Divided opinion over the loose tongue of Baroness Tonge
Tonge has made idiotic pronouncements in the past but saying Israel will not last for ever in its present form is not one of them
Michael White, Guardian blog
Jenny Tonge, a GP and local councillor who got lucky in 1997 when she became a Lib Dem MP (now a peer), has a track record of idiotic public pronouncements in her support for the Palestinian cause.
But should she have been effectively kicked out of her party over her latest controversy, the one in which she said Israel “is not going to be there for ever in its present form”?
I understand why many Israelis and some of their more ardent supporters around the world might get upset about such remarks. Israel feels as threatened by its neighbours as some of its neighbours feel threatened by Israel – the double minority problem – and only yesterday I read about the retaliatory rocket attacks which Israeli cities are certain to face from Lebanon and Syria, as well as Iran, if it launches air strikes against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Chilling stuff and people like Tonge are both foolish in some of the things they say and careless about some of the company they keep. But Israel not to last for ever in its present form? That’s surely a no-brainer? Isn’t official Israeli policy committed to (modest) land-for-peace trades if the two-state solution, which almost everyone knows is the answer, comes about? That would change Israel “in its present form” a bit.
There’s a larger point here as well as the narrow local politics and their geopolitical ramifications where the ever-helpful peer ventured – on a university campus – that the US will eventually “get sick of” providing $70bn (£44bn) a year to support what she called its floating aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean. Well, that’s an unremarkable conclusion too, albeit not a candidate for Tactful Remark of the Year.
With the possible exception of imperial China, no state lasts for ever, however large or important. One hundred years ago it looked touch and go for China too. Barely 20 years ago the mighty Soviet Union, heir to tsarist expansionism, looked pretty permanent. Speaking for myself I’ve always thought that making Hawaii the 50th US state – I remember the day it happened – was probably a mistake. It will be hard to defend one day. When? I don’t know, but look at the map.
Britain is not the state it was 100 years ago – those 26 Irish counties have gone their own way – and Alex Salmond has plans for another large chunk of the state, though he’s wrong to assert – as he does – that both independent Scotland and England would both be EU successor states on equal terms: rump Britain would be the EU member, Scotland would have to apply to join.
Strange to say, we have hung on to the Channel Islands – the last fragment of William the Conquerer’s Norman domain – when geography suggests the French should have mopped them up at some point as they did Angevin Aquitaine and Calais. There’s no logic, only permanent flux, as France knows from its own history – its borders have been changed by force in living memory.
We can all cite such examples, the world is a restless place. So why be so neurotic about a not very important Lib Dem peer – sacked from her frontbench health job over similar exotic heresy back in 2010 – shooting her mouth off on Middlesex university’s London campus? I fear I must refer you to the website of my old sparring partner, Guido Fawkes, who can usually manage self-publicity without my help.
Fawkes highlighted Tonge’s participation courtesy of a group I hadn’t previously heard of called Students Rights – you’ll find its website here – which says it tracks extremism on Britain’s university campuses, a problem about which both police and university authorities have too often been complacent.
It seems there was a bad-tempered public meeting at which known Jewish activists were excluded but others manage to disrupt some speakers – “Zionist campaigners”, as Tonge’s own statement calls them, a curious choice of language, I’d say, one which gives a modest insight into the GP-MP’s mindset.
She shared a platform with a chap called Ken O’Keefe who apparently believes that 9/11 was a US/Mossad plot (ho, ho, ho) and that Israel “in its current form should be destroyed”.
That’s muscular language from an armchair general, language which ratchets up Tonge’s own words. We weren’t there and don’t know the context in which the passionate peeress spoke – as she herself says – but it doesn’t sound a very attractive occasion. I attend both Jewish events and – less often – Palestinian ones and they are mostly very wholesome in my limited experience.
The real issue is here is surely free speech. If anyone – say Abu Qatada or the chap with the hook whose name I usually manage to forget – incites violence against Israelis or anyone else the law is there to have them arrested, charged and (with luck) convicted. But vulgar abuse and historical prediction – especially when stating an immutable law of history – should be things we can live with.
Nick Clegg called on Tonge to apologise. She didn’t so he took the party whip away from her. So she resigned from the party. That’s just the kind of escalation which doesn’t help anyone. We need protagonists who feel so strongly on this issue to talk more to each other, not to display excessive and exclusive virtue.
Jenny Tonge and Ehud Olmert – can you spot the difference?
Calling for, or worrying about, a one-state solution isn’t new, novel or controversial.
Mehdi Hasan, New Statesman blog
Gotcha! Don’t you love it when journalists corner a politician or pundit with anoutrageous or offensive quote, which makes afore-mentioned politician/pundit look mad, bad or both?
I don’t. I find it frustrating, juvenile and, above all else, lazy. It tends to happens a lot when the issue under discussion is controversial and/or sensitive: e.g. the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Jenny Tonge, Lib Dem peer and ex-MP, is under fire right now for saying,according to the Guardian, “Israel will not last for ever”. Labour MP Ian Austin has said Nick Clegg must make Baroness Tonge withdraw these remarks.
Martin Bright, political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted:
“I can only assume Nick Clegg will finally remove the whip from Baroness Tonge. That would be consistent with what he has said in the past”
Even Ed Miliband’s weighed in with a tweet:
“No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel. Nick Clegg must condemn Jenny Tonge’s remark & demand apology”
(n.b. One wonders what Marion Miliband makes of young Edward’s remarks.)
Admittedly, Tonge has made some pretty dodgy remarks in the past about Israel and Israelis – which cost her a position on the Lib Dem frontbench – but this latest controversy seems rather manufactured. Her comment, in full, doesn’t seem so controversial:
Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form.
Shock! Horror! Tonge doesn’t think Israel “in its present form” – that is, as a Jewish and democratic state that also happens to illegally occupy Palestinian land while denying Palestinians both self-determination and voting rights – can survive. After all, the demographics make a one-state, non-Jewish, binational state almost inevitable.
Hmm, I wonder who else has taken a similar view? Oh yeah. That’s it: Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former prime minister, who once talked of how “the State of Israel is finished” if it continues on its current, rejectionist trajectory. Outrageous, eh?
Here’s the then Israeli premier’s full quote from Haaretz in November 2007:
If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.
An article on the BBC news website was devoted to Olmert’s words. Guess what it’s headline was?
Olmert warns of ‘end of Israel’
So condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you’ll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too. Funny old world, isn’t it?
And, on a related note, the truth is that a single, secular, binational, one-state solution is now a mainstream, much-discussed alternative to the Middle East status quo. Polls show it has the support of a third of Palestinians and, astonishingly, even a quarter of Israelis. It also has the backing of, among others, the late Edward Said, the late Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand,Virginia Tilley, Meron Benvenisti, Ahmad Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Noam Chomsky, Jeff Halper and Sari Nusseibeh. Oh, and, perhaps a little reluctantly,me too.
By Martin Bright, Jewish Chronicle
Baroness Tonge has been a one-woman running sore within the Liberal Democrat Party, poisoning relations with the Jewish community with her persistently distasteful and incendiary comments about Israel. Finally she is gone, effectively sacked after refusing to withdraw her statement during an event at Middlesex University that Israel “will not last forever”. Now there is reason to believe that wound can begin to heal.
Her career as one of the Palestinian people’s least effective champions began while still an MP when she said she might herself have considered becoming a suicide bomber if she found herself under Israeli occupation.
Over the years she has repeatedly evoked classic conspiracy theory language to bemoan the power of the “Israel lobby” – to the intense irritation of her colleagues and the Liberal Democrat leadership. She referred to it again in her resignation statement on Wednesday.
But, astonishingly, she managed to hold on to the whip.
When the JC interviewed Nick Clegg in September 2009, he made it clear that he would not remove the whip from the peer, as he did not view her comments at that point as racist.
He later sacked her from the front bench after she called for an inquiry into accusations that the Israeli Defence Forces had been harvesting organs in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. But she still held the Liberal Democrat whip.
To give credit to Mr Clegg, he always said he would have no hesitation in removing the whip from the peer if he felt she had overstepped the mark. He has been as good as his word.
There have always been people within the party who have been deeply troubled by the presence of Baroness Tonge within its ranks.
Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel have had to plough a lonely furrow and the organisation deserves credit for keeping up the pressure on the leadership over the issue.
It is no surprise that the now former LibDem peer once again blamed her predicament on “the pro-Israel lobby”.
It is certainly true that she was brought down by an irresistible pincer movement of right-wing bloggers. First, the neo-cons at the Commentator picked up on footage of the Middlesex University event posted by the redoubtable Richard Millett and then passed the baton to the conservative attack dogs at Guido Fawkes.
But it was probably coverage in the Guardian, not known for its Zionist views, that finally made it obvious that Nick Clegg could no longer hold on to “Jihad Jenny”.
Few will lament the end to her LibDem career, too often punctuated by an irrational hatred of Israel, paranoid conspiracy theory and outright blood libel. Baroness Tonge’s views were always on the wilder fringes of British politics, but her position within a mainstream political party gave her the veneer of respectability, albeit increasingly tarnished. Now she has been consigned to the margins, which is exactly where she belongs.