How British Jewry and Israel Fumbled the U.K. Palestine Vote

The community mobilized to block recognition of Palestine in parliament – despite Israel's policy of ignoring the vote.

A London taxi drives by a pro-Palestinian rally in Parliament Square, London, October 13, 2014.
Leon Neal/AFP

LONDON - Mainstream Jewish organizations in the Diaspora are constantly being accused of "slavishly" supporting Israel's governments and its policies. These accusations are quite frankly outrageous when they come from Jewish critics, and verge on the anti-Semitic when they come from non-Jews. Yes, it's true that many Israelis policies are disastrous and immoral, and unfortunately reflect badly on Jews everywhere who identify with Israel. And it's true as well that the majority of Jews outside Israel disagree with many, if not most of, the positions of Israel's current leadership. But the expectation that the official representatives of Jewish communities abroad should challenge Israel's elected government is both unfair and unrealistic.

While they are understandably frustrated, and as private individuals can criticize Israel all they like, the official line of leaders of Jewish federations and representative councils will remain that they stand behind whatever government democratically put in place by the Israeli electorate. Jewish critics of this default position are hypocrites. In the past, when the center-left was in power in Israel, with policies that sat well with those very same critics, they were the first to castigate Diaspora right-wingers that as non-Israelis they had no business trying to dictate policy to an elected government.

Until now, this dynamic has been a left-right paradigm. With Likud in power, Jewish peaceniks agitate against the community establishment for not speaking out against the settlements. But back in the days when Israel had a Labor or Kadima government trying to reach a territorial compromise, then the pressure would come from the right demanding a say for the Diaspora on the future of Jerusalem or Hebron. This week in Britain, the pattern changed and, incredible as it sounds, the Jewish leadership out-manoeuvered a right-wing Israeli government, from the right.

The vote this week in Britain's parliament on a motion put forward by a Labor Party backbencher calling upon the government to recognize a Palestinian state didn't cause much joy in Jerusalem. At least not on its west side. But for a wide range of reasons, the government decided not to make an issue out of it.

The various officials advising the cabinet thought that it would be best not to protest the vote - first of all because it was bound to go through. Feelings are still tender following the recent Gaza conflict and enough members of parliament - whether because of their own consciences, their left-leaning ideology or the possibly pivotal Muslim voters in their constituencies - were going to vote in favor. In addition, unlike with Sweden, whose new prime minister announced two weeks ago they would be recognizing parliament, Israel now has a highly crucial relationship with Britain, probably stronger than any period in Israel's history.

For all the guff in the right-wing Israeli media and leftist British press about how London is a center of anti-Israel feeling - the level of intelligence-sharing, diplomatic coordination on the campaign against Iran's nuclear program and military cooperation in a number of spheres is unprecedented. Most of it for understandable reasons goes unmentioned in public. It has been continuously improving for over a decade now, under both Labor and Conservative governments, and there is no reason to believe that it will change - even if in seven months time at the next general elections Labor's Ed Miliband, who endorsed Monday's Palestinian recognition motion, becomes prime minister. A third reason for ignoring the vote was that given the British media's fascination with Israel, any fuss over the motion was bound to transform the vote into a much bigger event.

A few weeks ago, when informed of the motion, the unanimous recommendation to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to simply not comment and make no attempt to mobilize a lobbying campaign against the motion. Lieberman and Netanyahu, normally so quick to respond to "hostile interference," both accepted this view. No-one thought to update the local Jewish community - and why should they? The motion was non-binding and would not bring about any change in Britain's foreign policy. It was no more than gesture politics and the motion wasn't even overtly anti-Israel – after all, even Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution in principle, so there should have been no problem with the motion, even if it would have given a small fillip to the pro-Palestinian camp.

Without asking the Israeli embassy in London about their plans, the Zionist Federation in Britain, followed by the main communal bodies, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council launched a public campaign calling upon Jews to write to their local MPs, urging them to oppose the motion or at the least support an amendment which would have emptied it of its (symbolic) meaning. Israeli diplomats were frustrated by the burst of frenzied lobbying, especially as there was already a quiet understanding with the leadership of the Conservative party that their members would be quietly told to stay away from the vote, transforming it into a parochial Labor party affair.

But the pressure on Labor's not insubstantial pro-Israel wing, to intervene against the motion, kicked up a big fuss among the party's top echelons and virtually ensured that not only would the motion pass – but it would become a four and a half hour impassioned debate ending in a 274-12 vote in favor and headlines the next day in the British press about parliament's "historic" vote. Exactly the opposite result the Israeli government was striving to prevent.

What possessed the Jewish organizations to embark on what was so clearly a self-defeating campaign? In what way did they feel that Israel would be harmed by a symbolic vote recognizing a non-existent Palestinian state (side by side with a very real Israeli one)? And why didn't they think they should at least ask the Israeli government if at all needs their perhaps well-intentioned but so predictably backfiring campaign?

There isn't one clear explanation to this bizarre development in which the official representatives of British Jewry managed to squeeze themselves into a controversial space to the right of what is already one of the most right-wing government's in Israeli history. A number of factors were at play. One is an ongoing power-grab by a small group within the community, which were they actual Israeli voters, would be rooting for Lieberman or Naftali Bennet; while all research points at the large majority of British Jews staunchly supporting the two-state solution.

Another is the weakness of the current leadership - which has failed to articulate a coherent position on how best to support Israel in these troubled times.

It is also fair to acknowledge the shell-shocked and slightly paranoid feeling of many British Jews following the surge in anti-Semitic incidents this summer in the wake of the Gaza operation. It is perhaps understandable that, stung by grassroots accusations they didn't do enough this summer against the wave of anti-Semitism (which manifested itself mainly in verbal and online abuse, but very little actual violence or physical harm), the leadership felt it had to make a stand. But what exactly should the leadership have done? It is the police and government's responsibility to deal with racist attacks (which they have done) - what sense did it make responding to the nasty events of the last few months by scoring such an obvious own goal?

Of course, if this government (like most previous Israeli governments) didn't take Diaspora Jews' support for granted and actually tried to have an open dialogue, this wouldn't have happened. The prime minister's own paranoid rhetoric of existential threats facing Israel and how much the whole world hates us didn't help either.

Together with the far-right fringe of the community, Netanyahu has succeeded in creating the false impression that Israel is so fragile that it needs normally level-headed and sober British Jewry to ride to its rescue and save it from what should have been a non-event.