An Audience With Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP

On Thursday 7th February 2013, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP participated in a Jewish community Q&A, chaired by Jonathan Freedland. A transcript of the conversation is below.

Jonathan Freedland

… You're preparing for government, to be the next Foreign Secretary in the next government.

People in this room when they think foreign affairs think about the Middle East and they think a lot about Israel-Palestine but the amount of time and energy you have for covering the whole world which is what your brief requires, how much do you imagine of your time and energies will be spent on this part of the world which matters so much to the people in this room?

Douglas Alexander

Well firstly can I say thank you.  Echoing the sentiments that we've heard it is genuinely great to be here.  And let me say not least as a defence to Jeremy's warning I genuinely hope that we can have a conversation this evening and I come keen to listen and to learn, certainly not to lecture – and I think that humility is necessary when trying to anticipate how prominent the Middle East is going to be in foreign affairs.

We've just had Hillary Clinton leave office as Secretary of State.  I think her legacy will be a sense that the United States was pivoting away from the Middle East towards Asia and the Pacific.

My sense is with John Kerry's arrival that actually given his long history of engagement in the Middle East it will none the less feature quite prominently.  We're already anticipating now a presidential visit to Israel - I'd expect that John Kerry will visit Israel and the region before that presidential visit – so I think that is a hopeful sign that the United States will engage fully in the region.

The European Union has a strong and continuing concern and interest.  So I think notwithstanding everything we've read in the newspapers about Europe, notwithstanding the emerging threat that we've seen in North Africa in recent weeks - whether it is the security challenge of Iran, whether it is the need to try and make progress in relation to a two-state solution – it is inevitably going to feature very prominently.

Jonathan Freedland

In a way behind my question is the thought that how much time should it take up?  How important is this?  You know there is a temptation obviously for people in this room, they feel very involved, but there are other people who sometimes say this is the crux of the Middle East, this is the centre of the world's troubles if you like; if we solved this conflict then a whole lot of other problems will be resolved.  How central do you actually think it is?

Douglas Alexander

I think it's very central because I think it has a significance far beyond the region not just because of the family ties and connections that many people have with Israel and other parts of the region but also in the global village the capacity for communication often exceeds the capacity for understanding.

The imagery that is generated in the Middle East has a huge impact far beyond the Middle East and in that sense I have a strong conviction that even if the economic geography of the world is shifting towards Asia, even if the economic ties are increasingly going to be to the south and to the east, the politics of the world is still going to have a very strong focus on the Middle East.

Jonathan Freedland

It's often sort of bipartisan consensus in the big foreign policy questions between the Government and the Opposition on [ something ?]  but you unusually, Labour Opposition has taken a different path than the Government on a particularly important question for Israel-Palestinian relations and that was this Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations - the so-called sort of upgrade in status – and over a year ago when this first came up in 2011 Labour surprised a lot of people and perhaps disappointed some people in the Jewish community by taking the view that the British Government position and Labour's position was to support that statehood bid even though Israel at the time and the United States at the time and the British Jewish community at the time were all saying that was a bad idea and a bad idea particularly for Israel.  How would you explain that decision and do you think it was the right one even now.

Douglas Alexander

Firstly I wouldn't see that decision as being related to a desire for or against bipartisanship.  I'll be absolutely honest with you in terms of how I approach opposition.  If the Government is doing something I think is right I think we should be big enough and open enough to say they're getting it right and in that sense I have no aspiration for difference for the sake of difference.  And that certainly is true in the Middle East but actually it's true across the policy front.

In terms of the position I wouldn't entirely accept that it was a unique position adopted by the Labour Party.  Look at Ehud Olmert and his position in terms of enhanced observer status.  It was a difficult decision and I assure you even if it was one that disappointed some it wasn't a decision that we took casually, lightly or inadvertently.  We thought a lot about it, we talked to a lot of people and we sought to reach what we considered to be the best judgment as to how to advance a peace process that was and sadly remains fundamentally stalled.

The judgment we made was how do we in the recommendation and encouragement we give to the British Government make clear our commitment to a negotiated two-state solution in circumstances where there is no meaningful peace process; how do we encourage those elements within the Palestinian community to embrace a path of peaceful negotiation and reject a path of violence – and actually diplomacy and talking seem to us a clearer way forward in part because of the very fragile position of the Palestinian Authority at the time.

Jonathan Freedland

And why is it you think you've got that but the Israeli Government didn't get that?

Douglas Alexander

I think one of the points that is worth just putting on the table at the start of this conversation is whether for reasons of geography the extent to which this is an incredibly difficult region in the Middle East made more challenging, more threatening and more dangerous by the turmoil that we are witnessing at the moment – historical alignment with Egypt, historical alignment with Turkey now being in peril for Israel and facing a range of non-state actors as well as state threats to its integrity – that geography but also the history, the historic experience of the second half of the 20th Century, means I don't sit here today suggesting I know better than the government of Israel or indeed the Israeli population what's best for them.

My home is 2,000 miles away from Israel and I am always mindful of that in terms of the judgments that I make.  On the other hand I don't think that absolves us of our responsibility either as an opposition or I hope in time as the government of offering our best judgment as to where and how best we can advance a peace process and people will reach a judgment on both our motivations and indeed the impact and consequences of the choices that we make.

Jonathan Freedland

I want to ask you a question about the Leader of the Labour Party in this context: I wondered if during that debate about Palestinian statehood the community perhaps didn't give the benefit of the doubt to Labour that they might otherwise have done partly because of some kind of anxiety around the Leader and what I have mind is this; Tony Blair was an unambiguously pro-Israel leader of the Labour Party, followed by Gordon Brown who used to always make the joke – you've heard it probably 1000 times, I heard it 900 times which was that I knew the Kings of Israel before I knew the Kings of England – he was steeped in Israel, from Biblical Israel from a connection through his father – and suddenly along comes the first Jewish Leader of the Labour Party and irony of ironies he doesn't seem to have that kind of affection for Israel that the two previous leaders had and in his very first speech as Labour leader [in] 2010 he doesn't mention anywhere in the world apart from Gaza – it was the only foreign issue he raised - and that's partly what was behind my question about how important is it really, is it the most important thing in the world.

What can you say to people here about that kind of anxiety.  Is it entirely misplaced?  Do you understand it?  What's your view of it?

Douglas Alexander

What would I say?  I suppose the first point is you need to have a sense as to where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown stood at the point of where the Middle East was at that time.  I'm friends of both of them – I spoke to Tony this morning.  I don't presume or suggest there is a fundamental difference in Tony's orientation towards Israel than is the case today.  I wouldn't accept that characterisation for Labour today.

That being said here's the dilemma I face as an incoming Shadow Foreign Secretary keen to both learn, listen and engage:  How can I communicate a sense of unbreakable, unshakeable commitment, not simply to Israel's existence but to active support for Israel in the halls of the international community and indeed celebrate so much of what Israel has achieved while respectfully at times disagreeing with the judgments of the government of Israel?

And I live with that dilemma everyday and in that sense I recognise that inevitably people would look at the decision in terms of recognition of Palestinian statehood, look at the language that we use.  I have to earn people's confidence that I am a sincere friend not just of Israel but I hope in time of the peace process that we need to see re-established - I can't presume that that is given to me on the basis of how Tony conducted Labour's foreign policy or how Gordon conducted foreign policy – but on the other hand I'm absolutely clear that they had the best interests of Israel at heart and wanted to seek from a position of leadership in the British Government to advance what they thought were the right proscriptions in the time.  I think that's broadly the approach that Ed will take and certainly that I seek to take.

Let me say a word on language: One of the ways that people sitting in this chair try and convince you of this case is to say listen I'm a critical friend of Israel.  You won't ever hear me using that language.  Partly I think it is banal given the reality of the threat that Israel faces, given the seriousness of the political challenges in the region at the moment but also my sense is if somebody told me they were a critical friend I'd tend to think they were more keen on the criticism than on the friendship and in that sense it just seems to me banal to use that language.

Friendship for me is rooted certainly in loyalty but also in candour and in that sense a willingness to honestly reflect the concerns that I sense many people have about some of the recent positions the Israeli Government have adopted shouldn't be interpreted as in any way resiling from the clear candid confident assertion of support for Israel that was in many ways the hallmark of how Tony and Gordon conducted foreign policy.

Jonathan Freedland

I'm going to open up.  Before I do I can't help but notice the way you've answered that is very persuasive about yourself and how you will be on Israel and indeed about Labour but you haven't taken up the point I made about the disquiet some people feel about the Leader and whatever is going on with him about Israel and people know that he has family connections and maybe that's even part of the story.

What can you tell us about what's going on in his mind and what his attachment or not is to this place that matters to people here.

Douglas Alexander

I think my hesitation is reflective of the fact that I wouldn't presume on the basis of Ed's Jewish heritage that that entitles this community or as friend and colleague of the Shadow Foreign Secretary to presume his attitudes towards Israel.  For exactly the same reason that when a Labour colleague of mine Paul Flynn said that Matthew Gould was somehow not an authentic representative of Britain's interest because he happened to be Jewish I was the first person to say that is completely unacceptable.  The faith of Matthew Gould is irrelevant to his capacity to represent the interests of the United Kingdom and incidentally my experience of working with Mathew when I was in the Foreign Office was that he represented the very best of British diplomacy.

So in that sense I'm not going to suggest to you because of Ed's Jewish heritage that allows me to speak on his behalf as to either his relationship to this community – he's more than qualified to do that himself – or to suggest that could or should directly influence the policy.

I think rather than me speaking about the person I can give you my best judgment on the policy.  I would say Ed and I are in lock-step on these issues and I would not have taken the positions that I've taken or indeed he speak on these issues without a conversation and in that sense there's nothing that I'm trying to hide or suggest that I'm in a different place from him; it's just my father's a Minister in the Church, my grandfather's a Minister in the Church – Gordon's not the only one with Presbyterian heritage – and in that sense I take faith seriously and in that sense I don't presume to speak about other people's faith or their heritage in a way that suggests that it's a small thing; it's a significant thing.

Jonathan Freedland

Sure.  Put the faith thing to one side though, could you reassure people that his attitudes to Israel are of a similar hue to the kind you described, the candid friend but a friend?

Douglas Alexander

Yes.

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Q&A

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Jonathan Freedland

Let's open it up.  Lots of questions I'm sure.  I'm going to take these in groups of three.

Q

As a life long supporter of Labour and I hope as you're going to be please G-d the next Foreign Secretary, so I say this in a sympathetic way, how are you going to resolve when you are Foreign Secretary the fact that you are Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, you are not Foreign Secretary of Israel and therefore will you be able to balance any support or internal support that you may feel for the State of Israel with Britain's own interests which may conflict with support for Israel?

Q

Sometime ago in the midst of time Tony Blair when Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister gave unequivocal support for Israel when it was facing a barrage of rockets from the Lebanon from Hizbullah and he made clear that the word disproportionate force should not be used by his Foreign Secretary or by anybody else when Israel took action.

May I throw you a googly: What would have happened in the most recent Gaza dispute where the rockets carried on and Israel might have gone in with its ground forces to stop those rockets as it is entitled under Article 52 of the United Nations Charter?  Would Labour have taken the view that this was disproportionate force or not and if it took that view could you then define what is proportionate and what is disproportionate?  Thank you.

Q

Diplomacy and sanctions seem to be the principle means of attempting to deter states from acquiring nuclear status – not worked in the case of North Korea.  Are you more optimistic with Iran?

Jonathan Freedland

Okay – why don't we go for that one first while it's fresh in our minds about diplomacy and Iran and we'll have another round if anyone's of the same point of view:

Douglas Alexander

The whole point of taking three questions at once is that you can avoid the difficult questions but I get the impression with this audience that's not going to work.

Seriously – let me deal with the Iran question first.  That's a good example of where a genuinely bipartisan approach has been taken and reflects I think the sense that we need to pursue a twin track.  On one hand the intensification of sanctions that we have seen and on the other hand meaningful engagement.

Now I spoke to Cathy Ashton on Tuesday in terms of the prospect for the coming talks which are now scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan in the coming weeks.  As I was coming here I got a message indicating that the Supreme Leader in Iran has rejected the prospects of bilateral talks with the United States which I'm genuinely disappointed about because I was hopeful, given the overtures we've heard in recent days from Joe Biden amongst others that there was a meaningful prospect of genuine bilateral dialogue between the United States and Iran.  I still hope that that will turn out to be the case.

So the P5+1 process should be allowed to continue.  It is the case that I want to see the United States and Iran engaging in bilateral negotiations as well because I think there is a strong argument that if the toxicity of that relationship could in some way be diminished it would enhance the prospects for finding a better resolution to the nuclear issue.

But we have been clear that we have taken no options off the table in the position that the Labour Party has adopted.  Why? - and I've had this discussion with colleagues in Parliament – because actually if you are serious about encouraging Iran towards a peaceful resolution of this course they need to recognise that this is both time limited but also the best course for themselves and in that sense there is a genuine and I hope enduring bipartisan approach that's been taken both by the British Government.  I think the Government has got this approach right to date.

Jonathan Freedland

When you say no options are off the table, what would it take for the ultimate option – force – to be right to stop an Iranian nuclear bomb?

Douglas Alexander

Well my sense is the red lines for example of Israel and the United States are different; that it seemed to be a position prior to the election.  Let's see what happens when a new government is formed.  Prime Minister Netanyahu had set the threshold at if you like the zone of unity, the capacity to develop weaponised nuclear materials.  That was different from the position adopted in the United States which was weaponised nuclear materials, of a weapon existing as distinct from the capacity to develop that.  That is one example of where there appears still to be disagreement.

If you look at the latest Intelligence assessment undertaken by the United States they remain of the view that Iran has not yet made a definitive decision to develop weapons capable of use notwithstanding all of the IAEA evidence in terms of what's happening.

So all of that simply encourages me to say we need to put all of our efforts into simultaneously strengthening the sanctions which incidentally do seem to be having an effect.

Jonathan Freedland

But if you were Foreign Secretary where would your red line be?

Douglas Alexander

That will depend on where we find ourselves.  I need both to be in a position where we are clear that there is an intent for weaponisation – and that remains unclear but there is a lot of work still underway – and we would also need to be clear that the diplomatic path had genuinely run its course.

Jonathan Freedland

But it would be more like the American position which is if there is an actual weapon rather than merely clearing the threshold of capability:

Douglas Alexander

I think one of the wise courses for a prospective Foreign Secretary is not to preclude all options.  Hopefully – I sincerely I hope it's resolved earlier.

Jonathan Freedland

Very good.  And then the other one was about, which was an interesting hypothetical scenario about proportion, which is in 2006 it was a big issue – some people believe it was actually the event which eventually triggered Tony Blair's departure from office; that row about proportionate and use of force in the Lebanon, the second Lebanon War - had ground troops gone in in the November Pillar of Defence operation would you have been there saying this is disproportionate?

Douglas Alexander

Firstly I don't actually believe that was the basis on which Tony Blair [ ... ? ]  office in 2007 so let's deal with that canard.  Secondly don't look in the crystal ball when you can read the book.

If you look at every single quote from that operation you will find that I never said that Israel's actions was disproportionate and secondly you will never find that I condemned Israel.  And I'm not going to pretend to you, there were a number of people in the House of Commons who would have been very happy indeed if Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary had either been categoric and clear in its condemnation of Israel or indeed suggested that Israel's actions were disproportionate.

So in that sense, listen, again I'm weary of hypothetical situations - military action that didn't take place – but I would just simply ask you to recognise that even in relation to the action that was taken I was conscious, notwithstanding the very real concerns that we had about the need to see an immediate cessation to violence, that that wasn't language that I was going to use.

Jonathan Freedland

And the [very first] question was the life-long supporter of Labour who said what about if there's a conflict between your support for Israel and what's in Britain's best interests as Foreign Secretary:

Douglas Alexander

Well I am very clear that it is in Britain's national interest to have a vibrant successful dynamic democracy in the Middle East in the shape of Israel.  I am deeply mindful, not least given the history of Israel's establishment and the extraordinary progress that Israel has made in the decades since, that there are longstanding and powerful ties which explain the strength of every British Government's previous support for Israel.

So in that sense it is not simply that we see Israel through the lens of the immediate challenge of resolving a two-state solution.  In and of itself the bilateral ties between the United Kingdom and Israel are very strong.  And those are strengthening incidentally in relation to, it seems to me a fascinating dynamic at the moment, where the election seem to suggest there are continuing issues around the sharing of the burden – whether that is in relation to the ultra-orthodox community, whether that is in relation to the setters – but at the same time there is the most extraordinary successful economy.  That is a country with more entrepreneurs per head of population than any other country on earth right now.  That is a country that is at the very top of the league in terms of share of government spending that goes on education.  There is a lot that we can learn and share unrelated to what continues also to be in Britain's national interest which is to see a resolution to the conflict in the Middle East.

So it seems to me that there are both bilateral reasons and broader reasons in terms of securing a safer more stable Middle East and in turn a safer and more stable world why it will continue to be of concern not just hopefully to a Labour Foreign Secretary but to any Foreign Secretary to see that advance.

Now that doesn't suggest that there will not be circumstances in which potentially I will find myself in disagreement with an Israeli Government but that shouldn't be confused with equivocation about the nature of Britain's relationship with Israel or indeed Israel's place in the international community.

Q

I'm delighted to hear us talking about Israel the whole time but I think we might change the subject a little.

Your colleague John Mann went out to Hungary recently and was taking on anti-semitism out there from the Jobbik Party but also when you look at the more mainstream Fidesz Party which controls the government there it has a definitely dubious record in terms of the Jewish community as well.  Across Eastern Europe and within the EU we're seeing a major rise of anti-semitism and xenophobia.  If you became Foreign Secretary what are you going to do about that?

Q

I'm also a member of the Labour Party and the European Jewish Parliament and I want to ask you something in relation to a comment by the Shadow Minister Ian Lucas in the House of Commons last month.  He basically called on the Government to use the Europe-Israel trade relations as leverage to influence Israel and I would like to know if it is Labour's position that our economic ties and links with Israel should be contingent on progress towards peace and if so what does it mean for your policy on boycotts?

Q

I wanted to ask a question about accountability of self-described human-rights organisations.  I'm aware that there is no actual accountability from human-rights organisations that make sure that what they write is actually true.  For example the newspapers have OFCOM to regulate them but there's nothing at all for human-rights organisations.  Instead what tends to happen is that in the actual AGM the Palestinian lobby turn up with their guys and vote on their people on to the offices and you end up in a situation where somebody like Donatella Rivera who has absolutely no legal qualifications whatsoever is the senior …

So the question is would you be in favour in principle of setting up an OFCOM-style body to regulate human-rights organisations?

Jonathan Freedland

Interesting - by the way new OFCOM doesn't regulate the newspapers.  That's what the whole Leveson thing was about but some people want that to happen but it's not there yet. Why don't we start with that one.  Partly from your experience at DFID, you were Secretary of State for International Development, you worked with lots of the NGOs. Do you worry about the truthfulness of their reports and do you think there should be some regulator to make sure that what they're saying is accurate?

Douglas Alexander

No, I don't support a regulator of human-rights organisations but I am mindful of how a discourse around rights can be used and here I reflect what I've read not least by the Chief Rabbi who said in order to justify anti-semitism it has always had to appeal to higher authority and in the 19th Century that was science, spurious science around eugenics; in an earlier era it was an appeal to religion or appeal to G-d; since 1945 in order to justify itself it's had to appeal to a rights culture and actually using the pretext of rights as a means to express hostility towards Israel and in that sense I don't think the answer is to regulate human-rights organisations.

I am unyielding in my support for an international system of law and human-rights.  I am acutely aware that in terms of Israel's capacity for scrutiny and for self-correction it has a system of law that is able to identify where …. [ ... ? ] take action but I think the right way to deal with the concerns that people have is to confront propaganda with facts and that's not to suggest that in every circumstance those facts are going to be comfortable but on the other hand that seems to me a better way than trying to regulate out of existence organisations who offer views that people disagree with.

Jonathan Freedland

That leads very naturally to the second question we had about this – I wasn't aware of this proposal by the Shadow Minister Ian Lucas – that the European EU-Israel trading relationship is one that could be leveraged in order to influence Israel.

I mean the questioner led into the question of boycott but some people have talked about labelling of goods, potential sanctions put on Israel if it doesn't advance a two-state process.  What's your view of that?

Q

It was a question, not Labour policy, and in terms of what Labour's policy is we want to see a strengthening of economic ties with Israel not a weakening of those ties.

Even as the Shadow team we had Chuka Umanna, our Business Secretary - Trevor was involved in putting together the team that went out - Liam Byrne, our Welfare Secretary out in Israel just in the autumn looking in part as to what we can learn frankly.  If we had Israeli levels of growth in the United Kingdom at the moment we would be doing rather better than we're doing just now.

Why do we want that?  Partly because of course there are economic benefits in two advanced economies like Israel and the United Kingdom working effectively together but also because it seems to me entirely wrong, not least given historic experience and real and justified anxiety about delegitimisation, to suggest that those of us who want to see a two-state solution emerge advocate that boycotts is the way forward.  It's just not.  And in that sense it seems to me that the answer has to be greater dialogue and greater engagement rather than disengagement and boycotts.

Jonathan Freedland

And the first one which was taking us away from the Middle East about anti-semitism in Hungary and across Eastern Europe and what you would do about that if you were in the position in the Foreign Office:

Douglas Alexander

I suppose my starting point on that would be a truth about foreign policy which is your influence abroad is directly related to your credibility at home and unless we are unyielding and relenting and challenging anti-semitism in the UK our capacity to influence what happens elsewhere in Europe is much more limited.

Now we have I think got a paradox here.  I think that there has been extraordinary work done in recent years both in terms of education and in confronting anti-semitism and on the other hand if you look at the incidents that are categorised as anti-semitic and that are reflective of hate crimes they are genuinely frightening and worrying levels.  And in that sense I simply believe we need to do more here in the UK as well as seeking to influence events internationally.

How can we try and influence partners internationally?  Well when we were in government in 2009 for the first time we convened a conference of international parliamentarians specifically to look at the issue of anti-semitism.  I think the model that we have in the UK whereby we have an All-Party group and committee in parliament that sees constantly its job as addressing this issue but then relates to across-departmental committee in government that if you like is able to respond on behalf of the government to the appeal from parliament is a pretty important model and one that we should be trying to encourage others to adopt.

Now after we started with the conference of international parliamentarians in the UK, Canada took up the mantle and had a conference itself.  That seems to me the example of where we can build onwards.

A final point I'd made thought is this: One of the great strengths of that group in parliament – and I say this with deep respect for the Jewish community – it's never been chaired by a Jew.  Now why is that?  Because the struggle against anti-semi-semitism is a struggle that is obviously intimately associated with your historic experience but it is a struggle that we all need to fight.

Anti-semitism starts with the Jews – it never ends with the Jews.  The kind of society I want my son and daughter to grow up in has no place for the intolerance, the dislike of the unlike that finds its most virulent hateful expression in anti-semitism but never stops there.  And in that sense we have a shared responsibility to confront this both internationally and also here at home.

Q

Countries in the world tend to have internationally recognised capital cities.  In your view what is Israel's capital city?

Jonathan Freedland

It's always the simple questions that are hardest.

Q

You'll remember well I'm sure your first visit to Israel and I was luckily enough to take you on that first visit to Israel.  Back then you were such a nice chap when it came to the Middle East and Israel.  You were very understanding – as you said Jonathan, Tony Blair was and Gordon Brown was and still is – and when we got closest to peace in the Middle East was when Clinton was President and he was another President that shared this same world view that the best way to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians is to be super understanding of Israel's security concerns and then try and push the process forward from a position of friendship.

The problem right now is notwithstanding what you've said today, your comments in the House these days are – and I'm a Labour Party member, ex-councillor etc etc – are very aggressive towards Israel and I don't think that's the best way forward.  I don't see that adding any weight to our voice in terms of …

Jonathan Freedland

For example.  Have you got an example in mind?

Q

Well I can't quote Hansard but anyone that listens and watches and reads Hansard will know that your comments towards Israel make Labour Party supporters, members, supporters of Israel, supporters of a two-state solution - very uncomfortable because they've come extremely harsh and I just think it's just not the best way forward; it won't get us anywhere – as a friend.

Douglas Alexander

Can you give me one example?

Q

How can it be that two peoples in absolute good faith, certainly on the Jewish side in good faith but I'm sure on the Palestinian side in good faith too, have got claims to the same piece of land?  How can that be?

Q

What is your view about the Saudi Prince convicted of murder in this country but about to be repatriated to Saudi Arabia and presumably to freedom?

Q

Looking at the front cover of the Jewish News in relation to the David Ward incident I was just wondering what you think political parties should be doing to ensure that anti-Zionist rhetoric doesn't seep into anti-semitism:

Jonathan Freedland

… Why don't we begin with the gentlemen, David Mencer formerly of Labour Friends of Israel, took you to Israel a few years a go and says your comments in the House these days are "aggressive and extremely harsh" and he thinks that's not the right way to go if you want to actually win over Israel and make it change:

Douglas Alexander

I respectfully disagree – so we can continue the conversation.

But let's cut to the nub of the issue.  I'm going to name-drop terribly – you're going to have to forgive me.  I've actually talked to Bill Clinton about this issue and one of the points he made - he was out of office at the time – was he said in terms of how to influence Israel he said my judgment was Israel needed to believe that if Arab tanks rolled across the Jordan River you would be there in the trenches with them and once you've established that credibility then actually you have permission to make that case.

Now I'm unyielding in my admiration of Bill Clinton both as a politician and also as an influencer and so I take seriously the point that he made but if we're honest with each other there's probably no British politician who has better embodied that approach than Tony Blair, in his work as the Quartet's representative, and Tony has done extraordinary diligent work.

Notwithstanding that diligent and important work what has a strategy of public support and private influence yielded in terms of meaningful progress in recent years?  I am not afforded the luxury of a government led by Yitzhak Rabin or a government led even by Ehud Olmert in the comments and judgments that I need to reach about the state and the prospects of the peace process today and I promise you I often wish I was.

But in that sense please don't judge me by a different time and a different standard when in reality we're dealing with a different government.  Now I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu made a speech in 2009 which has been widely interpreted as support and meaningful support for a two-state solution but there are many many people who have grown sceptical, not just in the House of Commons but in Israel itself – including the former head of Shin Beit most recently – about whether there was and remains a serious commitment to that two-state solution and in that sense I try and I assure you I do weigh my words carefully.

Please do not interpret my deep anxiety that the prospects for a two-state solution are dwindling with in any way equivocation about my admiration for other aspects of Israeli society, admiration for the Israeli economy or an unyielding commitment to Israel's right to exist and legitimacy within the international community but the stakes are incredibly high because if we see circumstances where those Palestinians who have advocated a two-state solution are made to look fools in the eyes of their own population by the repeated disdain for the prospects of meaningful negotiation that has at times been shown then I think that's deeply worrying for those of us who continue as we did 10 or 15 years ago to believe the only resolution lies in a secure Israel living alongside a viable Palestinian State.

Jonathan Freedland

A lot of people agreeing with the sentiment there.  Just to sharpen the point: Is it your view, have you come to the view – and it sounds like with a heavy heart but have you come to the view - that Prime Minister Netanyahu is in fact not serious about a two-state solution?

Douglas Alexander

Listen, I'm by instinct an optimist and my honest feeling is – you've written about it – we're at a moment of great peril and great possibility.

We don't know what the character of this new government is going to be and in some ways I think what happens during February is going to be absolutely key because in some ways that's when the policy is going to be set even if we don't see the emergence of a government until March and in that sense how will the character of this coalition be different?  Does Netanyahu actually aspire to a grand bargain?  There are some people very close to him who have suggested in fact he does and in that sense I want to believe that and I certainly have not written him off but on the other hand I would sincerely hope that a combination of second term Obama presidency, John Kerry's longstanding engagement and interest in the Middle East, a different complexion to the ruling coalition within Israel, affords that opportunity to Netanyahu.  Whether he'll take it I don't know but I hope he does.

Jonathan Freedland

What's the capital of Israel?

Douglas Alexander

Yes – I think the audience has answered that question for itself.

Listen, I'm of course mindful of the clear position that Israel has taken in terms of Israel.  I'm equally mindful of the fact that if you are sitting me in front of an audience of people whose principle concern was what would be the capital of an independent Palestine they would say East Jerusalem and in that sense, listen, I'm not going to play a gotcha game.  I am respectful in a sincere way of the determination of Israel seeing and having its capital as Jerusalem.  I am equally clear that the terms on which an accommodation is reached with East Jerusalem and refugees … remains ...which needs to be resolved as part of a two-state solution being achieved.

Jonathan Freedland

You're hopeful for this new government but Yair Lapid, the big rising star of the election has said adamantly Jerusalem cannot be divided, must stay forever united and he's meant to be the moderating centre-left guy who will make this new government have a different complexion:

Douglas Alexander

One of the things I find fascinating about him – I've never met him, I've only read what I've read in the newspapers - is how he if you like shakes up preconceptions.

This is a man who's widely seen as being more centrist than who everybody presumed was powering through.  He launched his campaign in Ariel.  His deputy is a settler, a Rabbi, who according to the words that Lapid uses himself is determined to see the emergence of a two-state solution and in that sense my hope would be that there will be a fresh impetus within this government and I have heard nothing yet that convinces me that Lapid cannot be part of that.

Jonathan Freedland

And he's a weekend newspaper columnist so he must be a good thing:

Douglas Alexander

Destiny beckons Jon.

Jonathan Freedland

… I was going to ask you about the two peoples: The questioner expressed sort of disbelief how can two peoples in good faith both be claiming the same land.  Do you share the questioner's exasperation and disbelief?

Douglas Alexander

On one of my visits to Israel somebody said there's too much history and not enough geography.  That's the shorthand answer to your question.

I was reading something recently that said – by an Israeli author – the Middle East at the moment is a tragedy but there are two ways that a tragedy can end.  A tragedy can end in a Shakespearian fashion where the stage is covered in bodies or in the fashion of Antony Chekhov where nobody is happy but everybody is alive - and in that sense I'm a Chekhovian incidentally – but in that sense I can't deny the truth that you speak which is that this is a conflict between peoples who both believe right is on their side and incidentally believe history is on their side.

My hope is that there are still, in some ways as the election results indicated, many many many people I hope and believe a majority within Israel and indeed within the Palestinian community who recognise that notwithstanding their claims on land and their sense of history and heritage and belonging that the future requires an accommodation to those competing claims for the same pieces of land.

Jonathan Freedland

Your judgment on the Saudi Prince convicted of a serious crime but apparently going to be repatriated back home maybe to not face serious punishment.

And then the David Ward question and what can Parliament and parliamentarians and politics do to ensure that anti-Zionism doesn't cross that line into anti-semitism, and David Ward of course the Member of Parliament Lib-Dem who chose Holocaust Memorial Day to relieve himself of his views on current Israeli conduct?

Douglas Alexander

I can't give you a definitive answer on the Saudi Prince because I work by the old maxim that you should know the facts before you answer a question and I genuinely don't feel briefed enough to answer the question.  It may involve diplomatic immunity in that – I just don't know so I'm not going to pretend.

On the David Ward question, I mean where to begin?  The views are repugnant.  They, I don't think to be fair, represent the views of a lot of Liberal Democrats never mind other right thinking decent people.

I am genuinely disappointed by the response of the Liberal Democrat leadership in the sense that Alistair Carmichael's words saying he's apologised if he does it again.  I mean I just think if you read the story on the front page of the paper that's not in any way an adequate response.

That being said I'm not going to pretend it's a challenge unique to one Party.  You know I spoke out against Ken Livingstone after comments that I found just wrong and offensive in relation to the Jewish community and Jewish voters at the time of the mayoralty elections.   When I got a telephone call at dinner saying Paul Flynn's made these comments about Matthew Gould I was immediate and unequivocal in saying that that's just wrong.  And in that sense I think we need the courage of moral certainty on these issues just to say: No, I'm sorry actually, that's not justifiable and shouldn't form part of discourse.

My fear is that that boundary between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and some of the worst and most familiar tropes of anti-semitism becomes blurred and that requires all of us to try and police that boundary on a day and daily basis.

Q

… I'm somewhat concerned by your answer to the question that was raised because it sort of seemed to imply that the peace process is stalled because Netanyahu or Israel is not capable of taking it forward for whatever reason.  And let me say that I think if they are to blame I think the Palestinians share equal blame and they show equal incapacity to actually move the talks forward and I note the position that you have and let me say other people have not just yourselves – that settlements are wrong, they are an obstacle, they should not happen - and I think that's fine, you can say that and many people might support that.

I have not yet come across an statement which is unequivocal about what the Palestinians have to either stop doing or should do to advance the process and I think the reason why that process is not being prosecuted by the Palestinians is because they haven't prepared their people for two states for two peoples and I'd like to ask this question:  Are you prepared to say that the Palestinian leadership must publicly acknowledge that Israel is a nation state of the Jewish people, a Jewish State in going forward because if you're prepared to do that I think you'll create balance in the level of criticism that you have of Israel and I think you'll create an environment where perhaps the Prime Minister of Israel might be prepared to move forward on the peace agenda?

Q

We've touched on and I think we've all be very comfortable with the support for Israel from the Labour leadership, particularly from the current Leader of the Labour Party as well as from the two previous Prime Ministers.

What I think is discomforting people in this country at the moment with Labour in opposition is that [it] does feel that there's been a sea-change among Labour MPs and I think you touched on it a bit when we talked about the proportionality argument and how that might have played out with you in parliament.

And I think there's a sense in the community that certainly I'm feeling is that if there were to be a Labour Government it certainly wouldn't be as sympathetic to Israel in any guise notwithstanding the Israeli Government than certainly the Jewish community has enjoyed in previous years and I think that's really the worry and I'd really like to know your sense of that and whether you feel that [is the same position ?].

Q

… Firstly has there been an increase or decrease in the amount of Labour Friends of Israel in the last five years?

And secondly, if you are - presumably you will be in just over two years time - Foreign Secretary would you consider bringing in Tony Blair who has done such a marvellous job in brokering the peace treaty in Northern Ireland which had been fuelling a fight for over 300 hundred years and managed to sit them round a table to trust each other which appears to be the same problem.  Would you consider bringing Tony Blair in as a sort of ambassador?

Q

This is a question about Hezbollah.  I was wondering if you were to become the next Foreign Secretary would you continue to make a distinction between the supposed political and military wings of Hezbollah?

Q

Do you think that insider pressure groups within your Party influence Labour's foreign policy towards Israel?

Jonathan Freedland

Just because it's fresh in our minds let's link that one with the one about the new intake of MPs, the anxiety of the pro-Israel stance of the Blair-Brown era will be harder to square with this new intake of MPs and that question there about pressure groups influencing Israel, both of them adding up to a kind of level of anxiety influencing Labour … :

Douglas Alexander

I think if you were to see this as being a function of the parliamentary Labour Party is to see the world through the wrong end of the telescope and it slightly touches on the point I made earlier in terms of what is the narrative story account around what was happening in the Middle East 15 years ago and 18 years ago in 1997 and where it is today.

One of the reasons that I have at times felt frustration with Prime Minister Netanyahu was that the job of advocating for Israel's policies was easier in a previous generation where the central defining characteristic, the image it presented to the world in the '50s and the '60s  was unrelentingly democratic, was often left-wing in character in terms of the kibbutz.  Look at the support that the Labour Party after '48 felt and the pride and enthusiasm that was felt towards what David Ben-Gurion and that generation did in Israel.  It was an extraordinary achievement which was celebrated on the left.

Now when I see Prime Minister Netanyahu get however many standing ovations from a Republican dominated Congress in the United States it worries me because actually I think part of the difficulty that Israel has encountered in the international community in recent years has reflected a conscious decision on the part of the leadership of Israel to associate itself with some of the most right-wing and reactionary elements within the international community rather than some of the most progressive comfortable prospectives that I share.

Now let me develop the point because it bears in some ways a mixed point:  One of the things that I feel genuinely worried about in terms of making the case for Israel looking ahead – and incidentally why I'm a bit more optimistic after the election that we've just seen – is everybody had written the narrative for this election, that Israel had inexorably lurched to the right, the right had become the extreme right, the extreme right had become the further right and those preconceptions have now been challenged by the results that we've seen.  But nonetheless it remains the case that if the perception takes hold that this generation of Israeli leaders are not serious about a two-state solution and actually see permanent occupation as being the answer it will lend credence to those forces in the international community who have always wanted to delegitimise Israel.

And my plea would be listen, I am respectful of the fact I don't live under the daily threat of rockets, I don't sit and worry that sitting in a café having a cup of coffee the café's going to be blown up.  The security threats facing Israel are real and they endure.  But on the other hand unless the leadership of Israel recognises the risk that it runs in not being seen to go the extra mile for peace we won't know the answer to the question as to whether Israel's enemies are so enduring that nothing was going to happen but why not find out?

I honestly believe the best place and the easiest case to be able to make on Israel's behalf is if incontestably Israel's political leadership is going the extra mile.  Can I guarantee that delivers a two-state solution?  I'm afraid not.  Will it make the task of all of us who want to advocate for Israel in the international community a more straightforward endeavour than it's been in recent years?  I genuinely believe so.

Jonathan Freedland

… the question about you would seem to suggest all the burden was on the Israelis to take the initiative and you've elaborated on that just now.  Are you prepared now to say to the Palestinians they should acknowledge that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and this is two states for two peoples?  Are you prepared to make that as your demand?

Douglas Alexander

Listen, this is not weasel words on my part.  It's the same answer which is of course you are balancing the sense that to both the Diaspora and to citizens of Israel they regard Israel as a Jewish homeland and as a Jewish State.  To concede or to accept that language if you are Abbas or Fayyad or anybody else at the moment while the issue of the right of return remains on the table as part of the negotiations is something they are not willing to do.  But that seems to me to be perfectly honest to be one of the easier issues that can be resolved by negotiations.

So if you're saying that needs to be accepted by the Palestinians now in order to motivate Prime Minister Netanyahu well my response would be this: Many people have said of the Palestinians they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity and there is some truth in that.  Have they made mistakes?  Do you look back to the Clinton parameters and think why or why was that deal not done by Arafat?  Of course I do.  On the other hand I don't want Netanyahu to be in the same position that in a few years time we're sitting here saying he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.  And I don't honestly believe the need for the Palestinians to use that language should be a legitimate barrier to serious and meaningful negotiations.

Jonathan Freedland

… Will you make a distinction between the military and political wings of Hezbollah?

Douglas Alexander

Well me becoming the Foreign Secretary is dependent on a Labour Government in two years time.  There's something much more urgent that needs to happen which is the position to be fair that the British Government has taken and that we support which is the proscription of the military wing of Hezbollah needs to be done immediately by the European Union.  If you look at the report that has emerged in terms of the Bulgarian bus bombing there is no equivocation that Hezbollah was directly responsible for this notwithstanding vile suggestions that this was somehow concocted by the Israeli Government.  The facts are there and the facts speak for themselves.

So in that sense what do I want to see happen in terms of Hezbollah?  The most immediate task is that from a position where as I see it France, Spain and Italy, in part because they have troops as part of the EU and NATO force in Southern Lebanon at the moment, stop resisting the proscription of the military part of Hezbollah.

Now in that sense should we move further in terms of the whole of Hezbollah?  I know that there are statements from the Hezbollah leadership denying that there is any difference between the military and the social political aspects.

My starting point to answer that question – and I have not resolved it in my own mind, it's an issue that I'm still looking at is this: Firstly we have to accept the uncomfortable truth that Hezbollah commands the support of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and that's a truth that needs to be factored in to what happens both in Lebanon and its implications in terms of Israel's security amongst others; but secondly Northern Ireland is not a perfect parallel but we were able to proscribe the IRA at the same time as engage directly in negotiations with Sinn Fein.

Now in that sense the judgment that needs to be reached is is there a path of negotiations and discussion that can take place with any part of Hezbollah's leadership?  Some people suggest that is the case.  Indeed the British Ambassador there today put out a statement to that effect and in that sense that is the straightforward bit is the immediate call for the proscription of the military wing.

The more challenging question in the longer term is what impact does that have on Hezbollah's conduct and where does that leave Lebanon given the fact that thankfully Hezbollah is under immense pressure at the moment both because of the sanctions being imposed on Iran and also because of its principle sponsor Bashar al-Assad being in such appalling difficulties created by his own butchery in Syria.

Jonathan Freedland

You're Foreign Secretary, do you make Tony Blair the British Government's special envoy for peace-making in the Middle East beyond the role he has now?

Douglas Alexander

I see a front page heading towards me;  I think Matthew Gould is doing a first-class job as our ambassador.

Jonathan Freedland

Do you think he could be some special peace envoy rather than just an ambassador?

Douglas Alexander

Listen, Tony is doing and has done part of that job, principally an economic envoy on behalf of the Quartet.  There was a lot of speculation immediately before Christmas that the person best qualified for the job was not actually Tony but was Bill Clinton about whom we've spoken this evening.

Listen, there is more than enough work to go round but I'm not going to prejudge the choices that in the immediate term I hope John Kerry makes.

Jonathan Freedland

Very diplomatically done …

Q

Re:       Alistair Carmichael's comments re David Ward:

Douglas Alexander

Listen, at some level you laugh Jonathan but it does speak to quite how unwilling he was to acknowledge both the error, the wrong that he had committed and the inadequacy of the leadership response.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you what Nick Clegg should do.  What I can tell you is the answer that he gave on LBC yesterday which essentially said the matter is now closed I don't think can be sustained or should be sustained in light of the subsequent comments and I would certainly from this platform call on him to look again at the new statement[s] that's been made and to consider in light of what they said before which was if he makes these comments again or repeats them further action will follow to be true to their word.

Admittedly me calling for the Liberal Democrats to be true to their word is more in hope than expectation but I'll leave that hanging.

Jonathan Freedland

You said you were an optimist …

Douglas Alexander

Yes

Jonathan Freedland

… incurable optimist on these matters.

Well you described yourself as hoping to be a candid friend and I think you've shown this audience tremendous friendship and great candour.  It only remains for me to ask all of you to join me in thanking Douglas Alexander.