Even as the civilian death toll in Gaza has continued to rise (with a third UN school hit today), David Cameron has refused to criticise Israel, limiting himself to demands for an immediate ceasefire. But back in 2006, during the country’s Lebanon offensive, the PM took a notably different stance. Speaking as leader of the opposition, he condemned Israel’s actions as “disproportionate” and criticised Tony Blair for refusing to do so.
“Elements of the Israeli response were disproportionate and I think it was right to say that, and I think the Prime Minister should have said that,” he told BBC Radio Five Live. “I don’t think it should be seen as an unfair criticism of Israel. It is just a statement of the fact. Britain is a friend of Israel, yes, and a friend of the US, but in both cases, we should be candid friends and we shouldn’t be scared of saying to our friends when we think they are making mistakes or doing the wrong thing.”
But today, in response to a far greater loss of life in Gaza, the PM has adopted Blair’s quiescent stance as his own. By contrast, Ed Miliband has consistently condemned Israel’s behaviour as “unacceptable and unjustifiable” and yesterday declared that Cameron’s “silence” over “the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action” would be “inexplicable to people across Britain and internationally.”
Downing Street responded by accusing Miliband of seeking to “play politics”, but by that logic Cameron was doing much the same in 2006. If the PM believed that Israel was behaving disproportionately then, he should explain why he doesn’t now.
Now ensconced in No.10, he may be unwilling to abandon the convention of British support for Israel. But Cameron is also likely to remember the Conservative response to his criticism of the country in 2006. Several major Tory donors threatened to withold money from the party (it’s worth reading Fraser Nelson’s column from the time on the subject), with one, Stanley Kalms, declaring: “Criticising Israel for being disproportionate without serious consideration of the alternatives merely mouths the buzzwords of the ignorant armchair critic.”
With the general election just nine months away, and Labour outraising the Tories last year, Cameron can’t afford to alienate his backers again.