West Bank settlements, Liberal values, and our Israeli sister party: time for a realignment

Our Autumn Conference passed a motion entitled ‘Towards a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine’. Critically, the motion was amended, calling for legislation ‘to cease trade with illegal settlements, unless and until a negotiated peace settlement is reached’. Speaking for this amendment, I argued that the UK has obligations under international humanitarian law to refrain in any manner from supporting illegal settlements and must therefore cease trading with them; and that if we are to retain the hope of reaching a two-state solution, it is critical to reject a one-state reality and uphold the legal – and moral – distinction between pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories.

The illegality of settlements is unequivocal: the International Court of Justice in its Wall Opinion held that the transfer of Israeli civilian population into the occupied territories through the construction of settlements breaches Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This legal position was endorsed by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2234, which the UK supported. The motion originally proposed merely to label settlement products, but that did not go far enough: while enabling consumers to make informed choices, labelling still allows products to be sold, despite being produced in illegal settlements. Only by refraining from trade will the UK be desisting from active cooperation with the settlement project, and thus fulfilling its obligation to ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions.

Moreover, by differentiating between the settlements and pre-1967 Israel, the liberal democrats are challenging both the Israeli right and the far left, including its manifestation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS. The Israeli right and the far left share a desire to erase the so-called ‘green line’, and with that the prospects of a two-state solution. The Israeli right rejects a Palestinian state, seeking a so-called ‘greater Israel’, while the far left sees Israel as an inherently colonial project, in effect rejecting its right to exist in internationally recognised borders. For both, it makes no difference whether a product originates from Tel Aviv or from the Ariel settlement at the heart of the West Bank. But for liberal democrats, it surely must. Ben & Jerry’s, which has recently decided to stop selling their products in settlements, but to continue selling them in Israel proper, and is seeking a new licence holder to implement that policy, has adopted a principled and sensible position. At conference, we have done so as well, thereby amplifying liberal progressive Israeli, Palestinian, and Diaspora Jewish voices.

Yet, our anti-occupation position is misaligned with that of our sister party in Israel, Yesh Atid. Responding to the Ben & Jerry’s decision, Yair Lapid (its party leader) referred to it as ‘a disgraceful capitulation to antisemitism’. The party’s finance minister, Orna Barbivai, was filmed chucking her B&J ice-cream in the bin.

In contrast, the Israeli Meretz party has been consistently opposing the settlement project. Indeed, Meretz shares our core values: for instance, it stands for rights of asylum-seekers, refugees, and other migrants, whereas Yesh Atid has consistently supported rights-restricting government policies; and it defends the international legal order, including the legitimacy of the investigation undertaken by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court into the situation in Palestine, while Yesh Atid roundly condemns it.

Anecdotally, Meretz’s history bears a striking similarity to the 1988 Liberal-SDP merger: it was formed in 1992 as an amalgamation of three parties: Ratz, a small ‘l’ socially liberal party whose leader, the late Shulamit Aloni, has fronted, among others, the fight for LGBT+ rights; Mapam, a social-democratic party; and Shinui, an economically liberal secular/humanist party. Shinui has since parted ways with Meretz by becoming more nationalist and finding its current incarnation in Yesh Atid.

The Lib Dems are therefore more naturally aligned with Meretz than with Yesh Atid. What is stopping us, then? We are members of Liberal International to which Yesh Atid was admitted as an Observer Member (its youth wing is a member of International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY)) whereas Meretz (alongside Israel’s Labour party) is a member of Socialist International. The troubling outcome is having a sister party that does not share some of our core values on international law and human rights, whilst failing to engage with an Israeli party with which we are fundamentally aligned. Although we (perhaps regrettably) cannot change the mutually exclusive nature of party membership of Liberal International and Socialist International, we can and should establish and develop links with our real sister party in Israel, Meretz.

* Dr. Ruvi Ziegler is Associate Professor in International Refugee Law at the University of Reading. He is an Advisory Council member of Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary.

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17 Comments

  • Well spoken, Dr Ruvi Ziegler!

    I would only add that, under the Rome Statute, the settlements are a presumptive war crime. I sincerely hope the Lib Dems are not sharing an affiliation with a party in Israel that equivocates about this, or about the obligation to differentiate between the settlements (including those in occupied East Jerusalem) and Israel itself which is set out very clearly in UNSCR 2334.

    If we are affiliated with such a party, our links should be severed immediately and it should be explained publicly why this has been done.

    There is an excellent and very accessible summary of the current international law position produced by the Balfour project last May. Speakers include Baroness Hale, Philippe Sands and the UN human rights rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Michael Lynk, as well as practitioners from both Palestine and Israel. The proceedings of the conference were set out in a souvenir booklet which was launched last Thursday by Dominic Grieve, with the assistance of Hagit Ofran, Nada Kiswanson and myself. It can be downloaded by going to: https://balfourproject.org/lawbrochure/.

    I am now going out to buy some Ben & Jerry’s.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Dec '21 - 10:42am

    Excellent article. Even if the Liberal Democrats are prevented from more close alignment with Meretz due to its other affiliations, there is no reason whatsoever to continue to be aligned with a party that so clearly rejects core values which Liberal Democrats hold dear. The sooner that the Liberal Democrats break its ties with Yesh Atid, the better.

  • And here is the direct link to the souvenir brochure which succinctly sets out the proceedings of the Balfour Project’s Israel/Palestine: In Search of the Rule of Law conference last May: https://balfourproject.org/bp/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Balfour-Project-Rule-of-Law-Conference-2021_compressed.pdf.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 20th Dec '21 - 2:26pm

    @ Brad,

    We’re very unlikely to leave Liberal International – we founded it, after all – and we don’t have a veto over who its Executive Committee choose to admit to membership, but due diligence has been done.

    Whilst Dr Ziegler suggests that we have the wrong partner, Meretz chose to join the Socialist International, and one presumes that they knew what they were doing when they made that choice.

    Interestingly, Shinui were members of Liberal International back in the day, so you might reasonably argue that they’re “coming home”.

  • David Le Grice 20th Dec '21 - 2:56pm

    Unfortunately Liberal international and especially the ALDE party and reform Europe European parliamentary group seem all to happy to accept non liberal members. Often in the form of conservative parties that either used to be liberal decades ago or who are just insanely petty and won’t join a conservative group because one of they’re rival parties Is a member but still want to affiliate with someone

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Dec '21 - 3:44pm

    A very sensible and radical suggestion from Ruvi.

    As a Vice Chair of Liberal Democrats for Peace in the Middle East, I welcome anyone in our party who can say anything against the farther extremes of this topic, the very reason, our chair, Leon Duveen originally began the grouping now growing, to balance this subject.

    The Socialist International like the Liberal one, contains a few misfits.

    I think the Progressive Alliance might too.

    I reckon though, it is odd that Meretz does fit our stance more from here. But were we there, perhaps we might be more, to coin that phrase, equidistant on these issues!

    The centre ground in Istael is to be in between the extremes. Meretz, is seen as clear, left flank.

    As British and of course, anti extremism they suit our vision. Might they look like leftist beatniks if we as Liberals, were Israelis?

    We must be optomistic about Yair anmd co. They are currently as good as it gets in that govt compared to previous ones !

    Though Shimon Peres was Labour for years, he moved to the centre and left that party. Others might go the reverse way. But what’s clear is we must stop the farther right making any sort of return to Israeli govt. That needs us to engage with the centre ground in that country.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Dec '21 - 4:15pm

    An idea, parties can, in some alliances, also be given permission to be in another.

    Liberal International do not like that but should change. Note to Mark and colleagues, is there a possibility we could alter the rules maybe.

    You can be in the Socialist International and Progressive Alliance. Meretz are. We fit Liberal International and the Progressive Alliance. As do the US Democrats.

    We both parties, ought to be in both.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Dec '21 - 5:00pm

    @Mark Valladares
    “..but due diligence has been done.”
    In that case I am even more concerned. Who has done the ‘due diligence” as the outcome is not one that is acceptable.

  • Mark Smulian 20th Dec '21 - 5:41pm

    LI is a federation of parties that can operate in very different places and circumstances to ourselves, ranging from those in established democracies to those in places where they are banned and must operate underground.
    History and domestic politics mean some other pLI arties are not entirely comfortable fits with the Lib Dems.
    Decisions in which ones to admit lie as I understand it with the LI bureau, which makes recommendations to LI executives and congresses.
    Clearly LI would cease to exist if ever member party sought to insist that every other member had to be in precise political alignment.

  • Brad Barrows – the diligence was done by the Liberal International board; the accuracy of the preceding adjective is a matter of opinion.

  • I agree with everything Ruvi says, and would be happier if we were paired with Meretz rather than Yesh Atid. Where I differ is that I can’t see what harm it does having Yesh Atid admitted. Unless they change a great deal, they are going feel like a fish out of water. When I heard they’d been granted ‘observer’ status, I assumed the scrutiny panel were hoping Yesh Atid might learn something by watching real liberals in action. Even if I’m wrong that that was the intention, the idea that Yesh Atid’s right-wing, illiberal views might contaminate Liberal International seems far-fetched.

  • Ruvi Ziegler 20th Dec '21 - 6:13pm

    God evening,

    My post was intended to start a conversation, so I am grateful for the responses so far.

    My main aim is to entice engagement with Meretz by our MPs and party members, focusing our energy on establishing constructive links.

    In parallel, I would be delighted if LI adopted a similar position/resolution to ours re trade with the settlements; if that were to happen, I think YA would find it rather challenging to remain a member – a case of leaving before one is pushed.

  • Thank you , Ruvi, for offering hope to those of us who were beginning to despair of ever finding encouragement to keep on campaigning for a two state solution . Your well informed explanation of the real alliances within Israel`s liberal parties was very helpful for someone who supports the Friends of Palestine and those many Jewish voices worldwide , who are protesting about the illegal settlements. Would a member of Meretz come along to Spring Conference to tell us more about the current situation in Israel?

  • @Mark Valladeres

    In your reply to Brad I think there are two separate issues. First, who is our appropriate sister party in Israel, Yesh Atid or Meretz? Secondly, does Yesh Atid’s position on settlements preclude them from being our sister party?

    Let’s leave aside the first question for the moment. If what Ruvi Ziegler writes is correct, and noone seems to dispute what he says, we have to take action as a party over the illiberal position of Yesh Atid. We need to know what those who represent us at LI are going to do about it. Are they going to demand, loudly and proudly, that Yesh Atid change its position with regard to the settlements and settlement goods? If not, why not?

  • Phillip Bennion 22nd Dec '21 - 5:26pm

    As Chair of Federal International Relations Committee this has been an interesting exchange for me to read. In his original piece Ruvi accepts that Meretz cannot be a member of both Internationals at the same time. Liberal International Executive Committee can only make a decision on applications presented. If Meretz were to resign from Socialist International and apply to join us they would receive a fair hearing. It is not unusual, particularly from countries operating a proportional system with several political parties in Parliament, for us to have two member parties from the same country.

    Yesh Atid were themselves given a fair hearing and certainly ticked the boxes on gender, LGBT+ and other core liberal issues. They also stated support for a two state solution and admittedly a negotiated deal on settlements that might include land swaps or compensation. Their only entirely unsatisfactory response was on the issue of Jerusalem, which they are currently unwilling to share with the Arabs. I have also heard from our IFLRY representative that their youth movement is keen to push them further in the right direction. Yes, they are Observer Members and we will try to influence their position on areas of concern. However, it should be noted that the members of the Arab Liberal Federation, our sub regional grouping across MENA, were strongly in favour of Yesh Atid being admitted.

  • Joyce Onstad 22nd Dec '21 - 10:26pm

    Andy Daer hits the nail on the head above where he states: “When I heard they’d been granted ‘observer’ status, I assumed the scrutiny panel were hoping Yesh Atid might learn something by watching real liberals in action. Even if I’m wrong that that was the intention, the
    idea that Yesh Atid’s right-wing, illiberal views might contaminate Liberal International seems far-fetched.” As a member of Liberal International Executive or the scrutiny committee… Yair Atid got a fair grilling. As Phil Bennion reports above they generally showed Liberal leanings on some issues and have some way to go on others. The hope in granting Observer Status was was to help build on the positive and an opportunity to learn from the Liberal Family. To become full members they will have to make a case when the time comes. As for the case of Meretz, they are free to apply to Liberal International if they feel they belong with the Liberal Family.

  • Ruvi Ziegler 23rd Dec '21 - 8:22am

    Thanks Phillip- this is incredibly helpful!

    Yesh Atid is indeed socially liberal when it comes to LGBT+ (the deputy FM is in a same-sex marriage) and gender equality (I believe they may have close to or full parity).
    Its serious blind spot (and sadly that of some socially liberal parties on the continent, too) lies with protection of the rights of those who are not members of the political community: Generally, this means asylum-seekers, refugees, and other migrants; in the circumstances of Israel/Palestine, that includes rights of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and those Palestinian residents of the annexed parts of Jerusalem (commonly referred to as ‘East’ Jerusalem, despite in fact being north, east, and south of pre-1967 Jerusalem).

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