A visitor to this year's Liberal Democrat Party conference might think that foreign policy has disappeared from the main agenda of this once internationalist party. With no references to the international agenda in their main conference speeches, delegates were forced to satisfy their desire to discuss foreign affairs by visiting a few relevant fringe events.
The LibDem Friends of Palestine (LDFP) event was a marked success with a keynote address by South African Professor of International Law John Dugard. The event was co-sponsored by the Middle East Monitor and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Dugard was introduced by Sir Graham Watson, MEP, leader of the European Liberal Democrats, who chaired the event, and spoke alongside the Chair of LDFP, John McHugo. The theme of the programme was to discuss the "sacred trust" of Britain and its historic responsibility to the Palestinians.
Watson told the audience that his faith in the Liberal Democrats was renewed when he saw the best campaigners in the party came out against the injustices in Palestine. Professor Dugard outlined Britain's historic responsibility to the Palestinian people and noted that the "sacred trust" that Britain held should have been honoured with regard to the independence of a Palestinian state and the human rights of the Palestinians. He went on to say that Britain should now support justice and human rights for Palestinian people as well as the creation of an independent state.
Sir Bob Russell, MP, thanked Dugard for his speech and addressed the issue of the one-state solution; he questioned the viability of the two-state solution and an independent Palestinian state on the territory left after Israeli settlements and settler-only roads, the "security wall" and closed military zones have been taken into account. Dugard noted that the Israeli government's actions suggested that they are not serious about any such negotiations. Russell's question contrasted with the tone later that evening at the LibDem Friends of Israel fringe meeting, where the panellists were resistant to the question of the one-state solution and ignored concerns about the viability of the two-state solution. The LDFI fringe was filled with the usual rhetoric but a welcome change was brought by the inclusion of Stephen Williams, MP, and Lorely Burt, MP. Both reflected on their trips to Israel with the group, whilst also highlighting the realities of Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank which they had observed on previous visits. Williams raised the sensitivity bar of the language used in the conflict, referring to the security barrier/fence as "the wall".
The continuation of conflict and instability in the Middle East is a concern for many politicians including Liberal Democrats. The LibDem Friends of Turkey addressed this issue by asking what role Turkey can play in bringing stability to the region post-Arab Spring. The answer seemed to echo the LDFP and LDFI fringes; the role of the EU has yet to be fully explored. MEP Andrew Duff was fairly critical of Turkey's role in the region, stating that it would have to first deal with the "deteriorating condition" within Turkey itself before they could play a strategic role in the region, let alone become a full member of the EU. Duff argued for associate membership of the EU, which is a current lobbying target of the Israeli administration as well. The Turkish ambassador, however argued, that given Turkey's stronghold they would accept nothing less than full membership of the EU as it would in turn strengthen Turkey's geopolitical role.
The EU's role in the Middle East was a recurrent feature of many of the discussions at the party conference. In response to concerns raised about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, Andrew Duff said that the EU would consider any Israeli strike to be a tragic mistake. Baroness Jenny Tonge implored the EU to put further pressure on Israel when she noted that in times of economic stringency EU-funded projects in the West Bank and Gaza were being destroyed by the Israeli administration which pays no reparations for the damage caused. There was a consensus that the EU should claim reparations for the projects that were damaged but Professor John Dugard noted that the EU had no courage to do so.
The fringes raised a pertinent point that whilst they have an appetite for foreign affairs, the LibDems have very little input to the Coalition's international policies. "Why have the Liberal Democrats forgotten Foreign Policy?" asks one fringe meeting; it seems that the party's focus on the domestic agenda overlooks global suffering. By not being able to contribute effectively to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's agenda, the plight of the Palestinians looks to be a forgotten battle. None the less, rumours abound that internal pressure is being put on Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to make a policy speech on Palestine. Many party members are hopeful that this will bear some fruit.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.