With less than a week to go until the British general election, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being used to manipulate the electorate in some crucial voting districts containing disproportionately high Jewish or Muslim populations.
Even before the announcement of the Thursday, May 6 election, the rhetoric had been vicious. Accusations of “Jewish” political financing and Israel pulling the strings behind Britain’s electoral scenes have been hitting the headlines.
Martin Linton, a Labor member of Parliament, recently gave a talk in Parliament to the Friends of Al-Aksa and spoke of Israel’s “long tentacles” that fund British election campaigns and that are trying to buy a Conservative victory in this one. Linton said he failed to appreciate the Nazi-era symbolism of the Jewish octopus controlling the world with its long tentacles and apologized, but he stands by his thesis of “Israelis and pro-Israelis trying to buy a Conservative victory.”
At the same meeting Gerald Kaufman, a Jewish Labor MP, spoke of Lord Ashcroft owning one part of the Conservative Party and right-wing Jewish millionaires owning the other part.
These are, of course, unfounded and defamatory accusations that paint many British Jews as being more loyal to Israel than to Britain. Labor has deselected neither Linton nor Kaufman.
Such alleged funding has not, so far, proved a good investment, however, with David Cameron, the Conservative leader, recently making reference to “occupied east Jerusalem.”
Until recently, the Conservatives were favorites to win an outright majority in Parliament — more seats than the Labor Party and the third party, the Liberal Democrats, combined.
But British politics has been turned on its head since the party leaders’ first-ever televised debate April 15 — and the Liberal Democrats, only recently in the high teens in opinion polls, are on the rise, as is their leader, Nick Clegg, only recently relatively unknown.
The Liberal Democrats will still come way back in third place on May 6 — a recent poll gives Conservatives 289 seats, Labor 234 and LibDem 94 — but they could increase their intake of MPs substantially, making them the kingmakers courted by Labor and the Conservatives, or Tories. (The Labor Party has governed since 1997; Gordon Brown is the incumbent prime minister and the Labor leader.)
This likelihood of a hung Parliament could bring with it the electoral reform that the Liberal Democrats might demand for supporting Labor. Should proportional representation take over, traditional Tory and Labor domination of British politics will end.
Ironically, it was Cameron who challenged Brown to televised debates, but it is Clegg who has outperformed.
These unchartered waters in British politics should concern Israel.
Clegg has already called for a ban on the sale of arms to Israel and his party
contains many vociferously anti-Israel politicians, including Sir Menzies Campbell, Sarah Teather, Chris Davies and Baroness Jenny Tonge.
A hung Parliament could result in Clegg as deputy prime minister, or another Liberal Democrat as foreign secretary, in return for their supporting either Labor or the Conservatives should neither win an outright majority on May 6. Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary, is chairman of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Palestine.
On the ground, the Liberal Democrats’ approach to Israel often depends on the ethnic or religious makeup of voters in a particular voting district. Take two neighboring voting districts in London.
Holborn and St. Pancras have a disproportionately high Bangladeshi community, and the leaflets of the local Liberal Democrat candidate scream “Stop Arming Israel.” My father received a polite, hand-delivered letter that didn’t mention this, but that might be because he has a mezuzah on his door.
Hampstead and Kilburn, on the other hand, are more disproportionately Jewish, and so the leaflets are more pro-Israel with pictures of a local Liberal Democrat candidate’s recent visit to Israel, Hebrew writing included.
Then there is the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. MPAC’s website asks “is your MP a Zionist?” and then goes on to list 36 MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates that it deems “Zionist.” The main qualification is being affiliated with a Friends of Israel group of one of the three main political parties.
In 2005 Lorna Fitzsimons, now head of British Israel Communications and Research Center, lost her seat as a Labor MP due to MPAC. The 2006 report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism found that MPAC, to help unseat Fitzsimons, distributed leaflets stating “she had done nothing to help the Palestinians because she was a Jewish member of the Labor Friends of Israel.”
Fitzsimons is not Jewish. Sadly, in the current campaign, death threats against some “Zionist” candidates have already been reported.
With election day almost here, Jewish and Muslim voters can expect their sensitivities to be unashamedly manipulated right up to the ballot box — either to propel a political candidate into Parliament or to reduce his or her chances.
Richard Millet is a freelance journalist studying for a master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He blogs at www.richardmillett.wordpress.com. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.