By Justin Cohen
Ed Miliband has acknowledged upset in parts of Anglo-Jewry over his criticism of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, but insisted he would be as strong a friend of Israel as David Cameron if he enters Downing Street in May.
The Labour leader’s comments came in an exclusive interview with Jewish News in which he also spoke of his “anger” at being the target of anti-Semitism on social media.
Miliband has been criticised for branding Israel’s ground operation to tackle Hamas terror as “wrong and unjustifiable” and for the subsequent decision to support a backbench motion to recognise Palestine “as a contribution to securing a negotiated two-state solution” – a move the prime minister said showed Labour’s “true colours”.
Miliband, in Hendon to take questions from an audience of 200 local voters on Monday, said there were those in the community who agreed with his stance last summer and those who didn’t.
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He told this newspaper: “I recognise there will be some people in the community who don’t agree with me, of course I do. I really want to say clearly, though, there are different voices within the community and when we disagree about actions of the government of Israel, that is in one category. “But then there are the things that unite us: intolerance of those who question the existence of the State of Israel, intolerance of boycotts and total intolerance of anti-Semitism. Those are the strands that unite us and I think those strands are very important.”
He said he doesn’t “buy” the idea that comments on Israel by Jews or politicians must always be compartmentalised as either pro or anti-Israel. But asked if he thinks he would be as good a friend to Israel as Cameron, Miliband – who expressed his sadness at the tensions felt on some campuses as a result of delegitimisation – said: “Yes. The way you support the state of Israel – and the way I’ll support the state – is being intolerant of those who question Israel’s right to exist, those who attack Israel in various ways. But I’m also a great supporter of meaningful negotiations, which are the best long-term source of security for the state.”
Miliband was repeatedly challenged on his approach to Israel by Jews attending the public session, which are taking place in marginal constituencies nationwide in the build-up to the election. One told him she was reticent of backing Labour’s candidate Andrew Dismore out of fear his leader’s “general” support of Israel was not there. Miliband insisted he defended Israel’s right to defend itself, but said he had taken the “right” position this summer and added: “I don’t believe that kind of action enhances the long-term security of Israel.”
And the man who hopes to enter Number 10 in 14 weeks said that his fears of the IDF incursion leading to more bloodshed and hate had been borne out. Some, including within his own party, had claimed Labour’s whipping of the House of Commons’ motion represented a change in its long-term position.
“I think it was always going to be controversial, but it’s very important that people know we supported the principles that were consistent with the previous positions we’ve taken,” he argued. Any decision on recognition if he should form the next Government, he added, would be taken in the context of future negotiations. A vacuum without a peace process, he warned, would lead to “disaster. As a friend of the state, the most important thing we need is meaningful negotiations – and the responsibility is absolutely on both sides – that is the best potential hopes of security for the state in future.”
He added: “I’m going to keep reaching out to people across the country and to members of the community in particular. It’s very important that people understand where I stand, because I’m not going to let false versions of my positions get out there.”
Turning to recent events in Paris and fears over anti-Semitism here, the Labour leader referred to a “palpable sense of anxiety” which required a “zero tolerance” approach. He expressed “disgust” at the torrent of anti-Semitism against shadow cabinet minister Luciana Berger on Twitter and spoke for the first time about being targeted himself on social media.
“It makes me feel angry wherever we find anti-Semitism and whoever it’s targeted against,” he said. “I think it’s really important to say the vast majority of people in our country will feel as angry, as outraged, about that kind of prejudice as we do in the Jewish community.
“When it happens to me, I think not only about myself but also about all the people who are less able to defend themselves and speak out. We’ve got to be totally intolerant of anti-Semitism wherever we find it.”
Reflecting on the fact that Dismore was the driving force behind the introduction of Holocaust Memorial Day, Miliband said this year’s event was all the more poignant in light of recent events.