The United Kingdom's most unpredictable election in a generation, scheduled for May 6, is set to reshape the country's political map, with the perennial "also-rans" - the Liberal Democrats - poised to break the Labor and Conservative monopoly on power. It seems likely that no party will win an overall majority in the vote, and consequently, the Liberal Democrats, aided by the remarkable and sudden popularity of leader Nick Clegg, will play kingmaker to either of the two larger parties. In handing over the keys to power, the Liberal Democrats will exact a political price, one that may profoundly influence the country's foreign policy and have worrying implications for the U.K.'s relationship with Israel.
On some issues, such as the economy, the Liberal Democrats are typically centrist, sitting somewhere between Labor and the Tories. However, on other matters, such as electoral reform, the environment and particularly foreign policy, they have drawn a line in the sand, differentiating themselves sharply from their rivals. Liberal Democrats proudly boast, for example, that they alone, among the big parties, opposed the war in Iraq. Similarly, Clegg's is a lone voice in opposing renewal of the U.K.'s Trident nuclear defense program, branding it an outdated Cold War measure. Ominously, his foreign policy credo is to move away from an "over-reliance on the White House," toward a closer working relationship with Europe.
Weaning the U.K. off its "slavish" special relationship with the United States, and bringing it into line with Europe would likely involve a refusal to support further U.S. military campaigns, as well as opposition to Washington's perceived "soft" treatment of Israel. As Clegg emphasized in a press conference last week, "we cannot leave it to the United States to exert influence in the Middle East."
Some have perhaps unfairly identified the Liberal Democrat position on Israel with the well-publicized and repugnant views of former party spokeswoman Jenny Tonge. She expressed empathy with Palestinian suicide bombers in 2004, and recently suggested that the Israel Defense Forces be investigated for stealing organs while carrying out relief work in Haiti. Tonge was duly removed as a spokeswoman and although some argued that this did not go far enough, most party activists appear perturbed and embarrassed by her virulent anti-Israel tone. It should also be noted that an active, albeit small, Friends of Israel faction exists within the party and that the Liberal Democrats are fielding a number of Israel-friendly candidates in the upcoming election.
Nonetheless, the specter of Nick Clegg helping to shape government positions on Israel is worrying. His views are a hostile departure from those of Conservative leader David Cameron and incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown. While Brown and Cameron were careful to highlight Israel's legitimate security concerns during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Clegg forcefully proposed that the U.K. lead a European Union-wide arms embargo on Israel, something that would go a long way toward removing the country's means of self-defense. The Liberal Democrat demand to straitjacket Israel's military continues today, until the blockade of Gaza is lifted.
A former EU bureaucrat himself, Clegg has also urged the union to use its economic muscle to apply pressure on Israel. Labor and Conservative leaders have meticulously distanced themselves from Israel boycott initiatives. Yet the Liberal Democrats recently endorsed the U.K.-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign pledge "that the EU should suspend existing trade agreements" with Israel. Adding insult to injury, Clegg smugly suggests that bullying Israel through boycotts and embargoes would force a change in Gaza policy, which he insists would ultimately benefit "the country's long-term interest."
Although Clegg's popularity and public recognition have soared over the past few weeks, he is not the only barometer of his party's position. In December 2009, an overwhelming 51 of the 63 Liberal Democrat MPs, including Foreign Affairs spokesman Ed Davey, sponsored a motion in the House of Commons that pledged to "oppose any legislation to restrict the power of U.K. courts" over universal jurisdiction. This came in direct opposition to Labor and Conservative support to amend the absurd loophole in the law that had allowed pro-Palestinian plaintiffs to successfully apply to a British court last year for a warrant for Tzipi Livni's arrest. One can only assume that the prospect of Livni being taken into custody is perfectly palatable to the majority of Liberal Democrat MPs.
Of course, the realities of government can ensure that election promises do not always translate into action. Yet, the prospect of the Liberal Democrats in senior office is a worrying one for Israel. A party that advocates policies such as an arms embargo on the Jewish state will likely find little sympathy among Israel's leadership.
Party leader Clegg recently said during a live televised debate that British relations with America "should not be a one-way street." But, should he be left to drive foreign policy, Clegg could lead Israel-U.K. relations toward a dead end.
Dan Kosky is a writer and communications professional based in Tel Aviv.
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