Israel is “a homeland” for the Jews, British opposition leader and Labour party leader Ed Miliband said Thursday in Jerusalem, thanking the country for being a “sanctuary” for his grandmother, who lived in Tel Aviv for over a decade. However, he chose not to state whether he considers himself a Zionist.
“For me, Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people,” he told Israeli students, after one of them asked him to clarify a statement he had made last year suggesting he sees himself as a Zionist. Describing Israel as a homeland for Jews is “not just a theoretical idea for me, it’s my family’s experience. That’s sort of the way I think about it, and that’s been my family experience and my family background. That’s the way I like to talk about it,” he said.
In March 2013, Miliband — the son of Polish Jewish immigrants — had been asked whether he was a Zionist, and replied: “Yes. I consider myself a supporter of Israel.” But less than 24 hours after he uttered these words, Miliband’s office clarified that his comments were misinterpreted, and that he merely meant to emphasize his strong support for Israel.
During an hour-long question and answer session Thursday at the Hebrew University, which ranged from growing Islamism in Britain to London’s policies vis-à-vis Crimea and the Falklands, Miliband was asked several times whether he’s a Zionist. But the Labor leader, who has a reasonable chance of succeeding current Prime Minister David Cameron after the next general election in May 2015, would not be drawn.
“It’s a different way of talking about this issue, I suppose it’s my own way of talking about it,” he said, referring to his formulation of Israel being a Jewish homeland. “That’s the way I think about Israel, that’s they way I think about it in terms of my family history. So that’s my preferred way of talking about it.”
During a speech in the Knesset last month, Cameron also spoke of Israel as “a homeland for the Jewish people.” Cameron stopped short of endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In 2007, three years before became prime minister, Cameron reportedly referred to himself as a Zionist at the annual luncheon of the Conservative Friends of Israel. “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then I am a Zionist,” he said, according to Haaretz.
Last week, UK Education Secretary Michael Gove (Conservative Party) reportedly praised several British politicians for their pro-Zionist views, saying “Why shouldn’t you be a Zionist? It’s common sense.”
Miliband, 44, is in Israel for a three-day visit during which he was scheduled to meet with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Netanyahu, Labor opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Israel’s chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni. The visit is his first major foreign trip since he became the leader of the opposition in 2010.
Before answering the unscreened questions from the students Thursday, Miliband talked briefly of his feelings about being in a country he first visited when he was seven years old, to see his grandmother, whose husband had been killed by the Nazis.
“I come here very conscious of my family’s history and also with a deep sense of gratitude to Israel for they did for my grandmother,” Miliband said. “Israel was a sanctuary for her from the most indescribable grief. So it’s a personal journey for me as well.”
Miliband also addressed the peace process and the legality of Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders.
While he emphasized at the beginning of his talk with the students that he had come “to listen and to learn, not to lecture,” he endorsed a two-state solution and said that during this “sensitive moment” in the peace process, it was advisable to resume the dialogue between the parties. “The best forward for Israel, the best way forward for the Palestinian people is that dialogue resuming, carrying on and getting to a fruitful outcome,” he said, referring to the US-brokered peace talks, which have been on the brink of collapse.
Responding to a question about Labor’s criticism of Israeli settlements, Miliband said that their expansion was “illegal,” but stopped short of applying that term to already existing settlements. “I do believe that the growth of settlements is a serious issue for the peace process,” he said. “The growth of settlements, new settlements [are] illegal under international law. It is a real issue, and as Israel seeks a settlement, a two-state solution which gives it the security that it rightly deserves and wants, I think it is an issue that needs to be addressed.”