Nick Clegg to Haaretz: I Admire Israel, but Won't Stop Criticizing Its Government

'We must distinguish between the Israeli people and the Israeli government,' says the Liberal Democrat leader ahead of U.K. election.

I lift the receiver and hear: "Adar?" In recent weeks the voice on the other side has become familiar to millions of people in Britain and around the world.

U.K. Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg
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"Nick Clegg is speaking," he says, amused. "I'm so glad to renew our contact after all these years."

A few minutes earlier I was still involved in intercontinental conversations with a dozen other graduates of the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, recently dubbed "the Harvard of the European elite" by the British media.

Clegg's dizzying success hasn't surprised any of us alumni. Many of those old friends are being hounded by Britain's tabloid press these days, as they search for small crumbs of information to shed light on - or smear - the relatively unknown Liberal Democrat leader.

Eran Katz, the other Israeli who studied with us at the time, in the early 90s, has become well known in his own right, for the books he's written on memory theory. On the phone, Katz recalled how he helped along Clegg's love affair with Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, a talented and attractive fellow student: how he recommended a romantic vacation spot in the Ardennes Mountains, and how, thanks to his intervention, or so he would like to believe, they eventually married.

The Spaniard Jose-Ramon Leon Lora, today the European Commission representative in Morocco, reveled as he remembered how he overcame Clegg, the undisputed star of the exclusive university with his candidacy for head of the student council. Canadian Millie Stanisic, now a film producer in New York, is convinced she could have written the script even back then. She recounts a conversation she had with Clegg in the college cafeteria in which she prophetically uttered: "The day will come, Nick Clegg, when I'll be your guest at 10 Downing Street."

Clegg laughs loudly when he hears this. He has made clear during the election campaign that he is going for gold, betting all he's got, and that he wants to be Britain's next prime minister.

But now's the time to put things into perspective: "We're not there yet," he says modestly.

His glowing performance in the first televised debate shuffled the deck completely, turning him into the Susan Boyle of British politics, and the campaign's hottest story. He has been called "the most popular British politician since Churchill," and "the British Barack Obama." He has even been compared to Che Guevara.

The kingmaker

If the surveys are right, no party will win an absolute majority in the British Parliament today, for the first time in 35 years. Clegg, who may take second place, will be the kingmaker who decides whether Labour governs Britain for another four years, or whether there will be an upset in the Conservatives' favor after 13 years out of power.

He is the one who will decide whether a minority or a coalition government will rule; and whether for the first time in 90 years, the Liberal Democrats will return to a position of influence, with the implications reaching all the way to Jerusalem.

On the eve of the election, he refuses to make any predictions. He prefers not to talk about his ministerial preferences. It all depends on "these untypical elections," and "the great desire of millions for change."

Instead, he talks about "an opportunity that won't be repeated, the one-in-a-lifetime chance to change Britain forever."

In his mind's eye he sees "a quick and radical shift in the tectonic plates of politics," but he's also cautious. "Our message is that this time there's no need to return to the old patterns and alternatives. If enough people vote for the Liberal Democrats, then we can make big changes," he states.

Commentators say that Clegg's popularity lies in, among other things, the fact that he managed to steal the banner of change and new ideas from David Cameron and the Conservatives. These new ideas include a new distribution of taxes to benefit the poor, more money for education, canceling an expensive nuclear submarine project in favor of investment in the economy, the development of ecologically sound "green businesses," granting legal status to illegal immigrants who have spent at least a decade in the country; and above all, changing the anachronistic election system which distorts the will of voters and which allows the candidate less votes than his rivals to take office as prime minister.

No joy in Jerusalem

Though Cleggmania is rife in the U.K., Jerusalem is sunk in a Clegg-pression.

"Clegg is bad news for Israel," one official here said. "His party is running on a human rights platform, and the atmosphere is hostile to Israel. We remind the Liberal Democrats of South Africa during apartheid. Even if Clegg decides not to take the foreign portfolio, the very fact that Liberal Democrats sit in the cabinet is likely to mean trouble for us."

In the wake of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the Liberal Democrats asked for an arms embargo on Israel, and to suspend its preferential trade status with the European Union. The party was also behind the demand to mark Israeli products made in the West Bank.

In December, Clegg was at the head of the list of signatories of a letter attacking the Israeli government for the blockade on Gaza. "The confinement and punishment of an entire population is no way to bring about peace for all of the people of the Middle East," the letter read.

Most of the bad blood was created by Baroness Jenny Tonge, a former Liberal Democrat MP, who became a member of the House of Lords in 2005. A year earlier, Tonge announced that if she were a Palestinian living under occupation, she would herself have become a suicide bomber. In 2006, she said that the pro-Israel lobby exerted a "financial grip" on her party and on Britain.

In February, she went even further and called for an investigation into claims that IDF soldiers who were sent to aid Haitian earthquake victims were involved in harvesting body organs from the dead. Her remarks caused a storm and Clegg fired her from her job as shadow health spokesperson.

"Too little, too late," a member of the British Jewish community said. "In light of the blood libel, he should have expelled her from the party."

Clegg, who called Tonge's remarks "wrong, distasteful and provocative," says that he is "a very staunch defender of the people of Israel, of a very staunch defender of the rights of the Jewish community here in Britain, a community which is feeling quite beleaguered at the moment because of the rise in anti-Semitism and the rise in prejudice generally."

He recently criticized the cooperation of British Conservatives in the European Parliament with extreme right-wing parties in Eastern Europe, whom he terms, "nutters, anti-Semitic, and homophobic."

"As to the accusations that I am hostile to Israel, my actions prove the opposite. I have always sharply opposed various efforts to impose academic and cultural sanctions on Israel. I am also one of those who said that Britain should not have participated in the Durban 2 conference when it became clear that it would turn into an anti-Israel event."

"I have tremendous admiration for the state of Israel and its people. When I visited, I was once again exposed to the genius of this nation, which has managed to maintain a democratic regime and a thriving and open economy, despite its existence under a constant threat. This is a great achievement.

But we must distinguish clearly between the Israeli and the Jewish people on the one hand, and certain actions of the Israeli government on the other. If I have criticism it is focused solely on these actions. I plan to continue to voice my thoughts, which stem from honest and legitimate concern, and in my estimation that the long term interests of the people of Israel are not being met properly at this time."

Clegg rejects speaking to Hamas "as long as Hamas continues to nurture an extremist ideology of violence and terror. I totally understand the feelings of the residents of Sderot who are under constant missile attacks that are meant to impose terror. My condemnations of Hamas have always been clear and unequivocal, and the same is true of my attitude toward the fact that Israel has the full right to defend its inhabitants. That is the role of every country and every government.

"However," he adds, "I don't understand the Israeli strategy regarding Gaza. The imposition of the siege against 1.5 million people, many of them young people who become increasingly itter, and the disproportionate use of force.

Operation Cast Lead did of course bring about a certain neutralization of the attackers and the missile attacks ¬ but did it reduce the bitterness prevailing between the peoples, did it weaken Hamas' position, and did it guarantee Israel's long-term security interests? I'm not at all certain."

Clegg comes out against Israel's "continued development of the illegal settlements," he welcomes the approaching proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and as far as Hamas is concerned, he says: "The only way to deal with Hamas is to work to split the organization between the extremists who want to destroy the peace process and those who are willing over the long term to recognize Israel and to work to find a solution in a non-violent manner."

Clegg rejects out of hand the claim that the British public is today the most "anti-Israel" in Europe.

"Operation Cast Lead and incidents like falsifying documents in Dubai do create tension, but just as I would never treat any public criticism of some activity or other of the British government as an anti-British attitude, in the same way, British criticism of the policy of the Israeli government should not be treated as 'anti-Israeli,'" he says.
In December 2009, 51 of the 63 members of the Liberal Democrats stood behind a draft bill in the Parliament in support of universal jurisdiction, which allows private citizens to apply for the arrest of Israeli politicians for alleged war crimes while they are on British soil.

"I'm very happy that we should review it, but it shouldn't be reviewed in a sort of panic. It needs to be reviewed in a calm and deliberate way. I was against the Labour government's wish to try and rush through changes before the election, I think that's wrong. I think there are issues of principles at stake, which I would like us all to have a look at calmly after the elections."

Looking to Europe

As befits a graduate of the College of Europe, 43-year-old Clegg is undoubtedly a dyed-in-the-wool "European." He speaks five languages. His Dutch mother was a captive in Indonesia during the Japanese occupation during World War II. His banker father, who is half Russian, is the scion of an aristocratic family. His wife, a lawyer, is the daughter of a former Spanish senator. His three sons have Spanish names. He himself spent more than 10 years in the corridors of the European Union. This record is already making many people nervous, both in England and abroad.

Although he supports his country's joining the eurozone, he says that this is "a totally mistaken move now." He cannot say anything else, in light of the fears that Britain will become "the Greece of Northern Europe." Nevertheless he declares that "we have to recall that the crisis in Greece stems from the fact that past governments there were not up front regarding their financial situation. The fault is theirs, not that of the euro bloc."

Between the lines, we can perhaps understand that he has not really abandoned the dream of adopting the single currency.

He is proud of the fact that he was one of the first to oppose Britain's participation in the Iraq war. His policy is to put an end to the era of being a "poodle" of the United States. He wants to abandon the "exaggerated dependence" on Washington and at the same time to build closer ties with Europe.

Jerusalem is afraid that Clegg, who sees Washington's approach to Israel as overly gentle, is liable to oppose joining future U.S. war activities.

"We cannot leave pressure on the Middle East to the U.S. alone," he declared recently at a press conference.

To Haaretz, he says, "No country is allowed to embark on war only out of loyalty to its ally. To this day I'm angry about the way in which Gordon Brown and [former British prime minister] Tony Blair - with the support of David Cameron and the Conservatives - decided to go to war in Iraq, in order to make [former U.S. president] George W. Bush and [former U.S. vice president] Dick Cheney happy. That certainly cannot be a good enough reason for an illegal invasion of another country. We must embark on military actions only when they are in our interest. That's why we supported and continue to support the international effort in Afghanistan. As opposed to Iraq, Britain has a clear interest in the war in Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that we have growing fears about the way in which the war there is being conducted."

Clegg rejects a military option in Iran too. "If they were to convince me that there's a practical option, then clearly we would have to consider it. I have not been exposed so far to any proof that we can stop the Iranian nuclear program by means of an aerial attack, while a comprehensive and all-out ground war is not an option. Our greatest ally against [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the extremists in Tehran is of course the Iranian people themselves. The opposition in Iran is widening and it's our best chance over the long term to neutralize Iran's nuclear capability. We must find the proper and difficult balance between putting pressure on the Iranian regime by expanding the sanctions on the one hand and creating the conditions that will enable the Iranians themselves to confront their leaders on the other. Talking about a military option does not contribute to that - on the contrary, it makes Ahmadinejad's life easy and enables him to claim that he is acting as he is because of the external military threats."

As far as relations with the U.S., says Clegg, they should be described as "special."

"I lived and worked there [at the University of Minnesota], and I love that country. We have a common language, history and culture - it's a unique partnership that cannot be taken away from us. All that doesn't mean that our relationship should become a subservient one, in which we automatically do what they tell us to do. At the end of the day, Britain's foreign policy, just like that of Israel, must be conducted in accordance with British interests rather than those of the White House."

"In any case, I think that's the type of relationship that President Obama and his White House advisers are interested in. What they want is for Britain to be a strong force in Europe, so that it can influence the continent in accordance with our common transatlantic interests. There's no contradiction between being strong within Europe and being a close ally of the U.S. On the contrary: One is necessary to guarantee the other."

When Clegg talks about "common transatlantic interests" he is of course referring to the Middle East as well.

"I tend to say that the European Union must stop being an economic giant and a political pygmy," he says. "Since it is Israel's largest trade partner and one of the largest providers of assistance, infrastructure and money to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza - it must use its influence to bring about the goal to which we all aspire - a peaceful solution of old and bloody conflict, to bring about a situation where the two nations will live in peace alongside one another. That has always been my perspective."

Clegg's attitude indicates that his recent stardom has not gone to his head.
"What goes up can come down too," he says. "The higher they lift you, the more painful the fall. Those are the laws of gravity."

But whatever the results, nobody in Britain today will question the fact that the election campaign that has already been described as "the most important since 1918" ¬ when women were given the vote - will be remembered as such mainly because of one man. His name is Nick Clegg.