Lord David Steel spent four years of his childhood in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising in the fifties and sixties, when thousands were killed rebelling against British colonial rule; now he is one of the longest serving leaders of the Liberal Party. This early experience became an important part of his life and has affected his approach to morality and his political career. “Looking back on it as a student I was horrified by the assumptions of superiority of one race over others”, he explains.
Since his childhood in Africa, Steel has travelled across the world, and focused much of his interest on democracy, human rights and the monitoring of elections in developing countries. He became interested in the Middle East in 1980 when he visited the region as leader of the Liberal Party, meeting with King Hussein, President Sadat, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. On meeting with Arafat, then Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, he encouraged him to recognise Israel. “Why should I play my last card?” the leader replied.
Steel has spoken, and written, about the twists and turns of the Israel Palestine conflict many times. In March last year, at the Magna Carta Institute lecture at Brunel, he concentrated on the European Union’s responsibility to become more involved with the Middle East process. As it stands now, Europe’s trade treaty with Israel grants it special access to the single largest market there is. In 2009, total trade between Israel and the EU hit 20 billion Euros.
Not only does the treaty stipulate conditionalities about valuing human rights (of which the Israeli government does not have a good track record), but trade privileges, or the removal of them, promise huge leverage in the implementation of international law. “I think it is time to cancel the European Union’s trade association with Israel if their government persists in violating international law,” says Steel. The decision to upgrade the agreement by the EU “relieves instead of increases pressure on the Israeli government to behave,” he adds.
Officially, the European Union backs the two-state solution, despite there being very little evidence of this on the ground. Settlements have been allowed to mushroom in the occupied territories and there are now half a million settlers in the West Bank. “In fairness, the European Parliament has been better than the council of ministers, but it is irritating that the Commission is not likewise removed,” says Steel.
As for the role individual politicians and governments can play in the conflict, or the solution, he explains that the USA allow the Israeli government, time and time again, to defy international law – the separation wall, the siege on Gaza, the peace flotilla and many more – by condemning them but not taking concrete action. So what can we do? “Keep mentioning it, and try to persuade the USA not to be so complacent, and inexcusably generous in their dealings with the Netanyahu government.”
Steel’s main field of interest has been Africa and he has long campaigned against racial injustice there. In 1970 he opposed the South African rugby tour, which almost cost him his seat that same year. From 1966 to 1969, he was President of the British Anti-Apartheid movement, the international opposition that confronted South Africa’s apartheid system. Today he has drawn attention to a number of likenesses between South Africa and Israel and Palestine.
Comparing the two is “instructive” he wrote in an article last year for Middle East Monitor. Separate road systems and forced eviction from homes are similar to the Group Areas Act which was enforced in South Africa; criticism of Israeli government policy from politicians in the West, which is rarely transformed into real action, is reminiscent of the early days of apartheid. “There are growing similarities between the passing of laws and that Netanyahu is screening out Palestinian citizens from Israel. Operation Cast Lead, as I saw in Gaza, was worse that the Sharpeville massacre,” he explains, on the atrocity in March 1960 when South African police opened fire on 15,000 protestors.
Within political circles, Steel has not encountered many obstacles when speaking out about the conflict, and points out that he is careful to draw a distinction between Israel as a state and the policies of the government. “I always draw a distinction between the State of Israel (which the Arab Peace Initiative proposes to recognize fully) and the disastrous policies of the Israeli government.”
And his greatest political achievement? “Winning my by-election in the Borders in March 1965 and entering the Commons as a baby of the House at the age of 26. Without that, nothing else would have been possible.”