Ed Miliband has invoked his own family history as he described Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people during the first day of his visit to the country, writes Justin Cohen in Jerusalem.

Ed Miliband meeting Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

Ed Miliband meeting Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

The Labour leader’s comments came during a wide ranging question and answer session with students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He used the opportunity to reiterate his “affection” for and gratitude to the country that gave his grandmother sanctuary after the Shoah, saying he was visiting not just as a politician hoping to become prime minister but also on a “personal journey”.

The party’s first Jewish leader told the gathering that “for me, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people” – words that would have gone down well down with Benjamin Netanyahu who continues to call in vain for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jews.  “That’s not just a theoretical idea for me,” he said. “It’s my family experience.”

The answer came after he was urged to clarify a statement made at a Jewish News event last year at which Miliband had appeared to describe himself as a Zionist – before his office speedily distanced him from the suggestion. Challenged three times on the matter, the 44-year-old pointedly stayed well clear of the word during today’s session. “There’s different ways of talking about this issue. My way of talking about it is about the Jewish homeland. That’s the way I think about Israel.”

Miliband – whose Labour party backed the Palestinians’ UN bid last year – said the focus at this stage of the process should be on kick-starting the stalled talks. Expressing hopes that the negotiations were not in a state of “collapse”, he said: “All of our efforts must be put into this dialogue carrying on. Whatever the events of the past week, the best way forward for Israel and the Palestinian people is that dialogue carrying on and getting to a fruitful outcome. I don’t see a way forward that isn’t about that dialogue and the two-state solution.”

Turning to Iran, he insisted the interim agreement between Tehran and the international community was a “step forward” by putting in place inspections. But he added: “Nobody should be under any illusions about the regime and we’re not. Nobody should simply take on trust what the regime is saying and we’re not. Everybody is absolutely clear about what Iran has said about Israel. But the best forward is to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

The Labour leader – who is accompanied in Israel by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and his wife Justine – had stressed in his opening remarks that he had “come to listen and learn and not to lecture” and the session featured few critical words. But, asked about settlements, he described their growth as “a serious issue for the peace process that needs to be addressed”. Asked if he would be visiting family members living beyond the Green Line during his visit, he added: “I have relatives all across Israel. I’m not in touch with them all.” He would however be spending time with relatives on a kibbutz in the centre of the country.

The man hoping to win the keys to Downing Street was also challenged by one questioner on how he feels, as a Jewish politician, when party members express views which are anti-Israel or even stray into anti-Semitism. “You don’t have the family history I’ve had or that so many people in this country have had without feeling that when prejudice and anti-Semitism comes to the fore it raises a whole set of deep anxieties about the anti-Semitism and where it might lead. That is deep in Israel’s psyche and its deep in part of who I am. If that ever occurs in my party we are very vigilant about. It is unacceptable.”

Other issues on the agenda during the session – at which Miliband charmed the audience by speaking of being a “long-suffering” Leeds fan and vowed to find out the details of where to buy falafel in Kilburn from one student who’d recent visited – included Crimea, tuition fees and Britain’s membership of the EU.  He also expressed pride in Britain’s diversity and in the contribution of Britain’s Muslim community to public life.

On Thursday, he also held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labour leader Isaac Herzog.