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Michael White in conversation with Sir Gerald Kaufman MP

On Sunday 26 September, the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) held a joint fringe event with the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME) at the Labour Party conference. The event featured Michael White (assistant editor of the Guardian) interviewing Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, who talked about his journey from being a supporter of Israel to becoming an outspoken champion for Palestine. The interview was filled with good humour and wit throughout the event, the two speakers obviously sharing a good working relationship.

Sir Gerald Kaufman on his past

Sir Gerald talked about his upbringing as a dedicated Zionist and his colourful journey that lead him to meet all of the prime ministers of the state of Israel bar Moshe Sharett and Ariel Sharon. 'Israel was founded when I was 16. My family and I were passionate supporters of the Zionist State of Israel.' He was 18 years old when the British Mandate went into disarray and the state of Israel created.  His parent's family had been killed by the Nazis and while growing up he always believed in the need for a state for the Jews in which they could govern themselves. He visited Israel for the first time in 1961 and since then has visited Israel at least once a year. At first he went as a tourist but as he became more involved in politics his visits took on a more diplomatic role. Kaufmann mentioned two pictures he had bought from Venice of the Venice ghettos. 'What troubles me on behalf of the Israel people is that they are now enclosed in their own ghetto via a wall'. The Wall not only locks out terrorists but it has locked in Israelis who are now 'prisoners within their own ghetto'.

His journey to championing the Palestinian cause

The event that complicated his relationship with Israel was during the Tripartite war launched by Britain, France and Israel against Egypt. His opposition to the war sparked many 'personal differences' with his family. The watershed moment was when he was asked to write about Israel, as a follow up to his successful book 'To build the Promise Land' in the 1980s.

Kaufman travelled around Israel with a Kibbutz friend and was suddenly faced with the reality of what the state of Israel really stood for. It was during a particular visit to the West Bank that he came across a Jewish settlement. The settlement was 'spick and span' with all the modern amenities and comforts but just travelling ten minutes away from the settlement he was faced with an Arab village, which had been created in a restricted area; on the one hand he saw the Jews living in affluence and on the other, 'the Palestinians living in abject poverty'. He had been asked to write about the development and progress of Israel since its creation under the title, 'Inside the Promise Land'. The work was discarded after he titled his first draft Decline and Fall of Liberal Israel.

White then steered the conversation towards the moment when the international mood was shifting about the reality of the state of Israel. "After the Six-Day War in 1967, the international community came to terms with the fact that Israel were no longer the 'under dogs' that they claimed to be. The Papal sympathy had changed after that and the Sabre and Shatilla massacre followed …"

Kauffman recalled: 'I was working in Downing Street for Harold Wilson. He would send me every day to the Israeli embassy to get a report from the Israeli ambassador Aharom Ramez and I would in turn report to the British intelligence. When the war was ending, Harold sent me to Israel to see what was going [on] and to meet the politicians.

Kaufman concluded the outcome of the Six-Day War was that 'Israel won overwhelmingly and didn't know what to do with their victory'. A close friend from the Kibbutz, Yigal Allon, proposed a plan for Israel to withdraw from the all Occupied Territories but this was not popular. 'They knew what to do in a very narrow strip of land. They didn't know what to do as conquerors'.

On Netanyahu and the peace talks

When asked about what he thought of Benyamin Netanyahu and his claims of facing an 'existential threat everyday…we do what we do defensively', Kaufman dismissed them as being 'a very short sighted view'. He suggested that if there is no near settlement and progress in these peace talks, 'demography will set in' and the Palestinians who are around 5.2 million and have a significantly higher birth rate than the Jewish population will within a measureable time outnumber the Israelis.

On the history of LFPME

The LFPME was created as a direct result of several MPs visiting the Occupied Territories 'without [any] preconceived idea[s]' and witnessing for themselves what the Palestinians had to go through. Kaufman lead the first ever delegation from the UK to the Palestinian territories. He stated he was 'saddened and angered' but what he witnessed. He was appalled by the hundreds of checkpoints where the Palestinians were inhumanely treated by the Israeli soldiers. He compared the IDF psyche to that of the British troops in Northern Ireland 'suddenly they became insensitive and brutal when put in an anomalous situation they don't understand'. He talked about a time when the son of his friend, who had served in the Israeli army, wanted to be shown what it was like at these checkpoints when he was not in uniform. Suffice to say he was 'horrified' by what he saw.
 In another delegation to Palestine, he witnessed a line of trenches dug alongside roads leading to Palestinian villages which had been filled with excrement and sewage making it extremely difficult for the Palestinians to travel.

On meeting the 'enemy'

'I was asked by the European Campaign to End Siege on Gaza to lead a parliamentary delegation to Gaza. There were 60 parliamentarians from across Europe who took part…and we were given the option to meet the Hamas leader'. An Israeli politician once told him 'you only make peace by talking to your enemy' and this was apparent in the manner in which the conflicts in Ireland, Kenya and Cyprus were approached. When Kaufman met with Ismail Haniyeh he told him directly that he found some of his actions completely offensive.

Describing his meeting with Haniyeh and the elected government he stated:

'I've been lead to believe that Hamas are going to be ruffians, illiterate…but if you were to meet the democratically elected Hamas leader…[they] were 'elegant, beautifully dressed, beautifully spoken' although he emphasised this did not make up for what Hamas had done in the past. He went on to emphasise that there would be 'utterly no way of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians if you exclude Hamas'.

On the outcome if Hamas is not included in any agreements

If the talks were successful, Kaufman suggests there may be a deal for the West Bank and Jenin and other cities under the control of the non-elected Palestinian Authority, but Gaza would not be included 'because Gaza elected Hamas to be in charge.' He went on to compare the recent UK elections stating 'I disliked the result of this country's [UK] elections' suggesting that even though he was not pleased with the Tory government in power, he accepted it as the will of the general public who had democratically elected them. He went on to state 'the view of Israel is that the greater pressure you put on Gaza, the more likely the people are to turn away from their elected leaders, but this is in fact the reverse of what is happening 'the more pressure they put on Gaza, the more they hang on to Hamas.'

How do you deal with the anti-Semitic rhetoric from pro-Zionists?

Before concluding the interview Kaufman recalled an event 7 years ago, when he made a speech in parliament during the Jewish new year. He has been a member of the St John's synagogue for 49 years and it was after this speech that two men accosted him in a rude and threatening manner. 'I didn't know I had to have a certain political view to worship God'. The veteran politician ended up saying he would never be deflected from fighting for what he believed, suggesting that perhaps the only reason the pro-Israeli camp had eased their attacks on him was because 'either they have forgiven me or they have given up'.

Look out for the full video of this interview

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