Comment: Why can’t we question the existence of Israel?
Jenny Tonge has had the whip withdrawn for saying "Israel is not going to be there forever". But why shouldn't we question it?
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
There are several effective ways of closing down an argument. One of the most immoral is to give it the name of another argument which is not accepted. This is the trick that has been played with some regularity by Israel's defenders.
The newest victim of this technique is Liberal Democrat peer Lady Tonge, who suggested Israel might not last forever in its current form. She is not the ideal case study for my purposes, having once made some deeply questionable comments on whether she would become a suicide bomber. But the current reaction is not about that. It is about what she said much more recently, during a debate at Middlesex University. Like a criminal court, we stick to the evidence at hand.
This is the quote, in full: "Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70 billion a year to Israel to support what I call America's aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown."
This was the reaction. Ed Miliband said there is "no place in politics for those who question the existence of the state of Israel". Ian Austin, former Labour minister, said: "There is a cross-party consensus that a two-state solution is the only way to bring peace to the Middle East. At the very least, Nick Clegg must make Lady Tonge withdraw these remarks." The Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel group called for Lady Tonge to resign the party whip, which took place late on Wednesday afternoon.
It is hard to imagine another political issue where the imbalance between the original comments and the reaction is more pronounced. There is something a little too over-enthusiastic about Baroness Tonge's comments. But there is nothing there which is outside the realm of acceptable political discourse. I personally don't like the phrase 'beware Israel'. But this is not about what we agree with. This is about what is allowed to be said in a free political system.
Let us bear in mind one important fact: There is no Palestinian state. For the time being, anyone contenting themselves with the status quo does not believe in the right of Palestine to exist. It took George Bush until 2002 to decide he supported a Palestinian state. I can't remember anyone calling for his impeachment up until this point or pretending his view was outside the terms of debate. In fact, his acceptance of it was considered a moment of progressive vision. It is OK to question the existence of a Palestinian state – one does so merely by inaction – but not Israel.
Austin presumably maintained a straight face when he demanded Clegg make the peer withdraw a remark that was against the party line. Barely anyone in the Lib Dems is even aware party lines exist anymore. When Tories cross the party line on the EU, no-one demands they retract the statement. Why should this issue carry such peculiar political weight? Similar criticism can be laid at the door of the opportunists in the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, who reacted with depressing predictability.
But it is Miliband's quote which is the most telling. He wants to deny Baroness Tonge any role in politics for questioning "the existence of Israel". In fact she said "Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form." This is a statement which almost all people, including Israelis, would accept given the negotiations which would have to take place for a two-state solution to be accomplished.
Miliband's comments show how Israel's defenders try to associate any questioning of Israel's future with images of genocide and barbarism. Questioning Israel's form and constitution is a part of thinking about solutions to the Middle East problem. It does not turn us into Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Adolf Hitler.
There are a great many people – in academia, diplomacy and the thinking public – who increasingly believe in a one-state solution. Recent polls suggest a third of Palestinians and a quarter of Israelis support the idea of a single, secular state covering modern-day Israel and the occupied territories. There is nothing strange or radical about that. In fact, it is one of the most welcome developments to emerge from Middle East politics for some time.
No good shall ever come of a state based on religion or race. That applies to Israel, whose foreign policy is defined by paranoia and violence and whose treatment of Arabs within its own borders is increasingly despicable. It also applies to states like Pakistan, which was birthed in blood and continues to function as a magnet for madness and chaos.
Such ideas, as moderate and respected as they would be if applied to any political context but Israel, are deemed off-limits. In a quite distinct way, we are currently debating whether our own country, Britain, will continue to exist. We regularly debate whether Belgium will. This is not a flippant comparison. This is evidence of an emotionally unbalanced approach to world affairs, typified by censorship rather than thought.
As Miliband says, there's "no place in politics" for those who question the existence of Israel. As long as the debate is couched in such shrill, violent terms, there will be no lasting solutions either.
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