Jenny Tonge resigns Lib Dem whip over controversial “Beware Israel” remarks

A quick follow-up to our story, Jenny Tonge resigns

Baroness (Jenny) Tonge has this afternoon resigned the Lib Dem whip after coming under intense pressure following the widespread reporting of remarks she made last week declaring that Israel “will reap what they have sown” once the USA gets “sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East”.

It is by no means the first time Baroness Tonge has landed herself in hot water for her out-spoken views on Israel:

  • She was sacked by then leader Charles Kennedy as the Lib Dem children’s spokeswoman in the Commons in 2004 after she suggested she could consider becoming a Palastinian suicide bomber.
  • Two years later, Charles’s successor Ming Campbell rebuked her for comments that some regarded as anti-semitic when she said, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips.”
  • In 2010, Ming’s successor Nick Clegg sacked Baroness Tonge as the Lib Dems’ health spokeswoman in the Lords after she apologised unreservedly for disseminating unsubstantiated claims that Israeli troops sent to Haiti after its earthquake were trafficking organs.

Her latest comments, made on a visit to Middlesex Univerity, were reported to be as follows:

“Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. … Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

According to the Guardian, the party’s initial response was to disassociate the Lib Dems from Baroness Tonge’s remarks, but not ask her to withdraw them:

A spokesman said: “Jenny Tonge does not speak for the party on Israel and Palestine. Her presence and comments at this event were extremely ill-advised and ill-judged. The tone of the debate at this event was wholly unacceptable and adds nothing to the peace process. The Liberal Democrats are wholehearted supporters of a peaceful two state solution to the Israel- Palestine issue.”

However, in the afternoon it emerged Nick Clegg had delivered an ultimatum that either she should withdraw and apologise for her comments, or have the Lib Dem whip removed. Baroness Tonge decided she would not apologise, and so resigned the whip herself (and I understand may have resigned from the party itself, though I don’t know that for sure).

There’s a strong sense in the party’s highest echelons today that she has been given more than enough second chances, and that her repeated inflammatory interventions are damaging the party’s position on a highly sensitive issue.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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73 Comments

  • not this again!

    Having an opinion on one side or another shouldn’t be a resigning issue as long as you are not deliberately trying to wind up the other side.

    My view on the middle east is it is a total mess and both sides have a lot to answer for, The rhetoric from the hard liners is stopping the moderates on both sides from being heard and coming to workable solution.

  • Keith Browning 29th Feb '12 - 6:46pm

    If she had said the same about the Palestinians would that have been a resigning issue?

    What makes Israel such a special case?

    Is no-one allowed to speak up against them?

  • So “inflammatory interventions” [defined by ????] on “sensitive issues” [ditto] are now to be punished by removal of the whip?

    Where is the party going?

  • Richard Dean 29th Feb '12 - 7:22pm

    Her remark seems to be an incitement to hatred, and should perhaps be investigated by the police. All sides in the Middle East have major faults, and if some of us had grown up in Gaza we might indeed have become suicide bombers, but we didn’t and so our emotions have not been distorted by those experiences. We have the ability to think more clearly. One of the principles that should guide our approach is that everyone on all sides has a right to life. The Baroness’s remarks can too easily be interpreted as contrary to this.

    I’d say that the Baroness’s analysis of the problems and hooks there is also rather inept. But that’s another discussion …

  • Simon

    In your haste to comment you appear to have missed this bit of the article you were commenting on:
    “,,, in the afternoon it emerged Nick Clegg had delivered an ultimatum that either she should withdraw and apologise for her comments, or have the Lib Dem whip removed.”

  • Foregone Conclusion 29th Feb '12 - 8:27pm

    One of those cases where punctuation is all-important.

    Did she say, ‘Beware Israel’, or ‘beware, Israel.’ The latter, which is a warning to Israel rather than of it, makes a lot more sense in the context.

  • Timothy Williams 29th Feb '12 - 8:56pm

    Jenny Tonge states “Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form.”
    Surely every decent, right-minded person should hope that this is the case. In its present form , Israel illegally occupies large areas of Palestinian territory.

  • “She was sacked by then leader Charles Kennedy as the Lib Dem children’s spokeswoman in the Commons in 2004 after she suggested she could consider becoming a Palastinian suicide bomber.”

    I am sure you know this is not true. So why does it appear here?

    Jenny Tonge said that she could understand the reasons why some Palestinians decided to become suicide bombers. A totally different matter.

    I understand their reasoning, too. Doesn’t mean that I would ever contemplate or consider doing it myself or approve of what they do.

  • Let this be a warning aginst promoting mediocre backbenchers to the Lords.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Mar '12 - 8:18am

    I am concerned about this site’s advertising policy.

    Why are you carrying:

    “Step up for Israel”?

    (quote) “we can move one step closer to defeating the biased one-sided and hateful perspective on Israel.”

    Would you do the same for ‘Step up for Iran’? Or Syria?

    @David: “Let this be a warning aginst promoting mediocre backbenchers to the Lords”

    Surely, we have enough problem with b]promoting them in the Commons ? 😉

  • coldcomfort 1st Mar '12 - 8:55am

    Well done Jenny. The behaviour of the Governments of Israel over the last 40 or so years has been, & continues to be, outrageous. The country is in breach of more critcal UN resolutions, and for much longer, than Saddam Hussein ever was. It has a large nuclear arsenal – which it denies – and the means to deliver. It shrieks ‘anti-semitism’ at the first whiff of criticism. It is not anti semitism of course. One is not criticising the Jews. The briefest search of the internet reveals masses of Jewish groups who are as horrified at the behaviour of Israel as many of the rest of us.

  • Julian Tisi 1st Mar '12 - 10:00am

    I think Stephen W has it exactly right. While I agree with many of the criticisms of Israel in other comments here, the cause of peace is not served by the sort of inflamatory language Jenny Tonge has used. And as Stephen Tall points out, she has considerable form. It’s one thing being a fierce critic of Israel – so am I, as it happens. It’s another thing to condone suicide bombing, as she has sadly done in the past.

    One other thing – Nick Clegg has been exemplary in this case. It appears she was given the chance to apologise and chose not to. And remember that only a few weeks ago, Nick was standing alongside Mahmoud Abbas and saying – as the offical British government spokesman – that continued Israeli settlement building was an obstacle to peace. Abbas told Nick Clegg then that it was exactly what the Palestinian people wanted to hear.

    The road to peace is a diplomatic one – and Jenny Tonge is not helping us get there. Sorry Jenny but you had to go.

  • LondonLiberal 1st Mar '12 - 10:16am

    people keep talking about inflammatory langauge, but the only langauage ic an see used by Jenny was likely to inflame Tories but not much else. She said Israel wouldn’t be around for ever in its present form – well, obviously, if there is a two state solution it won’t be, as it occupies palestinian territories. And she said they will reap what they so – well, they are already doing this on a daily basis, through terror attacks/children throwing stones at US-made Israeli tanks (delete according to yoru world view). Another nail in t he coffin of the left-leaning party i joined back in the 90’s…

  • Mike Clements 1st Mar '12 - 10:23am

    the fact that one particular race has suffered injustice over centuries does not justify them being the perpetrators of more injustice. Never forget that the bombing of the King David hotel in 1947(? ) was labelled the worst atrocity in history before 911 (The Twin Towers) this century and how these ruthless killers of women and children dominated Israeli politics for the following half century. Likewise the Arabs in Palestine have committed atrocities – Jordan’s Field and the hijacking of aircraft in the 1960s and present day suicide bombings. Each side has behaved more or less as badly as the other and history must not be rewritten so that independent observers such as ourselves take sides blind to the past.
    One solid fact is beyond dispute. There are many apolitical men women and children in the Middle East who are suffering because of the folly of intransigent politicians. This being so, it is immoral for the world at large to ignore the Palestine problem and the censorship of debate is, as it always has been, counter-productive

  • paul barker 1st Mar '12 - 10:39am

    The point is that Tonge was a Libdem Peer, when she spoke she would be seen as representing The Party, its not like you or me saying stuff. Shes welcome to go saying such things as long as its clear she doesnt represent the rest of us.

  • Her comments regarding this issue have always been extremely hostile to Israel and unpalatable to the electorate , as is the company she keeps, which is why she gives obscure speeches to other radicals rather than to the general public. This is the reason Nick Clegg took the action he did – because she will cost you votes. If you replace the word “Israel” with any other country her rant(s) would be viewed as far-right, hateful, racist and more fitting with the BNP than the Liberal Democrats. But when it’s Israel some people seem to think it’s okay. Why?

  • Richard Dean 1st Mar '12 - 12:56pm

    At the risk of offending everybody (which I like doing because the reaction is usually more interesting), I’d say that the lesson here is that you don’t always win an argument by adopting the tactics of your opponent.

    In this case, Jenny rose to the provocation like a bull to a red rag. She would have made her point far more effectively by waiting for the marshalls to evict the Zionist provocateurs (http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/feb/29/lady-tonge-lib-dem-israel?cat=politics&type=article), and by then using their behaviour to illustrate and give credibility to her further remarks, such as remarks on some of the awful experiences of the people of Gaza.

    Meeting provocation with provocation is one of the reasons why problems don’t get solved. It is perhaps one of the ways that leaders on some sides manipulate their supporters. It is not a liberal tactic. It is good that Nick Clegg re-affirmed our support for Palestinians and for a two-state solution.

  • David Allen 1st Mar '12 - 1:19pm

    “you don’t always win an argument by adopting the tactics of your opponent.”

    Indeed you don’t.

    Jenny Tonge should realise that the flood of biased, one-sided propaganda against the Palestinians is not best refuted by biased, one-sided propaganda in their favour – however tempting it is to redress an appallingly uneven balance.

    Nick Clegg should realise that “deliver(ing) an ultimatum that either she should withdraw and apologise for her comments, or have the Lib Dem whip removed” is an illiberal over-reaction, which serves only to undermine our claims to even-handedness and a genuine will to achieve an equitable two-state solution.

  • I think the below quotes from Jenny as reported in the Jewish Chronicle are perhaps too important to be overlooked:
    “However any of you like to interpret my remarks, I am not antisemitic. It is injustice that concerns me most. “I am certainly anti the current Israel government and I am anti the Israel lobby that supports that government. “I am not antisemitic. Get it? It is very important to make that distinction.”
    Now I don’t hold any kind of torch for Jenny’s views on Israel or the Israeli lobby, but when Ed Milliband Tweets that there is “No place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel” we have really got to take a bit of a breath.
    Why is there no place in politics for those who question the existance of the state of Israel? Alex Salmond questions the existance of a state called the United Kingdom (‘in its present form’ to pray Jenny in aid). I don’t agree with either Alex or Jenny myself. But come on…..its all a bit orwellian.
    I understand why Jenny had to resign the whip, but I also think the way the ‘Friends of Israel’ groupings operate (blowing things way out of proportion, using things for party political gain, being selective and melodramatic) is quite scary.

  • s.specterman 1st Mar '12 - 2:16pm

    I understand that there were certain pro-Israeli`s at this meeting- They inform me that during this “Discussion” they sat there calmly- not interrupting- They then attempted to ask questions and put points- They were rebuffed and ushered out of the auditorium by security at the behest of the “Table”.

    I think that, for me says it all.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Mar '12 - 10:37pm

    @Alex McFie:

    “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of your speech.”

    Like being bullied by anonymous ‘party spokespersons’ and tabloid press deliberately misinterpreting your words to suit their biased agenda. Consequences indeed.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Mar '12 - 10:40pm

    @s specterman:

    “I understand that there were certain pro-Israeli`s at this meeting- They inform me that during this “Discussion” they sat there calmly- not interrupting”

    While not saying they should be disbelieved either, why do you necessarily believe these statements?

  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '12 - 12:07am

    Voice,
    Just like Jenny, people sometimes go over the top sometimes, particularly when debating strong beliefs. It’s natural, human, even beneficial sometimes. Sometimes also, as in my case, the section of society we come from has taught us ways which we would not notice, but which others find highly offensive.. We are a diverse bunch, and I hope that LDV moderators can be charitable about it .

  • Richard Swales 2nd Mar '12 - 8:49am

    @Tony Dawson, the advertising appears to be from a third-party supplier based very roughly on the content and on where you are. I am reading this (politics) in Slovakia, so I am seeing ads exhorting me to vote for the Slovak green party on March 10, when our partner in Slovakia is Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity).

  • All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to stay silent. Fortunately for us Jenny Tonge doesn’t stay silent and the future will show her on the right side of history.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '12 - 10:36am

    ADVERTISING
    How much do the ads cost? I am getting “Live in Israel and study English” at the top of the page. Yesterday I was getting “Join a Kibbutz” at the bottom of the page, but not today. I’m not seeing “Come to Gaza It’s Great!” anywhere.

    I also get “Asian Girls for Dating and Marriage”, and “Profit from DeForesting the Brazilian Rainforest”.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Mar '12 - 10:38am

    I think the ads are watching me.

    Now I’ve got “Hebrew Language Lessons – Register with a Teacher from Israel Now!”

  • As I understand it, a member of the House of Lords cannot be “sacked” by the Party leader, it has to be by a meeting of that parliamentary group. So not only could the leader not have issued an ultimatum to her, but she actually resigned the whip rather than had it taken from her.

  • The trouble with Jenny Tonge is that she always takes her remarks beyond the point where those of liberal views who have great sympathy with the Palestinian cause can fully support her.

    In January 2004 she did not simply ask for understanding of why Palestinians could become caught up in violence. She said “If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one [a suicide bomber] myself.” From an MP for leafy Richmond that was just a daft and profoundly unhelpful remark.

  • Denis, I don’t agree with you – I think it is very helpful to try in some way to bring empathy with other things happening elsewhere in the world. Of course it means when you are quoted secondhand not all the context of what you are saying transmits, and unfortunately the media sometimes put a distorted message out there. It seems to me that the logical outcome of your view as expressed here is that politicians will only make very carefully controlled soundbites in public (or perhaps we are saying that people agree with the Daily Mail world view out there, so only remarks in conformity with that will be tolerated). I agree with London Liberal – this is not the Liberal Party I joined.

    As I remember, Jenny has always been a controversial figure in the Party, long before defence of the Palestinian cause became her trademark. I remember a time when her title “Dr Tonge” was called into question regularly, and her passionate work to try to get access to NHS abortions equalised arcross the country. Jenny may be a “firebrand”, but she does her politics by means of controversy. A high risk strategy maybe, but comments implying she is “incompetent”, “not up to it” or “a mediocre backbencher” in her time in the Commons are simply wide of the mark. She is a doughty defender ofliberalism, and I sincerely hope she remains a party member. Her championing of Liberal Left sits well with her taking up of causes. After all, campaigning publicly, often for and against things considered unusual at the time is very much in our tradition.

  • @Tim13

    Sorry Tim, it is not good enough to excuse a statement like that by saying “Jenny is a bit of a firebrand and likes to be controversial.” I come from Northern Ireland – I have seen innocent people blown apart by bombers claiming grievances. I will never countenance any Liberal Democrat representative suggesting they would ever remotely think of doing that – even if the suicide element meant sacrificing their own life at the same time as slaughtering anyone who happened to be guilty of standing nearby.

  • Rebecca Hanson 4th Mar '12 - 8:42am

    She wasn’t calling a spade a spade. She was calling a spade a club in an unhelpful, ignorant and deeply counterproductive way.

    If she wanted to talk in a constructive way about future visions of Israel she could have referred to the Geneva Accord or to the coming to awareness of the younger generation.

  • Denis, I didn’t say she was a bit of a firebrand. I was quoting someone else, and offering the opinion “she may be a firebrand”. I personally don’t believe that is her normal way. Her comments from years ago about having some sympathy with suicide bombers among Palestinians, were not firebrand, they were an attempt at empathy. I assume those were the comments you were quoting me as not being prepared to condemn?

    What I was trying to get over in my post that we should not, as politicians be so cautious to the point of boiling down all our comments into meaningless soundbites. And as Liberals / Lib Dems we should not just accept the status quo. I would hope that if you are someone from Northern Ireland with a fairly long memory of the troubles, that you would have wanted to change things, and if you had been a politician or activist, you would have been prepared to speak up about them. I hope also you would have liked to have been supported by others in Britain? And, of course, the corollary of that would be that there would be people in Britain not supporting whatever line you took.

    Let me get one thing clear, I am passionate about moving towards a world where we sort things out across the world without violence, although looking at the world around us, doesn’t look as if our 60s visions have moved on – if anything they have moved backwards. At simplest, Denis, I assume your point is : “Be tactful to all parties in an incendiary situation”, and I see your point. You may, like me, be a peace pledge signatory, and in that case you will almost certainly recognise that violence can and is done by powerful countries and individuals, as well as by “non-state combatants” as the US would have it. As liberals we can and must stand up to those forces. That is what Jenny has done over the years with the Israel – Palestine situation. I assume you recognise the gross imbalance of power in this situation?

  • @Tim13
    This is not about me -it’s about Jenny Tonge. However let me tell you a true story. A young Belfast man (not me) living in a “ghetto” was kneecapped for refusing to allow his car to be used by paramilitaries. His reaction was not to take up arms or blow people up but to join the then infant Alliance Party. Their policy was not to “be tactful to all parties in an incendiary situation” but to fight publicly with words and campaigns and votes everything that the men of violence and the divisive politicians on both sides did and said. The Party was a strong element in leading to the still fragile settlement in that greatly improving province. Ask Naomi Long, MP for East Belfast, what it takes to make real steps towards peace in “an incendiary situation” . Opining about becoming a suicide bomber it is not but I can tell you neither is it something for wimps.

  • I feel lucky not to have been in the middle of a situation like that. I certainly pay tribute to bravery of that kind, and would certainly not look on it as politics for wimps. Nevertheless, allof us in politics have to face less violent forms of conflict at one time or another, and I hope that many Lib Dems would face up to it, and speak their minds. You may disagree with Jenny, but she speaks her mind on the Israel – Palestine issue.

  • Don’t know, Soupy one. Certainly reference to “financial grip”, being reminiscent of Nazi accusations, is a bit close to anti semitism for comfort. I still do not believe Jenny is anti semitic, as she has stated several times. To be honest, both the Palestinian and Israeli causes have strong representation in the Lib Dems. As for Mossad, wouldyou put anything past them? They have shown in the past that their reach is very considerable, and they are rather more public in their actions (and perhaps brazen) than most intelligence services. Not however, sensible for many reasons, to make big claims against them publicly without good evidence.

  • Geoff Powers 5th Mar '12 - 3:35pm

    Oh dear! It’s that old chestnut ‘anti-semitism’ rearing its ugly head once again! When is ‘anti-semitism’ not anti-semitism? Answer: When it’s fair political commen! Bully for Jenny! I’m with her all the way and applaud her for challenging those who would equivocate on this issue. For too long politicians all countries and all colours have deferred to this ‘pocket battleship’ of a state called Israel with its sabre-rattling and war-mongering e.g.(the current Obama-Netanyahu ‘discussions’), that believes it can put aside all civilised behaviour in its treatment of the Palestinians, stealing their land – always prime agricultural land, mind! – and constructing new settlements on it that are illegal under international law. Those Liberal Democrats who criticise Jenny Tonge should perhaps be asking themselves whether they are truly liberalal and democratic. What a pity that we appear to have lost a loyal, courageous and long-serving member of our party in this quite unnecessary ‘fracas’.

  • Miranda Pinch 5th Mar '12 - 4:50pm

    I, for one, am on the verge of leaving the National Party, to which I have belonged most of my life. The Lib-Dems are not exactly in a good position with the electorate at the moment so it is a very good time to stand up for the truth rather than to back down on it to appease the Israeli lobby. Jenny spoke only the truth when she said that Israel could not continue in its present form. It is breaking International and human rights law and it is alienating those within it and the neighbours around it. In fact suggesting it needs to change is to support the Nation of Israel not to suggest that it should not exist. I am the daughter of a Jewish refugee myself and am appalled, not just by Israel’s actions, but even more so by the USA and the way that the UK, which caused many of the problems in the Middle East in the first place, continues to follow on blindly. Between them, Israel and the USA are very likely to cause a terrible war with even graver repercussions than we now have. It is about time that the Party that I thought stood up for human rights, social justice and International Law, took the opportunity of actually being in some sort of power and came out, instead of running away. Shame, shame and shame on you!

  • .Her remark seems to be an incitement to hatred, and should perhaps be investigated by the police.’

    so any criticism of israel now warrants police action – what next? Poor jenny; to face intolerance to free speech like this man is showing!

  • Soupy One – I’ve never heard of Ken O’Keefe. I suspect many other people haven’t either. So if you think he talks nonsense – perhaps its sensible to ignore him rather than giving him publicity.

  • Soupy, I’ve looked him up and he appears to be an unreconstructed conspiracy theorist of the type that is common across the pond. Now I’ve humoured you – perhaps you can take a look at this and tell me how “comfortable” you feel about it http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2009/jan/19/gaza-phosphorus-victim

  • Matt McKenzie 6th Mar '12 - 5:07pm

    Of course, Jenny Tonge’s real crime in Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party is standing by her principles . . .

  • Simon Hebditch 7th Mar '12 - 5:33pm

    As a long term supporter of the Palestinian people, I can understand Jenny Tonge’s frustration with the current Israeli government. But the fuss about her recent comments was claerly over the top and the party leader was wrong to pillory her. If you are a supporter of a two state solution, with consequent land swaps etc it is blindingly obvious that the borders of Israel will have to change. So it cannot survive in the long term in its present form – which is what Jenny said. What’s the problem?

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