Nick Clegg, the coalition's Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, attended the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel fringe meeting on Monday 20 September alongside LDFI President Sir Alan Beith MP, the President of the New Israel Fund, Professor Naomi Chazam, and the new Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the UK Alon Roth-Snir. The event was hosted by the long-time chair of LDFI, Monroe Palmer OBE. There was speculation amongst some party members about whether Mr Clegg would indeed arrive at the meeting, given his visit to the UN this week for a meeting on the Millennium Development Goals. He did, however, arrive on time to deliver a short yet highly suggestive speech to a tightly packed audience hanging on his every word with great anticipation. His speech indicated to many previous supporters a shift in his views on the Middle East, evidence, perhaps, of his evolving persona as he deals with the new politics of the coalition government.
He began by thanking the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel for all the work it had done to promote the organisation within the party; in doing so he acknowledged that the party and LDFI did not always see eye to eye. He described himself and "many, many" Lib Dem members as "real admirers of the democratic traditions and liberal ethos of life within Israel' and went on to say that this was a period of "immense delicacy" as talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority take place. He was "acutely aware" that all "we" can do is to create the conditions helpful to negotiations. The only time Mr Clegg referred directly to Palestine was when he noted how much depended on the talks: "So much hinges on the talks, not only the security and safety of the Israeli people which has been under constant threat… but the prosperity and safety and stability and future of the Palestinian communities." The instability acts as a rallying cause for extremism around the world, he added. It is significant that the LibDem leader did not attend the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine fringe meeting despite being invited to do so. It is also significant that he didn't mention the clear and present aggression against Palestinians by Israel's ongoing illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory.
As Mr Clegg was leaving a member of the audience questioned his lack of attendance at the Friends of Palestine fringe meeting; he did not respond and was instead whisked away to another meeting without an opportunity for questions and answers. It's widely agreed that there is a tradition for British Prime Ministers to be keen members of the Israel lobby; both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are keen supporters of Labour Friends of Israel, while David Cameron backs the Conservative version of the Israel support group; is this pro-Zionist stance something that Nick Clegg is now copying?
In his keynote speech to the conference, Nick Clegg made reference to the coalition government's new foreign policy; he insisted that it would not follow Labour's which was forged, he said, in "George Bush's White House". How will this be translated into policy by the coalition? Will the Tory-LibDem government give fair consideration to Palestinian needs and rights, and act as a neutral and responsible player? Or will it bow to Israeli demands, turning a blind eye to Israel's human rights and civil liberties abuses as previous British governments have done? The LibDems have always been the party that set civil liberties at the core of their manifesto; any departure from that suggests that civil liberties may be the price being paid for LibDems' places at the Cabinet table.
Compared to last year, Clegg's reception in the Conference Hall was relatively lukewarm. During his speech, he made many references to a "new politics" during the coalition's term in office; it will be interesting to see whether these new politics reflect any of the values which LibDems held so dearly previously. According to their leader, we have another four years and seven months until the next general election in which to find out.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.