'I'll be Israel's friend even in bad times'

By Joseph Millis - Thursday 17th November 2011

Ed Miliband this week pledged that Labour would be Israel's friend "in good times and bad" and expressed his profound gratitude to the country for giving refuge to members of his family six decades ago.

The party leader's warm words came in a major address to MPs, peers and members of the party's front bench at Labour Friends of Israel's annual lunch on Tuesday. Miliband said: "We will be friends in good times and in bad, and friends who will agree and disagree sometimes".

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Concerns had been raised by supporters of Israel after Miliband's keynote speech at the Labour conference last year, days after his election as leader.

In that address, he branded the interception of the Gaza flotilla as "so wrong" but failed to mention Hamas or rocket attacks on Israel. While Miliband had previously expressed his opposition to "blanket boycotts of goods from Israel", the stance of some of his union backers raised inevitable questions about whether he would dilute his own position.

But this week he reiterated that there "should be no tolerance of boycotts. We are against boycotts and delegitimisation".

Even before this week, he had taken steps to reassure the community, including claiming during a Jewish News interview in February that Labour would be as supportive of Israel under his leadership as it has been during the past decade. But a source close to the community leadership said: "This was Miliband's warmest engagement with the community since becoming leader. It will assuage many of the concerns that have previously existed. These were the words of a genuinely critical friend of Israel who's as genuine and sincere about his friendship as he is about his criticism."

During the address, Miliband said that, 18 years after the Oslo Accords, he shared the "anger" of those who had lived for 10 years under a rocket barrage from Gaza. He stressed that his party backed a "two-state solution as the only way forward towards peace in the Middle East. We believe in a safe and secure Israel as a state for the Jewish people living side by side with a Palestinian state - but only through negotiations."

But he defended his party's call for Britain to support the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, saying that such a development would further the peace process.

Miliband also told his audience at the Royal Horticultural Hall - including the Chief Rabbi and Israeli ambassador - that he "understands the fears and frustrations" of those who saw settlement construction continuing amid a lack of progress in talks. Israel and the Palestinians, Miliband said, "have to make decisions that advance peace, not set it back". He was applauded when he praised the work of Quartet envoy - and former Labour Prime Minister - Tony Blair.

Miliband also touched on his family's history, saying that 61 years ago his grandmother had moved to Israel from Poland seeking a new life, and that he would "always be grateful to the state of Israel for giving her and my aunt refuge and nourishment. I want to put on record my thanks and admiration for what Israel has been able to do for my family."

Jeremy Newmark, the CEO of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: "We welcome the commitment that under his leadership the Labour party will remain a strong and steadfast friend of Israel... Ed's robust condemnation of the boycott movement was particularly significant."

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