Cameron speaks – says little – few listen
Responses to Cameron’s Knesset speech: 1) Nicholas Blincoe finds specks of gold, Guardian; 2) Cameron speech focuses on positive of 2-state solution, Financial Times; 3) Cameron’s speech lost in Knesset crisis, Al Monitor. See also Likud Plus makes itself unmoveable
The prime minister was right to remind politicians that Israel’s reputation depends on respect for international law
By Nicholas Blincoe, theguardian.com
March 14, 2014
When David Cameron arrived at the Knesset to deliver an inoffensive, even fulsome, speech to Israel’s lawmakers, he could hardly have expected walk-outs, boycotts and heckling. The walk-out came from representatives of the ultra-orthodox religious parties protesting about a bill that would compel religious students to join the army. The boycott came from Israel’s Labour party, which supported many of the measures in the bill, so opted to boycott the vote in order to build a coalition with the ultra-religious parties. The heckling came from the leftwing Palestinian-Israeli MK Esawi Frij who barracked Cameron for focusing on history rather than the future. At least Frij was listening to Cameron, whose speech indeed had a lot of history going on, from a claim by the British prime minister that one of his ancestors wrote the first Yiddish novel to praise for a British Victorian charity, the Palestine Exploration Fund.
If Cameron learned anything from his visit, it ought to be that Israelis are fully engaged in arguing with other Israelis; the rest of the world does not get a look in. Israel’s political class exists inside a bubble in which only their views matter, no matter how detached from reality they might be. A case in point is prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claim, reiterated in a speech he gave preceding Cameron’s, that the chief obstacle to a peace deal is not the Israeli settlement programme but, rather, Palestinians’ refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has finally condemned Netanyahu’s focus on this straw-man argument. The Palestinian leadership long ago recognised the state of Israel.
The job of international politicians in Palestine and Israel is to clear the air of the smokescreen of politically expedient fantasies and refocus on reality. Cameron gave an entirely emollient speech to the Knesset. Yet he always stressed international law and, while standing out against boycotts, reminded his audience that, as long as the occupation continued, trade ministers would spend their time debating what Israeli products would be allowed into their countries and what must be deemed illegal and kept out. He frequently spoke about Israel as a Jewish homeland, which indeed it is. But Israel is also more than a Jewish homeland and Cameron stressed that Israel’s reputation as a democracy depended upon its equal treatment of all its citizens.
These are small points to take from a long speech, true. But debates around Israel have tended to emphasise Israeli exceptionalism. The idea that Israel can create its own reality flows naturally from the idea that this is a young country, founded upon religious and/or revolutionary zeal less than 70 years ago. Yet the longer that Israel is allowed to operate by its own, different rules, the less chance for peace in a region and a world of equals, trading openly and negotiating freely.
Cameron made a surprise visit to Palestine and Israel in 2009 when he was leader of the opposition. He protested against the wall by planting an olive tree and spoke movingly of the fate of Gazans in that vast open prison. The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, was an early supporter of Open Bethlehem, which campaigns for an open Palestinian state, and against Israel’s walls and settlements. Both men have found their own way into these issues, when too many politicians have been led by romance or ideology (one thinks of Gordon Brown, for instance, who often cites his churchman father’s love of the country, or Michael Gove, who supported Israel from an avowedly neo-conservative perspective yet only visited the country last year, after conquering his fear of flying). Meanwhile William Hague, an arch-realist, has warned Israeli politicians not to sabotage deals with Iran, another issue in which Israel’s domestic politics threaten global repercussions.
Twenty-five years ago, Netanyahu wrote a book for the US market entitled A Place Among the Nations, which argued that it was time Israel was welcomed into the international fold. It seems a laudable thesis, but the argument was disingenuous. Netanyahu actually argued that Israel’s exceptionalism – its right to act according to its own principles rather than international norms – was the thing that the world should learn to love and embrace. After 20 years of a failed peace process, it is time to stop indulging the fantasy version of Israel. In small but perceptible ways, this coalition is more level-headed than any previous UK government.
By John Reed in Jerusalem, Financial Times
March 13, 2014
David Cameron said Britain opposed boycotts and would fight the “delegitimisation” of the Jewish state in a resoundingly pro-Israel speech in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
The UK prime minister was addressing a special session of the Knesset after arriving for an overnight visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories that comes as Middle East peace talks are reaching a critical point.
“Britain opposes boycotts, whether it’s trade unions campaigning for the exclusion of Israelis or universities trying to stifle academic exchange,” he said in a speech that also made reference to his Jewish great-great-grandfather and efforts to promote Holocaust education in the UK.
He said that “delegitimising” the Israeli state was “abhorrent and, together, we will defeat it”.
He spoke of “the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran” – the central policy focus of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and also mentioned the Klos-C, a ship Israel intercepted in the Red Sea last week with what it said were Syrian and Iranian weapons intended for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Mr Cameron made the speech on his first visit to Israel since becoming prime minister, before crossing Israel’s separation wall to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on Thursday.
Mr Abbas goes to Washington next week for talks with President Barack Obama amid signs that the peace negotiations, launched last July, are reaching an impasse.
Israel has continued expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands throughout the talks, causing Palestinians to threaten repeatedly to abandon the discussions and push for unilateral recognition through the UN.
The Palestinians and the Arab League have rejected a demand by Mr Netanyahu’s government that they recognise Israel as an explicitly “Jewish state”. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is prodding both sides to agree on a framework of principles by the end of April that might allow them to continue the talks.
Mr Cameron’s speech made one brief reference to the settlements issue, saying that Britain backed the compromises needed for a peace deal, “including the halt to settlement activity and an end to Palestinian incitement, too” – Israel’s term for public statements and educational material it says delegitimises its state.
But his overall tone was positive, at most cajoling, as he urged Israelis to imagine a peace deal that would lead to “a nation state of the Palestinian people and the nation state of the Jewish people”, and open up new business opportunities in the region.
“Think of the capitals in the Arab world where Israelis could travel, do business, and build a future,” he said.
Israel’s relations with the EU are at a low point because of recent moves by Brussels to cut off scientific and research funding for Israeli entities that do business in the settlements.
A widespread expectation in Israel that the talks will end in failure have led to fears in the Jewish state that the international “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement that favours isolating Israel economically until it ends the occupation will gain momentum.
UK Trade & Investment, the business promotion body, recently published guidelines warning companies of the reputational and legal risk of doing business in the settlements, which caused friction with the Israeli authorities.
However, Mr Cameron emphasised the robustness of Britain’s commercial ties with Israel. The two countries’ trade in goods is worth £5bn a year. Mr Cameron was accompanied on his visit by business executives including representatives of Asos, GlaxoSmithKline and the London Stock Exchange.
“It was a very pro-Israel speech,” Azriel Bermant, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of Mr Cameron’s remarks to the Knesset.
“It was also a very good way to go about things: instead of talking about the danger of what would happen if no agreement were reached, he focused on the positives of the two-state solution.
UK prime minister stands before broken Knesset
David Cameron’s speech in the Knesset was lost within the battle at the plenum for three major bills, with the opposition boycotting the hastened debates and the public not understanding the significant issues at play.
By Mazal Mualem, trans Danny Wool, Israel Pulse /Al Monitor
March 14, 2014
Though this week’s Knesset debates occurred in the shadow of the opposition’s boycott of the coalition, one particular image will remain engraved in the collective memory. It is the image of British Prime Minister David Cameron standing at the Knesset podium. It is hard to tell if he was embarrassed or amused as he looked out over the ruins of what should have been a festive session in his honor.
Cameron received a detailed explanation before he arrived. He was told that his visit coincided with one of the most tense and turbulent days in Israel’s parliamentary history. Nevertheless, he still looked lost when he was forced to hear Chairman of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog dragging him into the intricacies of our local political squabbles, boasting to him that the coalition is tense and nervous because of him, and addressing him directly to inform him that Ministers Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman are “people who run one-man factions like a dictatorship.”
Cameron was forced into being an extra at the pivotal moment in a show of opposition power, which ultimately achieved nothing apart from putting its leaders in the media spotlight. On the contrary. If measured in terms of its consequences, all it really did was divert the public debate from the significant issues that lay behind the protest to the act of protest itself.
Herzog met Cameron in person. It is regretful that Herzog did not ask him to learn more about the very effective opposition tool called a shadow cabinet. This tool may require more work and efforts, but it is worth the trouble.
In Israel, regular media coverage of politics is limited to dramatic headlines and sensational stories. It is therefore safe to assume that the average person on the street realized that the opposition was upset with the coalition and had decided to boycott its debates, that there was some embarrassment over what happened with the British prime minister and that Knesset members Herzog and Aryeh Deri were cooperating with the Arabs for some reason or other. But at the same time, the average Israeli did not understand why.
In the flurry of parliamentary incidents, the public debate over the actual reason for the boycott seems to have been lost in the shuffle. It was the process by which the Knesset rushed to approve three dramatic laws in just three days. According to the opposition, the blitz was intentional. It was done so to prevent opposition members from conducting any in-depth debates or any attempts on their part to convince coalition members to oppose these bills.
For the opposition, the breaking point came on March 9, when it was revealed that there was a Document of Understanding between the heads of all the coalition factions. They made a commitment in this document to support all three laws as a single corpus and enforce ironclad party discipline in the ensuing votes. This involved very weighty laws by any criteria: the Sharing the Burden Law, which was considered a major achievement of the Chairman of the Yesh Atid Party, Yair Lapid; the Governability Law (that included raising the electoral threshold), which was considered a banner piece of legislation by the Chairman of Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman; and the Referendum Law, which was propelled forward by Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali Bennett and other Knesset members from the right. The third law requires that a referendum be held before Israel withdraws from any land. It is intended to make it more difficult to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians.
As much as this maneuvering by the coalition was an infuriating use of brute force, it still took place within the boundaries of the law. It may not have been appropriate, and it may have stretched the boundaries of what is permissible in a democracy. Nevertheless, it was still legitimate.
As far as the heads of the opposition were concerned, it was a move that obligated them to break all the rules and overturn the board. They gathered on March 9 at the Labor Party headquarters in Tel Aviv in an atmosphere of tangible urgency and decided to boycott any votes on these laws. Their intention was that with the Knesset chamber being half empty and with zero votes opposing these laws, they would be sending the public a message.
Knesset member Eitan Cabel, chairman of the Labor Party faction, explained it in his own colorful way: “The prime minister got everyone to sign the document. The whole scene looks like it was taken from some gangster film. They were like businessmen meeting to swap whatever had to be swapped and standing back to back to do it. This is a government where its members cannot even look each other in the eye.”
And that is how the three-day boycott began. The opposition conducted alternative debates in a separate hall, and the Knesset approved the three laws with an overwhelming majority. The Governability Law passed with the support of 68 Knesset members, with no one opposing it. The Referendum Law passed with the same result. The Sharing the Burden Law passed with 67 votes for and one against (Knesset member Yoni Chetboun, who was punished for it later). The Document of Understanding provided the goods. Lapid, Liberman and Bennett scored major achievements with their constituents.
Media coverage focused on the boycott. Hardly any time was devoted to the implications that these laws will have on the lives of Israelis. But instead of the performance that Herzog prepared for Cameron, the public would have been better off hearing why he opposed the Governability Law and the raising of the electoral threshold to get into the Knesset, especially since he actually supported a similar law just three years ago. The public would also have been glad to understand why the Labor Party, which fought in the past for compulsory military service for the ultra-Orthodox, avoided supporting the Sharing the Burden Law.
Similarly, the minister of justice and chair of the Hatnua Party, Tzipi Livni, should have provided the public with answers to some very serious questions. One of them is why the leader of the Israeli negotiating team in the talks with the Palestinians voted for the Referendum Law, which is intended to make those negotiations more difficult. In an interview she gave to Army Radio last year, Livni explained why that very law posed a danger to democracy: “We were elected by the people to choose the right path for them to take. … In a democratic sense it would not be proper. The Knesset and the government are the ones who make the decisions.”
While it is true that the laws would have passed anyway, at least the members of the opposition could have given voice to their positions along with relevant explanations. Unfortunately, those Knesset members chose the easy way out and abused their role.
I asked Dov Khenin from the Hadash Party, an outstanding and experienced parliamentarian and a leader of the boycott, what the opposition got out of this move, and whether he and his colleagues did not violate their commitment to their constituents. Khenin argued in response that they had no choice. He compared the situation in the Knesset to the political situation in Italy in 1924, saying, “Then the democratic members of parliament withdrew, leaving just Mussolini and his colleagues because of the draconian laws.”
According to Khenin, “That’s what we did now. They confiscated whatever tools we had to fight those laws, and they didn’t even give us an opportunity to explain our reasoning, because it really is impossible to hold a serious discussion about three laws in just three days. It is true that the result is the same, but we proved that we are a unified bloc. We took a drastic step to underscore the fact that we will not be extras [nonexisting players] in this undemocratic game.”
Khenin did not hide his excitement over this rare instance of cooperation among the opposition, which suddenly found him collaborating with politicians from parties representing both the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionist left. However, the truth is that the glue that connects the different segments of this group is actually quite weak. There is no genuine alliance based on common interests. There is no struggle for some basic ideal. It was just a specific move to defy the government, and no one will be at all surprised if some of the Knesset members who are protesting now find themselves seated around the government table in the not too distant future. That could happen even if they boycotted that same government this week.