Thursday 14 May 2009

David Miliband, Avigdor Lieberman and 'damnfool questions'

Why is David Miliband meeting Avigdor Lieberman?

That is a question posed by Chris Barnyard at Liberal Conspiracy and Ben Soffa at LabourList, who take exception to the Foreign Secretary meeting the new Foreign Minister of Israel, who has taken office as a result of February's general election.

Dan Hardie was first to comment at LC:

A: Because it will be impossible to secure a peace between Israel and the Palestinians without talking to their political leaders, disgusting though many of them (on both sides) are.

That was Number One in the series Easy Answers to Damnfool Questions.

That pretty much nails it.

Jonathan Freedland has set out very well why the election slogan 'No loyalty, no citizenship" of Lieberman's party is poisonous and argues it is a betrayal of Israel's founding values.

Of course, for civic society groups to use the occasion to push the case for a fair peace for Israelis and Palestinians is an excellent idea, and/or using it to protest some of Liberman's own views is perfectly legitimate. Obviously, calling on the British Foreign Secretary to refuse to meet the Foreign Minister of Israel's democratically elected government will do nothing to promote a fair peace.

I was surprised to read (via Liberal Conspiracy) that the counter-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation has issued a press release arguing that the British government should, for "consistency" have banned the Israeli Foreign Minister from the UK.

But the Quilliam statement makes very little sense.

Qulliam has said it is for promoting a just peace settlement for Palestine and Israel. Its candid FAQs include the following.

Why have you abandoned Palestine? We have not. Repeatedly, in private and public meetings at the highest level (nationally and internationally) we have highlighted the Arab-Israeli conflict and the need to help both sides come to an agreement. Hamas has a duty to halt politicking with the lives of ordinary Palestinians, and Israel must limit their military. Criticising the targeting of non-combatants, on either side, does not equate to siding with one party or the other. Muslims should and do care about other conflicts and issues in the world, including Burma, Darfur, climate change, poverty, and gender inequality.

So how on earth could they come to be advocating barring the Israeli Foreign Minister from the UK as part of that?

QF said yesterday:

The FCO’s decision to host Avigdor Lieberman in London illustrates that the government’s policy of excluding extremists from the UK is inconsistent. Lieberman clearly holds views that are no less extreme than those of many other racists and bigots who have been banned from the UK. The government’s apparent double-standards on such key issues can bolster extremist and Islamist narratives that seek to portray Western governments as biased and unjust.

This is very odd indeed. The complaint is that the Israeli Foreign Minister of a democratically elected government is not on the same list as preachers of hate and radio shock jocks.

It is an enormous category mistake and a misunderstanding of the nature of international politics.The Iranian government is among the most worrying in the world. Should we be breaking off our diplomatic links - or should we be engaging to defuse a nuclear crisis as part of the EU effort to make a US-Iranian diplomatic engagement possible? The Syrian government's human rights record is awful. Can we deliver a secure Middle East peace without engaging them? Of course not.

Engagement is not endorsement. If you can find me anybody credible who takes the position “Pro-peace in the Middle East. No engagement with Netanyahu or Lieberman on any terms. No engagement with Hamas on any terms” I will be very surprised.

So what is going on here?

I suggest three things might be read into this.

Firstly, I suspect that the Quilliam Foundation are placing a strong emphasis on "consistency" in a "never engage with extremists" line so that they do not face criticism of "double standards" particularly from within British Muslim communities. This is one of a number of statements of that kind. The irony is that QF are probably being more vocal on this issue than those they would regard as the "usual suspects". Indeed, I hope that the argument is driven more by QF's positioning with its own constituences rather than a serious attempt to influence British foreign policy. If it is the latter, it suggests a real lack of strategic insight on foreign policy.

Secondly, this leads QF to an absurd argument: the British Foreign Secretary should bar the Foreign Minister of Israel from the country as part of his efforts to persuade Israel of the case for a just peace settlement. In the end, what this does is demonstrate that a blanket line where context never matters often places rhetorical positioning over substantive delivery of a desirable end.

Refusing to meet Lieberman could only possibly make sense if the goal is 'what is the public position of the UK government' as an end in itself. Everybody can see that It obviously fails if the aim is 'do everything Britain can to try to secure a just peace for a viable and secure Palestine alongside a secure Israel'.

Thirdly, it starts to reveal the scale of an emerging rift between those who have been seen as allies in these debates - Quilliam Foundation and Policy Exchange.

Yet this too is ironic. I am rather keen to see QF stake out their own position with some distance from the neo-con agenda of Dean Godson of Policy Exchange, because they need to do so if they are to engage seriously with the real liberal-left rather than a caricature of it. But this is the wrong issue and occasion to do do. (While Ed Husain was uncharacteristically if perhaps wisely quiet in public during the debate sparked by Nick Cohen's attack on the Fabians, having been quoted in the initial article, we did have a good degree of very productive offline engagement about this, and I look forward to that continuing).

Now, the call to boycott the Israeli Foreign Minister is certainly one that would place a lot of space between QF and, say, Shiraz Maher of Policy Exchange who wrote an absurd Telegraph article arguing that British Muslims must either back the IDF military action in Gaza or be pro-Hamas and there were no middle positions:

At its core, this is the straightforward decision that British Muslims will have to make: between Hamas, a terrorist group committed to destroying a sovereign state and its people – and Israel, the region's only democracy which is responding to that threat.
It really is that simple.

As so often, it really isn't,

One assumes this 'loyalty test' does not just apply to Muslims. Most of the House of Commons fails it. Ironically too, Maher offers precisely the type of loyalty test being offered by Lieberman in Israel, with enormously divisive results.

Unfortunately, both of these diametrically opposed positions ('boycott the elected government to deliver peace' and 'back every Israeli military action as a loyalty test of British citizenship' are hopeless and absurd).

Much as I would like to see QF distance themselves from elements of the headbanger right, I fear that on this occasion this particular liberal-left voice will be on the side of those (the headbanger right included) who think QF have got it badly wrong.

Even if they help to illuminate some important dilemmas of engagement in doing so.

(On the diplomatic challenges of the Middle East peace process itself, look out for a new Fabian publication coming soon later this month).


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Sunder - You write that Quilliam press release argues that "the British government should, for "consistency" have banned the Israeli Foreign Minister from the UK".

I've read the Quilliam press-release and nowhere does it say this - instead it merely points out the inconsistencies in current government policy. It also does not say any of things that you subsequently read into it such as advocating "breaking off our diplomatic" links with a democratically elected government.

As a result of mis-reading the Quilliam press release, your article begins on a entirely false premise and in consequence it quickly becomes entirely nonsensical.

I would have expected better from the head of the Fabian Society.


Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks. I do think that is the natural reading of the release. In fact, I had not spotted that the call to bar is left implicit and thank you for pointing it out. To check, I have sent this message to QF, and we will publish any reply.

Avigdor Lieberman: "I naturally read your press release to mean that he should not have been hosted by the government. That's an accurate description of your position, isn't it? Please advise if not".

But we already know that QF themselves take a very strong position against the government engaging with or hosting extremists. They then call this case as inconsistent and a double standard. If you are right (perhaps there is a deliberate decision to not state clearly how they would resolve an inconsistency) one can also surely take into account their general 'don't engage extremists' raison d'etre which has been their central public argument across the year. (That is why I read them as building 'consistency credibility' for future calls for non-engagement which may well be aimed at extremist Muslim voices. I simply think they are wrong not to make relevant distinctions).

So I stand by the post, but appreciate the points you make so we shall see if QF wish to confirm, correct or indeed clarify what it is they are calling for.

If that isn't their position, I think the release would be stranger still, and a rather pointless intervention which would mislead many people, and not just myself.

JJ said...


You strike me as one of those guys who never really managed to make a success of himself as a journalist and has instead resorted to jealosy- driven attacks against those who he wishes he was.

What other reason could you possibly have to attack people who used to be involved in the most facsist and theocratic movement of our time and, realising the folly of their way, have resolved to spend their lives actually doing something to fight it. THEY are making a differece, YOU have a silly little blog that no-one cares about.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks JJ for the critical feedback.

Well, its a silly little blog, and a 125 year old think-tank of which we are quite proud too.

I am supportive of ex-extremists challenging extremism, but we all need to then debate how a democratic society does that. Ed Husain is a member of the Fabians and the Labour party. I've exchanged messages about this with him today, he's also since sent me a different piece this afternoon welcoming comments. I attended the one year debate of Quilliam Foundation. Ed has agreed to take part in a public exchange about these very issues at some future point.

It is in the nature of political debate that we have constructive and critical engagement about issues - which involves agreeing and disagreeing. We challenge the government, while hope MPs, party members and others will debate our ideas and no doubt often argue that we have got it wrong. This is what civil society and democratic debate and interrogation is about.