by Justin Cohen in Jerusalem
Tours of Sderot are not unusual for visiting foreign politicians but it seemed particularly fitting that the southern Israeli town should be a stop-off during Ed Miliband’s trip.
It is only three and a half years since, in his very first speech as leader, he angered supporters of Israel by calling for every sinew to be strained to end the Gaza blockade without once mentioning rocket attacks.
Now he stood in the town most affected, looking out to Gaza just 800 metres away.
“I’m not going to rewrite my speeches from years ago,” the Labour leader told me when asked if he believes he had made an error in that 2010 address.
But it’s clear that such a strikingly imbalanced speech would be unlikely today. Indeed, there was much during his 48 hours in Israel to be welcomed in Jerusalem.
Like David Cameron, Miliband used this visit to reiterate opposition to boycotts, to hail Israel’s hi-tech achievements and, perhaps most significantly, to speak of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. And, like the prime minister, last week’s visit has enhanced his credentials as a friend of the country despite both leaders’ condemnation of settlement construction.
That he chose Israel as his first foreign trip at the helm outside Afghanistan speaks volumes. However, those keen to find clear blue (and white) water over the coming 13 months will no doubt point to Miliband’s refusal to utter the word Zionist despite appearing to express views that would define him as just that – and will continue to raise despite his welcome comments that he has no issue with others using that label.
Just like he has talked about this family history as a reference point for his general political outlook and ambitions, so too this is how he feels most comfortable expressing his relationship to Israel. Only the test of Government will reveal how he might position himself when it comes to actions beyond words on the Middle East.
But this trip wasn’t focused on policy. Miliband spoke of travelling to Israel on a “personal journey” as well as in the capacity of a politician hoping to become prime minister. That he has a genuine and growing personal warmth for the country stemming from his grandmother finding refuge there is clear; when I interviewed him back in 2010 he spoke of his “particular” relationship with the country. Now he talks of his “affection”. Perhaps still stronger language – and maybe even the word Zionist – may follow in future.
On hearing that I was going to be covering the visit as I passed through securityat Heathrow last week, one of the El Al staff asked me if the Labour leader is actually Jewish. The truth is he’s never shied away from talking about his family history in major speeches top the community and to his party but to undertake a trip that focused so heavily on his own Jewishness and family story represents a public ratcheting up of his Jewish factor. Certainly, noone in Israel or Britain who followed the visit in the media would still be asking that question posed at the airport. This will will go down as the moment he took closer personal possession on his own heritage.
Whatever your political allegiance, that a senior British politician hoping to reach the highest of offices feels ready to flaunt his Jewishness should be welcomed by all. Perhaps, all the more so because he is an atheist who until becoming leader had only limited engagement with the community.
So could we soon have a Jewish premier? Thirteen months is a long time in politics and an improving economy could yet swing it for Cameron. But as Miliband woke up on his final morning of his Middle East trip, opinion polls suggested that, were an election held today, it would be a very brave person indeed who wrote off his chances of reaching number 10.
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