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Richard Howitt MEP (Center)

Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman in the European Parliament has reiterated his calls for the international community to talk to Hamas during a visit to one of the UK’s fastest growing synagogues.

Richard Howitt met rabbis and representatives of the CST in his constituency to hear about their security concerns and express solidarity following the Paris attacks. Community leaders also took the opportunity to quiz him on his views on the Middle East.

Speaking to the Jewish News at Elstree and Borehamwod shul, the MEP stressed he was “absolutely against terrorism and extremism” but added: “I think we should talk to Hamas to talk tough. Not talking to people doesn’t help resolve the conflict. I’ve said this to Tony Blair – and he replied ‘Don’t you think we don’t talk to Hamas all the time’ – and none thinks he is soft on terrorism. I think we should talk to them to counter extremism and promote the path to peace.”

Recalling how the former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlem went into prison to speak to talk to terrorists, he added: “Wasn’t there danger then would give legitimacy – of course there was. But the prize of peace to convince those people to turn away from violence, that generation of Labour leaders believed it was the right thing – and they succeeded. That is my motivation in saying this about Hamas today.”

As foreign affairs spokesman for the Socialists and Democrats Group, he was a leading figure in promoting the vote on recognition of Palestinian statehood in the European Parliament. It passed overwhelmingly last month but consternation among Israel’s supporters was lessened because of a last-ditch amendment linking recognition to negotiations.

“I did it in good faith and I stand by it,” he said. “But if anyone wants to use it as an excuse to make extremist statements or actions that lead to anti-Semitism I’m at the front of the queue to condemn it.” Pressed on the fact that a settlement appears as distant as ever despite his belief that such moves bring peace closer, he added: “I deal with conflicts around the world. I’m used to frustrations and lack of progress in international conflict situations. But the duty of all of us who work at that level is to seek peace and reconciliation.”

On boycotts, he agreed with Labour leadership’s opposition to boycotts of Israeli goods but believe settlement produce should be labelled.

Howitt heard during talks that included Rabbi Kanterovitz and local council candidate Jeremy Newmark how the shul had received more enquiries about security in the previous two weeks than in the past two years, and how two schools had cancelled visits to other UK synagogues amid security fears.

“The idea that schools here feel too fearful to visit synagogues is shameful, not on the schools but on Britain and Europe,” he said.

He added: “It is completely proper for people to have political views about the policies of the Israeli government but that is no excuse whatsoever for my constituents in Hertfordshire living in anything but full peace and security.”

The politician – who also visited Loughton Synagogue – is backing a new initiative for Holocaust education in Europe’s schools as part of this week’s commemoration in the European Parliament.