Forward or Backward? Moment of Truth for Lib Dem-Jewish Relations as Clegg Decides Fate of David Ward
Controversial Lid Dem MP David Ward is set to face his third disciplinary meeting with party chiefs next week - this time with Nick Clegg - following his comments to the Jewish News about the community and Israel.
The Bradford East MP was censured by his party's chief whip two weeks ago after writing, ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, that he was "saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust could, within a few years of liberation, be inflicting atrocities on the Palestinians in the new state of Israel - and continue to do so". Despite issuing an apology for "unintended offence" and pledging not to use the term "the Jews" again in that context, he later emailed the Jewish News asking if it would be more acceptable to replace the words "the Jews" with "the Jewish community".
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Under the party's procedures, Carmichael and Ward must now be joined at a further meeting by the party's leader and deputy leader, but Nick Clegg's participation in G8 talks in Mozambique prevents this from taking place before the weekend.
Carmichael told the Jewish News however that the parley would take place "at the earliest opportunity. It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of that meeting. Obviously the use of these procedures is a very rare occurrence and is an indication of the seriousness the party attaches to this situation."
While falling short of saying if further action would be taken against Ward when quizzed by Conservative MP Robert Halfon asked in the Commons on Tuesday, the deputy prime minister said: "I am unambiguous in my condemnation of anyone from any party including my own who uses insensitive, intemperate, provocative and offensive language to describe a long-running conflict about which people have very strong feelings. Everybody is duty bound to choose their words carefully and tread carefully when entering into this very heated debate."
Following a Downing Street meeting last Thursday, Jewish community leaders said the chief whip had made clear the new case would be pursued in the context of a commitment by Carmichael in last week's Jewish News that if "anything of this sort" happened again the consequences "would escalate significantly" beyond the official censure already imposed."
The leaders also pointed to the fact the original offending statement remains on Ward's website. Speaking at Jewish News' latest Q and A event last week, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, describing Ward's words as "repugnant", urged the Lib Dems to "be true to their word" about what would happen if sentiments were repeated. The JLC Jeremy Newmark said last night: "We respect the need to the chief whip to follow party processes and understand that the party leader's overseas trip has contributed to the delay. However we are confident that this is being taken seriously and that there is an understanding that the timeframe is not elastic. Party processes must allow for swift action on anti-Semitism." The Board of Deputies Jon Benjamin said Ward's defiance "appears to be escalating rather than abating".
Weighing into the latest row, Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel Chairman Gavin Stollar said: "David Ward continues to dig himself into a hole. I was always taught when you're in a hole stop digging." The BBC reported that Ward acknowledged there was a "difference of opinion" on whether he had breached the party's standing orders. He added; "I have already apologised. It's a question about finding a form of words that make it possible for me to continue to ask questions about these things that are allowed to happen year after year."
Voice of The Jewish News:
The Liberal Democrats have gone to great efforts since the general election to address their long strained relations with Anglo-Jewry. The deputy prime minister, in a groundbreaking 2010 speech to Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, acknowledged that the party may not always have spoken loudly enough the challenges facing Israel. And it was his uncompromising stance towards Jenny Tonge, a primary source of those tensions over many years, that finally led to his departure from the party.
But one previously-little known backbencher now threatens to take over the 'chief offender of the Jews' mantle where she left off and to cast a fresh shadow over Lib Dem-community relations. David Ward's original statement ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day was shocking – but his continued defiance in the face of criticism and even censure must lead to questions about whether he genuinely doesn't understand why he has caused such offence (in which case, you could question his suitability for Parliament) or whether there is in fact something more sinister at play. We trust it’s the former.
Nevertheless, it's clear that reprimands are having no impact and the Lib Dem hierarchy must now act decisively - and as swiftly as possible - against their politician to ensure the controversy doesn't become an open sore. And indeed if they are to keep to their word. As such, Alistair Carmichael's invoking of the party's standing orders should be applauded as a first step. The deputy premier has clearly expressed condemnation of those that use offensive language when referring to the Middle East conflict but as Robert Halfon MP: "The question for Clegg is is he genuinely intolerant when his members make remarks about Jews in this way?"
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