How to silence the boycotters

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

If proof were needed of the sheer folly of the campaign to launch an academic boycott of Israel, it came in two dollops last week. First, the armed takeover of Gaza by Hamas showed the true irrelevance of the boycott effort. Palestinians were shedding their brothers’ blood, their putative state broken in two and their dream of statehood set ever further back – and all the while a handful of British scholars delude themselves that their refusal of the odd invite from Tel Aviv University will help.

The second proof came in the list of signatories to the anti-boycott advertisements that appeared in national newspapers last week. Among the familiar and reliable names – the Robert Winstons and Ruth Deechs – were several that leapt out. Dr Keith Kahn-Harris and Prof David Newman, for example: both on the left and both firm critics of Israeli policy. Yet there they were, nestling alongside my upstairs neighbour on this page, Prof Geoffrey Alderman, who could never be mistaken, even by his enemies, for a leftist.

This is the genius of the boycott campaign: to have driven together those who would normally be bitterly divided by the question of Israel. What, from the boycotters’ own point of view, could have been more counter-productive? A smart pro-Palestinian campaign would peel away Zionist moderates from the hardliners, leaving the ultra-hawks isolated. That’s certainly what any undergraduate course in politics would teach.

The boycott has already had the opposite effect. Instead of encouraging mainstream Jewish critics of the Israeli occupation to speak out, it’s made them close ranks with those they would ordinarily oppose. A few years back a couple of very eminent Liberal Jewish rabbis attended a memorial ceremony for Deir Yassin. Now the chief executive of Liberal Judaism denounces the boycott as “antisemitic.” This is the boycott’s great achievement: to have triggered an outbreak of unity in defence of Israel. Those readers who have got used to spitting with rage when reading my own critiques of Israeli policy might note that I too have joined the anti-boycott chorus – forming a rare consensus with my fellow contributors to this slot.

Indeed, I admit to a flush of pride at the communal efforts mobilised to overturn the University and College Union vote: the websites, the meetings, the campus activism. Nor can I be the only one reassured by the news that Anthony Julius and Alan Dershowitz have joined forces to form a legal dream team, committed to using the law to block the boycotters’ every path.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that, for all our ingenuity, this is an unwinnable struggle. Not that we can’t overturn this boycott, or the ones proposed by journalists or doctors or artists: I’m sure that, through organisation and hard work, we can defeat them all. But we will be plugging gaps in a leaking ceiling: each time we stop one flow, another will burst forth somewhere else. We can hold back the flood for a while – but not forever.

The flood in question is the global desire to see the Palestinians get a state of their own, combined with global disapproval of Israel’s retention of the territory it won in 1967. We can come up with a thousand clever, nimble arguments – insisting that there’s no one to give the land to, that the Palestinians are so bent on Israel’s destruction they have forfeited the right to statehood – and all of these might buy us some time. They have bought us a few years already. But we cannot hold back the tide indefinitely.

Some will say that Israel’s enemies will never be satisfied until the country has disappeared completely – and for some hardcore anti-Zionists that is doubtless true. But we should think back to that most basic, undergraduate lesson in politics. It’s politics-for-beginners that Israel should try to separate its mild critics from its hardcore foes. A serious, sustained effort at peacemaking, opening with a statement that Israel is ready, in principle, to withdraw to the 1967 borders, subject to minor adjustments, would do just that. If progress came, only the die-hard, irreconcilable anti-Zionists would be left – suddenly reduced to an isolated fringe. (That is indeed what happened in the Oslo heyday of the mid-1990s.)

But if things continue as they are, we risk tainting the entire idea of a Jewish state with the reality of the day-to-day occupation. The average onlooker, watching the horrors on the TV news, grows susceptible to the message that this nightmare is the logical consequence of Israel’s very existence, that the only way to improve things is to shun Israel entirely.

So yes, we need to keep applying our wit and energy to overturning the boycotts, to plugging those leaks. But what a difference we could make if we dedicated even half that effort towards nudging Israel in the right direction – and to beating back the flood before it drowns us.

How long should London keep Ken?

The Tories want to limit the number of terms the Mayor can stand. But that won't help them win - and it's also plain undemocratic

Published in the Evening Standard

Here?s a novel way to see off Ken Livingstone. If you can?t beat him at the ballot box, why not simply bar him from standing? It?s a tactic with quite a pedigree: Margaret Thatcher deployed it when she abolished the Livingstone-led Greater London Council 20 years ago and Tony Blair tried it when blocking Ken?s selection as Labour?s mayoral candidate in 2000. And guess what: the Tories are trying it all over again.

In the House of Lords on Tuesday, two Tory peers ? who double as the leaders of Kensington & Chelsea and of Essex County Council ? slipped in a little amendment to the bill reforming London?s governance. To the category of people disqualified from serving as London?s mayor, they added a new type of person: anyone who ?has previously been elected or been the Mayor twice.? Not many people who fit that description. In fact there?s just one. You know the guy: middle-aged, nasal drawl, fondness for newts.

Thanks to Tory and Lib Dem votes, the amendment passed. Unless the Commons reverses it, it will become law ? possibly in time to bar Ken in 2008, and certainly to block him in 2012. You can see why Baroness Hanham and Lord Hanningfield would have congratulated themselves on Tuesday night. It must have looked like such a smart wheeze, bringing the London mayor in line with his New York counterpart, who has been bound by a two-term limit for the last decade. With a simple tweak of the law, the seemingly invincible Livingstone would be swept out of the way, levelling the playing field and giving the Tories, at last, a chance of winning power in the capital.

But it?s a delusion, another error by a Conservative party that seems to get more accident-prone the closer it gets to the politics of London. For David Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, City Hall is surely coming to resemble a giant steel-and-glass headache.

Advocates of term limits are keen to present the move as a high-minded democratic reform. Running this city should never be a job for life, they argue. Indeed, Baronness Hanham warned that ?the office of mayor now in this country is the nearest thing we have to a dictator,? adding that ?there is very little that can stop the mayor doing what he wants to do.?

But that suggests the problem is with the mayor?s powers: if they?re too great, they should be reduced, regardless of how long he serves. The mayor shouldn?t be allowed to rule like a dictator for one day, let alone eight years. (In fact, the mayor?s powers are far weaker than those of his opposite numbers in, say, Chicago or New York.)

It?s futile to look for a coherent, constitutional principle here: you won?t find it. This is raw politics and nothing more. With term limits it always is. Take the most famous example, the rule that prevents a US president serving more than two terms. That was instituted by an exasperated Republican party worn down by losing four times in a row to the great Franklin Roosevelt. You don?t have to think that Ken is a latter-day FDR to see the parallel.

Don?t take my word for it. Tory mayoral hopeful Nicholas Boles was spitting blood yesterday at a move which he insisted had come ?from out of the blue.? He told me term limits were ?crass and fatuous?, insisting that it was ?idiotically defensive to suggest we can?t beat Livingstone without resorting to some device outside politics.?

Principle is on his side, too. In a democracy, voters should be able to choose who governs them and when to kick them out. The notion of two unelected peers, of all people, restricting that right truly sticks in the craw.

One of our more thoughtful politicians agrees with that. In January, he told the House of Commons that term limits were ?alien to the British constitution? and would inevitably be seen not as an impartial act but ?as an attempt to clip Ken?s wings.?

The trouble is, those words were spoken by Michael Gove, the frontbencher leading for the Conservatives on the London bill in the Commons. Six months ago he was against term limits; now his party is for them. What?s changed? The official line last night was that there had been no shift, and that Tory policy remains as Gove explained it in January. Yet the peers were hardly freelance operators: Hanham is a Conservative frontbencher and was leading on the London bill in the Lords. In other words, Conservative policy in one chamber is the polar opposite of Conservative policy in the other. It looks uncomfortably like another Tory shambles, which have been coming with awkward regularity in recent months.

And nowhere more so than in London. Barely two months have passed since the Greg Dyke fiasco, when Cameron was revealed as ready to put forward no Tory candidate in London, in order to give a clear run to the former BBC boss ? only for his offer to be rebuffed. That episode confirmed that whichever Conservative does eventually take on Ken, he will be the leadership?s second choice. Meanwhile, Cameron?s much-vaunted primary process is still stalled, with all too few of the big-name candidates he coveted. As one contributor to the activists? website, ConservativeHome, put it yesterday: ?David Cameron and his office monkeys at CCO [Conservative Central Office] really need to get off their backsides and get a candidate for next years Mayoral elections!?

It?s not just the hunt for a plausible challenger that?s got the London Tories tripped up. They?ve also been outmanouevred on the apparently obscure issue of nominating people to serve on London?s fire authority. The mayor initially rejected all but one of their list of seven names ? because there was not a black or Asian Londoner among them. The Lib Dems have been lambasted by the mayor, too: their three nominees were all white men. (Ken has now backed down and accepted the Lib Dem choices). Labour?s nominees were three Asian men, one black woman and one white woman.

The Tories retort that race and gender have got nothing to do with a body that?s about putting out fires. But they?ve walked straight into a classic Livingstone trap. He can note the 41 black, Asian or minority councillors the Conservatives have in London and ask why none were deemed good enough to serve on the fire authority. He can further claim, as one of his senior aides did yesterday, that the two main opposition parties ?just don?t get London?. That hurts Cameron especially: just this week he was saying that Gordon Brown ?just doesn?t get Britain.?

It?s vintage jujitsu from the mayor, skillfully wrongfooting his opponents, exposing as hollow their claims to be progressive. London is a warning to Cameron of how bumpy the path ahead could be ? and no amount of clever parliamentary tricks will help him.