The Labour party leader Ed Miliband began a three-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank by sidestepping tough questions from students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the burning issue of the day: the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Perhaps anxious not to offend his hosts, the Labour leader chose to carefully avoid saying anything firm on the matter, just two days after the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who oversees the negotiations, appeared to put most of the blame on Israel.
“I come to listen and learn and not to lecture at this sensitive time,” Mr Miliband said. “We want to encourage the two-state solution that we in the Labour party believe in.”
Pressed on the matter by a student, he replied: “I hope it isn’t the collapse of the peace process. There are always very perilous moments. All our efforts must be put into this [Israeli-Palestinian] dialogue carrying on and getting to a fruitful outcome. We support the efforts of John Kerry.”
Mr Miliband, the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, made clear at the outset of his talk that his visit was as much an odyssey into his Holocaust-haunted family history as it was a chance to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian leaders.
“I come as a politician, as leader of the Labour Party, as leader of the Opposition, as someone who wants to be prime minister, but there is also a much more personal story,’’ he told the students, many of them majors in international relations or history.
“Arriving here at Ben Gurion Airport I was taken back to when I was seven years old and came to visit my grandmother and cousins on kibbutz. It was 37 years ago and in my grandmother’s house I saw a photograph and asked my grandmother, ‘who is that?’ She became very upset. I was taken out of the room. It was explained to me that that was my grandfather who was killed in the camps, the husband of my grandmother.
“I come here conscious of my family history and with a deep sense of gratitude to Israel for what it did for my grandmother, who spent 30 years living here. Israel was sanctuary for her from the most indescribable grief,” he said.
Before his talk, Mr Miliband was surprised to discover something new about his family history. He was approached by Jonathan Mandelbaum, the assistant to the university’s president, who told him that their grandmothers had been hidden by the same family in Belgium during the Nazi occupation of that country.
Mr Miliband told the students his family history “makes me aware of the challenges Israel faces, the dangers of anti-Semitism and of people who question its right to exist”.
Asked what his stance was on academic boycotting of Israel, Mr Miliband replied: “I don’t think boycotts are the solution to the complex problems Israeli and Palestinian people grapple with.”
He also criticised Israel’s construction of illegal settlement housing in occupied territory: “I do believe that growth in settlements is a serious issue that needs to be addressed – they are illegal under international law. As Israel seeks the two-state solution giving it the security it deserves, this needs to be addressed.”
A year ago, Mr Miliband was asked at an event of British Jewish leaders whether he was a Zionist, or Jewish nationalist. He replied: ‘’Yes, I am a supporter of Israel.’’ His office subsequently issued a statement that his comment did not mean he was describing himself as a Zionist. Today, when pressed on that by students, he avoided using the term. “Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people. This is not a theoretical idea for me, it is my family experience. That is how I think about it.”