Mehi Hasan on Jenny Tonge and Ehud Olmert - can you spot the difference?

Condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too.

Gotcha! Don't you love it when journalists corner a politician or pundit with an outrageous or offensive quote, which makes afore-mentioned politician/pundit look mad, bad or both?

I don't. I find it frustrating, juvenile and, above all else, lazy. It tends to happens a lot when the issue under discussion is controversial and/or sensitive: e.g. the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Jenny Tonge, Lib Dem peer and ex-MP, is under fire right now for saying, according to the Guardian, "Israel will not last for ever". Labour MP Ian Austin has said Nick Clegg must

make Baroness Tonge withdraw these remarks.

Martin Bright, political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, tweeted:

I can only assume Nick Clegg will finally remove the whip from Baroness Tonge. That would be consistent with what he has said in the past

Even Ed Miliband's weighed in with a tweet:

No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel. Nick Clegg must condemn Jenny Tonge's remark & demand apology

(n.b. One wonders what Marion Miliband makes of young Edward's remarks.)

Admittedly, Tonge has made some pretty dodgy remarks in the past about Israel and Israelis - which cost her a position on the Lib Dem frontbench - but this latest controversy seems rather manufactured. Her comment, in full, doesn't seem so controversial:

Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form.

Shock! Horror! Tonge doesn't think Israel "in its present form" - that is, as a Jewish and democratic state that also happens to illegally occupy Palestinian land while denying Palestinians both self-determination and voting rights - can survive. After all, the demographics make a one-state, non-Jewish, binational state almost inevitable.

Hmm, I wonder who else has taken a similar view? Oh yeah. That's it: Ehud Olmert, Israel's former prime minister, who once talked of how "the State of Israel is finished" if it continues on its current, rejectionist trajectory. Outrageous, eh?

Here's the then Israeli premier's full quote from Haaretz in November 2007:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

An article on the BBC news website was devoted to Olmert's words. Guess what it's headline was?

Olmert warns of 'end of Israel'

So condemn Tonge for her comments on the future of Israel if you want to. But you'll have to condemn Ehud Olmert too. Funny old world, isn't it?

And, on a related note, the truth is that a single, secular, binational, one-state solution is now a mainstream, much-discussed alternative to the Middle East status quo. Polls show it has the support of a third of Palestinians and, astonishingly, even a quarter of Israelis. It also has the backing of, among others, the late Edward Said, the late Tony Judt, Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, Virginia Tilley, Meron Benvenisti, Ahmad Khalidi, Ali Abunimah, Noam Chomsky, Jeff Halper and Sari Nusseibeh. Oh, and, perhaps a little reluctantly, me too.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.