Labour government would weaken Israel-UK relationship, says cabinet minister

My interview with Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers:

The impact of a Labour government on Britain’s relationship with Israel could be “chilling”, the Northern Ireland Secretary has claimed.

Theresa Villiers told the JC that this country’s role as a key ally of Israel would be seriously diminished if Ed Miliband were to become prime minister in May.

The senior Conservative minister has more Jewish constituents than any other member of the cabinet. As MP for the north London seat of Chipping Barnet, she represents in Parliament large sections of the Jewish community in Whetstone, Totteridge and Woodside Park.

She has used meetings at Barnet and Woodside Park synagogues to gauge Jewish constituents’ opinions on Israel and rising antisemitism before reporting back to her cabinet colleagues.

Mr Miliband’s stance towards Israel during the Gaza conflict – and his support for Palestinian statehood in the Commons last October – has been a regularly voiced concern for constituents, Ms Villiers said.

“The big problem with Labour is they were not a friend to Israel in its time of need. I have met people who say, ‘I’ve been a Labour voter all my life, but I won’t vote for them this time round’.

“The Palestinian statehood issue is a really frightening prospect. If there was a Labour government, we could conceivably have a UK government talking about the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, which I think would be hugely counter-productive.

“There’s a real danger we’d have the UK voting in favour in the UN if Labour were to win the election. That I find really chilling,” she said.

There would be serious concerns over Britain’s ability to support Israel if Mr Miliband became Prime Minister, she claimed.

The Labour leader had attacked Israel’s operation in Gaza last summer as “unacceptable and unjustifiable”. He had also criticised David Cameron, suggesting the Prime Minister was too timid in his response to Israel’s actions. That was followed by the Labour frontbench’s decision to whip MPs into backing unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

Ms Villiers said tackling the rise in antisemitism in Britain remained a key concern for the government.

“A priority for me is to make sure others are aware of it and I use my position in the cabinet to raise it where I get the opportunity.

“The government is very well aware of it. Because my constituency has a significant Jewish community, I’m alerted to a spike or increased tension. That news gets to me first and I use the opportunity to raise it and make sure my colleagues are aware of it.”

The minister said she had concerns over the growth of Jew-hatred online, with the use of social media sites meaning “it gets passed around and hundreds or even thousands of people see it and are upset by it and made anxious by it”.

Antisemitic abuse targeted at Labour MP Luciana Berger on Twitter had been “horrible and completely unacceptable”, Ms Villiers said.

She also voiced criticism of the Tories’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners over the lack of disciplinary action taken against controversial anti-Israel MP David Ward, but admitted she had not raised the issue directly with Nick Clegg.

Ms Villiers said her role in Belfast had helped develop her thoughts on the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“A lesson that is useful from the Northern Ireland process is that those who were involved in terrorism and violence were not able to join the top table and negotiate until they had committed to democracy and non-violence.

“That was the gateway they had to go through to be taken seriously. Organisations like Hamas have to renounce violence, they have to comply with the conditions set for them by the Quartet and on Israel’s right to exist.”

She said persistence and “sticking at it – day after day, week after week, year after year” could help bring peace to the region.