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How Conservatives can neutralise the Palestine question


8 September 2014

The language we use significantly influences the way that the message we intend to convey is received. That applies in all walks of life, but is particularly important in politics.

I touched on this briefly in my talk at the Conservative Muslim Forum fringe meeting at the Welsh Conservative Conference in April 2014. When an issue is as controversial as the Israel / Palestine dispute, thinking about how to approach it becomes critical. A few years ago at a pro-Israel conference, I suggested an approach that Israel supporters should take when discussing the issue with Muslims. See "Advocating Israel to Muslims."

Many politicians fail to understand how important foreign policy issues are to Britons from an immigrant background, and in particular how much British Muslims care about the Israel / Palestine dispute. Accordingly I recently wrote a piece on the Conservative Home website to explain this. It is reproduced below.

Mohammed Amin: Palestine must be handled carefully at home, as well as abroad

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

I believe that politicians should lead public debate, rather than spend their time following what focus groups tell them. From small issues such as metrication to large ones such as capital punishment, we have a great tradition of such leadership. However, in a democracy there is a limit as to how far politicians can get out of step with the electorate. Furthermore, leading the debate is much easier where there is broad cross-party consensus, as on both of the issues mentioned. It becomes much harder when political parties differ, since electoral calculations then become much more significant.

Different voters obviously have different priorities. One point which many Britons of Anglo-Saxon origin fail to understand is the extent to which voters of foreign descent prioritise foreign policy issues over domestic issues. Most Britons care little about Kashmir or Armenia; the overwhelming majority of those who are of Kashmiri or Armenian descent care about them passionately.

Accordingly, Britain’s policy towards Israel and Palestine has to take into account the fact that Britain’s Jewish and Britain’s Muslim communities both care intensely about the issue, mostly from opposing perspectives. While foreign policy has to be made in the interests of the whole country, it is unrealistic for any government to ignore the domestic political consequences of its foreign policy.

This was less of an issue when the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties had essentially the same policy (support negotiations led by the USA aiming at a two state solution), although even then many voters, particularly Muslim voters, incorrectly perceived the three parties as having different policies.

In recent days we have seen real divides appearing between the policies of the three main parties, which magnifies the risk of serious electoral consequences for our party unless we get better at explaining our Israel and Palestine policy.

In the limited space of one article I want to very briefly:

  1. Explain why Muslim voters matter
  2. Outline how most Muslims see the Israel / Palestine issue
  3. Cover one presentational issue and one policy issue

Why Muslim voters matter

Muslims are just under 5 per cent of the population and, due to their age profile, a slightly smaller percentage of the electorate. They are highly concentrated in inner city constituencies, but slowly spreading into leafier suburbs. Page 98 of “Minority Verdict”, Lord Ashcroft’s book on the 2010 General Election, points out that polling badly with ethnic minorities (many of whom are Muslim) stopped us winning some of our target seats. In 2015 Muslim voters will matter even more than in 2010.

How Muslims see Israel and Palestine

Few Britons apart from those who visit or have relatives there are experts on the history or present situation of Israel and Palestine. When I spoke at “The Big Tent for Israel” advocacy event, I gave the example of an Asian-origin, Muslim, graduate, city professional who did not even know that Israel’s Arab citizens are allowed to vote. Nevertheless, most British Muslims reflexively identify with Muslim Palestinians, just as most British Jews reflexively identify with Israeli Jews. Accordingly most British Muslims look at Palestine and see Jews as having taken most Palestinian land in 1948 and since 1967 having been busy taking the rest, interspersed with occasional bouts of fighting when far more Palestinians die than Israeli Jews.

That perception is of course overly simplistic, but it is what most British Muslims think. In passing, in 2013 I was involved in proposing that a more accurate history of Palestine be included in the National Curriculum for History, but without success.

In my “Big Tent for Israel” speech, I outlined how supporters of Israel should put forward their case to Muslim audiences, and I think many of those points would be useful for Conservative candidates more generally.

A presentational issue

With 24 hour news and social media, it is less realistic than ever to believe that you can say different things to different audiences. (Mitt Romney never lived down his 47% speech given to a safely Republican audience.)

I rarely praise Ed Miliband’s political nous. However, as the Jewish Chronicle reported, after he appeared to call himself a Zionist when answering questions [in March 2013] before the Board of Deputies of British Jews, he rapidly back-pedalled and denied using the word. He was right to do so.

When writing my piece “When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism?” I focused on the elasticity of the word “anti-Zionism”, and therefore of the word Zionism. Indeed it is as elastic as the word “Islamist. Inevitably, those who are no friends of Israel will understand the word in its most negative and anti-Arab sense. To stand before a Jewish audience and call oneself a Zionist may win immediate applause, but it causes unnecessary damage with Muslim voters. Ed Miliband stated his support for Israel the right way (with the benefit of his correction).

The same Jewish Chronicle story joyfully reports David Cameron in 2007 saying, “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then yes, I am a Zionist.” Unfortunately when that message is heard by most Muslim voters, they only hear one word in the message, the “Z” word. Mr Cameron could have expressed his support for Israel, living in peace alongside a Palestinian state, just as forcefully and effectively, without needing to call himself a Zionist.

A policy issue

The previous Labour Government and our present Government have both been unambiguous about the illegality of Israel’s settlement in the West Bank and the nullity of its purported annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. It is good for the Government to remind businesses of the risks of doing business with or in the settlements.

However I am not sure how one explains to British citizens generally, and to British Muslims in particular, that our country simultaneously regards an activity as illegal but also as something that has zero consequences. For example, why is it not made a breach of UK law for UK citizens to purchase real estate in illegal West Bank settlements?


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