Defending the indefensible

Israeli liberals are increasingly gloomy so British 'progressives' are being mobilised to fight the

Israeli bulldozers demolish a hotel in East Jerusalem in January
Source: Getty Images

Away from the comatose 'peace process' and focus on Iran, a wave of anti-democratic and nationalistic legislation in Israel's Knesset shows no sign of slowing down.

For Israel's liberals, these are worrying times. The publisher and owner of Ha'aretz newspaper this week issued a warning about apartheid and democracy, while his colleagues have launched a special project on Israel's "eroding freedoms" called "Black Flag Over Israel's Democracy".

The rhetoric of anger and fear about these "threats to democracy" reflects a definite shift in Israel. It is crucial to note that Israel has never been 'democratic' for Palestinians, who are excluded from their homeland entirely, live under military rule in the West Bank and Gaza or are second-class citizens in the pre-1967 borders.

What is happening now is that the democratic rights enjoyed by Jewish Israelis are being threatened. Yet as Israeli politics and policies lurch ever further to the right, and the country's liberals feel increasingly gloomy and under attack, in the UK it is self-identified 'progressives' who are increasingly being mobilised to fight Israel's corner.

The Reut Institute is an influential Israeli think tank that has done considerable work focused on countering the growing Palestine solidarity movement (what it calls the 'delegitimization' of Israel). Their proposals have been influential; for example, Reut is front and centre of this weekend's Israel lobby conference in Manchester.

A key emphasis of their recommendations for Israel lobbyists is to focus "on engaging the hearts and minds of liberal progressive elites", a strategy elaborated on in a substantial London-specific report. In the context of the UK, Reut suggest that "liberal and progressive left" voices are the ones "most effective" in shielding Israel from human rights campaigners, and the think tank urges Israel's defenders to "substantively engage liberal and progressive circles".

It is no surprise then that Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) has 'reinvented' itself in order to "develop the 'progressive case' for Israel", while the chief executive of Israel lobby group BICOM - herself a former member of LFI - has committed the organisation to "driving the campaign for the Left to support [Israel] as a Jewish state".

These tactics were transparently on display at a recent 'Question Time'-style debate I participated in at the University of Birmingham, where the two guest speakers on the 'Israel side' - Alan Johnson of BICOM and David Hirsh - both took pains to repeatedly emphasise that they were coming from 'the Left'.

On campuses in general, this push is also reflected in the efforts by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) to rebrand their Israel lobbying in terms of 'liberation' and 'progressive' values, since - in their own words - "hasbara is not working". UJS's language echoes that of Reut, and the Campaign Director explicitly referenced the think tank when explaining the strategic shift. In summer 2010, Reut hosted a 20-strong delegation from UJS to discuss Israel lobbying on campus.

On the ground in Palestine/Israel, the daily apartheid continues. Just days ago, Israeli soldiers demolished a number of Palestinian homes and structures in the West Bank, a routine, brutal occurrence. Also this week, Minority Rights Group International published a report that describes how, on both sides of the Green Line, Bedouin have been "subject to a series of human rights violations, including forced displacement". Another snapshot: it was reported this week that on a visit to the UK, the head of the World Zionist Organisation - a body with an official relationship with the Israeli state - urged more Jewish immigration to counter 'Arab growth'.

Rather than resist or challenge this, Israel's so-called liberal friends in the UK are increasingly at the forefront of efforts to defend the indefensible, mobilised to help perpetuate a status quo that not only excludes and discriminates against Palestinians, but is now shrinking the space for dissent for Jewish Israelis too.

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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