Jeremy Brier is a barrister, writer and former Parliamentary Candidate.
This week, three figures coming to the end of their political careers voiced their hostility to Israel: Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Sayeeda Warsi. It is no surprise that any of these feel the way they do. But the only one whose views may actually matter is Baroness Warsi, in that only she could conceivably exert influence over the future direction of Government policy.
It is, let’s be honest, largely irrelevant what Ed and Nick think. Ed Miliband’s approach to foreign policy is simply to jump aboard the latest bandwagon. Except for the one time when that was the right thing to do, on the Syria vote, when he held up a finger to the wind and ran the other way to score cheap political points.
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has no credibility on foreign affairs whatsoever. That is especially true on Israel where his party have a major “Jewish problem”.
The resignation of Baroness Warsi might matter more. Warsi was never respected in the Conservative Party and her resignation was hardly greeted with an outpouring of grief. Her difficulties with the party began in the beginning: having failed to get selected for a winnable seat she was “parachuted” into the Lords, scarcely the meritocracy she claims to believe in.
However, she did embody values which were important. She conveyed the sense that the Conservative Party offered ethnic minority immigrants a compelling political narrative based on hard work, grit and opportunity. When she toured Muslim areas during the last election campaign regaling them with her anti-Iraq War credentials, she was able to reach parts that other Tories could not.
Apparently she extended her repertoire to fighting against Israel around the Cabinet table. But when she was ignored, Warsi showed that she would rather grandstand than grit her teeth, resigning on Twitter over “#Gaza” at, er, the precise moment that the conflict ended.
So this resignation cannot have been an effort to influence current policy, but was all about setting out her stall for the future. In her extended parting shots, Warsi sought to embarrass George Osborne as “a very good friend of the Israeli government” and made thinly veiled suggestions that she is working in cahoots with others in the party to cause further resignations.
One suspects that she will burn her bridges. However, the concern is that Cameron may come to find a small but vocal anti-Israel flank developing in his party before the next election. With echoes of the final days of Tony Blair ringing in his mind, when that Prime Minister’s support for Israel generated significant disruption on his own side, it is not hard to see how this may make Cameron feel uncomfortable. For many years he has been desperate to attract more votes from the Muslim community. Warsi’s resignation reflects the fact – long known to be true – that Israel is a uniquely incendiary issue for British Muslims and very few Muslims support Israel’s right to defend itself. It is not impossible to imagine how another well-timed resignation or speech could put David Cameron under real pressure to downgrade his support for Israel with the bait of votes and an easier life in Parliament.
He should resist this at all costs. Cameron’s greatest asset is his strong leadership. The public can smell inauthentic vote-chasing a mile off. Supporting Israel has always been in keeping with Cameron’s centreground foreign policy values. Like Thatcher, Blair and the Clintons, Cameron’s instincts are to support democratic pluralist states; to oppose religious extremism; to know that only elected governments with the power to negotiate and compromise can bring peace. To retreat from this position in the face of limited internal discontent would be to give off the impression of being a follower, not a statesman.
Further, the votes imagined from a Warsi-style agenda are a mirage. For all the thousands of people who would, no doubt, cheer a softening of the Government’s line on Israel in the Guardian letters pages, just a fraction would ever switch to the Conservatives on this issue. The Left has long been perceived as more attractive by Muslim voters but it is socio-economic drivers – such as policy on welfare, housing and immigration – that are the far larger influences here.
Finally, the Conservative Party needs to remember its moral heart when it comes to international relations. We have long been the party of freedom and democracy. Anti-Israel feeling amongst British Muslim communities is endemic and, according to Warsi’s friend Mehdi Hassan, antisemitism is too. Both these trends will put a growing pressure on our MPs – but they should not deflect our Government from realising that its most pressing agenda is to fight the spread of Islamism and support those fighting against it.
Like it or not, Israel remains one of the freest countries on earth where Christians, Muslims, Arabs and Jews work together, live together, serve in Parliament together, sit on the beach together and attend universities together. Israel finds itself on the front line today in protecting these freedoms and it deserves our support. By contrast, our ire should be firmly fixed on those who despise freedom, plurality and democracy: those who persecute Christians in Iraq and across Africa; those who mutilate girls and forbid them to participate in society; the slaughterers of untold numbers of children in Syria. One hopes that Warsi fought with the same passion for those causes around the Cabinet table.