Israel. And back in 2009 Clegg was scathing in his criticism of the Labour government and international community over Gaza, stating: “what has the British government and the international community done to lift the blockade? Next to nothing. Tough-sounding declarations are issued at regular intervals but little real pressure is applied. It is a scandal that the international community has sat on its hands in the face of this unfolding crisis”.
Unlike the other smaller parties, the Liberal Democrats have had the chance to have a positive influence on Palestine, having been in government for the past five years. In that time Clegg has effectively joined the international community by sitting on his hands. He did offer the above “tough-sounding” statements in 2014, close to the upcoming election and at a time when he was looking to differentiate his party’s stances from those of his Conservative partners. But in 2012 during Israel’s previous major attack, Clegg was quiet and in 2013 he suspended an MP who described Israel as an “apartheid state.” Much of Clegg’s popularity in 2010 came from his party’s flagship pledge to scrap tuition fees for university students. Those now paying £9,000 a year for their education are well-placed to warn supporters of the Palestinians of the Liberal leadership’s flaky commitment to their values.
Plaid Cymru (the party of Wales) leader Leanne Wood was also involved in the TV debate and she reminded viewers of her party’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wood is affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and last year Plaid demanded a recall of parliament over the Gaza assault, calling the “collective punishment” of Gaza a “war crime”.
In 2014 Green party leader, Natalie Bennett described the “atmosphere of terror” that Israel was creating in Gaza. In the televised debate Bennett criticised the UK government policy of joining American wars in the Middle East, and criticised arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Although she did not condemn arms sales to Israel, her party’s manifesto calls for a solution to the Middle East conflict based on either “one state or two” in former mandate Palestine, and in the first paragraph of the section on Palestine / Israel the issue of the Palestinian refugees is named as a primary cause of the on-going problems.
Like with the Scottish National Party, it is evident that Plaid Cymru and the Green Party take a much more straight-forward approach to resolving the problems of the Middle East. Unencumbered by the potent influence of Zionist money and lobbying, these parties take approaches that, if turned in to policy, would be much more likely to make a serious contribution to peace in the Middle East.
There are other small parties who were absent from the leaders’ debate: in Northern Ireland there are 18 seats contested, with the pro-Zionist Democratic Unionist Party the largest of the Irish parties; Respect, the party of George Galloway, are likely to only win one seat, but Galloway will continue to be a strong advocate for justice in Palestine, and is a past master when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy and un-sound logic of the UK’s Middle East policy.
The far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), which failed to win a single seat in 2010, commands an incredible amount of media coverage, and is worth mentioning. Its leader, Nigel Farage, unlike the Northern Irish and Respect leaders, was invited to the televised debate. UKIP’s predatory approach to politics has seen them play on people’s fears about immigration, seeking to whip up irrational hatred, while carefully avoiding addressing the real causes of the country’s economic problems. Britain’s minorities would have reason to be concerned should UKIP’s influence grow through an alliance with the Conservatives and the shameless media obsession with Farage. In any debate on Israel-Palestine, it is possible that UKIP could use the issue to demonise Muslims generally. Farage has made illogical statements on the Middle East, including comparing Hamas’s rocket fire in to Israel with Adolf Hitler’s attempt to colonise Britain.
The polls suggest another hung parliament in the UK. The out-going Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition supported Israeli policy, tacitly at times, but that makes no difference to the Palestinians, whose Nakba continues. A more progressive alliance is possible in 2015, but whether that will lead to a more serious push for peace and justice in Palestine is unclear. Without a more effective popular campaign for Palestinian rights combined with more professional lobbying on the issue, it is likely that the UK’s policy on Palestine will continue to be shaped by Zionist interests, no matter how inimical to peace those interests are.