Ed Miliband’s maiden speech as the leader of the Labour Party has drawn scorn from the right-wing media and the pro-Israel lobby. It also provoked the wrath of New Labour die-hards. Across the Middle East, however, the reaction has been noticeably different. Perhaps for the first time ever, a speech by the leader of the main opposition party in Britain has received a lot of media coverage and been broadly welcomed. What did he say to provoke the Israel lobby and prompt praise from Arab commentators? It all boils down to the fact that he called for strong action to implement international law in the Middle East, clearly too much to stomach for the lobby and its supporters on the right of the political spectrum.
The right-wing Daily Telegraph’s editorial, for example, accused Miliband of being “intellectually dishonest”, pointing out that he was a close advisor of Gordon Brown from 1994-2002 before entering parliament in 2005. As such, the Telegraph claims, he was an integral part of the New Labour project. It concluded with a warning: “Labour may yet rue the day they picked the younger Miliband to lead them.”
In another swipe at the new incumbent, Simon Heffer, also writing in the Telegraph, dismissed the speech and posed the rhetorical question, “Is Miliband E the creature of those aggressive, uncouth and ill-dressed men who control our trade unions?” He said that there are plenty of clues within the speech to prove his point; the header of his article set out his belief that “Ed will say anything to get to Downing St”.
The Jewish Chronicle’s political editor, Martin Bright, lamented, “So we have Britain’s first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, and yet Ed Miliband’s position on a key series of issues for the Jewish community remains something of a mystery. On Israel, the wider Middle East, radical Islam, the security of the Jewish community in Britain, his views are at best opaque, if not quite a closed book.”
Clearly the Israel lobby is outraged because Miliband, unlike many senior British politicians gave “an equivocal speech”, to use the words of the respected Financial Times. He was as clear and candid as possible on the issue of Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, on recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood, the siege of Gaza and the attack on the aid flotilla. It is worth looking again in full at what he said:
“There can be no solution to the conflicts of the Middle East without international action, providing support where it is needed, and pressure where it is right to do so.
And let me say this, as Israel ends the moratorium on settlement building, I will always defend the right of Israel to exist in peace and security. But Israel must accept and recognise in its actions the Palestinian right to statehood. That is why the attack on the Gaza Flotilla was so wrong.
And that is why the Gaza blockade must be lifted and we must strain every sinew to work to make that happen. The government must step up and work with our partners in Europe and around the world to help bring a just and lasting peace to the Middle East.”
These were by no means off-the-cuff remarks for the benefit of party activists or union bosses. In short, the new Labour leader was demonstrating that the time for mealy-mouthed platitudes designed not to upset Israel is over. Foreign Secretary William Hague, please note.
They were the considered views of an aspirant to the highest political office in Britain. Speaking at a fringe meeting hosted by the Labour Friends of Palestine and Friends of Al Aqsa the previous day, Miliband said the “cause” for a just settlement of the conflict in Palestine demanded that Labour follow its values and “that we speak with a clear voice as a United Kingdom about the Gaza blockade, about the attack on the Gaza Flotilla”.
Ed Miliband, it appears, has made a decisive break from the moribund tradition of equating the victim with the aggressor in every public statement about affairs in Israel-Palestine. He did not feel morally or politically obliged to condemn Palestinians when condemning Israel’s illegal actions. He simply said what he thought was unacceptable without the tiresome frills of spin at which the New Labour leadership had become expert. For the disenfranchised people of the Middle East and the Palestinians in particular the speech was nothing to become excited or euphoric about; it is still too early for that.
One participant in the conference asked why he did not say these things when he was in power. We may never know, although it says a lot about the last two prime ministers that their ministers felt unable to speak openly and honestly about contentious issues. Collective responsibility in the Cabinet has a lot to answer for. Even so, it’s better late than never, and Miliband’s distaste for taking the country into illegal wars is especially welcome as the New Labour dinosaurs remain unrepentant over the destruction of Iraq.
By repeating that a “new generation” had taken over the leadership of the party forty times in the same speech the message was clear. Seumas Milne of the Guardian observed, “For those who doubt that Miliband represents a significant shift beyond New Labour, today’s speech was their answer.”
Now that he has come clean, everyone in the anti-war movement who marched against the war in Iraq, and the campaigners for peace with justice in Palestine, will remember Ed Miliband’s pledge before the LFP and FOA meeting at the 2010 party conference: When speaking about the Gaza blockade and the attack on the Gaza flotilla,
“I pledge to you as the leader of the Labour Party I will do so with respect for Israel’s security but also an understanding that the rights of the Palestinian people must be upheld and are not being upheld at the moment.”